UCMP Lessons  

Battle of the Beaks

Author: Judy Scotchmoor

Overview: In this lesson, students learn about adaptive advantage, based on beak function, by simulating birds competing for various foods.

Lesson Concepts:

Grade Span: 6–8

Materials: (for 28 students)

Advance Preparation:

— Gather materials and prepare the grid.
— Copy Recording Sheets (HTML or pdf).

Time: Two hours

Grouping: Whole class

Teacher Background:

In any habitat, food is limited and the types of foods available may vary. Animals that are better adapted to take advantage of available foods will fare better than those who are less well adapted, and thus live to pass on their genes to the next generation. While this concept seems rather obvious, it is essential that each student fully grasp its significance. Understanding the idea of adaptive advantage opens the door to understanding populations in ecosystems as well as the process of evolution.

Explore this link for additional information on the topics covered in this lesson:

Vocabulary: population, selection, advantage


    First hour
  1. Have students select either a spoon, tweezer, binder clip or pair of scissors, and a plastic cup and then sit quietly in a large circle.
  2. Explain to them that they are now birds. They are very hungry birds. They can only eat with the implement they have selected and they can only use that implement for eating. The cup represents their stomach. It must remain upright at all times. They must hold their beak in one hand and their stomach in the other. They can only place food in their stomachs with their beaks.
  3. Explain to them that certain food items will be placed in the feeding area (middle of the circle but spread out evenly towards the students/birds). When you say “go” they are to collect as much food and place it in their stomachs as possible until you say “stop.”
  4. Take one of the food items (paper clip beetles) and distribute the clips within the feeding area. Say “go” and allow birds to feed for 1–2 minutes or until all of the food is gone. [NOTE: Depending upon your students you may need to caution about behavior. Even adults doing this activity become a bit more aggressive as the activity proceeds, but obviously safety is foremost. If some students are not responsible enough for this, have them be observers and take notes on the birds’ behaviors.]
  5. Once you have said “stop” have students empty their stomachs and count the contents. Hand each a Recording Sheet to fill in. Have them return all food items.
  6. Repeat this activity using each of the other food items (toothpick twigs, rubber band worms, macaroni munchies). By the end of the activity, each of the students should have completed his/her row for the beak type and filled in the total amount of food.
  7. Pause for a class discussion:
       a) What did you notice about your feeding abilities?
       b) Did everyone with your type of beak have the same success rate with the same foods? Why or why not?
       c) What did you notice about your behavior and the behavior of others?
  8. Examine the data: Tally up the class totals for each of the beak types in a grid on the board. Have the students create bar graphs that represent the class total for each of the beak and food types. This can be started in class and continued for homework.

  9. Second hour
  10. When all of the graphs have been completed, have students pick up their beaks and stomachs once again and return to their circle. Explain that obviously most habitats have more than one kind of food available. Ask: What will your strategy be if all of the food types are available?
  11. Spread out all of the materials into the feeding circle. Allow about 4 minutes for feeding. Gather the data and have students help to sort out the food items once again for clean up.
  12. Again continue with the class discussion. What were your strategies? How was this different from the previous eating experiences?
  13. Assess student understanding by posing this question: What would happen if all the bird types we have been working with flew to an island where no birds had been before and the only food type available was macaroni munchies. Which bird beak type would be mot likely to be successful? Explain your answer.


Give a food value for each of the food types. Would this change your feeding strategies? How much more of one type of food would you have to eat to equal only one of something else, etc. What would happen if there was a change in the environmental conditions (drought, etc) causing the loss of one of the food items. What would happen to the bird populations?

Updated October 31, 2003

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