Wading birds are familiar sights along shorelines and mudflats across North America. These long-legged birds, such as storks, herons, and egrets, inhabit places where land and water meet. Spindly legs keep much of their body from getting wet even as they journey into lakes, swamps, and rivers. Meanwhile their long, widespread toes help them balance on muddy or sandy ground.
One of a wading bird’s most notable features is its beak. Each bird has a bill specially equipped for its lifestyle. Herons, for instance, spear fish with long, dagger-like beaks. Flamingos filter out water through a special comblike structure in their bill. And the pink-tinged Roseate Spoonbill uses its namesake appendage to clamp down on prey that swims past.
Beaks are a fabulous examples of adaptation, or how animals over generations have evolved traits that help them survive in their environment. In this activity, kids pretend to be birds by trying a few different beaks out for themselves. In the process, they’ll get to think critically about the advantages of different beaks for varied prey and situations.
When you tackle this activity, try to offer at least three food options and three beaks. Afterwards, challenge your kid to identify other bill designs in nature and talk about their possible advantages. Why might a woodpecker’s bill differ from a songbird’s, for instance? And why might an ibis’s curved beak be useful in a muddy landscape?
Pencil and paper
You’ll want to gather several different “beaks.” A few options:
Drinking straws or pipette
Clothespin (or large binder clip)
Pair of forks
Small strainer (or a plastic comb)
Set up several bowls of “food,” such as:
Marbles in water—label this bowl “fish”
Pennies—label this bowl “insects”
Uncooked rice, lentils, or seeds—label this bowl “seeds”
Toothpicks—label this bowl “worms”
Large nuts (like hazelnuts) or dried garbanzo beans—label this bowl “nuts”
Water tinted with food coloring—label this bowl “nectar”
Zip ties—label this bowl “grains”
1. Set up the food options in front of your child, then present an empty cup nearest to your child for their collected (or cached) food.
2. If you have a drinking straw, demonstrate how to use this “beak” first. Instead of slurping up water, slip the straw as deep as possible into the cup of water, then cover the top of the straw with one finger. Keeping your finger in place, lift the straw up and over the water, then lift your finger to release the water back into the cup. Let your child practice this motion once or twice to get the hang of it.
3. Get pencil, paper, and timer ready. Ask your child to pick out a beak and present him or her with the challenge: They will have one minute to grab as much as possible from the bowls using their chosen beak. They cannot directly touch the bowl or the food—only their beaks.
4. Count down from three, say “go!” and start the timer.
5. After a minute, say “stop!” and record what food your child has collected with that beak. Ask them about what they tried to pick up with their beak: What was easiest? What was hardest? Were they surprised by the challenge?
6. Repeat the activity using the other beaks. Then look over the results with your child. Which foods were easiest to ‘catch’ with each beak? Were some food sources more challenging than the rest? Does the size of the beak make a difference?
7. Last, talk about how these beaks correspond to actual birds:
- Tongs are a bit like the beaks of a heron or egret, which they can use to pinch fish swimming in the water.
- Forks are like the powerful curved beak of a raptor, that can cut into its food.
- Tweezers are a good match for the beak of a small songbird that eats insects, grains, and seeds—think chickadees and warblers—as well as shorebirds like sandpipers that pinch insects in the sand.
- Chopsticks are also a good shorebird beak—a bit like an avocet or curlew—allowing birds to pick up prey in the mud or water.
- The clothespin (or clip) corresponds to a thick beaked bird, like a grosbeak or cardinal, which can chomp down on nuts, seeds, fruits, and insects.
- The straw or pipette like a hummingbird beak, which is perfect for gathering flower nectar.
- The strainer or comb, meanwhile, is a special tool much like the portion of a duck or flamingo bill that allows these birds to filter water from food.