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  • Venomous Snake Training

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    Tags: Biology, venomous snakes, gaboon viper, green mamba, snake handling

    Created: 1/24/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Working with a venomous snake is not for everyone of course but if you are one of the animal care team here at the Museum it is all part of the job. Last week we had the opportunity to take our Horticulturist, Andy and our Invertebrate Specialist, Karen out to Lake Forest to train in the delicate art of working with venomous snakes. Although this is not strictly speaking part of their job it is very useful to have some extra people who are willing to take on this task if needed.

    Rob Carmichael who runs the Wildlife Discovery Centre has extensive experience in working with these feisty reptiles and actually trained me and a couple of other staff members several years ago before we got our first Massasauga Rattlesnake.

    After a PowerPoint presentation showing the correct way to do things and some rather graphic images of what can happen if you don’t do things right it was time for the ‘fun’ part of the day. Rob has a spectacular selection of snakes with which I could fill this entire blog but I will try and restrain myself to some of the most stunning:

    • Gaboon Viper

      Gaboon Viper

    • Green Mamba

      Green Mamba

    • King Cobra

      King Cobra

    We were here so that Karen and Andy could spend some time working with Massasauga Rattlesnakes. First they learned to move the snake with a snake hook. Once that was mastered, Karen and Andy moved onto the more unwieldy, but more secure snake tongs.

    • Using the snake hook

      Using the snake hook

    • Wielding the snake tongs

      Wielding the snake tongs

    • Practicing tubing a snake

      Practicing "tubing" a snake

    Then it was on to learning the art of tubing a snake. This is a skill set that is only rarely needed if the snake needs to have blood drawn, be given an injection or have a stuck lens cap removed and it is not for the faint of heart. Karen and Andy were cool, calm and collected throughout and soon got this new skill mastered.


    Finally they learned how to safely bag a snake. This is the task that is easiest to get wrong and when the most bites occur, after all, snake fangs go through a cloth bag very easily! A snake will usually only need to be bagged if it being transported somewhere.

    With this final skill under their belts Rob declared that Karen and Andy were now ready to begin working with us caring for our beautiful Massasauga here at the Museum.

    Celeste Troon, Director of Living Collections



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  • Squirrel Appreciation Day

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    Tags: Squirrel Appreciation Day, squirrel, project squirrel

    Created: 1/21/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Happy Squirrel Appreciation Day! Of course, here at the Nature Museum, we celebrate squirrels every day but the rest of the world officially joins us on the 21st of January, every year. It’s a great occasion to stop and think about all of the fun (and challenges) that squirrels bring to us. At this time of year all of the ground squirrels are sound asleep. They’re hibernating because during winter (at least normal ones) it’s difficult to obtain enough food to stay warm. The famous Punxsutawney Phil will awake from his hibernation shortly to give his input on the coming weather. However, tree squirrels are active all year, subsisting off nuts that they cached during the fall. 

    Squirrel

    For many people, tree squirrels provide the most intense interaction we have with a wild mammal. In the Chicago region, we often take the seemingly-silly antics of tree squirrels for granted. In fact, squirrels could live anywhere that people do and they are found in towns across the country. However, there are many towns, even in Illinois, that don’t have any tree squirrels at all. In other towns there may only be one species while other towns may have two species or more. Why is this? What does it tell us about the ecology of our neighborhoods? Help us answer these questions and celebrate Squirrel Appreciation day at http://projectsquirrel.org/

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

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  • Green City Market Returns

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    Tags: Green City Market, recipe, leek, vegtables

    Created: 1/17/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    I cannot wait for the Green City Market to return to the Nature Museum on Saturday, January 19th! There is something so inviting about seeing all of the vendors at the museum showing all of their produce and other delectable goods. Everything is so fresh and delicious! I love using in-season produce when I’m cooking, but I find that there are few ingredients available during the winter. Luckily one of my favorite vegetables is at its peak in the cold month of January: the leek! This vegetable is a relative of the green onion and works well in soups, stews and pastas. This recipe for Potato-Leek Soup is the perfect thing to warm you up on a cold winter night (and the leftovers are fantastic!)

    Potato Leek Soup

    Potato-Leek Soup with Bacon Recipe

    Prep Time: 20 minutes

    Cook Time: 25 minutes

    Servings: 4

    3 tablespoons unsalted butter
    1 teaspoon smoked paprika
    1/2 loaf of french bread, cubed
    4 slices bacon, chopped
    2 large leeks, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced
    1/4 of a large white onion, chopped
    2 cloves garlic, chopped
    4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
    2 medium russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
    1/2 cup heavy cream
    1 1/2 cups frozen peas (do not thaw)
    1 1/2 cups frozen corn (do not thaw)

    Directions

    Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Make the croutons: Melt 2 tablespoon butter, then mix with the paprika in a bowl. Add the bread cubes and toss. Spread on a baking sheet and bake until golden, 8 to 10 minutes.

    Meanwhile, cook the bacon in a large saucepan over medium heat until crisp, about 8 minutes (Chop before cooking). Transfer with a slotted spoon to a paper towel-lined plate. Discard all but about 1 tablespoon fat from the pan. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon butter, then add the leeks, onions and garlic; cover and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the broth the potatoes and 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper; cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer, partially covered, until the potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes.

    Puree half the soup in a blender (remove the filler cap to let steam escape), then return to the pot. Add the cream and bring to a simmer. Add the peas and corn and cook until tender, about 3 minutes. Serve topped with the croutons, and bacon!

    Ashley Lundgren
    Public Interpretive Programs Volunteer

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  • Integrated Pest Management in the Butterfly Haven

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    Tags: pest management, butterfly haven, horticulture, insects

    Created: 1/15/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    I'll be honest with you, folks. There's just no way I can keep every greenhouse pest out of the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven. And you want to know something else? I don't particularly intend to.

    Now I'm not rolling out the red carpet for aphids here. At least not compared to the hero's welcome they get just by us stocking the Haven with all their favorite foods and a perfect breeding climate. If they were easy to keep out, they wouldn’t be called pests. Aphids, whiteflies, mealybugs, and scale insects can lay waste to thousands of dollars' worth of plants in no time, and then all we'd have is hungry butterflies and some sticks covered in bug poo.  

    Mealybug
    Mealybug Destroyers

    I could run around in the off-hours spraying chemicals. I don't because 1. Toddlers (et al) will put anything, including leaves coated in poison, directly into their mouths and 2. Butterflies, being insects, react unfavorably to insecticides. Also, I'd have to get here even earlier in the morning. 

    But more important than my alarm clock is the fact that we, as an institution, have adopted Integrated Pest Management (IPM) as our strategy for all pests. One part of IPM means using the least harmful means of control first. That would be prevention most of the time. I check plants for infestations before I plant them in the Haven. I monitor the plants already there to catch outbreaks at early levels, and then a little soapy water works miracles. But the true secret, the one that has me smugly unconcerned while hordes of mealybugs roam the streets, is that every now and then I release MORE bugs into the Haven.

    We order the workhorses of the Butterfly Haven from Beneficial Insectary in Redding, CA. Ladybugs (Hippodamia convergens) devour most soft-bodied plant pests, and do so as adults and as larvae.  This is also true for the similar-looking Cryptolaemus montrouzieri, which goes by the more pronounceable and colorful common name ‘mealybug destroyer.’ I also release three wasps into the Butterfly Haven--all of them completely harmless to humans. In fact, they are all smaller than the stinger of the wasps commonly associated with fear and pain. Being so small I guess they are not worthy of cool common names, but they answer to Aphidius colemani, Aphytis melinus, and Encarsia formosa and they parasitize aphids, scale, and whiteflies respectively. Parasitic wasps lay their eggs inside living hosts, sometimes paralyzing them first, and let their newly-hatched young eat their way out. Some people think that's gruesome, some think it's awesome, some think it's both. 

    Ladybug
    Our workhorse, the Ladybug

    Notice how I mention these helpers as adults and as larvae. If I were somehow, magically, able to remove every single 'bad bug' from the Haven, my beneficial buddies would have no food, and therefore couldn't breed and maintain a population. One aphid or scale (both of which can reproduce asexually, which is far creepier to me than the parasitic wasp thing) could turn into millions nearly overnight.  Instead we aim to keep the pests at an ‘acceptable’ level, which is another tenet of IPM. Then our beneficial insects have more likelihood of breeding and remaining in the Haven to greet incoming pests with something a little less like paradise.

    To them, that is. All this goes on at the smallest limits of human perception.  At scales more in line with our everyday experience, the Haven remains the tranquil sanctuary we have come to expect. There might be an aphid or two in there, but don't worry. I'm hardly working on it.

    Andrew Wunschel
    Assistant Horticulturist

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  • Aldo Leopold

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    Tags: Aldo Leopold, birthday, wildlife management, wildlife, conservation

    Created: 1/11/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Today is the birthday of Aldo Leopold.

    Aldo Leopold



    If you don’t know who he is, you have at least benefitted from the fruits of his work. Leopold is considered the father of modern wildlife management. Most of the principles conservationists use today to ensure that wildlife and people can share the planet together successfully were promoted, perfected, or even developed by him. He wrote prolifically for both technical audiences and the public, but even his scientific writings are pleasurable to read. One of the few books I encourage everyone to read is “A Sand County Almanac.” In this book Leopold presents complex ideas in simple stories about his time in the outdoors. These experiences were the foundation for Leopold’s “conservation ethic.” This ethic was something he arrived at both intuitively and through meticulous data collection. Many studies have later supported his conclusions and the fact that you can see wild flowers in the spring, baby birds foraging in the summer, and deer rutting in the fall is because conservationists and state wildlife agencies have applied these principles in managing the wildlife near you.

    Today it is unseasonably warm so I hope you can celebrate Aldo Leopld’s birthday in style—take a walk in the woods. When it gets a little colder, I hope you’ll curl up with one of his books and take some time to learn about the beautiful interactions of nature in your neighborhood.

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

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  • Nature and Foreign Language

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    Tags: language, family, polish, public programs

    Created: 1/10/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Visit our museum any day of the week and you will hear families speaking Spanish, Polish and other languages. Language helps us develop a sense of belonging and gives us the ability to connect with others. In the same way, the Nature Museum wants every visitor to feel inspired and connected to the natural world. After some time here, the Museum and the bilingual families inspired me to develop a program where bilingual or aspiring bilingual families could acquire familiarity and comfort with nature and learn or build upon a second language. 

    Two years ago I had the pleasure to meet Carolina Legg from Multilingual Chicago. We realized that with combined efforts, we had the opportunity to reach out to bilingual families in a new capacity.  As a result we decided to combine early childhood environmental education and foreign language acquisition into a “Foreign Language Through Nature” program. These programs are presented in Spanish and Polish and are full immersion. During the program, children and caregivers learn new vocabulary while also learning about the natural world. Children are engaged through music, art and animal interactions.

    Polish through Nature Class

    Many children have been enrolled in the programs since we first started. The Nature Museum is now a familiar and comfortable place for them to learn, explore and have fun. Many families have expressed how grateful they are that their children have the opportunity to learn and or practice a second language and become comfortable with the natural environment in unique ways. One of my fondest memories was when a 4-year old enrolled in “Polish Through Nature” counted to ten for the first time in Polish while counting fish that live with our Spiny soft-shelled turtle, Pancake. We were so proud!

    Polish through Nature Class

    In 2013 families will be able to participate a “Mandarin Through Nature” series.  We are excited to share our passion for nature with more families in a culturally meaningful way.  We look forward to seeing you there!

    Glenda Gonzalez
    Public Programs Coordinator

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  • What? We're Already Out of Hot Water?

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    Tags: water, conservation, holiday, friends, aerator, good gift, easy, plumbing

    Created: 1/8/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    It is said that plumbers get some of their biggest jobs between Thanksgiving and New Years. I don’t know if this is really true but it make sense because this is the time of year when homes are full of people using every sink, tub, and showerhead in the place. 

    I used water in more than a dozen homes over the holidays and saw some interesting interactions with water delivery systems. In two homes, only one or two people could shower before the hot water was gone. Then, a kid was scalded when washing his hands.  Elsewhere, when filling a pitcher with water, a woman ended up soaked when the water from the tap hit the bottom of the pitcher with such force it splashed back out. Another person, scrubbing a frying pan, almost overflowed the sink before the pan was even a little clean. 

    There were other adventures (including dish soap in the automatic dishwasher) but these problems all have their roots in the same issue:  water flow at the spigot head. High water pressure is great and we all want enough water to come out of the faucet to get the job done but sometimes there can be too much of a good thing and, instead of helping us stay clean and hydrated, we end up with messes.

    In each of these cases, the problem could have been solved by simply adding an aerator to the faucet.  An aerator is essentially just a piece of fine screen that the water passes though. The effect is to add air to the water as it leaves the faucet while and reducing the amount of water used but without reducing felt water pressure. With an aerator, more people will be able to shower on a tank of water and the temperature of the heater can be turned down to a safer level because less hot water is used in each shower. A pitcher will fill with water quickly but it won’t splash back (and, incidentally, chlorine and some other chemicals will leave the water more quickly making it taste better) and you will have plenty of water to scrub with, without overflowing the sink.

    Many older homes were built with faucets that did not have aerators. In other cases, when the aerators became clogged or broken they were simply removed. In most cases, adding or replacing an aerator is simple. Depending on the faucet, you can simply unscrew the end of the faucet and install a screen, or you may have to screw in a whole new end that includes the screen.  In showers, you can simply replace the shower head. Aerators are widely available and, especially in the shower, can provide an updated look to the faucet and a more comfortable user experience.

    Sometimes good stewardship of natural resources requires sacrifice but, when it comes to your faucet, adding an aerator makes the water easier to use and you’ll be saving money and water.

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

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  • Just Another Day at the Office

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    Tags: living collections, reptiles

    Created: 1/4/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    We try by all means to keep our programming animals fit and healthy at all times but of course occasionally despite our best efforts, they get an ailment that requires treatment. So how do you give a snake medicine? Well, if it is an injection it is relatively easy to insert a needle between the scales but if they actually have to swallow the medication it takes a little more than a teaspoon and the request to ‘open wide!’

    An array of tools for giving a snake medication, including a guitar pick, syringes and tubing

    These are the tools required. The best item for opening the snakes’ mouth is a guitar pick (yes really!) then a nice long tube to get the medicine down and some water to flush the medicine through the tube.

    The guitar pick is inserted into the snake's mouth

    The guitar pick is slid carefully into the snakes’ mouth. As I said, it is perfectly designed for the job. It has smooth rounded edges so it doesn’t harm the snakes’ mouth and it covers the snakes’ glottis, which is in the bottom of the mouth. This ensures that when the tube is inserted it doesn’t get accidentally pushed into the glottis, which would essentially ‘drown’ the snake.

    The tube is inserted into the snake's mouth

    The tube is then gently inserted and pushed down the snakes’ esophagus. The tube should go approximately one third of the way down into the snakes’ body before the medicine is administered.

    the syringe pushes medicineinto the tube in the snake's mouth and down its esophagus

    Of course, don’t expect any gratitude from the snake for this treatment. You will notice there is a second person involved in this process holding the body of the snake. Although they don’t have to negotiate the teeth they do sometimes get the benefit of the snakes displeasure in a far more odiferous manner when the snake deploys its’ musk glands to full effect. When the medication has been administered and flushed through the tube with a little water, the tube is carefully removed.

    Gently removing the tubing

    And there you have it – job done! And if all goes well, after a little time off, we have a healthy snake ready to resume its work entertaining our visitors.

    Celeste Troon, Director of Living Collections

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  • Day in the Life of an Animal Care Volunteer

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    Tags: volunteering, volunteer, animals, living collections

    Created: 1/2/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    The following post was written by Cindy Gray, one of our animal care volunteers at the Museum.

    8:15 to 8:25

    Arrive at the Museum, greet the cleaning woman who lets me in as she cleans the entry, get the key to the Look-in-Lab from security, check-in at the volunteer lounge, and put on one of the volunteer aprons. Go to the Lab, greet Celeste and Jamie and get ready to start working!

    8:25 to 8:40
    Change the swimming water for the Leopard frog and the drinking/soaking water for the American toad in Mysteries of the Marsh, and mist the American toad tank with RO water (“RO” water is “reverse osmosis” water, water filtered to remove chlorine and other elements that may bother amphibians, water bugs, fish, and some reptiles). Feed the frog and toad, trying to drop the crickets into their tanks, not on the carpet (I read that toads blink their eyes to help swallow their food, but I had trouble picturing it until I saw the toad capture and swallow one of the crickets I fed her one day).

    8:40 to 8:45
    Mist the green tree frog tank near the spotted turtles to maintain the high humidity they prefer.  Sometimes one of the frogs will start “singing” as I mist -- I like to think it's because they are happy for the fresh "rain".

    8:45 to 9:00
    Provide fresh water for the Tiger salamander, Gray tree frogs, American toad, Cricket frogs, and Fowler’s toad in the Look-in-Lab and mist their habitats. Provide Harriet the tarantula with fresh water in her bowl and crickets.

    9:00 to 9:25
    Empty the water bowls for the snakes used for critter connections and provide fresh water.  Sometimes right after I change her water, Coco the Fox snake takes a drink and then soaks in the fresh water.  Change the paper substrate of their tanks if they have pooped. Mist with water any snakes that are shedding to help with that process. If a snake sheds overnight, take the skin out of the cage. If a snake was fed the night before, look to make sure it ate the defrosted mouse or rat.

    9:20 to 10:10
    Clean up after the box turtles that are used for critter connections. For the box turtles in the front window, provide fresh water, take out yesterday’s food dishes, throwing away the leftovers and putting the dish in the dishwasher, and redistribute the coconut fiber substrate. For the box turtles in the other enclosures, provide fresh water, take out yesterday’s food dishes, and change the paper if they have made a mess, in other words, everyday. When I take them out of the tanks, I put up the “slow traffic” sign that has a picture of a turtle and give the turtles worms, trying to keep an eye on them as I clean; it is surprising how fast a turtle can wander away and wedge herself into a small hiding space.

    Pretty Girl the box turtle enjoying a superworm



    10:10 to 10:40
    Tend the nursery for the Abedus (ferocious water beetles), providing them with clean water and crickets.  The females lay dozens of eggs on the males’ backs, and we remove the males to small containers filled with water to protect the babies when they hatch. The young pass through numerous stages before they are big enough to go into the tank in the window so floating in the water are “exuvia,” the shed exoskeletons they have outgrown (a fun word I only learned after volunteering at the Museum.)

    10:40 to 10:50
    Provide hermit crabs with fresh fruit, fresh RO water, and clean salt water; clean and mist habitat.

    10:50 to 11:25
    Chat with the PIP volunteers (Public Interpretive Program volunteers) when they come in to get a snake or turtle for critter connections and to feed the frogs and toads for the public feeding. Make salad bowls for the turtles: greens, veggies, corn (their favorite if we have it), and berries or other fruit, topped with crushed egg shells for calcium, mealworms dusted with vitamin powder, and nightcrawlers.

    Fruits and veggies for the animals



    11:25 to 11:40
    Tidy up, give the rats corn on the cob, and say good bye to Celeste and Jamie. Check-out in the volunteer lounge, take off the apron, and return the key to security.

    Not every day is the same. One day, I flooded the lab by accidentally opening the valve for the water snake tank and not noticing until I heard water splashing on the floor. Everyone was very nice about it and told me everyone floods the lab at least once! (The snakes were undisturbed.) Usually, the breaks from routine are more interesting: Harriet looking spiffier after her molt, new interns, the tiny leopard frog that was a tadpole the week before, or the hatchling Red-eared sliders and Painted turtles the horticulturists found in the garden last spring.

    Cindy Gray
    Animal Care Volunteer

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