A Seabird in the Forest

What You Need


  • Classroom copy of  Seabird in the Forest, or enough copies to share in partner reading
  • Scissors
  • Paper grocery bags, one per child
  • Scrap paper
  • Markers, crayons, or colored pencils
  • Old sponges, cut or torn in pieces
  • 3 x 5 notecards, one per student or group of students
  • Glue sticks
  • One tube glitter
  • Pencil
  • Ruler
A Seabird in the Forest


To help students understand the interdependent relationship between the bird the Marbled Murrelet and the environment of old growth forests, such as redwood trees.


This lesson makes use of the book called A Seabird in the Forest: The Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet, written by Joan Dunning. It is one of the winners of the 2012 SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books, a project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Seabird is the story of a Marbled Murrelet pair flying in from the swells of the Pacific Ocean to lay an egg high in the branches of a California redwood forest. The murrelet was the last bird species in North America to have its nesting site discovered (1974). Dunning tells the story through expressive oil paintings and sidebars about the bird’s unique life cycle and the intricate ecology of the redwoods.

You will read Seabird aloud to the students, involving them as you read by asking them to interpret the drawings for you in terms of the relationships they see.

Students will then deepen their understanding of the book's concepts through an active-learning and arts-infused activity called "Sea and Tree." In the "Sea" portion, they are asked to reenact the motion-filled life cycle segment of adults and fledged juveniles in the open ocean, bobbing on waves and diving for fish. In the "Tree" portion, students use their artistic interpretation to mimic the contrasting physical environment chicks are born into: the stillness a chick experiences on a branch 350 feet above the forest floor.

Cryptic coloration of the chick's down is what scientists call an adaptation driven by natural selection. Research shows students of all ages often erroneously believe that adaptations result from some overall purpose or design. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 344.) They don't understand the impersonal force of natural selection. They describe adaptation as a conscious and often emotional process to fulfill some individual need or want. It is therefore important to emphasize the fact that this coloration is not the result of a chick or parental "decision" or "desire." It is in the very nature of the organism, passed on by genes that code for the down color that protects the chick from predators. Cryptic coloration increases the likelihood the chick will survive and have more chicks, and pass the protective color genes on to the next generation.

Ideas in this lesson are also related to concepts found in these Common Core State Standards:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.1 Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.2 Determine two or more main ideas of a text and explain how they are supported by key details; summarize the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.8 Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text, identifying which reasons and evidence support which point(s).
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Planning Ahead

This lesson has a role-playing kinetic component—kids move as birds between two habitats you make. Get creative with the space in your classroom or school. For example, if your room size permits, you can rearrange the desks/tables so half the room is open and the kids can sit on the floor there. That's the "Sea" environment. On the other side of the room, push the desks into groups of 4-6 to create a cluster for a "Forest." If the desk density/space confines don't permit this arrangement, consider alternatives: Can the "Sea" be in the hall? Then the "Forest" can be the desk clusters of the classroom.

The youngest learners will make "Cryptic Coloration Crowns" out of paper bags. Older students who seem too sophisticated to wear the crowns will use the paper bags and markers to make puppets exhibiting cryptic coloration. Or, if materials are on hand for diorama construction, they could make dioramas in teams representing both the habitat, and a chick exhibiting a cryptic coloration pattern to demonstrate how the feather coat/downy coat coloration blends in with the background.

For Crowns: Prepare enough one-inch bands from paper bags for each student to use as the base of a "protective coloration crown." Students can use the scrap paper for feathers. Or, if you have enough Post-it® Notes—or can have them donated by an office supply store or parent—use those, one pack per four children. They can color the stickies if needed, and then attach them to head bands so each child has a baby-bird downy crown of protective, cryptic coloration he or she can wear.


Grab the students' attention by watching as a group a five-minute Mysterious Marbled Murrelet video produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Before you start the video, provide students with the Circle Story student sheet so they can get an idea of what they should look for in the video.

Afterwards, gauge the students' understanding of the video with a "circle story" in which you have the class take turns retelling what they've just seen, going student to student in a circle. You can start them with the leading sentence such as, "High up in the redwood trees there lives a mysterious bird called a …."

To use the Circle Story student and teacher sheets, instruct students to look at their student sheet that has 16 fill-in-the-blank statements. Student #1 reads a statement, and turns to Student #2, prompting him or her to complete the sentence with a word or phrase—or asking for help. Then Student #2 reads Sentence #2 and turns to Student #3 to complete it. Students should repeat this process, reading a sentence and asking a student to complete it. The class should go through the suite of 16 statements to give everyone a turn and to cement the knowledge. You may do it backwards, too! You read the bold-faced answers from the Circle Story teacher sheet, and then have the students fill in the phrase.

Conclude by asking key concept questions:

  1. Did you know that all through nature, plants and animals depend on each other to survive? Scientists say they are interdependent. Interdependent means one has something the other needs. It is not something they decide to do. And they don't do it from feelings or emotions. It's instinct. Instinct means something is just born into an animal and they don't need to be taught. For example, a baby's cry is an instinct to attract attention from its parents—it means it needs food, or to be held and comforted. Birds have legs—but their instinct is to fly much more than to hop or walk. The little Marbled Murrelet has an instinct for seeking stillness, high shelter, and camouflage of the old-growth redwood forest. This instinct protects it from predators. This instinct serves an interdependence between the bird and the forest habitat. The forest depends on the birds to create waste and leave old feathers that rot because they turn into soil in which new plants and little trees grow.
  2. When two things depend on each other they are interdependent. In this story, what is interdependent? Right! The Marbled Murrelet and the redwood tree! What do you think would happen to the Marbled Murrelets if all the redwood trees were cut down so people could have redwood lumber for building houses?


In this part of the lesson, you should do a class reading of A Seabird in the Forest: The Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet. Unless you have advanced readers in your class, you will likely read the book aloud to them. To keep them involved, have them interpret the illustrations for you before turning each page.

After reading, divide the room into two habitats of "Sea" and "Tree," and re-enact the two life-cycle stages the book emphasizes. Adult seabirds ride the waves and are very active—keep the room lights on for this. Emphasize the motion, the webbed feet, and powerful flapping wings used for swimming. (Not feet! They help steer, like rudders.) Students should act out the adult lives by kneeling on the floor in the sea. At your command, they should pretend to be tossed by waves! Dive! Swim! Fly to a different part of water, looking for mates. Lead them through a life filled with the constant motion of adults. Model acceptable renditions of these motions so this exercise doesn't lead to chaos!

Now dim the room lights. Students should "fly" to the cluster of desks that represents the still redwood forest. Here they are chicks on a "branch" of desks. They move very little so they don't attract attention of predators. They wait hours and hours for their parents to return with fish. Now quietly, being very still, the children should make protective coloration crowns by using a one-inch band of paper bag that fits around their head, and gluing the ends to form a circle. Next, they should glue downy feathers to it that they make from more strips of scrap paper, or Post-it® notes. They should color the strips brown, if needed, for shadows and pale streaks of light so they blend into the forest canopy. To emphasize the goal of protective coloration of the down, say: "We have glitter here and bright red markers. Do you think that would help or harm a chick's ability to blend in and hide from predators?"

Modification: Older, or more sophisticated learners, may instead make paper-bag puppet models or dioramas with classroom materials already on hand. In both, they must be careful to choose colors that protect the chicks in the forest environment—thus representing the interdependence between chick and habitat.

Once the crowns (puppets or dioramas) are made, students should place them on their heads (display them) and sit very still. You then turn on the room light to "fledge" them, saying:

"Now you are strong and ready to leave the nest. Scientists call this period in a young bird's life when it is ready to leave the nest 'fledging.' You are ready to fledge because your body has grown strong flight muscles and is ready for new flight feathers! You feel it. You are ready; your instinct tells you. By instinct, you start pulling out your baby down so adult feathers can come in." The children pluck off feathers from their crowns (for puppets and dioramas, have them tear small scraps of paper) and drop them onto desk tops. You say: "You've watched your parents fly. Your instincts tell you it's time to leave your home of the tree for your adult home of the sea. You leave your baby feathers behind, on the branch, where they decay along with leaves and sticks and dead insects to make soil on the branch. This is part of the relationship with the tree you are in. The soil your feathers and droppings help make supports the growth of more plants and branches of the redwood tree.

When you are strong, fly away free, up in the sky, back to the sea!"

After students return to the sea, turn the room lights on. Students should return to their desks to complete the Assessment.


The students will "Grow a Forest of Knowledge" to demonstrate their grasp of content. To do this, provide students with their own Grow a Forest of Knowledge student sheet that has instructions on how to do this activity. Each student should take a grocery bag, cut it open lengthwise, and trim the box-bottom off so they have a long piece of brown paper—it should measure about three feet long. Then they copy the style of drawing on the inside cover of the book. Down the center of the bag, they should draw a redwood tree that scales to be about 350 feet tall—labeling the height—with crayon, pastels, or colored pencils. For vegetation, they may use pieces of sponge, coloring the sponge with colored marker and then stamping the sponge on the paper to sponge paint their habitat. They can add a small person in the corner as a scale marker, and also mark a "nest spot"—about 320 feet from the ground. If students are able, and you have time to develop a mathematical aside, draw the person to scale.

Next, students will mimic the layout of the book covers in which there are fact boxes placed on either side of the tree. They should trace the 3 x 5 index card in three locations of their choosing to create three large rectangles in which they will fill key facts they learn from their research of reviewing the book or re-watching the video.

To help them fill the boxes, show them an overhead or Smartboard sample you make in three steps:

  1. Trace the rectangle to become a Fact Box.
  2. Label the Fact Box with a title that tells the category of factual knowledge from among the choices on the Grow a Forest of Knowledge teacher sheet.
  3. Beneath the titles on the teacher sheet are examples of the kind of information you can encourage your students to find to fill the Fact Boxes as you emphasize an overarching lesson point: For any particular environment, some kinds of plants and animals thrive, some do not live as well, and some do not survive at all. How they interact—or don't—determines survival.


These Science NetLinks lessons could be used to extend the ideas in this lesson:

Students can visit All About Birds from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to learn more about Marbled Murrelets and other kinds of birds.

Funder Info
Science NetLinks is proud to have Subaru as a funder of this project.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards