Major Funding The Laura Moore Cunningham Foundation

Birds of Prey: Activity - Wingbeats


All birds do not fly the same. For example turkey vultures can soar for hours without flapping a wing while hummingbirds flap their wings over 70 times a second as they hover and fly forward and backward.



Students will be able to:

  • determine how different birds fly
  • compare their arms to a bird's wing
  • see if they can "flap" as fast as a bird

Procedures: Science

  1. To start, have everyone hold their arms straight out. Explain that their arms are very similar to a bird's wings. Both have:
    • an upper arm bone connected to the shoulder
    • an elbow that connects the upper arm to the forearm (lower arm)
    • a wrist that connects the forearm to the hand
  2. The bird's hand section is a little different from ours. The bird has a bony thumb stuck off to one side and two finger-like bones on the end. The upper arm and forearm make up a bird's inner wing, while the remainder is the hand section (see Wing Diagram).
    • gliding birds (vultures and gulls) have long inner wings compared to their small hand sections; the larger inner wing gives them the lift they need to soar without a lot of flapping
    • birds (falcons) that must flap more have small inner wings and longer hand sections; the longer hand acts like a propeller and pulls the bird forward as it flaps
  3. Have your students try out their "wings" (arms) by extending the arms and flapping away.
  4. See how long the students can keep or maintain an easy flapping pace (e.g. one flap/second) before they get tired. Explain that some birds (golden plover) can fly for 48 hours straight, flapping the whole time.
  5. Ask if their arms ache or hurt a bit from flapping (they may complain about the outer chest, shoulder, and arm muscles being tired). Explain that most humans get around by walking, and our leg muscles are more fully developed than our chest muscles. But for birds, the opposite is true; the chest muscles are very strong to power the wings and the leg muscles are weaker. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule. Turkeys, chickens, and ostriches have very strong and well-developed leg muscles. Why? Because they are walking birds, they use their leg muscles far more than their chest muscles.
  6. To compare the different wing beats of birds, copy the chart (see Wingbeat Chart) onto a chalkboard or large piece of easel paper. Ask your students to decide which rate of flapping they think they can keep up with.

For Younger students . . .

  • have the whole group come up and flap together
  • encourage students to start with 20 flaps every 10 seconds to imitate a crow, then try a robin, a pigeon
  • by the time students get to a starling they should find it impossible to keep up

For Older students . . .

  • divide them into pairs and have one person keep time while the other flaps

Procedures: Math

Have your (older) students use the Wingbeat Chart to solve the following math problems:

  1. Which of these combinations would "make the most flaps"?
    1. 1 hummingbird flapping for 45 seconds
    2. 10 crows flapping for 65 seconds
    3. 4 kestrels, 1 chickadee, 1 owl, and 1 eagle flapping for 3 minutes
    4. 4 starlings flapping for 5 minutes
  2. If an owl, kestrel, and eagle each flew in the same direction going 30 miles per hour, how many times would each one flap if:
    1. the owl flew 15 miles
    2. the kestrel flew 45 miles
    3. the eagle flew 90 miles
  3. If a raven, kestrel, owl, vulture, chickadee, and hummingbird each flapped their wings for 20 seconds, how many total flaps would there be?
  4. How many wing beats would you get in one minute from:
    1. a hummingbird
    2. a chickadee
    3. a pigeon

Get the Solutions.

Procedures: Craft

After your students have finished flapping, give each eight index cards and a copy of "Flappers." Then have the students make their own flapping motion picture cartoons.

  1. Cut the index cards in half to make 16 smaller cards. Each card should be exactly the same size.
  2. Cut out the pictures and glue each one to the bottom right-hand corner of each card. It is IMPORTANT to keep the pictures in the order they appear on the sheet.
  3. Arrange the cards one on top of the other, starting with #16 on the bottom and ending with #1 on top. Staple all the cards together — vertically down the far-left side. Three to four staples should do.
  4. Now you are done, flip through the cards quickly and make the birds "flap" and "fly."

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Activity © Ranger Rick's Nature Scope: Birds, Birds, Birds by J. Braus ed., 1993. National Wildlife Federation, Washington, DC. Reproduced with permission.

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