Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Kids just *get* natural selection

Ah, the bird feeder, everyday model of natural selection. It's right there out the window as we chew our Cheerios in the morning.

Yesterday Caleb (5) said, "Look at them fight, Mommy! The birds are fighting over who gets to sit on the perch and eat the food." Dozens of little brown birds are fluttering around the feeder, all the same species. Then Caleb jumps up and does his best full-body imitation of the battle, which I must say is pretty impressive.

"Why do you think one bird wins and another bird loses?" I ask him. He thinks it over.

"Maybe the bird who is on the perch knows that the next bird wants some food, so he just moves away," he says. We peer out to see if that fits. Soon he says, "No, that's not right, look. The losers aren't moving away nicely, they're fighting with their wings. They just lose the battle."

"Hmm," I say, "so I wonder which birds usually win?"

"The ones with the stronger wings, to beat up the other guys!" He yelps and repeats his truly moving battle recreation.

"Wow, so that means the ones with the stronger wings get more food?" I ask.

At this point, Izzy (8) can't stand it anymore and says, "Of course they do! And because they get more food, they can have more babies. And those babies have strong wings like them. Get it, Caleb? It's so easy."


  1. What a terrific story! It's so wonderful when the simplicity and clarity of natural selection is seen through a child's eyes.

  2. Lovely story which shows that children are very wise

  3. A professor at Brown University once collected hundreds of birds on the ground after an ice storm. He did a great analysis on how size of the bird influenced whether the bird survived (some were just unconscious, some dead). His name was Bumpus, and the Bumpus Data Set is famous. Wish he'd taken photographs -- would be a great way to teach about natural selection.