Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sniff, sniff sniff! Your nose and nature.

(Is that food I smell?)

With the holiday season in full swing for many people, our houses are often filled with the wonderful smells of meals cooking and cookies baking. Even though we as humans are very visual creatures, our sense of smell can be very acute. Some researchers say that our sense of smell has a connection to our memories, and a specific smell can bring back very vivid memories. But what about in the animal world? And how can we use our sense of smell to explore the natural world? Well, let's find out.

Our sense of smell is carried out by two small odor detecting areas-made up of about 5-6 million cells- high up in our nasal passages. As a comparison, rabbits have an average of 100 million olfactory cell receptors and dogs average 220 million! Our nose is also tied into our sense of taste. While our tongue contains our taste buds, our noses add a great deal to our sense of taste. Have you ever noticed that when you have a cold and your nose is stuffed up that your sense of taste is not as keen? A friend of mine Paul has almost no sense of smell and as a result he has almost no sense of taste. Try it yourself. Hold your nose and eat something. What does it taste like? Then take another bite without your nose held and taste the difference.

A good deal of research has been done on human's sense of smell. Most scientists agree that children have a better sense of smell than adults and that women tend to have a better sense of smell then men. There is some debate on when our sense of smell declines, or if it even does. There is evidence to suggest that we do experience some olfactory decline as we get older. However, our state of mind and overall health does have an effect on our sense of smell as we grow older. And some research suggests that just like lifting weights, training your nose and relying on your sense of smell on purpose can increase nasal sensitivity.

So how can we use our noses more in nature, and how can we train them. Nature is full of amazing smells! Many of us have experienced the smell of a rainstorm, or fresh cut grass, and some even say it can smell like snow. Atmospheric condition do effect how smells travel through the air, but more on that some other time. Today we are going to cover two ways to use your nose in nature!

The first can be done indoors our outside. We are going to create a scent trail. Now I use this activity with kids outdoors during the day but also on night hikes if I can get out ahead and set the trail. Look through your house and find some things with both strong and subtile smells. I like to use things like soaps, herbs, sauces, coffee, tea, peanut butter, mouthwash, etc. You can use cotton balls for liquids and paper or cups for solids. Starting in one spot in your house, or just outside, place the starter scent maker there. A cotton ball soaked in lime juice for example. This is where you or your child will "catch the scent".

Then go ahead and hide other scent markers-the cotton balls or cups with the scent in or on them- around your house like a hidden trail. At the end put some reward like a snack. Then have your "bloodhound" take a smell of the first scent marker. Let them get a really good sniff. Then see if they can follow the scent trail through the house and find the end. If you want an added level of difficulty, you can also have the trail run outside and then back inside. Or have the trail go through the kitchen where other strong smells might throw your tracker off the trail. Another variation is to do this activity blindfolded! With the blindfold on, your scent seeker will have to rely on their sense of smell rather than looking for the scent markers as they sniff the air.

Another way you can develop you and your children's sense of smell is to literally follow your nose while out on a hike or disco hike. As you are out walking, either in nature or even in a store or mall, if you smell something, follow it to the source if you can. You never know what you might find. I have found wonderful trees, flowers, pizza shops, dead animals, and even water! Following a smell that reaches your nose can be a wonderful experience in the art of wandering. Since we usually follow what we see, following what we smell brings a whole new level of exploration into a simple walk. Also if you are taking you dog for a walk, see what they stop and smell. I have found skunk tracks, bobcat urine marks, and deer trails when I take a closer look at what my dogs are investigating.

Speaking of dogs, what mammal has the best sense of smell? Bloodhounds, and scenthounds in general, have noses 10-100 MILLION times more sensitive than us humans. But bloodhounds do not have the best noses in the mammal kingdom. That honor goes to the bears. The Grizzly Bear has a sense of smell that is 7 times stronger than a bloodhound! Researchers have found that grizzly bears can detect the scent of food up to 18 miles away!

Other animals in the world have equally amazing "noses". Salmon navigate back to the exact rivers they were born in while out in the ocean, and sharks can smell blood up to a half a mile away in the ocean. Turkey vultures are also known to have a great ability to smell dead things from great distances, and they are one of only a few bird species to have a sense of smell. My award for the coolest animal "nose" goes to the male Red-bellied Lemur (Eulemur rubriventer) which has scent glands on top of the head!

Here is a hint on how to help get a better smell of things. Have you ever noticed how a dog smells something it is interested in? They take several sniffs in and then one big exhale. Try it and see if it makes a difference for you. Also, when you are out exploring, from time to time stop and smell things. Take the time and explore how different things smell. Take a sniff of trees, leaves, mushrooms, dirt, bark, and anything else that strikes your fancy. Now be careful. Don't go just sticking your nose into just anything. Bring things slowly up to your nose, and take your first sniff from a good 6" away from your nose, and then get a closer smell. Have fun exploring with your snouts!

Nature Nugget:
Just a quick reminder, tomorrow, the 21st, is the Solstice. It is the day when we have the shortest amount of daylight all year. After the Solstice we will "gain" a few minutes of daylight each day. It was, and is, a time of the year when people celebrate the death and then the rebirth of the Sun. So enjoy the darkness and know that more light is on the way!

And now for something completely different!

Here is a partial list of the names of groups of animals. Just in case you have been wondering.

Donkey  - Herd
Bear       - Sleuth
Cat         - Clutter. A litter of kittens but a Clutter of cats.
Cattle     - Herd or Drove
Chicken - Brood or Clutch
Deer       - Herd
Dog        - Pack
Duck      - Brace or Herd
and finally...
Fox         - Skulk. Yes a skulk of Foxes.  

And now you know.

As always, please post comments or email me ideas for things to explore.

And if you know someone who might enjoy this blog, please pass it on! I have also started another blog for Experiential and Environmental Educators. If you are one of those, or want to be, or know someone who is, check it out:

Monday, December 14, 2009

Providing a little extra!

(Photo by Heather Peterson, NY)

As winter is settling in around the country we can take this opportunity to give our animal friends a little extra energy to make it through the cold months. Winter for many places means colder weather and an increase in rain or, if you’re lucky snow. In case you have not caught on, I am a big fan of cold snowy winter weather. Anyway, regardless of the  winter weather where you live, you can provide wildlife with some assistance by providing extra food for local animals. I addition to the local animals we are used to seeing in our area, winter is also a time of migration for many bird species. Migration takes a lot of energy so providing some additional food sources aids those birds heading south for the winter.

By offering food for birds and some mammals, you will be providing you and your family with some “wilderness television” for your viewing entertainment. Even without binoculars, you will be able to see many bird and animal species up close. When you start feeding the birds, or continue to do so if you already have been providing winter feed for the birds, here are some topics to keep in mind.

There are a few important points to keep in mind when deciding where to place your feeding stations. Consider the following things:

Ample cover, preferably provided by native plants. Native plants also provide potential nesting sites and sources of natural food.
Place your feeders and feeding stations in areas that provide places for birds to find cover. This reduces stress in birds. If birds have places where they can wait and feel safe while they are feeding, it can help them conserve energy while they feed. Use existing trees, bushes, and even buildings as locations for your food sources. However, keep in mind cats. More on that later.

You want to avoid creating unneeded competition amongst various bird species, while accommodating various feeding styles and preferences.
By placing feeding stations in various locations and levels, you will allow birds to find their own feeding level. Also, by placing a variety of food sources out in a variety of areas birds will not have to compete against additional species. By separating feed into different areas, you can also watch to see what species go to what food source. 

You also want to think of possible hazards to the birds, such as window collisions, prowling cats, and thieving squirrels.
Try not to place your feeders or feeding stations near windows. Birds have a difficult time "seeing" glass, and finding dead birds outside is not exactly holiday cheer. There are bird sticker silhouettes that you can place on your windows. Also you can place plants in front of windows or fine nets to prevent birds from crashing into the glass. 
If you have outdoor cats,place your feeders high off the ground and in open areas so it is more difficult for cats to stalk the birds. Bells do little to warn birds. Squirrels and chipmunks are going to seek out your feeders and feed stations. You can help birds get their share of the food by placing some food in easy to get areas on the ground for the small mammals to access. And let's face it, squirrels can be hysterical to watch as they work out how to get by all the squirrel defense systems created by humans. One trick I have used is to put cayenne pepper into your bird seed. Birds don't smell it or taste it, but mammals will.

What to serve, what to serve?:
You have chosen where to put your feeders and feed stations, so what do you put out for the critters to eat? As with us humans, food can make or break a party. Let's give the animals a good party. Different birds are attracted to different kinds of seed. By providing a variety of seeds at various locations, you can attract a wider range of bird species. There are many different kinds of feeders out there, so make sure that your feed is compatible with the feeder(s) you have.  

Sunflower Seeds:
Black-oil seed is the preferred seed of many small feeder birds, especially in northern latitudes. Striped sunflower seed is also readily eaten, especially by large-beaked birds. Hulled sunflower seed is consumed by the greatest variety of birds; it attracts various jay species, red-bellied woodpeckers, finches, goldfinches, northern cardinals, evening grosbeaks, pine grosbeaks, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and grackles.

White millet is the favorite food of most small-beaked ground-feeding birds; red millet is also readily eaten. Millet attracts quail, doves, juncos, sparrows, towhees, cowbirds, and red-winged blackbirds.

Cracked Corn:
Medium cracked corn is about as popular with ground-feeding birds as millet, but it is vulnerable to rot, since the interior of the kernel readily soaks up moisture. Feed small amounts, mixed with millet, on feeding tables or from watertight hopper feeders. Avoid fine cracked corn, since it quickly turns to mush; coarse cracked corn is too large for small-beaked birds. Cracked corn attracts pheasants, quail, doves, crows, jays, sparrows, juncos, and towhees

Milo, wheat, oats:
These agricultural products are frequently mixed into low-priced birdseed blends. Most birds discard them in favor of other food, which leaves them to accumulate under feeders, where they may attract rodents. Milo is more often eaten by ground-feeding birds in the Southwest. It attracts pheasants, quail, and doves.

A preferred food of American goldfinches, lesser goldfinches, house finches, and common redpolls. It is sometimes called "black gold," because it costs about $1.50 per pound. Do not confuse it with prickly thistle, a pink-flowered weed used by goldfinches to line their nests.

Suet (animal fat and seeds):
This mixture attracts insect-eating birds such as woodpeckers, wrens, chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice. Place the suet in special feeders or net onion bags at least five feet from the ground to keep it out of the reach of dogs and raccoons. Do not put out suet during hot weather as it can turn rancid; also, dripping fat can damage natural waterproofing on bird feathers.

Whole and crushed peanuts attract woodpeckers, jays, chickadees, titmice, bushtits, nuthatches, brown creepers, wrens, kinglets, northern mockingbirds, brown thrashers, starlings, and yellow-rumped and pine warblers. Provide these in tube-shaped, metal mesh feeders.

Stale Bread:
If you and your family end up with extra bread, or the ends of bread loafs, grind them up and place them out for the birds. It is a great way to use leftover bread. Or make yourself croutons. 

Peanut Butter Suet:
Mix one part peanut butter with five parts corn meal or a mixed bird seed, and stuff the mixture into holes drilled in a hanging log or into the crevices of a large pinecone. This all-season mixture attracts woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, and occasionally warblers. This mixture is a good substitute for suet in the summer.

A few thoughts about attracting mammals to your feeders.

Squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, raccoons, opossums, skunks, woodchucks, mice, and deer are commonly found in many of the same areas where we live. These species are highly adaptable and, in many cases, are becoming unwanted visitors rather than welcome guests.
Food set out for birds may attract many of these animals. Squirrels, chipmunks, and mice will readily eat birdseed, especially sunflower seeds. Raccoons will feed on suet if they can get to it.
Check the exterior of your house for loose or rotted boards that could allow access by mice or other rodents. Remember that these animals are wild, and if threatened they can bite. Raccoons can be particularly aggressive. All these species can carry diseases. Do not handle them!
I know I should not need to mention anything about bears, but I will anyway. If your area is known to have bears, brown or black, please do not encourage them to come to your house and feed. Squirrels are one thing, bears are quite another. I have only heard of a couple of reports of bears raiding bird feeders, but you do NOT want bears close to your house. If you have any doubts about bears, contact your local Department of Conservation or Natural Resources for information on bear sightings in your area.

Website resources:
Here are a few websites to help you get some ideas of the variety of bird feeders available.
Don't forget that if you have any comments or ideas, please email me at: or simply leave a comment here on the blog.

That's it for this week. Have fun getting out there! 

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

What's out there part 1.

( Who knows what paths you'll cross)

Photo by Julia Schwent Novack.

I hope you are getting outside and exploring around where you live. For me, around here as the winter rainy season begins to set it, you can hardly walk anywhere in the woods and not see mushrooms. They are everywhere! We also had our first hard frost here this morning with temps down in the high 20's. Hopefully you have been out Still Hunting, taking Disco Hikes, and exploring several Square Feet of where you live. Well now it is time to head out and take the first What's Out there Scavenger Hunt!

Just like taking Disco Hikes and becoming a Square Foot Naturalist, doing scavenger hunts can help you and your kids develop your nature awareness. By repeatedly asking your eyes, ears, and brain to notice new things, you can begin to develop new habits and patterns connected to being in the natural world. Like I mentioned, I am seeing mushrooms everywhere recently. A couple of weeks ago I went on a great mushroom walk with one of the local mushroom experts and then attended two lectures on mushroom identification. As a result of spending just about 6 hours learning about local fungi in my area, I now see them everywhere! Even while driving! It does not take much to your brain to notice new things and patterns.

So here is the first What's Out There Scavenger Hunt. Take this list and head outside and see what you find!

1) Something older than you.
2) Something with three or more colors (natural colors).
3) Something that smells good.
4) Sounds that  a tree makes.
5) A bird flying in the wind.
6) A bird track.
7) An animal that likes moist areas.
8) A bird nest.
9) Signs of animals having eaten something.
10) A leaf that has lobes.
11) A place where an animal can sit in the sun.
12) Things that could be used to insulate an animals nest.
13) An example of erosion.
14) A plant that could be used as tinder to start a fire.
15) A place where you could hide from the wind.

Once you have headed out to do this scavenger hunt, keep in mind you might not find all the items in one outing, try and do the hunt in another area such as a park or even downtown. You could even keep this list with you in the car so you can mark off items when you see them. This is the first of many scavenger hunts we will do. If you have ideas of things to add to an upcoming list, please send them to me at

Nature Nugget:
As winter approaches in North America many of us get ready for much colder weather and possibly a good deal of snow fall (if you are lucky). While we get ready for winter so does much of the animal kingdom. Some animals spend the winter months either hibernating or in torpor. Many folks ask what is the difference between the two. So I am going to clear it up the best I can.

Traditionally hibernation simply meant a state of inactivity and metabolic depression in animals, characterized by lower body temperature, slower breathing, and lower metabolic rate, and applied equally to frogs, bears, bats, and insects regardless of their body temperatures or activity levels. Most animals that traditionally were considered to be hibernating are actually in torpor. Torpor- or false hibernation- is a state of inactivity achieved primarily-but not exclusively- by a greatly lowered body temperature and can last for a few hours to months. For frogs, snakes-(Rattlesnakes and copperheads), woodchucks, ground squirrels, bats, and bears, settling in for the winter in various ways is the key to winter survival.

While the list for hibernating mammals is relatively small, some bats, shrews, chipmunks, some snakes, some turtles, and woodchucks; theses go through the following changes: 
1) Body temperature will plummet until only a few degrees above the cold climate. 
2) Their breathing will drop from several hundred times a minute, to one in five minutes. 
3) Their heartbeat will go from several hundred a minute to one or two beats a minute 
4) They will move only slightly every few hours, although their muscles will retain their tone, and 
5) Their digestive and excretory systems will continue to work.

So deep is this sleep, that often times the hibernating animal is insensible to sound or touch!
Several studies have also shown that this deep sleep seems to make the hibernators immune to many dangers. For example, in one case study scientist placed a hibernating marmot in an airtight jar filled with carbon dioxide. After four hours, the marmot had suffered no adverse effects from the experiment.

Compared to ground squirrels, frogs (who hibernate in unfrozen mud at the bottom of lakes, rivers, and ponds), snakes (who hibernate in hollow logs, caves or dens), and other true hibernators however, the hibernation pattern of many bears, an animal we were all taught hibernate, is only a series of naps or Torpor. Some other animals that go into torpor are raccoons, skunks, and some mice and birds

Since the body temperature of bears remains high (which burns an estimated 4,000 food calories a day) and their breathing remains at a normal rate, their winter sleep can easily be disturbed. Some bears even wake up during their winter nap and prowl around for hours, sometimes days. Thereby, making bears (even chipmunks) and most other winter mammals false-hibernators (or torpor). Torpor also occurs when animals enter a deep sleep when cold weather occurs suddenly or they cannot get into warmer conditions. Grey Squirrels have been found in torpor in live traps on cold mornings out of season. 

I hope that clears some things up. On another note, if while you are out exploring this winter you come upon mammals or birds that appear to be sleeping or moving very slowly, try not to scare them. Animals live on a very limited energy budget. Some birds that have been startled out of a deep sleep will be dead by morning because of the loss of heat when they got woken up. So be kind to our napping friends. after all, how happy are you when you get woken up from a nap!


Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Square Foot Naturalist

(Up close in the garden)

So today we are going out to take a close look at an area around your house, or in a park, or some other natural area. The cool part is that this activity can be done anywhere! The idea of being a Square Foot Naturalist is to explore a 1'x1' area with great abandonment coupled with the detailed focus of a CSI field agent.

Head outside and find yourself a little spot of Earth to explore. I have a 1'x1' wooden square that I use as a frame to help keep myself focused on a small area ( I am easily drawn to look around). You can use a bigger square if you want to. You and your kid(s) can explore the same area, or each of you can have your own area. Then simply start exploring your square foot of Earth. I usually do not dig into the ground, although that can be a fun exploration to do. Spend some time looking at what is in your small area. That can be the extent of your exploration, simply looking at what you find. If you take a little while, maybe 15-20 minutes, it can help calm the mind. I have found that kids who have attention "issues", can thrive with this activity. Just for fun, every once in a while stop looking down at the ground and look around with your owl eyes and listen with your deer ears to take in what is going on around you.

If you want to, you can get into more detail with your spot. To really get into your exploration, bring a journal to record your finds. I have found it is interesting to explore the same spot in each season. You might be surprised to see how much the area might change throughout the year. You can get as detailed as you and your kid(s) want to. To experience your area in a whole different way, bring a magnifying glass or a jewelers loupe. I find that if you first spend some time exploring your area without a magnifying device, and then explore the same area under magnification, the results can be really fascinating!

Now off you go! Explore your area and become a Square Foot Naturalist! I would love to hear about your discoveries!
You can always contact me at

Website: A website and book about exploring nature up close! You can purchase loupes here as well as the book Private Eye.

Follower Feedback:
At thanksgiving dinner I was talking with one of the followers of "What's Out There" and he was saying that his daughter was making ceramic Cardinal Direction letters to put up in the house. What a great project! Let us know how your family is exploring nature! And if you would like to receive this blog in an email, please let me know.

Nature Nugget:
This month we have a wonderful natural event that does not occur very often. A BLUE MOON! A blue moon is when we have 13 FULL moons in one year. That means that one month has two full moons. This year we get two full moons in December! The first full moon of this month was on the second. The second, or BLUE MOON is on the 31st! Not only is there a Blue Moon this year, but the Blue Moon is on New Years Eve! Really pretty cool! 
A Blue Moon is a full moon that is not timed to the regular monthly pattern of the moon. As I mentioned, most years have twelve full moons which occur approximately every 28 days, but in addition to that normal lunar cycle, each calendar year contains an excess of roughly eleven days. The extra days add up so that every two or three years, 2.72 to be exact, there is an extra full moon. The extra moon is called a "blue moon."
So if you missed the "normal" full moon this week, make sure you take a few moments to enjoy the Blue Moon on New Years Eve! Hey it might be a great way to mark the end of one year and the beginning of a new one with your family!