Water Off a Duck’s Back (FBCEC)


Participants will experiment using water, oil, hard-boiled eggs, detergent and feathers to see how pollutants spilled in water can affect animals.

Grade Level:

6 - 12

Recommended Setting:

Indoor or outdoor classroom

Outdoor Activity:



Fred Berry Conservation Education Center, Yellville, AR


Education Program Coordinator, 870-449-3484


1 - 2 hours

Suggested Number of Participants:

Up to 24


  • Identify ways oil spills can affect birds.
  • Describe how human-caused pollutants can negatively impact wildlife, people and the environment.

Key Terms*:



*See glossary for definations



Dissecting microscopes

Feathers, detergent

Flex cam and projector (optional)

Hand lenses

Hard-boiled eggs


Paper and pencil

Paper towels

Rulers or tape measures

Shallow pans

Vegetable oil



Oil can damage birds’ plumage by reducing its flight and insulating abilities. As a result, birds are more sensitive to temperature changes, less bouyant, more vulnerable to predators and less likely to catch prey. Birds often harm themselves by ingesting oil as they preen, and most birds affected by an oil spill die. Mammals exposed to oil spills suffer, too. While most oil spills are in marine environments, freshwater wetlands are vulnerable to runoff, leaks or tanker accidents.


  1. Divide the participants into groups of three or four. Each group should have a shallow pan partially filled with water. Add some oil to the water and observe what happens. Have them measure the area covered by the oil and estimate the area that might be affected if a tanker truck with several thousand gallons of water crashed in or around a creek.
  2. Place enough oil to cover a hard-boiled egg in another container at each group’s station. Have each group place three eggs in the container and place it under a light for five minutes.
  3. Participants should record what they see.
  4. Instruct participants to remove one egg after the five minutes and look at it before, during and after peeling the shell. Have them try to remove the oil from the outside before they peel the egg.
  5. Remove the second egg after 15 minutes and the third after 30 minutes, repeating the procedure and examining each egg.
  6. Compare the hard-boiled eggs to that of duck eggs or other waterfowl eggs that may be near the creek.
  7. Give each group a feather to examine under a hand lens or dissecting microscope. (The flex cam can be used as a class. Display an illustration or riker mount exhibiting the parts of a feather.) Have them sketch what they find. Ask them to dip the feather in water for one or two minutes, examine it and sketch it again.
  8. Place the feather in the oil for one or two minutes and examine it with a hand lens, sketch it and compare what they find with the feather after it has been placed in plain water.
  9. Remove the oil with only water and a paper towel, clean the feather in detergent and rinse with water. After drying it, examine it with a hand lens. Again, sketch and compare it to the other sketches.
  10. Discuss changes in the feather after exposure to oil and then to detergents. What effect could these changes have on a duck or other water bird on a body of water? Discuss other impacts on birds and wildlife, people and plant life. 
  11. Ask what should be done to prevent oil spills around bodies of water. Should people have to choose between having oil and healthy environments? What are some alternatives? Discuss other examples of human-caused pollutants that can harm wildlife, people and the environment? What is being done, or can be done about these things?


  • Describe the negative effects of oil spills on the environment.
  • Explain why oil spills can harm waterfowl.
  • Could an oil spill occur on an Arkansas creek? If so, explain how.


Oil Spills: Impact on the Ocean. Water Encyclopedia. http://www.waterencyclopedia.com/Oc-Po/Oil-Spills-Impact-on-the-Ocean.html


Environment – external factors influencing organisms

Pollutant – a waste substance that degrades the quality of air, water or soil