Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

Outdoor Fun for All Ages May 19, 2011

Almost every morning during the week I wake up, eat a banana and–if I’m organized enough and remembered to wash the old congealing milk out of it–pour coffee into my travel mug, climb into the car, and drive in the opposite direction of all the commuting traffic out into the neighboring community in which I work. After much planning, my outdoor days with grades K – 8 are finally here!

For these days I put together a series of outdoor activities and lead each class through them, teaching them about topics they have learned throughout the year in as hands-on a way as possible. Some grades travel to nearby locations like a wetland or stream, while others learn right on the school grounds. They are so much fun, and I have been having a great time! The kids are wonderful and have a lot of great questions and insights.

Unfortunately, I won’t put up the many adorable pictures I have of the kids themselves, but I thought I’d share a few other photos of the days and what we have been up to. Below is a random collection of pictures from a variety of different activities.

I feel very lucky that I get to do this for my job!

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The owner of the wetland’s rule was that everyone had to get at least a little muddy. Many of them fulfilled this obligation!

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And this station didn’t hurt…

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Some crayfish discovered during a macroinvertebrate study.

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A ghostly bee keeper suit watches over some kids learning about hives.

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A local dairy farm shows some kindergartners the different parts of the feed they give their cows. This matched a later activity where I gave the kids vegetables and we talked about the different body parts they kept healthy.

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A sign showing how to get to the “plant art” station at the end of the boardwalk.

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Some clay pots painted by a kindergarten class drying in the window. Later, they filled these with soil and planted seeds in them to take home.

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A large tooth (I believe cow) that students found in the stream during the macroinvertebrate study.

It’s been so fun to go out with all of the different age groups and help them experience nature. I have learned so much and love hearing their thoughts and impressions of the different activities. I end every day with what I call “Nature Letters,” where students pick a family member or friend to write a letter to about their day. They have to include at least (1.) something they learned, (2.) their favorite part of the day, and (3.) something they did that day that they would like to do again with the person they are writing to.  They write the letter first and then draw a picture to match. I LOVE reading what stood out to them about the day and like to imagine the person they are writing to getting the letter. One girl wrote to her older sister, and drew a picture of them collecting litter together sometime in the future. Another included “BEST MOM EVER!” in all cap bubble letters at the end of his. In the example I do with the class I always write to my grandma (hi, Grandma!) so some of them write to grandparents as well, or cousins, or a best friend in a different class. I am very careful with students to NEVER ever say “mom and dad” or “parents,” always “families.” It’s a simple change in words that helps to include every student, whether they are raised by another family member, their dad and stepmom, a single parent, their brother, their two moms, etc. etc.

Anyway, in a second grade class I noticed that one of the girl’s drawings had me in it! In the picture I am holding a ziploc bag with some milkweed seed pods in it, which I used to talk about seed dispersal and plant adaptations. So, in case you have been wondering what I look like, look no further!

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I also want to say that these days are partly made possible by volunteers who come out and help me lead stations. This is especially necessary if a grade has more than one class of students. In these cases I simply couldn’t do the days without them, and I am very grateful there are people who are interested and able to spend time with the kids to teach them about nature.

As a quick public service announcement I just want to say that if you happen to have any spare time (which, I know, is rare), please consider helping out your local schools! I had a very difficult time finding volunteers this year and I know the parent teacher groups are having the same problem. Also, many public schools have had funding for assemblies, art programs, and extracurricular stuff completely cut out, and they would LOVE to have an interested party come in and do some programs with their kids. Maybe you could lead a class or two in an outdoor painting activity? Or bird watching? Or bring in vegetables from your garden? Or lead them in a song about nature? The possibilities really are endless and I’m sure there is something to match up with your specific interests.

If you have a particular hobby or specialty you would like to share with students but don’t know how to get started or what age-appropriate activity matches, please contact me and I will do everything I can to help! I can be reached by e-mail at any time at askbackyardsafari@gmail.com.

I hope everyone is having a great week getting outdoors. As always, I’ll see you out there!

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Human Nature April 13, 2011

(Source – Tim Allen)

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Are you an animal? Are we part of an ecosystem? Are humans still evolving, with all of the other creatures around us?

The answer is YES, my friends. YES. We are mammals, we are animals, we are vertebrates, we are multi-celled organisms. We came from this world, our ancestors changing through time and space, stepping trembling webbed feet onto land and scurrying into burrows to avoid a hungry dinosaur, and reaching nimble fingers towards a glistening, golden fruit, and stepping out from the edge of the forest into unknown, open grasslands. Spreading across the world, over land bridges and expanses of ocean. Using fire, planting seeds, training other creatures to be our friends and tools. Wheels and pack animals allowing us to carry things in a way we never could before,  developing specialties, building stronger houses. Learning about sanitation and disease so our loved ones could survive. Building strange contraptions that let us capture a moment in time, hear our mother’s voice on the other end, exchange information with people around the world. The world, once huge and incomprehensible, gets small. We share medicine, scientific advancements, philosophical wisdom with each other.

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(Source – Tim Allen)

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We share terrible things too, but the point here is that we aren’t some creature that appeared out of the blue and proceeded to change everything–we are born of this world, born of these animals and these plants, born of these bacteria and these oceans.

We believe we are so different from everything else (and everyone else) in the world, and it hurts us. It makes us feel like we can do anything we want, but just as harmful, makes us feel like we are hopeless, terrible creatures who have ruined everything.  I believe that if we want people to care, to conserve, we need to bring back the positive aspects of being a part of the world. We need to acknowledge the amazing progress that humans have made. Our creativity, our innovation. We need to use the qualities that have brought us here to help us into the future.

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(Source)

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I love when people embrace our place in the ecosystems of the world, and so was very excited to hear about the new BBC Earth program “Human Planet.” Each episode profiles people living in a certain landscape, like mountains or forests. It is simply amazing, and I love every second of it. The will of humans to live, and the universal desire to create a better life for your children than you had for yourself, is astounding.

I was really struck, watching the show, by the many advancements humans have made–advancements that required a single person to decide that the way their world was then wasn’t the way it always had to be. In one area, someone long ago carefully planted young mangrove trees, stringing the tender roots slowly across a river. Today, there are astonishing living bridges of thick, intertwined trees, allowing people to cross safely even during monsoons. In another place, a bat hunter once decided that if an opening was cut in the forest, many bats would probably try to fly through the easier-to-navigate short cut, and maybe, just maybe, a net could be strung up to catch them.

It is this ingenuity that has allowed us to not just survive, but thrive, in almost any environment.

My favorite part of the show was a story of a family in Tibet. They lived high in the snowy mountains, and wanted their two children to go to school. Their young girl was about 8 or 10, and accompanied her father on a 6 day trek along a frozen river through the mountains to get to the village where she would start school for the first time. It was very dangerous, and at a few parts along the way they had to navigate narrow shelves of ice about to break through, or climb down a “ladder” made of iron spikes driven into the rock. At each difficult section the father coaxed his daughter through, explaining how to move and where to put her feet. She was scared, and he guided her gently and with obvious pride at her accomplishments.

I have never had to do anything so difficult or life threatening, but it reminded me a bit of exploring the woods with my own father–crossing a river on a wire strung from bank to bank, or on a log that had fallen across. Probably the same age as the girl in Tibet, I was sometimes afraid, and I remember many times where my feet were pointed to certain safe locations, and I was encouraged to continue. I am sure there are other lucky people out there who could see their own lives in this experience as well. That love is so universal, and remains the same whether a situation is life threatening or just a weekend outing. It is the driving factor behind so many of our accomplishments, and we are all better for its existence.

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A father helps his daughter over a narrow part of the ice. To learn more about the “school run,” check out this post from Tim Allen: Source

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I was also, of course, moved by the amount of work and dedication this family put into their children going to school. Their love for their children was obvious, and shone through everything else. Next time I am driving to work I will think about how at least I don’t have to walk for 40 miles over thawing ice to get there. If they can do that, what can’t we all do?

It is time for us to embrace our humanity–to revel in it, to put our unique set of skills to use. Too often in conservation “people” is almost a dirty word. I disagree! Much of the damage people have done has been–truly, when you really come down to it–to give our children a better life, to help our parents live longer, to help stay in touch with each other, to have a comfortable place to sink into at the end of the day. If we continue to feel far away from the natural world, it can only get worse. But if we embrace our humanity, if we see ourselves in every woman, man, and child out in the world, if we use the same creativity and ingenuity that brought us fire, fishing poles, arrowheads, shelves, blankets, bridges, wheels, and nets to create a better place for our children and their children–now that is a future I would like to see.

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(Source – Tim Allen)

 

Backyard Creature Feature – Pill Bugs November 12, 2010

 

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This is the second post in our Backyard Creature Feature series. You can find the first post here.  The last Creature Feature was inspired by a giant bug I saw scurrying up my wall in the middle of the night. This one is inspired by a talk I saw last night about Integrated Pest Management. The pill bug was mentioned in this talk because sometimes they come in to people’s homes. This usually occurs when people leave fallen leaves and other plant debris in basement stairwells, gutters, or other places near their houses. The pill bugs love moist habitats with lots of vegetable matter, so those are perfect habitats for them! If you don’t want pill bugs around (although are not in any way harmful to humans!), getting rid of those areas would be the first step.

When I was a child my grandparents had a bird feeder in their backyard. Around the base of the bird feeder in a circle there were little red bricks, and on most visits my brother and I would pry these up to hunt for the pill bugs underneath. We would pick the isopods up and watch them roll up into little balls in our hands. We always put the bricks back, but in retrospect I imagine what my grandparents were thinking as they watched from the kitchen window as we pulled apart their backyard. So I want to take a moment to send many thank yous to my grandparents (who are Backyard Safari readers 🙂 ) for letting us explore at the expense of their nice landscaping. They were always very supportive of us in these pursuits, so I also need to thank them for letting us stick their maple seeds to our noses, helping us take care of tadpoles, and for letting us throw our stuffed animals up into their trees and then try to knock them out again, which was an extremely entertaining game to us for a long time. Thanks Grandma and Grandpa!

Okay, back to the creature at hand! I have heard this little isopod called everything from a pill bug, to a sow bug, roly-poly, wood lice, and doodle bug. The big scientific name of the family it belongs to, though, is the Armadillidiidae. I absolutely love that this group is named after an armadillo, because take a look at the similarities:

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One of the most interesting things I learned about the pill bug while writing this is that it is actually a “terrestrial crustacean.” The crustaceans we usually hear about are sea-dwelling ones like crabs, lobsters, and shrimp. Not only that–according to http://www.pestworld.org, they are the only crustacean that has been able to live completely on land. How amazing is that?? There are giant isopods in the ocean that are very similar to pill bugs but, well, giant and live on the ocean floor. If you ever get bothered by the isopods on land, just watch the video here to feel safe again.

Once again I am just blown away by the details of this big world we live in. To think I’ve spent my whole life knowing about pill bugs without really knowing them. That I held their little rolled up bodies in my hands without thinking about how they are the only crustacean to have made that long arduous journey onto land. That I’ve never really thought about the convergent evolution (when unrelated animals have the same biological traits) between this tiny little creature, armadillos, and girdled lizards.

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I know I’ve said it before and that I will say it many more times in the future, but what an unbelievable world we live in! Even the smallest and most common creatures are extraordinary in their adaptations and survival methods. Your backyard is an exciting place to be! Have you or your children spent any time playing with pill bugs? Do you have any other special names for them? If so I would love to hear about it in the comments!

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Note for Parents and Educators:  There is a neat research project for K – 4 graders here, which teaches children how to use the scientific method by studying pill bugs, which are ideal because do not bite or carry any diseases harmful to humans, and can live up to 3 years if cared for properly.

 

Memories in Our Backyards September 2, 2010

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The morning is cool—dew clings to the grass and my footsteps crunch along the gravel driveway. My father is taking pictures as we all march up the long driveway and out to the bus stop at the end of our lane. I am wearing new clothes, my hair is brushed (for once!), and I am excited about the new supplies in my backpack, although I think I called it a bookbag, then. My brother, parents, and I are accompanied by our golden retriever, who walks with us to the bus stop in the morning and comes up the yard to greet us when we come home, and a scattering of geese–two pale yellow and a gray speckled one I named Domino. My brother and I are the geese’s parents and they follow us this way almost anywhere.

Every year for most of my younger life this scenario is the same, although there are not always the geese. When Autumn comes I still feel these memories tugging at me–the crisp air, the walk, the weight of clean blank notebooks waiting to have their margins filled with doodles.

Signs of fall are different for everyone–it could be the leaves changing, the night sky turning, the end of fresh peaches, or the blush of orange across a pumpkin. For my family, one sign that fall is coming to stay are the Touch-Me-Nots that grow next to our old bus stop at the end of the driveway.

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This plant actually plays a big role in my childhood explorations. Before I call it Touch-Me-Not, I call it Jewelweed. They are one in the same, but for me the name changes just like the seasons. In the summer it is Jewelweed, a shade-loving plant that grows in large clumps. This plant may seem rather ordinary from afar, but the real secret comes when you put the leaves underwater, where the underside of the leaf transforms from a pale green to a flashing silver. This was a great trick as a kid, and one I now try to show the next generations as an environmental educator. We also used to use crushed Jewelweed stems to stop itching from mosquito bites, poison ivy, or other stinging plants.

In the fall, the word Jewelweed transforms to Touch-Me-Not in my mind as the plants’ small purse-like flowers come out and the seed pods hang heavy off the stems. These seed pods–which you can see on the right in the above picture–are the most exciting part of the Touch-Me-Not, and can provide endless entertainment in general and especially while you wait for a bus to arrive. I believe Anna Comstock–the first person to take students and teachers outside to study nature in the 1890s–described them best in her Handbook of Nature Study.

“The little, straight, elongated seed pods are striped prettily and become quite plump from the large seeds within them. Impatient? We should say so! This pod which looks so smug and straight-laced that we should never suspect it of being so touchy, at the slightest jar when it is ripe, splits lengthwise into five ribbon-like parts, all of which tear loose at the lower end and fly up in spirals around which now looks like a crazy little turbine wheel with five arms. And meanwhile, through this act the fat, wrinkled seeds, have been flung several feet from the parent plant and perhaps to some congenial place for growth the following spring.”

This is what this description looks like in real life:

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In this last video especially you can see how quickly the pod disappears once it decides to go! I managed to catch the pod after one of these explosions so you can see the “crazy little turbine wheel with five arms” and “fat, wrinkled seed” Anna describes.

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Isn’t it amazing how the seed pod transforms?

I should mention that the Touch-Me-Not pictures in this post are the very ones (or perhaps I should say their great-great-great-great grandchildren) my brother and I spent countless time next to while waiting to see a flash of the yellow bus coming down the hill. On a recent visit I walked up the old driveway to visit the Touch-Me-Nots again. The dog that once followed us is gone now, buried under a wall in the front yard. The geese have been gone even longer, lost one by one to perils in the forest behind our house.  A different dog–just as loyal even though missing most of our childhood–kept me company instead.

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Even though I am older now and out of school, this feeling of Fall always comes back to me, shifting as the Earth shifts on its axis and the season approaches. There are more signs like the Touch-Me-Nots, if I stop to think about it. There is also the appearance of the constellation Orion over the horizon. There is frost on the car windshield in the mornings. Leaf stains on the sidewalk.

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http://ironraven.net/day6am.jpg

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There is so much for us to learn–so much knowledge to pass along to each other. Imagine the people who walk and drive past Touch-Me-Nots every Autumn, and never know the Big Bang force contained inside the pods, or the silvery jewels hidden under the leaves. Likewise, I am sure there are plenty of things I do not know that each of you hold dear to your hearts. What kind of secret knowledge do you have that you would like to pass on to your children, to your neighbors? Do any parts of nature inspire certain memories of a time, place, or person the way Touch-Me-Nots do for me? Is a certain time of year heavier with these memories? It can be anything, big or small. A trip across a mountain range or a certain smell wafting in your windows at night. Whatever it is, short or long, happy or sad, I hope you will share with us in the comments.

I believe that these are the gifts we can give each other. The world sometimes seems like an impossibly large place—remembering the train ride through rural India, realizing the sheer number of people in the world going about their daily lives—but it can also be small: made up of people just like ourselves, heavy with memories, gains, losses, and wisdoms. Every person must have something that is known to them alone: the specific way shadows move across their room, the weight of a certain stone,  the feeling of rough wool running through their hands, the glint of ripples on the water, the way Touch-Me-Nots explode on your fingertips. The more we can share these, and learn them from each other, the better off we all will be.

 

Backyard Exploration August 2, 2010

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Readers, I have a bit of a confession to make. I really love nature and being outside, but I do not go out as much as I should. This is, truthfully, because sometimes I am lazy and it can be difficult to motivate myself to go. I know this is not uncommon, and something lots of people struggle with, but it is not often written about in nature blogs. I am trying to be honest here, though, to show that you don’t need to be the kind of person who is dying to climb mountains at 6 am every weekend in order to love and experience nature–although if that is what you like to do more power to you!

I should also tell you that I don’t own a single pair of those zip-off nylon convertible pants that make up the stock of most outdoor stores. I wear jeans, almost exclusively, everywhere, and for every activity. This preference is sometimes confused with inexperience, but really I’ve just always done it this way, ever since I was a kid. I usually feel more comfortable in tough jean material, which can take walking through sticker bushes and sliding down sandstone better than thinner fabrics. I’ve worn them in the woods, in streams, up mountains, occasionally to run in, and even swimming in the ocean once. I’m not discouraging the use of professional outdoor clothing at all–I have many friends and colleagues who swear by them–I’m sharing this just to show that in most cases you don’t need to stock up on any certain type of “outdoor wear” in order to explore nature. If you have a preference, please use it, but don’t let the lack of these materials keep you from checking out your backyard!

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I’ve been having a hard time being active lately–I don’t like treadmills because there is nothing interesting to look at, but when I run outside I keep thinking about how far I have to go to get back home. It’s a mental block, and I decided to solve it by just going for a walk. An exploration, really, following my feet and looking for interesting things as I went. I started today, and ended up wandering for a over an hour! Along the way, there was a great number of wonderful things–more than I ever expected to see!

My walk took me from a tree-lined street, along a highway, across a field, down a different highway, and finally on a foot path next to a golf course. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like there would be much nature to see on such a journey. This is not the case, of course, especially if you look small!

To begin with, the variety of flowers and butterflies I saw was astounding! Bright pinks, whites, yellows, and purples abounded in both. I also saw bumble bees with full pollen sacs on chicory flowers, grasshoppers, and a lot of other interesting plants.

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In the field I saw these thistle plants along with some bright yellow flowers. The thistle seeds are starting to blow away on the stuff that looks like white fur. Here is a close up:

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I followed the top of a hill beside a paved footpath next to the highway and found this hidden treat growing in a ditch:

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It was also up along the hilltop that I noticed a small dirt path heading into the trees on the other side of the ditch. I broke away from the main road to follow it, and that is how I discovered a very appealing foot-path through some trees beside a local golf course.

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I saw many beautiful things on this path, including daisies, queen anne’s lace, chipmunks, and a few different kinds of insect damage. There were the usual holes on leaves where insects had chewed through, but there were also leaf mines and something called a gall, where an insect egg is laid inside a plant and then lives inside it as a larva.

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Finally, as I moved beyond the path and back through a field, I saw this small hole in the grass. I assume it belongs to a field mouse or some other small mammal.

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I had a really wonderful time on my walk! It’s amazing the things you can see when you slow down and start to really look around you. I expected to see some things, but I never expected to see the plethora of plants, insects, and animal signs that I did. It really motivated me to get out more and keep making that effort.

I’ve mentioned this before, but my main inspiration for starting Backyard Safari was to show people that you don’t need a lot of special equipment or wide open spaces in order to have a relationship with nature. All I started with today were jeans, flip flops, my camera phone, and the small patches of wilderness that make up the spaces between roads and houses in Suburbia. What I ended up with, though, was much bigger!

One of the best things about nature is how wonderful it is in all sizes. If you only have a small space to explore, try looking for the small things in it! A herd of elk or pack of wolves is amazing if you have them, but so is a passing butterfly, a milkweed pod, or a ripening blackberry. The important thing is that you get out there and see what there is to see!

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Purple Beetle Catchers July 14, 2010

* Edited to include more information*.

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Have you seen me?

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Recently, while driving around the state of Pennsylvania, I started noticing these purple boxes, high up in trees spaced out along major highways. I saw them on the way to Philadelphia, Virginia, New York, and along roads in the small rural area where I work.

Every time I saw one I wondered what it was for. My theory was that they were part of a scientific study collecting some insect to get an idea of how many were in an area. Having completed research projects myself before, this seemed to make sense–the purple boxes were spaced out fairly evenly, as if to get a solid data set, and were put along major roads I assumed because of their accessibility. I didn’t know what insect they were trying to capture/count, but with their size and height in the trees it made sense that it would be one of our six-legged flying friends.

I always meant to look up the answer but kept forgetting, as so often happens in life. Finally, on a recent bus ride, I saw a box out my window and decided to end the mystery once and for all. Thanks to the joys of 3G and my phone data plan, I was able to google search right then and there. I couldn’t find anything at first, but after trying a few different search terms before typed in “purple beetle catchers along roads” and viola! An article from a Vermont newspaper came up that explained that these purple ‘boxes’ are being used to trap the emerald ash borer beetle.

The beetle turns out to be an invasive species introduced from Asia to Michigan in 2002. It has since spread to at least 12 states and a few Canadian provinces, including Pennsylvania, New York, and Virginia. The adult beetles eat the leaves while the larva destroy the inner bark, which ruins a tree’s ability to move nutrients around. It seems this beetle has killed many millions of trees since 2002, and scientists are trying to find ways to eradicate it.

I contacted a colleague of mine at the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to find out more information. He says that usually these traps contain a pheromone inside that attracts the insect, but in this case they actually contain oil from the Manuka tree, which has compounds similar to what ash trees release when they are stressed out (which in this case is because they are being eaten by the beetles). He added that the purple color is also an attractant in this beetle family, which is why the color was chosen. The traps are not supposed to eradicate the beetle, but are helping to find out where the beetle is and monitor its movements. It seems the biggest concern is spreading the borers around through fire wood. If people cut wood infested with the borers and then take the wood somewhere else, a new area can become infested. Many thanks to Jeff at PA DCNR for the information!

This post isn’t just about the emerald ash borer, or the purple traps, though. It is about trying to ask questions about the world around us and then follow through with the answers, even though we are busy and it is hard to remember. I always find it interesting to compare the differences between adult and childhood education.  As kids, we are taught many things. When we ask why, we are told that we might need it later, or that it is part of becoming a well-rounded person. When we grow up, though, this stops. Once you get out of college, especially, continuing education either stops completely or becomes pinpointed to a very specific topic that compliments our jobs and careers. Why? Do we assume that we now are well-rounded people and don’t need to learn anything else? Do we stop becoming curious about the world around us?

I thought consciously about this for the first time in 2005, when I was keeping a notebook during field work in Wyoming. For the first time I took the usual questions that often flit in and out of our heads–I wonder what that insect is? What is the name of this? Why is this happening?–and actually wrote them down and tried to find the answers later.

It can be difficult to remember to do this, but it is a great exercise and one that enriches and compliments our usual daily routines. When I finally picked the right set of search words to find out about the emerald ash borer, I was so excited–and as funny as it sounds, proud–about finally solving this mystery. Because of it, I know more about the world today than I did yesterday.

Imagine–there is a whole drama unfolding in the forests all around us! A stow-away from another land silently devouring trees from the inside out, as teams of scientists try to fight them in an ongoing country-wide arms-race between the beetle’s adaptations and our own human technologies.

And to think I knew nothing about it!

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Have you seen one of these traps near your house or in your travels? If so leave a comment or send an e-mail to askbackyardsafari@gmail.com–I would love to know how wide-spread these are!

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Animals and “Human” Nature June 23, 2010

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You may be surprised how many kids, when asked if humans are animals, say no! In order to help people feel a greater  connection to the natural world, our close ties with the animal kingdom (to which we do belong, by the way!) are something we need to emphasize more to people of all ages. Humans certainly have some amazing qualities that are not as obvious at first in the rest of the animal kingdom–the ones usually presented are the use of agriculture, music, and art–but the more I learn about animals the more I question even these definitions!  Leaf cutting ants have been shown to actually cultivate and care for a certain fungus, going so far as to ‘weed’ it of harmful parasites and ‘fertilize’ their crops. Some parrots (and an elephant!) have been shown dancing to music. And check out this amazing behavior by dolphins at the Sea World in Orlando. They create bubble rings under water (a skill they have to learn and then practice in order to do it properly) that they then push around and play with:

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I was first inspired to write this post after reading an article about how young birds learn their songs. Scientists studied the areas of the brain that learn speech in young songbirds and humans, and found that the same areas of the brain light up when both humans and birds are learning ‘language.’ Amazingly, this is especially true when both animals are sleeping. Studies have shown that kids learn language better when allowed to take a nap, and this seems to be true for baby birds as well. How amazing is that??! Think about this the next time you hear a bird singing–it used the same parts of its brain in the same way to learn its language just the way you did! The way we all did!

Finally, one more example of behavior that might seem unique to humans at first, but is truthfully anything but–one of my favorite videos on YouTube, and narrated by our old friend Sir David Attenborough. In this video Capuchin monkeys are tested for their understanding of fairness and sharing. In the first part the monkeys are put in separate but adjoining boxes. One monkey has a cup of nuts, and the other has a flint with which to open the container. The one monkey gives the flint to the other through a small hole between them, and then has to wait patiently to see if the other monkey will decide to share the reward with him or not.  In the next test, a monkey is given a biscuit reward in exchange for a white poker chip. This monkey is content until he sees that a different monkey gets a grape (a much better offering by Capuchin standards) in exchange for the same token. He was happy before, but now he would rather have nothing than take such an unfair offering. Take a look:

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I never cease to be amazed by the world around us. I find it fulfilling and wonderful to know that we share so much with our other animal neighbors. How lonely a world it would be, to be unique as humans in a world full of dull reflexive creatures, and how lucky that this is not the case!  In my opinion, this type of knowledge is what will really help inspire people to care about and save animals, and as scientists, educators, parents, etc. we all need to help to get this out to the public. Could you be as cavalier about the destruction of these animals once you knew a sleeping baby bird had some of the very same brain processes as your child?

When I think back on my own life and what I have witnessed in person, I can already think of a few examples of the amazing ways of animals. I’ve seen a small bird teach its young how to forage for food. I’ve seen a raccoon learn by trial and error how to crack and eat an egg. I’ve heard a brown-headed cowbird speak English. I’ve had a dog that would come over to me when I cried.

How fortunate for us to live in a world filled with such clever animal neighbors! On your next backyard safari, see if you can find any examples of animals behaving in ways you didn’t expect. I bet there will be more than you think.