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  • How to Eat, but Not be Eaten — Foraging Strategies of Four Urban Squirrel Species

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    Tags: squirrel, squirrels, urban ecology, chipmunks, chipmunk, chicago, chicago wildlife

    Created: 9/19/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    The most common tree squirrels in our region are the grey (Sciurus carolinensis) and the fox (S. niger). Both of these species are scatter hoarders. That is, they bury nuts in random places across the landscape. In contrast, the red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) is a larder hoarder. This means they put all of the food they have gathered in only a few places, like a hollow log or under a rock.

    Grey Squirrel digging in the ground

    Grey squirrel caching

    These two strategies have costs and benefits. A larder hoarder can defend its cache from other squirrels, nut and seed eating birds, and many other species that might rob it of food. Even you may have been scolded by a red squirrel when you inadvertently came too close to its larder. On the other hand, there’s not much a red squirrel can do to deter a determined black bear from raiding the squirrel’s cache. Scatter hoarders don’t have to worry about bears but they do lose a lot of their nuts to competing squirrels and birds, and simply because they can’t find the food once it is buried.

    Fox Squirrel eating in a hole in a tree

    Fox squirrel eating

    These two different foraging methods also result in red squirrels having relatively large territories. You don’t often see lots of red squirrels in the same place at the same time. On the other hand, there are many places where you might see more than a dozen grey squirrels foraging together. 

    Red squirrel on a rock

    Red squirrel

    One thing that does bring lots of squirrels together is bird seed. If seed is buried it either rots or germinates. Either way, it is not very useful to squirrels so, rather than run around caching, as they do with nuts, squirrels will simply sit and eat the seed. The threat of predators and more aggressive squirrels keeps them moving around a little but they are otherwise perfectly happy to sit at the dinner table and eat.

    Chipmunks, though, have a different strategy. They have check pouches. This allows chipmunks to literally stuff their faces full of food, then run back to their burrow, dump the food, and return for more once they think the coast is clear. In this way, they can collect plenty of food to eat, while only exposing themselves to the danger of predation for relatively short amounts of time. The seeds they gather are stored in cool, dry rooms (the same way we store grain) so it stays fresh and nutritious through the winter. This foraging strategy is so successful that chipmunks have become our most common ground squirrel in urban areas.

    Have you ever wondered why you don't see baby squirrels as often as you see adult squirrels? Learn why in this post.

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  • Person Behind the Program: Lily Emerson!

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    Tags: public programs, holiday, tras to treasure, family programs, family, nature, chicago, lincoln park

    Created: 12/10/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    Lily Emerson has been singing, dancing, and leading programs at the Nature Museum since 2009. You can meet Lily this month during the Nature Museum's Trash to Treasure: Sounds of the Season, Thursday, December 26- Saturday, December 28, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

    Lily Emerson

    We decided to ask Lily a few questions so that you can get to know the person behind the program!

    How long have you been working with the Nature Museum? What kinds of programs have you done?

    I've been working at the Nature Museum as a music and movement artist in residence since 2009. It was supposed to be just for the summer of that year, but I loved it so much I asked the education department to keep me on for the next year. And the next. And so on. Now, I create music and movement classes for the summer camp sessions, teach Brilliant Butterflies workshops for schools that come to the museum on field trips, and make puppets and other fun things with folks who come in during each year's Trash to Treasure event. It's a pretty wonderful gig as a freelance teaching artist: I get to combine my love of arts education with my love of nature and environmental education, which quite possibly makes me one of the happiest art-and-nature nerds in the city. 

    We hear that you’re a very busy person! Tell us about the different projects you’re currently working on.

    In addition to my work at the Nature Museum, I'm also a teaching artist with Lookingglass Education and one of the many creatives who work at The Hideout, one of Chicago's most interesting venues, but I spend most of my time working on Adventure Sandwich, a live-action cartoon about imagination, collaboration, creative problem-solving... and cardboard. It's a kids' TV show made without any CGI or green screen. Instead, we build all of our sets, props, and "special effects" out of cardboard and other everyday materials. I could go on and on about Adventure Sandwich, because it's the project I love most of anything I've ever created, but I'll spare you my ramblings and point you instead to the videos and so on at adventuresandwich.org

    What do you have planned for this year’s Trash to Treasure?

    This year, we'll be making puppets, shakers, thank you cards, and more out of gift bags, wrapping paper, wrapping paper tubes, and other odds and ends. Whenever possible, we'll also be creating original stories and acting them out with the puppets we'll be making, which will be a hoot. I have one of my favorite collaborators and fellow music and movement artists, Tara Smith, working with me this year, and I can't wait! 

    Tell us about your favorite animal at the Nature Museum.

    I love the button quails who live in the butterfly haven. They're the most adorable flightless birds I've ever had the pleasure to meet. You don't notice them right away, and can miss them entirely if you're not looking down between the bushes, but if you can pull your gaze away from the butterflies for a moment, you're likely to be charmed by those cute little waddlers, too. 

    Thanks, Lily!

    Heather Grance
    Manager of Public Programs

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  • Nature in Your Backyard

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    Tags: nature, education, science on the go, chicago

    Created: 12/6/2012      Updated: 8/10/2016

    A couple of years ago, I taught a lesson about Midwest ecosystems in a fourth grade classroom on the far south side. Two weeks later, I returned to the same classroom, but before I could make it through the door, several students began excitedly shouting, “We saw a wetland! We saw a wetland!  It’s right behind the school!”  (And I’m not talking about moderate excitement; they were “I just won a million dollars” excited!)  They couldn’t believe that the wetlands they had learned about in the classroom – cattails, ducks, and all – could be found right here in their neighborhood. Just behind their school, stuck in between the busy city streets, here’s what they had found:

    Ducks in the pond

    Over the past several years, we’ve ramped up our efforts to connect students to the nature in their neighborhoods. Last month, as part of these efforts, I traveled around Chicago to photograph wetlands in different areas of the city. We know that many teachers aren’t able to take their students to visit wetlands, so we wanted a chance to bring those wetlands – the ones right in their neighborhoods - into the classrooms. 

    Can kids who live near McKinley Park learn to appreciate that their local wetland supports living things that aren’t found on most city blocks?

    Ducks in a wetland setting

    Can students in Lincoln Park get excited about turtles sunning themselves near their school?

    Turtles in North Pond

    Can school kids on the northwest side learn about bird migration by studying a Green Heron in Humboldt Park?

    Green Heron

    We think we have the answers to these questions: YES! ABSOLUTELY! OF COURSE!  But let’s not forget that these connections to nature are always there, waiting for people to experience them, and not just in schools. Get out there and find out what’s going on with the nature in your neighborhood, and when you find something cool (which you certainly will!), we want to hear about it!

    Kristi Backe
    Curriculum Coordinator

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