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  • Housekeeping: Collections Department Style

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    Tags: cleaning, specimens, collections, Chicago Academy of Sciences, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

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

    While we do not do it every day, the natural history specimens on display the Museum need regular cleaning, particularly those specimens that are not housed inside of museum display cases. Specimens, like the polar bear, accumulate dust just like other surfaces in the museum. 

    Dawn Roberts cleans the polar bear mount

    To clean them we use vacuum cleaners with HEPA filters and variable suction control, fine mesh netting, clean brushes, gloves, ladders, extension cords, and time. The netting is placed over the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner so that large particles cannot be accidentally “sucked” into the vacuum. 

    Mariann cleans a bird specimen

    The suction control is adjusted so that just enough suction is applied to pull in dirt and dust particles from the air, but not to harm the specimens. The brushes are used to gently pull dirt away from the surface of the specimen with the vacuum nozzle head held just above to collect the now loose particles of dust and dirt. This kind of cleaning is performed on a regular schedule for specimens on permanent display or as needed when additional specimens are installed in new exhibits, like the bison mount in Food: The Nature of Eating.

    Cleaning a bison mount in an exhibit

    Amber King
    Assistant Collections Manager

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  • Notebaert Beauty Parlor

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    Tags: turtles, claws, Biology, reptiles, Chicago Academy of Sciences, look-in lab, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

    Created: 4/3/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    We strive to give our Box Turtles a rich and diverse diet, which provides them with good calcium sources to ensure that they develop strong shells. Of course along with strong shells this also means they grow strong nails.

    Closeup of turtle foot

    Normally a turtle would be digging and scratching around outside in dirt and rocks and naturally wear their nails down. We do give our turtles lots of time outside in the summer but at this time of the year they are kept indoors and only get to dig in soft substrate. So what to do with those long nails?

    That is where the ‘mani, pedi service’ comes in.

    Staff members filing a turtle's nails



    We used Claire for these photos, as she is by far the most calm about having her nails trimmed. We use a standard rotating nail file, which is intended for dogs’ nails.

    As with most things involving turtles, this is a two-person job. One person to catch and hold the leg and the other person to file the nails.

    Staff members filing turtle's nails

    I did mention that Claire was the most cooperative of our turtles during this process. She accepts what we are doing and just watches reproachfully.

    Pretty Girl and Kennicott show what they think of things by peeing as much as possible! Charlie and Opal will try and sneak a quick bite, if a finger should happen to come within reach. And Manny? Well Manny is like a madman! He has to have a board held between his head and our hands, which he attacks viciously. I wonder do the ladies who work in nail salons usually end up bleeding after giving their customers a manicure? At the end of the process, we clean our various scratches and bites and the turtles have nicely manicured nails.

    Closeup of nail filing

    Celeste Troon, Director of Living Collections

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  • Hawk Talk

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    Tags: Biology, Chicago Academy of Sciences, hawk, peregrine falcon, cooper's hawk, falcon, raptor, bird of prey, survival, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

    Created: 4/3/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    I often get calls from people who have discovered a hawk frequenting their bird feeders. They are usually rather upset and want to know what they can do to make it go away. This can often lead to quite an interesting and thought-provoking discussion.

    Hawk in tree

    Firstly, why is it OK to provide all other birds with food except hawks? As with all predators, hawks constantly walk a very fine line between survival and starvation. The Coopers Hawk, which is considered one of the most common urban hawks has been extensively studied, and results show that barely 20% of their hunting attempts are successful. Imagine if only once in every five times you decided to have a meal, you actually got one. You would soon be really hungry! The amount of energy required to take to the wing and actively hunt means that every failed attempt is extremely costly to the hawk. Also, studies have shown that the three most common prey species for urban Coopers Hawks are European Starlings, Rock Pigeons and Mourning Doves. Of those, the starling is an invasive species that is rapidly out-competing and threatening less aggressive native species, the Rock Pigeon is widely despised and considered a messy pest by the vast majority of people and the Mourning Dove is one of the most abundant and widespread birds in North America, producing several broods each year.

    Hawk eating

    The problem, of course, comes from the fact that a lot of people do not want to see an animal killed and eaten by another animal. I used to work in Africa as a safari guide and by far and away the most frequently asked for animals were lions and leopards. Big cats will spend up to 23 hours per day lying around resting and sleeping and trust me, that does not make for very interesting game viewing! But when we happened to come upon these same large predators hunting, many people simply could not bear to watch.

    Perched hawk

    To develop a true understanding of our natural world it is important to recognize that predators have a vital part in every ecosystem whether it be a sunfish devouring a minnow, a Peregrine Falcon grabbing a pigeon on the wing or a lion pulling down an antelope, they are all an important part of a healthy and balanced environment.

    Hawk face closeup

    So next time you are fortunate enough to see a hawk in your yard, try not to be tempted to chase it away. Watch it, observe it’s behaviour in relation to its surroundings, how does it use its environment to approach its prey? Is it successful? If not, why not? Don’t think of the hawk as evil or nasty, instead consider how privileged you are to be witnessing nature right in your own back yard.

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  • Freezing a Bison Mount

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    Tags: collections, natural history, specimens, Chicago Academy of Sciences

    Created: 3/18/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    If you work with museum objects in a natural history museum, “freezing” is a necessary part of the job.  It may sound a bit odd to freeze a museum object of any sort, but it enables us to store specimens until they can be prepared and it is also an effective way of killing insect pests without the use of chemical pesticides. The use of pesticides leaves a residue on specimens each time they are used and this causes a build-up over time. By using the freeze-treatment method instead, we reduce this residual build-up and the related side effects that could possibly harm specimens over time and/or become a health hazard to the collections staff that care for them. 

    Most of the time we can “freeze-treat” our specimens in house, but for larger mounts, like a bison mount that is 6.5 feet tall by 8.5 feet long, we do not own a large enough freezer. Instead we had to seek out a facility that would not only have room to accommodate its size but was willing to tackle this project.  Midwest Freeze-Dry in Skokie was up for the job and already had experience with the process.

    Bison mount covered in plastic

    To freeze-treat a natural history specimen, it first it needs to be enclosed in a protective barrier.  In this case we used plastic sheeting because it came in a large enough size to cover the mount, but for smaller specimens plastic garbage bags or freezer grade zipper-closure bags work well. The purpose is twofold: (1) it creates a “sealed” enclosure so that insects cannot spread to other specimens and (2) it creates a moisture barrier so that any condensation that may form during the freeze-treatment forms on the exterior of the barrier and not on the specimen.

    Once the bison mount was wrapped, in what resembled a plastic cocoon upon completion, we arranged a delivery date and then booked appropriate transportation with additional people to assist with the move.  After the mount was carefully moved onto the truck and securely strapped in for the 6 mile trip north, the next step was to transfer it from our truck to the freezer truck, which was accomplished with a forklift and the help of many people. 

    Team moving bison mount

    Unlike freezing food items at home, to effectively kill insect pests, the specimen has to be exposed to at least two freeze cycles with a thaw in between. The method is pretty simple, the specimen is placed inside the freezer space and the temperature is dropped rapidly and held steady for a set time and then the temperature is gradually increased. After the space returns to room temperature, the temperature is dropped rapidly again for a second cycle and then gradually brought back up to room temperature again.  This cycle ensures that any insect pests that went into a dormant phase during the first freeze cycle are “woken up” during the thaw period and then eradicated by quickly dropping the temperature again. The amount of time needed depends on the temperature of the freezer space, the size of the freezer space, what kind of insect pest you are dealing with, and the size and composition of the specimen.

    Bison mount in truck

    When the allotted freezer time was completed, utilizing more people, two forklifts (one at each location) and a pallet jack, the Bison mount was transported to the museum for its final installation.  You can see the Bison mount as well as other specimens from the collection in the exhibit, Food: The Nature of Eating, at the museum.

    Bison mount on display

    Amber K. King
    Assistant Collections Manager

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  • Tracking a Museum Collection

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    Tags: inventory, Chicago Academy of Sciences, collections, data, cataloguing, specimens

    Created: 3/16/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    One, two, three, four...

    Chipmunk specimens



    Keeping track of items in a museum collection requires organization. A LOT of organization. Collections staff track where specimens and artifacts are stored and record any time they move, such as when they go on loan or on exhibit. We track the condition of a specimen and any procedures that we undertake to resolve preservation issues. We make notations about how much deterioration a specimen is subjected to when it is on display in an exhibit. We document information about the specimen, such as who collected it, when, and where. But to be able to do all of this, we first need to know what we have!

    Malacology specimens in vials



    How do you go about inventorying a museum collection?  In a word: methodically.  A small army of staff, interns, and volunteers went through the Academy's collection for our inventory.  It took us five years, but cabinet by cabinet, each and every item was handled, counted, and described -- bird and mammal study skins, pinned insects, fossils, pressed plants, snail shells -- over 280,000 items!  We created a new digital record in a database for each item we documented so that the inforamtion is in one place.

    Bat specimen



    What, exactly, does this mean?  It means that our Collections staff can now look up information about our collection in a database, rather than sifting through old musty ledger books and multiple, out-of-date card catalogue systems.  These searches are faster and more comprehensive.  We can provide this library of specimens and corresponding data to researchers and help answer questions about the environment.  More of the collection can be incorporated into our exhibitions and educational programs to help illustrate issues relevant to the Midwest and allow our visitors to see these treasures first hand.

    • Ascession book
    • Card system

    It means we have a much clearer picture of not only what is in our collection, but the history of it all as well.  And knowing what we have makes tracking it, and building a reservoir of information about it, much easier.  Many thanks go to the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation for their generous support of our collections inventory project.

    Dawn Roberts
    Collections Manager

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  • Out the Door, Let's Explore!

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    Tags: public programs, Biology, outdoor exhibits, summer, spring, nature on tap

    Created: 3/14/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    In the Public Programs Department we are eagerly awaiting the warmer spring weather to make use of our biggest exhibit- the outdoors! After a frosty winter, it's a relief to hear Red Winged Blackbirds and see sunning Painted Turtles. Program ideas start flowing!

    While winter presents its own unique programming opportunities, it's hard not to get excited about the signs of spring and summer. Instead of; “The turtles are hibernating”, or “The monarch butterflies are in Mexico,” we can say, “See all of those turtles on that log,” or “How many monarchs can you find in the prairie?” or “Out the door, let’s explore!”.

    • Kids observing North Pond
    • Blanding's hatchling emerging from egg
    • A flower in the prairie

    This spring and summer there will be so much for visitors to discover in our outdoor exhibits. Outdoor nature walks will touch on themes such as "Nature Noises", "Cloud Gazing" and "Ordinary or Extraordinary?". Other programs like Numbers Through Nature, Spanish Through Nature and Polish through Nature will be taking children outside as well. You can even join us this summer for an outdoor film screening of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, to celebrate our new exhibit The Birth of Chocolate, or have a drink outside during our program for adults, Nature on Tap.

    So take off that winter parka and join me outside this spring and summer to discover bugs, listen to birds and to smell the flowers. Doesn’t that sound delightful?

    Laura Saletta
    Public Programs Educator

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  • Reptile Rampage

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    Tags: reptiles, turtles, alligators, snakes, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago Academy of Sciences

    Created: 3/11/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    On Sunday March 10th we were invited to represent the institution at the Reptile Rampage in Lake Forest. This is a great event organized by Rob Carmichael from the Wildlife Discovery Center that opens up the often greatly misunderstood world of reptiles to a large public audience.

    We made a horribly early start (did I happen to mention how much I hate daylight savings time?) and got our vehicle loaded up to the gunnels with everything that a bunch of endangered turtle species could possibly need for a day out.

    You think taking children on the road is complicated? Rubbermaid containers, check. Coco husk substrate, check. Buckets, check.  Heat lamps, check. Hand sanitizer, check. Basking stones, check. Aquatic vegetation, check. Water bowls, check. The list goes on and on.

    Setting tubs up for Reptile Rampage

    We transported our precious cargo successfully and everyone arrived safe and sound and the right way up! (Bob our Blanding’s Turtle has a habit of flipping himself over when traveling!) We then got everyone set up for their day. And although I say it myself, our little display looked pretty good. I decided to focus on endangered turtle species as we have some great specimens in our living collections. It also ties in very well with our upcoming Tea with the Turtles event.

    Nature Museum table set up at Reptile Rampage

    We were surrounded by every ectotherm you could ever want to meet, not least of course was the delightful Bubba. Bubba is a remarkably mellow alligator who is well known at all the big reptile shows and is very accepting of his celebrity status and the endless stream of people who line up to be thrilled and photographed, standing next to him.

    Bubba the alligator

    There were so many beautiful animals on display and a lot of great information on offer from what to consider if you decide to get a reptile as a pet to how you can help to protect threatened species.

    • Large Boa Constrictor
    • Large Iguana
    • Swimming turtle

    We spoke to many of the thousands of visitors who streamed through the door throughout the day, many of whom were surprised to learn that we had endangered turtle species right here in Illinois. Of course our chelonian representatives were the true stars. Many thanks to Opal, Onyx, Bob, August and October, we couldn’t have done it without you.

    • Onyx the ornate box turtle
    • Bob the Blanding's turtle

    For more information about our Tea with the Turtles event, check out our Children & Family program page.

    Celeste Troon, Director of Living Collections


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  • Volunteer Spotlight

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    Tags: volunteer, volunteering, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

    Created: 3/8/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Volunteers play many different roles at the Nature Museum, but have you ever wondered what we do outside of volunteering? Check out this interview with one of our Public Interpretive Programs (PIP) Volunteers, JoAnne!

    Name:  JoAnne Kempf
    Volunteer Position:
      PIP 

    JoAnne Kempf

    How long have you been volunteering here?
    10 years this April

    Why did you choose the Nature Museum?
    I was unemployed and finishing my Master’s Degree but needed something to get me out of the house. I went to VolunteerMatch.org and the Nature Museum came up as a possibility. I had actually never heard of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum but the volunteer job description intrigued me. I visited the museum to check it out and fell in love with it. It reminded me of the local museums and visitor centers we frequented on family vacations with our two sons. And it’s completely different from the office work I get paid to do.

    What is your favorite thing about the Nature Museum?
    Unlike the Field Museum or Science & Industry, there’s a sense of intimacy about our little museum. You can really get up close and personal with our exhibits. And I like that we focus primarily on nature in our immediate vicinity.

    What is your favorite part of your volunteer position?
    Wow….there’s so much. I love the teaching aspect; the look on a kid’s face when they have an “aha” moment. I love having conversations with the grown-up visitors about prairies and savannas. And I’m constantly learning something and having new experiences. It never occurred to me to hold a snake, for example, but now I eagerly handle snakes and all kinds of critters that were just not part of my world before. But mostly I look forward to spending time with my fellow volunteers. In 10 years’ time, I’ve seen a lot of volunteers come and go, but they always have something interesting to offer. And of course there are the “old timers” like me; I’ve made some very close friends.

    What do you do outside of the museum?
    I work! I am the Director of the Office of Governance at the American Library Association. What the heck does that mean? Well, I am basically the right-hand person to the Executive Director and the association president helping them to carry out their programs and initiatives. It’s a very demanding job that leaves me weary much of the time, which is why I volunteer – to give my mind something else to focus on.

    In addition to volunteering at the Nature Museum, I have been a member of the Skokie Concert Choir for seven years (I’m a soprano), and currently serve as their board president. During the choir’s summer hiatus, I am an avid gardener committed to growing mostly native plants. In fact, I have a miniature prairie in my backyard that includes Joe Pye, milkweed, cone flowers, black-eyed Susan, zizzia, monarda, and blazing star. I have recently become quite fond of taking walks through the Somme Prairie in Northbrook, IL. This is a restoration project that was begun by the Nature Conservancy in the ‘90s. A fellow Nature Museum volunteer and I discovered this area last summer and enjoy visiting there to observe the changes throughout the seasons. 

    Red Admiral on purple Coneflower

    I am a season ticket-holder to the Lyric Opera. I love to cook. I knit off and on. And my kitty and I are completely hooked on Downton Abbey!

    Stop by and say hello to JoAnne the next time you come for a visit!

    Ashley Lundgren
    Public Interpretive Programs Volunteer

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  • Box Turtle Rehab

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    Tags: Celeste Troon, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, turtles, Biology, Istock look-in lab

    Created: 3/8/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Many of you who visit our Museum on a regular basis will have been lucky enough to meet one of our beautiful Box Turtles when they are out doing critter connections. Maybe Claire or Gorgeous or Charlie or Harrison? As a result you may have been tempted to consider a Box Turtle as a family pet, if you have, please think long and hard before taking that step. Many people do not realize just how much these animals require to live a long and healthy life.

    The average lifespan for a Box Turtle is 60 years so you have got to commit to a long-term deal if you are going to own one. Sadly, many people don’t realize this and some of our turtles have rather unhappy stories attached to them. Manny was spotted by a family vacationing in New Mexico, picked up and brought home to Chicago and then after a year they didn’t want him any more. Kennicott was found by one of our Blanding’s Turtle researchers out in a wetland, cold, weak and malnourished. Little Barnaby was left in a pink bucket next to a garbage can in a parking lot.

    Barnaby the box turtle in a pink bucket

    They were the lucky ones. Manny is staying at the Museum until we relocate him to a nature center in New Mexico, Kennicott has become part of the ‘team’ that does programming at the Museum and Barnaby? Well Barnaby lives with me now. When turtles are not provided with the right environment they will slowly start to shut down. They will refuse to eat, get weaker and dehydrate. We are working with Kennicott and Barnaby to try and kickstart their systems and rehabilitate them. The first task is to get them to start eating and the best way to do this is with a course of vitamin B shots. Firstly we weigh the turtle to establish how much medication to give them.

    • Barnaby getting weighed.

    • Kennicott on the scales.

    • Jamie preparing a Vitamin B shot.

    Turtles are not overly keen on receiving injections (who is?) So this is a two-person job. One person holds the turtle and grabs a leg. They have to hold on tight otherwise the turtle will pull into its shell and we are left with nothing to inject into! Then we clean the area of the injection

    Swabbing the hind leg


    Before administering the vitamin B into the hind leg

    Injecting into the hindleg


    The saline solution helps to combat dehydration. This has to be administered slowly and carefully, not always easy with an angry struggling turtle!

    Injecting into the hind leg


    This is done every 24 hours for five days and at the end of this time we hope to have stimulated their appetite sufficiently that they will begin feeding as voraciously as all our other turtles.

    Box Turtles are omnivores so they get fed earthworms, crickets, waxworms, mealworms, fish and occasionally as a treat, a pinkie mouse as well as a daily selection of fresh fruit and vegetables. That is another thing to bear in mind before taking on one of these charismatic creatures, there is a lot more involved than just a bowl of lettuce!

    Celeste Troon, Director of Living Collections

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  • Spring is in the Air

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    Tags: spring, robin, mourning dove, birds, cardinals, Biology, nature, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

    Created: 3/6/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Though there is still snow on the ground, spring is in the air. Males of many species are setting up territories so that they can be sure to have resources ready to sow off to the females as they return to their Chicagoland breeding grounds. Birds are particularly obvious because of their loud calls. Listen for the territorial calls of Cardinals in the morning and throughout the day. I think they sound kind of like space phazers when they quickly chirp “cheer-cheer-cheer-cheer-cheer.” Sometimes they will vary this call and say “birdie-birdie-birdie.”

    Robins, too, are beginning to sing and they may gather in large numbers to feed on left over fruit still hanging on bushes and trees (I saw 16 in one tree earlier this month.) They are working to build strength for the territorial sing-off that will peak over the next few months. Robins will begin singing before we can even see the light of dawn; in our area, that may be as early as 3am. They are calling to the females who have been flying all night and now need a place to rest, feed, and maybe stay to breed.

    Male Robin singing on a tree branch



    Male Mourning Doves aren’t cooing much yet but they are on the lookout for nest sites worth wooing over. Though males and females look about the same, as they begin to pair up, you’ll be able to distinguish the male easily. He’s the one doing all the bowing, cooing, and chest puffing as he tries to show the female that he will be a worthy mate.

    Canada geese have already begun pairing up. Although Canada geese are not sexually dimorphic, that is the males and female look the same, it is possible to distinguish both pairs and rivals in the flock. It's very interesting to watch individuals interact with other members of the flock on North Pond this time of year. There is a lot of aggressive beahvior like hissing, head bowing, and mouth open chasing but there is also a lot of pre-breeding activity. You might see a pair of geese taking a walk in the park, away from the flock, or they might just stand around and look at each other near a potential nest site. 

    As territorial behaviors increase, you may find a birds attacking your car’s mirrors or a window on your house. Birds don’t understand what reflections are so, when they see themselves in your window or mirror, they think it’s an intruder that hasn’t been scared off by their loud singing. So, a battle ensues and the resident bird is unlikely to give up. Just make it so the bird can’t see his reflection--put a piece of paper on the outside of the window, position a lamp so the light overpowers the reflection, put some soap or whitewash over the reflecting area.

    Although birds are easy to spot this time of year, if you look carefully, you’ll be able to find salamanders and fish making nests and wooing mates, too. This kind of activity will increase substantially as the weather warms, the days lengthen, and plants begin to actively grow again.

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

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