Neighborhood Nature

Our Family's Nature Blog

Almost Flowers February 28, 2009

Aaron and I went birding at Columbus Park on Saturday afternoon. The birds did not cooperate — we only saw three different kinds. So Aaron spent time breaking ice (one of his favorite things).

That gave me time to check some sprouting plants I showed here four days ago. The sprouts I photographed then were in the open, exposed to freezing air we’ve had since then. They were still green and not much larger. But in a sheltered spot, I found this:

These sprouts have white flower buds as well a leaves.

These sprouts have white flower buds as well as leaves.

A few buds had started to develop separate petals, but most were translucent two-toned pods in close up views:

The translucent buds have not yet developed separate petals.

These translucent buds have not yet developed separate petals.

I’m still not sure what kind of flowers these are, but we’ll keep watching until the buds are open.

So why are sprouts more developed here? They’re nestled in a woods on the south side of a building, which protects them from cold north winds. Also sunlight reflecting off south-facing walls and windows helps warm the soil below. Warmer plants develop faster than their colder kin.

Earlier this winter, a flock of Mourning Doves huddled here on cold but sunny days. They lined up by the dozens on the steps below the windows. Then the hawks discovered their sheltered spot, and the doves dispersed.

Nature Note added March 6: Go here to see the opened buds.


Our “Spark Bird” Was the Rabbit We Didn’t Buy

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Children's Interests,Mammals — saltthesandbox @ 7:53 am
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Recently I’ve been reading about “spark birds” at blogs like Bill of the Birds and watching folks talk about the concept at the Jeff Gyr Blog. The idea is that you see one bird, often when you are a child, that sparks a passionate interest in birds and initiates a lifetime of birding. If we were going to name a spark bird for our family, it probably would be the Monk Parakeets that Aaron, then six years old, saw on the south side of Chicago. But the story’s much more complicated than that.

Gail and I have always supported our boys interests, no matter where they’ve taken us. With 13-year-old Ethan it’s been easy, at least for me. I’ve been interested in natural history since I was a boy, and Ethan’s always been interested in things I also love, like dinosaurs, bugs, and rocks. However, 12-year-old Aaron has put our parenting philosophy to the test. His first passionate interest, beginning at age two, was cars. Cars? As an environmentalist, cars are not my favorite thing! But we supported him none the less, often going to extremes.

I felt a bit more comfortable when Aaron’s interest gradually shifted to trains. My Dad loved trains, and they’ve always seemed a greener form of transportation. So, on Aaron’s days alone with me, we’d either go watch real trains in local freight yards or visit the Museum of Science and Industry to see their layout of model trains.

Meanwhile, Aaron was also developing a passion for warm, fuzzy animals — especially ones that cuddled close. Although Aaron’s interest may have fed an innate need for comfort, Ethan played a role when Aaron was an infant. Trying to teach Ethan to share things with his baby brother, we held a ceremony where we divided up our family’s plastic animals. Ethan kept the plastic turtles, fish, and bugs, because he loved cold-blooded creatures. Aaron got the leftovers, which were mostly plastic mammals: Cows and lions, hippos and pandas. Ethan bestowed upon his brother all warm-blooded creatures, and so it went from there. The plastic was supplemented and eventually replaced by warm and fuzzy stuffed animals, which were much more cuddly. Aaron’s stuffed animal collection grew and grew, until it no longer fit his bedroom.

And now we come to pets. As oldest, Ethan got to choose our first caged pet, and of course it was cold-blooded: A Leopard Gecko. As we added more animals to our household, they were all cold-blooded, too. Frogs, toads, snakes, giant millipedes, and assorted bugs from the neighborhood. Was it any wonder that warm-and-fuzzy Aaron started begging for a real live rabbit? Aaron begged, I researched the options and decided there was no way we could keep a rabbit happy in our tiny house. Aaron begged some more, so I started naming warm and fuzzy options. Our compromise was parakeets, first two, then three, then four in one cage. Then, “No more, Aaron, you have enough!” That’s what we thought.

And that’s where Monk Parakeets come into this story. Driving home from four hours of watching trains at the Museum of Science and Industry, we stopped at a McDonald’s for a snack. Looking out the restaurant’s window, Aaron saw some birds in the 57th Street median. Big, green, fuzzy birds, like giant versions of his parakeets. He had to get closer. So we crossed the street and searched the trees for more. There were dozens of them squawking, eating crab apples, and flying to their big nest of sticks. Aaron had to have one! He wanted me to break into the nest and take a baby Monk Parakeet that he could raise as his own.

Again the begging, for at least a week. Again, the compromise. No baby Monk, stolen from its nest. Instead we’d buy a nest box for Aaron’s pet parakeets and see what happened. What happened was a litter of tiny pink babies, and when they had grown, another litter. Aaron was happy as he cuddled with his warm and fuzzy fledglings.

Seven-year-old Aaron cuddling with his fledging parakeets.

Seven-year-old Aaron cuddling with his fledging parakeets.

As a long-time bird watcher, I saw an opportunity and took it. I installed a tube feeder in our backyard, and we started feeding sunflower seeds to our local birds, attracting Cardinals and House Sparrows. We saw some Goldfinches down the alley and installed a thistle seed feeder. The Goldfinches visited our yard the next day. We tried suet and got Downy Woodpeckers. Whole peanuts in the shell, we got Blue Jays. Aaron was captivated. One Saturday morning I found him sitting on the kitchen table, looking out the back window for almost an hour. He said, “This is better than television!” The next weekend we started counting birds for Project FeederWatch, and we’ve never looked back. (Until today.)

We started looking for birds in local parks, and soon Ethan shared the passion. Our 2006 trip to South Dakota was a turning point for him. Sure, Ethan and I hunted fossils in the badlands, but he was almost as interested in birds as bones. Then Aaron discovered birding e-mail lists that fall, and our lives have never been the same. Almost every weekend we explore Illinois and surrounding states in search of birds that Aaron finds on “my lists.” We also found some bird banders who let kids touch the birds. For Aaron, physical contact with birds fulfilled a deep need, and we returned many times to help them with their work.

Ethan was the one who turned us into bird monitors when we discovered Greater White-fronted Geese at Columbus Park. When we posted the birds on the Illinois birding listsev, he insisted we describe ourselves as “Columbus Park bird monitors.” A Bird Conservation Network member read the post, and soon we were recruited as official eBird monitors for the Park. Now we collect data there at least twice a week. I’ve also found that year lists and life lists help maintain the boys’ interests in birding, although I’d just as soon stay closer to home and track the movements and behaviors of our neighborhood birds.

But what if we’d bought Aaron his rabbit? Would our lives still be the same? Maybe we would have started volunteering at the Animal Care League four years ago, instead of last month. Maybe Ethan would still want to be a paleontologist when he grows up, instead of an ornithologist.

Can you see why I find the spark-bird concept insufficient? Perhaps the true spark for our family was as much the rabbit we didn’t buy as the Monk Parakeets. Or maybe the boys are birders now because we supported their early interests in trains and cars, dinosaurs and turtles. Perhaps it was inevitable that our boys would become birders, because they had everything they needed to ignite the passion. Ethan and Aaron are the kinds of kids who develop passionate interests, and we’re the kinds of parents who support them; birds are an active and diverse, warm and fuzzy, every-changing part of their world, even in our urbanized setting; and the boys had a birding mentor as a parent. I’m partial to this three-part explanation. Their early lives prepared a bed of tinder; Monk Parakeets sparked an interest in birds, not mammals; and I helped nurse the spark into a flame.

Spark-bird stories are fun, but if we want more children to develop a passion for birds, we need to think beyond the spark. Each spark bird is a small but easily remembered part of a longer story. We also need to prepare the beds of tinder, and we need birding mentors who are there to nurse the flame. Future birders need support and nurturing in ways we are just beginning to understand.


Speaking of birding mentors, the Cape May Bird Observatory has a website called Take a Kid Birding that discusses this topic. The Georgia DNR website also discusses birding mentors within the context of an annual competition.

There’s been quite a bit of research on how children develop and maintain passionate interests, what they gain from them, and how their parents can help. However, not much is specific to children’s interests in birding. So, I’ve also been reading John C. Robinson’s new book, Birding for Everyone: Encouraging People of Color to Become Birdwatchers. A lot of what he writes applies to any kids growing up in urbanized environments. Here’s an online review of his book.

If you’re interesting in preparing tinder, here are some references I’ve been using as I write the first draft of a book on how parents can support their kids’ interests:

Alexander, J. M., Johnson, K. E., Leibham, M. E., & Kelleya, K. (2008). The development of conceptual interests in young children. Cognitive Development, 23(2), 324-334.

Brockman, J. (Ed.). (2004). Curious minds: How a child becomes a scientist. New York: Pantheon.

Crowley, K. & Jacobs, M. (2002). Islands of expertise and the development of family scientific literacy. In G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley, & K. Knutson (Eds.) Learning conversations in museums. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Deloache, J. S., Simcock, G., & Macari, S. (2007). Planes, trains, automobiles – and tea sets: Extremely intense interests in very young children. Developmental Psychology, 43, 1579-1586.

Hidi, S., & Renninger, K. A. (2006). The four-phase model of interest development. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 111-127.

Johnson, K. E., Alexander, J. M., Spencer, S., Leibham, M. E., & Neitzel, C. (2004). Factors associated with the early emergence of intense interests within conceptual domains. Cognitive Development, 19(3), 325-343.

Leibham, M. E., Alexander, J. M., Johnson, K. E., Neitzel, C., & Reis-Henrie, F. (2005). Parenting behaviors associated with early intense interests in domains related to science. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 26, 397-414.

Renninger, K. A., Sansone, C., & Smith, J. (2004). Love of learning. In C. C. Peterson & M. E. P. Seligman (Eds.), Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification (pp. 161-179): Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association and New York, NY; Oxford University Press.


More Color in the Winter Woods February 27, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Mammals,Plants,Trees,Winter — saltthesandbox @ 4:18 pm
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Besides male Cardinals and Turkey Tail Fungus, the most reliable source of winter color in Columbus Park is Staghorn Sumac:

Staghorn Sumac adds flecks of red against the winter sky.

Do the tips of those branches remind you a bit of male deer (or stag) antlers? Read on for another reason why this small tree is called "Staghorn Sumac".

Looking closer, the red parts are clusters of fuzzy fruits:

The red color comes from clusters of fuzzy fruits.

Staghorn Sumac fruits provide one of the few bright colors in Columbus Park in winter.

All winter long the squirrels have left these fruits alone. Then, just yesterday, I caught a Gray Squirrel hauling off a sumac fruit:

This Gray Squirrel is eating such fruit.

After leaving the fruits alone all winter, this squirrel bit off a fruit cluster and climbed off with it.

Maybe squirrels know that sumac fruits are a good source of vitamin C. There can’t be much of that in Columbus Park in winter. Or maybe it just ran out of other things to eat. It seems that birds eat sumac only as a last resort.

One more thing about this tree. The name “staghorn” mostly comes from the fuzzy coating on the twigs, which reminds folks of the “velvet” that covers deer antlers as they grow:

The twigs are fuzzy, too, giving Staghorn Sumac its name.

Staghorn Sumac is the plant we love to pet.

So, while enjoying the colorful fruits, we also like to pet the fuzzy twigs. Staghorn Sumac adds both color and texture to the winter woods.

(But if you are allergic to cashews, you might think twice about petting this plant!)


Note added April 17, 2009. Most sumac fruits stayed on the trees until mid April, when woodpeckers attacked! Go here to read about it (near the bottom of the post).


A Fungus for All Seasons February 26, 2009

Filed under: Fungi — saltthesandbox @ 2:23 pm
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I was getting desperate for a bit of color in the Columbus Park woods. Then I found this:

This Turkey Tail Fungus was on a dead log in the woods.

This Turkey Tail Fungus grew on a fallen log in the woods.

OK, the colors are a bit subtle, especially in winter. But I think the pattern’s wonderful!

The circular ones grew on top of the log. The half-circle fungi on the side of the log looked more like Wild Turkey tails, which gave this fungus its name:

The half-circle version grew on the side of the log.

The half-circle version grew on the side of the log.

To learn more about Turkey Tail Fungus, go here or go here.


Wading Pools in Winter and a New Theory of Dinosaur Extinction February 25, 2009

With today’s temperature in the 50s, I urged Aaron and his friend Matt to explore the backyard instead of the icy expanses of Club Penguin. Eventually they agreed, leaving penguins but not ice behind.

Within minutes they called me to the backyard to record a “discovery” they made. I took some photos and wrote a story to go along with them. (The story was inspired by dinosaur books for kids, which I’ve been reading in preparation for a writing project.)

This only happened because we leave out plastic pools filled with water all winter long. That’s one way we make our neighborhood a better place for outdoor play, a place with No Child Left Inside.


Aaron and Matt found a dinosaur disaster in our backyard! An imaginary world of dinosaurs and ice was being destroyed.

What had done this terrible thing to Ethan’s old collection of giant plastic dinosaurs? (Ethan is Aaron’s older brother — he’s loved dinosaurs since he was a little kid.)

Can you help us solve this mystery?

Can you help us solve this mystery?

Matt carefully studied the ice layers searching for clues:

The ice, unfortuantely, held no useful clues to the origin of the disaster.

The ice, unfortunately, held no useful clues to the origin of this disaster.

The team decided to excavate in search of answers. After much digging and clearing of ice, Matt reached into the water with his bare hands. He pulled out a giant rock!

Aaron pulled out a large rock, the cause of the disaster.

Matt pulled out a giant rock, the cause of the disaster.

It was obvious that a flying rock had shattered this icy world. But where did the rock come from? From outer space? From a volcano? Gradually, the true cause of this disaster became apparent, as the rock struck once again:

The evidence was clear -- there were multiple impacts...

The rock struck again -- how did that happen?

There were multiple impacts, in multiple places.

The rock then smashed into another pool.

Aaron and Matt imagined the rock had come from space — that was their Theory of Dinosaur Extinction. Should I believe them?

Do you have a better theory? Who will Ethan agree with?


Thanks to Aaron, who let me tell the story my way, instead of the way it really happened.

With my kids, throwing rocks and smashing ice happen so predictably that they seem almost instinctive. The boys adding characters and plot to the adventure also seemed quite natural. I’ll let evolutionary psychologists explain how these behaviors contributed to our ancestors’ survival on the plains of Africa.

Here’s something that occurred to me — by destroying the ice, the boys found out about the physics of ice, water, and flying rocks. They also learned biology — the smell of dead leaves festering on the bottom of the pools. Smashing things may be the starting point for certain kinds of science, although building things and understanding wholes no doubt have different roots.

And the gender thing: Parents of boys may see more of this than parents of girls, and grown-up boys may better appreciate these images. But if Aaron and Matt’s friend Hannah had been here, she would have been in the thick of it. That’s one reason she’s their friend, and I’m glad they’ve made room for her.


Gray Squirrels Invaded My Backyard — and I Missed It!

Filed under: Animals,Mammals,Neighborhood Habitats — saltthesandbox @ 1:19 pm
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A few weeks ago I talked with some biologists at the Wild Things 2009 conference. They told me my backyard had been invaded by Gray Squirrels — and I had totally missed it!

The last time I paid attention to our backyard squirrels was years ago, as the boys were first getting interested in birds. Ethan pointed out a gray looking squirrel among the many rusty looking Fox Squirrels. I think I wrote it off as just a color variation. Little did I realize that we had seen the vanguard of a force that was gradually pushing Fox Squirrels from our neighborhood, replacing them with slightly smaller Gray Squirrels.

Gray Squirrels, like this one, are replacing Fox Squirrels in our neighborhood.

Gray Squirrels, like this one, are replacing Fox Squirrels in our neighborhood.

Biologists from University of Illinois at Chicago documented this invasion. They used walking surveys and citizen scientists to collect their data. The team has resumed collecting data on their Project Squirrel website, so I just submitted our first results: Gray Squirrels 8, Fox Squirrels 2. In 2002 less that 1 in 10 squirrels in my neighborhood were Gray Squirrels; my 2009 results found 8 of 10 were Gray — an almost complete reversal. I’m so embarrassed that I missed this big change in our neighborhood!

I think we missed the change for several reasons. We are birders now, with our own kind of tunnel vision. We didn’t look at squirrels very closely, and when we did we only saw their backs. Most Gray Squirrels here have rusty patches on their backs; we never noticed that their bellies were white. (If you want to learn to differentiate Gray and Fox Squirrels, go to this page on the Project Squirrel site.)

So, we’ll be submitting data to Project Squirrel several times a year. It’s a really easy process — you should give it a try! We’ll also be watching squirrel behavior much more closely: What natural foods do we see each species eat? Which species get eaten by hawks or canines at Columbus Park? Which species reproduce successfully this year? We’ll keep you up to date with our results.


Note added May 1, 2009:   I submitted another observation, for today, May 1, 2009: Gray Squirrels 4, Fox Squirrels 2. That’s pretty typical of the last month. There have been fewer Gray Squirrels visible at any given time. I’m wondering if their numbers are really reduced, or if they’re not all coming at once because at least one parent stays with the nest of young.

Also, we have not yet seen baby squirrels this year, as far as we can tell. We’ll submit again when we do.

Note added May 5, 2009: An article about Project Squirrel appeared in the Chicago Tribune‘s online edition today. Go here to read the article. (The link may only be good for a few weeks.)

Note added June 8, 2009: At 6:15 a.m. Aaron and I saw five Fox Squirrels in our backyard at once, without a Gray Squirrel in sight. That’s a record for this year! Then they got into a fight and chased each other into the neighbor’s pear tree. (Now there’s just one Gray Squirrel.)

The Fox Squirrels all looked full sized, but we wondered if some might be this year’s young.


Some background information and references:

In addition to looking at the Project Squirrel website and talking with biologists at Wild Things, I also read two scientific papers written by Project Squirrel researchers (see below). Both studies included field work in our hometown of Oak Park, Illinois. The 2005 paper has maps showing changes in Oak Park squirrel distribution between the late 1990s and 2002.

van der Merwe, M., Brown, J. S., & Jackson, W. M. (2005). The coexistence of fox (Sciurus niger) and gray (S. caroliniensis) squirrels in the Chicago metropolian area. Urban Ecosystems, 8(335-347).

van der Merwe, M., Burke, A. M., & Brown, J. S. (2007). Foraging ecology of North American tree squirrels on cacheable and less cacheable foods: A comparison of two urban habitats. Evolutionary Ecology Research, 9, 705-716.


Closer to Spring in Columbus Park February 24, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Plants,Seasons,Spring,Trees,Wildflowers — saltthesandbox @ 4:54 pm
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On my lunchtime walk through Columbus Park, I found a few more signs that spring is inching closer.

In the Austin meadow, I heard a Song Sparrow sing. It’s been two months since we last saw this bird in Columbus Park, and much longer since we heard one sing.

A recording of its song is here: Song Sparrow from the All About Birds website.
(To hear the song, you need Quicktime installed on your computer.)

To read more about the birds we see in Columbus Park, check out this page.

Behind the Refectory, I found tiny green leaves poking up through bare soil, surrounded by snow:

Soon these plants will sprout buds, then flowers.

Soon these plants will sprout buds, then flowers.

In one place soil had washed away, and I could see how the leaves sprout from underground bulbs:

Tiny bulbs sprouting tiny leaves. The biggest bulb is a centimeter across.

Tiny bulbs sprout tiny leaves. The biggest bulb is less than a centimeter across.

To see what these plants look like as they develop buds, go here.

To see what the flowers look like when the buds open, go here.

The trees are also making progress, especially the Weeping Willow by Columbus Park lagoon:

The buds on Weeping Willow twigs have been slowly swelling and deepening their color.

The buds on these Weeping Willow twigs have been slowly swelling and deepening their color.

A treeful of leaves and flowers will emerge from these tiny buds.