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These Maps Are For The Birds

Lesson Plan

Students will study New York State Breeding Bird Atlas maps to learn where different bird species nest and how their distributions have changed over time.


Students will understand:

  • how maps serve as representations of a geographic region;
  • how the distribution of animals varies geographically based on habitat requirements;
  • how the distribution of animals changes over time as environmental conditions change, often in response to human activities.

Grade level:

Elementary/Middle School (Grades 4-7)

Subject Area:

Science, Social Studies


Social Studies Standard 3
Mathematics, Science, & Technology Standard 4


  • Interpret data presented geographically on a map.
  • Observe, identify, and communicate patterns in data.
  • Analyze document-based information presented in scientific figures.


Preparation time: 10 minutes
Activity time: 40 minutes


Each student should have:


Maps usually show terrain, political regions, roads, towns, and similar features of the natural and built landscape, but can also show other information linked to geography. This lesson explores maps from the New York State Breeding Bird Atlas. The Atlas was created using data on nesting birds collected by more than 1,200 volunteers in 5,332 blocks-sections of U.S. Geological Survey maps-that together formed a mosaic covering all of New York.

The distribution of breeding birds is tied to the availability of suitable habitat. Their distribution can change as habitat is altered. Examples include the disappearance of grasslands due to urbanization, an increase in forest cover as farm fields are abandoned, and milder winters due to climate change. Other factors influencing bird distribution include application of toxic pesticides, shooting, and introduction of non-native species.

Students will view actual Breeding Bird Atlas maps to learn how such factors play roles in bird distribution. By comparing data collected over two decades, they will see how this distribution can vary over time. They will answer document-based questions about information in these scientific figures. The maps are unaltered except for being reduced in size and-most likely-converted to black and white in photocopying.

On each map, blocks in which a species occurred are colored to show the bird's breeding distribution. The color of the block shows how likely it was that the species did nest. Finding a nest in use or babies would confirm breeding, indicated by a blue block. Possible breeding means only that the bird was seen in the right nesting habitat, indicated by a yellow block. Because color distinctions may be lost in copying to black and white, the worksheet for this lesson does not address this feature of the maps.


  1. Review vocabulary words and point out that the lesson will look at where birds nest in New York. The maps do not show where birds migrate, nor do they include non-breeding species.
  2. Compare an Atlas map to the state relief map showing counties. Point out the location of major topographic features such as the Adirondacks, Catskills, Atlantic Ocean, Great Lakes, and Hudson River. On the Atlas map, find the county in which your school is located.
  3. Go through the "These Maps Are For The Birds" worksheet in class.
  4. See Resources for links to more information about birds included in this lesson.


  • Have students share answers to worksheet questions, or collect and grade sheets.
  • Select other Atlas maps for students to analyze. Suggestions: double-crested cormorant, golden-winged warbler, peregrine falcon, ring-necked pheasant, ruffed grouse, upland sandpiper, and whip-poor-will. Fact sheets on the web (see Resources) explain increases or declines in these species.

Answers Key:

Available in the pdf version of this teacher's section and in the package that bundles all of the readings.


  • atlas: a book of maps
  • breeding: producing young by hatching or live birth
  • data: factual information (plural of datum)
  • habitat: the particular sort of place where a given plant or animal lives
  • landscape: a region's set of landforms, viewed as a whole
  • native: belonging in a particular place by birth; not brought in from another region
  • pesticide: a substance used to kill creatures or plants considered to be pests
  • population: a group of individuals of one species living in a particular region
  • relief map: a map that shows the topography of an area
  • scientist: a person skilled in science
  • species: a class of living things of the same kind and same name


The Department of Environmental Conservation's Breeding Bird Atlas data website provides access to all the Breeding Bird Atlas maps. Scroll down to the table "Breeding Bird Atlas - Maps By Species." In the row labeled "Alphabetic Order" select 1980-1985 or 2000-2005 to see a list of species. (To see maps from both time periods on one page, select "Alphabetic Order" in the row labeled "Compare Maps"). Clicking on a name in the list-duck, for example-opens a table listing one or more species in that category; click on a species name to see its map.

You can see a list of breeding birds found in your area. First, visit the Breeding Bird Atlas Survey Blocks website to find your atlas block. In the search menu on the left side of the page, select "Town/City/Village" and enter your community's name. Click "Find" to zoom the map in to your locality. It should be covered with a grid. Each square in the grid is labeled with a block number - four numerals followed by the letter A, B, C, or D. Choose the block in which your school or home is located and write down its number. Now go to Breeding Bird Atlas data website, scroll down to the "Species List Inquiry" section, and enter the number in the indicated box. Choose the years for which you want to see the list, and then click "Submit."

Documents on DEC's website explain the reasons for changes in distribution of many birds. While the site's search function can locate such documents, it will be hard for elementary students to sort through the "hits" that the search produces. Use these links to access information about a number of the species included in the lesson:

Links to additional DEC fact sheets and information pages

A broad array of information about birds is available on the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's website (see Links Leaving DEC's Website), including photographs of many species and activities for school classrooms.