Phenology at Play

Looking back over the past year using observations of the natural world, you can start to see seasonal changes. Each week, each month, and each season brings newness to our environment. Most folks grounded by our environment are actually students of phenology or nature’s calendar.

Phenology is considered a measurement of life cycle events in all living things, plant or animal. Phenology is a Greek word derived from the word phaino…to show or appear, or bring to light. It refers to the relationship of recurring, seasonal, plant and animal life cycles, leafing and flowering, when insects begin emerging and the migration of birds, moon phases, and length of day. For example; what time of year do you notice a plum tree blossoming? What time of year do you see bald eagles carrying sticks to their nest? What time of year do you see animals preparing for winter or hibernation? What time of year does the great horned owl begin to lay eggs?

“We,” as in you and me, are the only species that use clocks and calendars, while all other plant and animal species are solely connected to weather and seasonal changes. The study of plant phenology includes the subtle recurring seasonal changes in the length of the day, the temperature, moisture in the soil and nutrients.

The study of bird phenology is one of the most popular, as birds are the most easily observed species in nature. The annual migration, breeding, and nesting are timed to occur when their food sources are available within their habitats. Read more about “Why Phenology?” here.

The Project WILD activity “Phenology at Play” uses the Acadian flycatcher as the focus for learning. Students will analyze data and perform skits to interpret the effect of shifting climate conditions in relation to the annual migration pattern of a species of bird.

Check out this page for links that support this Project WILD activity, including the student pages from the activity, additional links, STEM links, and job profiles!

Also, look at the Project WILD activity “Bird Song Survey” to learn about the purpose of counting birds for population information. These citizen science projects would make good extension activities!

  • The Christmas Bird Count is an annual event sponsored by Audubon. All Christmas Bird Counts are conducted between December 14 to January 5, inclusive dates, each season. This longest-running Citizen Science survey in the world provides critical data on population trends. It is organized into circles, and each circle counts as many birds as possible on one day, either on a predetermined route, or at their backyard bird feeder. Data is compiled, and used to learn about long-term bird trends. If you would like to participate, check out the searchable map to find a counting “circle” near you.
  • The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is also organized by Audubon. This annual count takes place on President’s Day weekend each February.

Helpful Links:

Don’t have the newest Project WILD guide? Contact Iowa’s Project WILD coordinator at to learn about Project WILD / Aquatic WILD training.

Cross-reference to these WILD units for more information: