Keep feeding your birds
When nesting birds have a ready supply of food, they don’t have to spend as much time away from their eggs or from their babies. Then there’s a better chance of raising all their young successfully.
Put out nesting materials for them
You can invite birds to nest in your yard by putting out nesting materials for them. Look at the list of nesting materials in the previous blog, “What’s in a nest?” Gather any of those materials, such as dried grass, pieces of moss, or bark and lichen. Add some interesting things that birds love – cat or dog hair, dryer lint, or bits of string. Hang the materials near your birdfeeder in a mesh bag or a basket, or drape them over a pinecone suspended on a string. Or just scatter them on the ground. (There is hardly a bird that can resist pet hair. I have a friend who brushes her huskies on their porch, and birds come down to steal the fur even while the dogs are still there!)
Have a messy yard
Another way to attract birds is to have a messy yard. Birds like to nest and raise their young where they feel safe and sheltered. They look for dense shrubbery, tall trees, brush piles, trunks of dead trees, and high grass. Is there room in your yard for some wilderness?
Build a birdhouse
Did you know that every species of bird has its own special requirements for an ideal home? For example, when you build a birdhouse, it’s important to use precise measurements for the size of the entrance hole. A wren is comfortable and safe in a house with a 1-inch entrance hole, but a bluebird prefers a 1 ½-inch hole, and a robin nests in a box with no hole at all. Before you build or buy a birdhouse, check the nest box requirements below.
Become a nest watcher
Bird nests are fascinating to observe, but it’s against the law to collect them. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act is a federal law that makes it illegal to kill, injure, or take any migratory bird or any of its parts. That includes taking feathers, nests, or eggs. You can see how this law protects the birds we love.
When you find a bird’s nest, don’t touch it, but do look at it as closely as you can. Take a photo – disturbing the birds as little as possible – and make some notes.
Where is the nest located? – On the ground, in a shrub, in a tree, in a cavity of a tree, in a hole in a dirt bank, on or near a building?
What is the nest made of? – List the materials. Anything man-made?
What is the nest lined with? – Something soft, such as downy feathers, moss, fine grass?
Return to the nest every few days, always approaching quietly and respectfully. Take more photos. Make more notes. Remember to record the date each time. Now you’re acting like a scientist – especially if you begin to have questions and try to find the answers!
Try building a nest
Once you’re familiar with some birds’ nests, try your hand at building one yourself. First gather materials that a bird might use. You can try weaving the materials together or use mud to help stick them together, but don’t use anything that a bird couldn’t use (like glue or chip clips!). Then test your handiwork by putting your nest in a tree or shrub and placing a chicken egg from your kitchen in it. Did your nest pass the test?
From A Kid's Spring EcoJournal by Toni Albert.
What’s in a nest? (They’re awfully homely….)
For this blog, I planned to look at the various materials that birds use to make their nests. But “What’s in a nest?” prompted me to check on the Carolina wren’s nest with the five cinnamon-spotted eggs in it. The tiny altricial babies are undeniably homely!
For children and the young-at-definitions: Altricial means having young that are hatched or born in a very immature and helpless condition so as to require care for some time.
While the wrens were hunting insects, Bob took several photos, which we examined minutely.
Toni: Is this in focus?
Bob: It is. Look at the fine grass that lines the nest.
Toni: They’re not very pretty.
Bob: I think they’re a work in progress.
Well, back to “What’s in a nest?” Now I’m thinking about more than nesting materials and skill in weaving and hiding a nest. Now I’m focused on how a bird’s nest must shelter, protect, and hide a brood of tiny helpless birdlets. Nests, nesting materials, and nesting locations are as varied as birds. Once you identify a bird and its nest, you’ll be able to recognize another nest like it and know what kind of bird made it. Because robins often build their nests near or on our homes – even in a wreath hanging on a door – many children are familiar with their “robins-egg blue” eggs and their finely woven grassy nests.
Although it’s against the law to collect birds’ nests, you can certainly examine a nest (without touching it) after the bird family has left. When you look closely at a robin’s nest, you’ll see that it’s made of mud, grasses, weed stalks, and found objects like string or cloth and that it’s lined with fine grasses.
This is a partial list of nesting materials used by birds in our area:
Leaves or leaf mold
Plant down (like milkweed silk)
Found objects: string – cloth – paper – aluminum foil - (I once found a nest with a tea bag woven into it.)
This is the time of year to keep our eyes open for birds’ nests and nesting birds, tiny bits of eggshells, often dropped away from the nest so as not to give away its location, and birds returning repeatedly to a single place (where they are feeding young?). I never tire of watching this cycle of life repeated and repeated.
In the Old Testament, “Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field.” Men and women have always ordered the world by naming and classifying. It’s not enough for a birder to spot a bird he hasn’t seen before. He has to identify it and add its name to his life list. Nature lovers live with field guides.
In our home, we have field guides to birds; trees and shrubs; wildflowers; mushrooms; Eastern butterflies; insects and spiders; North American wildlife; animal tracks; edible wild plants; mammals of PA; rocks and minerals; fossils in PA; fishes and sea life; and coral reefs. And even a field guide to Eastern birds’ nests!
That’s how I identified a Carolina wren’s nest that is built under our deck and, at this very moment, has five tiny eggs in it. (There were only four when we took the photo.) Later, we confirmed the ID when we saw the wren fly from her nest.
From the field guide:
Habitat: Brushy forests – check!
Nest: Built in … nook or cranny around human dwelling – check!
Rarely higher than 10 feet – check! About 4 feet above the ground.
Bulky mass of twigs, mosses, rootlets, strips of inner bark – check!
Side entrance – check! The photo may look like one taken from above, but it was taken from the front, looking in.
Lined with … fine grasses – check! Messy on the outside, good camouflage, but neat and tidy inside.
Eggs: Commonly 5-6 – check! There are five today.
Short-oval shape. Smooth with little gloss. – check!
White, pale pink; typically marked with heavy brown spots, often concentrated at larger end – check!
So why do we love field guides? They help us identify what we observe. And think of the rich education one entry in a field guide provides. By the time we answer our question, “What is this?” we have a sense of ownership. I think it’s thrilling to investigate the great diversity of nature and, at the same time, to acknowledge the perfect individuality and consistency of each member. At a simpler level, it’s fun to recognize and call by name the living things around us. It’s a way of knowing a tree or a flower or a butterfly like a friend.
I’ve spent all month blogging – and thinking – about butterflies. A good way to conclude for now is to review Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Flight Behavior, a novel that mixes science and song and explores the intimate story of an individual and the universal experience of living through a time of enormous change on Earth.
Dellarobia, a young mother in Appalachia, discovers a colony of migrating Monarchs diverted from their normal flight behavior by the erratic weather of a warming Earth. To her, it appears to be a miracle and she’s awed by the beauty of the butterflies weighing down the limbs of trees. But Tennessee is not the place for wintering butterflies, especially during a year of torrential rains and mudslides.
When Ovid Byron and his team of scientists arrive to study the Monarchs, Dellarobia’s world opens. She’s poorly educated but smart and curious, hungry for a wider understanding. She becomes his assistant and he becomes her first real teacher. In the book’s apocalyptic ending, we see her determined to learn more – even how to protect our endangered world.
Favorite quotations and ideas from Flight Behavior
Dellarobia’s first realization that what she was seeing was millions of butterflies:
“The density of the butterflies in the air now gave her a sense of being underwater, plunged into a deep pond among bright fishes. They filled the sky. Out across the valley, the air itself glowed golden. Every tree on the far mountainside was covered with trembling flame, and that, of course, was butterflies…. The fire was alive, and incomprehensibly immense, an unbounded, uncountable congregation of flame-colored insects.”
I love the way this description evokes color: “bright fishes,” “golden,” “flame,” “fire,” and “flame-colored.” Orange, orange, orange!
“… she watched her son love nature so expectantly, wondering if he might be racing toward a future like some complicated sand castle that was crumbling under the tide. She didn’t know how scientists bore such knowledge.”
“Once while she and Ovid were working … he had asked her what was the use of saving a world that had no soul left in it. Continents without butterflies, seas without coral reefs, he meant. What if all human effort amounted basically to saving a place for ourselves to park?”
Dellarobia meets a mother and daughter who have been making knitted butterflies and hanging them in trees to help make people aware of the plight of the Monarchs.
“The impulse to keep the hands moving, feeding tiny answers to vast demands. Like spooning peas into a child who would still be hungry for decades. It wasn’t wrong.”
What if “tiny answers” – like tiny butterflies – when combined, can create a great cloud of answers? Surely, it’s worthwhile for each of us to do what we can.
Dellarobia is shocked when Dr Byron tells her that the events of the winter are destroying the Monarchs. He speaks as a scientist: “We are seeing a bizarre alteration of a previously stable pattern. A continental ecosystem breaking down…. Climate change has disrupted this system.”
She responds in the heart-deep language of the Bible, “One of God’s creatures of this world, meeting its End of Days.… Not words of science, she knew that, but it was a truth she could feel.”
The language of literature can be powerfully evocative, like music or art. It engages us in an entirely different way from factual scientific material. I’m so glad this book was written.
Children and Butterflies: Activities for Kids
Plant a butterfly garden to attract butterflies to your yard. Choose a sunny location and plant flowers rich in nectar, such as butterfly bushes, lilacs, zinnias, phlox, bee balm, lantanas, and marigolds. Include flat rocks where butterflies can sun themselves.
Make a shallow, damp mud puddle for male butterflies. They will land on the mud to take in salts that they need.
Sometimes a butterfly will land on you. When you see a butterfly feeding, approach it slowly, and gently hold out one finger near its legs. In the eastern and southern United States, the Hackberry Butterfly often lands on people. It’s fun to hold a butterfly on your finger, but don’t touch its fragile wings.
Visit a butterfly exhibit at a botanical garden, zoo, or nature center. Watch butterflies eat and fly. Which is your favorite? Does the exhibit also have caterpillars and chrysalises?
Make a “Butterfly Field Guide to My Backyard.” Allow at least one page for each butterfly. Include the name of the butterfly, a sketch or photo, information that you gather, and notes about your own observations. (Use a field guide or search online to identify your butterflies.)
There are many organizations that provide opportunities for children to do “citizen science.” Two of my favorites are the North American Butterfly Association, which hosts a Butterfly Count to collect data about butterfly populations, and Journey North, where children can track the Monarch migration.
A wonderful list of other citizen scientist opportunities can be found at Monarch Joint Venture, which partners to conserve the Monarch butterfly migration. (http://monarchjointventure.org/get-involved/study-monarchs-citizen-science-opportunities#tracking-the-monarch-migration.
From the award-winning book, Busy with Bugs, by Toni Albert.
Every year, millions of Monarch butterflies make a long journey from the United States and Canada to winter in the high mountains west of Mexico City. Some of them travel 3000 miles on their fragile wings, Fueled by flower nectar and carried by ascending warm-air currents, they travel for months, landing and resting each night. What an incredible migration!
But there’s more. Monarchs have a surprising system to support their migration. Since adult Monarchs live only three to four weeks, it takes several generations of butterflies to migrate north from Mexico, but for the trip south, the Monarchs produce what scientists call a Methuselah generation, born near the end of summer and able to live up to nine months. This generation doesn’t breed in the north. It will arrive in Mexico by November, rest during the winter, and breed there. Then by mid-March, the Methuselah generation will complete the first leg of the journey back into the US and Canada.
After several generations of Monarchs work their way north, another Methuselah generation will be produced, and without ever having made the trip before, it will know how to migrate thousands of miles back to Mexico. Isn’t this process elegant?
. . .
A few years ago, Bob and I were privileged to visit the El Rosario sanctuary, part of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in the state of Michoacan, Mexico. We had flown to Morelia, the capital city of Michoacan, to attend a quinceanera (a lavish fifteenth-birthday celebration) for the daughter of good friends. Knowing how much we wanted to see the Monarchs, our friends came with us and made all the arrangements, which are tricky because the sanctuary is so remote. Yes, one leg of the journey was in the back of a wide truck.
It’s cool in the mountains where the Monarchs gather. It’s “breath-taking” too, because the altitude is 10,000 feet. We climbed up a steep trail, stopping often to sit on a well-placed bench along the path. We began to see a few butterflies. We admired the hemlocks and wildflowers. Then the trail narrowed. A sign advised us to turn our phones off and to speak softly. We began to walk silently in single file exactly like a procession of pilgrims approaching something sacred.
The hemlocks looked strangely gray and unnatural. Their evergreen limbs were hanging close to their trunks like trussed Christmas trees ready for sale. As we drew nearer, we could see that the branches were held down by the weight of millions of butterflies, layer upon layer resting quietly in the cold. When a shaft of sunlight warmed them, the Monarchs would flutter and fly, a cloud of orange jewel-light.
I’m so grateful to have had this experience – to be surrounded by butterflies, to marvel at their life story. I want my grandchildren and their grandchildren to be able to stand here surrounded by the whisper of butterfly wings. But sadly, Monarchs are disappearing along with the trees that are illegally logged in the Biosphere Reserve and the milkweed that is poisoned in the US. When will we learn to cherish and care for our Earth, our home? Do we want to live in a world without butterflies?
A few years ago, we received a wonderful surprise. An entire garden of milkweed planted itself in a grassy meadow near our house. We didn't buy them or plant them or tend them. They were a gift freely given. Knowing that milkweed flowers attract pollinators and that the plant is a host to Monarch caterpillars, we welcomed these plants. They bloom for several weeks in summer. The gorgeous purple blossoms are fragrant and irresistible to bees and butterflies and many other insect pollinators. Last year I was so curious to see who was visiting that I checked the milkweed three times a day. I saw tiny multicolored hoppers, little flies with long wings, ladybugs and Japanese beetles, several kinds of bees and butterflies, and the exquisite Great Spangled Fritillary. But I didn't observe a single Monarch in our milkweed garden and there were not nearly as many bees as we would expect.
Milkweed is essential for the Monarch population. It's the only plant where Monarch butterflies lay their eggs and it is the only one that the caterpillars will eat. Milkweed contains a natural chemical compound that makes the caterpillars poisonous to predators.
When the agri-tech giants like Dupont and Monsanto developed crops that are engineered to survive the use of weed-killers, farmers began to use more herbicides like Roundup. Environmentalists believe that the loss of Monarchs is caused by farmers and homeowners spraying herbicides on milkweed, which serves as a nursery, food source, and habitat for Monarchs.
In an effort to help, the Fish and Wildlife Service has partnered with the National Wildlife Federation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to plant milkweed seeds along the butterflies' migration corridor. Scientists are also considering other possible reasons for the decline in Monarchs, including habitat loss, disease, parasites, and climate change.
What can children do to help the Monarchs?
Children can plant milkweed seeds to help provide habitat and nectar for pollinators, especially bees and butterflies. Check out the Milkweed Seed Finder. Ask seed vendors if the milkweed seeds they sell are native to your area. Or collect your own seeds to ensure they are a native species. This is a wonderful project for children in fall (mid-October in our area).
Some nurseries are beginning to sell milkweed plants. You only need to buy a few plants. When the large milkweed seedpods burst open, revealing the intricately packed rows of brown seeds, there will be explosions of flying white silk carrying the seeds to new locations. If you wait until the seeds are ripe, children can shake them loose from the pods directly into your milkweed garden. A very messy and fun project!
Children can write letters to your state's Department of Transportation. Ask them to stop killing milkweed along highways and to start planting it instead.
Try a Tadpole
As long as there have been kids and tadpoles, kids have been fascinated by tadpoles. And perhaps tadpoles have been fascinated by kids. We don’t know.
If you have never watched a slippery little head-with-a-tail change into a fat-bellied frog, it’s time to try it. The first step is to visit a pond in early spring to collect frog or toad eggs, or spawn. Frog spawn looks like a mass of cloudy jelly; toad spawn looks like long strings of black beads; and newt spawn is found as single eggs, each surrounded by clear jelly. Collect about a handful of one kind of spawn. Don’t mix frog and toad or newt spawn in the same container. Put the spawn in a gallon jar or aquarium filled with pond water, and add some water weeds.
Your part in growing little frogs is easy. Keep the aquarium out of direct sunlight. Change the water once a week – always using pond water, not tap water. And once the tadpoles have hatched, provide water plants or decaying lettuce for them to eat. When the tadpoles begin to grow their back legs, their diet will change to meat. You can hang a tiny piece of meat in the water. Or simply feed them bits of dog or cat food.
As the tadpoles lose their tails and begin to breathe air, place rocks in the aquarium so that they can climb out of the water. Keep the aquarium covered or they may jump out! When the young frogs become this active, it’s time to release them at the pond where you collected the spawn. Then they will be in the right environment to catch the insects they need to eat.
Releasing tiny frogs in this way – after keeping them safe from predators while they were growing – is helpful to the frog population, which sadly is declining.
From A Kid’s Spring EcoJournal by Toni Albert.
Early in March, before any sign of spring, a chorus of frog song disturbs the winter silence. Frog song! Many frogs migrate back to the pond where they were tadpoles, where the males call and croak to attract females for a splashy spring fling. (That’s literal. There is much splashing.) Each species of frog has its own call, and even those of the same species may alternate their calls, so that the complete song is rhythmic and complex – and loud. At first I think it’s like the overture to a symphony, but after a few minutes, I admit it’s more like the instruments tuning up.
After hearing frog song, it’s time to look for frogspawn (frog eggs). The singing – and flinging – will go on for weeks until our pond is dotted with clumps of white jelly or clear jelly. The frog eggs, which are black, are clearly seen inside the clumps. Later we’ll be able to see the eggs develop inside the jelly until tiny black tadpoles are visible. It’s exciting – like looking at a sonogram.
Bob and I took our dog Jazzy to walk through the woods to our pond. The water is tea colored because of the leaves that have fallen into it but absolutely clear. It only took a minute to find the first clump of frogspawn at the water’s edge. While we took photos, Jazzy lay in the sun, gnawing on a deer shoulder bone she found. Across the pond from us, the sun was sparkling on the water in tiny points of light. More frog eggs? Surely not that many, enough to cover 15 square feet. But, yes, there were more frog eggs than we’ve ever seen in one place. It’s going to be an interesting spring!
Note: When I direct children to look for frogspawn, I sometimes use a definition that was written by a six-year-old in one of my writing workshops. After studying frog eggs in a large jar, she wrote, “Frog eggs look like a little ghost that drowned at the bottom of a pond.” Have children look for milky white globs of jelly, usually about the size of a fist or two fists, or clumps of clear jelly with black eggs inside them. And of course, don’t let children explore a pond without adult supervision.
Aldo Leopold has been called “the father of wildlife management” and “the father of wildlife ecology” and the “father of conservation ethics.” Have children read about Aldo Leopold’s life and work. Ask them to list the “firsts” that Leopold accomplished. Then discuss what it means to be called the father of a movement or of a new way of thinking. What qualities does a person need in order to think in a new way and to become “the first” in his field?
Have children choose one month’s entry in A Sand County Almanac to read and study.
Aldo Leopold wrote, “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.”
This is Aldo Leopold Week and communities throughout our nation are celebrating his life and legacy. The events vary from interactive discussions of his ideas to family nature outings, from readings of A Sand County Almanac to viewing Green Fire, an award-winning documentary film about Leopold and his work. I'm celebrating all week by trying to see our woods and pond and creek through Leopold's eyes.
This is Aldo Leopold Week, a good time to get to know more about him. Born in Burlington, Iowa, in 1887, he would become a scientist, ecologist, conservationist, philosopher, forester, teacher, and author. As a boy, he loved and explored nature, so when Gifford Pinchot donated money to Yale to develop one of our nation’s first forestry schools, he determined to go to Yale and become a forester. After graduating, he joined the Forestry Service and worked in Arizona and New Mexico.
Leopold was one of the founders of the Wilderness Society, and in 1924, he initiated the first Forest Wilderness Area in the United States, the Gila National Forest. In that year, he was transferred to the US Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, where he was an associate director. He founded the profession of game management and wrote the first important book on the subject. In 1933, he was appointed Professor of Game Management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This was the first professorship of wildlife management. Shortly before his death in 1948, he was assigned as a conservation adviser to the United Nations.
This is Aldo Leopold Week, time to re-read his Sand County Almanac, an environmental classic. In Wisconsin, Leopold bought 80 acres in the sand country of central Wisconsin. The land had been deforested, overgrazed by cattle, and repeatedly burned by wildfires. It was a perfect laboratory for testing his theories of conservation and ethics. He advocated that each public and private land owner should manage and conserve wildlife habitats and diversity of species on the land. It was also the perfect place to write his almanac.
A Sand County Almanac is eloquent and funny, compassionate and determined, wise and important. It ranges from keen descriptions of nature on his Sand County property, month by month (the almanac), to essays on man’s destruction of the land and a “plea for a Wilderness esthetic.” The book begins: “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.”
Favorite passages from A Sand County Almanac:
“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
“I have read many definitions of what is a conservationist, and written not a few myself, but I suspect that the best one is written not with a pen, but with an axe. It is a matter of what a man thinks about when chopping, or while deciding what to chop. A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land.”
“But all conservation is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.”
“… I am glad that I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”
“Parks are made to bring the music to the many, but by the time many are attuned to hear it there is little left but noise.”
“A little repentance just before a species goes over the brink is enough to make us feel virtuous. When the species is gone we have a good cry and repeat the performance.”
“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
"That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics."
"A society grows wise when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they will never sit."
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
We (he) mounted the squirrel house in early January, because squirrels are very cautious about moving into new quarters. They need time to investigate. Then if a couple decides to move in, they need more time to furnish it with huge mouthfuls of leaves and twigs. Gray squirrels mate in late winter and mid-summer, and the litters are born 40-44 days later in March/April and July/August. (Yearling females only mate once.)
Squirrels live high in trees, so Bob mounted the squirrel box about 20 feet up a sturdy maple tree. We had a 16-foot ladder and extended it by placing the foot of the ladder in the bucket of our Kubota tractor. Bob carried the heavy squirrel house, a portable screw gun, and four #8x3-inch screws up the ladder. I held the camera down below. His job was to balance the house while securing it to the tree with two screws at the top and two at the bottom of the mounting board (the vertical board attached to the back of the house). My job was to take a picture and try to breathe normally.
If you plan to mount a squirrel box, be very careful. It will all be worthwhile when you see those little squirrels peeking out, venturing out, and finally playing freely like digital acrobats.
Building a squirrel house
If you live where there are big hardwood trees, especially oaks, ash, elms, and gum trees, you probably see squirrels in your neighborhood. They may live in hollows in the sides of the hardwood trees or, as a second choice, they might build leaf nests in the tops of tall trees. Their leaf nests are snug and warm, but they can be damaged or ruined by high winds. A leaf nest is not an ideal place to raise a litter of baby squirrels.
It’s great fun to provide a nest box for squirrels, because it will give you an opportunity to observe them closely. First the squirrels will cautiously investigate the house you build for them. When they decide to move in, you can watch them carry enormous bundles of leaves in their mouths to furnish their home. Eventually, a litter of babies will appear and the first tiny faces with big brown eyes will peek out the entrance hole to see what the world has to offer. Day by day, the little squirrels will explore more, first climbing onto the roof of their house and then onto the tree it is fastened to and finally playing recklessly on every limb.
A squirrel house should be made of 1-inch lumber, not sanded smooth. The entrance hole should be 3 inches in diameter and facing south. The house should be placed 20 to 30 feet above ground on a tree at least 10 inches in diameter and close to a branch, so the squirrels can easily dart inside. Gray Squirrels like to have their homes 50 yards or more inside a wooded area. Fox Squirrels like to live at the edge of a woods.
From A Kid's Spring EcoJournal by Toni Albert, illustrated by Margaret Brandt. Plans prepared by Bob Albert. See next blog for details on how to mount a squirrel house 30 feet up a tree!
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.”