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  • We March for Science

    Created: 4/20/2017      Updated: 4/20/2017

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    I often go for a long bike ride on Saturdays, but this weekend I’m trading my cycling gear for marching boots.

    I am proud and honored to lead a team of Chicago Academy of Sciences / Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum staff and volunteers at Saturday’s March for Science. How appropriate is it, on Earth Day, to march in solidarity with scientists and science teachers, including those on our staff! Scientists and science teachers are on the front lines in helping the public understand and appreciate the wonders of nature and science.

    Our largest department at the Museum is education, and for good reason. Now, more than ever, it is critical to provide science-based data, facts and science education programs so that everyone can understand how our actions affect nature and the environment on which we all depend for life.

    And as Chicago’s oldest museum, we’ve been at the forefront of teaching and connecting people to nature and science for 160 years. In fact, our educators provide more hours of hands-on education to students than any museum in Chicago.

    That’s why we developed our newest exhibit, Our House: Rethinking Home in a Changing Climate, which helps people think about how our choices affect the environment.

    In celebration of this Earth Day, I encourage families to simply have a discussion about nature and the environment and how they are both critical to our health and overall wellbeing. Take a moment to step outside and observe all the nature that surrounds us, right here in our urban area. If you and your family look for simple ways to connect more with the outdoors, it is amazing how those decisions will grow and harvest with time.

     “The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history... It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.” - Rachel Carson

    On that note, we encourage your participation at the March for Science! Please do say hello to our team if you see us proudly carrying Nature Museum signs. And, of course, the Nature Museum is open all day on Earth Day, so feel free to stop by throughout the day or after the march.

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  • Marching for Science this Earth Day


    Tags: march for science

    Created: 4/7/2017      Updated: 4/8/2017

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    Collage of museum staff and visitor

    As Chicago’s oldest museum, the Chicago Academy of Sciences/Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum has been at the forefront of connecting people in our city and region to nature and science since 1857.
    We celebrate nature and science every day at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, but never more so than on April 22. In addition to Earth Day, April 22 is also the international March for Science, and Chicago is one of more than 300 cities that will have its own March. It’s a chance to support scientists and science teachers throughout the world, including our own Museum scientists, science educators and volunteers.
    Many members of our team – staff and volunteers – will participate in the March For Science. Anyone is able to join the March – and we would welcome your participation. Because of the expected size of the March, we are not organizing an official Nature Museum group – but please say hi if you see our staff, volunteers and Trustees among the participants proudly carrying Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum signs.
    For 160 years, the Chicago Academy of Sciences/Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum has been passionate advocates for the importance of science and nature education. From founder Robert Kennicott to former Academy president Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin, one of the first scientists to highlight carbon dioxide’s role in regulating the planet’s temperature, to the work of our scientists in the field and our educators in the classroom—this is who we are and what we do.
    The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum will be open, as usual, on Earth Day -  so feel free to stop by throughout the day, or after the March.
    You can experience the new exhibit Our House: Rethinking Home in a Changing Climate, visit the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven, enjoy some fresh air on our outdoor exhibit Nature Trails and reflect on and nurture your family’s connection and appreciation of nature and science.

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  • Learn About Butterflies Day - The Regal Fritillary

    Created: 3/14/2017      Updated: 3/14/2017

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    Today is #LearnAboutButterfliesDay! The Judy Istock Butterfly Haven is a great place to learn about all types of exotic butterflies and moths (especially on a cold, snowy day like today!), but what about our native butterflies? Check out this video to all about one of our native species, and the work our scientists do with this species!

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  • A #DayofFacts

    Created: 3/1/2017      Updated: 4/23/2018

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    We were proud to participate in the first ever Day of Facts on February 17. On that day, 250 organizations across the US and around the world used social media to educate and engage their followers on areas ranging from STEM education to conservation. During that time we shared information about our history, our founders, our education programs, our conservation research, and our upcoming exhibit.

    You can check out all of our #DayofFacts posts by checking out our Storify page below.

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  • Why Do Trees Have Knots?

    Created: 2/6/2017      Updated: 3/3/2017

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    In this series, we'll be addressing some common questions from visitors and readers. Do you have a science question that has you stumped? Ask our museum scientists via our form here and we'll answer it on our blog!

    Today's Question:

    Why do trees have knots?


    Tree knots are also known as "burls". Burls form on the outside of trees as a reaction to stress. Trees don't have strict parents or follow politics, so what stress could trees possibly have?

    Dozens of burls on a centuries-old cypress tree at the Beijing Temple of Confucius in China [1]

    Stress, to trees, is life-threatening. Stress is injury from an axe or chainsaw. Stress is infection from insects or bacteria. Stress is extreme flooding or drought.[2] A burl is formed as a last-ditch effort to save the tree's life after an injury or infection. A burl protects a tree like a scar.

    A burl can do more than seal off a wound like a scar. Redwoods use burls for self-defense like other trees, but redwood burls can actually sprout and create new redwood trees.[3] This is an important part of the redwood life cycle: if a redwood thinks that it may die from injury or disease, the redwood creates burls that can sprout many more redwoods in its place.

    It's knot not all smooth sailing once the tree has protected itself with a burl. Wood from a burl is prized by woodworkers for its intricate design, and some will pay top dollar for it. Burl hunters use saws to hack the burl off, giving the tree a fresh wound. Poachers will even steal redwood burls from national forests, resorting, at times, to killing the tree.[4]

    A park ranger in Redwood National Park inspects a redwood tree attacked by poachers for its burl [5]

    Burls aren't the only reaction that trees have as a response to stress. Nature can get creative. Acacia trees in Africa get stressed when antelope or giraffes start eating the tree's leaves. The acacia tree, in defense, releases bitter chemicals called tannins that make the leaves too bitter to eat. That's not all: the tannins are released into the air and alert other acacia trees nearby to begin producing tannins as well. Smart giraffes know to eat trees that are downwind first, so as not to alert other trees nearby![6]

    All living things undergo stress--it's just part of being alive. Every living organism deals with stress in its own way. That being said, if your stress is giving you knots, see a doctor. I'm a blog author, not a physician. Seek professional advice.

    Kyle Schiber
    Nature Museum Volunteer

    [1], By Laurent Bélanger (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

    [2] Feeley, Tivon. Iowa State University. (23 October, 2007) Retrieved January 31, 2017, from

    [3] Redwood National and State Parks. Retrieved February 1, 2017 from

    [4] Brown, Patricia Leigh. Poachers Attack Beloved Elders of California, Its Redwoods. (8 April, 2014) Retrieved January 30, 2017 from

    [5] Bomke, Jeff. National Park Service. (28 February, 2014) Retrieved February 1, 2017, from

    [6] Hughes, Sylvia. Antelope activate the acacia’s alarm system. (29 September, 1990) Retrieved February 3, 2017, from

    Do you have a science question that has you stumped? Ask our museum scientists via our form here and we'll answer it on our blog!

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  • Where Do Butterflies Go At Night?

    Created: 1/6/2017      Updated: 3/3/2017

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    In this series, we'll be addressing some common questions from visitors and readers. Do you have a science question that has you stumped? Ask our museum scientists via our form here and we'll answer it on our blog!

    Today's Question:

    Where do butterflies go at night?

    The Short Answer:

    Simple, right? Butterflies are active during the day, so at night they find a hiding place and go to sleep. In the same way, moths are active at night and during the day moths hide and rest.

    Animals that sleep during the night, like most butterflies, are diurnal. Animals that sleep during the day, like most moths, are nocturnal

    Never seen a sleeping butterfly? A sleeping butterfly would make an easy meal for a nocturnal predator! If you're dedicated to finding one, check under leaves, in between rocks, or even between blades of grass.[1] Or maybe, because most butterflies only live for a month or two, you should just leave them be: they only get a few dozen sleeps!

    If only it were that simple! I would have had less to write and you would have had less to read.

    "Most?" I can hear you saying, "Why do you keep saying 'most'? Aren't moths the ones that fly at night and butterflies the ones that sleep at night?"

    And you would be correct, most of the time.

    The reality is, nature is incredibly diverse. There are over 17,500 species of butterfly and 160,000 species of moth.[2] Ten percent of all known species of organisms are either butterflies or moths![3] Biologists can create simple rules, like "butterflies fly during the day", but these rules are bound to have exceptions because of the sheer number of species involved. As an experiment, what simple rules could you create to define what separates every single cat from every single dog? Size? Ear shape? Tail length? It's not so easy!

    The Long(er) Answer:

    It wouldn't be right to give so many "mosts" without giving examples. Let's get to it.

    There is a family of butterflies called Hedylidae known as the "American moth-butterflies" that sleeps during the day and is active at night.[4] There is a genus of moth, Hemaris, that resembles bumblebees or hummingbirds. These moths are active during the day and sleep at night.[5] 

    Hummingbird? No hummingbird I've ever seen has had antennae. This is a hummingbird hawk moth![6]

    Most butterflies emerge from a chrysalis. Not so for the family of butterflies called Parnassius, which emerge from a loose, silk cocoon.[7] Meanwhile, the tropical hawk moths of the family Sphingidae don't emerge from a cocoon at all: their pupas are unwrapped and exposed and the adult moths emerge from underground. How about a moth that wraps itself like a butterfly? Nature has those too: the gypsy moth, an invasive species to the northeast United States, has a pupal stage that looks much more like a chrysalis than a cocoon.

    Cocoon? Chrysalis? Tough to tell, but it's definitely not hatching a butterfly: this is the pupa of the gypsy moth.[8]

    Most butterflies only live as adult butterflies for a few months. This is especially true for tropical butterflies like the ones showcased in the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven. Butterfly species that must survive a cold winter, like the Illinois-native monarch butterfly, have an adult phase that lives long enough to migrate south to Mexico in the fall and return home to the central United States in the spring.[9]

    So. Where do butterflies go at night? To sleep. But most biologists will give you a much longer answer that most people agree goes a little too far.

    Kyle Schiber
    Nature Museum Volunteer


    [1] North American Butterfly Association. (2016) Butterfly Questions and Answers. Retrieved December 18, 2016, from

    [2] Smithsonian Institution. (2016) Bug Info: Moths. Retrieved December 19, 2016, from

    [3] Mallet, Jim. (19, Jan 2014) The Lepidoptera Taxome Project Draft Proposals and Information. Retrieved January 2, 2017 from

    [4] Scoble, Malcolm J. and Aiello, Annette. (1990) Moth-like butterflies (Hedylidae: Lepidoptera): a summary, with comments on the egg. Retrieved December 18, 2016 from

    [5] Taraglia, Elena. (15, July 2015) Year of the Sphingidae – Diurnal Moths. Retrieved December 20, 2016 from

    [6], By IronChris (Own work) (], via Wikimedia Commons

    [7] Butterflies and Moths of North America. (2016) Attributes of Parnassius Clodius. Retrieved December 20, 2016 from

    [8], by ©entomart [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

    [9] Monarch Joint Venture. (2016) Monarch Migration. Retrieved January 2, 2017 from

    Do you have a science question that has you stumped? Ask our museum scientists via our form here and we'll answer it on our blog!

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  • Is Corn a Grass?

    Created: 12/5/2016      Updated: 3/3/2017

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    In this new series, we'll be addressing some common questions from visitors and readers. Do you have a science question that has you stumped? Ask our museum scientists via our form here and we'll answer it on our blog!

    Today's Question:

    Is corn a grass?

    The Short Answer:

    A cob of corn may not resemble the green grass growing in your lawn, but if you ask any biologist or botanist, they will tell you that yes, the corn plant is a grass!

     Ears of corn

    Photo courtesy of Meg Stewart (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    How can that be? First, biologists study the features of plants and animals. Then, biologists create groups of plants and animals that have the same features. This science of grouping similar plants and animals together is called taxonomy. For example, the science of taxonomy says that "mammals" are animals that have fur, give live birth to babies, and feed their babies with milk. In taxonomy, a "grass" refers to a specific group of plants. Grasses have leaves that grow around the stem, and each leaf has a central “vein” that helps support the leaf. Grasses have flowers at the top of their stem in a shape called a "spikelet," and those flowers do not have petals.[1] Using that definition from taxonomy, both lawn grass and the corn plant are grass! When you compare corn and lawn grass like a botanist, you can see how the two plants are related. In the pictures of grass[6] and corn[7] below, what similarities do you see?

    Lawn Grass                                                  Corn

    What other groups of animals or plants can you think of? What features do they have in common?

    If you really want to get confused, ask a botanist about fruits: a botanist will tell you that cucumbers, pumpkins, peanuts, and chili peppers are all fruits! The lesson is, when a botanist offers you a fruit salad, make sure you get a list of ingredients before you accept.

    The Long(er) Answer:

    The original corn plant does resemble a wild grass plant, but thousands of years of domestication by the native peoples of central Mexico have turned a wild, small-seeded grass known as teosinte into the familiar plant we know today. The kernels of early corn were either ground into a rough flour, or soaked in water, drained, and heated over a fire.

    Modern corn is so unlike its genetic predecessor that the origin of corn was a complete mystery to archaeologists until the 1930s when a graduate student named George Beadle experimentally determined the connection between teosinte and the modern corn plant.[2] Even still, corn and teosinte look so different that it took decades longer for the rest of the scientific community to agree with these experimental results!

    Maybe the mystery of corn's origin would have been solved sooner had etymologists and botanists been comparing notes: the Aztec word for teosinte, teocentli, means "God's ear of corn," and teosinte is known in some regions of Mexico as madre de maiz or "mother of corn"![3]

    The corn we grow today has been so selectively bred and utterly domesticated that corn cannot even survive without humans to plant it into the ground: if a cob of corn kernels falls to the ground and germinates, the cluster of seeds is so dense that they compete against each other for water and nutrients and few seedlings grow to maturity. In only a few generations without human intervention, modern corn would become extinct.[3]

    But other cereal crops like wheat, barley, and oats still grow on plants that still obviously look like grass, and those crops have a history of domestication as far back as corn. Why is corn unique?

    It's important to remember that small genetic mutations can create profound changes in an organism[4] It's possible that during domestication, random mutations occurred in early corn plants that did not randomly occur in other cereal crops. It's also possible that through genetic engineering, other cereal crops could be created with much larger grains as well. Scientists in Britain claim to have done just that with wheat, claiming to have created a strain of wheat with 40% greater yield than common wheat.[5]

    So, that’s that: corn isn’t a vegetable (botanically), but a wonder grass that feeds the western world. The only question that remains is, corn-fed beef or grass-fed beef: what’s really the difference?

    Kyle Schiber
    Nature Museum Volunteer

    [1] Eckardt, Nancy A. (2004) What Makes a Grass? DROOPING LEAF Influences Flower and Leaf Development in Rice. Retrieved December 03, 2016, from

    [2] Carroll, Sean B. (2010) Tracking the Ancestry of Corn Back 9,000 Years. Retrieved December 03, 2016, from

    [3] Beadle, George W. (1980) The Ancestry of Corn. Retrieved December 03, 2016, from

    [4] Genetic Science Learning Center. (2013, July 1) Evolution of Corn. Retrieved December 03, 2016, from

    [5] Knapton, Sarah. (2016, November 4) Genetically modified wheat could be grown in Britain from next spring. Retrieved December 04, 2016, from

    [6], By Kelvinsong (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

    [7], By LadyofHats (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons, edited to enlarge text

    Do you have a science question that has you stumped? Ask our museum scientists via our form here and we'll answer it on our blog!

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  • World’s Largest Moth Makes Rare Appearance Inside Judy Istock Butterfly Haven

    Created: 11/1/2016      Updated: 11/1/2016

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    Atlas moth on bird feeder

    For the next week, guests at the Chicago Academy of Sciences / Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum will have the opportunity to see the world’s largest moth. The Atlas Moth recently arrived from Malaysia and will join the charismatic Birdwing Butterfly, Blue Morpho and 1,000 fluttering friends in our signature attraction.

    The Judy Istock Butterfly Haven features more than 40 different types of butterflies and a variety of unique birds in a serene and colorful space featuring pools of water, flowers and tropical trees.

    The Atlas Moth – whose wingspan extends averages 9 inches—is also larger than any species of butterfly. The Atlas Moth is much easier to see and photograph than the typical butterfly or moth because it spends most of its time perched on vegetation. Its wings feature shades of brown and cream with some red markings and the outer tips resemble the head of a snake.

    Some facts about Atlas Moths include:

    • Their large cocoons are used as purses in Taiwan because they are made of such sturdy silk.
    • Atlas Moths have no functional mouth and don’t eat as adults. They live on their fat reserves and their lifespan (1-2 weeks) is shorter than the average butterfly/moth.
    • Once they emerge from their cocoon, they never close their wings.

    Animated image of Atlas moth flapping its wings

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  • Wallace Atwood and the Atwood Celestial Sphere


    Tags: atwood, atwood celestial sphere, adler planetarium

    Created: 7/19/2016      Updated: 7/24/2016

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    Wallace Atwood inside the Atwood SphereWallace W. Atwood inside the Atwood Celestial Sphere

    On July 24, 1949 the great Wallace W. Atwood died at the age of 76. As a geographer and geologist, Atwood wrote and contributed to textbooks, taught classes, and even contributed to the New Jersey Geological Survey and the Wisconsin Natural History Survey. Although you may not immediately recognize his name, he contributed an important exhibit to the history of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and one of our fellow Chicago museums.

    Illustration of Atwood Sphere from Popular ScienceThe Atwood Sphere in 1913 (Photo from Popular Science)

    The Atwood Celestial Sphere opened at the Academy in June of 1913. What set it apart from other planetariums of the period was its ability to rotate around visitors as they stood inside it. Atwood, who served on the Academy’s Board and briefly as Acting Director of the museum, designed the incredible apparatus and it helped usher in a new age of planetariums.

    Photo of Atwood Sphere in 1913, courtesy of Popular ScienceIllustration of the Atwood Sphere (From Popular Science)

    The sphere was constructed of a thin galvanized sheet metal and only measured 15 feet in diameter. Tiny perforations in the exterior of the sphere allowed light to penetrate, appearing as stars to those viewing from the inside. Atwood designed the celestial sphere to portray the stellar sky as seen from Chicago and visitors would watch as the sun, moon, and stars rotated around them in simulation of Earth’s orbit through the solar system. The sphere was utilized heavily for educational programs at the Academy. School groups, clubs, and other visitors would tour the sphere, with programs often led by Atwood himself during his time with the Academy. 

    Photo of Academy in 1980s, featuring Atwood Sphere in the backgroundThe Sphere as it looked in the Laflin Memorial Building in 1987

    When the Academy began extensive redesign of its exhibits and developing life zone dioramas in the 1960s, the exterior of the Sphere was painted to look like the Earth and the ceiling of the Laflin Building painted to look like the night sky to blend more readily with the new exhibits. When the Academy moved from the Laflin Building in 1995, the Sphere was transferred to the Adler Planetarium, officially making the move on December 16, 1997. Once it was transferred the staff at the Adler began to restore it to its original 1913 appearance. The geographical features that had been built up on the Sphere’s exterior were flattened, paint was removed and the original star holes were cleaned. Instead of walking into the Sphere, visitors now enter the Sphere in a motorized cart, and the Sphere rotates around the cart, but the experience is very similar to what Academy visitors experience when they walked into the Sphere in 1913.

    Photo of Atwood Sphere on exhibit at the Adler PlanetariumThe Atwood Sphere as it looks today on exhibit at the Adler Planetarium

    You can learn more about the Atwood Celestial Sphere, and its time at the Academy, by checking out this January 1914 issue of Popular Science (then known as The Popular Science Monthly) here.

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  • Protecting Pollinators


    Tags: pollinator, pollinators, bees, butterflies

    Created: 7/12/2016      Updated: 7/29/2016

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    Bee on flower

    If you love pollinators as much as we do, you’re probably aware of the recent population decline of many pollinator species. The fact that 75% of our food is made possible because of pollination from butterflies, bees and other species has made this problem an international priority. Groups like the International Pollinator Initiative are working to highlight the need for public participation and awareness.

    Deb Lahey with Fidel Marquez

    It’s become a local priority as well. On Earth Day of this year, we were happy to host ComEd as the company announced its plan to improve Monarch butterfly breeding areas around its transmission lines. Fidel Marquez, Senior Vice President of Governmental and External Affairs for ComEd, joined us to announce ComEd's plan to increase the mixture of milkweed plants used in its prairie restoration program by more than 30%. Meanwhile, at the Nature Museum, we are continually working to protect and reestablish populations of locally imperiled butterflies. Our efforts are to coordinate the restoration of their native habitat, to propagate imperiled butterflies in our Conservation Lab for the purpose of reintroduction, and to monitor butterfly populations throughout the state with the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network citizen science program.

    Regal Fritillary butterfly on flower Swamp Metalmark butterfly on flower

    Two native species we continually work within our Butterfly Restoration Project are the Regal Fritillary (Speyeria idalia), and the Swamp Metalmark (Calephelis muticum). The swamp metalmark, endangered in Illinois, is a rare butterfly that can only be found in wetlands. Its populations are small and intensely local in nature. In contrast, the Regal Fritillary was once common in tallgrass prairies across the country but now is rarely seen east of the Mississippi River. In fact, it is now threatened in Illinois. The Regal Fritillary was recently designated a priority species by the Chicago Wilderness Council with the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum as the lead partner to coordinate regional efforts to conserve this species. We are also lead partners on two other species, the Monarch Butterfly and the Rusty Patched Bumblebee, and are currently working with Chicago Wilderness developing strategies to protect these species throughout the region.

    We are also doing what we can to help out one of our most effective pollinators, the Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) by hosting a number of beehives on our green roof. You will see our bees' hard at work when you visit our outdoor exhibits Nature Trails and the Woody Wickham Butterfly Garden.

    Wondering how you can work to help pollinators? Here are a few easy ways to start:

    • Plant more native species and pollinator-friendly plants in your yard and garden. Check out this brochure to help you get started.
    • Avoid using pesticides whenever possible. Remove pests by hand and use non-systemic pesticides such as insecticidal soap if necessary.
    • Support the upkeep of our own Woody Wickham Butterfly Garden as it continues to serve as a way-station and food source for Monarchs and other species.
    • Don’t use insecticides on bee swarms. If you notice a swarm on your property, contact a local honey co-op (like the Chicago Honey Co-Op) and a beekeeper will come and remove it from your property.

    Thanks to Rose Pest Solutions for sponsoring this post.

    Rose Pest Solutions logo

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