Resource Type
Completion Time
About 1 period
All Aged
Download, Share, and Remix
Simone Welch
Computer with access to the Internet
LCD projector
Moss and sticks
Ping-pong balls (optional)
Shells and plant material
Construction paper (yellow, black and white), glue, scissors, white card stock, white feathers
Large map of North America
Evaluation Sheet (attached)
Clue cards for interactive migration mapping activity (attached)
General Life Science
Life Science
Organisms and Their Environments
Polar Science
General Polar Science


As part of a migratory bird study conducted with my bilingual second graders in Washington, DC, the students in my elementary science class spent four weeks getting to know all about birds! We initially focused on birds that migrate from our Mid-Atlantic forests to the tropical forests of Central America (an area where many of them are from). During a discussion about why our birds migrate south, some students began to wonder about birds that spend the winter in our area as an escape from worse winter conditions elsewhere. After consulting Mike Petrula, a biologist with Alaska's Department of Fish and Game, I chose the tundra swan for my students to study. The students participating in this lesson had already "adopted" local birds to become experts on. They had already mapped these birds' journeys south. This lesson built upon that prior knowledge and brought together previous studies of nesting behavior, migratory flyways and the morphology of birds.


Students will be able to list three defining characteristics of tundra swans. Students will be able to describe the migratory habits of tundra swans as well as draw their migration path on a map of North America.

Lesson Preparation

  1. Prepare materials for "You…a swan!" (Gather sticks, spread moss around room…)
  2. Prepare construction paper for kids to cut feet, beaks and lore spots.
  3. Trace swan bodies.


Hook: Have students listen to swan vocalizations. Ask them to imagine where they might hear these kinds of calls. Is it a large bird or small bird?

Hints: They migrate in groups. They live in the Arctic. The story of The Ugly Duckling is about a cousin of this kind of bird. Ask for students to share prior knowledge.

Information: Read National Geographic Kids information about swans as a group, using LCD projector.

Active Engagement: You…a swan! Use your swan savvy to now live the life of a tundra swan.

  • Pair up! Swans mate for life (Students get together in pairs).
  • Pick a spot to nest. Build a nest from sticks and moss.
  • Look for food to bring back to your nest (Students should search around room for shells that represent shellfish, small potatoes that represent tubers and corn).
  • Lay babies (Put ping-pong balls in the nest). Students (acting as parents) should then stand guard for foxes.
  • Time to migrate! Group with the whole class and form a V.
  • Land and rest on the carpet. Tuck your bills under your wings to keep warm.
  • Migration Mapping! You swans have now started to migrate. But if you were a swan, where would you go? Track a tundra swan. Use a floor-sized map of the US/North America. Give the kids stopover cards in groups to read. Where do these swans come from and where do they go? Using the clues on the cards, students should add a place-marker to the map indicating a stopover. Students can interactively map the migration path a flock might take (See attachment for clue cards).

  • Watch video about swans.

  • Look at photograph of a tundra swan. Identify defining characteristics. Make a pet swan to take home. Cut out traced swan bodies, include webbed feet, bill, lore spot (identifying characteristic of a tundra swan)


Play "Musical Migration". Place pictures of good stopover spots around room. Have students play musical chairs acting as migrating birds. When the music stops, they must find a good resting spot. As game progresses, replace woods and lakes with housing development and shopping mall-type pictures.

Discuss: How can development be hard on migratory birds? What can we do to help?

Good music choice: Fly Away by Lenny Kravitz


Mike Petrula, Alaska Department of Fish and Game


  • Assessment worksheet (attached)
  • What makes a tundra swan special? List three things.
  • Where do tundra swans live in winter? In summer?
  • Map the journey a tundra swan might make from Alaska to the Chesapeake Bay.


Simone Welch, sciencesimone [at]


K-4 5-8 9-12 Content Standard C: Life Science: a. Characteristics of organisms b. Life cycles of organisms c. Organisms and environments Content Standard C: Life Science: d. Populations and ecosystems e. Diversity and adaptations of organisms Content Standard C: Life Science: f. Behavior of organisms
Attachment Size
Swan Savvy Lesson (PDF - 342 KB)342.02 KB 342.02 KB
Swan Savvy Assessment (DOC - 197 KB)196.5 KB 196.5 KB
Swan Mapping Clues (DOC - 23 KB)23 KB 23 KB

This program is supported by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed by this program are those of the PIs and coordinating team, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.