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Adaptable Mandibles

Appropriate grade level: K-8
Subjects: Science, Art
Time required: 1-2 class periods
Hawaii Performance Standards:

  • Describe different physical and behavioral traits that contribute to the survival of a particular living thing.  Illustrate that living things have definite life cycles, growth patterns, and behaviors.
  • Demonstrate an understanding that every species is directly or indirectly interdependent with others in the ecosystem.
  • Identify human activities that may create changes resulting in unbalanced ecosystems. Explain how living things interact with each other and their physical environment, in constructive ways (making materials for growth) or destructive (causing loss of habitat) ways.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of how the amount of energy that is transferred decreases as organisms interact in producer-consumer, predator-prey, or other similar relationships with each other.

Math: Find patterns in the environment.


1. Upon completion of this activity students will be able to understand three different feeding techniques used by seabirds and wetland birds by identifying their beak shapes and demonstrating their feeding strategies.

2. Upon completion of this activity students will be able to define adaptation and give examples of adaptations in birds and other animals.

3. Upon completion of this activity students will understand the effect that trash, especially plastics, have on birds and other wildlife.

Sketches of bird beaks for reference or tracing, pencils, wooden clothespins, heavy duty tape, 3 colors of poster board, lamination (if you have it), colored pipe cleaners, scissors


1. This activity can be used strictly as a lesson on adaptations and feeding strategies or can be an additional art activity if the students create the beaks and fish in class. The first step in this activity is to create the beaks and fish used to play the Adaptable Mandibles game.

Use the sketches provided to trace beak shapes onto colored poster board. Make each beak type (there are three) one color and make enough so that each student will have their own beak during the game. Try to have an equal amount of each beak type. Cut out each beak and laminate them if you want to make them last several semesters. Each sketch has a tab at the back of the beak. Use this tab to attach the beak to the wooden clothespin. Use tape, glue, or staples to fix two matching beaks separately to the inside of the "mouth" of one clothespin. They should fit so that when you squeeze the clothespin the "beak" opens and when you let go the "beak" shuts.

Fish (squid, crayfish, etc.)
Use the pipe cleaners to make fish (squid, crayfish, or whatever you can think of that the birds might eat. Be creative!) for the students to pick up in their beaks. These should be relatively small so that they aren’t too easy to pick up and the students will have to work with their individual beak style. They should be about 1 " long when the pipe cleaner is twisted into the final fish shape. Leave a loop in whatever fish creation you come up with so the beaks have a place to hook onto. A simple way to create fish is to cut the pipe cleaners into 3"-4" sections, bend one in half, and twist the ends together leaving a centimeter or so at each end for a tail. Make at least 10 fish per beak.

You want several colors of fish if you choose to have only one style. These colors will become more or less desirable food sources during the game for an extension into a discussion of plastics and trash in the food chain. If you choose to have different styles of food, you might make each style in a separate color pipe cleaner. You could extend this into a discussion of camouflage later in the game by comparing the colors and which ones are easier to find and which ones your eyes are attracted to.

2. The Game
Introduce this activity with a discussion of feeding strategies that humans use (fingers, forks, chopsticks, fishing, hunting, gathering, etc.). Just as people like to eat different types of foods, birds prefer certain types of meals and have special adaptations to be able to get those meals. Have students define adaptation.

Three adaptations for beaks are used in this activity. The hooked bill of the Laysan albatross is used to pluck squid and other floating food from the surface of the ocean. This is how it also finds a lot of plastics that look like food because plastics float. The wood stork or wood ibis, a wading bird, meanders through the water waving its large decurved beak around near its feet. When something brushes against its beak, the wood stork snaps its beak shut faster than you can blink your eye! The cormorant, a bird common to many areas of North America, swims underwater for its meals. It hooks or stabs its fish underwater, then surfaces and throws the fish up into the air before swallowing it whole. Some Asian fishermen use cormorants as fishing poles. They will tie a string around the bird’s neck, let it swim around and catch a fish, then reel it in and remove the fish. The string won’t let the cormorant’s neck expand to swallow so the fisherman gets the fish intact. All of these feeding techniques are adaptations to allow the birds to utilize a specific food resource that not all other animals can use.

Split your students into three even groups. Give each group one type of beak to use. Show them how to use each type of beak after you hand them out. They must use the technique that is unique to their type of feeding.

Direct the students to find a "nest" site, or a place where they will bring the food back once they pick it up. After a few rounds of the game, you might ask the students if they want to relocate their nests to gain a better advantage in getting to the food. Do animals do this?

The object of the game is to get enough food to survive in a given habitat using the adaptations that you have developed. The rules are as follows:

  1. For each feeding trip, each student may only pick up only one fish.
  2. You must bring the fish back to your "nest" to feed the chicks between each trip. Remember that reproduction is the key to survival of a species.
  3. NO RUNNING. Students will want to run and steal from other birds. Birds like the great frigatebird do use this technique, but for our purposes they can’t take fish out of each other’s nests.
  4. A round of the game is over once all of the fish (or as many as they can find) have been eaten or time is up.
  5. Set a time limit. Usually one or two minutes is sufficient. If there are fish left over, leave them for the next round.

Round 1 – Spread the fish out around your chosen area. Put some in clusters and some spread far apart. This will illustrate how much easier it is for animals to gather food where it congregates. Once the birds have their nests and are sitting on them, say GO! and watch the strategies they use to gather their food.

When Round 1 is over, have the students stand by their nests and count their fish. Pick a number of fish that a bird would have to eat to both survive and keep its chicks alive (arbitrary number based on the number of fish you put out). For example, if you have 20 students and 100 fish, a bird might need at least ten fish to survive. Not all of your "birds" will survive. Have them sit down. Have the students look around the area. Who is left standing? What did they do differently from those birds that didn’t survive? Discuss strategies that other birds might use to do better on the next round.

Round 2 – Repeat Round 1 and see if the students come up with strategies to survive. Usually a few students will try to work as a team to gather from one area and keep other birds out of their territory or gather more quickly. Animals definitely use these strategies. When you see who is left alive at the end of Round 2, discuss how well this team work idea worked. Another trick they might want to use is relocating their nest site. Locating the nest near the food is a good idea for gathering food, but it might also open them up to "stealing" from other birds if their nest is mistaken for a cluster of food. Have the students consider this before they make the decision whether or not to move their nests.

Round X – Repeat the game as many times as necessary to discuss all of the concepts you would like to illustrate. Extensions for illustrating camouflage, ecosystem niches, habitat variation, competition, and environmental hazards are listed below in Extensions.

This game can be used to demonstrate a number of ecosystem concepts. Get creative and let us know if you come up with a good one! We’ll add it to the site.

Definition of adaptation – An alteration or adjustment by which a species improves its ability to survive and reproduce in a given environment.


* Discuss habitat adaptations by putting certain types of food in only one specific area. For example, place squid in the ocean (one section of the classroom), crayfish in the wetland (another section of the classroom), and fish in both areas. Now have the students pick up only the food that their particular bird can eat. They will be able to visualize why animals adapt to a specific niche in the food web to gain the best feeding advantage in a given ecosystem. Some animals adapt to hunt only at night or in extreme temperatures to gain that advantage. If you use this option to lower competition, have the students make their nests near their own habitat.

* Play a round and have one color fish be plastic. Make it a bright color so that many students will have some in their food cache. If you picked red, have all of the students with more than 5 red fish sit down. Explain to them that if a bird eats too much plastic, the plastic will take up food space in their stomach, permanently, and they will die of malnutrition. Those students are "dead". Ask if they think the albatross can tell the difference between a squid and a piece of trash floating on the ocean. Use this round to discuss other environmental hazards such as oil and chemicals.

* Illustrate the concept of camouflage by playing the game on different colored surfaces. If you play on a blue carpet, after the 1st or 2nd round see if the students notice that it is harder to find the blue fish. The birds have camouflage as well. The wood stork, for example, will wade through the water with its wings outstretched. This shades the water and simulates a shady branch over the water that fish flock to. It acts as bait for fish that the wood stork can’t see.

* Make beaks similar to the birds in your own area or schoolyard. Have the students watch the feeding techniques of the birds and then try to recreate them. Make food sources such as beetles or worms that those birds would eat. Are there any hazards to those birds such as string, plastics, or oils?

* Use common objects (chopsticks, clothespins, spoons tied together, etc.) to simulate different kinds of beaks. Place "fish" in containers that only one type of beak will be able to get at them. For example, place a few fish in a test tube where only the students with chopsticks can reach them. Play the game with the rules that they can get as much food as they can get to without picking up the test tube. This will illustrate the concept of adapting to take advantage of a resource that no other animal can utilize.


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