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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
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Lessons & Units

A database of lessons and units searchable by content and cultural standards, cultural region and grade level. More units will be available soon. You can use Acrobat Reader to look at the PDF version of the Cover Sheet for the Units and Self-Assessment for Cultural Standards in Practice.


Lesson 3 Identifying Local Birds




1) Students will develop their powers of observation and their ability to make inferences by looking for birds and bird signs.

2) Students will collect and interpret data about local birds and identify birds both by learning the practices of their elders and by use of field guides and other written sources.

3) Students will name and cite identifying characteristics of at least 10 birds which are found locally.


Notes on Bird Identification

Birds were a very important part of the natural world for Interior Athabascans in times past. Game birds formed a necessary part of their diet and in times of starvation even the smaller birds helped the people survive. Many birds had other important functions as well. (See Lesson 7). For these reasons and also because birds were believed at one time to have had human form, they were highly respected and the indigenous people of Alaska had a detailed knowledge of the birds and their habits.

Do not be surprised, however, if elders and other community members do not know the local birds by the names found in bird books. They may call them by a descriptive name in English such as "big-eye bird" or "black chicken" or they may know them only by their Native names.

When working with elders to identify birds, students should have not only a picture of the bird but also know something about its behavior and where it is found. Many times elders did not have to see a particular bird to tell what it was. They often identified a bird by what it did - "it's always scratching around" or by its song -"it sounds like a bell", or by where and when it was seen - "first you hear it way back in the woods and then it comes closer and closer to the river as the fish come." Often the Native names were descriptive and told something about the bird.

Occasionally it may be difficult to match the elders identification of a bird with what is found in a field guide. Trying to figure out what a certain kind of bird is can be like solving a puzzle. Sometimes the actual "Western" name is not all that important. Working with elders on these activities will teach students far more that just the identity of certain birds.


colored pictures or photographs of a few local birds.

sketches of birds for students to color


1) As an introduction, show the class sketches or photographs of some common local birds and have students name them. Brainstorm to find out the names of other local birds which students know.

2) Take a walk with elders or other community members looking for birds and bird signs (see sample of "bird signs"). Ask students to make inferences from their observations of bird signs. i.e. what birds live in the area even though you may not have seen them.

Find out what names the elders have for the birds and how they identify them. Learn the local Native names and the translation of each as it will probably tell something about the bird. (see example)

Make a class list of birds you have identified.

3) Brainstorm all the different ways a bird can be identified: color, size, habitat, behavior, song. (Alaska 's Birds, pg. 4-6) Remember also the shape of bill, feet, wings and tail as noted in Lesson 1. Discuss how the elders most commonly identified birds, not so much by sight as by sound, behavior and location.

Begin making a large chart for all the birds on your class list. Record as many of the characteristics as you can for each.

4) Discuss the relative size of a raven, a gray jay and a chickadee. Take another walk using the "Field Notes" sheet to record information on each bird you see. Add this information to your chart.

Now look up each bird in a field guide and compare the information about size, color and habitat/range to your own notes. Add any new information to your chart.

5) Draw and/or color pictures of the birds which are found locally. Consult a bird book if necessary for correct coloration.

Make your own local bird book either individually, in groups or as a class. Be sure to include a colored picture, a description of the bird and the Native name for each.

6) Bird Classification: Birds as well as other living things can be classified in many different ways. If you look in a field guide such as Western Birds, you will find dozens of categories and subcategories.

The Native people of Alaska had their own systems based on the bird characteristics and on where and when they saw the birds. For example, the Dena'ina had categories such as Winter Birds and Summer Birds, Climbing Birds, Scavengers and Nomadics.

Discuss classification with the class and set up a few simple categories of your own. Then have each student divide the birds on the class list into these categories. Discuss the results and make a class chart to show where each bird fits.

7) Bird Population: The local population of some will vary with the seasons but students can learn how to estimate and calculate and consider variables by doing this activity.

Have the class do a bird count at the same hour, for the same length of time, and in the same area on three different days. How many of each species do they count? Set up a chart to show the ratio of one species to another. (You could limit this project to just certain birds such as raven, jay, chickadee.) Then estimate what the population might be in a much larger area.

Speculate on the accuracy of such a study. What are the variables to consider?



Almost 400 kinds of birds can be found throughout Alaska. Does it seem impossible to ever identify so many birds? Just by learning to recognize a few characteristics, many birds can be easily identified.

Color: The color of a bird is important to notice because birds come in all different colors, but birds of the same species can be different colors. Many birds change colors in the fall and spring. Male birds are usually more brightly colored than females, and young birds are often different colors than their parents. These color variations may cause confusion in identification. Although color is important for identification, other characteristics must also be noted. In addition to color, try to note the following things about each new bird you see.

Size: When you see a new bird, note how big it is. Is it a large bird like a raven, or is it a medium-sized bird like a gray jay? Is it a small bird like a chickadee?

Common Raven
Common Raven

Gray Jay
Gray Jay

Black-capped Chickadee
Black-capped Chickadee



Habitat: Just remembering where you see a bird will help you identify it. Was it on a mudflat, by a pond, in a stream, in a spruce tree, in a birch forest, or on the tundra? Was it on a rocky beach or a sandy beach?



Behavior: Notice what a bird is doing when you see it. For example, kingfishers perch on a branch over water, then suddenly dive straight into the water for fish and frogs. Flocks of swallows often dip and dive over water to catch insects. Bohemian waxwings often flock together and feed on berries. Flycatchers flit upward from a branch, snatch an insect, then loop back to the same perch. Grebes, loons, mergansers, and puffins dive under water to catch fish. Hawks and eagles often soar. Woodpeckers can be identified by their habit of pecking on trees. They also fly in a certain pattern.



Songs: Songs can be used to locate and identify birds. Some similar birds have very different songs. For example, alder flycatchers look so much like Hammond's flycatchers that you probably couldn't tell them apart if their songs were not so different. When you hear a bird singing, look for it. Birds often sing from places where they can be easily seen.


Bird Name Table








1. Horned Grebe


toqa' vichidi


"red-necked grebe's younger brother"





2. White-fronted Goose




"bare-beak" ref





3. Mallard


Derived from old French, it refers "to maleness".




"flies straight up in the air"




4. Scaup


Refers to birds that feed on "scamps" or "scalps" (an early name for scallops).




"stays in water"





5. Harlequin Duck


A "harlequin" is the name of a character in old Italian comedies who wore a mask and colorful tights.


taa'sa hut'aana
"lives in whitefish lakes"





6. Bald Eagle


The white head of this eagle appeared bald.


imitates the sound made




7. Ptarmigan




imitates sound made by willow ptarmigan





8. Lesser Golden Plover


"bear belly"





9. Yellowlegs




long legs





10. Bonaparte's Gull Charles Bonaparte, Napoleon's younger brother, was an American ornithologist.


"black head"





"his head is black"











Signs Left by Many Birds



  Stick or Grass Nests
Stick or Grass Nests





Grouse make 3-toed tracks on solid snow or wet soil, but in deep soft snow they make a like a ditch in the snow. Their droppings seem dry and are shaped like hit worms. Listen for their hooting or drumming calls.




Listen for tapping or drumming sounds. Look on live and dead trees for small or large holes that look like something drilled into the bark of the tree. Also look for flakes of bark around the base of trees.




raven tracks


Droppings and tracks around a dead animal.

Hoarse croaking sounds.



Hawks and Owls

hawks and owls

Hawks and owls regurgitate pellets of fur, feathers, and other indigestible hits of the prey. These pellets are cleaned of all meat, so that they smell and feel clean.




song bird tracks

Listen for twittering, chirping, or other calls and songs.



BIRDS TO COLOR - Lesson 3 

Bird pictures to color are fairly easy to find. There are several different Alaska coloring books on the market which have pictures of some of the birds which might be on your local list. The best collection is found in the Birds of Alaska Coloring Book, published by the Arctic Audubon Society in 1981 and now available from the Alaska Natural History Association office in Anchorage, phone 907-274-8440.

The Iditarod Area School District had three small coloring books prepared for use in the district's Bilingual/Bicultural Program. In addition to just coloring the pictures students can use the booklets for identification of birds and to record the Native name and other information. These books can then be taken home to share with the student's family. The birds depicted are as follows:

First Bird Book - robin, camp robber (gray jay), swallow, woodpecker, raven, spruce grouse, ruffed grouse

Water Birds - loon, gull, crane, duck, Canada goose, swan

Winter Birds - chickadee, junco, white crowned sparrow, redpoll, pine grosbeak, snow bunting

These are available from IASD, P.O. Box 90, McGrath, AK 99627




Size: ______________________________________________

It is bigger or smaller than a chickadee?

It is bigger or smaller than a gray jay?

It is bigger or smaller than a common raven?

Color: _____________________________________________

crown ______________________________________

nape _______________________________________

back _______________________________________

wings ______________________________________

rump _______________________________________

tail _________________________________________

belly _______________________________________

breast ______________________________________

bill ________________________________________

legs and feet _________________________________

Behavior - What is it doing? ____________________________



Habitat - Where is it located? ___________________________



Shape - Draw a picture to answer each of the following questions.

What is the bird's shape?

What does its bill look like?

What do its legs and feet look like?

What shape are its wings?

What does its tail look like?


Song - Is it singing? What does it sound like?




Lesson 1

What is a Bird?

Lesson 2


Lesson 3

Identifying Local Birds

Lesson 4

Bird Habits and Habitat

Lesson 5

Seasons and Migration

Lesson 6

Birds as Food

Lesson 7

Other Traditional Uses of Birds

Lesson 8

Traditional Stories and Beliefs about Birds


Whouy Sze Kuinalth
"Teaching Our Many Grandchildren"
Tauhna Cauyalitahtug
(To Make a Drum)
Math Story Problems
St. Lawrence Island Rain Parka Winds and Weather Willow
Driftwood Snowshoes Moose
Plants of the Tundra Animal Classification for Yup'ik Region Rabbit Snaring
The Right Tool for the Job
Fishing Tools and Technology
Blackfish Family Tree
Medicinal Plants of the Kodiak Alutiiq Archipelago Beaver in Interior Alaska Digging and Preparing Spruce Roots
Moose in Interior Alaska Birds Around the Village Dog Salmon


Handbook for Culturally Responsive Science Curriculum by Sidney Stephens
Excerpt: "The information and insights contained in this document will be of interest to anyone involved in bringing local knowledge to bear in school curriculum. Drawing upon the efforts of many people over a period of several years, Sidney Stephens has managed to distill and synthesize the critical ingredients for making the teaching of science relevant and meaningful in culturally adaptable ways."



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Alaska Native Knowledge Network
University of Alaska Fairbanks
PO Box 756730
Fairbanks  AK 99775-6730
Phone (907) 474.1902
Fax (907) 474.1957
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Last modified August 18, 2006