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Activity 2: Urban Bird Count

Title:  What Birds Are in Our Neighborhood? - Teacher’s Guide

Activity Description/Rationale

Aim:  How do we calculate the bird biodiversity in our neighborhood? 

Students will conduct a bird count outside their school and use their data to determine the biodiversity and species richness of birds in their school surroundings.  This activity will familiarize students with the species of birds present in their urban neighborhood.  It will also allow them to become more practiced in using Microsoft Excel to record data and create graphs, and to calculate species richness, abundance, and biodiversity index. 

Estimated Length of Activity

This activity will take the place of 3 one- hour class periods (3 hours total). 

  • The first lesson will bring students out into the field to record bird species and bird counts.  It will end in the classroom with a pooling of class data.  The teacher will model generating a chart in MS Excel using class data. 
  • The second lesson will have students use computers in class to generate graphs of data using MS Excel, and calculating species richness, abundance, and a biodiversity index. 
  • The third lesson will have students analyze graphs and calculations to make conclusions and complete their lab report. 

Goals: Process Skills, Content Knowledge, Attitudes

Content Goals:

  • Define species richness, abundance, and biodiversity
  • Understand the importance of these values and what implications they have on the health of the local ecosystem

Skill Goals:

  • Use field guides to identify bird species
  • Create graphs using MS Excel
  • Calculate species richness, abundance, and biodiversity index of local birds
  • Analyze results to draw conclusions about the local biodiversity of birds


  • Binoculars
  • Field Guide
  • Clip Board
  • Species Count Worksheet
  • Nature Journals (per each student)
  • Pencil
  • Computers

(1 of each per group of 2 students)


(Students should have an understanding of biodiversity before this lesson.)  This lesson is a follow-up to the course introduction, where students discuss the features of a city and the role cities play as a habitat for multiple species.  This lesson will be followed by one that introduces students to the threats of biodiversity to birds in New York City. 

Activity Instructions

Day 1:  60 minute class

Step 1 (10 minutes):  Teacher hands out field guides, binoculars, clip boards and data sheet to student pairs.  Teacher goes over the methods of performing bird count and how data should be recorded. 

Step 2 (30 minutes; including time exiting and entering school):

  1. Class goes outside to perform bird count.  For more information, visit

Point Counts: A point count consists of standing in a specific location and counting birds. One counts the number of individual birds (of each species) within a circle of a certain radius. In most cases, especially when gathering data to compare one point count to the next, radius size should be consistent. But what radius to choose? The radius should be as large as possible to maximize information gathering, but not so large that birds cannot be seen or heard throughout the survey area. Also, landscapes are very different from one survey site to the next. It is difficult to select a radius that works for every situation. For this reason and based on our experiences, we suggest participants use a radius of 20 meters (65.5 ft.) for most situations. Keeping the surveyed areas the same makes comparing different point counts that much easier in the long run.

  1. Each student goes to a spot previously designated by teacher and performs a bird count for 5 minutes (one student identifies bird, the other records data). 
  2. Students switch roles for another 5 minutes. 
  3. Both students record observations of bird behavior in Nature Journals (10 minutes). 

Step 3 (20 minutes):  Teacher pools all class data once back in the classroom (Students record class data into Nature Journals) and demonstrates how to make a bar chart of total number of individuals per species. 

Day 2: 60 minute class

Step 1 (20 minutes):  Teacher introduces the following terms: species richness, species abundance, biodiversity index and how to calculate each value using MS. Excel. Teacher provides students with an example and the class goes over it together.  (

  • Species Richness:  the number of different species found in a sample. 

D = S / √N     

  • D = Species Richness
  • S = # of different species represented in sample
  • N = total # of individual organisms in sample


  • Species Abundance: the proportion or percentage of each species represented in the community.

Pi = Ni / N

  • Pi = Relative Abundance of individuals in species “i”
  • Ni = # of individuals of species “i” represented in sample
  • T = Total # of individuals per sample


  • Biodiversity:  The question of how many different species exist in a particular environment is central to the understanding of why it is important to promote and preserve species diversity. A uniform population of a single species of plants adapted to a particular environment is more at risk if environmental changes occur. A more diverse population consisting of many species of plants has a better chance of including individuals that might be able to adapt to changes in the environment.

the number of species in the area (numerator)


the total number of individuals in the area (denominator )







For example, a 4 X 4 meter square area in a carrot patch has 300 carrot plants, all the same species. It has a very low biodiversity index of 1/300, or 0.003.

A 4 X 4 meter square area in the forest has 1 pine tree, 1 fern, 1 conifer tree, 1 moss, and 1 lichen, for a total of 5 different species and 5 individuals. The biodiversity index here is high, 5/5 = 1. (Example taken from American Museum of Natural History ( 



  • Scientists use a formula called the biodiversity index to describe the amount of species diversity in a given area. Calculate the Biodiversity Index using the Shannon Index (H) using the following equation: 

H = Ʃ (Pi) |lnPi|

  • H = Shannon Biodiversity Index
  • Ʃ = sum of all values (Pi x |lnPi|)
  • Ln = Natural log of Pi
  • | | = Absolute value (no negative numbers)

Step 2 (35 minutes):

Students enter data into data sheet and calculate the following using MS Excel:

  • Total # of Individual Species
  • Total # of Individuals per Plot
  • Species Richness of all plots
  • Relative Species Abundance of all plots
  • Biodiversity of all plots

Students create a bar graph using the following data:

  • Total # of Individual Species in Student’s Plot
  • Total # of Individuals in All Plots

Step 3 (5 minutes):  All students should be finished with their calculations by now.  If they are not, then they must finish them for homework.  All work must be saved and emailed to teacher.  Either teacher or student should be responsible for printing data and charts to bring into groups in class the next day.  If there are any questions, the teacher should address them now and then hand out the data analysis and conclusion part of the lab, which should be looked over for homework. 

Day 3: 60 minute class

Step 1 (30 minutes):

Students work on answering their data analysis questions and conclusions together as a team, although the teacher should emphasize that not all answers should be exactly the same.  Students should be reminded to use their data as evidence to support their answers. 

Step 2 (25 minutes): 

The class discusses results and conclusions together.

  • Data Analysis Questions:
    • How many species were you able to identify?  Did there seem to be more of one or a few species than the others?  Were there any species you could not identify?  Out of the species you identified, were any of them invasive?  Were these more abundant than native species?  If so, why do you think this might be?  Did you see any species that you did not expect to see?  Why or why not? Did you notice a difference in biodiversity index or species abundance in your plot versus the entire class’s data set?  If so, why might this have occurred?


  • Discussion Questions: 
    • If you saw large numbers of a few species but only small numbers of other species, why do you think that happened?  Explain (think food chain, habitat needs of particular species, etc.).
    • Did you see any “strange” behaviors of birds while conducting this study?  If so, describe them and hypothesize the possible reasons for this type of behavior. 
    • Do you think this bird count is a good measure of total ecosystem health?  Why or why not? 
    • What are some other factors that you would consider in measuring ecosystem health?  Explain your reasoning. 
    • What, if anything, could be done to encourage other bird species to reclaim city habitats?  Explain.

Any questions, confusions, etc. should be addressed in this discussion, as well as any suggestions for future studies or suggestions for improving local bird biodiversity.

Step 3 (5 minutes)

The teacher should introduce the topic for the following day- How do cities alter bird behaviors? Urban threats to birds.    


At the end of this activity (3 days), students should turn in a completed lab report sheet that includes data and calculations from MS Excel, data analysis, and conclusions.  Furthermore, the teacher should also grade each student’s observations from the Nature Journal.  This can be done in class, while students are working on their labs. 


Lab report and conclusions will be assessed to determine students’ ability to calculate species richness, abundance, and biodiversity, and their understanding of these terms and their implication to the local habitat. 

Instructor’s Notes

Teacher should pre-designate points for bird count before class goes outside.  Teacher should choose spots that are not uniform (near noisy intersections, near green space, etc.) and not so close to each other.  Of course this depends on the location of the school and/or study site.  If study site is smaller, teacher may choose to limit point count radius to a smaller distance.  There should be enough points for each group of 2 students. 

Teachers should make sure students have access to working computers with MS Excel & the Internet.  Also, teachers should make sure students have familiarity using MS Excel to create graphs and analyze data.  If students do not have much knowledge, or there is a lack of time, the teacher may choose to pre-assign formulas for calculating species richness, abundance and biodiversity into the cells on the MS Excel worksheet.  This way, students only have to enter in numbers, not calculate the values.