The changes made by livings systems in response to their environments–this is the definition I was given for the word adaptation. Quite the powerful meaning. Imagine being shaped by outside factors in your environment in order to be better equipped for survival. Many species before us had undergone this process, and it’s still ongoing to this very day. It’s definitely an interesting topic to explain. At least, that’s what I hoped for as I prepared for today’s field trip. Me and two other field rangers led a field trip of two fourth grade classes. The structure was to break up the fourth graders into four groups and rotate them every 30 minutes to a new station until they each experienced all of them. My job was to teach them about bird beak adaptations. My assigned weapons were bird skull models of a Bald Eagle, Osprey, duck (Mallard), Common Raven, small passerine, and a Great Blue Heron (my personal favorite). “Kids like skulls, right?” is what I asked myself as I prepared my table for the soon to arrive classes.
My goal was to educate the middle schoolers on what a beak shape could teach you about a bird, such as what is their diet. Raptor beaks, Bald Eagles and Ospreys for example, have prominent top beaks that curve over their bottom beak and end in a sharp hook. This design is indicative of raptors and is perfectly suited to tear into prey and rip out chunks of meat for them to consume. Ducks have beak shapes that serve a different purpose. I used a Mallard skull to point out the rounded bill tip that is relatively flat, and demonstrated their dabbling motion when foraging. Mallards dip their beaks into the water and strain small animals, insects, and plants out of the water and mud using tiny comb-like structures around the bill (called lamellae). This approach is very different relative to the raptors who utilize a more deadly approach. Next on my list of models skulls was the raven. I was very excited to share this with the kids, as ravens are one of my favorites animals. I taught every group that ravens are part of the corvid family, which has some of the smartest birds in the animal kingdom, and promptly pulled out a raven skull to show off the smart bird. Every group was able to point out the characteristics of the beak for me. “Its beak is long, but not too long,” “It’s a little curved at the end,” and “It’s thicker near the eyes.” My gosh, there are some astute kids out there. I tied it all together by telling them that ravens are generalists when it comes to food, meaning they don’t specialize in one single food item. Rather, they can eat a variety of foods–seeds, nuts, fruits, meat; they eat it all. The last two skull models I specifically saved for last. The size disparity between them is the most noticeable.
Bald Eagle, Osprey, Mallard, and a raven. All these model skulls were a decent size. Not too big or too small, just right in the middle. However, our next contender was the tiniest one yet. I pulled out a tiny skull that could fit on top of a quarter. You could easily miss it among the other skulls if you weren’t paying attention. The identity of the bird was a mystery. I found it in an unlabeled box, but believe it’s a type of passerine. Every group was shocked at the size and some exclaimed, “It’s so tiny, I can barely see it.” I used this energy and encouraged everyone to lean in closer and observe it. Once again, they were quick on the draw to point out that the beak was small, slightly thick at the base, and pointy. These were great clues that tells us its diet consists of small insects (pointy bill) and seeds (thick bill). There was only one skull left, and it’s my favorite one hands down. The awesome Great Blue Heron! The reaction it evoked from everyone was great. All eyes were widened and a “whooaaaa” escaped almost every mouth. This skull was no joke. It’s approximately nine inches in length, very narrow, and never failed to grasp everyone’s attention. I used the powerful beak and guided my audience to figure out how the heron used its tool to hunt and what kind of food they ate. It’s essentially a harpoon. Great Blue Herons are large birds that can grow up to 4.5 feet tall and have a wingspan of 6.5 feet! Fearsome birds. They eat anything from fish, amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals, to insects using that amazing beak. Standing motionless and very patiently, they wait in the water and strike when anything comes within reach. Fun fact: Did you know they can impale larger fish with their dagger-like beak? Everyone in the audience loved that quick fact (I hope you do as well). Once we discussed all the various adaptations, I had one more surprise for the middle schoolers: a fun game.
The rules are simple. I have two teams of two, and each group has a person with a “beak” (tweezer or clothespin) and the other is the stomach (a red solo cup). The goal of the game is for the “bird” (the player holding the beak) to get as much food (sprinkles) as possible in its stomach. It was so funny, everyone thought that both beaks would fair well and it would be an even match. They were wrong. The group would with the clothespin struggled heavily and it was obvious they were at a disadvantage. On the other hand, the group with the tweezers were picking up the food with every try. I shouted, “Time is up, beaks down” after 30 seconds, and we counted how much food each group was able to collect. The team with the clothespin was not happy about their turn at all. One group stated, “That’s not fair! They had the better beak.” This made me happy, because it allowed me to emphasize my message: Adaptation! Each bird has a beak well suited to help it hunt and forage and ultimately survive in its respective environment. The “ohhhhhh” that kids let out as it clicked in their heads made me smile. I did it. They got my message! What a sigh of relief that was. After all the kids left, I felt like the day was a success. I was able to show our future generation something new and interesting that will hopefully encourage them to appreciate the nature around them. With that, I felt it was time to reward myself. I tied my shoes and went on a hike. I mean, hey, its not raining today and the sun is actually out! Time to enjoy some more nature!