Where the Birds Live

J. MaKinster, N. Trautmann, C. Burch, and M. Watkins
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Lesson/Lesson Plan , Activity
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 article in NSTA’s December 2015 issue of “The Science Teacher” describes two lessons developed by teachers attending the Crossing Boundaries Project (www.crossingboundaries.org) - a joint venture of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and the National Science Foundation. Both lessons use a free online digital mapping tool, ArcGIS Online (www.arcgis.com), to study biodiversity, habitat, ecological niches, and migratory patterns of birds. Over 60 teachers worked with the sponsoring organizations to create the lessons. They were piloted in teacher workshops, field tested in participating teachers’ classrooms, and modified based on these experiences. The two lessons cover geographic regions at different scales. Lesson 1 uses ArcGIS to create nine interactive map layers of different information concerning twenty different bird species in New York State. Lesson 2 uses data for North and South America. Along with information from the website All About Birds (www.allaboutbirds.org), students use the map layers created in ArcGIS to determine how the locations of different bird species relate to land use, weather data, and other geographical information provided on the map layers.

Maps, student worksheets for the investigations, and supporting book information are provided at: http://crossingboundaries.org/bwbmaps.php.  

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • High School
Access Restrictions

Available by subscription - The right to view and/or download material, often for a set period of time, by way of a financial agreement between rights holders and authorized users.

Performance Expectations

HS-LS2-2 Use mathematical representations to support and revise explanations based on evidence about factors affecting biodiversity and populations in ecosystems of different scales.

Clarification Statement: Examples of mathematical representations include finding the average, determining trends, and using graphical comparisons of multiple sets of data.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to provided data.

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

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Lesson 1 is a good place to begin exploration of this performance expectation because the maps represent data collected over five years and lend themselves to discussions of why the birds species are distributed in certain ways. It may be helpful to go to the source of the data and to show the students how the maps were made so that they can connect what they are viewing to actual data. Early in the lesson allow students to explore the different map layers investigating one bird species at a time. Encourage students to ask questions and to use the different map layers to make sense of the phenomenon they observe on the maps for why certain birds prefer certain areas of the region. Following Lesson 1 with Lesson 2 will help students develop a broader understanding of the performance expectation as they consider a region at a different scale. Encourage students to compare the two regions to look for patterns in the data among the different bird species they are studying. Lesson 2 suggests that each team focus on a different species. By doing this, class discussions may lend themselves to deeper understanding of the many factors that affect biodiversity and populations in ecosystems at different scales. Both lessons have student worksheets with a variety of inquiry-based suggested lines of investigation for students (http://crossingboundaries.org/bwbmaps.php).

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
This lesson is based on using a data management system, ArcGIS, that stores, processes, and creates maps based on tabular data. Lesson 1 uses actual data from The New York State Breeding Bird Atlas, which is available online (http://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/7312.html). Students can also access the data from this atlas here: http://www.dec.ny.gov/cfmx/extapps/bba/. Connecting the tabular data with the ArcGIS spatial data display will help students see that the maps they are viewing are based on actual data collected over a period of five years by thousands of citizens. Using the maps representing this data, students can then construct strong arguments and explanations grounded in actual data. Teachers or students may also use data from other sources to create their own maps using the ArcGIS online mapping tool. Linking data from their own geographic region will make the lesson more authentic and meaningful to students.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Wise use of the different map layers in both Lessons 1 and 2 will help students to draw inferences about the complex interactions within ecosystems. By examining the different map layers, students can explore and discuss species-specific habitat needs. They can then create an argument, supported by evidence in the map layers, regarding why certain species occupy and nest in certain areas. For example, using the map layers in Lesson 1 about temperature and precipitation will help students make inferences about what different bird species prefer. They can check their inferences with information in the All About Birds (www.allaboutbirds.org) resource and revise their conclusions. If different teams of students study different bird species, then comparisons can be made about how these complex interactions affect populations that live in the same region.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
The worksheets that accompany the lessons (http://crossingboundaries.org/bwbmaps.php) suggest various ways for students to use the data to support their claims. Teachers may also want to suggest other ways to the students to represent data to support their claims, or have students come up with their own ways depending on their line of inquiry. Lesson 2 has some specific suggestions in the student worksheet for how to represent species richness in different countries in North and South America. As students explore information on their chosen bird species, they may make inferences quickly. Encourage students to find evidence from the maps to support their inferences.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: Both Lessons 1 and 2 provide students with opportunities to blend the science and engineering practice, the disciplinary core idea, and the crosscutting concept as they explore the phenomenon of where different birds live, nest, and migrate. Using the data and maps to draw conclusions, supported by evidence, about the complex factors affecting bird populations at two different scales provides full support to the intent of the performance expectation.

  • Instructional Supports: Teachers are provided with six different Internet resources that supplement the lessons in the article. These include the links to the ArcGIS website, the Crossing Boundaries Project, and the Esri Resource Collections database (http://edcommunity.esri.com/Resources/Collections) In addition, three journal articles are provided as references. Many comments throughout the article suggest ways to connect students to their own region. One of the authors, Carol Burch, shares her experiences teaching the lessons with students who are academically at risk. She points out that the multiple ways that the data is represented as well as the lessons themselves encouraged her students to “explore major ideas and themes in science to make connections across the disciplines, develop critical-thinking and problem solving skills, and discover relevance with the world around them.” (p. 45) Burch also points out that the lessons gave her students lots of choices and individual ownership of their learning. Student worksheets guide student investigations by “asking students to make predictions, gather evidence, and to compare their inferences with their findings.” (p. 46) Numerous extension ideas are also offered for students that have high interest in further investigations. (See p. 47)

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The student worksheets and other activities suggested in the lessons provide teachers with observable evidence of three-dimensional learning. There are a few formative assessments within the student worksheets, but there are no aligned rubrics or scoring guidelines to guide teachers in interpreting student performance. This is due in part to the fact that the Lessons are not constrained, but open. Teachers are encouraged to think clearly about the goals they want their students to achieve through using the lessons and create appropriate rubrics and scoring guides. The authors do include two pages of specific connections between the activities suggested in the lessons and the Next Generation Science Standards.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: Students will need computers with Internet access. All materials are available online. For Lessons 1 and 2, maps are available that have already been created using the ArcGIS tool. These maps are easy to download and use. Teachers and students may also enter data into this mapping tool from either an online repository or from their own research.