Grade Levels: 3-5, 6-8, 9-12

This lesson plan–developed by the BirdSleuth K-12 project at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology–is adaptable for grades 3-12 and features Flap to the Future, a game designed for students to explore and understand how bird adaptations have evolved over millions of years. In this lesson, students will learn about the defining features and structures of modern birds by comparing and contrasting modern birds with their dinosaur ancestors.

Lesson Plan Common Core State Standards Alignments

Lesson Plan Next Generation Science Standards Alignments

Students will:

  1. Identify common characteristics of modern birds
  2. Compare and contrast modern birds and their prehistoric ancestors


  • Computers or other devices with Internet access
  • Interactive whiteboard or other display
  • Paper and pencil
  • Images of unique birds such as ostriches, kiwis, penguins, Burrowing Owls, and Toco Toucans.


This lesson features a game called Flap to the Future, developed by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

While today’s birds are extremely diverse, all share characteristics such as feathers, laying eggs, and beaks. These characteristics can be thought of as adaptations, physical and behavioral characteristics that improve a species’ ability to survive and reproduce in its specific environment. This activity will introduce students to adaptations of modern birds and their ancestors.

Players start as a feathered but earthbound small dinosaur and travel through evolutionary time unlocking new flight adaptations as they go. Students learn which predators to avoid in each adaptation, and how evolutionary changes alter survival odds.

Preview and play Flap to the Future to plan how you will adapt it to your students’ needs.   Read Flap to the Future: SnapThought Prompts for information about SnapThought and specific SnapThought prompts to provide students during game play.

Lesson Procedure:

  1. In groups of two or three, have students brainstorm characteristics that are common among modern birds. Allow approximately 5 minutes.
  2. Regroup as a class and have students share their brainstorms. Write the characteristics on the board. With each characteristic listed, challenge students to provide evidence that supports or rejects the characteristic as being common. On the board, write a final list of characteristics most birds have and characteristics some birds have. Ask students what single characteristic ALL birds have that makes birds unique (feathers). Example characteristics:  
    • All birds and only birds have feathers. All birds also lay eggs, have beaks, are bipedal, have wings, and have hollow bones, though these characteristics are not unique to only birds.
    • Most birds can fly, make nests, raise their young, and sing. Size may also be listed as a characteristic. If it is, have students discuss how to judge the size of a bird. Is there a standard for a small bird vs. a large bird?  
  3. Show pictures of birds that are ‘different.’ Examples include ostriches, kiwis, penguins, Burrowing Owls, and Toco Toucans. Ask why these birds are different than a ‘typical’ modern bird. Using the class-generated list of bird characteristics, ask which characteristics do these birds exhibit and which do they lack. If students are unfamiliar with certain birds, have them research the unknown birds. Example responses:  
    • All of these birds have wings, but ostriches, kiwis, and penguins cannot fly.
    • Ostriches cannot fly and are large. They have long, powerful legs that allow them to run very fast.
    • Kiwis can't fly. Their wings and flight muscles are small and weak.
    • Penguins cannot fly. They are powerful swimmers and dive to catch prey.
    • Burrowing Owls burrow in the ground rather than build a ‘typical’ nest in trees.
    • Toco Toucans have very large and colorful beaks.
  4. Discuss how these birds evolved such characteristics. For example, scientists hypothesize that a Toco Toucan’s beak helps the toucan to cut fruit and prey, and that beaks play an important role in internal temperature regulation. Specifically focus on why some birds are flightless. (Ostriches, kiwis, emus, and cassowaries all share an ancestor which was likely flightless. This flightless ancestor likely had a flat breastbone which prevented the necessary flight muscles from developing.)  
  5. Show the students the Wall of Birds, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology physical and interactive virtual mural representing the diversity of modern birds, as well as some bird ancestors. Point out that the extinct animals are gray-scaled.  
  6. Assign each group to a different prehistoric animals. Tell students to use the information and illustrations from the Wall of Birds to identify the species’ defining characteristics. Students can also do additional research on other websites.
  7. Allow students to explore the Wall of Birds individually or in small groups for 5 to 10 minutes. While students are browsing the wall, write the names of prehistoric animals on the board: Archaeopteryx, Tawa, Microraptor, Gastornis, Yutyrannus, Caudipteryx, Hesperornis, Ornimegalonyx, Elephant Bird, Pelagornis, Ichthyornis.  
  8. Have students use a Venn diagram to compare and contrast their prehistoric animal’s defining characteristics with the class list of modern bird characteristics. Have them consider the following questions:  
    • What features does your animal share with modern birds?
    • If they both have a certain feature (like wings or feathers), how does that feature differ between them? (For example, like modern birds, the Caudipteryx had winglike appendages and feathers. However, the feathers and wings were not used for flying. Scientists believe the feathers could have been used for camouflage, warmth, or display.)  Can characteristics have multiple purposes? (Yes! Penguins may not use their feathers to fly, but feathers are used for insulation to keep warm.)
    • What features does your prehistoric animal have that modern birds do not? Why might it have these features?
    • Are there any behaviors, such as movements or diet, the prehistoric animals have in common with modern birds? Which behaviors are different?
  9. Using evidence from their research and discussions, have students develop an argument for why their prehistoric animal is or is not a bird. Use the following guiding questions.  
    • Does your animal have or lack key characteristics of a modern bird? Which features?
    • How similar is your animal to a modern bird? On a scale of 1 to 10, rank your prehistoric animal where 1 = not at all like a bird, and 10 = exactly like a bird. Justify your rating.
  10. Call on groups to describe their prehistoric animal and explain their rating. Put an image of the animal on the board. Have the students write the name of and rating for their animal on the board.
  11. Once all the groups have presented, have the class look at the ratings and as a class discuss the following questions:    
    • Which prehistoric ‘birds’ were rated highly?
    • What characteristics do they have in common?
    • Do these characteristics match the class list of common characteristics?