UNIT: NestWatch Backyard Investigation

Jean Gray Mohs and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Activity , Data , Experiment/Lab Activity , Instructor Guide/Manual , Lesson/Lesson Plan
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be "fully aligned," the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



This is a three-lesson unit that is part of a nationwide effort to monitor bird nesting and reproductive success. This unit provides students with enough background to participate in citizen science and is connected with Cornell University Ornithology Lab. Students explore how characteristic bird behaviors affect the probability of successful reproduction as they investigate the phenomenon of different patterns in the nests and songs of 5 migratory birds.  Lesson 1 explores material and locations of nests, Lesson 2 the communication of the 5 migratory birds from Lesson 1, and the last lesson connects both nests and bird communication to analyze how the phenomenon leads to successful reproduction and to build upon their participating in the citizen science project of NestWatch.

The Nest Monitor Manual is a link provided as instructional support. http://www.birds.cornell.edu/bbimages/nestwatch/pdf_copy/NestWatchManual.pdf

Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • Middle School
Access Restrictions

Free access with user action - The right to view and/or download material without financial barriers but users are required to register or experience some other low-barrier to use.

Performance Expectations

MS-LS1-4 Use argument based on empirical evidence and scientific reasoning to support an explanation for how characteristic animal behaviors and specialized plant structures affect the probability of successful reproduction of animals and plants respectively.

Clarification Statement: Examples of behaviors that affect the probability of animal reproduction could include nest building to protect young from cold, herding of animals to protect young from predators, and vocalization of animals and colorful plumage to attract mates for breeding. Examples of animal behaviors that affect the probability of plant reproduction could include transferring pollen or seeds, and creating conditions for seed germination and growth. Examples of plant structures could include bright flowers attracting butterflies that transfer pollen, flower nectar and odors that attract insects that transfer pollen, and hard shells on nuts that squirrels bury.

Assessment Boundary: none

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
The Performance Expectation is fully addressed in terms of the animal behaviors for successful reproduction. There is a direct correlation between nest building and songs as evidence of behaviors that create probable environments that result in bird reproduction. To create a more explicit building upon the Performance Expectation, the educator could extend the lesson by allowing the students to come up with similar behaviors and structures in plants that, like birds, create an environment for successful plant reproduction. This could be accomplished with student-created experiments after lessons on pollination and seed dispersal have been explored. One extension lesson could be “Flowers Seeking Pollinators” http://ngss.nsta.org/Resource.aspx?ResourceID=583

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this science and engineering practice, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
These series of lessons explore bird’s nest and songs as behaviors responsible for successful reproduction. Throughout the lessons students will predict, graph known data, and write conclusions. They will then model their findings. The teacher should have students do a “Gallery Walk” of their observations before the analysis writing to provide an increased knowledge base for a more thorough evaluation, both oral and written.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
The three lessons build upon the understanding of how both nests and bird sounds increase successful reproduction. This lesson could be enhanced by provided student-lead research to answer the question: How do these attributes, nest, and songs, affect the probability of successful reproduction? Instead of the teacher providing the answer they could explore it on their own. Links are provided in each of the three lessons in the “Supplemental Information” section that help guide students to an understanding and to scaffold the learning.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
This lesson builds up to participating in NestWatch, a global citizen science project that observes and records bird populations around the world. In this lesson, students will use their knowledge from lesson 1 and 2 and look to other species to see patterns of behaviors as these birds increase the probability of successful reproduction. Although NestWatch is nationwide it would be a great addition to have students extend their learning to a local bird species. They could research both nests, sounds, and other behaviors that help in successful reproduction. This can then be presented to their peers, parents, and/or the community at a Science Showcase Night to make it a real-world experience.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This unit of three lessons “NestWatch Backyard Investigation” provides students with the opportunities to engage in three-dimensional learning as they explore the bird behaviors of nest building and songs as a means to successful reproduction. The lesson provides multiple opportunities to demonstrate their understanding of the DCI through student and teacher questioning, modeling with revision, oral presentations, and written explanations. Students use the practice of data gathering and scientific reasoning to explain and explore the connections between these behaviors and reproduction both in oral and written reporting. The crosscutting concept of cause and effect links the lessons together as students use their knowledge of nests and songs to connect the successful reproduction of five migratory birds and lastly to other birds globally. Teachers may want to emphasize the crosscutting concept as it may be less obvious to students.

  • Instructional Supports: NestWatch Backyard Investigations provide authentic and real-world scenarios that engage students in the practices of ornithologists. The NestWatch website has extensive information to help students analyze data collected by these scientists as well as allowing them to experience the phenomena as they develop a model of their own nests and songs. The lessons are scientifically accurate and each lesson builds upon the other for student learning. Students are given multiple opportunities to express their ideas both orally and in a written analysis. Teachers are provided with details of previous learning and rubrics for lessons 1 and 2. The lessons do not include scaffolding for English Learners and special needs students however it has many extension ideas for students with high interest. The Nest Monitor Manual is a link provided as instructional support. http://www.birds.cornell.edu/bbimages/nestwatch/pdf_copy/NestWatchManual.pdf

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The graphic organizers, handouts, bird song links, peer sharing, and written analysis, provide a variety of methods to monitor student progress. There are well-thought-out rubrics provided for both lessons 1 and 2 that help focus the teacher on the assessment of student learning. Lesson 3 is more open-ended and will require greater teacher monitoring to check for understanding.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: This resource does not include a technologically interactive component.