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  • Harbingers of Spring

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    Tags: spring, red-winged blackbirds, birds, ornithology, mating calls, Biology

    Created: 3/26/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    Bluebirds have been the traditional avian harbinger of spring throughout our nation’s history. However, with the various pressures applied by habitat conversion, heavy pesticide application, and the introduction of exotic competitors like house sparrows and starlings, the bluebird is a species few city dwellers will ever see in their neighborhoods again. On the other hand, human activity has been generally good for the red-winged blackbird and throughout the region---city, suburb and rural areas alike—wherever there is tall grass and some standing water, male red-winged blackbirds are arriving in droves.

    As with many bird species, the males arrive first to stake out the best territories; he with the best territory will have the most mating opportunities later in the spring when the females arrive. The male proclaims his fiefdom with a loud metallic call that sounds a bit like a squeaky swing set. At the same time he leans forward to display his eponymous red wings, really just a patch of bright red feathers on his wrist that contrast well with the rest of his jet black body. While it’s a small patch of color, it makes all the difference.  The bigger and more intense patches attract the most mates. 

    In fact, scientists have influenced mating opportunities by experimentally cutting the red feathers off of some males and gluing them on to others. Much like humans who are stereotypically impressed by a man driving a red sports car, regardless of his age or personality, female red-winged blackbirds apparently look no deeper than the red patches on a boys wrists.

    Red-Winged Blackbird with vibrant plumage
    Red Sports Car

    Red-Winged Blackbird with dull plumage
    Hand-me-down van from your parents

    Once the male has established his territory, he will aggressively defend it against all interlopers, including you. It can be fun, and a little daunting, to walk past a breeding colony of red-winged blackbirds. Most will simply scream at you but usually one will sneak up behind you and, when you are not looking, he may drop out of the sky and hit you on the back of the head. Keep your eyes to the sky this spring.

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

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  • Just Grow 'Em

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    Tags: native plants, black-eyed susans, purple coneflower, native gardening, Gardening, horticulture

    Created: 3/19/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    For all you tweethearts out there who prefer knowledge disseminated in 140 character quanta,  I will be participating in a Twitter discussion (follow me @HorticulturSeth) on #NativeGardening tomorrow, 3/20, at 12:00 pm CST.  No surprise, preparing for this event has turned my thoughts away from the tropical plants I was perusing just last week in Florida*, and back to local flora.

    Thoughts are really all I have at this point – interactions are limited by the fact that most plants ‘round here are still hitting the snooze button awaiting more favorable weather.

    Some of you may remember my “bottom ten” lists (to which I still owe a promised conclusion.) I must say, it’s fun writing those. I mean, who doesn’t love making fun of terrible, terrible things? Especially plants, which have a limited capacity for retaliation? So hopefully you will not think less of me for admitting the temptation to combine my love of cruel mockery with my current focus on native plants in order to generate a bottom ten native plant list. (I’m looking at you, Hackelia virginiana.)

    But alas, I don’t have the heart. Native plants are underused, underappreciated, and under assault from development, climate change, and invasive species. So instead of following my baser instincts, I’m just  gonna drop some sweet, sweet native plant knowledge. To wit –

    Six native plants Chicago area gardeners really have no excuse for not growing:

    1. Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) – It’s attractive.  It’s available. It’s a potent pollinator magnet. And it’s easier than shooting fish in a barrel, assuming the fish are relatively large and not similarly armed. Seriously, all you need is sun and sorta decent dirt. You have that, right?
    2. Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) – Also easy to grow, though maybe a little harder to find in the garden center. Needs decently draining soil. The best thing about butterflyweed is that whole “butterfly” part. Monarchs feed on this plant from cradle to grave.**
    3. Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum) – You may be asking yourself, who is Joe Pye? Well, the answer is twofold: I don’t know and I don’t care. This is one of my favorite plants, and it wouldn’t change my opinion if I found out Joe Pye had invented spam email, parking meters, and the word “irregardless.” It should be noted that this plant’s kinda big. And it needs consistent moisture. But when in full bloom, there’re few plants that can rival its beauty and raw butterfly magnetism.
    4. Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) – Sun and dirt that’s not soggy - got that? You can grow this.  When you do, you’ll enjoy masses of colorful flowers over a long season, starting in early summer. You’ll also draw bees and butterflies like…flies.
    5. Susans (Rudbeckia spp.) – Whether their eyes are black or brown, the Susans really hit the spot for daisy lovers. There’s a place for a Susan in every garden, assuming she’s relatively sedentary. Also, I really needed something yellow on this list.

      Black-Eyed Susan
      Black-Eyed Susan
    6. Swamp Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) – Got a wet spot in your yard? As long as it’s sunny and the soil’s reasonably rich, you can grow flowers the size of your face.

    Swamp Mallow obscuring child's face
    Swamp Mallow

    *mic drop*

    *I travel to the Sunshine State once a year to purchase plants for the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven. Can I be frank with you a moment? I have strong opinions about Florida, and they are not congenial.  I hope you’re happy, butterflies.

    **I use “grave” metaphorically, as very little is known about lepidopteran death rituals.

    Seth Harper, horticulturist

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  • Where is the polar bear?

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    Tags: Nature's Struggle, collections, polar bear, taxidermy, exhibits

    Created: 3/17/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    When you visit the Nature Museum, you will definitely notice that something is missing on the first floor…our polar bear mount.  It has been temporarily moved to the second floor of the museum to become part of our latest exhibit, Nature’s Struggle: Survival and Extinction.  Moving a mount this large, even from one floor to another, takes some planning and plenty of help. 

    Staff prepping polar bear mount

    Although the polar bear is mounted onto a base that has wheels, at just under 10 feet tall it was not a simple matter of pushing it onto our freight elevator. Before any of our specimens are moved, we plan out how we are going to get them safely moved to their desired location, particularly tall, heavy mounts like the polar bear. Impediments in this case were hanging light fixtures, an archway, watching out for museum visitors since we had to move the mount during museum hours, and the mount itself (those claws are still extremely sharp).

    Polar bear mount

    In this case we decided the safest way to move it was to place it on its back on large, wheeled platform that would provide support during the transition. The most delicate part of the procedure was in lowering the mount onto its back. It needed to be done smoothly so that we did not cause any torque, or twisting, to the mount that could result in damage to the internal armature, or structure. 

    Staff transferring polar bear mount to cart

    Mounts like this one are typically attached to their bases by long bolts that extend through their legs and feet that are secured by nuts on the underside. If one of these bolts were twisted or broken the mount would no longer be able to support itself when put back into its upright position.  Once the polar bear was successfully placed on the wheeled platform, it was taken to the freight elevator and then moved into the second floor gallery, where it was lifted back up into its standing position. 

    Staff with polar bear mount in freight elevator

    Come see the polar bear, as well as other specimens and objects from our collection in
    Nature's Struggle: Survival & Extinction.

    Amber K. King
    Assistant Collections Manager

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  • To Bee or Not to Bee

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    Tags: bees, honeybees, winter, spring, honey, pollinator, pollinators, beekeepers

    Created: 3/6/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    We had a mini moment of truth up on the roof this past week -- we took a look into our honey bee hives to see if by chance, some had survived the winter so far. Honestly, there was not much hope. With beekeepers around the country reporting major losses it seemed too much to hope that any of our hives had made it through one of the harshest Chicago winters on record. 

    Honey from the Hive

    Last fall we made the decision to leave all the honey in the hive for our bees, taking none for our traditional honey sale in the museum gift shop. You can buy a little taste of the previous seasons labors in a jar from our gift store. The jars are small, just enough to taste how special our roof top bees are, and not so much that we did not leave them what they need to get through that year, or so we thought. 

    Truthfully, even in the best of years it seems a bit rude and even a little crazy to take honey. Open up a box of bees and take some of their most precious resource, without getting stung…too may times.  We spend the whole summer watching and waiting for this other moment of truth.  How strong is the hive? How much were they able to produce and store? Can they spare some for their caretakers and fans?

    It’s not a new story. People in cultures around the world have been after honey for centuries. There is evidence of humans harvesting honey in cave paintings. Only bees can make it, with their remarkable nectar gathering skills, specialized honey stomach, and a work force to rival whole cities. 

    The manner in which bees are kept, and the ease with which we are able to take a little of the extra honey, has made some real strides over the years. It used to be that you had to completely kill a colony in order to harvest that honey. Now with the use of moveable frames we simply take a few out, process them for honey and return them with much of the comb still in tact.

    Harvesting honey
    Harvesting excess honey in a banner year.

    The previous year it was a hard winter for many of the honey bees in the area and the ones on the roof of the museum were no exception. Like many of the local beekeepers we were sad to see that despite our efforts, few of our bees made it through the winter in 2012/2013.

    We started fresh this past spring with new colonies. With the help of our local beekeeper Anne, we installed them in June and were happy to see them get as busy as, well, bees. They could be seen around the grounds buzzing around flowers and collecting nectar in the various habit recreations featuring native plantings throughout the growing season. 

    Supplementing hives with sugar water
    Supplementing the hives with sugar water.

    So without taking any of the fruits of their labor, we tucked our bees in for the winter of 2013/14.  We added a little extra nutrition to tide them over and some insulation so it would be less drafty. We hoped for a strong start in the spring.

    Hope Springs

    Rooftop hives with snowmelt
    A good sign of live bee activity. Snow melt around the hive.

    The good news so far is that when we looked into our hives we found 10 out of 12 with activity. Some look stronger than others and there is still a long way to go until we can say they’re going to make it into the full growing season, but this is far more then we dared hope for.  

    Working with bees
    Working quick to minimize cold exposure

    We keep hoping for better years for the honey bees and their relatives the native bees. These species are important in helping to provide the pollination that gives us many of our favorite summer flowers and fruits. It’s hard to over estimate the importance of these services in both the natural world and in the cultivated crops we rely on for much of our diet. For now we’ll take this small victory.

    Karen Kramer Wilson, Living Invertebrate Specialist

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