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What a Drag!

based on 7 ratings
Author: Jane Healey

A bird’s feathers are more than mere decoration. In addition to insulation and flight, feathers help birds stay afloat on bodies of water. A feather has a hollow shaft and interlocking barbs that form a continuous surface that maintains tension over the water. They also have natural oils that repel the water from the stem. Soapy detergents lead to contaminated water in natural ground reservoirs. This water refills ponds and lakes where ducks, egrets and other birds gather. Detergents dissolve the oil and break up the interlocking barbs, allowing water to flow into the shaft and making the feather “heavy” and less buoyant.

In this experiment, the independent variables are the detergents added to the water, and the dependent variables are the effects on the feathers. The constants are the feathers, the bowls, the water, the food coloring and the conditions.

Problem:

What is the effect of detergent pollution on fresh water birds’ ability to stay afloat?

Materials:

  • Store-bought white feathers
  • Wide bowl
  • Blue food coloring
  • Household detergents
  • Cotton swabs
  • Paper towels
  • Tweezers

Procedure:

  1. Fill a wide bowl with water.
  2. Add blue food coloring.
  3. Carefully float a feather on the water.
  4. Wait one minute and gently wipe a cotton swab across the surface of the feather.
  5. Use tweezers to remove the feather and let it dry on a paper towel.
  6. Add two tablespoons of detergent to the bowl and stir without making bubbles.
  7. Carefully float a second feather on the water.
  8. Wait one minute and gently wipe a cotton swab across the surface of the feather.
  9. Examine the swab and record your observations.
  10. Use tweezers to remove the feather and let it dry on a paper towel.
  11. Repeat for different household detergents.
  12. Compare the results and determine if one brand or type is better or worse for a bird's buoyancy.
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