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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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  • Poison Posies

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    Tags: plants, poison, edible, toxic

    Created: 2/27/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    If you visit the museum during the growing season, you’re likely to find me out on the grounds somewhere looking quite dapper in dirt-stained pants and a wide brim hat, a stalk of foxtail grass dangling from my lip. Or you might catch me pausing, rake or shovel in hand, to pluck and nibble on hackberries, purslane, or wood sorrel. City folk (I’m allowed to say that because I spent my first thirty years of life in West Virginia) often give me strange looks. Some even feel compelled to remark upon my behavior: “You shouldn’t be eating that.” “Don’t put that in your mouth, you don’t know where it’s been.” “What if a dog peed on that?” Or the always attention-getting, “OH MY GOD THAT’S POISONOUS YOU’RE GOING TO DIE!!”

    At this point, I politely explain that I’m a horticulturist, so knowing which plants are nummy and which might leave one “in repose” is right in my wheelhouse. In other words: Trust me – I’m a professional.

    Interestingly, people who aren’t in the know often assume plants to be more dangerous than they actually are.*  While a decent percentage of the 250,000 described plant species will send one running to the nearest restroom if consumed in quantity, only a few dozen are known to be toxic enough to truly be considered deadly.

    In our area, plants of the genus Cicuta (commonly known as water hemlock or cowbane) are among this group. Ingesting even small amounts of the roots can result in a long list of nervous and cardiac difficulties, including that most incurable of symptoms, death. In some sort of sick, cosmic joke, water hemlock fairly closely resembles the edible (though disappointingly tough and fibrous) wild carrot. Now would be a good time to reread that first asterisk at the bottom.

    Other nasties that grow wild in our area include Doll’s Eyes (Actaea pachypoda), Canada Moonseed (Menispermum canadense), and Black Nightshade (Solanum nigrum). But if you really want a “who’s who” of plants that can kill you, look no further than your local botanical garden. There, you’re almost certain to find Monk’s Hood, Foxglove, Oleander, Delphinium, Autumn Crocus, Laburnum, Yews, Privets, and Azaeleas.

    In fact, your local botanical institution is quite possibly, at this moment, in posession of two of the deadliest substances known to exist. The Castor Bean (Ricinus communis) and the Rosary Pea (Abrus precatorius) are both widely grown – the former as an ornamental and for the production of castor oil, the latter for its decorative seeds. The seeds of these plants contain small amounts of two astoundingly toxic protiens – ricin and abrin, respectively. According to the European Food Safety Agency, a mere 3 milligrams of ricin is enough to kill an adult human. Pretty impressive. But only until you find out that abrin can kill at doses 150 times lower**.

    Rosary pea, poisonous, and Western Water Hemlock, poisonous       

    Believe it or not, my point is not to frighten you into never touching a plant again. Deaths from plant poisoning are exceedingly rare in the US. (One study I found counted 30 deaths in 18 years, some of these cases involving attempted recreational use of plants such as Jimsonweed.) Compare that to the average 50 or so lightning deaths per year and you start to get the idea: Experimenting with wild edibles is a pretty safe pastime. A good way to start is to learn the bad guys by heart. Because fortunately, scary though they are, they are the exceptions. And next time you see me outside the museum, ask me what I’m eating.

    *A message from the nice man with the briefcase and the power tie looking over my shoulder: Don’t eat any plant you do not know to be edible or cannot positively identify.

    ** Dickers et al, Toxicological Reviews, 2003 - Volume 22 - Issue 3

    Seth Harper
    Museum Horticulturist

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  • Where Do Butterflies Go in the Winter?

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    Tags: winter, butterflies, conservation, Mourning cloak, baltimore checkerspot, painted lady, monarch, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago Academy of Sciences

    Created: 2/22/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Even though it's been a pretty mild winter, we have had some snow and cold weather. It's been months since I've seen a butterfly outside - yet I'm quite confident that as the weather warms next spring, there will again be butterflies here in northeastern Illinois. So where are the butterflies now?  Did they migrate off someplace else? Are they hibernating? As it turns out, the answer varies from species to species.

    Some butterflies do spend the winter elsewhere. The most familiar example is the Monarch, which spends the winters in the highlands of Michoacán in Mexico. It's the only local species that makes an annual round-trip migration.

    Monarch butterflies in Mexico
    Monarch butterflies in Mexico



    About a dozen other species spend the winter in the desert southwest or along the Gulf Coast in the Deep South. These include species such as the Buckeye, Painted Lady, and Little Yellow. They don't seem to have much of an organized southward migration; they simply die off in more northern locales as the weather cools in the fall. Each spring they begin dispersing northward as the weather warms, though it may take several generations to arrive here.

    Painted Lady butterfly
    Painted Lady



    Although it may be hard to believe, especially on a really cold day in the middle of winter, some species of butterflies hibernate and spend the entire winter here. Each species has one particular life stage that hibernates. There are examples of all four species being used. Species such as the Purplish Copper overwinter as eggs. These are laid on twigs or leaves, where they remain for the entire winter.  Many species, including Baltimore Checkerspots, hibernate as caterpillars. The caterpillars burrow into the leaf litter at the base of their host plants as fall approaches. Many swallowtail butterflies spend the winter as chrysalises. About a half dozen Illinois species, such as Mourning Cloaks, even overwinter as adults.  They spend the winter tucked into crevices in logs, or underneath loose bark on trees. These are the species that can be seen flying on the very first warm days of spring, and occasionally even during warm spells in January or February.

    Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars
    Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars



    How do the hibernating butterflies survive? As cold-blooded animals, their body temperatures drop to that of their surroundings. The secret turns out to be in their chemistry. As the days shorten during the autumn, they begin secreting natural antifreezes into their body fluids. The natural antifreezes are necessary no matter which life stage overwinters. If ice crystals form they rupture cells, which is fatal to eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises and adult butterflies alike. The natural antifreezes are small molecules such as glycerol. Glycerol shares many chemical properties with the antifreeze that is used in car engines.  Although the body temperature of a hibernating butterfly may drop to well below zero, the glycerol in its body fluids prevents the formation of ice crystals. The butterfly can therefore survive the very low temperatures, become active again when the weather warms in the spring and complete the life cycle.  Next time you are taking a walk in midwinter, consider that there are thousands of butterflies tucked away in warm spots, waiting to fly next summer.

    Mourning Cloak butterfly
    Mourning Cloak



    Doug Taron, Curator of Biology

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  • Behind the Scenes of A Meticulous Beauty

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    Tags: A Meticulous Beauty, insects, exhibits, Jennifer Angus, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

    Created: 2/20/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Internationally known artist Jennifer Angus was at the Nature Museum in November to install her exquisite artwork in the south gallery of our second floor. It took three days and several pairs of hands to cover the gallery with insects from Malaysia, Thailand, French Guiana, and Papua New Guinea. I was able to help along with Jennifer’s assistant, a few other staff and a dedicated volunteer. It was neat to see the project unfold before my eyes. My favorite part was hearing the “oohs” and “ahs” as the elevator doors opened and visitors caught their first glimpse of the space.

    Prior to her arrival, Jennifer had sent us the specifications for her design. The walls were painted a cool aqua color with yellow polka dots. In order to create the vertical lines in the pattern, she started by setting up a thread grid along the walls.

    Thread grid along walls of exhibit.


    Using a hammer and special insect pins, we delicately placed each insect along the grid in an alternating pattern. Some insects needed an extra bracing pin to stay in position.

    The exhibits team and Jennifer Angus pin insect specimens to the wall

    The exhibits team and Jennifer Angus pin insect specimens to the wall


    Jennifer’s artwork resulted in a whimsical design of flower-like shapes that draw the eye up and down.

    A Meticulous Beauty, finished.


    You can learn more about the artist and her intent by visiting the gallery. We are delighted to have this unique installation at the Nature Museum, and we hope you get a chance to see it soon!

    Jacqueline Abreo
    Exhibits Team

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  • Exhibit Evaluation at the Nature Museum

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    Tags: public programs, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, exhibits, exhibit evaluation, volunteer

    Created: 2/13/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    The Nature Museum continually evaluates visitor usage of our permanent and temporary exhibits. Why do we do it?

    According to Exhibit Evaluator Hannah Im, “It is important for us to know how visitors experience different exhibits. It allows us to understand how they are currently used, and what improvements we can make in the development of upcoming exhibits.”  

    Hannah Im
    Hannah Im

    At the Nature Museum, we use two methods to collect data on exhibit usage- observation and interviews.

    Observation: You may have seen our volunteer evaluators in the galleries with clipboards and stopwatches. They are observing visitors and collecting data about time spent in the different areas of an exhibit.

    Interviews: As you leave an exhibit, you may be approached by another volunteer with a clipboard. These volunteers are collecting information about what visitors learn during their time in an exhibit.

    Hannah Im with museum visitors

    Using these methods, our Exhibits team is able to build a clear picture of how visitors use exhibits, what they learn, and suggestions for improvement. Please do your part to improve our exhibits by completing the short questionnaires when requested. You may even get a sticker!

    Volunteers are essential to the Nature Museum’s exhibit evaluation project. Volunteer Allan Zemsky has been working with us on the project for almost a year. Alan says, "I enjoy Visitor Studies at the Nature Museum because you get to observe our guests in action at the various exhibits. I can in turn give feedback to the administration so they can better assist our guests in the future."

    Interested in volunteering with the exhibit evaluation team? It’s a great behind-the-scenes way to contribute with flexible hours to fit your schedule. Just email volunteer@naturemuseum.org to get started.

    Heather Grance
    Manager of Public Programs

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  • Love is in the air?

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    Tags: Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Valentin's Day, Pairing, Mating, Mantids, Invertebrates, Crustaceans, Scorpion, Praying Mantis, Box Turtle, Turtle

    Created: 2/11/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    When asked to write a blog posting about ‘the romancing habits’ of some of the animals in our living collections for Valentines Day I was a little flummoxed. After all the concept of Love and Romance is a very human idea. In the rest of the animal kingdom the drive is purely to successfully pass on your genes, by whatever means are necessary!

    Will Harrison our Eastern Box Turtle be buying chocolates and roses for his four lady friends? Absolutely not.

    Harrison the Box Turtle peeking out of his new home.

    Box Turtles are a solitary species with a small home range. Courtship, which takes place in spring, occurs usually between turtles with overlapping home ranges. Males find females primarily by sight but scent also plays a role. ‘Courtship’ consists of circling, biting and shoving. Not exactly the stuff of a steamy romance novel! So let us dispense with the term romance and call it what it is – mating. The desire to reproduce. (No blushing now, it is what sustains all species!) Now as a biologist, I feel on slightly more secure ground.

    Take for example, our Hermit Crabs. 

    Up close of a Hermit Crab.

    These fascinating crustaceans scuttle down to the edge of the ocean in large numbers to mate, they slide partially out of their shells and position themselves belly to belly. When her eggs are fertilized, the female will release up to 50,000 of them along the shoreline. When the eggs hatch the initial life stage is a sea dwelling planktonic larvae called a zoeae. This stage lasts about a month before developing into a tiny aquatic hermit crab. The tiny crabs will eventually move onto land, go through a series of molts, each time selecting an empty shell to inhabit for protection before reaching maturity at around two years.

    Of course I would be remiss when talking about our collections if I didn’t mention that most terrifying of lovers – the Praying mantis. The perfect antithesis to all those hearts and flowers!

    Praying Mantis on a garden shovel outside of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

    Mantises hunt by movement and there isn’t much discrimination when it comes to prey. Could this be described as the ultimate dinner date? The female will often eat the male during the mating process and the male is even capable of continuing to mate after he has been decapitated! I did mention that the drive to pass on genes was the be all and end all, even if this means giving up your life! And mantids aren’t the only ones who recognize that a well-fed female is more likely to successfully produce viable eggs, some katydid species will actually provide the female with ‘gifts’ of protein before attempting to mate.

    But not all invertebrates have such dramatic courtship.

    The Scorpion will attract a mate through vibrations and pheromones (no eharmony for these guys!) Then dancing! The dance takes the form of facing each other and grabbing their partners pedipalps. The dance even has a name – the ‘promenade a deux’. (French is after all, the language of love!) The male circles around with the female until he has positioned her over a reproductive package, which he previously deposited on the ground. This process can take from 1 to 25 hours! Once the package has been collected the male beats a hasty retreat to avoid a similar fate to the mantis!

    The female gives birth to live young, which she carries on her back until their first shed.

    Bark Scorpion with live young on her back.



    Suddenly sending a Valentines card and box of chocolates seems like a really easy option!

    Celeste Troon, Director of Living Collections

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  • Chicago Volunteer Expo

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    Tags: volunteer, Chicago Volunteer Expo, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, community

    Created: 2/6/2013      Updated: 5/27/2015

    Remember back in November when we blogged about all the ways your life will improve when you start volunteering? Well we have great news for you. We are hosting the first-ever Chicago Volunteer Expo right here at the Nature Museum on February 10th. This is your chance!


    This Sunday, you can meet folks from over 60 nonprofit organizations in need of smart, talented volunteers to do such a wide variety of projects that we can only mention a fraction of them in this blog post.

    Working Bikes Cooperative needs handy mechanics to repair bicycles. The Chicago Bird Collision Monitors want volunteers to traverse the city rescuing injured birds. FreeGeek Chicago is looking for people to help recycle old computer parts and teach community members how to use them. Sarah’s Circle needs volunteers to lead workshops in nutrition, job searching, and self defense for women who are homeless in Uptown.

    There are so many ways to help out and so many needs to be met. But here’s the big secret. This Expo is not really for the organizations. It’s for YOU. 

    For anyone who made a new year’s resolution to give back to their community. For anyone who wants to fight for the cause they truly care about. For anyone who wants to add a little meaning to their workaday lives. You are the people these nonprofits are searching for. Come meet them at the Chicago Volunteer Expo and start the conversation. 

    Did we mention it’s free?

    Sunday, February 10
    10 am to 4 pm
    Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
    2430 N Cannon Drive
    Free! All ages welcome!

    Jill Doub, Sarah and Nick Anderson
    Organizing Committee for the Chicago Volunteer Expo

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  • Spring Snake Romance

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    Tags: garter snake, snake, snakes, year of the snake

    Created: 2/6/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    With a blanket of snow on the ground we don’t expect to see local reptiles or amphibians but, as the days get longer, we are more likely to encounter our cold-blooded neighbors. In February, you can find spotted salamanders walking slowly under the ice, looking for mates. Later in the month, the noise of woodfrogs, spring peepers, and chorus frogs advertise territories. Amidst this flurry of amphibian breeding, garter snakes begin to emerge from their hibernacula. Though garter snakes relish a frog or salamander meal during the summer, this time of year they have one goal—mating.

    • Garter Snake Our resident garter snake

    • Garter Snake in the grassCan you find the garter snake?

    • Garter Snake peering out from tankKeeping an eye on visitors

    Male garter snakes emerge first, when the air temperature is still in the 30’s, to prepare for mating. On sunny days you might find one basking on a snowbank. Around March or April, the much larger, stout-bodied females will begin to emerge and will soon be surrounded by skinny males vying for a chance to fertilize the eggs she is carrying internally. Though “breeding balls” of dozens to hundreds of males are famous, in Chicagoland I usually only find 2-6 males per female. Interestingly, some males will behave like females. Apparently this behavior attracts other males who, when they pile on in an attempt to mate, help warm the imposter. At the same time, the ill-fated suitors are more likely to be eaten by predators, providing both a shield and decreasing the number of competitors for actual females.

    Once bred, female garter snakes retain their eggs (known as ovoviviparity) rather than lay them in a rotting log, like a rat snake. In this way it is easy for the female to move the eggs from one warm patch of sun to another, even in places where the ground stays very cold late into the summer. This behavior has allowed garter snakes to spread further north than any other group of snakes and ensures that garter snake babies are born earlier in the year than any other snake. It also explains the biology behind all the stories of kids bringing one big garter snake home, only to later find the house full of pencil-sized baby snakes.

    Chicago is home to a particularly striking form of the Garter Snake. It is found only in southeastern Wisconsin, northeastern Illinois and extreme northwestern Indiana in the vicinity of Chicago. The Chicago Garter Snake has a dark grey head and prominent broad black bars on its sides that break up the lateral stripes. If you can't go out looking for Garter Snakes yourself, you'll find the Nature Museum's resident Chicago Garter Snake in our Istock Look-In Lab.

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology
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  • Crafts and Nature Lessons

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    Tags: public programs, crafts, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, family fun, nature

    Created: 2/5/2013      Updated: 5/28/2015

    Part of my job as a Public Programs Educator is developing a monthly activity called “Drop by Family Fun”. The challenge is to come up with a nature based theme to teach through visuals and activities- 12 different topics each year. The themes are introduced to visitors of all ages- from small children to the adults they come with, and every age in between.

    Girl creating crafts at a table

    There are some things to think about when deciding on topics:

    1. Is it relevant to the Museum content?
    2. Can it be taught to different age groups?
    3. Is there a fun way to insure that participants will remember the lesson?

    The answer to the last one is “Make a craft!” Is there a better way to bring a fact home than with a craft? Here are some things that we have done in the past:

    • Make a pinecone bird feeder- to learn about urban birds
    • Make a light switch plate- to remind about energy conservation
    • Make a snake bookmark- to remember what animals are venomous or poisonous

    Participants take home a reminder of the fun lesson they learned at the Nature Museum during their visit. They can come back each month to discover a new subject, and hone their crafting skills once again.

    Crafting has other positive effects. Children can practice fine motor skills. Adults have valuable bonding moments with children when they assist with the project. Everyone gets to exercise natural creativity.

    We hope to see you soon for our monthly “Drop by Family Fun”. It takes place every Thursday, Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 to 1:00. Please see our program calendar on line or in print for the next upcoming nature topic. It’s time for me to get back to the drawing board for new subjects and crafts.

    Laura Saletta
    Public Programs Educator

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