Patterns in the pecking order

Crisp-snacking jackdaws provide the data for a junior school's research project. Jack Kenny explains

The jackdaws of Abertridwr proved to be a fascinating study for Philip Edwards and his pupils at the village junior school in south Wales. Philip had been interested in animal behaviour since, as a child, he had noticed a flock of sheep wandered down a lane near his grandmother's home at 6.45pm every day.

He found they went to the back of the chip shop, where the owner had dumped potato peelings. The chip shop was closed on Sundays and the sheep did not make the journey. That raised questions in young Philip's mind. Could sheep tell the time? How did they know there would be nothing to eat on Sunday? Could they hear hymn singing from the chapel?

Philip is an ICT enthusiast and finds ways of using ICT to support most of his teaching and motivate the children. On training courses he likes to tell teachers: "All of us complain that we don't have enough time. The good thing about ICT is that everything you do can be saved and used over and over. You do something in PowerPoint that might take some time. Next year when you come to that topic again, there it is. You might want to make some minor changes but that will only take minutes."

Philip's knowledge of the internet and where to find useful content is impressive. He has also done some work for his local authority on using interactive whiteboards.

It was the jackdaws that raised the question of animal behaviour again. At his school, Cwmaber Junior, Philip noticed there seemed to be a relationship between the number of birds visiting the playground and the time of day. First break in Cwmaber is at 11am and that's when the jackdaws appear. The children of Cwmaber are enthusiastic crisp eaters - and so are the jackdaws. Most children eat their crisps at 11am. A few eat them at 1pm and virtually no one has the will power to keep any until 3pm.

Philip had his pupils observe the jackdaws and record their visits on a spreadsheet and graph. This spreadsheet included the following categories: date; time; weather; cloud cover. One of the best aids to data collecting was a digital alarm to remind pupils when to do their work.

The results were shown on the interactive whiteboard to the whole class to aid their scientific thinking. They saw there was a clear pattern. There were substantially more birds visiting at 11am than at 1pm and 3pm each day. They never appeared when it was raining.

Further observation showed the birds did not appear during the holiday or at the weekend. After the holidays they returned in undiminished numbers. In some weeks, the numbers built up as the week progressed.

Over the years the size of the flock has increased markedly, so the children were asked to explain why this might be. Was it because a number of children were there at break? To test this a mock fire alarm with all the children out on the playground was held at 10am. The birds ignored this. Was it the sound of the school bell that was attracting them? That was rung at 10 with no response from the birds. The sound of the playground during a fire drill is very different for the sound at break time. A sound recording of the 11am break was played at full blast at 10am. No response from the birds.

One theory was that the birds were thinking. Is the weather fine? Are there children in the playground? Are the children carrying crisps? Has the bell been rung? If the answer to all the questions is "yes" then they would fly to the playground.

"I like to tell the children about Pavlov's dogs," said Philip. "I describe the experiment where the dogs were fed at the sound of a bell. Eventually the food was withdrawn and the dogs salivated at the sound of the bell only. I explain that what is going on with the birds is much more complicated. They are looking for more than one signal."

The ICT is there to help the science. The interactive whiteboard ensures the participation and involvement of the whole class. Data is gathered in some cases by filming birds in the playground with a digital camera. The spreadsheet work is done in two ways. Some children input the data straight into a spreadsheet after considering the evidence. Those who find difficulty with some of the concepts work with a prepared spreadsheet template. All the children can be involved in the final presentation of the work on PowerPoint and its display on the school's intranet.

Philip has been doing this project for about five years and when this year's work is finished students should be able to compare their work with previous years. The ICT and the archive of spreadsheets make this very easy.

The next step is to research the jackdaw's flavour of choice!


Teaching should ensure that scientific enquiry is taught through contexts taken from the sections on life processes and living things, materials and their properties and physical processes.

* Planning: pupils should be taught that it is important to collect evidence by making observations and measurements when trying to answer a question. Ask questions (for example, "How?", "Why?", "What will happen if ... ?") and decide how they might find answers to them. Use first-hand experience and simple information sources to answer questions. Think about what might happen before deciding what to do. Recognise when a test or comparison is unfair.

* Obtaining and presenting evidence: follow simple instructions to control the risks to themselves and to others; explore, using the senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste as appropriate, and make and record observations and measurements.

Communicate what happened in a variety of ways, including using ICT, for example in speech and writing, and by drawings, tables, block graphs and pictograms.

* Considering evidence and evaluating: make simple comparisons, for example, hand span and shoe size, and identify patterns or associations.

* Compare what happened with what they expected would happen, and try to explain it, drawing on their knowledge and understanding.

* Review their work and explain what they did to others.

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