1. Build background about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Point out the Gulf of Mexico on a globe or wall map of the world. Download and display the Layers of Life diagram from the October 2010 issue of National Geographic magazine. Explain to students that the Gulf of Mexico is home to many species of plants and animals. Tell students that in April of 2010, there was an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Ask students what they have heard, if anything, about the spill and its impacts on wildlife in the Gulf. Point out the location of the spill on the same map. Tell students that many of the animals in the diagram were covered in oil and that people had to help them get clean.


2. Have students explore feathers.

Hand each student a feather. Ask: What does the feather feel like? Ask students to imagine they are birds—like the ones in the diagram—fishing for food in the ocean. Have them imagine diving for food like a brown pelican or walking around on the seaweed like a brown petrel. Ask: Do your feathers get wet? Have students dip their whole feather in water. Ask: What does the feather feel like now? Can birds fly with wet feathers? Explain to students that most shore birds have special waterproofing oils in their feathers that let them fly when their feathers get wet.


3. Dip feathers in oil to simulate the oil spill.

Next, have students dip their feathers in vegetable oil. Ask: What does the feather feel like now? Can birds fly with oiled feathers? Explain to students that, when birds have oil on their wings, the wings get too heavy and the birds can’t fly.


4. Use soap to simulate cleaning the birds.

Have students wash their feathers with dishwashing soap. Emphasize that this is how scientists and volunteers actually clean oiled birds. When students’ feathers are clean, ask: What does the feather feel like now? Does the feather feel the same as it did before it was oiled or washed? Explain to students that the soap removed the bad oil and the natural waterproofing oils from the feather. Birds can fly after they have been washed, but they have a hard time flying after they get wet. When coated in oil from a spill, birds also have a hard time keeping warm, since their feathers are stuck to their bodies. Rescue workers wash, thoroughly dry, and warm birds before they are released back into the environment.


Informal Assessment

Check student comprehension by asking the following questions and having students explain how the hands-on activity shaped their answer. Ask:

  • Can birds fly with oil coating their feathers? 
  • How can humans help birds that have oil on them?
  • Can birds fly once oil has been washed off? 
  • Can birds fly when they have had oil removed from their feathers and they are wet?

You can also ask each student to draw and label an illustration that answers the guiding question: How does oil affect feathers?



Subjects & Disciplines

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • locate the Gulf of Mexico on a map
  • explain how bird feathers are affected by natural oils and oil from oil spills
  • describe how humans remove oil from birds’ feathers and the effects that process has on birds’ ability to fly

Teaching Approach

  • Learning-for-use

Teaching Methods

  • Discussions
  • Hands-on learning

National Standards, Principles, and Practices

National Geography Standards

Standard 14
How human actions modify the physical environment

National Science Education Standards

(K-4) Standard C-1
The characteristics of organisms
(K-4) Standard C-3
Organisms and environments
(K-4) Standard F-4
Changes in environments

Ocean Literacy Essential Principles and Fundamental Concepts

Principle 6e
Humans affect the ocean in a variety of ways. Laws, regulations and resource management affect what is taken out and put into the ocean. Human development and activity leads to pollution (such as point source, non-point source, and noise pollution) and physical modifications (such as changes to beaches, shores and rivers). In addition, humans have removed most of the large vertebrates from the ocean.


What You’ll Need

Materials You Provide

  • Bucket
  • Colored markers
  • Crayons
  • Drawing paper
  • Globe or wall map of the world
  • 1 large feather per student (can be purchased at a craft shop)
  • Bowl
  • Hand towels
  • Name-brand dishwashing soap
  • Vegetable oil
  • Water

Background & Vocabulary

Background Information

Shorebirds have natural oils in their feathers that protect them when they get wet. This oil keeps the water from penetrating feathers, allowing shorebirds to fly when they are wet. When birds are covered in oil, they are unable to fly due to the weight of the oil. They are also unable to get warm because their feathers are covered in oil and are stuck to their bodies. Scientists and volunteer wildlife rescuers wash oiled birds with dishwashing soap. The dishwashing soap removes the oil, but it also removes the natural waterproofing oils from a bird’s feathers. Birds that have been washed are able to fly and stay warm, but have difficulty flying when their feathers are wet.


Prior Knowledge

  • None

Recommended Prior Activities

  • None


Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry



one of the light structures that cover the body of birds, often helping them to fly or keep warm.



large body of salt water that covers most of the Earth.

Encyclopedic Entry: ocean

oil spill


accidental release of petroleum products into a body of water, either by an oil tanker or an offshore oil rig.



group of similar organisms that can reproduce with each other.



organisms living in a natural environment.



feathered limbs on birds, usually specialized for flight.


Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.


Julie Brown, National Geographic Society


Christina Riska, National Geographic Society
Kathleen Schwille, National Geographic Society

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