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For STEM Friday we are featuring the new middle grade nonfiction book Crow Smarts: Inside the Brain of the World's Brightest Bird by Pamela S. Turner and photographs by Andy Comins, which chronicles Dr. Gavin Hunt's intriguing research into tool use and learning by New Caledonian crows.

 

Why New Caledonian crows? It turns out they have a lot going for them. They are pretty smart. Not only can they use sticks as tools to pry their food- in this case large beetle larvae - out of wood, but also they can fashion new tools by shaping and modifying twigs and stems. As more sophisticated experiments have shown, they have a remarkable ability to solve problems (see some of the videos below). They also have bigger eyes than other species of crows and their eyes are closer to the front of their head, which means they have better depth perception.

Although the special crows are fascinating enough, author Pamela Turner's discussion of Dr. Hunt's research is written with just the right touch of humor to keep young readers fully engaged. For example, she notes one of the crows is named "Crow we never got around to naming." Many of her observations are highly entertaining.

Andy Comins's amazing birds-eye-view photographs (see the one on the cover above) help us see the crows as individuals. It isn't easy to photograph active birds in the wild, and he makes us feel like we are right there studying the birds, too.

Whether you have read all of books in the Scientists in the Field series or none of them, you are going to want to pick up this one. Perfect for anyone interested in learning, animal behavior, birds, tool use, or science in general.

Below are some bird science activity suggestions that could be used to accompany the book.

Activity Suggestion 1: Building a Bird Blind

Dr. Hunt knows he might change the crows' natural behavior if they knew he was watching them, so he uses shelter to observe the crows unnoticed. The camouflaged shelter is called a "hide" or a "blind." In the field he uses a portable tent as a blind (photograph page 12 of the book), but children can design and build their own bird blind.

Gather:

  • Sheet, large piece of cardboard, or cardboard box
  • Twine, cord, rope or painter's tape
  • Twist ties
  • Paints in camouflage colors (optional)
  • Paint brushes (optional)
  • Scissors (craft knife for adults only)
  • Markers
  • Birdseed (optional)
  • Birdwatching supplies:
    • Notebook
    • Pens and pencils
    • Field guide for identifying birds
    • Binoculars (optional)
    • Clock or watch
  1. Find a location to set up the blind, either indoors or out depending on the weather and other factors. If you already have a bird feeder near a window, setting up a blind inside the window would be ideal.  Outside, look for areas where birds are active on a regular basis, such as in shrubs, trees, or near a food source.
  2. If you choose to, paint the sheet or cardboard with camouflage colors (investigate what colors birds can see and plan accordingly). Allow to dry.
  3. If you are setting up inside, cover the window with a cardboard box with the bottom facing out or tape up the sheet with painter's tape. Outside, tie the twine or cord between supports such as poles, fences or trees. Drape the sheet over the cord, or lean the cardboard against the cord, and fasten with clothespins or twist ties.
  4. Have the children stand or sit in a comfortable position. Using the markers, mark where the eye holes should go. The holes should be a small as possible so they aren't obvious to the birds, but large enough to allow for comfortable viewing. Cut out the holes.
  5. If you choose, sprinkle some birdseed in the viewing area or feed the birds to attract them (optional). Sit or stand quietly behind the blind and view the birds. Younger children may simply draw a picture of a bird they see. Older children may want to keep a more detailed record of what kinds of birds visit, what time of day, how long they stay, which direction they go, etc.
  6. Suggestion for experiment:  Do blinds really work? Design an experiment to test whether birds behave differently when observed through a blind versus when viewed from similar distances and circumstances without a blind.

Activity Suggestion 2:  Watch some videos/bird cams of the behavior of crows and other birds.

Even if you don't have the opportunity to observe bird behavior in nature, learn more about birds by watching videos like the one below and/or by visiting bird cams online (The Lab of Ornithology has a number of ongoing bird cams to get you started.)

Check Pamela S. Turner's website for many more videos of crows doing funny and amazing things.

Related:

childrens-books-for-young-birdwatchers
We have a list of children's books about birds at Science Books for Kids.

scientists-in-the-field-series-book-reviewsAlso, see our growing list of books in the Scientists in the Field Series.

Visit our birdwatching Pinterest board for many other bird-related science activity ideas.

Age Range: 10 - 12 years
Grade Level: 5 - 7
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (August 2, 2016)
ISBN-10: 0544416198
ISBN-13: 978-0544416192

Disclosure: This book was provided by the publisher/author for review purposes. Also, I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. As you probably are aware, if you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission, at no extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.

Come visit the STEM Friday blog each week to find more great Science, Technology, Engineering and Math books.

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A few weeks ago our family got to visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York.

It's a fun place to go to if you ever get a chance, especially if you are a bird lover or you enjoy nature.

That's the main building across the water.

There are trails through the woods.

The trails can be wet in the spring, but they are well-maintained.

Of course, there are plenty of birds to observe. At the main building, the staff provides bird feeders so you can watch birds at any time of day.

Surprisingly, although they are known mostly for studying birds, the scientists at the lab also study a variety of other animals. Because they have pioneered sound recording of animals and now filming animal behavior, you will also find information about animals as diverse as frogs and whales. This promotional video gives you an idea of the variety of topics studied.

Although the video is quite loud and dynamic, we actually found our visit to be quiet and soothing.

Our final stop was to the gift shop. They carry a number of great nature books, including the exciting new children's books about birds listed below. You might want pick up some of these books and read them to help get prepared for the trip. 🙂

Bird Talk: What Birds Are Saying and Why

by Lita Judge

Reading level: Ages 6 and up
Hardcover: 48 pages
Publisher: Flash Point (March 13, 2012)
ISBN-10: 1596436468
ISBN-13: 978-159643646

Birds of a Feather

by Bernadette Gervais and Francesco Pittau

Hardcover: 18 pages
Publisher: Chronicle Books; Pop edition (September 26, 2012)
ISBN-10: 1452110662
ISBN-13: 978-1452110660

For the Birds: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson

by Peggy Thomas and illustrated by Laura Jacques

Reading level: Ages 8 and up
Hardcover: 48 pages
Publisher: Boyds Mills Press (October 1, 2011)
ISBN-10: 1590787641
ISBN-13: 978-1590787649

Puffling Patrol

by Ted Lewin and illustrated by Betsy Lewin

Hardcover: 56 pages
Publisher: Lee & Low Books (March 1, 2012)
ISBN-10: 1600604242
ISBN-13: 978-1600604249

Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95

by Phillip Hoose (Author)

Reading level: Ages 10 and up
Hardcover: 160 pages
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR) (July 17, 2012)
ISBN-10: 0374304688
ISBN-13: 978-0374304683

My review

Alex the Parrot: No Ordinary Bird: A True Story by Stephanie Spinner

Reading level: Ages 8 and up
Hardcover: 48 pages
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (October 9, 2012)
ISBN-10: 0375868461
ISBN-13: 978-0375868467

Bring On the Birds by Susan Stockdale

Reading level: Ages 4 and up
Hardcover: 32 pages
Publisher: Peachtree Publishers (February 1, 2011)
ISBN-10: 1561455601
ISBN-13: 978-1561455607

See what Susan Stockdale has to say about her book at STEM Friday.

Even if you can't go in person, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a number of education and citizen scientist projects you can participate in no matter where you live. The Lab partners with other institutions for the Great Backyard Bird Count, which is a very child-friendly event. The next count is going to be Feb. 15-18, 2013, so be sure to put it on your calendar. (A previous post about the Great Backyard Bird Count with related activities).

Have you ever visited the Lab of Ornithology? If you go, we'd love to hear about your trip.

Edit: Archimedes Notebook has a wonderful interview with young Olivia Bouler, who wrote and illustrated Olivia’s Birds, about her book and her recent visit to the Lab of Ornithology.

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Did you know that most songbirds, and many other birds migrate at night? When we went outside on Tuesday night to check the stars and look for meteors, we saw something amazing. We saw a flock of birds flying, eerily silent. At the risk of sounding anthropomorphic, they seemed incredibly focused on their destination as they disappeared into the blackness. It was not what we expected to see.

Science Friday, the radio program, recently had a broadcast about night migrations by birds, and how scientists study bird migration in general. On the Science Friday Tracking Bird Migration page, you can listen to a podcast of the show and find links to the speakers, as well as to other Internet resources on bird migration.

The broadcast raises a number of interesting questions, such as why do birds migrate? The consensus seems to be food. Most of the species that migrate depend on food that just isn't available during cold winters. The speakers also noted that, unlike the birds we observed, many songbirds do call while they are flying and one way to study the migrations is to record the sounds they make.

Why do birds, normally active during the day, fly on their migrations at night? Several factors may be involved, and different species may fly at night for different reasons. It is thought that the air is calmer at night because the heat of the sun creates turbulence during the day. It also may be possible that fewer flying predators are active at night. Scientists have shown that birds use fixed stars to guide them on their flight, so perhaps they can orient better at night. Finally, it is cooler at night and flight is hard exercise, so perhaps it is easier to fly at night.

Bird Migration Activities:

1. Birdwatching

By watching birds in your area and keeping records of what you see, you can learn a lot about which birds migrate and at what times of year. Younger children can learn to identify common bird species and keep a simple nature journal.

Children might like to go on a bird walk at a park, nature center or garden. We recently watched this flock of lesser goldfinches at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. Birds often feed in flocks to store up energy for long flights.

In addition to keeping your own records, you can participate in national and international bird counts:
Audubon's 110th Christmas Bird Count, December 14, 2009 to January 5, 2010

The Great Backyard Bird Count February 12-15, 2010

2. Watch Radar

It is possible to monitor bird migrations using radar. Here's an example of a radar map used to track bird migrations. Radar maps are often available on weather websites. What a great way to reinforce map skills and learn about science, too.

3. Learn about Bird Banding

Scientists place tiny aluminum bands around the legs of birds to help find out where they go. As you will see in this video, you need to be trained by a professional before you should attempt this. It is good to know about it, however, in case you ever find a bird that has been banded.

4. Garden for Birds

Plant native plants in your neighborhood that provide fruits and seeds for birds to fuel their migrations. Check with local birding groups for suggestions.

Be sure to let us know what you find out.