Activity Budgets:
A Technique for Studying Animal Behavior

How do animals spend their time? Have you ever wondered how scientists find out? "Ethology" is the study of animal behavior. One way to quantify behavior is by watching an animal over an extended period and making an “activity budget.” Basically, an activity budget shows how much time an animal spends in various activities such as eating, resting, sleeping, and moving.

Try This! An Activity Budget for the Online Eagle Nest
Eagles Online archives photos every 5 minutes and saves them for a full hour. Use this resource to make an activity budget for a nesting eagle and eaglet. What behaviors can you observe in the eagle nest? How much time does an eagle spend at each? (What is impossible to observe, and how could this affect your results?)
April 29, 2003
Eagles Online
eaglecam042903_0910 eaglecam042903_0915 eaglecam042903_0925
9:10 am 9:15 am 9:25 am
eaglecam042903_0930 eaglecam042903_0935 eaglecam042903_0940
9:30 am 9:35 am 9:40 am
eaglecam042903_0945 eaglecam042903_0950 eaglecam042903_1000
9:45 am 9:50 am 9:55 am

Real Scientific Studies Using “Activity Budgets”
Do a Web search for the phrase “activity budget.” You can read actual scientific papers (abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussions). Here are examples:

The macaques spent nearly 70% of the day traveling and foraging, with the remainder of the time spent resting (20%) and socializing (12%). The most commonly eaten foods were kapok (32%) and forest fruits (11%), with crop raiding providing a substantial part of the diet (10%).

Bottle-nosed Dolphins
Twelve months of cliff-based behaviour sampling accumulated 213 hours of direct observation on 73 dolphin schools. Here is the proportion of time spent in each of five behaviour states: travel (63%), feed (19%), social (12%), play (3%) and rest (3%); 90% of all dolphin activity occurred within 0.25 km of shore.”

Common Loons
Altered time-activity budgets may disrupt the energetic balance of young. As mercury levels in their blood rise, the amount of time that chicks spend brooding (by back-riding) decreases and time spent preening increases.

White Whales
A study of summer and autumn movements of white whales in Norway showed the whales spent most of their time relatively stationary, close to different glacier fronts in the area.

These studies are important in a host of ways. For example, scientists must understand normal animal behavior in order to recognize abnormal behavior when they see it. These studies are also helpful for conservation management. Can you see why?

Try This! My Activity Budget
List your main behaviors over the course of a day, then measure how much time you spend at each. Make a pie chart to illustrate your results.
  • How much time do you spend working, playing, resting, eating, learning, obtaining food, and so on?
  • What percent of your time do you spend sleeping? What takes place during sleep that is so important?
  • What patterns do you see?
  • How does your activity budget reflect what's important in your life?
  • What similarities and difference can you find in the activity budgets of various students in your class? Think about what reasons might be behind any variations.
  • How do you think adults' activity budgets compare to yours?

National Science Education Standards

Science as Inquiry

  • Use data to conduct a reasonable explanation.
  • Science investigations involve asking and answering a question and comparing that to what scientists already know about the world.
  • Scientists use different kinds of investigations depending on the questions they are trying to answer.
  • Scientists make the results of their investigations public.
  • Different kinds of questions suggest different kinds of scientific investigations.

Life Science

  • The behavior of individual organisms is influenced by internal cues (such as hunger) and by external cues (such as a change in the environment).
  • Behavior is one kind of response an organism can make to an internal or environmental stimulus.

Understanding About Science and Technology

  • People have always had questions about their world. Science is one way of answering questions and explaining the natural world.