Students Research Bird Behavior in Cold Weather

Each year, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology publishes the research of students involved in the BirdSleuth program. By coming up with questions, conducting original investigations, and sharing their findings, students participate in the scientific process. This article was submitted by a fourth-grade class in New Haven, New York.

This investigation was designed and carried out by the 24 students of the 2005-06 4th grade class at New Haven Elementary School in New Haven, NY. This report was written by Nick, Kristen, Austin and Becca.


After observing birds at our courtyard feeding station from September through December, several of us noticed that sometimes the birds, especially the Mourning Doves, would puff up their feathers. Nick wondered if cold temperatures caused this behavior and suggested the following investigation.


Birds at our feeding station will puff up their feathers when the ambient temperature is below 32 degrees F.


  • Outdoor thermometer
  • Data sheets
  • Pencil
  • Binoculars (optional)


  1. observe birds outdoors
  2. record ambient temperature (surrounding temperature) of observation site at 9:00 AM
  3. record weather conditions
  4. record number of birds that appear to have puffed-up feathers
  5. return completed data sheets to basket in classroom.


Between January 9 and March 17, 2006, we observed that there were 39 days that were below 32 degrees F and 5 days that were above 32 degrees F. In the 39 days below 32 degrees F, there were 24 Mourning Doves that were puffed up and 15 American Goldfinches that were puffed up.

On the 5 days 32 degrees F or above there were 5 Mourning Doves and no American Goldfinches that were puffed up.

We noticed that the total number of puffed-up birds in each temperature group was equal to the total number of days in that group. We think this is just a coincidence, but it is interesting, so we will continue to look for this pattern as we collect more data.


Number of Puffed-up Birds Observed in School Courtyard
Ambient Temperature Below 32 degrees F Ambient Temperature 32 degrees F or above
Number of days 39 5
Mourning Doves 24 5
American Goldfinches 24 0

Conclusion and discussion

At first, our data seemed to show that yes, the birds tended to puff up more at ambient temperatures below 32 degrees F (39 birds compared to 5 birds). However, after looking at our data, we noticed that we have collected data for many below 32 degrees F days, but only 5 days that are 32 degrees or above. We think that we should keep on making observations until we have data from an equal number of days in each temperature group. This would remove “number of days” as a variable from our investigation. We will continue to gather data for this investigation until the number of days in the two temperature groups is equal.

Additional Data

We continued to collect data until May 18, 2006, when we had equal numbers of days for each temperature group.

Number of Puffed-up Birds Observed in School Courtyard
Ambient Temperature Below 32 degrees F Ambient Temperature 32 degrees F or above
Number of days 44 44
Mourning Doves 25 5
American Goldfinches 15 0

Final Conclusion and discussion

Our data still supports our hypothesis that Mourning Doves and American Goldfinches (the only species we have data for) will puff up their feathers more often at ambient temperatures below 32 degrees F. This agrees with articles we have read on the Internet because birds will fluff up their feathers to make air spaces between them for insulation, and they would need more insulation below 32 degrees F than above 32 degrees F. We also think that the type of weather should be considered in another investigation, because the birds might need more insulation on damp or rainy days even if the temperature is over 32 degrees F.

Might your students design and conduct a similar investigation about the birds they observe in your area? Citizen science projects such as eBird and accompanying curricular materials (BirdSleuth) help you get started! For more information about these types of inquiry-based lessons, please see the article ”Kids Becoming Scientists Through Schoolyard Inquiry” in this issue.

This article was written by Jennifer Fee. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Kimberly Lightle, Principal Investigator, with any questions about the content of this site.

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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