Feathers and Nests (FBCEC)


Participants will observe several samples of feathers and bird nests. They will use dissecting microscopes to analyze structure and then illustrate their observations and write descriptions of what they see. (Note: Shorten the lesson if needed by focusing only on feathers or nests.)

Grade Level:

3 - 12

Recommended Setting:

Indoor or outdoor classroom

Outdoor Activity:



Fred Berry Conservation Education Center, Yellville, AR


Education Program Coordinator, 870-449-3484


1.5 - 2 hours

Suggested Number of Participants:

Up to 24


  • Distinguish between the different types of feathers.
  • Describe the structures and functions of feathers.
  • Understand that a particular bird species builds a particular nest and that nest-building behaviors are adaptations.
  • Communicate what is observed to others.

Key Terms*:


Contour feathers

Down feathers



*See glossary for definations


  • Assorted possible nesting materials (cotton batting, shredded paper; straw, etc.)
  • Dissecting microscopes
  • Drawing paper, writing paper and pencils
  • Hand lenses
  • Mesh material and string to make small bags
  • Samples of feathers
  • Several examples of bird nests built by different species.


Feathers offer birds insulation, protection and, of course, aid in flight. They can be bright and colorful to attract mates, or they may be dull and provide excellent camouflage. Feathers grow quickly and after development, die like a fingernail. Birds have contour feathers, which give the bird its shape and color in addition to smaller, fluffy ones called down feathers that provide insulation. Once or twice a year a bird may molt, which replaces worn or battered feathers. Bird nest designs and their locations vary from species to species, and the building materials are characteristic to the species and their habitat.


Part One – Feathers

  1. Ask participants to name all the animals that have feathers. (Only birds have feathers.) Briefly discuss the purpose(s) of feathers (flight, protection, coloring).
  2. Divide into groups based on the number of magnification equipment available. Give contour feather samples to each group. Instruct the participants to observe the feathers carefully with their unaided eyes, the hand lens and finally the microscope. Have them sketch the way the feather looks with the unaided eye and then the way it looks with the microscope. Encourage participants to be detailed and accurate.
  3. Have the participants talk about the feather’s appearance and structure. Explain that this is a contour feather and that it is only one type of feather. Ask what they think the contour feather’s function is (give shape, streamlining, a “seal” from the elements, provide color, etc.).
  4. Show the class a diagram with the parts of a contour feather labeled and ask them to label their own drawings. Point out that the rachis is hollow which makes the feather lightweight. Discuss why the low mass of feathers is beneficial to birds.
  5. Supply samples of a second type of feather, the down feather. Instruct participants to draw this feather using the same steps as before. (Down feathers provide insulation and prevent overheating.) This time, when they have finished drawing, they are to make a table of similarities and differences between the contour and the down feathers.
  6. After allowing time for step 5, complete a table of similarities and differences at the front of the room using information supplied by the participants. Discuss what the purpose(s) of the down feathers might be. Label the down feather drawings.
  7. Discuss how humans use feathers.

Part Two – Nests

  1. Place a number of bird nests on the tables. Ask each one to select a nest to describe in detail on paper, then to guess what kind of bird may have built that nest. Finally, they will write why the bird may have chosen the materials it did, why it constructed its style of nest and where the bird might have built this nest.
  2. After this, call on participants to share what they have written. Discuss ideas and provide insight where needed.
  3. Have participants fill a bag with assorted nesting materials. Encourage them to hang these at home and observe which materials birds prefer. They may wish to experiment with other materials such as animal hair, grass clippings, etc.


Discuss how an oil spill can affect seabirds. What does the oil do to the feathers? How does this harm the birds? Provide background about past oil spills and consequences. Supply groups with oiled feathers as well as paper towels, water, detergent, vinegar and salt water and have them determine the most effective way to clean oil from the feathers. Share their results.


  • Cite several functions of feathers.
  • Distinguish between contour and down feathers.
  • Describe the basic structure of a contour feather.
  • Describe some possible materials a ground-nesting bird might use for its nest.
  • Why is moss a common nesting material in an eastern phoebe’s nest?


  • Coe, James (2001). Eastern Birds, St. Martin’s Press.
  • Harrison, Hal H. (1975). Eastern Birds’ Nests. Peterson Field Guides. Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Peterson, Roger Tory (1986). Birds, Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Stokes, Donald and Lillian (1996). Field Guide to Birds, Little, Brown and Company.
  • The Wonder of Bird Feathers. Earthlife.net. http://www.earthlife.net/birds/feathers.html

Participant Worksheets:

Bird Nest Structure


Adaptation – a natural alteration in the structure or function of an organism which helps it to survive and multiply in its environment


Contour feathers – feathers that form the general covering of a bird


Down feathers – the soft, under-plumage of birds; different from contour feathers 


Molt – to shed hair, feathers, shell, horns, or an outer layer periodically


Rachis (feather) – the elongated central shaft on a feather