Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Wiggly Worms

Last week our homeschool group had a composting workshop with the Lower East Side Ecology Center. The kids learned all about worm bins and composting. They got to observe worms, and then make their own worm bin and bedding (wet shredded up newspaper).

Worms eat organic matter -- things that used to be alive that would otherwise go in the trash. Vegetable peels, fruit leftovers like apple cores and banana peels, coffee grounds, tea bags, egg shells, etc. But you shouldn't compost animal products like meat, dairy (or even their soy or rice equivalents) or very oil foods. They draw vermin and can really smell bad. Worms are not vegetarians. They are omnivores. They eat food scraps and poop out compost. The worms we are using for composting are "decomposers" called Red Wriggler worms. Their lifespan is about 1 year. Worms are slimy and secrete mucus. When handling them, you should wet your hands so they don't dry out.

The Early Bird Gets the (Book)worm

Mikro and I have been reading about and studying birds. Some of our recent reads are:

Wings Along the Waterways (Wonderful and beautifully illustrated.)
Today at the Blebird Cafe (Poems.)
Blue Sky, Bluebird (Gorgeous!!! Five stars!)
Urban Roosts (Wonderful! Great look at how animals adapt to a changing environment.)
One Small Square: Backyard (Great, as is the whole series.)
Flute's Journey (A migration tale.)
Hummingbird Nest (Sweet and lovely.)
Birds of the Night (We love owls!)
All About Owls (Ditto, and can Jim Arnosky make a bad book? I don't think so!)
The Bird Alphabet Book (Awesome, like all the alphabets by Jerry Pallotta!)
Bird Watcher (One of the DK activity books, great fun!)
Sing, Nightingale, Sing! (British, so slightly different species)
Birds of New York (great field guide, organized by bird color, and thus easy for kids to use. My favorite local field guide.)

And we've flipped through this bird fandex:

Since it's spring, we're also back to bugs. Oddhopper Opera is a wonderful collection of poems about insects and other creepy crawly critters, which gives kids a great sense of the cycle of the year from the invertebrate perspective. This is one of Mikro's all time favorite books. We highly recommend it.

Mikro is obsessed with Monarch Butterflies. We've been looking at these books:

And we electronically "adopted" a monarch egg on Live Monarch. I'm hoping to buy milkweed plants from them soon (still too cold here at night), in addition to getting some free milkweed seeds. We are also looking into becoming a Monarch Way Station through Monarch Watch and possibly tagging butterflies. And it was recently the 40th anniversary of Eric Carle's Very Hungry Caterpillar. Our homeschool group has scheduled a reading group with craft and science activities centered around this book. We're really looking forward to it.

Feeder Watch Update

We are innundated with finches!

And we get lots of other birds too.

Tomorrow is our last day of Project Feeder Watch. Mikro doesn't want it to end. So we will go on birdwatching and recording our sightings, perhaps on eBird, or maybe just on my blog...

Welcome Spring at Beczak

Welcome Spring! at Beczak Environmental Education Center featured Jungle Jim and his exotic animals. Jim is terrific. You can see his passion for animals in everything he says and does, and in his family's involvement with his work. The kids all loved him and learned a great deal.

We started off with learning about our Hudson River and the signs that spring has returned to our area. The kids got to make a craft -- spring crowns, of either a bird, butterfly or turtle. They went outside to look for signs of spring.

Then it was time for the main event. Jim started off by introducing the kids to Rocky, an African Spurred Tortoise, native to the savannahs of Africa. He eats tall grasses, weeds, flowers, fruits and vegetables. Tortoises are terrestrial (live on land), while turtles are aquatic (water). When Rocky is fully grown, he will weigh 200 pounds! His life span is around 100 years.

Next up were the snakes-- Ball Pythons, which are jungle dwellers. They are constrictors and kill their prey by squeezing and crushing. Snakes have poor vision. Their tongue is their main sense organ.

The kids also got to touch shed snakeskin.

Next, we met a Monitor Lizard from the African savannah. He is a carnivore, and uses his strong tail to defend himself.

Then we saw an Australian Bearded Dragon, who uses his beard to puff himself up and look bigger to prospective predators. This fellow eats crickets for his main meal, but he's omnivorous. His tail detatches to allow him to escape danger.

Another Aussie visitor was the Sugar Glider, which is a marsupial. It lives in eucalyptus trees and eats their sap and leaves. It is nocturnal, and can glide like a flying squirrel. We got a demonstration of this ability when he climbed up on Jim's head and dove off!

Next up was Poppi, the Kinkajou. Kinkajous are mammals with prehensile tails. They are from the rain forests of South American (Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Costa Rica) and stay in the trees. They are an important pollinator and are related to raccoons.

Up next was Rickey the Fennec Fox. He's a tiny fox from the Sahara Desert region in Northern Africa. His huge ears help him dissipate heat, as well as provide excellent hearing for locating prey. He's nocturnal and omnivorous, eating insects, rodents, birds, bird eggs and grasses, roots and berries. His sandy coat is great desert camouflage, and also helps reflect sunlight in daytime and conserve body heat at night.

Sonic is an African Pygmy Hedgehog. He's nocturnal and has a spiny coat for protection. He eats insects, plants matter, and even poisonous snakes and scorpions (having a natural resistance or immunity to their venom.) They are born blind and quill-less, but the quills erupt from under the skin soon after birth. They roll in a ball for protection, covering any non-protected areas of the body. Unlike porcupines, their spines do not come off except when shedding their baby coat, or when sick or stressed.

And finally, we got a chance to meet Lola and Sugar, a pair of ferrets. Ferrets are members of the weasel family, and were used for hunting rabbits and rodents. Now they are mostly kept as pets. Sometimes they are used to run wires in close spaces. They are obligate carnivores, meaning they must eat meat to survive.

Mikro on Eating - Food Change Disease

One of my imaginary cows got this disease called Food Change and changed its diet. The disease made tiny creeks in its brain. It started eating meat at age 7. Only animals that recover will eat their normal diet again. Meat eaters and omnivores can also catch that disease. The omnivores only eat insects then. That's not a normal omnivore diet. And the meat eater, when it gets Food Change, it becomes a plant eater. Weird?!? Belephants used to be meat eaters but then they all got Food Change and they only ate plants. Belephants are some kind of small little dinosaur. I usually like to pretend that my bookworm is a belephant.

I think Mikro's brain is once again puzzling over why he and I are vegetarian, but dad is an omnivore...

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Out on A Limb at Belvedere Castle -- Session 1

After the morning family program at Beczak, we hopped on a train into NYC for the Urban Park Rangers' Out on A Limb program at Central Park's Belvedere Castle, featuring veterinarians, wildlife rehabilitators and rescuers. Ranger Sheridan gave Mikro and the kids a "Wildlife Detective" badge. We took a quick tour of the castle ramparts before the program started, then headed inside.

Leading off were Karen, Rita and Karen from the WILD BIRD FUND. Wild Bird Fund cares for sick, injured and orphaned wildlife, especially birds, with the goal of releasing each into its natural habitat. They are NY State licensed wildlife rehabilitators, and can care for all New York State nonmigratory birds. We were surprised to learn that means only three species, all of which are actually non-native, introduced species: the Rock Dove (aka pigeon), European Starling, and House Sparrow. They also have a federal permit, which allows them to care for migratory birds as well. Birds reach them through good samaritans, park rangers, and Audubon's Project Safe Flight.

Wild Bird Fund sends animals to Berkshire Bird Paradise Sanctuary (all birds, releasable or not), The Raptor Trust (raptors and waterfowl, releasable only) and the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary (chickens). They have also aided other animals, including bats, beavers and squirrels.

The most common injury to migratory birds is head trauma, which has a high mortality rate. Across the USA, 1 billion birds are killed each year by flying into glass. Birds are also injured by discardd fish hooks and fishing line.

Pigeons are the most decorated wildlife, having won military medals for reconnaissance and communications service during both World Wars. Sadly, they are also the most abused wildlife. Chickens are also frequent victims of abuse, and are used in religious rituals. One bird was found covered in red wax, wandering in Central Park.

We received a handout on what to do if you find a baby bird on the ground.

If the bird appears injured or sick, you should call a wildlife rehabilitator, your state wildlife agency, or a veterinarian who deals with wildlife. Only in the event you can't reach any of those people should you try to rescue an observedly sick or injured bird yourself.

If the bird is not sick or hurt, check to see if it has feathers. If so, it's a fledgling, and it is perfectly normal for it to be hopping around on the ground. If the bird is in an area where it is reasonably safe from cats, dogs and people, leave it alone! Its parents are still feeding it and will come looking for it. If it is in a high traffic area and might be stepped on or in danger from predators, place it in a nearby bush or tree. Watch from a distance to see if the parents return. If they don't return in 20 minutes to half an hour, call a wildlife rehabilitator.

If you find a featherless bird on the ground, it is a nestling, and it is in trouble. Look for its nest nearby. If the nest is intact, put the baby back in and watch from a distance to see if the parents return. If not, call a wildlife rehabilitator. If the nest is damaged, make a substitue nest. Poke holes in the bottom of a clean, small plastic food container, line it with grass and hang it from the original tree or nearby. Put the baby in your nest and observe from a distance. If the parents do not return, call a wildlife rehabilitator.

For ground nesting birds like waterfowl (geese, ducks), quail and killdeer: If you know the mother is dead or the baby is injured, call a wildlife rehabilitator. If you can find the mom, put the baby close enough for her to hear it and watch from afar. Mom will find it. If the mother does not return within an hour, call a wildlife rehabilitator.

Remember, a baby bird requires nearly constant feeding. Its best chance of survival is its parents.

If you need to rescue a baby bird and have tried unsuccessfully to find a wildlifde rehabilitator, here's what to do:

Prepare a container with a lid-- you need air holes, and should place a clean, soft cloth in the bottom. (You can use a plastic cat or dog carrier.) You should wear gloves if possible to avoid being bitten or clawed, and to avoid parasites like fleas, lice and ticks. Cover the bird with a light towel or cloth and gently lift it and place it in the container. If the animal is cold, warm it up with a hot water bottle (you can use a clean plastic water bottle). Make sure your bottle does not leak. Close the container. Wash your hands. Make a note of precisely where you found the bird, so it can be released appropriately when the time comes. Keep it in a warm, dark, quiet place. Don't give it food or water. Don't handle it. Call a wildlife rehabilitator, wildlife agency or veterinarian as soon as you can. In many states it is illegal to keep wild animals without a license, even if you plan on releasing them. Get the bird to a rehabilitator as soon as possible.

The second speaker of the day was Chris. He has a NY State license and rehabilitates small mammals, especially squirrels. While doing his presentation, he had a young grey squirrel named Sebastien inside his jacket.

Squirrels in the wild eat acorns, walnuts, pecans and peanuts. They live about 4 years (up to 14 in captivity). They have two litters of young each year. The babies are born hairless and with their eyes closed. They nest in tree cavities or build leaf and twig nests, which they line with fur and leaves. At 12 weeks, the babies have weaned and are self-sufficient. There are red, grey and black squirrels.

If you see a baby squirrel alone, usually it is just fine. If it is still pink and hairless, watch for around 20 minutes for the mother to find it.If she does not return, touch the baby. If it is cold, it is getting hypothermic and needs to be warmed up. Use a hot water bottle or a heating pad on low heat. Squirrels can go 2 or 3 days without food, but will die of cold much faster. Wash your hands after handling squirrels. Call a wildlife rehabilitator as soon as possible.

For more information on how to become a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, check out the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council and the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association.

PDF: Wildlife Rehabilitation: Is It For You?

PDF: How to Help Wildlife

PDF: Do's and Don'ts of Helping Injured & Displaced Wildlife in Need

Just for Kids: Wildlife Jobs

Urban Park Rangers