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  • Fall Plant Factoids

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    Tags: fall, autumn, fall plants, autumn plants, fall facts

    Created: 10/8/2014      Updated: 8/8/2016

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    (Do you need an introductory paragraph? No. No you do not. So I’m not writing one. If you’re unsure about what subject matter you will encounter in the following paragraphs, please reread the title. Thank you for your understanding. This really saves me a ton of work.)

    Foliar Flagging

    Sumac exhibiting foliar flagging
    Sumac exhibiting foliar flagging

    You remember how you were taught in school that chlorophyll masks the other pigments present in leaves, and that when chlorophyll production stops in the fall, these pigments become visible? Of course you do, because you loved science, which makes you wholly superior to those mouth-breathers who’ve forgotten all about leaf pigmentation. But did you ever stop to wonder what those other pigments are doing in the leaves in the first place? Well, it turns out they might be doing lots of things. Like murder. Or something more benign, but equally fascinating, like foliar flagging.

    Let’s say you’re a sumac tree. You want birds to eat your berries, because they will then fly away, pooping out your progeny hither and yon like tiny, gross little Johnny Appleseeds. So you make your berries bright red and obvious to hungry birds. But birds are kind of dumb, so why stop with the berries? Why not turn your leaves a similar color, so even the most dim-witted and unobservant avian can’t help but notice you and your pretty berries, free for the munching? Turns out a number of trees and shrubs use this strategy – certain dogwoods and Virginia creeper to name a couple. 

    Conifers That Didn’t Get the Memo

    Dawn Redwood
    Dawn Redwood

    Ever have one of those dreams where you show up to school naked and everyone else is fully clothed? And then your substitute teacher shows up, except it’s Henry Kissinger in a clown costume, and he announces that he’s your real father? No? Just the first part, you say… Huh… Anyway, if you’re a Dawn Redwood, a Larch, a Tamarack, a Bald Cypress, or a Chinese Swamp Cypress, (or a Ginkgo, if you wanna be inclusive) you live out that archetypal Freudian quagmire every fall. All the other conifers are standing there fully clothed in green needles, while yours are falling away, one by one, until there you are all starkers, just in time for the coldest part of the year. Why? Aren’t there good reasons why needle-leaved plants are typically evergreen? Yes, but look at the big picture. There are advantages to having needle-shaped leaves: they retain water better, they’re less attractive to insects, and they take fewer nutrients to produce than broad leaves. And there are advantages to being deciduous: it avoids problems with freezing and over-drying in winter, reduces herbivory, and prevents breakage from snow and wind. So it’s not too surprising that some trees can make the seemingly contradictory “deciduous conifer” lifestyle work for them.

    Free Stuff You Can Eat

    Yew berries
    Yew berries

    Autumn is not just about pretty colors, falling leaves, and the sudden appearance of pumpkin spice everything. The fruits of many plants also mature at this time of year, making it the perfect time for nature snacking. Those aforementioned sumac berries, for example, make a nice tea. (You’ll want to sweeten it. It’s sour from malic acid, the same stuff that’s in a sour apple.) Or try some hackberries – they’re ripe when they’re smooth and dark brown. If you value your teeth, don’t bite down hard; just chew off the outer coating.  You’ll see why they’re also called sugarberries.

    If you’re feeling really adventurous, try a yew berry, but DO NOT EAT THE SEED INSIDE!! It’s poisonous. I’m serious about this, guys. Deadly. Freakin’. Poisonous. However, the flesh of the red ‘berry’ (not really a berry, but that’s a subject for a different blog post) is sweet, non-toxic, and sort of gelatinous. To be safe, squeeze the seed out, throw it away, and lick the fruity goop off your fingers. You’ll be glad you dared yourself to try it. 

    Seth Harper, Horticulturist

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  • The Endangered Species Print Project Brings New Attention to Rare Animals

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    Tags: Endangered Species, endangered species print project, jenny kendler, molly schafer, exhibit, rare nature

    Created: 9/26/2014      Updated: 8/24/2015

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    This week's post was contributed by artist Molly Schafer. Her work, along with that of her friend Jenny Kendler and other artists, can currently be seen at the Nature Museum as part of the "Rare Nature" exhibit (open through October 19). The exhibit features limited edition prints of endangered species, with proceeds going toward conservation efforts. In this post, Schafer describes the Endangered Species Print Project's origin story.

    Jenny and I met in graduate school at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. We were both making art about the natural world. We talked about wanting to make more of a contribution to conservation efforts, but we were somewhat at a loss as to how since our skill set revolved around drawing and painting.

    Rare Nature exhibit

    "Rare Nature" exhibit currently on display at the Nature Museum (Photo by Jim Schafer)

    As children we both were obsessed with these illustrations of endangered species in outer space that decorated our folders and binders. The message of these images was that endangered species were magical and rare. As kids, that made them much neater to us than “regular” animals. As artists, it made us think of how monetary value is assigned to art objects. One of a kind, rare pieces are considered more desirable. The less endangered an animal was, the less precious it seemed, at least to our nerdy younger selves.

    Seychelles Sheathtailed Bat print

    Seychelles Sheath-tailed bat (Print by artist Molly Schafer)

    This unsettling thought gave us the concept for the Endangered Species Print Project (ESPP). ESPP creates art prints of endangered species with limited editions to mirror the small number of individuals remaining in the wild. For example, the Seychelles Sheath-tailed bat is critically endangered with only 37 individuals remaining, so the print-run is limited to 37 prints. Once all 37 prints are sold the edition is sold out. Proceeds from the sale of prints benefits the animal or plant represented in a print.

    We started the project in 2009 with Jenny and I creating the artwork for the prints. Today ESPP has raised almost $12,500 for conservation with 26 prints by 14 different artists. All contributing artists donate their time and finished work to bring attention to the extinction crisis.

    Visit Rare Nature at The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum to see the prints and learn about the amazing variety of plants and animals that are endangered like the Vaquita (the world’s smallest porpoise), the Javan rhino (who is so rare it has barely been photographed), and the Guam Micronesian Kingfisher (a bird that is currently extinct in the wild but still has a chance thanks to a breeding program right here in Chicago).

    Molly Schafer and Jenny Kendler

    Molly Schafer & Jenny Kendler (Photo by Michael Czerepak)

    Molly Schafer

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  • Exploring Antarctica with J.J. L'Heureux

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    Tags: exhibits, exhibit, antarctica, leheureux, penguin, penguins, southern ocean

    Created: 9/22/2014      Updated: 8/8/2016

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    The following post was contributed by artist and photographer J.J. L’Heureux. L’Heureux’s prints of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are currently on display as part of the Nature Museum’s exhibition “Faces from the Southern Ocean.” In this post, she describes visiting Antarctica’s Snow Hill Island Emperor Penguin Rookery and some of the snowy challenges she and her group encountered.

    I was raised in Michigan and I am not unmindful of harsh winter conditions. The trip to the Snow Hill Island Emperor Penguin Rookery added some new twists on winter. In order to visit the rookery we had to helicopter from the ship to a landing site about two kilometers from the rookery and behind a grounded iceberg. The first day we did this the day was lightly overcast, a little windy and just a bit cold.

    Weddell Seal Pup

    Weddell Seal Pup (J.J. L’Heureux)

    Antarctica is all about snow and what 100,000 years of snow looks like in all its forms. There is an enormous amount of ice that was really snow that did not melt. Antarctica is also the driest continent on Earth and yet it has most of the fresh water of Earth locked up in the ice that can be miles thick. The ice is created by snow falls that generally do not melt. From year to year, these snow falls build up on one another and ice is created by the pressure of each new layer covering the thousands of previous snow falls. The skin on top is often crusty snow or ice particles. When a wind comes up blizzard conditions can develop almost immediately, even if there are no clouds or fresh falling snow. The wind-driven snow then acts like a Zamboni on a hockey rink. The ice that lies beneath the crusty skin becomes extremely smooth and slippery. The higher the velocity of the wind, the harder it becomes to walk on the very smooth, slippery ice. These conditions briefly describe the second and third days on the ice south of Snow Hill Island. It was challenging to walk upright; the high wind and slick surface were difficult for everyone including the penguins. In fact, most of the Emperors were tobogganing across the ice rather than walking to the open sea to fish seven or eight miles away.

    Emperor Penguin Chick

    Emperor Penguin Chick (J.J. L’Heureux)

    Drifting snow/ice crust builds up when the sun melts the surface covering and it then freezes during the night and stays frozen until the sun comes out again or there is a new snow fall. There were drifts to be negotiated on the back and forth treks across mostly barren slippery ice to the rookery. Since the crusty surface of the drifts had been wind swept away one sometimes found themselves in knee deep or waist deep drifts that would not support your weight. The smart thing then was to play follow the leader, just like the penguins, and make a path through these drifts. These paths are always blazed by a lead party that checks for crevices or other hidden dangers and they lay out a red flag marked trail. At one point I stepped one foot off the path and went into the drift such that I could not free myself. Fortunately, right behind me was Russ Russell, a mining engineer from Guernsey, who is easily 6' 6" and capable of Superman feats. He just reached out and like the cranes that bring the zodiacs aboard, lifted me effortless from my snowy prison. Keep in mind that we were working against high winds and vertical snow. The second and third days were the most difficult for me because the cloud cover contributed to colder conditions and much darker lighting.

    This provides a sense of the conditions for the three particular days of the Snow Hill Island Emperor Penguins Rookery landings, and under these conditions many wonderful and special events took place that one can only marvel at in their uniqueness.

    J.J. L’Heureux

    J.J. L’Heureux

    J.J. L’Heureux

    Read more about J.J. L’Heureux’s experiences in the Southern Ocean and Antarctica by visiting her blog. You can also learn more about her work by visiting her site, Penguinspirit. Get a glimpse into the world of the Southern Ocean by visiting the “Faces from the Southern Ocean” exhibition, now on display.

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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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  • Music to Photosynthesize by -- The Favorite Bands of Plants (as Imagined by a Sleep-Deprived Horticulturist on a Rainy Day)

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    Tags: plant names, plants, music, bands

    Created: 9/15/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    It’s raining. Again. (For those of you keeping score at home, most of Chicago is now 8-12 inches above normal rainfall for the year.) This is a good thing in that I have barely touched a hose or sprinkler all summer. But there is also a downside to these soggy mornings, as I sometimes find myself spending too much time at my desk flipping through garden supply catalogs and clicking the email refresh button. On such occasions, inspiration for a great new blog post will sometimes mercifully find me. I’d like to say that this is exactly what’s happening just now – a genius idea is percolating in my mind, and it’s all I can do to keep it contained until it essentially writes itself. But today is not one of those times. Today, I am tired. It’s chilly in this office. I had Pop Tarts for breakfast. These and other excuses are why I am subjecting you to the following bizarre and half-baked blog entry. Sorry about this.

    So, here we go: Favorite bands of various plants – a thought experiment.

    Plant: Ragweed (Ambrosia spp.) | Favorite Band: The Sex Pistols

    RagweedJohnny Rotten
    (John Lydon photo via Ed Vill/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)
     

    Ugly. Crass. Generally unwelcome and proud of it. These traits apply equally well to the plant and to stars of the early punk movement. Like a young John Lydon, ragweed hates you, and it does not care if you know it.  It throws pollen in your face and laughs when you itch and sneeze. And it sneers at the class system you’ve created to separate garden flowers from weeds – a system that relegates it to life in alleyways, ditches, and vacant lots. Out on the street, it grows angry and defiant, looking for ways to cause trouble. Lydon got the name Johnny Rotten because of his poor oral hygiene. Have you ever seen ragweed shopping for toothpaste? Just sayin’.

    Plant: Midnight Horror Tree (Oroxylum indicum) | Favorite Band: Slayer

    Midnight Horror TreeSlayer
    (Slayer photo via Francis/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)
     

    Why Slayer, the most metal band of all time? Because Oroxylum indicum is the most metal tree of all time. This plant gets its name from its long seedpods, which on moonlit nights look like swords or daggers hanging from the branches. Also known as the broken bones tree, its large leaf stems tend to accumulate at the base of the trunk, looking for all the world like a pile of ribs and femurs.  And of course, it blooms at night, attracting bats as its primary pollinator. Hails and horns, Oroxylum. Long may you Reign in Blood.

    Plant: Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’) | Favorite Band: The Grateful Dead

    Harry Lauder’s Walking StickJerry Garcia
    (Harry Lauder's Walking Stick photo via Malcolm Gin/Wikimedia Commons CC BY SA 3.0, Jerry Garcia photo via Carl Lender/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)
     

    Harry Lauder’s walking stick, otherwise known as contorted hazelnut, is a cultivated variety of the European filbert. It is grown as an ornamental for its unusual, twisting stems. So how did they get that way? Well, imagine if you will, a young, naïve filbert tree at its first Dead show. It meets some new friends. One thing leads to another. The music begins, and soon, there is no more up or down for our little tree. Its branches, much like the band’s music, begin to loop and twist endlessly with no pattern or direction. Each song seems to last for hours as the concert stretches deep into the night. The tree is forever changed. The next morning, it hitches a ride to California in a VW Microbus with an artist collective called Dawnglow Machine. To this day, when it sees other filberts growing straight and tall and producing nuts, it shakes its head and thinks, “Man, what a bunch of squares, man.” Kinda sad, really.

    Plant: Metallic Palm (Chamaedorea metallica) | Favorite Band: pre-1994 Metallica

    Metallic PalmMetallica
    (Metallica photo via Kreepin Deth/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0
     

    Because post-1993 Metallica is nobody’s favorite band.

    Plant: Century Plant (Agave americana) | Favorite Band (Artist): Jeff Buckley

    Century PlantJeff Buckley CDs
    (Century Plant photo via WRT3/Wikimedia Commons CC BY SA 3.0, Jeff Buckley photo via nlaspf/Flickr CC BY NC ND 2.0)
     

    Century plant uses a reproductive strategy called semelparity. It grows for 10, 20, 30 years or more, then produces a single, glorious flowering stalk. Towering up to 40 feet high, rich with nectar and pollen, and producing edible seeds, it is truly a wonder of nature that anyone should feel blessed to have experienced. And then the whole plant dies…

    I’ve really depressed myself now.

    Moving on…

    Plant: Hosta (Hosta spp.) | Favorite Band: U2

    HostaU2
    (Hosta photo via El Grafo/Wikimedia Commons CC BY SA 3.0, U2 photo via Zachary Gillman/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.5)
     

    Look, I like The Joshua Tree as much as the next guy, and hostas can find a place in just about any shade garden (like mine, for example.) But I’d bet dollars to donuts that an image search for ‘banal ubiquity’ turns up photos of Bono in a hosta nursery. These two are safe bets, reliable but never spectacular, the Toyota Camrys of music and horticulture. So when a hosta hits the iTunes store, it searches U2 first, then Taylor Swift for a little variety and some Dave Matthews Band if it’s feeling nostalgic. But don’t pity U2 – their harmless consistency has netted the band members a combined €632,535,925 (about $818,985,376) according to The Sunday Times. Reportedly, half of all album sales are to hostas.

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  • Madison Vorva, Lending a Helping Hand in Nature's Struggle

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    Tags: Nature's Struggle, extinction, Endangered Species, orangutan, conservation, nature museum, palm oil

    Created: 9/11/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    Today’s post was contributed by Madison Vorva of Project ORANGS. Madison and her friend Rhiannon Tomitshen founded Project ORANGS in 2007 to raise awareness about the plight of the orangutan and the deforestation tactics used to source palm oil. The pair have been spotlighted in our “Nature’s Struggle: Survival & Extinction” exhibit for their work.

    My first trip to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum was in 2010 for Rishi Tea’s launch party with Dr. Jane Goodall. I was so excited to return to see the “Nature’s Struggle: Survival and Extinction” exhibit. The environmental problems our planet faces today are massive, with no “black and white” quick fix, but this exhibit does an excellent job of breaking down these complexities to kids. It is so important to empower young people to recognize that while nature is gravely threatened, we can each do something about it beginning with our everyday choices and unique passions.

    Madison Vorva in Nature's Struggle

    Today, I’m a 19-year-old sophomore at Pomona College, but I became an environmental activist when I was 11 years old. In 2007, I decided to earn my Girl Scout Bronze Award by raising awareness about the plight of the orangutan. I learned that their rainforest habitat in Indonesia and Malaysia is being rapidly deforested for palm oil plantations. In Indonesia, deforestation is responsible for 80% of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions, making it the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world behind the United States and China. Today, palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world, and this ingredient is in about 50% of the products in American grocery stores.

    After learning that palm oil was in Girl Scout cookies, my friend and I launched Project ORANGS to get Girl Scouts USA to use a deforestation-free source of palm oil. Partnering with Climate Advisers, the Rainforest Action Network and the Union of Concerned Scientists, I’ve organized the support of over 140,000 consumers and my hero, Dr. Jane Goodall, through online petitions and letter writing campaigns. Through interviews in The Wall Street Journal, TIME Magazine, NPR, CBS’s Early Show, and ABC World News, millions of consumers have been educated about the impacts of their daily purchases. Working with the Philadelphia Zoo, we designed a “Guardian of the Rainforest” badge which hundreds of Scouts have earned (and you can too!). In 2011, Girl Scouts USA announced a palm oil policy, the first policy change driven by the efforts of girls in the organization’s 100+ year history. In 2014, Kellogg’s, a Girl Scout Cookie baker, announced a deforestation-free palm oil policy for its entire product line.

    Palm oil free cookies interactive in Nature'S Struggle exhibit

    For any museum visitor inspired by “Nature’s Struggle”, check out Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots program which supports young people making a difference for people, animals and the environment. No matter your age, never underestimate your ability to make our world more peaceful and just. As Dr. Jane says, “If you really want something, and really work hard, and take advantage of opportunities, and never give up, you will find a way.”

    Madison Vorva in Nature's Struggle exhibit

    Madison Vorva 

    Founder, Project ORANGS
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  • Eulogy for the Passenger Pigeon

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    Tags: passenger pigeon, extinction, extant, bird, ornithology, passenger pigeon extinct, 1914, Cincinnati Zoo, conservation

    Created: 9/2/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    September 1st marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Martha, the last passenger pigeon. To mark this somber occasion, and to help prevent another such extinction from occurring, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology Steve Sullivan has written this eulogy for this beautiful bird.

    Imagine a bird shaped a bit like a mourning dove but much larger, with slate blue on its back, salmon pink on its breast, and an opalescent necklace of green and pink. This bird lived in flocks so large they would darken the sky, sometimes for three days, as they passed overhead. Their wing beats were strong enough to cool the air and loud enough to frighten horses. People could kill 1,200 of these birds before breakfast.

    Passenger Pigeon specimen

    This bird was the passenger pigeon. An endemic North American species—one found nowhere else. Larger than the carrier pigeon, also known as the homing or messenger pigeon, that domesticated bird brought by the earliest colonists of our continent. Though this non-native bird was also prized for its meat, the passenger pigeon was free for the taking and better tasting.

    Today, the non-native carrier pigeon loafs in the rafters of the subway and poops on statues in the park of cities around the world. The passenger pigeon, whose population was included billions of individuals, is gone. Extinct. We ate them all and left just a few skins to be studies in museum collections around the world.

    Today, we continue to consume. Everything we have ever touched and nearly everything we’ve ever even seen was grown from the earth or dug out of it. When we buy a product, a hole is created in the earth on our behalf. What will we fill that hole back up with? Something that can re-enter the ecological cycle and preserve choice and freedom and health for future generations? Or will we leave a dirty, toxic earth where one place looks essentially like every other place?

    The story of the PP continues today, from the once abundant monarch butterflies and little brown bats of American neighborhoods, to animals that live half a world away but are impacted by our purchasing decisions. Every time we eat palm oil, buy a new electronic gadget, or try to keep up with the Jones’s, our purchases contribute to resource extraction that can result in catastrophic extinctions like that predicted for wild gorillas and orangutans in the near future.

    Passenger Pigeon specimen

    I see three fundamental reasons to conserve biodiversity: utility, aesthetics, ethics. 

    Utility:  What good was the passenger pigeon? You and I can’t enjoy the kinds of meals that most of the country ate from time to time, from the earliest people to come to this continent til the late 1800’s. If your family line goes back more than 3 or 4 generations in the US, your ancestors probably ate passenger pigeon. But you cannot. We can’t use the bird’s down and feathers. For those who enjoy hunting, they can’t have the challenge of pursuing this bird that could fly 60 miles per hour. We have lost the ecological functions of the birds as food to other animals (from the peregrine falcon to the endearing American burying beetle), their function as seed dispersers for some of our favorite hardwoods like beech, and their function as competitors with animals like mice. The absence of passenger pigeons allows mice to thrive in unprecedented numbers, providing homes for more ticks than ever, and putting you at greater risk for acquiring Lyme disease as you hike or even just work in your garden. 

    Aesthetics:  Beauty is subjective, but most would agree that the individual bird is pleasing to look at, their flocks awe-inspiring, and their effects on generations of forests gratifying.

    Ethics:  Who are we, a bipedal, binocular, megacephalic, sparsely-furred primate, to say, “You’re useless, you’re ugly, you deserve to die!”?

    Perhaps none of us really feel any different as a result of the loss of the passenger pigeon, yet our life experience is different than it could have been. Maybe the passenger pigeon is not really an “important” species to ensure the survival of humans. But which one is? How do we know? When will we know? Certainly the great web of life that we, as a species, rely on has key players. Will our human activities unravel the web too much?

    I hope this tragic centenary will stimulate people to live more sustainably. Reduce your consumption to the minimum. Recycle to the maximum. Don’t worry about how much your neighbors have; set an example of how much one can live without. Do you need a new cell phone every time the contract is up? Do you need a new car, or boat, or tv, or pool, etc., just because your neighbors bought one or your kids bug you for one? Skip processed food, turn off lights, car pool. You’ve heard lots of options. Take the time during this centenary year to find ways that work for you to reduce your impact on the earth and help others to do the same. Make the loss of the passenger pigeon have some redemptive value in your own life.

    Visit PassengerPigeon.org for ideas and more information on this remarkable species.

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

    Passenger Pigeon feather

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  • Year of the Passenger Pigeon

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    Tags: passenger pigeon, extinction, extant, bird, ornithology, passenger pigeon extinct, 1914, Cincinnati Zoo, conservation

    Created: 8/27/2014      Updated: 8/25/2015

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    September 1, 2014 marks 100 years since the extinction of the majestic passenger pigeon. Though much has changed over the last century, this extinction is still relevant today and should not be dismissed. Over the past year the Nature Museum, as well as many others, have worked to bring attention to this bird that once numbered in the billions. Below is a special guest blog from Joel Greenberg, Nature Museum researcher and author of A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction.

    Passenger Pigeon Specimen

    "Big Blue", passenger pigeon specimen residing at Millikin University, Illinois

    The passenger pigeon was unlike any other bird in at least three important respects. It had a huge population, probably in the billions, but certainly the most abundant bird in North America if not the world. Second, it would aggregate in vast numbers that are difficult to imagine today: as just two examples, John James Audubon reported a flight that darkened the sky for three days. And as a segue to point three, a three-day movement of the species in Ontario in May of around 1860 likely exceeded two billion birds. Yet despite that abundance, it was extinct in the wild by 1902 and extinct everywhere on the afternoon of September 1, 1914 when the last of the species died in the Cincinnati Zoo. What happened to the bird? In the words of filmmaker David Mrazek, "we" happened to the bird, subjecting the species to unrelenting killing throughout the years.


    I have been working on passenger pigeons since August 2009. I started with research for a book, and that expanded into a vision of using the 2014 anniversary of the pigeon's extinction as a teaching moment to tell people about the bird and to emphasize aspects of the story that are still critically relevant today. Other people had similar ideas. We had an opportunity to convene in one place when the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum hosted this important meeting in February 2011. There were folks from a range of disciplines and institutions including the Smithsonian, Cornell University, Wesleyan (CT), Michigan State University, University of Louisiana, Indiana State Museum, Philadelphia Academy of Sciences (now Drexel Institute), University of Wisconsin, and Illinois Natural History Survey. And out of that gathering emerged Project Passenger Pigeon.

    We had big plans. The amazing thing is that even with little money raised for P3, many of those plans have been realized. The web site was a huge undertaking and required major help from web-site designer George Mrazek; Steve Sullivan and colleagues from Notebaert; and the Cincinnati Zoo. I traveled to cities like Lansing, Minneapolis, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Cambridge spreading the word (Steve Sullivan was a partner in many of these excursions.). A symphony about passenger pigeons that was performed once in the 1850s will be performed at least twice this year, once in Madison and once in New Haven. My book, A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction, was released in January 2014, the same day I appeared on the Dianne Rehm national radio show. It has been reviewed very favorably in a number of national publications. The very first public program was a reception held at Peggy Notebaert. (About 200 people were in attendance.) The documentary that David Mrazek and I worked on, From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction, was funded through a crowd sourcing effort spear-headed by David. The world premier was shown at Notebaert and over 150 people showed up. (The movie will be airing on WTTW at 10 pm on September 11.) In June, Notebaert opened their wonderful exhibit on extinction, Nature's Struggle: Survival & Extinction.

    So this has been a long haul with lots of talks yet to come (by years end I will have given over 60 talks in 23 states and one province). The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum has been an enthusiastic partner through it all. I really want to thank Deb, Marc, Steve, Doug, Rafael, Alvaro, and everyone else at the Notebaert who have contributed so much to making this centenary so effective as a teaching moment.

    Joel Greenberg
    Author and Nature Museum Researcher 

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  • Frog Facts and Toad Tidbits

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    Tags: frogs, toads, animal feeding, crickets, amphibians, frog, toad

    Created: 8/7/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    At the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, volunteers feed different groups of animals on different days as part of public interpretative programs (PIP). Recently, to keep things fresh for volunteers and visitors, the schedule was shuffled, and now aquatic animals are fed on Monday, fish on Tuesday, Blanding’s turtles on Wednesday, water snakes on Thursday, box turtles on Friday, and endangered turtles on Saturday.

    Leopard Frog with cricket sitting on top of its head
    Leopard Frog wearing his lunch


    And on Sunday, frog and toad feeding takes place in the Look-in-Lab, where the volunteers offer crickets by hand or tweezers to the anurans in tanks along the viewing window. (Frogs and toads belong to the order of amphibians called “anura” so collectively are referred to as “anurans.”) The session is entertaining for visitors; they laugh when a volunteer involuntarily jerks her hand back as the critter grabs mouth first for its meal (you tell yourself not to, but it is a reflex that is hard to overcome), and they applaud when the critter gets the cricket. To make the feeding educational as well, other volunteers stand on the public side of the window to provide visitors information about frog and toad diets and habits.

    Fowler's Toad
    Fowler's Toad


    Frogs and toads are usually sit-and-wait predators, relying on camouflage to hide their motionless bodies until an unsuspecting potential meal moves within reach of a lunge and “lingual flip:” the tongue flips out and slaps on the target and then flips back with the prey stuck on. This capture technique is made possible by a tongue that is attached to the front of the jaw and free at the back (unlike those of humans and other animals) and by a gummy mucous exuded at the instant of contact. Thus, the anuran tongue does not shoot out like the tongue of a chameleon or a cartoon frog. The whole action takes less than 15/100ths of a second, faster than our eyes can follow. Below is a cool, slow motion video of a leopard frog flipping up a waxworm with its tongue.


    Frogs and toads have teeth but only along their upper jaws. Their teeth are weak and are not used to chew or tear, but to hold prey before it is gulped down whole. Their eyes help anurans swallow their meals; an emphatic blink presses their eyeballs through holes in the skull, pushing food down the throat.

    Cricket Frog
    Cricket Frog


    Most frogs and toads eat insects, spiders, worms, larvae, and slugs, although larger species may also eat small birds, reptiles, or amphibians. Every two to three weeks, the Museum orders 2,500 crickets (1,000 small, 1,000 medium, and 500 large) -- between 65,000 and 44,000 a year. They are fed not only to the frogs and toads, but also to the Museum’s salamanders, some turtles, aquatic insects, and spiders.

    The Museum has 12 species of anurans, all also found wild in Illinois: Fowler’s toad, American toad, pickerel frog, green frog, leopard frog, plains leopard frog, chorus frog, cricket frog, wood frog, green tree frog, Cope’s tree frog, and gray tree frog.

    Cindy Gray
    PIP and Animal Care Volunteer 

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  • TEENs Summer Program

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    Tags: TEENS, summer project, after school matters, hive chicago, citizen science, data collection, scientists

    Created: 7/10/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    This summer, with support from After School Matters and the Mozilla Foundation (through Hive Chicago) 32 high school students are participating in the Nature Museum's TEENS (Teenagers Exploring and Explaining Nature and Science) program. The students are learning ecological and environmental monitoring techniques, data collection methods and are learning basic digital mapping skills to share what they have learned with their peers and the wider science community. This blog, written solely by one of the participants, is a great introduction to experiences of their first two weeks.

    Hm...where should I start?

    I’m Ashley Guzman, a rising senior at Walter Payton College Prep. I started the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum Program for Teens in the middle of June. It’s the first After School Matters program I’ve taken part in, and so far I’ve been having a lot of fun.

    During our first week, we focused on introductions. We met the group of around 30 students and 4 instructors we would be working with, and began a conversation about our goals for the summer. A group goal we established was our hopes to become citizen scientists- everyone has the potential to be a citizen scientist. We defined a citizen scientist as someone who takes action in their scientific community; in our case, it’s contributing meaningful data as well as working to restore our environment, which I’ll get into later. By the end of this program, our collection will culminate in self directed projects that could launch us towards solutions and information, even on a smaller scale.

    Small pond on Nature Museum grounds
    Pond on South Wall of Nature Museum

    We started off collecting data on epicollect, a handy little app on our tablets that allows us to collect data while cataloguing the approximate area we found the data in. We started off with qualitative, observation based data. We took notice of the different plants that existed in the area, taking trips around our research area in Lincoln Park to note the diversity. We went through using dichotomous keys, which helped us identify the different plants based on specific details about them. I started noticing things like the patterns of leaves on plants, their petals, length, and the like because of these keys. We went through a similar process when identifying and cataloguing trees. I’m curious about these tags I’ve found on the trees in my neighborhood, perhaps the city has a similar plan?

    By being more aware of the types of trees and plants in the area, we can be more careful to preserve them. Like ash trees, which I’ve now learned are dying out due to the emerald ash borer (thank you Dave!).

    Bureau of Forestry Tree Tag
    Bureau of Forestry Tree Tag

    Today, after doing work both inside and outside of the lab to gain more knowledge about biodiversity, our group merged and brainstormed; we pointed out observations that stood out to us and observations that could possibly direct us to our final project ideas. I want to point out something that my friend Richard said; he pointed out that he couldn’t seem to avoid bees while we were collecting data by North Pond, which had a high water level due to heavy rains. I wanted to thank him, because it’s observations like that that send my brain into a flurry of ideas, which I’m sure happens to others as well. I started thinking about something I had seen on tumblr, which said that you should give a bee water mixed in with sugar if you see that it’s stuck out of flight, because it’s likely due to exhaustion. I try not to accept these things as pure fact, because everything should be questioned! However, I wondered if this could have something to do with all of the bees near North Pond. Is this going to be my final project? Well, maybe, but I have time to collect more data, make more observations, and develop my hypothesis. I just wanted to give you an example of this train of thought, and express how much I like this kind of conversation! Sometimes, introducing observations that you didn’t think much of originally can lead into a great investigation. I’m glad we’re going to get more chances to have these kinds of discussions.

    Until then, I will leave you with this: don’t scratch your mosquito bites. They aren’t that bad.

    Also, just a fun little frog we found in the forest preserve we visited!

    Baby frog resting on a student's hand

    Ashley Guzman
    TEENs Summer Program Participant 

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