The Bird Beak Challenge

When we study adaptations, we like to do one of these activities… each is an engaging hands-on way to teach children about biodiversity and how birds evolve based on what food is available in their habitats. After I cover the activities, I’ll also share how we explain these adaptations to the children in group time.

Using Tools

We had six stations on a table, and I made posters to accompany the activity to illustrate the idea. (Print your own posters from this PDF.) We had:

  • nectar eaters: colored water and a pipette to represent how hummingbirds use their beaks to gather nectar
  • nut cracker or large pliers and walnuts with shells (or plastic eggs if there are nut allergies) to illustrate how a toucan or parrot uses a big, strong beak to crack a nutshell
  • grub eaters: a pinecone with macaroni or raw rice sprinkled into it and tweezers to show how a woodpecker could use its long thin beak to catch bugs deep in tree bark
  • worm eaters: rubber bands or cut up pipe cleaners to represent worms, buried in dirt, or raw split peas or raw rice to represent dirt, and small pliers or tweezers to represent a robin catching a worm
  • fishing birds: a fish tank net or slotted spoon and plastic fish (or anything that floats) in a bowl of water to show a pelican’s fish catching ability
  • sharp, tearing beaks: salmon jerky or styrofoam “fish” and kid scissors… showed pictures of how an eagle catches a large fish, then needs to use its beak to tear the pieces up smaller


Kids were encouraged to try all the “right tools” with the right foods. (Great small motor and tool use practice!) And then try using them with the wrong things. Can a hummingbird crack open a nut? Never. Can a pelican catch bugs hiding in the bark? Never. An animal has to have the right features to eat the foods in their habitat in order to survive.

Note: the original idea came from a workshop based on the book Growing Up Wild. There are similar activities on several websites. We put the book Unbeatable Beaks on the table for more information about beaks. If you have a child who is a fan of birds, they might like this video about bird beaks.

Meal / Snack Time Option

You could do this at any meal with whatever food you have on the table. Or, you could intentionally set up a full experiment by offering a variety of foods that represent things birds might eat. Some ideas:

  • gummy worms or spaghetti noodles or noodle soup for worms (or a “dirt cup” dessert)
  • goldfish crackers for fish
  • jerky (beef? salmon?)
  • blueberries or other fruits
  • sunflower seeds (unshelled) or nuts
  • juice or koolaid to be nectar

Put out a variety of tools that represent different shapes of bird beaks:

  • straw or pipette to be a hummingbird beak
  • handy scoops or a small ladle to be like a pelican beak
  • tweezers like a robin’s beak
  • tongs, or chopsticks or forks are more options
  • kid scissors to tear with like raptors tear their food

Kids try using a variety of tools to see what is easy to eat with that tool, and what is hard.  Can they eat their soup with a fork? Can they drink their juice with chopsticks? Talk about how humans can eat a very wide variety of foods, and that we are able to invent tools based on what we see in nature that make it easier for us to eat those foods.

Active Game

Offer Tools – tongs, tweezers, pliers, scoops, whatever. Explain that they are bird beaks. The child chooses one.

Then take a big bag of pompoms (or cotton balls, or legos, or bundled pairs of socks or whatever you’ve got – it’s great if you have different sizes of items) Explain that they are good – maybe nuts, fruit or bugs. Scatter them across the floor and see how many the child can gather up in a minute or two. (Set a timer.)

Once the timer runs out, count the items, then talk about which beaks were best. And how some tools work really well for small pompoms but not for the big pompoms or vice versa. Talk about how if you were a bird with a small-food beak and you lived on an island with big food, you’d be in trouble. But if you lived on an island with small food, you’d do great – you’d live a long time and have lots of babies, who would all have small beaks that were good at eating small food.

If you have multiple children, you can do this as a race. If you just have one, you can challenge them to predict which tool will be the best, and then test their prediction.

Note: there’s a similar, but more sophisticated game for a group, called Bean Counter Evolution on Exploratorium’s Science Snacks site. You have teams, each armed with a particular tool. After a round is complete, whichever tool gathered the least beans loses a team member, and whichever gathered the most gains that team member – this is to represent how each generation, the more successful animal breeds more.

Battle of the Beaks

A great lesson plan called Unique Beak Physique has a “battle of the beaks” where kids scatter seeds (or other items) and use various tools to see how many they can pick up in one minute. They then count them up and discuss which tool would make a better beak. Then switch the kind of “seed” they’re trying to get – predict how many they’ll be able to pick up, then test it out.

M&M Survival Challenge

You could also do the M&M Survival Challenge as described in that link. Or, here’s the variant I would try: Mix M&M’s in with something else (dry cereal, dry beans, raw rice). Kids use their finger and thumb to pick up as many M&Ms as they can in a short amount of time. They track how many M&M’s they get – if they accidentally pick up the other food, that makes their bird sick.

Explaining the Key Ideas

This explanation is for a 5 or 6 year old…

Each bird’s beak is perfectly adapted to the food that’s available in their habitat. What would happen if a bird went somewhere that wasn’t perfect for them?

About 150 years ago, a scientist named Charles Darwin was studying birds in the Galapagos islands. He and fellow scientists noticed that on each island, there was a slightly different kind of finch. From studying those finches, they developed a theory called natural selection, which is key to the theory of evolution. They believe that one kind of bird flew from Ecuador out to the islands. That bird may have eaten bugs, and nectar. But, on one of the islands, there were plenty of bugs but not a lot of flowers producing nectar. So the birds there got really good at catching bugs. And the ones who had the best beaks for bugs lived a long time and had lots of babies, who had good beaks for bugs. And on this other island, there were lots of flowers, so the birds there ate mostly nectar. On this island, there weren’t a lot of bugs or nectar, but there were a lot of nuts and seeds. The birds with the longest skinniest beaks were better at bugs, but not so good at nuts – so they didn’t live very long or have many babies. The birds with the best beaks for nectar didn’t do very well either – so they didn’t live long or have many babies. But then there were the birds with the short stubby strong beaks. It turned out those worked fine for eating nuts so they lived longer and had more babies with short stubby strong beaks. And those babies did well on the nut filled island, so they had more babies with short stubby strong beaks. And those birds with the long skinny beaks continued to not do well… Over a long period of time, the birds evolved. This island was now full of birds with the best beaks for bugs, and these had the best beaks for nectar, and these for nuts. (You can find a visual aid for this discussion by searching for galapagos finches clipart.)

Visual Aids

Here are some visuals you could use – a thumbnail here, and the PDF’s are linked below.

Types of beaks. Picture of 6 birds eating. Pictures of tools that people use to eat.


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