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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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  • Educator Book Recommendations

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    Tags: book recommendations, education, nature, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Biology

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

    Let’s face it, we have had a mild winter so far, but as most Chicagoans know this could change at any time. We could be faced with winter storms, sub-zero temperatures and gale force winds. Those are the days that could force you to stay inside and read a good book. With that in mind, I recently posed a question to the Museum education department – tell me about your favorite book about nature. The responses were varied and interesting we even had a response from outside the education department. I hope you take the time to read some of our recommendations!

    Michelle Rabkin, Student Programs Coordinator:
    This is my favorite coffee table book, which captivates audiences from 2 to 100 years old. We also use it at the Museum as a resource for programs. This book is visually stunning even if you don’t read a word in it!


    Animal, The Definitive Guide to the World's Wildlife

    The natural world is a dynamic place and our understanding of it is forever growing and changing. Since Animal was first published in 2001, the African elephant has been reclassified into two species, a cat-sized rat has been discovered in Papua New Guinea, the only plant-eating spider has been found in Central America, a bird-eating fanged frog has been located in Vietnam, and more than 1,250 new species of amphibians have been identified.



    Kelly Harland, Museum Educator:
    These books are wonderful for elementary aged through adults.

    Andrew Henry's Meadow by Doris Burn

    In this book you meet Andrew Henry who loves to build things. He builds all sorts of inventions to help his family, but he ends up in the way so he runs to a meadow where he builds himself and his friends houses suited to all their interests. It is a wonderful and creative book about unstructured play and building.

    Owl Moon by Jane Yolen

    In this beautifully written story a young girl goes owling with her dad on a quiet snowy evening. The illustrations are beautiful and the readers become caught up in the quiet, stillness of the story.

    Two Bad Ants by Chris Van Allsburg

    This is the story of two ants who get left behind in a sugar bowl to eat their fill instead of returning with their crystal to the ant hill. They get scooped up in an adventure as a human makes his breakfast. It is a fun ant’s eye view of a kitchen. 



    Rafael Rosa, Vice President of Education:

    A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

    The book describes Bill’s effort to walk the Appalachian Trail with a friend. While not specifically about nature, he incorporates quite a bit about the history and natural history of the Appalachian Mountains. His description of the American Chestnut and our loss of the species due to disease has always stuck with me. Humorous and thought-provoking, it is not only one of my favorite books about nature but one of my favorite books in general.


    Josie Elbert, Associate Director of Education Programs:

    Bees, Snails and Peacock Tails by Betsy Franco

    This is a great book to introduce or confirm the terrific patterns and shapes found in nature. I love that the text mirrors the vivid illustrations. I’m inspired when I learn or notice something new from a children’s book! This book did that, and it’s one I’ll add to our family’s collection.


    Karen Wilson, Living Invertebrate Specialist:


    Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley

    This book is by a world-renowned animal behaviorist who looks in detail at the amazing process of house hunting and the democratic debate that takes place to make a move.  E.O. Wilson sings his praises. 

    Bugs in the System by May Berenbaum

    This is a great read as it looks at insects and their impact on human history from the Silk trade routes, the Napoleonic wars, and current culture.  Cool stuff.


    Barbara Powell, Associate Director of Education Operations:


    The Earth Moved by Amy Stewart

    This book goes underground to let us all discover the earthworm and all of its glories.  From Charles Darwin’s experiments to a discussion about earthworms as an invasive species, this book is interesting and will tell you all you need to know about our subterranean composters.  This book is best for an adult audience but the facts and information discussed would be fascinating for school aged children.

    I hope you enjoy these books and look for more recommendations to come!

    Barb Powell 
    Associate Director of Education Operations

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  • Groundhog, Woodchuck, or Whistlepig?

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    Tags: Groundhog day, whistlepig, ground squirrel, ground squirrells, woodchuck, woodchucks, holiday, Steve Sullivan, Chicago Academy of Sciences, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

    Created: 2/1/2013      Updated: 5/28/2015

    Squirrels are a very diverse group of rodents. This little Bornean tree squirrel is among the smallest while the American groundhog is among the largest. The groundhog (Marmota monax)can be found through most of the country and consequently have many names like woodchuck and whistlepig. Here is a groundhog skin from the Academy’s collection next to North America’s smallest squirrel, the Red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)—not to be confused with the Fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), which is pretty big compared to a red squirrel.

    Bornean Squirrel skin from the Chicago Academy of Sciences Collection. Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum Groundhog skin and Red Squirrel skin from Chicago Academy of Sciences. Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
    Borneo Tree Squirrel
                           Groundhog and Red Squirrel

    Fox squirrel. Chicago Academy of Sciences. Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
    Fox Squirrel

    Although all of these animals are squirrels, the bushy-tailed tree squirrels remain active year round, relying on cached food to help them make it through the winter.  However, ground squirrels, like Groundhogs have a different strategy. They eat as much tender grass and other easily-digested plant material as they can during the growing season, and may double their spring weight with fat. Then, once cool weather sets in, they go deep in their burrows for a long winter’s sleep, dropping their heart rate from around 140 beats per minute to less than 20 and cooling their body down as well. Groundhogs will periodically rouse from torpor and re-warm their body before settling down again. Legend has it that during one of these warming bouts, they can predict the end of winter. While this is a fun tradition, there’s no evidence that squirrels actually have predictive powers. In fact, the legend apparently began in Germany where the most common charismatic hibernator is the hedgehog. Lacking hedgehogs in America, German immigrants transferred the idea to the local woodchucks and a fun holiday was born.

    Steve Sullivan View Comments

  • Venomous Snake Training

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

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

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

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

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

    • Gaboon Viper

      Gaboon Viper

    • Green Mamba

      Green Mamba

    • King Cobra

      King Cobra

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

    • Using the snake hook

      Using the snake hook

    • Wielding the snake tongs

      Wielding the snake tongs

    • Practicing tubing a snake

      Practicing "tubing" a snake

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


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

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

    Celeste Troon, Director of Living Collections



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  • Squirrel Appreciation Day

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    Tags: Squirrel Appreciation Day, squirrel, project squirrel

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

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

    Squirrel

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

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

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  • Green City Market Returns

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    Tags: Green City Market, recipe, leek, vegtables

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

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

    Potato Leek Soup

    Potato-Leek Soup with Bacon Recipe

    Prep Time: 20 minutes

    Cook Time: 25 minutes

    Servings: 4

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

    Directions

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

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

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

    Ashley Lundgren
    Public Interpretive Programs Volunteer

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  • Integrated Pest Management in the Butterfly Haven

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    Tags: pest management, butterfly haven, horticulture, insects

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

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

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

    Mealybug
    Mealybug Destroyers

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

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

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

    Ladybug
    Our workhorse, the Ladybug

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

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

    Andrew Wunschel
    Assistant Horticulturist

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  • Aldo Leopold

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

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

    Today is the birthday of Aldo Leopold.

    Aldo Leopold



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

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

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

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  • Nature and Foreign Language

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    Tags: language, family, polish, public programs

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

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

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

    Polish through Nature Class

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

    Polish through Nature Class

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

    Glenda Gonzalez
    Public Programs Coordinator

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