Today we have another fabulous new children’s STEM picture book, Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart and illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen.
What is there to learn about bird feathers? It turns out there is a wealth of information. You might already be familiar with how feathers help birds fly or how they keep water birds dry, but Melissa Stewart has found at least 16 different ways birds use their feathers. To make it easy for children to relate to and remember, she compares the uses to common human-made objects with similar purposes, like sunscreen and jewelry. The text with dual-layer format, with the easy-to-read main text in a large font, and sidebars on each page to fill in the informational details.
In the style of a nature journal, the watercolor illustrations look like you should be able to pluck them from the page. Nature lovers are going to want this for the illustrations alone.
It is time to think deeply about feathers with Feathers: Not Just for Flying. It would be a perfect gift for budding ornithologists, as well as a must have for a unit on birds.
Activities to extend Feathers:
Important Note: Although this book is likely to encourage you to observe feathers more closely, be aware that it is illegal to collect/possess bird feathers from most birds in the United States. The Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center (part of the USGS) has an explanation of the rules. You may, however, collect or purchase feathers from domestic birds, such as chickens and guinea fowl. If you are looking for feathers to use with a unit on birds, try craft supply stores.
1. Author’s Activities
Be sure to check out the Melissa Stewart’s webpage for activities, as well as the story of how the book came about. The links in the right sidebar of her page will take you to:
- Readers Theater (a play to read aloud)
- Storytime Guide
- Teacher’s Guide (with Common Core standards)
- Migration Math Activity
- Draw a Bird Activity
- Similes video mini-lesson
2. Learning about feathers
When we see a feather on the ground, it often looks like this. These are the wing and tail feathers that help the bird fly. For the most part they are smooth, with the individual parts (barbs) hooked together in a single layer.
Other times you may spot shorter feathers with a fuzzy appearance. These are likely semiplume or down feathers, which are involved in keeping the bird warm. The barbs are not locked together.
Some birds, like this mockingbird, also have feathers that are bristles. These may act like eyelashes or a cat’s whiskers, helping the bird sense its environment or keep away pests.
To explore feathers:
- Some chicken, duck or guinea fowl feathers -available from craft supply stores. Try to find a mix of as natural-looking feathers as possible
- Magnifying lens
First let the children free explore a few of the feathers. Ask them to use their senses. Are the feathers heavy or light? Are they soft or hard? What do they smell like? Do the feathers make any sounds? (Some do.) What colors are the feathers?
Now investigate the structure of the feather.
This illustration from Wikimedia can help us learn some feather vocabulary.
Parts of a contour (body) feather:
5. Hollow shaft, Calamus
Point out the harder part in the center, the rachis, and the branching barbs. See if the children can pull apart the barbs of a contour or flight feather with their fingers. Can they “zip” the barbs back together again?
Have the children look at the barbs with a magnifying lens. Can they see the tiny hooks, called barbules, that help keep the barbs zipped together? Now look at the fluffy afterfeather at the bottom. Does that have barbules? (Down feathers lack the barbules, which is why they don’t lie flat).
Point out that birds need to be a light as possible to fly easily. Are feathers heavy? Use the scissors to cut through the rachis of a feather. Is it solid inside? Feathers are even lighter because the center of the rachis is hollow.
3. Bird craft
Now use the feathers to make a simple bird.
- Feathers (from previous activity)
- Craft Pom Poms – 2 different sizes for head and body (at least one pair for each participant)
- White glue
- Chenille or bit of felt for beak
- Fishing line (optional)
Note: white glue is slow to dry. Be prepared to set things aside for a few minutes between steps for best results or have an adult assemble using a hot melt glue gun.
1. Provide 2 craft pom poms for each child, a smaller one to serve as the head and a larger one to serve as the body. Have the children glue the head to the body with white glue and then set aside for a moment.
2. Now have the children choose feathers to serve as the wings and tail. Two smaller feathers of roughly the same size look good as wings and one longer feather serves as a tail. Clip a bit of chenille to fold into a beak or cut a wedge-shaped bit of felt to serve as a beak.
3. When the head/body poms poms are set enough to work with again, place white glue on the shaft of one feather chosen to serve as a wing and insert into the “body.” Repeat with other feathers chosen to serve as the other wing and tail. Once again, you may want to place the growing bird aside to set up for a few minutes while you cut the fishing line. Then glue the beak to the head.
4. Optional: Cut a section of fishing line about two feet long. Tie one end of the the line in a loop around the body. Allow the bird to dry completely and then the child may “fly” it. Tie to pole or similar object for a bird mobile.
4. Start a nature journal/scrapbook
The format of this book is sure to inspire children to want to start a nature journal or scrapbook. Encourage children to record their findings by drawing, taking photographs, and writing down their observations.
Check our Nature Journal post for more details.
Edit: Anna also has a post about The Feather Atlas, which is a place to identify feathers, too.
Doing a unit on birds? We also have a list of books for young birdwatchers at Science Books for Kids.
Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart and illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen
Age Range: 6 – 9 years
Grade Level: 1 – 4
Hardcover: 32 pages
Publisher: Charlesbridge (February 25, 2014)
If you become very interested in feathers, here’s an adult level identification guide:
Bird Feathers: A Guide to North American Species
by S. David Scott and Casey McFarland
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Stackpole Books (September 3, 2010)
Disclosures: This children’s book was provided for review by the publisher. Also, I am an affiliate for Amazon, and if you click through the linked titles or ads and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission at no extra charge to you. Proceeds will be used to maintain this self-hosted blog.
Come visit the STEM Friday blog each week to find more great Science, Technology, Engineering and Math books.