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Working scientifically with budgerigars in the primary classroom.

The purpose of this article is to promote the study of budgerigars in aviary settings in order to engage primary students in working scientifically. Studying budgerigars provides an opportunity for students to learn inquiry skills and develop deeper understandings of living things.

INTRODUCTION Teaching about living things in primary science can be a stimulating topic for students as well as teachers. Students can usually relate to the content from their own experience (Betteley, 2009; Lindemann-Matthies, 2006) and teachers can easily tap into the related big ideas. The use of animals to teach topics relating to living things can pose potential difficulties. When it comes to choice of learning resources, there is a temptation for teachers to stick to the 'safer bets': plants, a field trip or perhaps the internet. However, the teaching and learning benefits far outweigh the issues that working with live animals may pose.

The findings of the extant research literature strongly support the use of animals as stimulating and effective learning resources (Lindemann-Matthies, 2006; Wolf & Laferriere, 2009). There is no doubt that they can engage students. From their large study of primary students in the UK, Tunnicliffe and Reiss (1999) reported on a 'wow' factor involved in the use of worms and prawns to teach concepts relating to life cycles. In their recent study of South Australian schools, Alexander and Russo (2010) were able to report on the propensity of bird related activities to sustain the interest of lower primary students learning about the environment. Given how much engagement fosters learning, and that researchers commonly report children's interest in animals (Lindemann-Matthies, 2006), it is clear that they can be a powerful stimulus for learning about living things.

The use of birds for teaching about the natural world is not a new idea. Science educators have reported on their utility for teaching a range of topics in science (for example, Weber, Koon & Weber, 1990). Smith (2009) promoted the study of birds as a way to enhance learning experiences of primary students about the environment, asserting that, since birds are familiar to them, there is a connectedness between the curriculum and their life experiences. More recently, in South Australia, magpies were the focus topic of a successful science program taught in primary schools (Zeegers et al, 2012).

Budgerigars, also known as 'budgies', are native Australian birds. Although predominantly green and yellow in the wild, domesticated birds have generally more colour variety, including variations of blue, yellow, white and grey. They are small birds, about 20 centimetres from head to tail feather with a wing circumference in flight of about 30 centimetres and are common as pets in small cages or larger aviaries. Budgerigars are very social creatures and exhibit behaviours that can easily be studied.

The use of budgerigars as a teaching and learning resource has great potential to engage primary students and provide a stimulus like no other to develop the scientific knowledge and skills required to work

scientifically. In the next sections, I present a case for the use of budgerigars to teach science and get students working scientifically by describing the knowledge and skills that can be advanced, as well as explaining how an aviary can be set up to facilitate this learning.


We know from previous research that observing animals and making sense of what was seen can lead to deeper understandings of living things (Folsom et al, 2007; Lindemann-Matthies, 2006; Tunnicliffe and Reiss, 1999). The use of birds as units of study with teacher guidance offers the chance for students to notice things they might ordinarily take for granted when observing them outside. Strong evidence of student learning about concepts and skills as a result of bird studies involving observation and recording was reported by teachers and parents in the South Australian study mentioned previously (Zeegers et al, 2012). Smith (2009) reminds us of the big ideas about living things that can be observed, such as interdependence, adoption and satisfaction of needs.

While studying budgerigars in an aviary, students will see these big ideas in living colour and in real time. Budgerigars are very social animals. Place two or more of them in the same space and students will soon see social groupings, pairings and even intimacy. Among the many social behaviours students will observe, mutual grooming and affection are often the most fascinating. Getting students to find out why they do these things or to develop explanations themselves, can lead to a better understanding of how living creatures depend on one another.

Relatedly, there is much to be learned about life cycles, parenting and anatomy from these birds. Budgerigars establish long term pairings when mating. These pairs will produce eggs, with the female taking on a 'motherly' role and staying with the eggs to incubate them and protect them. The male partner will frequently visit the nest, providing food for the mother as well as taking turns keeping the eggs warm. He will also fend off other birds from entering the nest by standing near the entrance or at the top of the nesting box. Males will also help to feed hatched chicks.

Aviaries are effective when teaching life cycles. Nesting boxes, once placed in the aviary, will encourage budgerigar pairs to mate and produce young chicks. Students can see this happen in real time. They can observe the chicks as they hatch and grow and develop a better scientific knowledge about growth and development in the process. This can be fascinating for students to watch and they will no doubt be motivated to observe regularly in order to see changes.


Observation, recording data and communicating results are three key skills of scientific inquiry which sits at the heart of working scientifically. The South Australian magpie study demonstrated that students' skills of observation and recording can be greatly stimulated by the study of birds as students were highly motivated (Zeegers et al, 2012). The study of budgerigars, therefore, can be used to develop student competencies in these skills because it easily lends itself to inquiry.

In relation to observation, Feasey (2012) explains that teacher guidance is important, as without it, students are likely to interpret what they see through the bias of their prevailing schemas and consequently, overlook important details. Observation, done well with guidance from the teacher, will lead students to develop their own understandings of the living world (Tunnicliffe and Reiss, 1999), as well as encourage the generation of questions of their own that may lead to further inquiry (Alexander & Russo, 2010).

Teacher guided observation, where students are directed to look for specific things or answer certain questions, will help students to notice finer details that they might take for granted. In studying budgerigars, there are many things that can be focussed on, including differences between sexes, features of bird anatomy, social networks and behaviour. Teacher guided observation may require students to turn to scientific knowledge references to find key vocabulary or to assist their understanding of what they are seeing. It also requires that the teacher challenges students where information might be incorrect (Feasey, 2012; Folsom et al, 2007).

Recording provides students with opportunities to develop a scientific vocabulary (Smith, 2009) as well as to organise information (words, graphs, diagrams and other methods) and how frequently observations need to happen in order for anything worthwhile to be recorded (Betteley, 2009; Tunnicliffe and Reiss, 1999). If studying budgerigar movement in relation to anatomy, one observation might be enough. However, if social interactions or reproduction are the focus, students need to work out how often to carry out observations, the length of the investigation in days or weeks and how long each observation should take to allow for recording.

In relation to working scientifically, recording is something students need to do. Capturing still and movie images with cameras, iphones and the like are good for later use to ensure students can catch things they might have missed in the real-time observation and for later communication of results, but working scientifically demands that students are recording evidence themselves as well which will be conducive to later work, such as diagrams, graphs and anecdotal notes.

Communicating results serves a number of purposes relating to working scientifically. First, students are compelled to present their findings in a way that others can understand and even learn from (Betteley, 2009). Second, students have the opportunity to explain what their findings mean in terms of scientific knowledge (Folsom et al, 2007). Third, they can reflect on their experience and suggest ways in which their inquiry could have been done differently or better (Wolf & Laferriere, 2009).

Explaining findings can sometimes challenge students to present information in an unbiased way. For example, primary aged students have been known to overlook or ignore observations because they did not 'fit' the mental model they already had about a particular concept (Feasey, 2012: Folsom et al, 2007). The teacher's role is to bring student attention to the observations and to have them try to explain what is going on by considering all the data. This can be especially important where hypotheses have been generated or predictions made about the outcome of an inquiry.


The best way to study budgerigars is with an aviary. While cages with 2-4 birds offer some opportunities to observe behaviour and physical features, aviaries allow for greater numbers of birds and consequently more opportunities for social interactions and mating. Budgerigars do particularly well in aviaries made from timber, but that is not always practical in terms of the time to construct, so the metal aviaries available at most pet outlets and shed vendors are recommended for schools. An example is presented in Figure 8, which shows the minimum dimensional configuration that I would recommend: 1.5 metres x 1.5 metres with a height of about 1.8 metres. The front is open which allows for unobstructed observations and the aviary sits on concrete slabs that can be purchased from any gardening centre. There is a door of convenient size to allow students to enter and there is room for up to three students. Nesting boxes have been installed from about half way up from the floor. Most budgie nesting boxes have flip tops, which allow the students to inspect eggs and chicks. There are food and water bowls on the floor and branches from a tree for them to climb and gnaw on. There are also perches made from thin tree branches hanging at the top, which gives them another place to perch and makes observing them a little easier for students.

Budgerigars can be purchased from pet shops or breeders. I would suggest starting with 8 (4 males and 4 females). Water would need to be changed and food checked/topped up twice per week. Budgerigar seed can be used and green leafed vegetables such as spinach or wild green fennel (sometimes available near bush areas or on roadsides) are a good dietary supplement once a week. The aviary can be cleaned every two weeks either by gentle sweeping or hosing down after removing food/water bowls. This can be done by students on a roster or by a staff member if there is concern about allergies. Bird seed can attract rats, so use rat baits near the aviary, but away from the reach of students.

Organising the classroom around bird observations can be tricky with all the other activities that go on during the day. The best way forward is a roster that takes nonnegotiable times into account and which allows for up to 3-4 students (depending on the size of the aviary) to visit the aviary for 15 to 20 minutes. If the aviary is away from the view of the teacher, other adult supervision, such as parent helpers, is recommended, which is why rosters should optimise possibilities for supervision and cluster visits over a day or two as opposed to the whole week.

Students need to be briefed on what they are required to do each visit. Teacher guided observation questions are a useful starting point, but they also need to know what to bring along, whether this be note pads and pencils, cameras or other materials. As students are working with animals, there are also some ground rules to instil about being respectful and careful not to do anything to disturb or harm the birds and to observe safe behaviour themselves. These should be discussed with students beforehand and reviewed for each visit (Wolf & Laferriere, 2009). A good idea is to develop statements that promote a sense of the importance of their scientific inquiry, such as the following from Folsom and associates: "Good scientists always wash their hands with soap and rinse them all the way before and after touching the animals or their homes" (2007, p.21).

Once the budgerigar studies are over, birds can either be sold or given away to students or interested families and the aviary closed or dismantled for future use or removed. It is also possible that a school might want to keep the aviary running for other classes to use or simply as an interesting extra-curricular activity. The important thing is to ensure the birds have been looked after once the study is over as this reflects ethical behaviour.

Budgerigars offer great opportunities for students to learn basic concepts about living things as well as how to work scientifically through inquiry. They are also sure to engage students and provide some fun as well.

Some teacher guided observation questions about budgerigars

* For what tasks does a budgerigar have different body parts?

* What types of feathers do they have?

* How do budgerigars interact with others and why do they do those things?

* How do young chicks develop and grow?

* What noises do they make and why?

Possibilities for recording from budgerigar studies

* Graphs showing frequencies of certain behaviours

* Anecdotal notes, describing the behaviour of one target budgerigar during 10 minutes.

* Illustrations (sketches or drawings) of the birds with body parts labelled

* Tallies of the number of times a particular bird interacts with others

* Using the data from tallies to construct sociograms

Explaining: the mystery of the blue chicks

A class has been observing the baby chicks from a pair of green and yellow budgerigars. There are five chicks. Students have been taking turns inspecting the nesting box every two days and recording changes using still cameras so the rest of the class can see and make labelled sketches and describe how the chicks have changed at the end of each week. The chicks have started feathering and the two oldest have yellow and green feathers, which is what students predicted. However, the next two have revealed white and blue feathers. The last is, again looking green, but has bluish tinges in the tail feather. The students are perplexed at this. They did not expect blue budgies to come from green ones. The teacher decides to give the students time to try to explain this unexpected result through group work and whole class sharing. However, the teacher has found some good websites on budgerigars which students can visit that will explain green factor and blue factor genetics in language they will understand. This scientific knowledge will help the students better explain their findings.

REFERENCES Alexander, A., & Russo, S. (2010). Let's start in our own backyard: Children's engagement with science through the natural environment. Teaching Science, 56(2), 47-54.

Betteley, P. (2009). Just like real scientists. Science and Children, 45(5), 20-24.

Feasey, R. (2012). Thinking and working scientifically. In K. Skamp (Ed) Teaching Primary Science Constructively (4e). South Melbourne: Cengage. Pp. 55-98.

Folsom, J., Hunt, C., Cavicchio, M. Schoenemann, A., & D'Amato, M. (2007). How do you know that? Guiding early elementary students to develop evidence-based explanations about animals. Science and Children, 44(5), 20-25.

Lindemann-Matthies, P. (2006). Investigating Nature on the Way to School: Responses to an educational programme by teachers and their pupils. International Journal of Science Education, 28(8), 895-918.

Smith. A. (2009). Teaching and learning about birds in the early years: A few ideas for getting started. Teaching Science, 55(4), 36-38.

Tunnicliffe, S.D., & Reiss, M.J. (1999). Opportunities for sex education and personal and social education (PSE) through science lessons: the comments of primary pupils when observing meal worms and brine shrimps. International Journal of Science Education, 21(9), 1007-1020.

Weber, P.G., Koon, E.R., & Weber. S.P. (1990). Classroom science for the birds. The American Biology Teacher, 52(3), 172-178.

Wolf, M., & Laferriere, A. (2009). Crawl into inquiry-based learning. Science Activities, 46(3), 32-38.

Zeegers, Y., Paige, K., Lloyd, D., & Roetman, P. (2012). 'Operation Magpie': Inspiring teachers' professional learning through environmental science. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 28(1), 27-41.


John De Nobile is a senior lecturer at Macquarie University. He teaches science methodology in the primary teacher education program.
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Author:Nobile, John De
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Date:Dec 1, 2013
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