Art Lesson: How Do Birds Get Their Names?

After learning some tips about how birds are named, kids use their imaginations to "invent" a new bird, draw it, and give it a name.

Backyard, city street, country road, park, forest, desert, shore, mountainside, swamp: What kind of wildlife can you see in any of these places? Birds!

All birds have feathers, two wings, two legs, and a beak, but beyond that, they come in an amazing variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. In many cases, a bird’s name says something about what that bird looks like or how it behaves. Take the group of birds called woodpeckers, for example. What do they have in common? They peck wood to get food. And what about a Red-headed Woodpecker? This species of woodpecker pecks wood and its head is red. These characteristics of birds are called field marks.

Here’s an activity you can do at home with children ages 6 to 13 (for even younger ones see suggestion below), adapted from Audubon AdventuresGet to Know Birds curriculum topic. Kids learn about bird names and diversity among birds, and then have fun using their imaginations to “invent” a new bird, draw it, and give it a name.

You’ll need some paper for drawing and colored pencils or crayons, and a computer or field guide to see examples.

1. Click on the below links to Audubon's online field guide and look at these birds with your child or children. Ask them to describe the birds. Help them see how each bird’s name says something about what that bird looks like. Help them with unfamiliar words like “roseate” (rose-colored). Help them see the “horns” on Great Horned Owls.

Red-winged Blackbird
Black-capped Chickadee
Great Horned Owl
Roseate Spoonbill

2. Now take a look at this group of birds. Their names include a description of how they look and also how they behave. Help children understand unfamiliar words. For example, what is an oyster? Talk about how the name says something about what each bird eats or how it gets is food.

Red-headed Woodpecker
Gray Flycatcher
Black Oystercatcher
Black-crowned Night Heron

3. Invite your children to imagine a bird and draw it. Encourage them to have fun, with no rules or restrictions about what their bird can look like except that it must have feathers, two wings, two feet, and a beak. Funny, strange, scary, or beautiful—whatever their imaginations come up with is absolutely fine.

4. Once children have drawn a bird, ask them to give it a name and write it on their picture. Encourage them to be creative. The name could include colors; words describing the shapes or other characteristics of heads, beaks, feet, eyes, tails, and other body parts; clues about what the bird eats or how it gets food; clues about where it lives; even clues about the person who invented it.

Bonus: For more fun, do the activity in reverse! If you are doing this activity with more than one child, ask each one to make up a descriptive name for a new bird and then challenge another one to draw it. If it’s you and one child, then each of you can make up the name and the other can draw it.

5. Be sure to save and display children’s drawings. You could repeat this activity from time to time and make a book of “Our Family Birds” or a family bird art gallery somewhere in your home. Send a photo of your finished drawing to, and post it on Twitter using the hashtag #kidsart and tagging @audubonsociety!

6. As a family, look for birds in nature. You can usually see birds right outside your front door or a window. What do they look like? What are they doing? Make up names for them based on what you see.

For younger children: To use this activity with younger children or those with limited vocabulary, start by drawing a bird yourself and giving it a fun name—e.g., a Purple-footed Flying Soccer Ball. Then invite your child to draw his or her own bird and tell you its name. Write the name under the picture.

Audubon Adventures is an environmental science curriculum, developed by professional educators, that presents standards-based science content about birds and their habitats. It includes four-page magazines (in PDF format) just for kids with lively content, illustrations, and photographs on a variety of topics. Explore more activities, games, and lessons about birds and nature at the Audubon Adventures website.

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