Feathered Friends

Children will investigate bird feathers.

Lesson Objective

Children will investigate bird feathers and perform an experiment to determine how important feathers are to birds and how oil can harm them.


What You'll Need

  • Bird feathers – 1 per child
  • Magnifying glasses – 1 per child
  • Small bowls – 3 per small group
  • Vegetable oil – ½ cup per small group
  • Dawn dishwashing liquid – 1 bottle (Dawn is recommended due to its ability to remove oil)
  • Soft toothbrushes – 1 per child
  • Water


What To Do

Note: Divide the children into small groups. For each group, fill 1 bowl with water, fill 1 bowl with oil, and fill another bowl with a mixture of 1 tablespoon dishwashing liquid to 1 cup warm water.

  1. Distribute feathers and magnifying glasses. Have the children examine the feathers structure using the magnifying glasses (see Guiding Student Inquiry).
  2. Tell the children about the construction of the feathers and their importance in providing cover and protection for the bird (see Did You Know?).
  3. Ask the children to make predictions about what might happen to the feather if it gets wet (see Guiding Student Inquiry).
  4. Distribute the bowls of water, and have the children dip their feathers into the bowl.
  5. Discuss what the feather looks like.
  6. Ask the children to predict what would happen to the feather if it were dipped in oil.
  7. Distribute the bowls of oil, and have the children dip their feathers into the bowl of oil.
  8. Discuss how the structure of the feather changed.
  9. Tell the children that they will be experimenting with trying to remove the oil from the feather.
  10. Have the children dip the oiled feather in the plain water. Distribute toothbrushes, and instruct children to use the toothbrush to gently try to remove the oil. Discuss what happens.
  11. Distribute the bowls of soapy water, and have the children dip their toothbrushes in the soapy water to clean the feather. Discuss what happens.
  12. Ask the children to try to comb the feathers with their fingers, much like a bird would do when it uses its beak to clean itself and restore its waterproofing.
  13. Discuss how difficult it is to comb the feathers. Remind the children that a bird’s feathers are important in protecting the bird’s sensitive skin.
  14. Explain that just a small amount of oil on a bird can be very dangerous (see Did You Know?).

Guiding Student Inquiry

  • Describe the feather.
  • Predict what might happen to the feather if it gets wet – will the structure of the feather stay the same?
  • Describe how the feather looked after it got wet.
  • Predict what might happen to the feather if it gets oil on it.
  • Describe how the feather looked after being dipped in oil.
  • Tell me what we could do to get the oil out of the feather.
  • Explain what worked best for removing oil from the feather.
  • Describe how oil might be harmful to a bird.

Explore, Extend & Integrate

  • Place paint, medium-sized craft feathers, and plain paper in the art area. Allow the children to paint with the feathers.
  • Place the magnifying glasses and a variety of feathers in the science area for further investigation.
  • Place a variety of colorful craft feathers in the discovery area. The children can sort them by color.

Check for Children’s Understanding

  • Could children describe the feather as a protective covering for a bird?
  • Could children explain how the feather changed after getting wet?
  • Could children tell that the soapy water worked best for removing oil from the feather?
  • Could children explain how harmful oil can be to a bird?


Did You Know?

Bird’s feathers have millions of tiny barbs and barbules in each vane. These hook together like Velcro to form a tight, waterproof barrier. This barrier provides an important cover for the birds so they are insulated, or protected, from extreme temperatures in air or water. Any separation in the feathers exposes the bird’s sensitive skin. Birds spend much of their time “preening” or combing each feather with their beaks to keep the feathers perfectly aligned. The feathers need to be perfectly aligned so the bird can survive exposure to different types of weather.

In the experiment, the bird feathers will separate when they are dipped in water. However, the feathers can be realigned as they were before getting wet. Dipping the feathers in oil also causes the feathers to separate. Just a small amount of oil on a bird can be very dangerous. The oil coats the feathers and keeps them from being properly realigned. When oil sticks to a bird’s feathers, it causes the feathers to mat and separate. If the feathers are not properly aligned, the bird’s skin becomes exposed, and the bird will not be able to regulate its body temperature.

Vocabulary: Child-Friendly Definitions

  • feather – one of the soft and light parts of a bird that grows from the skin and covers the body.
  • cover – something that is put on for protection.
  • protection – keeping something safe from harm.
  • barb – a small sharp point that sticks out in the opposite direction of the main point.
  • oil – a slippery liquid that is used for fuel and machines.
  • preen – to trim and clean.

Lesson Tips

  • Real feathers will work better than craft feathers for this experiment.
  • Dawn dishwashing liquid works best for removing oil from the feathers.
  • When children are finished dipping their feathers in water, be sure to have them use a different area of the feather for dipping into the oil.
  • Be certain to let the children know that the toothbrushes are for cleaning the feathers and not for brushing their own teeth.


  • Fine Feathered Friends: All About Birds (Cat in the Hat’s Learning Library) by Tish Rabe
  • Birds by Kevin Henkes
  • The Pigeon Needs a Bath! by Mo Willems
  • There Is a Bird on Your Head! (An Elephant and Piggie Book) by Mo Willems

Home School Resources

Home educators: use these printable lesson PDFs to teach this lesson to your home schoolers. They're available in English and Spanish.

Home/School Connections

Las Conexiones a la Casa

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Content Provided By

Common Core State Standards Initiative – These lessons are aligned with the Common Core State Standards ("CCSS"). The CCSS provide a consistent, clear understanding of the concepts and skills children are expected to learn and guide teachers to provide their students with opportunities to gain these important skills and foundational knowledge [1]. Visit the CCSS