You can help wild birds survive the winter – or an extremely cold winter night – by providing a variety of rich, high-energy foods for them. A study in Wisconsin found that when chickadees had access to bird feeders, they were much more likely to live through the winter. (With feeders, almost 70 percent survived. Without feeders, only 37 percent survived.) But once birds become used to finding food at your feeder, it’s important to keep feeding them through the winter because they will depend on the food you give them.
Favorite winter foods for wild birds:
Suet and bacon grease
Sunflower seeds (they are high in fat)
Greasy crusts and crumbs, donuts
Small birdseed, such as millet, canary seed, chicken feed, and cracked corn
Large birdseed, such as sunflower seeds, wheat, oats, corn, buckwheat, and soybean
Peanut butter, nuts (high in fat)
Fruits, such as chopped apples, bananas, and raisins
COOL experiments for young birdwatchers:
Collect several disposable plastic containers, such as margarine tubs. Fill each container with a different kind of bird food and label each one with the name of the food. Fill one container with water and try to keep the water from freezing solid. Remove ice from the surface and add more water as often as you can. Place the containers outside for birds. (You might want to nail the containers to a board to keep them from being tipped over.)
There are lots of experiments you can do with this setup:
Watch how much food is left in each container to see which kinds of food are most popular with your winter birds.
Watch one container at a time to see which birds eat what.
Watch one bird at a time to see if it will try more than one kind of food.
Watch the container of water. How many of the birds that come to the feeder drink water? Are more birds attracted to the water on frozen days when puddles and ponds have turned to ice?
Keep a written record of your observations. Include the date, the time of day, and notes about the weather. What did you learn about the birds that visit your feeder?
Nature activity from A Kid’s Winter EcoJournal by Toni Albert.
Extreme fun in extreme cold
Guess the temperature
The next time it snows, see if you can guess the temperature by observing the snowfall. If the snowflakes are large and sloppy – like falling popcorn – the temperature is probably near the freezing point of water, 32 degrees. If the snow is like fine sugar, glittering and dry, the temperature is probably much colder. Check an outdoor thermometer to see how well you guessed the temperature.
Experiment with freezing things
On a frigid day when the temperature is near zero (on one side or the other), put a variety of things outside to freeze. What happens when you freeze a raw egg? Try one in the shell, one out. What about freezing a rubber band, a plastic cup filled to the top with water, a wadded-up piece of wet cloth, a wet piece of paper, a banana? Fill several plastic cups partly full, each with a different liquid – water, milk, coke, vinegar, etc. Is there any difference in the way they freeze? Try adding something to each of several cups of water before freezing them – sugar, salt (at least 1/4 cup), corn starch, honey, lemon juice. Keep experimenting.
As you walk in snow, listen carefully. Do you hear a crunching sound or do you hear a squeak? Snow squeaks under your weight if the temperature is around 14 degrees F or colder. Scientists haven’t yet found an explanation that fully explains why this happens.
Is this a good day for snowballs?
You probably already know that it’s harder to make a good snowball on a very cold day (when there is less moisture in the snow) than on a warmer day. Try making snowballs on different days with different temperatures. Write down your observations. What did you conclude?
Look for ice
Look for ice in icicles, puddles, creeks, or ponds. Look for other frozen water. How do the different forms of ice compare? If you observe a frozen pond, look for animal tracks, especially if the ice is covered with snow. Don't walk on the ice!
Time for Project FeederWatch
Project FeederWatch begins November 11 and continues through April 13. A joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada, Project FeederWatch invites you – and the children in your life – to observe and count the birds that turn up at your bird feeder. You can contribute to a nearly 30-year database that helps scientists understand bird biology, population trends, and migrations. New participants receive a FeederWatch handbook, a full-color poster of common feeder birds, a bird-watching-days calendar, the annual report on Winter Bird Highlights, and a subscription to the Cornell Lab newsletter. Membership costs $18.
Explore Project FeederWatch and the FeederWatch Cam.
I’ve been feeding birds daily at our feeder for thirty-five years, so you can imagine that they know my schedule and my voice. But two years ago, it occurred to me that I could call the birds by whistling. I whistled a three-note call, my best attempt at a birdcall, and they came immediately. Birds, like other animals, are curious, so it wasn’t surprising that they came to investigate. But in just a few days, they responded to my whistle by flying in 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 communication and understanding!
The first step in partying with pumpkins is to choose a pumpkin. The most fun is to roam a field of pumpkins and pull your choice off the vine, but a pumpkin from the supermarket will work too. The second step is to carve your pumpkin or paint it, so that it’s transformed into a jack-o-lantern!
Draw a face or a Halloween picture on the pumpkin with a black marker. Or you can draw your design on lightweight paper. Tape the paper against the pumpkin, design up. Transfer your design to the pumpkin by poking a toothpick into the pumpkin along the lines of your design. (When you remove the paper, the toothpick holes will show you where to cut.) You can cut a simple face in the pumpkin with a paring knife, but for more elaborate designs, you might buy a little “pumpkin saw” that can cut curves. Design templates and pumpkin carving tools are sold at craft stores.
Before carving or painting, cut a notched lid from the top of the pumpkin and remove all of the pumpkin seeds and stringy pulp from inside the pumpkin with your hands. Separate the seeds from the pulp, wash them, and set them on paper towels to dry. Then fry them in a little oil until they are crisp and golden brown. Add salt. Eat and eat.
When your pumpkin begins to sag and pucker and collapse, it’s time to put it on your compost pile. (Be careful of analogies. We’re not going there.) When I’ve done this, three things have happened. Birds and animals feed on the pumpkin. Any remaining pumpkin creates nutrient-rich compost. And some of the seeds winter over, so that pumpkin vines appear on the compost pile the next summer. Three good things.
But when tons of pumpkins end up in landfills, it’s a different story. As they decompose, the pumpkins release methane gas, which contributes to climate warming. And the pumpkins, which are 90% water, may contaminate groundwater. This is when the pumpkin party gets really interesting – when it’s time for a Pumpkin Smash!
In the Chicago area, 93 tons of pumpkins have been diverted from landfills and converted to compost when SCARCE (School &Community Assistance for Recycling and Composting Education) has held community pumpkin drops. Volunteers smash the pumpkins during a variety of games before the pumpkin slush is delivered to a compost site.
A pumpkin party can occur at any time in the life cycle of a jack-o-lantern – during the carving and creating, when the seeds are cooked and eaten, when the jack-o-lanterns are lit for Halloween, and when it’s time to smash the pumpkins to smithereens!
Things to do with fall flowers
Fall is a very flowery time. The gardens in our area are bright with marigolds, zinnias, dahlias, cone flowers, salvia, and chrysanthemums. My favorite fall wildflowers are tiny delicate asters (white, lavender, or deep purple) and goldenrod, which sometimes grows taller than I am and fills entire fields with gold-yellow feathers.
Knowing that winter promises a long frozen desert without any flowers at all, I always look for ways to save the flowers I love. Here are some ideas:
I love to press flowers and leaves. Lay your flowers – flat and facedown – between layers of newspaper or another type of unglazed paper. Place the layers in a flower press or under a heavy object (or a pile of heavy books) to keep them flat. Let the flowers dry for two weeks. You can preserve flowers for years with this method. After you remove the flowers for display, keep them out of direct sunlight so they don't fade. Spraying the flowers with hairspray or clear floral spray will strengthen them.
Use pressed flowers to decorate bookmarks, cards, or note paper, or make a collage to frame. Just apply a little white glue to the back of a pressed flower to place it permanently.
It’s great fun to pound flowers. Place a piece of fabric or rough watercolor paper on a board. Put flower heads, leaves, and grasses face down in an arrangement that you like. Cover the flowers with several layers of paper towels. Then use a hammer to pound the flowers flat. When you remove the paper towels, you’ll see surprising colors (not always the color of your flowers) and a wonderful design.
Note: Your designed fabric can’t be washed without ruining the design.
Push flowers into clay
It’s fun to add a natural design to any clay project simply by pushing flowers, leaves, and grasses into the soft clay and then removing them. This is a great way to enhance a clay bowl or cup or even just a slab of clay. You can paint the clay too after pressing a design into your project.
There is nothing like a Sock Walk
Taking a Sock Walk is one of my favorite fall activities to do with children. I have “sock walked” with many, many groups of kids.
There is nothing like a Sock Walk
Fall is a time for harvesting, but it is also a time for sowing. As the days grow cooler and the sunlight wanes, many small plants complete their growing cycles and die back. But they ensure the survival of their species by producing seeds, which will sprout in the spring. The seeds will be most successful when they are scattered – or “sowed” – away from the parent plant, so they don’t have to compete with each other for water and sunlight. Some seeds are scattered by the wind, some by water, and some by animals. If you observe a seed closely, you may be able to guess how it will travel.
One of the best ways to collect seeds is to take a Sock Walk. First put on your shoes and socks – in that order. Pull a large pair of old socks over your shoes and as far up your legs as they will go. Then take a walk through a field of dry grasses and wild flowers. Those seeds that are scattered by sticking to animals will stick to you. You’ll be surprised at how many seeds have tiny hooks, barbs, anchors, and spikes just so they can hitch a ride. When you return from your walk, take your socks off and look at the seeds through a magnifying lens. Don’t they look mean?
Don’t try to remove the seeds. It’s easier just to plant the socks! First, lay both socks on a tray and pour water over them until they are soaked. Find two shallow pans, and partially fill them with sterile potting soil. (If you use dirt from your yard, it will probably have some seeds in it and ruin your experiment. You can buy sterile potting soil or sterilize your dirt by baking it in the oven.) “Plant” one sock in each pan by laying it on the soil and covering it lightly with half an inch of soil.
Place one pan in a light, warm spot and keep watering it. You’ll be amazed at the little plants that come up. Place the other pan in the refrigerator for two weeks. Many seeds are scheduled to rest through the winter and sprout in spring. The “wintertime” in the refrigerator will trick the seeds into germinating when you take them out. After two weeks in the refrigerator, place the second pan near the first and keep it watered. How do the two sock gardens compare?
A Sock Walk is one of dozens of nature activities included in A Kid’s Fall EcoJournal by Toni Albert.
Fireflies on a summer night
On a summer night, tiny lights blink on and off in the grass and the woods. They are either fairies carrying lanterns or fireflies creating their own light through bioluminescence – depending on your state of mind. They are equally magical.
Kids love to catch fireflies, but they’re fun to watch, too. Notice the location of the lights blinking around you. The male firefly is the one in the air, flashing his green or yellow light to attract a female. When the female firefly (perched on a blade of grass or a shrub) finds a male that she takes a shine to, she flashes back.
Notice the rhythm of the blinking. Different species of fireflies have different signals. Each species has its own pattern of flashes and pauses. A female predator firefly called Photuris can mimic the flash of other firefly species. When a male blinks, she blinks right back in the same pattern, but when he comes to her, she eats him!
See if you can attract a firefly with a small flashlight or penlight. Watch a firefly carefully. Two seconds after it flashes, give a quick flash with your penlight. Keep responding to the firefly to catch its interest.
Fireflies can’t be kept as pets, but you can catch them, put them in a jar with a wet paper towel for moisture, enjoy watching them, and then release them. You can also look for firefly eggs or larvae. They both glow too! The larvae, which look something like meal worms, are called glowworms. Look for glowworms in moist places under leaf litter or decaying bark.
Riddle: How do fireflies start a race?
Answer: Ready, set, glow!
Next week, guest blogger Karen Johnson will explain the science of bioluminescence for us.
If the world held a Bug Olympics, we would be amazed by astounding athletic feats and new and different world records set by tiny competitors. Of course there would be gold medals for strength and speed and agility, but there would be new categories of competition, too, like the most explosive bug and the best glue stick….
Please send me your favorite bug athletes. I’ll add them to the list.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Best glue stick: Weaver Ant larva
Weaver Ants build their nests by rolling up leaves and sticking them together. They get the “glue” they need by picking up a larva and squeezing its abdomen to make it produce a sticky silk thread. The larva isn’t hurt and doesn’t struggle. Maybe it likes being a glue stick.
Worst dressed bug: Assassin Bug nymph
The Assassin Bug nymph dresses itself in sand grains and dead ants. Its outfit isn’t very attractive, but it provides good camouflage and attracts other ants, which the Assassin Bug nymph is glad to eat.
Most explosive bug: Bombardier Beetle
When a Bombardier Beetle is threatened, it squirts burning chemicals from the tip of its abdomen in a series of explosions of heat, color, and noise.
Fastest sprinter: Tiger Beetle
A Tiger Beetle, the fastest insect on earth, can run two feet per second, which is only 1.5 miles per hour, but if the beetle were as big as a horse, its speed would be 250 miles per hour.
Best gymnast: Springtail
A Springtail can jump 40 times its own length to escape predators. As it flies through the air, it does one or more back-somersaults.
Coolest bug: Wooly Bear Caterpillar
A Wooly Bear Caterpillar can survive an Arctic winter with temperatures as low as -90 degrees. The caterpillar produces a natural antifreeze that enables it to slowly become frozen except for the very innermost part of its cells. In the spring, it thaws out and crawls away.
Best weight lifter: Rhinoceros Beetle
A Rhinoceros Beetle, which is as large as a mouse, may be the strongest animal on earth. It can lift about 850 times its own body weight.
World’s smallest insect: Fairyfly
Fairyflies are tiny, tiny wasps less than .2 mm long, the size of a period at the end of a sentence.
World’s largest insect: Titan Beetle
The Titan Beetle can reach more than seven inches in length. It can inflict a painful bite, too.
Best sleeping pill: Pill Millipede
When a Pill Millipede is attached, it oozes a special chemical that makes its attacker sleepy. The Pill Millipede can put a Wold Spider to sleep for 12 hours. Maybe it should be called a Sleeping-pill Millipede.
Best soldiers: Army Ants
Tropical Army Ants march in an army of millions, up to 65 feet across. They eat almost anything in their path, including small animals.
Best snorkeler: Whirligig Beetle
Whirligigs have compound eyes that are divided into two, with one pair above the water and one pair below. Since they can see both above and below the water surface, they can watch for enemies such as a heron or a fish at the same time.
Most numerous: Leafhoppers
There are more leafhopper species worldwide than all species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians combined. In a field full of leafhoppers, there may be several million per acre.
From Busy with Bugs by Toni Albert. Check it out!
Collecting spider webs
Important note: Don’t pick up a spider. Many spiders bite and two are really dangerous –the Black Widow and the Brown Recluse. A Black Widow is shiny black with a red hour-glass on its underside. The Brown Recluse is yellow-brown and has a dark violin on top.
Spiders have spinnerets on their rear ends, which spin out silk. A single spider can spin different kinds of silk for different purposes: for traps and nets, ropes for binding prey, safety lines and parachutes, egg sacs, and nests and sleeping bags. Spider silk is stronger than steel of the same thickness. It’s stretchier than rubber.
When I walk in the woods, spider webs often catch my eye -- especially after a shower when the webs are lined with water droplets. A newly made web is perfect and precise, just right for catching the spider’s prey. An orb web is made to trap flying insects. A funnel web or a sheet web catches crawling insects. And a cobweb may net both flying and crawling insects.
Look for spider webs in corners or around windows in a basement or garage. Look around the foundation of your house. Look in grass, shrubs, or trees. When you find a web, take a photo of it. You can make a photo collection of different kinds of webs. Jiggle the web with a tiny twig to draw the spider from its hiding place if you want a photo of the spider too.
To collect a spider web, you’ll need a large piece of sturdy paper, a can of black spray paint, and a can of spray adhesive. (You can find spray glue at a home improvement center.) Find a web that can be reached from both front and back like a web between two trees or two posts. Scare the spider away with a twig. (Don’t worry, it will make a new web.) Lightly – very lightly! – spray one side of the web with the black paint. Then spray the back side of the web with spray adhesive. Bring your paper against the sticky side of the web, so that the web sticks to the paper. To protect the web, you can cover the paper with clear contact paper when you get home.
Bees and pollinators
Bees and pollinators
When we admire flowers, we usually look at their colors and shapes, but the most interesting parts of a flower are in its center. That’s where all the action is. The center is like a factory where seeds are quietly made. The trick is getting the male part of the flower – the yellow dust called pollen – to the tiny seeds-to-be in the female parts of the flower. Most flowering plants can’t make seeds without outside help. Bees, butterflies, flies, wasps, birds, and bats brush pollen onto the female parts of the flower as they land on the flowers and move around. They act as pollinators.
Bees and pollinators and us
A third of our food supply depends on pollinators. They’re essential to food production. When we lose bees and other pollinators, we lose more than honey. We lose apples and pumpkins and cranberries and strawberries and avocados and more than 140 other fruits and vegetables. In the US, we could lose more than $15 billion a year in agricultural production. Pollinators also support healthy ecosystems that clean the air, stabilize soil, and support other living things, both animals and plants.
Bees and pollinators and us and them
Last year we lost 44% of our honeybee colonies. Since 1990, almost 970 million Monarch butterflies have vanished. Diseases, pests, and climate change are contributing to the decline of pollinators, but growing scientific evidence points to pesticides containing chemicals called neonics as the biggest culprit. The largest neonic producers, companies like Bayer and Syngenta, coat seeds and provide pesticides for crops, which result in killing pollinators as well as pests.
Bees and pollinators and us and them and the future
What can we do to help protect pollinators – and apple pie and guacamole?
Friends of the Earth – BeeAction.org
The League of Conservation Voters – Stop the Bee-pocalypse!
Bees and pollinators and us and them and the future and our new backyards
It’s fun to plant with pollinators in mind. Whether you’re planting a potted plant for a city roof garden or landscaping a backyard, consider pollinators and their favorites.
Honeybees – anise hyssop, aster, beebalm, black-eyed Susan, catmint, columbine, coneflowers, goldenrod, lavender, sage, thyme, yarrow
Common Eastern bumblebee – clover, rosemary, sunflower, willow
Hummingbird moth – phlox, bee balm, honeysuckle, verbena
Native bee – anise hyssop, blazing star, fruit crops
Pollen wasp – Western wildflowers
Karner blue butterfly – butterfly weed, leafy spurge, blazing star
European honeybee – sage – lemon balm
Monarch butterfly – milkweed
Hoverfly – yarrow, wild mustard
Bee fly – Desert and alpine flowers
Drone fly – alyssum, cosmos, Queen Anne’s lace, lupine
From Martha Stewart’s Living magazine
Build a bug motel
A brilliant idea
Katie Martin-Meurer teaches a three-dimensional design course at the University of Wisconsin. She wanted her students to design bird houses for a local park. But then she found out that there might not be enough insects for the birds to eat. In the last 35 years, the number of insects, worms, and other small creatures has almost been cut in half – mostly because of loss of habitat and the use of pesticides on plants.
So Martin-Meurer had another idea. She had her students build bug motels. She asked Daniel Young, an entomologist (someone who studies insects), to help them. Their assignment had two parts: they had to build a correct habitat for a particular insect or bug and they had to provide information on why that little animal is important in nature and needs to be protected.
Isn’t that a wonderful idea? When the students’ bug motels were finished, all 90 of them were placed at nature centers and hiking trails throughout the state. Each one has a QR code, which visitors can scan to find out about the bugs that might make their homes in that bug motel.
Build a bug motel
If you’d like to build a bug motel, think of some of your favorite bugs. Find out what kind of natural habitat (home) they need. Then find out why we should protect them.
Here are some ideas to get you started. A good motel room (habitat) for daddy longlegs, millipedes, and pill bugs might include a layer of soil topped with leaf litter. Add a piece of damp, rotting log or bark. Add an apple core for food and always keep the room moist with a mister.
A motel room for cicadas, click beetles, and grasshoppers could include a few inches of dirt with some leafy branches to climb on. Add plants and some pieces of leafy vegetables. Keep a moist paper towel in their room.
Crickets like a motel room with two inches of sand and a container of wet sand for egg laying. Add things to hide in like small sections of toilet paper rolls. Load their frig with lettuce (for water), dry cat food, and vegetable scraps. Keep their room warm but away from direct sunlight.
Why do we care?
All living things are important to our environment, but partly because of their great numbers, bugs are especially important. Bugs provide food for many animals, including birds, bats, lizards, frogs, and fish. Some bugs are decomposers, which clean up everything from dead leaves to dead bodies. Others, especially certain flies, bees, and wasps, are pollinators. Bugs also help keep nature in balance. They keep “invader plants” and insect pests under control by eating them.
What can we do?
Like all animals – including us – bugs are harmed by polluted air, water, and soil. So everything we do to take care of our Earth helps us all. You know what to do: recycle, turn off lights, don’t waste water, etc.
Don’t use pesticides on your lawn or garden. They kill good bugs as well as bad ones.
Don’t buy mounted butterflies or beetles collected in rainforests.
Plant a butterfly garden or a caterpillar garden or any kind of garden. Any garden will be a habitat for bugs.
Keeping a pet bug
Bugs are little animals
When I was writing the book, Busy with Bugs, I had a surprising thought: Bugs are little animals. And getting to know them helps us understand the entire Animal Kingdom. Bugs live in every kind of habitat: mountains, deserts, rainforests, caves, rivers, oceans, fields, backyards – and our houses. Some bugs are predators; some are prey. Some are diurnal (active during the day); some are nocturnal (active at night). Some bugs hibernate; some migrate. Bugs fly, hop, crawl, and run. They eat, drink, rest, hide, communicate, build homes, raise young, attack, fight, die. They are little animals.
And since bugs are animals, we must treat them with respect and care. If you’re interested in catching and keeping live bugs, you’ll need to handle them gently and take care of them responsibly. By learning to love and protect all living things on our planet, you’ll become a better caretaker of our Earth.
Keeping bugs alive
Whether you catch a bug with a bug trap (see “My 5 favorite bug traps”) or find a bug when you’re exploring, use a paintbrush to push the bug into your collecting jar. If you find bugs under a rock or rotting log, gently replace the rock or log in its original position after you collect your critters.
Make sure your collecting jar has openings to let in fresh air. And put a damp, crumpled paper towel in the jar. That will keep bugs from losing moisture and give them a place to hide. These two simple steps will keep your bug alive. You can learn so much more from a living bug than from a dead one.
Taking care of a pet bug
How many children put a bug in a jar and give it grass to eat? But that doesn’t work, because each kind of bug has its own diet. It would be like putting you in a room and giving you grass to eat. You’d probably say, “Don’t they know that I like french fries?”
You can’t feed a bug until you know its name. You can start by counting its legs. All insects have six legs – and two antennae and three body parts (head, thorax, and abdomen). Other creepy crawlies, which I call bugs, may have eight legs (like spiders or daddy long-legs, which are not spiders) or fourteen legs (like a pill bug) or two pairs of legs on each body segment (like a millipede). Your job is to observe your bug, describe it carefully, then look online or in an insect field guide until you can identify it. You may need some help from an adult.
Once you know your bug’s name, you can find out more about it. Google “What do ladybugs eat?’ or “How can you keep a cricket for a pet?” Sometimes you can take a shortcut if you find a bug on a plant and see evidence that the bug has been eating that very plant. A feeding caterpillar will leave big holes in the leaves of a plant and also frass (caterpillar poop). Then you know exactly what to feed that caterpillar.
I worked very hard to make a Keeping-Bugs Chart for my book. It tells exactly what kind of food and shelter is right for different kinds of pet bugs. It also tells how to provide water with a damp paper towel, a mist or spray, or a certain diet. It even tells which bugs can be kept together in a terrarium. Working on the chart made me understand that you can’t keep a bug as a pet unless you know exactly what it needs.
But … once you’ve done your research and set up your bug’s home, it’s not difficult to care for a pet bug. And it can be extremely interesting. Suppose you’re keeping several crickets in a terrarium. You might observe them eating, chirping, kicking, head-butting, wrestling, establishing territories, or laying eggs. Be sure to keep notes and take photos. It might take care of your science project next year!
My 5 favorite bug traps
Have you ever spread a picnic on the ground and then wondered how so many bugs could suddenly find you? Our world is filled with insects and bugs. More than a million species of insects have been described and classified. Scientists believe there are millions more. If you spent your entire life counting bugs on Earth, you wouldn’t have time to finish. You would have to count a billion billion bugs!
But if there are that many bugs around us, why are they so hard to find when you want one? Suppose you're all ready to go bug hunting. You have a bug container and a magnifying lens and maybe even a field guide to insects. But you can’t find any interesting bugs. Well, you need a bug trap.
In my book, Busy with Bugs, there are directions for making ten different bug traps. Sometimes they work – and sometimes they don’t. (It depends on where you live and the time of year and when and where you place the bug trap.) But m y five favorite bug traps are practically guaranteed to catch bugs.
Make a Beat Sheet by putting a white cloth under a tree or shrub. Beat or shake the branches. Did any bugs fall on the sheet? Scoop them up into your collecting jar. This is a good way to find cicadas, ladybugs, or beetles.
Note: A good way to collect bugs without harming them (or being harmed) is with a paintbrush. Use the brush to gently push bugs into your bug container.
Creep-Under Bug Trap
Spread a thick mat of grass clippings in a shady place. Lay a large plastic garbage bag or a piece of lumber on top of the grass. (If you use a garbage bag, secure it with rocks at each corner.) After a few days, lift the trap carefully and see who moved in.
Fly-Right-In Bug Trap
To catch flying insects, put bits of ripe fruit in a wide-mouth jar. Or at night, put a glow stick in a jar to catch insects that are attracted to light. Place a funnel in the jar opening with the small end of the funnel pointing down. The wide mouth of the funnel balances on the rim of the jar, so that when bugs fly into the jar through the funnel, they won’t be able to get out again.
Note: Ripe banana attracts fruit flies.
This couldn’t be simpler, but it works for me almost every time. Put a clay flowerpot on its side in a deeply shaded area where small plants are growing. Check the flowerpot every day to see if a daddy longlegs is resting in it. You may also find snails, slugs, millipedes, or pillbugs.
On a warm summer night, if you provide a light, the night will provide bugs. You can easily observe moths, beetles, and many kinds of flying insects with a Shining Sheet. Hang a white sheet over a railing or between two trees. Set up a flashlight behind it. Then sit quietly in front of the sheet and watch for visitors.
I don’t try to catch moths (or butterflies), but I love to see them. If you do this experiment every few days during the summer, you’ll see the most amazing variety of flying insects – new ones each week.
Have fun catching bugs!
How to make a sun cooker
Have you ever heard someone say, “It’s so hot you could fry an egg on the sidewalk?” Did you ever think of trying it? Many people have experimented with finding ways to cook with heat from the sun. The key to success is to build a sun cooker that reflects the rays of the sun and concentrates heat on the food that needs to be cooked.
Building a sun cooker is a cool experiment. But for the three billion people in the world who have to cook their meals over an open fire or with a stove that pollutes the air, a sun cooker can improve their lives, their health, and the air they breathe.
You can make a bowl into an efficient sun cooker. Find a bowl with as small a base as possible. If you have an aluminum bowl, polish the inside of the bowl until is is smooth and shiny. That will make a bright surface that will reflect the sun rays. If your bowl is not aluminum, you can line it with aluminum foil. Make sure the dull side of the foil is against the inside of the bowl. Your job is to make the foil-covered bowl as smooth and shiny as possible. Smooth the foil with the back of a large spoon, or roll a rubber ball over the foil to remove every single wrinkle. Try to make the bowl as bright as a mirror.
To cook a small potato, first place a little suction hook inside the bowl at the bottom. (Straighten the hook with pliers to form a spike.) If you’re working with an aluminum bowl, simply attach the suction hook directly to the bottom of the bowl. But if you have a foil-covered bowl, open a small slit in the foil, so that you can attach the suction hook to the surface of the bowl. Push the potato onto the spike.
Take the sun cooker outside at noontime when the sun is hottest, and point it directly at the sun. As the sun moves lower in the sky, change the position of the bowl so that the sun shines directly into it. Check the potato with a fork. When the fork slips easily into the potato, it is done! How long did it take?
There are many experiments you can do with a sun cooker. Try designing your own cooker. Try placing it in different locations. Does it work better when placed in the grass or on the sidewalk? Try cooking different foods. Make up a sun recipe.
From A Kid's Summer EcoJournal by Toni Albert.
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?
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.
Children and butterflies
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.
Monarchs and milkweed
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
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.
A slimy sign of spring
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.”
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.
Woodpecker pizza and bird biscuits
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
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.
Growing a young scientist
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.
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.”