Activity ideas Ecology

Bird Beaks Lab: try this hands-on classroom activity to learn about adaptations and natural selection!

This is a hilarious and hands-on way to experience competition between species and learn about natural selection and animal adaptations. In this post, you will learn how to set up your own bird beaks lab to try out in your classroom!

You’ve likely heard of a bird beaks lab before. But if not, the basic idea is this: students use different “beaks” (e.g., chopsticks, tweezers, slotted spoon), to pick up different “food sources” (pasta, seeds, peas). They can see which beak is the best for “catching” each food.

Find these worksheets and handouts in my bird beak adaptations lab mini study!

This is a hilarious and hands-on way to experience competition between species and learn about natural selection and animal adaptations. Students will explore how birds are adapted to the foods they eat and experience first-hand how specialized beaks can help birds quickly gather the most food and outcompete other types of birds.

In this post, you will learn how to set up your own bird beaks lab to try out in your classroom! You can also get printable versions of these directions plus worksheets, handouts, and classroom posters to go along with this lab in my Bird Beak Adaptations Lab Mini Study!

Gather Your Materials

Gather the following materials for the bird beaks lab:


  • Binder clip or chip clip
  • Tweezers
  • Fork
  • Slotted spoon or small strainer (holes should be smaller than a pea)
  • Chopsticks
  • Eyedropper

Food Sources:

  • Gummy candies (20+)
  • Sunflower seeds or grains of uncooked rice (20+)
  • Marshmallows (20+)
  • Peas (20+)
  • Cooked pasta such as bowties or spirals (20+ pieces)
  • Skinny container filled with water and food coloring (for use with eyedropper)

Other Materials:

  • Liquid measuring cup
  • 2 large bowls filled with water
  • 6 Paper cups or other containers
  • Paper plates
  • Food coloring
  • Permanent marker
  • Timer/watch
  • Towel for cleaning up spills
  • Lab worksheets (1 set per student)

Set Up

  1. Start by setting up six “food source” stations:
    • Place 20  gummy candies on a plate. Label the plate “insects”.
    • Place 20 grains of rice or seeds on a plate. Label the plate “seeds”.
    • Place 20 marshmallows on a plate. Label the plate “rodents”.
    • Place ~20 tsp (~100 mL)of food-colored water in a skinny container. Label the container “flower nectar”. Place a liquid measuring cup next to the container for students to deposit the water into.
    • Place 20 peas in a large bowl of water. Label the bowl “aquatic plants”.
    • Place 20 pieces of pasta in another large bowl of water. Label the bowl “fish”.
  2. Write “stomach” on each paper cup.
  3. Give each student a “stomach” and one of the 6 “beaks”. You can have each student use just one beak, then share answers with students who used other beaks afterwards. Or, if you have a small group (and lots of time), you may wish to have each student try out each beak.

Lab Activity

  1. Have students rotate through the food source stations with their beaks.
  2. Instruct students to use their beaks to pick up as much food as they can in 20-60 seconds, placing food into the “stomach” containers. Start the timer and say “go!” (Longer time periods may be necessary for very young groups).
  3. After 20-60 seconds, say “stop!”. Students should use the lab datasheets to record the number of pieces of food they picked up (or volume of liquid at the flower nectar station).
  4. Instruct students to empty their “stomach” cups and put the station back the way it was before moving to the next station.
  5. Once finished with all stations, ask each student to share their beak’s results with the class. Determine which beak(s) worked best for each food source.
  6. Ask students to complete the graphing activity. Students will make a graph for each food source comparing the amount caught by each of the 6 beaks.
  7. Have students work through the reflection questions in groups or individually.

Other Suggestions

  • For groups larger than 6 students, create multiple copies of each station. Or, have groups of 6 take turns rotating through the stations for this lab while the rest of the class completes other work.
  • After or during this lab, discuss adaptations and natural selection. Explain how in nature, animals compete for the same food sources. Birds that can quickly and easily gather lots of food have the best chances of surviving and raising offspring. Ask students to consider what happens when two birds with different beaks compete for the same food source. Discuss how the availability of different food sources may affect the shape of birds’ beaks over time.

Reflection Questions

  1. Which beak(s) worked best for each food source?
  2. Imagine a habitat where two groups of waterbirds are competing for aquatic plants to eat. One group of birds has a filtering beak (like the slotted spoon), and one group of birds has a short, grasping beak (like the clip). What do you think would happen to each group of birds over time?
  3. Imagine a bird species with a large, pointy beak (like the chopsticks) that eats seeds. Imagine that one year a few birds are born with shorter, more precise beaks (like the tweezers). Do you think the birds with the new beak type will thrive? What could happen to this bird species over time?

This activity comes from my Waterfowl & Waterbirds Unit!

Your students will love the illustrated learning materials, plus you’ll support Wild Earth Lab with your curriculum purchase!

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