Spring has sprung and the birds are back from their vacation homes in the south! Birds are pretty great. They sing songs, they help pollinate plants, they poop on car windshields.
OK, maybe that last part isn’t that great, but the rest of it is. If you like birds (and you don’t mind a little poop) it’s pretty easy to do a simple engineering product that will attract some to your yard.
- A milk or juice carton
- Craft sticks
- Thick string or twine
- Hot glue gun (optional)
- Make sure your carton is good and empty and then rinse it out with soap and water. Set it out to dry.
- Once your carton is dry, paint it up however you want. This is your project, so have at it.
- Once your paint is dry, cut out a few windows for the birds to use. Make them all about 2 inches above the bottom of the carton, on as many (or as few) sides as you want.
- Cut a small slit, just wide enough for a craft stick, about half an inch under each window and insert a craft stick so most of it is sticking out for birds to perch on. If you don’t make the slit too big, the craft stick should fit in snugly and be pretty stable. If you have a hot glue gun, though, you could stabilize it more with some glue.
- Use your scissors to carefully punch a hole in the very top of the carton (you may want a grown-up’s help with this step). Loop some of your string or twine through it.
- Fill with birdseed.
- Hang outside.
There are many different types of birds that have many different diets. Birds like falcons and eagles are called raptors, and they’re carnivores who eat meat. Lots of birds eat bugs and (of course) worms. The songbirds we’re after with this basic birdfeeder are suckers for seeds. Even then, though, different kinds of seeds attract different kinds of birds. Pay attention when you’re buying tour birdseed so you know what kinds of birds might come home to roost in your backyard.
Now, what’s great about birds who eat seeds is how much that type of diet can actually benefit the environment. Up above we mentioned how many birds help pollinate plants, but that’s not the only way they help spread life around their habitat. See, when a bird eats seeds it won’t always fully digest all of them. There will oftentimes be plenty of seeds still in good condition when they reach the end of the bird’s digestive tract. And what happens after that? Hint: it’s something else we talked about above.
If you said “Poop!” you’re right! Gross but also right. Birds who eat seeds (or berries that contain seeds) usually don’t poop them out right in the same place they got them. They fly somewhere else to do some other important bird business and, well, do their business. The poo containing the healthy seeds falls to the ground and the seeds get a chance to sprout far away from their parent plant. In this way, birds spread plant life all around. They’re an indispensable part of the complex, connected web that is the ecosystem.
Let's kick things up a notch...
You can use your birdfeeders to perform another little experiment and learn about birds’ preferences, and through that, hopefully, a little about their vision.
- Homemade bird feeders (5)
- Paint in 5 different colors
- A notebook and pencil
- Your eyes
- Build five new bird feeders using the process we outlined last week. Paint them each one of your colors of paint. You will probably need to use multiple coats of paint to make sure they are nice and bright. We want the birds to see the colors easily.
- Fill each feeder with the same amount of the same type of bird seed.
- Hang the feeders close enough to each other that you can observe them all at the same time.
- In your notebook, create a datasheet. It will need columns for each color so you can mark down the number of birds that eat at that color feeder.
- Make a hypothesis: which color do you think will attract the most birds? Why?
- Pick a time every day to make a 15-minute observation of your bird feeders. Maybe right before you leave for school, or right after you get home. The exact time doesn’t matter, as long as you observe your feeders at the same time every day.
- In your notebook, keep track of the number of birds that eat from each feeder during your observation periods. Observe for ten days.
- At the end of your ten days, add up the number of birds at each feeder. Compare them to each other. Which worked the best?
Many experiments we do on Saturday Science have an outcome that we can predict really well beforehand so I can talk about it here. This isn’t one of them. I can’t predict here what your results are going to be when you run your experiment because it all depends on the kind of birds that live around your house. Different birds are attracted to different colors. This can be for a variety of reasons. Hummingbirds, for example, like red and yellow, because their eyes are more sensitive to those colors than blue, green, or purple. They need a lot of calories to zip around as fast as they do, and bright reds and yellows signal to them that a flower has really rich nectar inside.
Sometimes birds prefer certain colors because it’s what they look for in a mate. Blue Jays prefer blue over other colors because they look for bright blue plumage on other blue jays during mating season. Some birds may avoid your brightly colored feeders like the plague because they’re timid and afraid to come out of camouflage. For them, a more natural color would probably be best.
Birds’ eyes are actually incredibly fascinating. They can see pretty much all of the colors humans can (and some, like hummingbirds, can see a few of them even better than we can). Dogs and cats have more limited color vision, but birds are pretty gifted. In fact, most birds that are diurnal, or awake and active during the daytime, can even see something humans can’t: ultraviolet light. Ultraviolet, or UV, is all around us all the time, but it’s invisible to humans. Certain types of UV are what sunscreen blocks because, in large doses, they can lead to skin cancer. Birds can see it just fine, though. They can see it reflecting off each others’ feathers, which may affect their choice of mates. It may be useful to them when they’re hunting for seeds and berries to eat, which tend to reflect more UV than the leaves and branches surrounding them. There’s even a kind of kestrel (a type of falcon) that tracks its prey the meadow vole by looking for where it’s been peeing—because its urine reflects UV!
If you enjoy watching the birds at your feeder, maybe birdwatching (or “birding,” as the hardcore birders call it) could be a new hobby for you. You can get started here.