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NOVA scienceNOW: Bird Brains

Viewing Ideas

Before Watching

  1. Investigate how to communicate without words. Brainstorm with the class ways in which animals, including humans, communicate. Examples might include growling, singing, speaking, signing, smelling, writing, body language, etc. Write student responses on the board. Then explain to the students that they will play a "Charades-like" game in which they have to communicate an idea without spoken or written words. Group students in pairs and give each student a piece of paper with a list of simple phrases written on it, such as "green dress," "moving car," or "singing bird." Ask students to communicate the phrase to their partners without using words or writing. After 10-15 minutes, stop the game. Have students discuss whether or not they were successful. How did students try to communicate the phrases? Which form of communication was most successful? What types of phrases seemed to be the easiest to figure out?

  2. Discuss the structure and function of the brain. Explain that the brain has many regions that perform different functions. Have students use a diagram of the human brain (see Links & Books) to locate these regions: cortex, cerebellum, brain stem (pons and medulla), hippocampus, amygdala, frontal lobe, parietal lobe, occipital lobe, and temporal lobe. After students have located the different regions, discuss the function of each region. Keep the diagram or map available for use after viewing.



    Cerebral cortex (right and left hemispheres)

    Controls thinking, perceiving, and understanding language. Right hemisphere is involved in artistic expression and understanding relationships in space. Left hemisphere is responsible for mathematical ability, problem solving, language, and decision making.


    Controls posture, movement, and sense of balance.

    Brain stem (pons and medulla)

    Controls simple reflexes, such as coughing, sneezing, and digestion. The pons controls sleep, awakening, and dream onset. The medulla controls heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure.


    Responsible for learning and memory.


    Plays a role in emotional behavior.

    Frontal lobe

    Responsible for initiating and coordinating motor movements and higher cognitive skills, such as problem solving and thinking.

    Parietal lobe

    Processes sensory information.

    Occipital lobe

    Processes visual information.

    Temporal lobe

    Plays a role in making sense of auditory information and integrates information from various senses, such as vision and smell.

  3. Listen to bird songs. Bring in recordings of bird songs, or use the Internet to access online recordings (see Links & Books for suggested sites), for student listening. Play 3-4 different bird songs, replaying each one several times, if necessary. As you play each recording, ask students to consider the qualities of the sound. Discuss such things as changes in pitch (low and high sounds), timbre (the tonal quality of the sound), loudness (loud and soft sounds), and sequence of tones. Does the sound remind students of something else? How might they use words to reproduce the sound phonetically?

After Watching

  1. Compare and contrast human and bird brains. Have students view a 3-dimensional model of a bird brain on the NOVA scienceNOW site ( Have them compare the bird brain and the human brain diagram or model they examined earlier. Discuss the similarities and differences that exist between a bird's brain and a person's brain. Do the different parts of the brain have the same function in both birds and people?

  2. Create a map of an area and use it to deduce function. Point out to students that modern technology allows us to see which parts of the brain are working as we do different activities so that scientists can map the parts of the brain to different functions. Tell students they will be mapping a local area and then using their maps, along with observational data, to try to deduce the function of structures in that area. Group the students into teams, and provide each team with a compass, a large measuring tape, paper, and pencils. (NOTE: This is an outside activity and requires students to work in an area that includes different types of buildings. You may wish to assign this as an after-school project and group teams of students who live near to each other.)


    1. Have students select a location for their map. It should be about a city block in area, and include several types of buildings.

    2. Tell students to map the area, any adjacent streets, buildings, vegetation, sidewalks, and other structures using a scale of 1 cm = 2 meters. They should be sure to use the compass to find north and mark the direction on their map. They should not indicate building type or reference any signage on their maps.

    3. After drawing the map, students should find a location to observe the area. Have them spend 30-40 minutes observing, note taking, and gathering data rather than focusing on a building's name to answer the following questions:

      1. Which buildings do people enter and exit from most often?

      2. What types of people enter and exit each type of building? Identify them by characteristics such as age, sex, apparel, etc.

      3. What items do people carry into and out of the buildings?

      4. Does individual human behavior seem to differ depending on the building they enter? If so, how?

      5. Does the structure of the building seem to play a role in its function?

    4. After students have completed their observations, ask them to formulate possible functions of the different buildings and structures in the area based on their data collection, and record their conclusions.

    5. As a class, discuss which buildings were the easiest and hardest to identify. Ask students what data was most helpful. Are there any other types of data or technology that would have made their task easier? If so, what?

  3. Investigate the effects of speeding up or slowing down bird songs. (Note: You will need to download the RavenViewer from the site below for this activity.) Have students visit the Macaulay Library website (, which contains an extensive collection of bird song recordings. Have students select a bird, and use the viewer to listen to and watch a bird song. Then ask them to change the speed of the song by moving the "Speed" slider to the left or right. How does changing the speed affect the sound? Does it sound like music? If so, what instrument or instruments does it remind students of?

    After students have listened to several songs, ask them to select one bird to research. Have them create either a written report or a multimedia presentation that describes the bird, where it lives, the type of calls or songs it makes, and how the sounds the bird makes relate to the bird's behavior. Ask them to include photos or illustrations of the bird in their reports. If the students are creating a multimedia presentation, they could also include samples of the bird's song.

Links and Books

Web Sites

NOVA scienceNOW
Offers resources related to the bird and human brains, including additional activities, streamed video, and reports by experts.

Contains many clips of natural sounds recorded by Doug Von Gausig. Includes links to other sites with bird sounds.

Bringing to Life the Genome of an Ancient Mammal
Reports on evolutionary changes in DNA regions including the FOXP2 genome region.

The Jarvis Lab
Offers teachers detailed information on the lab's bird brain studies and full text of every major research paper its members have published.

Macaulay Library: Animal Sound & Video Catalog
Includes more than 160,000 recordings of birds. The RavenViewer plug-in allows you to view spectrograms and waveforms of the recordings as well as control such things as the speed of the audio.

Neuroscience for Kids
Includes activities, experiments, games, and links related to the human nervous system.

NOVA scienceNow: Bird Brain
Includes an interactive model of a bird brain as well as information about Erich Jarvis's research in the field.

The Tchernichovski Lab
Provides detailed information of Ofer Tchernichovski's lab at CCNY, his research, and song files of zebra finches and vocal development maps.

Why Birds Sing
Contains samples of different bird songs that have been slowed down as well as classical and jazz music samples.


Mapping the Mind
by Rita Carter.
University of California Press, 2000.
Introduces laypeople to contemporary neurochemistry, neurobiology, and brain research.

Music, Language, and the Brain
by Aniruddh D. Patel.
Oxford University Press, 2007.
Presents studies of the relationship between music and language from the standpoint of cognitive neuroscience.

The Killers Within: The Deadly Rise of Drug-Resistant Bacteria
by Michael Shnayerson and Mark J. Plotkin.
Back Bay Books, 2003.
A look at the overuse of antibiotics, the methods bacteria use to develop resistance, the role of antibiotics as animal-growth promoters, and the outlook for antibiotics.

Why Birds Sing: A Journey into the Mystery of Bird Song
by David Rothenberg.
Basic Books, 2005.
Examines the relationships between bird song, classical and jazz music, and poetry.

The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior
by David Allen Sibley.
Knopf Publishers, 2001.
Incorporates the work of several bird experts and includes information about bird brains and bird intelligence.

Activity Author

Margy Kuntz has written and edited educational materials for more than 24 years. She has authored numerous educational supplements, basal text materials, and trade books on health, science, math, and computers.

Teacher's Guide
NOVA scienceNOW: Bird Brains