Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

10 Tips for Teaching Environmental Education February 24, 2011

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When I am not writing this blog or struggling to make myself get out into the snow, I am an environmental education coordinator for a local school district. I work with K – 12 grade classes, creating outdoor activities that fit with class curriculum and PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) exam standards. My goals are always two-fold: 1. to have students learn something about the topic at hand, and 2. to give them an experience with nature that will increase their comfort in being outside and turn nature into a “friend.”

Before this position I spent time as a museum guide in Philadelphia, a park guide at Arches National Park in Utah, a nature camp leader, and as a “content expert” for high school geoscience teachers at a conference in Pennsylvania. Each of these brought their own set of challenges, rewards, and lessons, and each has helped me to grow as a person and educator.  I am always changing based on new experiences, but here are the ten most important lessons for teaching environmental education that I have learned so far!

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1. Don’t depend on the teacher to get control of the class for you.

This is sometimes hard to do, because you don’t want to come into a new place and correct someone elses’ kids. I am not saying you should go overboard with this, but sometimes teachers are going to welcome the brief respite from teaching and take the time to grade papers, plan the next activity, etc.  They will not always be available to step in for you, or step in at the time you need it. The ability to gently bring a group back together when they are not listening on your own is very important!

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2. You don’t know what else these kids are dealing with, so be compassionate!

You can’t let kids walk all over you, but you will often find that the kid who is having the hardest time sitting still or listening to directions is also struggling in other ways. I once told a kindergarten class to show the work we did to their families when they got home, and the student who had been the hardest to work with said quietly, “My dad only calls me bad names.” A 4th grade student in a writing exercise about a favorite place in nature wrote about a tree in his backyard that was his only friend, who he could “tell all his secrets to.” The list goes on.  Some kids are struggling with very difficult things, and you won’t always know what they are.

Along these same lines I am careful to never address letters home to ‘parents,’ and don’t use the word ‘parents’ to students–I only ever say ‘families.’  I am also careful to say “where you live” instead of house.  It requires less effort than it might seem–it quickly became a habit for me and now I don’t even have to think about it anymore. It might seem extreme at first to worry about this stuff, but it is a small change that might make a big difference.

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3. Instead of being angry at a “difficult” student, invest extra time into that student or get her or him to help you with an activity.

This is one of the very best pieces of teaching advice I ever got. If a teacher tells you in advance that one of their students might be difficult, set up a positive relationship with them as soon as possible. Your initial reaction to hearing someone is difficult might be to assert dominance and show them you can’t be messed with. Resist this urge! Instead, ask them to help you set up an activity or ask for their opinion on a topic. If you discover that a certain student is causing problems in the middle of the activity, use any down time to see how that child is doing, what they find exciting about the class, etc.

Shortly after I first got this advice I had a 3rd grade student who had a really hard time working in a group and following directions. During the lunch break I noticed him looking at a plant and went over to talk to him about it. After I showed interest in what he was thinking, he was much more willing to work with me in the second half of the day. It was amazing what a difference this minimal effort made!

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4. Kids will be excited if you are excited!

And they will be bored if you are bored. One of the best tools you have for reaching kids is your passion for a subject. It is contagious, and will keep kids listening and wanting to learn more. Don’t ever forget that you got into this field because you love the topic, and you want to share that love with others. You are making a difference in ways you won’t ever even know about!

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5. Some students you work with will have Asperger’s syndrome, sensory processing disorderattention deficit disorder, anxiety, Down syndrome, etc. Sometimes you will know about it and sometimes you won’t.

In my opinion, the more you can learn about these different topics the better you will be at working with ALL students. This is a bit like #2, in that if you are not the regular teacher you never really know what an individual student is dealing with. I started thinking about this a lot recently after watching the documentary “I can’t do this but I CAN do that: A film for families about learning differences.”  I highly recommend watching it if you have a chance! One of the stories that especially stuck with me is of a boy with auditory processing disorder. He had a very difficult time understanding what the teacher was saying over other class noises, and as a result was always in trouble for “not paying attention.” I think back in horror now to every time I ever said to a student “Well, what did I just explain to the class?” After seeing this film I started asking myself, “Why do I care about explaining something a second time? What is the big deal to me?” It is possible some people could argue I am being ‘too easy’ on the kids, but I have made the decision that my most important goal is to get kids excited about nature and science while keeping everyone safe. This means that I will stop an individual who is disrupting the class or calm a group down that has gotten out of hand, but I don’t feel the need to punish a kid for being distracted when I first explained directions. If the regular teacher wants to do that, I will leave it up to them, but it isn’t my job in the few hours I see a group.

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6. Make sure students really know they can ask you questions, and be willing to cover less than you thought you would if students are confused.

I make sure to ask students if they have any questions often, and at times explicitly say, “Please tell me if you don’t understand this topic, I don’t mind and I am happy to explain it in a different way.” Sometimes you won’t find out until the very end of a lesson that students have no idea what you are talking about. This is okay! Remember that your goal is NOT to just get through all of your material, but to impart knowledge to other beings. It is okay if you can’t cover everything you hoped if students really understand what you do cover.

One of the more difficult sides of this is that you really do need to explain things in a different way if kids aren’t getting you. This can be difficult, but the better you know your material the easier it will be. I once had a math class in college where the professor would answer my question by repeating the exact same sentences and examples he used the first time. I really hated this, and it did nothing whatsoever to help my problems with math. It is very frustrating to be willing to learn in spite of struggling, and not have the instructor meet you half way.

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7. Be willing to change your plans completely.

It will rain. The teacher will forget you are coming that day. The students will remember the golden retriever they saw at the farm above every other thing they learned that day. You will teach a whole activity and find out at the end that you were accidentally using a word beyond their vocabulary but nobody told you. Most importantly, sometimes you will just feel that things aren’t going very well. When you get this feeling, CHANGE YOUR PLANS! Do not continue to teach to blank faces, do not cling desperately to your notes as you go down with the ship. You have to be willing to adapt to each individual class, their interests, and their needs. This will be difficult and scary at first but will get easier with time, and is one of the most important things you can do to be an effective educator.

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8. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something!

If you don’t know something and make up an answer anyway, they will know, and they will not listen to anything else you say. This advice was given to me when I was working as a park guide in Arches National Park, and I have stuck by it ever since. The most important part about saying you don’t know something, though, is to tell students/groups that you will find out the answer and get back to them, and then actually do it. More than a few times I have e-mailed a teacher after an activity with information that the students wanted to know that I just didn’t. Saying you don’t know something will also seem scary at first, but it is really important. If you are willing to say what you don’t know, people will trust what you DO know even more, and students will see that the learning process continues even in adulthood.

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9.  Spend a few seconds before each activity getting mentally ready.

This is probably one of the biggest “little” things you can do. Spending a short time before an activity reminding yourself of the topic, why you like it, and to be “centered” will make you more confident and ready to deal with whatever comes next. I do this a couple of different ways–sometimes I run through what I want to say again in my head, sometimes I center myself by thinking about all of the atoms in my body with their electrons spinning around (this is a weird thing I have done for a while–don’t know quite where it came from!), and sometimes I just think about how cool the science topic I am about to teach is! I find taking this time really helps with #4, and conveying my excitement and interest to the students.

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10. Reflect, reflect, reflect!

The best way to get better is by doing, making some good decisions, making some bad decisions, and then reflecting on why one was good and one was bad. Sometimes you will have an amazing day with kids who are excited and asking great questions, and sometimes you will wonder if you made any impact at all. You need to figure out what went well! I try to do this immediately, while I am driving home from an activity (although sometimes I just listen to music and sing along loudly). If you like writing, journaling can be another good way to do this. Other times I reflect just by talking about my day to someone. Explaining things out loud to another person helps me recognize patterns or reasons that I didn’t see at first.

I’ve also started sending out brief 5 question surveys to teachers after activities. I made the survey for free on http://www.surveymonkey.com, and ask questions like “Q: Do you feel students were engaged in this activity? A: Yes, the entire time. B. Yes, for part of the time. C. No, they were not engaged,” “What was the best part of this activity?” and “What would you like to see in the future?” The teachers don’t always have time to answer but the information I do get back is well worth the effort.

Reflecting will also help you develop your own personal tips and guidelines. Five years ago I was afraid to speak up and correct a class if their teacher wasn’t doing it. One year ago I had never thought about how saying “parents” might affect kids who lived with their grandparents, a family friend, or a single parent. 6 months ago I had never even heard of sensory processing disorder! I can’t even imagine what kind of things I will learn in the next activity, the next 6 months, the next years of my life. But I do know that I will find out, thanks to reflection and the help of those around me.

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So how about you, readers? What have you learned from your time in the classroom or outside, with kids or adults? How do you stay excited and interested in your topic? How do you convey that to others? What kinds of life experiences have affected the way you interact with others?

I hope you will leave some of your experiences and tips in the comments section! There is such a wealth of personal experience out there, and we are always better for sharing. I would love to learn from you!

 

Winter Windows January 24, 2011

Proof that nature really is everywhere! While we should all try to get outside, there are definitely exciting things you can see while sipping cocoa wrapped in a warm blanket! Here is what I woke up to this morning:

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“For frost to form on the windowpanes as well as on trees and grass certain conditions are necessary. Frost is made up of tiny crystals of frozen water. It forms when air that has a lot of moisture in it is cooled below the freezing temperature of water. This temperature, which we call “the freezing point,” is 32 degrees Fahrenheit and zero degrees centigrade, at sea level. When air becomes cooler, it cannot hold as much water as before. The excess water condenses on such objects as the windowpane. Now, if the temperature falls below 0 degrees centigrade, this water becomes crystallized. In other words, it freezes into a coating of interlocked crystals of water. What causes the patterns to appear in the frost on the windowpanes? For one thing, the tiny crystals have a certain structure which gives them a pattern. In addition, there may be tiny scratches in the glass, dust particles, air currents all of which help create the designs that “Jack Frost” makes on your windows.” Source

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For more information on why frost occurs, you can go here. This site also includes info on how to “grow your own frost,” although I’m not sure how safe it is!  I was going to tell you to find frost pictures by just google image searching for it, but when I did a bunch of pictures of women getting.. intimate.. with snowmen showed up as well. Who knew! This might be a better option.

Do any of you have frost on your windows? What kind of patterns does it form? According to the same source listed above, frost covered windows used to be more common when most windows used to be a single pane of glass. Now most windows are made of 2 panes, and are more insulated than before, and thus get less frost. If you do have frost, though, I would love to see a picture! You can always send photos, questions, or ideas in to askbackyardsafari@gmail.com.

If you don’t have frost growing on your windows, try watching the water coming down your window panes the next time it rains! Are running droplets attracted together? Do they follow the same paths or make a new one? Do they splash, splatter, bounce, trickle?

There is always something new to notice, in every place and every season!

 

 

Math, Science, and the Pursuit of Happiness September 18, 2010

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Welcome to the September Teach/Learn Blogging Carnival.

The Teach/Learn Blogging Carnival hosted by Science@home is for anyone, because we are all teachers and learners all the time. This month our theme is “Maths”, which isn’t just about counting! Our bloggers have written about games, materials, memory, shapes, graphs and more. Check out the links at the bottom to find some other great posts on Maths.

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Here is my (perhaps not so) secret. I have a Bachelor of Science degree that required two advanced calculus classes. I wrote a thesis called “Carbon Isotope Fractionation in Deciduous Angiosperm and Evergreen Conifer Plants” that required the use of statistical analysis. I worked for over a year in an astrobiology laboratory setting up experiments to help learn about Earth’s origins. But. The last time I remember being “good” at math was 4th grade. We did long division that year and a boy named John and I used to race to see who could finish first.

After 4th grade, though, math becomes a black hole of confusion and despair. Nights agonizing at the dinner table over heavy text books, learning the same concepts again and again, only to forget how to apply them in the next question. When I worked in the laboratory I dreaded the moments when my boss would ask me to make the most basic chemical conversions. My Sisyphean hell would be to have to do these basic problems over and over–to constantly have that feeling of falling, frantically scrabbling at my brain for anything that seems like it might be related to the answer, and worst of all, the feeling of letting someone down.


As far as I can tell, everything began to fall apart around the time that Proofs came in to my life. The proofs we did in school always had 5 lines, and you HAD to fill a certain step into each line in order to get credit. I can’t tell you how many times I got the right answer and ended up with a zero because I only had 3 or 4 steps, or couldn’t explain exactly what my steps were at all. In my opinion, this type of scoring is a death knell for anyone who struggles with thinking in a certain prescribed way. Every year teachers thought the same thing–getting the right answer was luck, and that was no way to do math. What does it mean, though, when this “luck” carries throughout your life, from basic geometry, to trigonometry, to calculus. My calculus teacher in college was as incredulous as my 5th and 6th grade teachers had been when once, overwhelmed and hoping for something positive after struggling in class I had him grade a long one problem quiz while I waited behind. After scanning through an entire page of work he told me that my answer was correct but I wouldn’t get any credit because he had NO idea how I had gotten it. While I understand the need to work in a linear, repeatable fashion, I wish that more effort had been made anywhere along the line from 4th grade to college graduation to try to make the method I was already good at work better for me.


There is a downfall to this way of thinking, of course. On a multiple choice test when I feel overwhelmed my brain automatically starts scanning the answers for something that looks “familiar.” It could be as complicated as strategically eliminating answers based on what I think the teacher is aiming for (you would be surprised how much this works!) to as simple (and illogical) as picking an answer because it has a 2 in it and so did the original question. After a life time of relying on these methods–as unhelpful as they often were!–I have to really try now not to do it. I finally started covering up the answers of tests until the end, because otherwise it’s like kicking a ball down a hill–once I get going it is hard to stop!


So where does science come in? Well, my friends, wherever there is a difficult subject there must be a reason and a reward, and in many cases science can be the motivation!  One of the most consistent things I have found working with kids for the past 8 years is that almost ALL kids LOVE nature. They love it almost unconditionally, as long as they are exposed to it. They want to look at dinosaurs, they want to look under logs, they want to look at the stars.


Math is hiding in each of these things, and whether we like it or not, we need it in order to learn more about the world around us. Did you know that we can tell how big a dinosaur was based on the size of its leg bone? Or how much it rained in an ancient ecosystem by the size of the leaf fossils? Or that you can tell how fast an animal is moving by measuring its footprints? Did you know you can tell how tall a tree is by measuring its shadow? Did you know that shells, sunflowers, and pineapples all use the golden ratio in their formation?


Even though I am older now and well beyond taking math classes (I hope!), I am finally seeing math in a new light. A lot of this is due to my husband, who helped me struggle through my last college calculus class. My husband is one of the first people I have ever met who has a Passion for math. To him, math is Beautiful and Pure–the original language, the secret to everything.

Basically, he feels about math the way that I feel about nature! Through his patience and his joy I have been able to see math as a gift and a key that unlocks many mysteries.


One of the biggest lessons I have learned from this is that a Love for a subject means you have almost endless patience for it, and that this energy and power can be harnessed and put to work in other areas. By looking at math through the rose-colored glasses of nature, it not only becomes more easy to manage, but turns into something that can actually help me understand the ecosystems, environments, and evolutions going on all around me. Through math I become a better naturalist and educator. Of course, it isn’t all perfect. My stomach still drops when I am asked to solve problems in front of people, and I am glad no one is grading my thought processes, but ever so slowly math is losing its hold on me. Imagine what I could have done if I had felt this way in 5th grade!

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FaceTweet it!

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Visit Science@home to find out more about the Teach/Learn Blogging Carnival. Teach/Learn

Please take the time to visit the other participants and check out their posts on “Maths.”

  • Marita at Stuff With Thing writes about meal time maths with the help of our dinner table centrepiece and other food related maths fun 🙂
  • AmandaB at HomeAge talks about numbers, shapes and sizes, who knew that nested building blocks could be so much more fun than just building them up and knocking them down!
  • For Cass at Schooling Choices the car is one of her favorite learning tools. She thinks you could teach a child almost everything they needed to know about Math without ever leaving the car.
  • Deb at Science@home let her kids raid the chocolate to measure and compare with scales and graphs.
  • Backyard Safari is a right-brained person who spent a lifetime struggling with math, but comes to see the light through the wonder of nature.
  • SMMART Ideas is another food learner, estimating with beans, noodles and cereal…and getting a little number writing practice in there too!
  • For Monique at Your Cheeky Monkey, learning to tell the time is an important part of learning for a child, and it incorporates areas of Maths such as number recognition, counting, sequences and general numeracy.
  • Narelle at A Bunch of Keys has a simple sorting activity that can be done with young children using things found around the home.
  • Colin at Super Parents is writing about the discipline of maths, memory, and recall at 7 years old.
  • Deb Chitwood from Living Montessori Now loves all the Montessori math materials. But there’s one material she says is absolutely brilliant.
  • Miss Carly from Early Childhood Resources has a range of different mathematics activities that you can play with your children of all age groups!
  • Ash from Mm is for Me has been having some number fun for little learners!
  • The Planning Queen at Planning With Kids has games to teach number recognition to preschoolers – so they don’t know you’re doing it!
  • Julie at Works For Me Homemaking says it might surprise you to know that maths is heavily reliant on language. Here is a brief discussion of some of the “language” of maths and why children struggling with language development may find maths difficult.

Thanks for visiting our carnival, we hope you find some interesting new blogs.

 

Shadow Play August 22, 2010

I’m your follower in the light,
Yet I’m invisible at night
At various sizes I appear
I won’t harm you, have no fear
What am I?

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I was walking into town yesterday, letting my eyes roam as usual to see what there was to see. I noticed the same acorns I took pictures of for an earlier post and the way some leaves had turned brown on the branch of an otherwise green tree. These things were interesting, but it wasn’t until something dark caught the corner of my eye that I really got excited.

Shadows! Of course! Why did I never notice them before? They are almost always there, making shapes and distortions beneath our feet. Once I thought of it it seemed so obvious–go on a shadow hunt and see what different kinds you can find! I spent the rest of my walk examining the ground and comparing what I saw. It turns out there are quite a few different kinds of shadows.

The first, and most fun to look at in my opinion, are shadows of trees that really show the shape of the leaves. Some of these have defined edges:

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Some shadows have fuzzier edges:

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In some places almost all of the ground is in shadow, and instead of seeing the areas where the light doesn’t get through the leaves you see the places where it does:

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There are some areas where the shadows don’t just show leaves–the branches of the tree are also visible in shadow form on the ground!

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Finally, I decided to just watch the shadows for a while and see what happened. I noticed that when the wind blows you can see the leaves shimmying and shaking in the shadow just like you would if you looked up at the tree. It’s interesting how some parts of the shadow move and some do not!

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Looking for shadows really enriched my walk! It is definitely something I will do again and I am planning on trying to document shadows more in general–of animals, trees, cars, buildings, etc. It’s all about taking notice of the little things that are around us every day.  I’d also like to repeat an experiment that we did once in elementary school. You go out to a parking lot or side-walk at different times of day and have someone trace your shadow with chalk. If you went every hour on a sunny day, for example, you could track the way the sun moves in shadow-form and have a sort of human sundial! If you wanted you could then go out and stand in the center to see what time the shadow tells you and compare to a watch to see how close you got. I google searched and found this brief tutorial on making human sundials from Crayola.

What kind of shadows do you see? How are they changing? What catches your attention? I’d like to challenge everyone to go on a shadow hunt of their own, either on a walk specifically for the purpose or just by keeping your eyes open as you walk from your house to your car or out to your mailbox. If you see anything you’d like to share please e-mail it to askbackyardsafari@gmail.com.

So what do you see?

 

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.

 

Insects in Your Backyard May 14, 2010

Phew! Long time no post! I apologize for the delay–I have begun a series of days where I take children from kindergarten through 8th grade out to experience nature. I take one grade at a time and show them things on their school grounds and/or take them to a local nature area, like part of a creek or a tree nursery. It has been a busy few days, especially because the rain called for some impromptu in-door lessons to replace what we would have done outside. They have been a lot of fun, and I hope to write more about them sometime soon. For now, though, I want to write about something I saw on my first day out with a class early this week.

A few days ago I took a kindergarten class out to explore the school grounds and see what adventures we could find. We did an “environmental scavenger hunt,” where I told them different things to do, like find a seed, or discover if all of the yellow flowers in the yard were the same, and then they searched for answers. At one point I sent them to look for insects, and one of the students called me over to point out a leaf that had been chewed on and eaten. How clever! I was very excited that this child understood that even if he didn’t see the insect itself, he knew an insect had been there because of the holes in the leaf where it had eaten! That is exactly the type of thinking we need to foster, and could all benefit from!

We talked in the Doorways to Nature post about picking a certain thing to look for on walks (or any time we leave the house) to give a little more variety to our day and try to expand our horizons. On a recent walk I decided to look for insect ‘damage’ to see how much of it I could find. Insect damage is the term used for any kind of insect signs usually found on a leaf. It can be one of the different types of insect feeding, a place an insect has laid eggs on the leaf, or a place where an insect has changed the leaf to make a shelter.

Here is a leaf I found that had hole feeding. True to its name, hole feeding is just when an insect has eaten a hole through a leaf! It can be fairly circular, like this one, or have more irregular edges. See the lighter edges around the hole?  This is where the plant has begun to heal around the place the insect ate. This is very important, so remember it for a little farther down in the post!

Here is some more hole feeding, along with margin feeding, which is when an insect feeds along the edge of a leaf.  There is also some kind of growth on the plant–I am not sure if it is related to the insects or not, and will have to do some more research on that.

Until about 5 years ago I never really thought about insect damage. Then I helped a graduate student one summer with her research looking at insect damage preserved on fossilized leaves. We spent the summer digging up leaf fossils in the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming, and then searching the fossil for signs of insect feeding. The fact that not only a delicate leaf but also the signs of something living on the leaf could be preserved for so long–the leaves we were looking at had lived and died ~55 million years ago–really amazed me, and forever changed the way I look at leaves and insect feeding.

Remember the ring around the hole feeding where the plant is healing that I mentioned earlier? That ring is very well-preserved in the fossils, and is a great sign of insect damage. Here is a picture of one of the leaves we found that summer that was later used on the cover of Science:

[Photo taken by Scott Wing, Smithsonian Institution]

The dark ring around the holes in this fossil leaf are how we know the hole is from insects feeding when the plant was still alive, and not holes made afterwards from decay or damage to the fossil.

One of my favorite types of insect feeding, and one that–believe it or not–is also preserved in fossil leaves is called skeletonization.

It was difficult to get a close up of this without picking the leaf off the tree, but notice the lighter areas around the edges of the plant? This is where all of the layers of the leaf except the veins were chewed away.

When I was in Wyoming for that summer in 2005 I found a living tree that had almost all of the different kinds of insect damage on it that we were finding in the fossils. I pulled leaves off that represented each one and used packing tape to preserve them in my field journal. They have held up remarkably well so far, and the example of skeletonization is especially clear:

There are other types of insect damage as well. The list could go on and on, but the other kind that I enjoy finding the most is mines, where an egg is laid inside the leaf and an insect chews its way out, leaving its droppings behind.  I didn’t find any on my recent walk, but here is a photo example from this wikipedia page:

Searching for insect damage is a great way to learn more about the habitat around you. Are there a lot of insects feeding? Or just a few? Is there only one kind, or are there many? Take a look at the trees and bushes next to where you park your car, or by the building where you work–it could be anywhere, and you don’t have to go on long walks to find it! Let’s see what we can learn about the great drama of Life going on around us by searching for the marks that are left behind.

As always, please feel free to send me photos of anything you find! I would love to learn more about what is around you, and what adventures you have had!