During our recent trip to Yosemite, JJ would not stop talking about Peregrine Falcons. He spotted a photo of one in the brochure, and looked for them everywhere we went! Of course there was no way that we were going to spot a peregrine without a strategy, a good pair of binoculars, and a whole lot of luck. On the drive home, he asked to make one at home, which lead us here. The project below is a super simple and fun activity that uses science and art to mimic bird wings, helping even the youngest birders understand more about how birds fly.

We used arts and craft supplies to bring our birds to life, but not before a lesson on the form and function of a bird’s wing using paper airplanes. Luckily, the Audubon Society was way ahead of us, having posted a tutorial on paper airplanes that mimic the four types of bird wings, which proved to be educational for all of us!

Materials

  • Paper
  • Markers
  • Paint and Brushes
  • Feathers
  • Google Eyes
  • Glue

Steps

Make your “birds” (paper airplanes).

Test how each bird flies.

Use arts and craft materials to turn your paper airplane into a work of art inspired by your favorite birds.


Paper Airplane Making

This project would be great for older kids, who can make the paper airplane birds themselves. We ended up making them for the boys, who are 3 and 5, and then brought them in for testing in step 2.

A note on paper: we used construction paper so each type would be a different color during testing. A lighter weight paper will help make your folds sharper for better soaring later!

Active Soaring Wings

Step 1Fold paper in half length-wise.
Step 2Fold top corners in to meet in the middle along the crease.
Step 3Fold top edges down to meet along the crease again.
Step 4Fold in half.
Step 5Fold wings back to meet the bottom of the bird.

Active soaring wings are long and narrow compared to the size of the bird. Birds with active soaring wings depend on wind more than thermals, and can fly for long distances without flapping their wings. The Albatross in the above video can fly 10,000 miles without stopping!

Passive Soaring Wings

Step 1Fold the top two corners of the paper in toward the middle of the paper.
Step 2Fold the top edge of the paper back 1/2 inch.
Step 3Repeat the fold 4-6 times, so that the length of your paper is reduced by 1/3.
Step 4Fold in half.
Step 5Fold edges of the wing back to meet the crease at the base of the bird.

Passive wings use little or no energy as they soar atop thermals, or currents of rising warm air. Birds like a Bald Eagle with passive soaring wings can soar for long distances looking for prey.

High Speed Wings

Step 1Fold the paper in half length-wise.
Step 2Fold the top down 2″.
Step 3Fold the top again by half, and then again in half again.
Step 4Fold the top corners in to meet at the center line.
Step 5Fold the paper back so that the long edges meet.
Step 6Fold in sides to meet at the base to form the wings.

These wings are long and thin, but not as long as active soaring wings. They can create high speeds, sustained by continued flapping. JJ’s beloved peregrine falcon has high speed wings that make it the fastest animal in the world. A peregrine can dive up to 240 miles per hour!

Elliptical Wings

Step 1Fold paper in half lengthwise.
Step 2Fold corners in to meet at the center line.
Step 3Fold the point in toward the middle of the paper to make a square.
Step 4Fold top two corners in to center line.
Step 5Fold bottom point up to secure the two side folds.
Step 6Fold paper in half so the long edges of the paper meet.
Step 7Fold the long edges back down to create the edges of the wings.

Elliptical wings are good for creating short bursts of speed, but not for long distances. Birds like the Northern Cardinal shown above flap hard and often.

The Science of Bird Wings: Measuring for Speed and Distance

Outside, we each tested our birds and asked the boys which flew farthest and fastest. We then asked them to guess a bird that might fly this way, sharing the bits that we had learned about seabirds, soaring raptors, super speed wings, and our neighborhood birds along the way. There are plenty of options here for scientific observation and data collection for older kids. Because our boys are only 5 and 3, we focused on play and conversation.

The Art of Bird Wings: Bringing Our Birds to Life

Now to add in some art to our project. After the boys tested each bird and learned a bit more about how wing types informed the way they fly, we brought out some art supplies and let them bring their birds to life with markers, paint, feathers, and yes, googly eyes. We brought out the iPad so they could look at photos of birds while they created, trying to point out a little bit of feather function along the way. But mostly we just let them have fun creating…leaving feathers as a project for another day!

Our New Birds

That about sums up our day playing with the science and art of bird wings! There are so many ways that this project can be deepened and extended for different age groups and interests. Our kids are still playing with their birds a week later, and now JJ is super into making their own paper airplane bases too!