Common Misconceptions about Birds

We know that students come to science class with many preconceived ideas and misconceptions. While misconceptions in physical, earth, and space science have gotten a fair amount of attention and research, misconceptions about life science are less understood. Yet we know that students do hold incorrect ideas about animals, including birds. Classification, characteristics, behavior, and interaction with humans are all areas of possible misconceptions.

Among bird species, penguins are particularly likely to be misunderstood. Children’s literature, animated films, and commercials present incorrect or incomplete information about these birds. Nevertheless, students are fascinated by penguins – making it worthwhile for teachers to consider the various ideas that their students might hold.

In this article, we discuss some common misconceptions related to birds: classification, characteristics, behavior, and interaction with humans. We also provide tools for formative assessment and ideas for teaching the correct scientific concepts.


Bird Classification

Students may think… Instead of thinking…
An animal is a land mammal other than a human being. Insects, birds and fish are not animals. Animals live in marine and terrestrial environments. Insects, birds, and fish are all animals.

Bird Characteristics

Students may think… Instead of thinking…
Birds have teeth in their beaks. Birds do not have teeth.
Birds’ eyes are located in the front of their heads. Most birds have eyes on the sides of their heads.
Birds’ legs have “knees” that bend the bottom of the legs backwards (similar to humans’ knees). Birds’ legs have “ankles” that bend the bottom of the legs forward.

Bird Behavior

Students may think… Instead of thinking…
Some birds mate for life. Birds that mate “for life” have a high chance of staying with the same partner for an extended period. Other birds change partners every year, or several times within the same year.
Birds fly south in the winter. Birds migrate to an area where the resources they need can be found. This may be a long distance (to the tropics, a coast, or even a different elevation). Some species do not migrate, or move, in response to fluctuating resources.
Birds migrate because it’s cold (to avoid freezing). Birds migrate toward areas of increasing or higher resources (nesting sites, food). Both environmental (temperature, daylight) and genetic factors are involved in migration.
Hummingbirds migrate on the backs of geese. This has never been observed, and there is virtually no overlap in the migration pattern and timing of geese and hummingbirds.
Small birds are carried long distances by powerful storms. Small birds are not adapted to deal with high winds. High winds ground small birds, not blow them around.

Bird and Human Interactions

Students may think… Instead of thinking…
Parent birds will abandon a nest if it has been touched by humans. Birds may abandon a nest if humans approach a nest too often because other predators may be led to the nest by the scent.
Bird feeders should be taken down in the fall because they keep birds from migrating. Birds migrate because of genetic and environmental cues. The presence of bird feeders will not cause them to stay!
You should not throw rice at weddings because birds eat it, and it swells up in their stomach and kills them (or makes them explode). Birds have no trouble digesting rice, or any other “expanding” vegetable.


Students may think… Instead of thinking…
Penguins live anywhere it’s cold. Penguins live only in the Southern Hemisphere. Penguins do not live in cold climates in the Northern Hemisphere (like the Arctic).
Penguins live only in Antarctica (or on the ice). Of the 17 penguin species, only a few live and nest in Antarctica. Penguin species are found across the Southern Hemisphere.
Penguins only live in cold places. Penguins live on the southern edges of Africa, Australia, and South America and the Galapagos Islands near the equator! A cold current from Antarctica keeps the water near the Galapagos cool enough for the penguins to survive.
Penguins have fur to keep warm. Like other birds, penguins have feathers. Penguin feathers are short, dense, and packed so tightly together that they often look like smooth skin. Chicks are covered in fuzzy down, which keeps them warm and may resemble fur.
Penguins are fish, mammals, or amphibians because they live in water, on land, or both. Penguins are birds, even though they spend time on land and in water. Their motion in the water more closely resembles flying than the swimming motion used by other animals.
Polar bears eat penguins. Polar bears live in the Northern Hemisphere and penguins in the Southern Hemisphere, so the species never interact.
Penguins are only black and white. Some penguin species are black and white, but others have shades of black, white, grays, blues, yellows, and oranges. Species may have red eyes, brightly colored feathers, bright orange beaks, or pink feet.


What do your students think? Volumes 1, 2, and 3 of Uncovering Student Ideas in Science each contain 25 formative assessment probes to help teachers identify misconceptions. While the probes do not specifically relate to birds, one of the probes about animals can provide insight into students’ understanding of bird classification.

For other topics, we’ve suggested simple classroom activities or created our own assessment probes

Bird Classification

In Volume 1 of Uncovering Student Ideas in Science, “Is It an Animal?” asks students to decide which organisms (including birds) are animals, providing insight into the ways in which students classify organisms such as birds, mammals, insects, and fish.

Bird Characteristics

Assessing student ideas about the physical characteristics of birds may be as simple as creating and discussing drawings. In the lesson “Bird Up,” students draw pictures of birds and share their prior knowledge – two sources of data about student understanding. While the lesson is designed for grade 3 and up, teachers of primary students could also have their students draw pictures and discuss their understanding of bird characteristics.

Bird Up  (Grades 3-5)
Teachers can assess student misconceptions through drawing and discussion. Students use online resources to learn about birds and their characteristics.

Bird Behavior

Students may hold many misconceptions about migration. One way for a teacher to assess student ideas is to introduce the concept of migration through the discussion of a picture book such as Home At Last or this month’s Feature Story about sanderlings. Teachers can use the books to start a discussion of bird migration, and ask students to share what they know through a discussion or a K-W-L chart.

Home at Last book cover Home at Last: A Song of Migration. April Pulley Sayre. 1998. Outstanding Science Trade Book Award 1999. Picture book. Recommended ages: preK-Grade 2.Rich pastel-on-black illustrations accompany brief lyrical text describing how a variety of creatures, including a butterfly, a sea turtle, a caribou herd, and an Arctic tern, find their ways home.

The Dance of Life
An article about sanderlings, a migratory bird species, for students in grades K-1, 2-3, and 4-5. Available as a text-only document, full-color illustrated book, or electronic book.

KWL Chart
Print a blank chart for student use.

Bird and Human Interactions

Misconceptions about bird-human interactions may not surface in the context of a classroom unit, but they may arise in informal conversations with students. While they may not be part of traditional classroom instruction or curriculum, it is important for teachers to be aware of possible misconceptions and correct information in the event of such a “teachable moment.”


We have followed the model used by Page Keeley and coauthors in the three volumes of Uncovering Student Ideas in Science (© 2005-2008 by NSTA Press) and created a similar probe to elicit students’ ideas about the number of penguin species and their distribution worldwide.

Where Do Penguins Live?
This probe, modeled (with permission from NSTA Press) after those found in Uncovering Student Ideas in Science, Volumes 1, 2, and 3, is designed to elicit student ideas about penguins and their habitats worldwide.


Observations of birds in the wild (as well as supplemental images in books and online) can help students better understand the unique physical characteristics of birds. In the lesson “Bird Up,” students use online resources to develop understanding and reflect on their misconceptions and learning. For more lessons on bird characteristics and behavior, please see “Hands-on Lessons and Activities about Birds.”

Bird Up (Grades 3-5)
Teachers can assess student misconceptions through drawing and discussion. Students use online resources to learn about birds and their characteristics.

Citizen Science projects from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology allow students to observe bird behavior firsthand. While these programs are valuable for both classroom and informal learning experiences, there is the possibility of the development of misconceptions from partial/incorrect explanations or students constructing explanations based on their (limited) observations. Teachers should be careful to present accurate explanations of bird behavior (including migration).

Children’s literature (such as the titles found in our Virtual Bookshelf) can expose students to many types of birds as well as the wide variety of penguin species found across the Southern Hemisphere. In addition, interdisciplinary lessons and activities provide opportunities for students to develop an understanding of penguin characteristics.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Citizen Science
Provides an overview of several citizen science projects about birds.

Penguins: K-3 Teacher’s Guide

Penguins: 4-8 Teacher’s Guide
These two interdisciplinary units include goals, objectives, vocabulary, hands-on activities integrating science, mathematics, art, and language, and assessment ideas about penguins.

Penguins Around the World
This interactive site includes lesson plans, a kid-friendly interactive map, a slide show, an online treasure hunt for penguin facts, and two online quizzes.

National Science Education Standards

Assessing and targeting student misconceptions about birds meets the Life Science Content Standard for grades K-4 and 5-8 of the National Science Education Standards. The entire National Science Education Standards document can be read online or downloaded for free from the National Academies Press web site. Science Content Standards can be found in Chapter 6.


American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). 1993. Benchmarks for science literacy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Keeley, P., F. Eberle, and L. Farrin. 2005. Uncovering student ideas in science, vol. 1: 25 formative assessment probes. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Keeley, P., F. Eberle, and J. Tugel. 2007. Uncovering student ideas in science, vol. 2: 25 more formative assessment probes. Arlington, VA: NTSA Press.

Keeley, P., F. Eberle, and C. Dorsey. 2008. Uncovering student ideas in science, vol. 3: Another 25 formative assessment probes. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

National Research Council (NRC). 1996. National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Jessica at

Copyright February 2009 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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