Birds are a highly visible and audible symbol of the natural world, filling the skies and airways of even the most urbanized environments. Their behavior is easy to observe and their beautiful songs and strange calls have been the inspiration for much art and the source of thousands of scientific investigations. For scientists, birdsong can reveal important clues about social behavior, communication, and learning. For musicians, birdsong has been a source of inspiration for creativity and composition. For elementary students with varying interests and abilities in science and music, birdsong can be a key to unlock new skills, expand knowledge, and integrate learning across varying disciplines.
In this article, we describe an interdisciplinary, activity-based lesson plan implemented in a third/fourth-grade classroom. During these activities, students use musical concepts to think about, illustrate, and discuss animal behavior, and they use scientific concepts to motivate musical composition and performance. The lesson ends with small group performances that allow the students to apply their knowledge to a new situation. These activities require no specific background knowledge about birds or music on the part of the students. A classroom teacher familiar with basic musical concepts can teach this unit alone or collaborate with a music teacher and/or science specialist. In addition to science standards, these activities also include the arts education standards of music composition and performance and understanding relationships between music and disciplines outside the arts (CNAEA 1994).
For the activities described in this article, you will need the following materials:
- Computer with internet connection and good speakers (see Figure 1, page 22, for an annotated list of websites used in the lesson);
- Musical or percussive instruments such as recorders, xylophones, metallophones, hand drums of varying sizes, tone bells, rhythm sticks, and maracas. Students can also create their own instruments by placing beans or rice in cans; cutting dowels for rhythm sticks; or using tin cans, blocks, tables, or wooden boards for drumlike sounds. Kazoos and balloons are other low- cost sound makers; and
- Audubon plush birds (optional). These small stuffed birds produce authentic vocalizations when squeezed and can be used as an optional resource to motivate student interest and help with identification. Hundreds of different birds are available from www.audubon.org/market/licensed/plushbirds.html, or see www.wildrepublic.com, the manufacturer, whose website also includes games, teacher resources, and a discounted purchase price.
No special preparation is necessary for these activities, although students might be encouraged to listen for birds at recess, in their yards, or on the way to school. The lesson can be motivated by reading a book about birds (see Resources).
Activity 1: Observation
This introductory activity requires students to describe sounds verbally, think about the “words” of a bird song, and characterize and transcribe sounds. These skills are a precursor to musical composition and scientific classification.
To listen to, describe, and “look at” sounds
We begin by playing familiar sounds like honking horns, drums, violins, singing voices, dinner bells, airplanes, etc., which we found at www.findsounds.com. We use these sounds to elicit a list of descriptive words. “Squeak,” “buzz,” “whistle,” “tapping,” and “whirring” were some of our student group’s descriptors. (For younger students, words may be provided at the start and matched to sounds.) At this point the teacher should introduce musical terms that describe sounds, such as pitch, rhythm, staccato, and crescendo (see “Talking About Sound and Music,” listed in Figure 1).
Next, we apply these descriptive words to bird sounds. Prior to class, the teacher organizes sound files into two play lists (A = bird songs, B = bird calls). Songs are complex vocalizations made primarily by males to attract mates and defend territories. Calls are typically simpler sounds used for other communication, such as warning of danger, indicating the presence of food, or identifying individuals.
The songs for play list A can be easily found using many of the websites listed in Figure 1; calls of songbirds are more difficult to find. Web resource #2 (Figure 1) has examples of both for some species. Alternatively, songs in play list A can be paired with calls of nonsongbird species. (Songbirds are species in the suborder Oscines of the order Passeriformes, also known as passerine or “perching birds.”)
We alternate playing an A and a B sound and ask the students to describe each using the word list or new words. For example, students might describe the sounds with onomatopoeic words (i.e., words that imitate the sounds they represent, like “peep”), lyrics (e.g., the barred owl’s “Who cooks for you?”), or comparison (the wood thrush sounds like a flute). A humorous crash course in different ways to describe bird songs can be found at virtualbirder.com/bbestu.
Finally, we show spectrograms for each sound. Spectrograms are plots of a sound’s frequency and intensity over time. Birdsong spectrograms are available from websites listed in Figure 1. We then ask students to add descriptive words based on the visual representation of the sound. Descriptive words might include “regular pattern,” “increasing,” or “jumpy” for repetitive tapping, upward trills, and warbles. Keep the lists of descriptors for each sound for use in the Explanation activity that follows.
Activity 2: Explanation
This discussion introduces students to the differences between bird songs and bird calls. The musical component is seeing and listening to birdsong transcribed by musicians.
To classify observations using scientific and musical concepts
We replay the A (bird songs) and B (bird calls) sounds from the Observation activity and review the list of descriptors that we recorded for these sounds. We explain how scientists distinguish songs and calls.
Teacher: “Scientists distinguish between two types of birds sounds: songs and calls. Sounds from playlist A were all examples of songs, and those from playlist B were all examples of calls. How do these two types of sounds look and sound different?”
Student answers might include such ideas as: “Songs are more complex than calls; songs involve more pitch changes; and songs are more rhythmically complex. Calls are simpler and more repetitive.”
We next discuss the communication function of these two categories of sounds.
Teacher: “When do you think a bird would sing? Would you sing when you are scared? Why or why not?”
Student answers might include: “They cannot sing when they are afraid (cannot speak) and do not want to be noticed; and they sing when they are happy and to show off.”
Teacher: “Songs draw attention. When would a bird want to draw attention to itself?”
We describe how male birds use expressive songs and other sounds (woodpecker and grouse drumming, for example) to attract females and warn off other males. Large song repertories indicate males are healthy.
Teacher: “When might you want to communicate without drawing too much attention to yourself?” “In general, calls are less musically elaborate and draw less attention than songs. When do you communicate quickly and simply?”
Student answers might include: “To warn someone; to say hello; to let parents know where they are.” We describe how birds use calls to warn of danger, get help, identify themselves to family members, scold others, and indicate the presence of food.
Next, we explain how musicians could classify songs and calls. How do these bird sounds look in musical notation? We provide examples and the teacher discusses and explains the basics of musical notation. We hand out three transcribed songs and play these songs in random order. Students try to match sounds to musical notation. The Dawn Chorus lesson from the New Jersey Audubon Society at njaudubon.org/Education/PDF/DawnChorus.pdf is an excellent resource for this activity.
The Music of Wild Birds (Pelikan 2004) is another useful resource for transcribed bird songs and for relevant musical terms.
Discussions can include the following questions: How do bird songs illustrate musical concepts like pitch, rhythm, repetition, theme and variation, etc.? How have birds inspired musicians?
Activity 3: Creative Application
Groups of three to four students create and perform a scenario that illustrates one of the following functions of birdsong:
- Disagreement between two neighboring males,
- Fight between resident male and intruder,
- Attraction of a female, or
- A show of strength and health.
Performances can be vocal, instrumental, or a combination of the two. We provide various instruments to help inspire creativity and encourage students to explore the connection between birdsong and human music. Musicians and composers have been inspired by bird songs for hundreds of years. Figure 2, page 23, provides examples that can be discussed and used to motivate student performance.
|Figure 2. Selected music list.|
Music that mimics bird songs or birdsong characteristics:
- “Pappageno/Pappagena duet” from The Magic Flute, Mozart
This duet illustrates the function of song for mate attraction.
- “Pappageno’s ‘vogelfänger’ (bird catcher) aria” from The Magic Flute, Mozart
Use of mimicry to attract birds for capture. The method of playing bird recordings to attract birds, or song playback, is sometimes used by ornithologists to capture male birds and by bird watchers to get better pictures or views of birds.
- “Olympia’s aria” from The Tales of Hoffman, Jacques Offenbach
This aria is an example of a human “singing like a bird.” The piece can also illustrate how humans add musical elements like trills, arpeggios, staccato, crescendo, etc., to ornament their songs. The singer uses her full pitch range to imitate a songbird.
- “Les grive des bois,” Olivier Messiaen
This instrumental piece is an interpretation of the haunting song of the wood thrush Hylocichla mustelina. It is played on the Xylorimba, glockenspiel, and the horn.
- Judas Maccabeus, Handel
This piece is played on the glass crystallophone and sounds similar to the commonly heard song of the white-throated sparrow.
- Ella Fitzgerald scat singing
Scat singing uses nonsensical phonetics and theme and variation improvisations. Jazz artists improvise and embellish on themes as they are performing. They also change their voices to imitate instrumental sounds. Songbirds also seem to use “on the spot” improvisation and some birds mimic nonavian sounds in their
- Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony
This familiar piece provides nice examples of musical theme and variation. Some researchers have observed that the song of the Rufous-and-white wren sounds in parts like the famous theme from this symphony. For some examples, go to web2.uwindsor.ca/courses/biology/dmennill/
To apply skills and concepts through composition and performance
20 minutes for group preparation, plus performance time (allocate 5 minutes per group)
Our students incorporated both musical and scientific concepts into their performances. For example, students played crescendos to symbolize an escalation in a disagreement between two competing males. Students also employed the musical concept of theme and variation by repeating rhythms and melodies among different group members who were playing different instruments. Each group member played the part of an individual male of a certain species using song to designate their territory to neighboring males. Another student combined bird sounds and instrumental clips into a complex electronic composition highlighting the connections between sounds of nature and musical instruments. Once students understood the musical concepts, they were quite adept at imagining scenarios in the “bird world” and applying the concepts within that context.
Extension activities can be assigned as individual homework. We offer the following options and ask students to choose one activity and to prepare a presentation for their classmates.
- Find a composer who wrote a piece of music or a song imitating a bird. Name the composer. When did he or she live and where was he or she from? What is the name of the piece? What bird is mimicked in the piece? How did the composer represent the bird’s sound? Explain why the composer wrote the piece or what the piece represents.
- Create your own bird music or song. You might try copying the bird’s name or sounds, or you can make up your own lyrics. Perform the piece for the class. Explain what the bird in your piece is doing.
- Keep a weekend bird sound diary. Listen to and report on at least five different bird sounds. Report the following: (a) What you heard; (b) Whether you saw the bird making the sound; (c) Where the bird was (describe the bird’s home or “habitat”); (d) When you heard the bird; (e) What the environmental conditions were (e.g., rainy, windy, sunny); (f) Classify the sound as a call or song; and (g) Describe at least one musical characteristic for each sound.
- We have talked about birds that sing to attract mates and defend territories and birds that use other sounds (e.g., drumming). Which birds sing and which do not? Research this question. What birds are classified as “songbirds?” What characteristics do they have in common? Are there any exceptions? Why do you think birds rely so much on sound to communicate compared to other animals?
The interdisciplinary activities described here put science and musical practice into action and improve students’ abilities to communicate and discuss scientific and musical ideas. Students think about the connection between birds and humans by comparing bird sound to human sounds and creatively engage in activities that bring them closer to nature.
The Birdsong Curriculum Project, of which these activities are one component, is also aimed at increasing environmental awareness. Surrounded by modern technology and conveniences, many students are distanced from nature. But, a wide variety of complex songsters are found even in the most urban settings—starlings, house sparrows, crows, jays, robins, cardinals, blackbirds, and doves—and consciousness of nearby wildlife is the first step to a greater appreciation for the natural world. By opening children to the natural music around them and providing tools for interpreting that music, this curriculum will motivate exploration beyond the sounds of birds heard outside the classroom window.
Emily Silverman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Margaret Coffman (email@example.com) is an associate professor at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Betty Anne Younker (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Associate Professor of Music Education and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of Michigan, in the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance.
Beletsky, L. 2006. Bird songs: 250 North American birds in song. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.
Consortium of National Arts Education Associations (CNAEA). 1994. National standards for arts education: Music. Reston, VA: National Educators National Conference.
Ehlert, L. 1990. Feathers for lunch. New York: Harcourt.
Harrison, G.H. 1997. Backyard bird watching for kids. Minocqua, WI: Willow Creed Press.
MacKay, B.K. 2001. Bird sounds: How and why birds sing, call, chatter, and screech. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.
National Research Council (NRC). 1996. National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Pelikan, J. 2004. The music of wild birds: an illustrated, annotated, and opinionated guide to fifty birds and their songs. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.
Peterson, R.T. 1998. Peterson first guide to birds of North America. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Pringle, L. 2002. Crows, strange and wonderful. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press.
Read, M. 2005. Secret lives of common birds: Enjoying bird behavior though the seasons. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Wood, A. 1997. Birdsong. New York: Harcourt.
Zim, H.S., I.N. Gabrielson, C.S. Robbins, and J.G. Irving. 2001. Birds. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
|Connecting to the Standards|
This article relates to the following National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996):
Standard C: Life Science
- The characteristics of organisms (Grades K–4)
- Organisms and their environments (Grades K–4)
- Regulation and behavior (Grades 5–8)