Nerding Out on Nature:

Because Earth is cooler than screens


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Why Do We Need Raptor Centers?

On October 29th–from 1 -2 PM at Writers & Books in Rochester, New York–I’ll be upstaged by an owl.

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I love to do events for young readers around my new middle-grade novel, Avenging the Owl, in partnership with the area’s local raptor rehabilitation center. Staff bring live birds on the glove and introduce audiences to each, telling a little about the natural and personal history of the raptors in their care.

I talk about what inspired me to write the book (volunteering at my own rehabilitation center with injured birds of prey while courting another volunteer who would eventually become my husband). I also talk about why we need raptor centers in the first place.

Raptors occupy the lofty top of the food chain. They’re an indicator species, which means we can study changes in the environment, including our climate, by looking at them. For example, thin-shelled eggs and babies not hatching? When scientists noticed this, they traced the issue back to pesticide use, and environmental activists worked to ban certain crop poisons which rodents would ingest and pass on to birds.

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This Western screech owl lost her eye in a battle with a cat.

Do you like rats and mice? Me, too. But I don’t want to wade through a sea of them on my way to the mailbox. Raptors keep our rodent population down to healthy levels. A single barn owl can eat 1,300 rats a year. Burrowing owls chow down mass quantities of insects and beetles; again, I’m fond of these, too, but a few of them go a long, long way.

The issue that threatens raptors (owls, eagles, hawks, falcons, osprey, vultures, and kites) is . . . well, to put it bluntly, us. We like to drive fast, and we end up colliding with birds that swoop across the highway in search of mice. We put up barbed wire fences, and owls get horrifically tangled in them. We put out rat poison, and rats ingest it, but then raptors eat them and become ill. We cut down trees with nests in them, and parents fly off, leaving owls orphaned.

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Photo by Jonathan B. Smith

Fortunately, raptor centers exist across the world to help preserve threatened birds of prey. Staff and volunteers dedicate their lives to providing them with medication, food, water, and clean and enriching home environments. Want to support your local raptor center? Here’s a list of rehabilitation centers by state. Many invite visitors to walk around and meet the birds. In some, you can even hold a birthday party or, in my case, a wedding.

 

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Me, releasing a rehabilitated hawk on my wedding day. No white dress here!

On Saturday, I’ll be doing a presentation with staff and birds from Wild Wings, Inc. in upstate New York. They’re wonderful people devoted to caring for raptors and teaching us about the value and beauty of these birds of prey. Yes, their resident owl is sure to upstage me.

It’s totally worth it.

For more information on the Rochester, NY event, click here.  I’ll also appear at Barnes & Noble in Eugene, Oregon on November 11th, 11 AM.

–Melissa

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Nerd Out with These Three Nature-Focused Resources

Kazoo Magazineimages

This month, I surprised my nine-year old daughter with a subscription to the new magazine Kazoo, billed as a publication for “girls who aren’t afraid to make some noise.” I haunted our dusty red mailbox every day in October until her issue arrived, and managed to slip it out of her room one night after she’d fallen asleep reading it.

Fellow Nature Nerds, it rocks.

In  issue #2, you’ll learn how to make beautiful self-portraits out of leaves and sticks and flower petals and lichen found outside. You’ll study the science of composting to enrich the soil, learn how to make an acorn whistle, examine a butterfly wing up close, and create a pinhole camera with which to document your adventures outdoors. Don’t miss it.

Mystery Science

If I hadn’t started homeschooling my daughter last year, I would never have discovered a wonderful new online resource called Mystery Science. Each short lesson begins with an entertaining anecdote and moves into information and–my favorite part–experiments!

 

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Over the past few months, my daughter and I have learned why some apples are red, some are green, and some are yellow. We’ve investigated whether we could outrun a dinosaur and whether or not a volcano could appear spontaneously in our backyard.

Thanks to the smart people at Mystery Science, we know what happens to fallen leaves, why a hawk might move to New York City, how to identify clouds and track a storm and and tell the time using only the sun and a paper plate and a pencil.

Each short lesson concludes with a page of links and films and books for further study. Science this exciting is addictive!

 

Camp Out!

I’m a sucker for a colorful nonfiction kids’ book, especially if the author can explain in a clear and entertaining manner certain tricky concepts like how to navigate without a compass, and mark a trail, and tell whether a storm is coming. 0fe003a7-2b6d-474d-9a68-54266d89ee96

I found this book at our local science museum, and I’ve read it over and over, both alone and with my daughter. It’s a fun book, packed with useful information. We learned how to make spider dogs and solar oven pizza, how to make seed jewelry, and how to tell a rabbit track from a garter snake track (okay, that one was  easy).

Too cold to camp right now? This book makes for great winter reading while you plan your next adventure. Check out Camp Out here!

These are just a few of my favorite nature resources. I’d love to know yours! Feel free to comment below.

–Melissa

 Melissa Hart is a contributing author at The Writer Magazine and the author of the middle-grade novel, Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, 2016).

 

 

 

 


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Seattle’s Pacific Science Center: Bugs, Bikes, and Musical Flowers

Some families travel to Disneyland. Mine goes to science museums. There’s a family-friendly science museum in almost every major city, and you can find one of the best in Seattle, Washington.

We visited the Pacific Science Center in September on a break from my Avenging the Owl bookstore tour, and spent seven hours investigating every corner of the museum. Here are some of the weird and wonderful things we discovered.

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Insect Village

Love insects? Stick around here for a while. An animatronic housefly invites you to “step right up” and visit an extensive display that will give you a sense of how high a flea jumps, how a beetle’s exoskeleton acts like a knight’s armor, why hissing cockroaches hiss, and—my favorite—how mealworms eat Styrofoam. (Up until I observed this for myself, I thought mealworms were simply food for owls, but now I realize they have other environmental benefits, as well!)

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Tropical Butterfly House

Even on the grayest, rainiest, coldest days, the butterfly house glows with a tropical light. Hundreds of butterflies drift about, landing on flowered plants, on piles of sliced fruit, and on you. The museum gets its butterflies in chrysalis form from farms in Central and South America, and they allow visitors to watch the hatching and study the brief but beautiful life cycle of these insects. Laminated identification cards let you to learn the names of what you’re seeing, but you can also dispense with the fancy nomenclature and simply bask with the butterflies.

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High-Rail Bicycle

So maybe you’re sort of a daredevil, or maybe your great-grandparents—like mine–ran away to join the circus. Either way, if you weigh over 100 pounds, you can pedal a bicycle on a one-inch-wide rail 15 feet above the museum’s courtyard for free. Downward-hanging weights keep it from slipping off the rail.

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Look, Mom! No hands!

Live Science Shows

As a creative writing teacher, I have a crazy admiration for those who can impart the magic of science to kids  . . . and to me. The museum offers a couple of half-hour science presentations a day, classes so surprising and funny you forget you’re actually learning. We saw “The Science of Combustion” in which the presenter lit blew up fuel-filled balloons and lit someone’s ten dollar bill on fire (it managed to escape unharmed), and “The Science of Bubbles.”

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Musical Flowers

After seven hours of fabulously-interactive exhibits on health and archaeology and space and dinosaurs and Legos and 3-D printing and musical instruments, I had to get outside and go in search of a veggie dog. I found one along a line of food stands in the Seattle Center, but not before I discovered artist Dan Corson‘s giant glass flowers sprouting up right outside the museum. As people walk past them, they emit loud tones—some low, some high, all unexpected and weird. But then, that describes the whole science museum, which is much more fun, my 9-year old agrees, than a family vacation to Disneyland.


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Owl Pellets and Owl Pellet Cookies: Don’t get them mixed up!

I offer you an important lesson today, my friends, one that could very likely save you from walking around with mouse bones stuck in your teeth.

This is an owl pellet:

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And these are owl pellet cookies:

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Why should you care? Because owl pellets are a hoot and a half to dissect.

Here’s the deal. Whenever possible, owls swallow their prey whole. But they can’t digest the entire mouse or rat or songbird or snake. So about once a day, the owl’s stomach makes a pellet with fur and feathers on the outside, and sharp bones of the prey on the inside.

Let me dispel a major misconception right now: a pellet comes out of the beak-end of the bird, people, not the butt! You can find them on the ground under trees when you’re hiking, or order them online, and then pull them apart with tweezers to see what the owl had for a meal.

Here’s a group of kids examining owl pellets after my latest Raptors Rule! slideshow and reading from my novel, Avenging the Owl at the lovely Third Place Books Ravenna, Seattle.

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Dissecting owl pellets is fun, and for a really good time, combine this activity with owl pellet cookies.

Hey, wouldn’t this make for a most excellent birthday party?!

Here’s a deliciously-weird recipe from Jane Hammerslough’s super-fun, super-sciency book, Owl Puke.

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Owl pellet cookies

Servings: 36 to 45 cookies

6 cups crispy rice cereal

2 cups semisweet or milk chocolate chips

1 cup sugar

1 cup corn syrup

1 cup peanut butter

2 white chocolate candy bar, chopped into bonelike bits

Foil for wrapping pellets

1. Mix cereal and chocolate chips in a large bowl. Set aside.

2. Mix sugar and corn syrup in a small pan and heat until bubbling.

3. Remove sugar-syrup mixture from heat and stir in peanut butter.

4. Stir peanut butter mixture into cereal and chocolate chips and mix together well. The chocolate chips will melt. When the cereal is coated, allow the mixture to cool.

5. Put 2 tablespoons of the mixture into your hand. Sprinkle 4 to 5 white chocolate bone and skull pieces on top.

6. Squeeze mixture in your fist until it looks like an owl pellet. Wrap, if you’d like, in a small square of foil.

Mmm. So tasty. What’s your favorite owl-related activity? Feel free to comment here!