It's time to look for deer droppings. Not that kind! I'm talking about deer antlers.
In fall and early winter, during the rutting season, antlers are weapons used in clashes between bucks fighting over does. But after the rutting season, sometime between January and April, a buck's testosterone levels fall and trigger his antlers to fall too. The buck will then begin growing new antlers, which are soft at first and covered in "velvet," but by fall, the antlers will be hard and rubbed clean to the bone, ready for more clashing.
It's exciting to find a shed antler. For one thing, you know you're standing in the very place where an event in a buck's life occurred. For another, you have an impressive artifact, which can be crafted into something beautiful – or given to a favorite dog. Dogs, as well as many small mammals and rodents, love to chew on antlers, which are rich in calcium and minerals. My daughter-in-law gave our little dog Jazzy a small antler for Christmas two years ago. Jazzy has spent hours chewing the antler tines down to rounded stubs, but she still has a long way to go. I estimate that it will be her favorite toy for several more years.
Tips for hunting for antlers
When: Hunt for antlers in early spring when most bucks have shed theirs, so that you have the best chance of finding one. Also, it's easier to find antlers before grass and vegetation have covered them.
Where: Look for antlers where deer eat – the edge of a field, especially the line where field and woods meet; the base of an oak tree; in brushy areas where shrubs have buds; near evergreens.
Look near sources of water, such as creeks and ponds.
Look near a salt lick.
Look along deer trails, which are clearly visible at this time of year.
Look for cleared places where deer bed down.
How: You know how! Walk and walk and walk. Keep scanning the ground around you, or use binoculars to look over a field. Ivory colored antlers with sharp tines often look like twigs and fallen branches, so train yourself to look twice at whatever catches your eye. Look for bones, too, because sometimes antlers are part of an entire carcass.
How to handle antlers: I usually soak a found antler in water with a little bleach for a day or two. Then, even without scrubbing it, the antler will be clean and white. Jazzy wanted an antler that I soaked and she accepted it even with the smell of chlorox on it, but I decided to wait a couple of weeks for the smell of bleach to wear off before giving it to her.
On the other hand, if you want to keep an antler outside, you might decide not to clean it at all. The color of stained bone is more authentic and interesting.
My granddaughter Avery found an entire skull with eight-point antlers still attached. What a find! We don't think this was a deer that died recently, but we were still sad to see such a fine animal killed.
FYI for teachers: Sheep, goats, and cows have horns, which aren't typically shed. The age of a Big Horn Sheep can be determined by counting the annual growth rings on its horns. Deer have antlers that are shed each year. The antlers may or may not be bigger each year, depending on the deer's health, food supply, and genetics.
Have you ever taken a child to a petting zoo? Have you ever slipped in by yourself, trying to look like you’re there with a child? My daughter-in-law Terri once talked me into going to a children’s event where we could feed giraffes. It was a little embarrassing but much fun!
I’m not sure why we love to feed animals. The exciting connection? The opportunity to see animals up close? The frisson of danger? The pure pleasure of pleasing them?
I’ve seen animals fed all over the world. On a bayou tour outside New Orleans, our boat pilot gave us marshmallows to drop into the water to attract alligators. And they came! They knew he had chicken for them. In Grand Cayman I swam with stingrays, and in Belize I swam with big brown nurse sharks – attracted by food. Some dive boat operators attract schools of brilliantly colored reef fish, causing a feeding frenzy among the fish – and the snorkelers (feeding on the experience). Environmentalists oppose this kind of feeding because it disrupts the natural relationships and behavior of animals.
At Tikal in Guatemala, there were coatimundi (the coati is a tropical animal related to the raccoon) boldly searching out scraps in a picnic area. In Morocco, endangered Barbary macaques, (a species of Old World monkeys) came to a remote intersection of roads, where tourists stop to feed them. In Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica, White-faced Capuchin monkeys patrol the beach for treasures ranging from bags of potato chips to expensive cameras or iPhones, anything left unattended. At home in our suburbs, raccoons and skunks eat from our trashcans or compost piles. When wild animals are enticed to mix with people, it can be dangerous to both. Animals are exposed to traffic, litter, and unhealthy food; humans may be exposed to disease or injury.
That’s another subject for another blog … “planting for wildlife.” And another … “attracting pollinators.” So much to write and so much to learn.
The birds that keep us company all winter are like special gifts. Have you ever wanted to give something back to the birds that brighten winter? Something delicious? Like bacon grease and sand? Or cornmeal and sunflower seeds?
Many bird watchers have created treats for birds. (Or treats for friends who love birds.) Start with the recipes given below. Then make up your own recipe with ingredients that birds like, such as fruit, nuts, seeds, corn, cornmeal, suet, bacon grease, peanut butter, and rolled oats. Don't forget to add a little sand. Most birds need grit in their diet to help them grind up their food and to give them minerals that they need. Besides sand, you can give birds a little bit of wood ashes or canary grit from a pet store.
Another interesting way to feed birds in winter is to hang the carcass of your Thanksgiving turkey from a tree. Woodpeckers and other insect eaters will pick the bones clean!
The recipes are from my book, A Kid's Winter EcoJournal: With Nature Activities for Exploring the Seasons. The book was illustrated by Margaret Brandt.
Friends in high places
Yes, I have friends in high places. When I whistle, they come flying. I practically have them eating out of my hand.
It begins with a … well, if you’re not inclined to be generous, a bribe. I prefer to call it giving a small gift in exchange for a big gift. I pour three scoops of bribe into a bucket and go to our meeting place, where my lofty friends are waiting for me. I whistle a three-note call, almost a bird call, and my flighty friends come swooping down from all directions. I can watch them land in the trees around me, quickly coming nearer until they dart into the feeder, so close I can hear the soft whoosh of their wings. It’s thrilling to have this sense of friendship and communication with wild birds.
Feeder fun: Some pointers
Our feeder attracts birds, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, and deer -- and once, a bear! So I buy shelled corn, sunflower seeds, and wild bird mix. In winter, we add fruit for bluebirds and suet blocks for woodpeckers, Carolina wrens, titmice, and chickadees. We put meat scraps on a stump in back of our house for crows and the fox. The fox loves salmon skin, and crows like almost anything from the compost pile. Oh, we also put out a salt block, which is sculpted into odd shapes by rain, snow, and much deer-licking.
You may be thinking that this sounds expensive. Of course, if you think of attracting and viewing wildlife as a hobby, it’s a bargain compared to many other activities that children and adults pursue. And there are ways to make it more affordable. I buy corn and birdseed in 50-pound bags from a feed mill. Fifty pounds of corn costs $7.00; birdseed costs $10.00. We buy suet blocks for 89 cents at Ollie’s Bargain Outlet.
You don’t have to keep your feeder full all the time. Decide how much feed you can afford to put out each day, and then let the birds and other animals work it out. I’ve never tried to keep squirrels away from our feeder. They’re so much fun to watch – beautiful, clean, playful acrobats. They don’t overeat (well, my corn-fed squirrels are bigger than city squirrels); they don’t bully the birds or fight with each other. All of the animals eat together, some in the feeder, some on the ground. It makes an interesting, entertaining feeder.
Our feeder is placed on a five-foot post, too high for a cat’s leap. It’s surrounded by a large maple and shrubs, so that birds can dive for shelter when the hawk swoops down. There are several short lengths of hollow logs at the base of the feeder, an air raid shelter for chipmunks, birds, and squirrels.
It’s a good idea to offer water too. I’ve tried a number of things over the years, including a tier of copper pools with water splashing from one to another. A great hit with birds and butterflies, but too much maintenance. Now I keep water in a shallow pan on the ground or on a stump. It’s important in deep winter, when water is hard to find, to keep the ice broken or removed.
That’s all I know about feeders. My next blog will be about feeding.
Note: All of the photos in the slide show were taken at our feeder by Bob or Toni Albert.
Nature is a perfect laboratory for learning about our world. Exploring nature awakens children’s curiosity and sense of wonder and in a very “natural” way, introduces them to science and the scientific method. Learning to be observant leads to asking questions, doing research, making predictions, designing experiments, and drawing conclusions. And there you have it – a young scientist!
These activities will help ready a child (or an adult, of course) to reconnect with nature. They make wonderful "10-minute time outs."
Look closely -- and more closely.
Activities to help children become more observant
1 - It’s fun to run through a field, scramble up rocks, crash through the underbrush, or splash in a creek, but that’s not the best way to explore nature. Practice moving quietly. Sit still in one place, keeping all of your senses alert. Listen to the sounds -- or the silence -- around you. Breathe deeply and notice different smells. Look around you and observe details. Touch the bark of trees, fuzzy moss, or smooth stones.
2 - Look at a familiar place in a new way. Look at the scene upside down. Or concentrate on looking at shadows. Or look through colored glasses or colored cellophane. Look through a camera lens or binoculars. Did you see anything you hadn’t noticed before?
3 - Look for signs of animals: tracks, feathers or fur, nests, holes in trees or in the ground, narrow trails, bones, droppings, chewed nutshells, stripped plants, etc. Make a list of the signs of animals that you observe. What animals do you think were there?
4 - Keep a nature journal. Record anything interesting that you see outdoors, such as a tiny red mushroom or a spider web stretched between two trees.
5 - Take photos or make sketches to add to your nature journal. When you study something through the viewfinder of a camera or look closely at details in order to draw it, you'll really see it.
6 - Create a list of interesting things you’ve seen outside (an orange leaf, lichen, a black rock, etc.) and invite your friends to have a scavenger hunt. Give each person a copy of your list and see who can find the most objects on the list in 15 minutes.
7 - Take a tiny plastic bag (the kind that holds an extra button when you buy a new shirt) and fill it with tiny treasures, such as a berry or a miniature flower. This will force you to look closely.
8 - Look at the same tree every day for a week or two. In spring, observe the appearing of buds, flowers, and leaves. Measure the growth of a single leaf. In fall, watch the progress of coloring, fading, falling leaves. Look for nests, insects, and cavities. Look at the bark, the shape of the leaves, and the branching of the tree. Identify your tree with a field guide to trees.
Time to blog
There is a time for everything under the sun. (Even a time for Trump?) For me, it’s time to blog.
Many Americans who are deeply concerned about our environment are Trump-appalled. But I’ve noticed that some of our largest and most active environmental groups are working harder than ever. They are highly motivated, passionate, and energized. They’re gearing up to fight for clean air, clean water, uncontaminated food, and protected green spaces – the very things that we need in order to survive!
We all need to “gear up” and resolve to do our part. But what is my part? I’m a great-grandmother, a nature lover and a nature writer, an ardent student of birds and bugs and animals and children, and a bibliophile (I’ve written forty books and I’ve read one or two a week throughout my life). I will blog.
Most of my career has been spent “teaching kids to care for the Earth” in one way or another – through my books or in person. I believe that children who learn to love nature will naturally grow up to protect it. So as I blog along, I’ll include nature activities and nature news for children, as well as ideas for all of us to reconnect with nature.
NatureReconnect: 10-minute time-out
What would happen to us and to our lives if we took ten minutes each day to focus on some aspect of nature? How would it change our day, how would it change us, to suspend all activity (even the activity of worrying) for a few moments of quiet friendship with our natural environment?
When I was writing a series of four books with nature activities for exploring each season, I walked every day for a year through our woods, around the pond, and beside a little creek, Trickle Creek, with a notebook and pencil in my hand. I was teaching myself to observe the tiny, subtle changes that occur as the seasons progress. I recall that year as one of the most peaceful of my life.
Daily, consciously, reconnecting with nature can be therapy, meditation, prayer, rest and relaxation. It reawakens our sense of wonder, curiosity, and awe. In this blog, I'll be sharing some tiny discoveries and ten-minute adventures. This is such a small thing to contribute, but if each of us finds a way to stand up for a healthy planet – a small and modest way or an earth-shaking and stupendous effort – we can save our Earth-home.
“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire
to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” - Elwyn Brooks White
Toni Albert, M.Ed., is an award-winning author of more than 40 books. Her lifelong love for nature, children, and books inspired her to commit her publishing business, Trickle Creek Books, to “teaching kids to care for the Earth.”