Engineering Design for Birds

The Next Generation Science Standards emphasize the connections between engineering and other scientific disciplines. Even with the environmental sciences, there are strong connections between our local animal engineers and the engineering practices our students can use to find solutions that benefit the natural world. These activities are designed to help students of all grade levels explore their power to effect and support birds and bird habitat by designing solutions focused on three of the main components of habitat: food, water, and cover.


One of the best activities to start with for students is designing their own bird feeder. We like to do this activity with recycled materials. Habitat destruction for urban and suburban development, including the destruction of native food sources, is one of the greatest threats to bird populations. Bird feeders benefit birds by replacing some of these sources. Bird feeders also provide a great opportunity for observing our feathered neighbors.

Materials & Instructions

Collect a varied assortment of recycled and natural materials. Materials can include plastic containers, cardboard, fabric, clothes hangers, metal clips, rubber bands, twine, tape, and old hardware.

Challenge students to design a functional bird feeder that can hold 1 cup of bird seed and withstand your climate and Showing a handmade bird feederlocal birds for one week. Students can work independently or in small groups. Once all the bird feeders are constructed, have students justify their design and logic. Once all feeders have been explained, hang them outside near a window for easy viewing. Over the week have students monitor their feeder. They can observe the sturdiness of the feed, the number of bird visits, and measure the amount of bird seed consumed. After the week, have students critically analyze their feeder design and suggest changes they’d make.


Nesting is an important part of the life cycle, but it’s also a dangerous time for parents and chicks. Predators are always on the lookout for bird nests to make a meal of the eggs or chicks inside. Nest boxes are a great way to help birds find places to nest, but they can also attract predators. This activity challenges students to design a deterrent that will keep predators from raiding the nest.

Materials & Instructions

Have your students discover the nesting birds in your area. If you do not already have a nest box in your schoolyard, you can download building plans through NestWatch. If you already have a nest box or platform, have students research the birds nesting there and discover the natural predators that may harm the eggs and chicks in their nest. Based on this information, have students critically analyze how such predators may access the nest.Shows a predator resistant nest box

Challenge students to design a barrier or baffle to inhibit predators. Materials could include wire mesh, PVC pipe, recycled items, or sheet metal. If students are having difficulty developing ideas, you can have them analyze the advantages and disadvantages of the predator guards on NestWatch.


Water is a necessity for wildlife and birds to survive. Students can design their own water filtration system to better understand the natural filtration process.

Materials & Instructions

There are several designs available to filter water. Provide students the materials below. Using only the materials provided, challenge them to design a filtration system that will be tested with muddy water.

  • Empty 2L soda bottles
  • Coffee filters
  • Coarse sand
  • Fine sand
  • Rocks
  • Charcoal
  • Rubber bands
  • Cotton balls

Once students have built their filtration system, have them test their filtration with ‘wastewater.’ You can create wastewater by mixing vinegar, dust, top soil, water, and food coloring. Have student analyze the effect of the different water filtration designs and develop the ‘ideal’ filtration system.

Unsure how to build a filter? First cut off the bottom of your 2L soda bottle and flip the bottle so that the bottle cap is facing the floor. Remove and appropriately discard your bottle cap. Place your coffee filter around and on top of the bottle’s nozzle. Be sure to secure the filter with an elastic band. This will be used to remove any small sediments from your water. Place several cotton balls and press them to the bottom of your filter. Fill your bottle with approximately ½-1 cup of fine sand. This sand can assist in removing pathogens or chemicals in the water. Fill the next layer with approximately ½-1 cup of coarse sand. This will help filter out fine impurities, such as parasites and bacteria. The final layer will be filled with larger pebbles and rocks. This aids in filtering out large impurities. If you desire, students may also place charcoal (approximately ½ cup) in their filter, as it most effective at removing chlorine, sediment, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from water.