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Think Like a Bird!

nest bird feeding
Activity adapted from the National Park Service’s Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado and works well with outdoor field work. Click HERE for additional curriculum materials from the wilderness area.

Grade level: Grades 2 – 4

Time: 30 minutes


Students learn about wildlife habitats, environmental engineering, and the complexities of nest construction by attempting to design and build a nest themselves.


After doing this activity students should be able to:

  • Understand the complexities of nest design and construction
  • Understand that materials have different properties
  • Build a nest


Common Core State Mathematics

Generate measurement data by measuring lengths using rulers marked with halves and fourths of an inch. (Grade 3)

International Technology and Engineering Educators Association

  • C. The design process is a purposeful method of planning practical solutions to problems.
  • D. Requirements for a design include such factors as the desired elements and features of a product or system or the limits that are placed on the design.
  • D. When designing an object, it is important to be creative and consider all ideas.
  • D. Identify and collect information about everyday problems that can be solved by technology, and generate ideas and requirements for solving a problem.
  • D. Follow step-by-step directions to assemble a product.

Next Generation Science Standards

Life Sciences

3-LS4-3. Construct an argument with evidence that in a particular habitat some organisms can survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all. Examples of evidence could include needs and characteristics of the organisms and habitats involved.

Engineering Design

3-5-ETS1.2 Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified critera for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.

Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet he criteria and constraints.


Birds build nests just about anywhere, out of just about anything. Small owls build nests in cavities in trees. Some even raise their young in burrows in the ground. Old buildings, mud homes, elegant nests that droop from branches, grassy hideouts, and depressions in the sand are all good-enough homes for various species of birds. Eagles will carry large branches to their high nests. Other birds will use leaves, mud, saliva, trash, string, and their own feathers to construct homes for raising their young.

Explore Great Sand Dunes’ web page on birds to learn more about the wide variety of birds in the park and preserve.


Clay, real eggs or egg-sized stones or pebbles, materials for nest-building (collected from schoolyard or home) large-size test cup for holding the nests.


While at the park or in a nearby outdoor environment, have students investigate the local habitats. Make a list of what natural materials are available. Discuss the conditions of the sand dunes and the needs of the birds. For example, it is hot in the day and cool at night, and birds must provide a safe place for their young to mature. Do you think birds live in the dunes themselves, or in places nearby? Why might some birds go out into the dunes for part of the day?Discuss what kind of a nest would meet these needs. Discuss the types of material birds might use:

  1. Strength material – helps to hold the nest up during strong winds or adverse weather conditions
  2. Binders and adhesives – holds or glues the nest together
  3. Liners – makes the nest cozy, soft, and warm
  4. Predator protection – keeps the eggs and young safe from predators: camouflage, secure structure, etc.

Back in the classroom, students can work alone or in pairs. Allow some time for gathering of materials. Students can gather nest-building materials in your schoolyard, bring items from home, or use things that you supply. Please advise students not to collect natural materials from protected areas. After the materials have been gathered, have the students sort the materials into the four categories listed above. Allow sufficient time for students to build their nests.


Do birds ‘think’ while building their nests? How do they ‘know’ how to build their nests? When birds build their nests are they acting creatively?


Construct different kinds of nests for different birds. For example, build a hanging nest, a nest on a ledge, a mud nest attached to a cliff or wall, or a nest in the grass.

Additional Resources

Build a birdhouse. activity for students in grades 3 to 5 includes brainstorming and building a nest as well as a wooden bird shelter. Contributed by Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Build an Oriole Nest. The construction of an Oriole’s nest from the bird’s perspective.

Building a Robin’s Nest. Step by step guide, with photos of how robin’s build their nests and a teachers’ guide for writing, reading, and other activity extensions.

Nest Watch. Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab has nest cams, daily field reports from backyard nest watchers, nest box construction plans, and other ways to study and enjoy birds.

Robin’s Nest Photo Study. From Journey North.

BOOK: “Strange Nests” by Ann Shepard Stevens. Millbrook Press Inc., 1998, ISBN 0-7613-0413-4 This illustrated picture book examines the nests and nest-building habits of 11 birds common to the continental United States, as well as unusual nests that have been built when normal nesting materials were in short supply.



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