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  • Day in the Life of an Animal Care Volunteer

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    Tags: volunteering, volunteer, animals, living collections

    Created: 1/2/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    The following post was written by Cindy Gray, one of our animal care volunteers at the Museum.

    8:15 to 8:25

    Arrive at the Museum, greet the cleaning woman who lets me in as she cleans the entry, get the key to the Look-in-Lab from security, check-in at the volunteer lounge, and put on one of the volunteer aprons. Go to the Lab, greet Celeste and Jamie and get ready to start working!

    8:25 to 8:40
    Change the swimming water for the Leopard frog and the drinking/soaking water for the American toad in Mysteries of the Marsh, and mist the American toad tank with RO water (“RO” water is “reverse osmosis” water, water filtered to remove chlorine and other elements that may bother amphibians, water bugs, fish, and some reptiles). Feed the frog and toad, trying to drop the crickets into their tanks, not on the carpet (I read that toads blink their eyes to help swallow their food, but I had trouble picturing it until I saw the toad capture and swallow one of the crickets I fed her one day).

    8:40 to 8:45
    Mist the green tree frog tank near the spotted turtles to maintain the high humidity they prefer.  Sometimes one of the frogs will start “singing” as I mist -- I like to think it's because they are happy for the fresh "rain".

    8:45 to 9:00
    Provide fresh water for the Tiger salamander, Gray tree frogs, American toad, Cricket frogs, and Fowler’s toad in the Look-in-Lab and mist their habitats. Provide Harriet the tarantula with fresh water in her bowl and crickets.

    9:00 to 9:25
    Empty the water bowls for the snakes used for critter connections and provide fresh water.  Sometimes right after I change her water, Coco the Fox snake takes a drink and then soaks in the fresh water.  Change the paper substrate of their tanks if they have pooped. Mist with water any snakes that are shedding to help with that process. If a snake sheds overnight, take the skin out of the cage. If a snake was fed the night before, look to make sure it ate the defrosted mouse or rat.

    9:20 to 10:10
    Clean up after the box turtles that are used for critter connections. For the box turtles in the front window, provide fresh water, take out yesterday’s food dishes, throwing away the leftovers and putting the dish in the dishwasher, and redistribute the coconut fiber substrate. For the box turtles in the other enclosures, provide fresh water, take out yesterday’s food dishes, and change the paper if they have made a mess, in other words, everyday. When I take them out of the tanks, I put up the “slow traffic” sign that has a picture of a turtle and give the turtles worms, trying to keep an eye on them as I clean; it is surprising how fast a turtle can wander away and wedge herself into a small hiding space.

    Pretty Girl the box turtle enjoying a superworm



    10:10 to 10:40
    Tend the nursery for the Abedus (ferocious water beetles), providing them with clean water and crickets.  The females lay dozens of eggs on the males’ backs, and we remove the males to small containers filled with water to protect the babies when they hatch. The young pass through numerous stages before they are big enough to go into the tank in the window so floating in the water are “exuvia,” the shed exoskeletons they have outgrown (a fun word I only learned after volunteering at the Museum.)

    10:40 to 10:50
    Provide hermit crabs with fresh fruit, fresh RO water, and clean salt water; clean and mist habitat.

    10:50 to 11:25
    Chat with the PIP volunteers (Public Interpretive Program volunteers) when they come in to get a snake or turtle for critter connections and to feed the frogs and toads for the public feeding. Make salad bowls for the turtles: greens, veggies, corn (their favorite if we have it), and berries or other fruit, topped with crushed egg shells for calcium, mealworms dusted with vitamin powder, and nightcrawlers.

    Fruits and veggies for the animals



    11:25 to 11:40
    Tidy up, give the rats corn on the cob, and say good bye to Celeste and Jamie. Check-out in the volunteer lounge, take off the apron, and return the key to security.

    Not every day is the same. One day, I flooded the lab by accidentally opening the valve for the water snake tank and not noticing until I heard water splashing on the floor. Everyone was very nice about it and told me everyone floods the lab at least once! (The snakes were undisturbed.) Usually, the breaks from routine are more interesting: Harriet looking spiffier after her molt, new interns, the tiny leopard frog that was a tadpole the week before, or the hatchling Red-eared sliders and Painted turtles the horticulturists found in the garden last spring.

    Cindy Gray
    Animal Care Volunteer

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  • The Challenge of Swamp Metalmarks

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    Tags: conservation, butterfly, Biology

    Created: 12/27/2012      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Of all the species that we work with in the butterfly conservation lab, by far the most challenging has been the species that is also the most seriously endangered, the Swamp Metalmark. This species has proven difficult at virtually every stage of the captive breeding process. The populations where we can obtain founder stock are small. The few females that we are able to collect don’t lay many eggs. We feel very lucky to get more than 90 or so out of a single female. Contrasts that to Regal Fritillary females that can each produce upwards of 800 eggs. Hatching, larval growth and survival to pupation are all modest at best. In northern Illinois, the species has but a single generation per year, which means that we are confronted with the challenge of successfully carrying caterpillars over the winter, a process that has proven difficult for many species. Despite these odds, we continue attempting to breed the species in the lab so that we can return the species to the fens of northeastern Illinois where it formerly flew.

    • Swamp Metalmark Chrysalis

      Swamp Metalmark Chrysalis

    • Swamp Metalmark Caterpillars

      Swamp Metalmark Caterpillars

    • Swamp Metalmark adult butterfly

      Swamp Metalmark adult butterfly

    This past August we were able to obtain 4 females from southern Indiana. True to form one of the females died after laying only a single egg. All told, we were were able to harvest about 80 metalmark eggs. Only 63 hatched. We began feeding them leaves of swamp thistle, their preferred host plant The goal is to have adult butterflies next spring that we can release onto a fen in northwest Cook County.

    Throughout September and early October we experienced the kind of gradual attrition that is typical of our experience with the species. We were faced with a dilemma: should we try moving the larvae to cages where they would spend the winter outdoors? We have never succeeded with this approach. Or should we raise them through to adulthood and try to get an additional generation with perhaps greater numbers. We have only once before succeeded in rearing the species to adulthood, but did not get any offspring. Despite the uncertainty, the latter course of action seemed less perilous, so we retained the caterpillars in the lab and continued to offer them food.

    By mid October we were down to 21 caterpillars. There the numbers stabilized as the caterpillars continued to eat and grow. With few additional losses, we obtained 19 pupae. At the time of this writing we have about 10 adults, four of which are females. We have paired them in small cages where we hope that mating will occur. After a few days we will move the females into egg laying cages and hope for the best.

    Mating Cages

    Mating Cages


    Although this species is proving difficult to work with, I believe that it is well worth the effort. Swamp metalmarks were once part of the great species diversity that was found in the fens of Illinois. It my firm hope that they will one day fly there again.

    Doug Taron, Curator of Biology

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  • Butterfly Lab on Christmas Morning

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    Tags: butterfly, volunteer

    Created: 12/24/2012      Updated: 5/28/2015

    There are a handful of reasons why I love volunteering on Christmas morning:

    • My partner and I get to spend some time together away from the usual Christmas chaos,
    • Volunteering when the museum is closed feels like a super-secret-behind-the-scenes-tour, and
    • Butterflies are awesome.

    When I was a kid I loved the excitement of sitting around the tree on Christmas morning and opening presents. As an adult it’s been hard to replicate that kind of excitement. Last year, my partner and I decided to volunteer in the Butterfly Lab on Christmas morning… and it was AMAZING.

    When we walked into the lab, there was a moment of wonder and excitement as we took a peek into the case to see who had emerged overnight. The flurry of color was just so beautiful. The butterflies looked like little presents that had been opened just for us!

    Although I enjoy volunteering in the lab throughout the year, there’s something special about doing it on Christmas morning. I love turning on some Christmas carols, rolling up my sleeves, and getting to work. It’s a great new holiday tradition, and I can't wait for my shift this year!

    Jen Walsh
    Butterfly Lab Volunteer

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  • Why Should the Summer Solstice Soak Up the Entire Spotlight?

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    Tags: winter solstice, public programs, green gifting, hot cider

    Created: 12/21/2012      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Cannon the bison with holiday wreath

    The focus of the Winter Solstice is often that it is the shortest day of the year, the day with the most darkness and least sunlight. I, however, prefer to think of it as an essential day to be celebrated. Without the tilting of the earth’s axis, we would not have the four distinct seasons that give us so much joy here in Chicago.

    For thousands of years, the Winter Solstice and nature’s harvest have been celebrated by cultures all over the world.  The day signifies nature’s rhythm; it’s a time of growth and renewal as the days begin to lengthen and plants and animals begins its push through winter to ensure a bountiful spring.

    During the peak of the holiday season – when people tend to feel stressed with last-minute details – the Winter Solstice is a reminder to pause, rejuvenate and reconnect with nature.

    And where better to do that than right here at the Nature Museum, the urban gateway to nature and science.

    In recognition of the Winter Solstice today, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is celebrating its significance to nature with two days of activities. We invite everyone to join in on the fun.

    • Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.: Hot cider, Make Your Own Bird Feeder, Critter Connections.
    • Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.: Green gifting and hot cider.

    Happy Winter Solstice, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year.

    Naturally,

    Deb Lahey

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  • Reducing your Holiday Impact

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    Tags: public programs, PIP, recycle, upcycle

    Created: 12/20/2012      Updated: 8/10/2016

    As the holidays near, it’s even more important to consider the impact that our choices have on the environment. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, an additional 1 million tons of waste is generated per week in the U.S. This waste includes things like shopping bags, ribbon, wrapping paper, and over 2 billion holiday cards[1]

    So what can the average person do to reduce their own holiday impact? The good news is that there are many ways to make a difference.

    • Don’t forget your reusable shopping bags! Keep disposables out of the landfill by bringing a cloth bag, or reusing those grocery bags you have stashed under the cabinet.
    • Use newsprint to wrap gifts. Try the funny papers- it’s a unique and often unexpected way to package gifts that will help yours stand out.
    • Make your own holiday cards by “up cycling”! Save cards you receive throughout the year- cut them, tear them, and paste the pieces together to create new, one-of-a-kind designs.
    • Buy rechargeable batteries to accompany any electronics, and consider including a battery charger as part of the gift.
    • Consider durability and recyclability of gifts before you purchase. If it isn’t expected to last for years, can it be recycled?[2]

    Challenge your family to try one (or more) of these tips this holiday season and see what a difference it makes. Children can participate by keeping track of how many bags, rolls of wrapping paper & holiday cards you’ve saved from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.

    Have green gifting tips of your own? Please share in the comments.

    • Visitor crafting
    • Mosaic craft
    • Cutting out butterflies

    Want to learn more? Visit the Nature Museum throughout the holiday season for hands-on fun!

    Green Gifting

    Saturday, December 22 and Sunday, December 23
    11am to 1pm

    Join us in preparing for the holiday season by creating your own gifts for all of your friends and family at our "green gifting" craft workshop. All crafts will be environmentally friendly and nature oriented. Perfect for anyone on your list! Cost: $3/project, $5/two projects.

    Trash to Treasure
    Wednesday, December 26 through Saturday, December 29, 11am-2pm

    Bring your holiday trash (wrapping paper, boxes, cards, ribbon) to the Nature Museum to create Trash to Treasure thank you cards and create musical instruments to ring in New Year’s Day. Move, sing, and play with Lily Emerson, the Nature Museum’s Artist in Residence, in this special family workshop celebrating the sounds of the season. Cost: Free

    Heather Grance
    Manager of Public Interpretive Programs



    [1] California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery http://www.calrecycle.ca.gov/PublicEd/Holidays/

    [2] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency http://www.epa.gov/osw/wycd/funfacts/winter.htm

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  • What Do You Do On Your Day Off?

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    Tags: PIP, volunteer, volunteering

    Created: 12/18/2012      Updated: 8/10/2016

    It’s Sunday afternoon and I have helped a group of second graders spot the queen of our leaf-cutter ant colony, held two fox snakes, acted as a perch for a bunch of newly hatched butterflies not quite ready to fly, and fed no less than three box turtles. What do you do on your day off? I am a Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum Public Interpretive Programs Volunteer, or just PIPster for short.

    I'm also a biology student working my way through school and busier than one of our rooftop honeybees. With work, school, and taking care of my canary, Ladybird, my week can be a little hectic. Yet, I have made it a priority to volunteer for the Nature Museum every Sunday.

    Stephanie Maxwell with butterfly

    I began volunteering here last spring after meeting a few past volunteers who couldn’t say enough good things about the Museum. As a newer student to biology, I had been searching for a way to get more experience to compliment my interest in local wildlife -- something more than a laboratory internship or research assistantship. Boy, did I hit the jackpot.

    Working as a PIP volunteer truly compliments the material I am learning in the classroom, but provides more of a hands-on perspective. Instead of reading about the territorial nature of red-winged blackbirds during the breeding season, I get to witness firsthand what happens when my coworkers venture too close to a nest while exploring the prairie (think Alfred Hitchcock).

    Working for the Museum has also solidified my desire to pursue a career in the wildlife rehabilitation field. Beginning my studies as a biologist, the most important thing that fueled me was my desire to affect this planet in a positive way through some kind of conservation effort; I just wasn’t sure how I could make that a reality. Saving all of the Bengal tigers in Nepal is a bit daunting for a 20 year old in Illinois to contemplate, you know?

    When I began talking to my fellow volunteers and really dove into what the Nature Museum is about -- preserving and protecting native Illinois wildlife while giving the public an opportunity for an authentic connection to nature -- that is when I found that concentrating on a local level is much more approachable to someone like me, and probably you as well.

    That is why I volunteer for the Nature Museum every Sunday. I get to introduce people to an amphibian they never even knew existed, let alone knew was in their backyard. I get to see the absolute wonder mixed with terror on a kindergartener’s face as they feel the scales on a snake for the first time. Volunteering as a PIPster is an amazing opportunity I wouldn’t have had in any other city, because there is no city that has a nature museum quite like ours here in Chicago.

    If you come across a volunteer in a green shirt the next time you’re visiting the museum, don’t hesitate to ask us questions! We’ll be sure to have an answer. I’ll see you on Sunday!

    Stephanie Maxwell
    Public Interpretive Programs Volunteer

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  • Nature in Your Backyard

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    Tags: nature, education, science on the go, chicago

    Created: 12/6/2012      Updated: 8/10/2016

    A couple of years ago, I taught a lesson about Midwest ecosystems in a fourth grade classroom on the far south side. Two weeks later, I returned to the same classroom, but before I could make it through the door, several students began excitedly shouting, “We saw a wetland! We saw a wetland!  It’s right behind the school!”  (And I’m not talking about moderate excitement; they were “I just won a million dollars” excited!)  They couldn’t believe that the wetlands they had learned about in the classroom – cattails, ducks, and all – could be found right here in their neighborhood. Just behind their school, stuck in between the busy city streets, here’s what they had found:

    Ducks in the pond

    Over the past several years, we’ve ramped up our efforts to connect students to the nature in their neighborhoods. Last month, as part of these efforts, I traveled around Chicago to photograph wetlands in different areas of the city. We know that many teachers aren’t able to take their students to visit wetlands, so we wanted a chance to bring those wetlands – the ones right in their neighborhoods - into the classrooms. 

    Can kids who live near McKinley Park learn to appreciate that their local wetland supports living things that aren’t found on most city blocks?

    Ducks in a wetland setting

    Can students in Lincoln Park get excited about turtles sunning themselves near their school?

    Turtles in North Pond

    Can school kids on the northwest side learn about bird migration by studying a Green Heron in Humboldt Park?

    Green Heron

    We think we have the answers to these questions: YES! ABSOLUTELY! OF COURSE!  But let’s not forget that these connections to nature are always there, waiting for people to experience them, and not just in schools. Get out there and find out what’s going on with the nature in your neighborhood, and when you find something cool (which you certainly will!), we want to hear about it!

    Kristi Backe
    Curriculum Coordinator

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  • Chicago’s Community Weatherization Action Teams

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    Tags: weatherization, C3, volunteer

    Created: 11/29/2012      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Home weatherization is one of the fastest and easiest ways to save money year round, especially in the winter. The average un-weatherized house in the United States leaks air at a rate equivalent to a 4 foot hole in the wall. This is money and natural resources literally going out the window and through the roof. 

    On November 7, the Chicago Conservation Corps and the Nature Museum came together to change that for 3,500 homes in the city of Chicago. Thanks to a grant from the city of Chicago, People’s Gas and ComEd, 3,500 weatherization kits were installed and distributed all over the city in November.  But, it took a lot of work to get these kits to the Community Weatherization Action Teams (CWAT).

    It started out in mid October when Chicago Conservation Corps Coordinator Kristen Pratt jumped into action creating supply lists, surveying the Museum for storage and kit building space, and recruiting volunteers.

    Kristen Pratt

    In less than a month we received supplies, trained volunteers to install the weatherization materials, and were ready to build kits. The kits each consist of weather stripping, caulk, window film, and tape. 3,500 kits with 7 items each results in 24,500 items to be placed into bags along with installation instructions and a CFL light bulb. That is a lot of material – enough to fill three 25 foot long storage containers!

    Delivering kit supplies

    What we found out is that if you want to build it, they will come. We had over 120 volunteers attend the kit building event. What we expected to take over 5 hours was finished in just over 3!  Rafael Rosa, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum's Vice President of Education, commented that: “... in the span of 3½ hours, we packed over 3,100 weatherization kits – that’s about 1,000 per hour, 16 per minute, 1 every 3-4 seconds!. When I looked at all the materials that came in during the week before, I couldn’t envision getting this job done in just a few hours. But thanks to 20 or so staff and over 100 volunteers we got it finished quicker than projected...”

    Assembling kits

    Next, we had to get the kits into large plastic totes (or toters as we like to call them) to be delivered to schools and C3 Leaders for distribution and installation. After being packed with kits, each toter was put back in the storage pod by what seemed to be an army of strong and enthusiastic student volunteers. At about 3 pounds per kit, 10 kits per tote, 350 toters - thats about 30 pounds each. If we extend that math further, thats about 10,500 pounds of weatherization supplies - but who is counting?

    C3 Leaders and staff

    What started about 4 pm in the afternoon was completed by 8:30 pm that night!  Chances are that as you read this blog post the pods are gone, the toters are distributed, and the weatherization kits have been delivered to the leaders for their groups to distribute and install. Thanks to all of the volunteers and staff that made this project possible!

    Want to learn how to weatherize your home and get a free kit? Sign up for one of our free weatherization trainings being held this week at the museum. 

    Barbara Powell
    Associate Director of Education Operations

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  • Nature on the Go Debuts in 2012

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    Tags: education, nature, Biology, animals, collections

    Created: 11/29/2012      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Do you know the difference between a mount and a study skin? Or what a bird's nest can tell us about the birds who live in it? Or what's with those honeybees that are always in the news? Well, your kids just might!

    Our newest education program, Nature on the Go, connects students to real specimens from the Museum’s collections, answering these questions and delving into other exciting science and nature topics! If you wonder how we do this, take a look at some of the specimens that were prepared just for this program:

    • Frog skeleton

    • Bee specimens with honeycomb

    • Squirrel study skins

    Nature on the Go allows us to bring the rich, 155 year history of the collections of the Chicago Academy of Sciences into Chicago area schools to showcase how specimens can tell us about the lives of local animals. Think about your own visit to a museum: you don’t just want to see each piece of art, set of bones, historical artifact, or plant or animal; you want to know its story! This program teaches the students we serve how to read these stories. Because the program features local animals, students will continue to make connections between what they learn in the classroom and the nature they see right outside their doors in their own neighborhoods.

    We know that teachers need choices and flexibility, so we’re excited to give Nature on the Go teachers a choice for the second part of the program, which takes place after a Nature Museum educator visits the classroom. Some teachers may choose to receive funding to bring their students to the Museum on a field trip, giving the students an opportunity to connect what they learned in the classroom to the world outside of school.

    Other teachers might choose to visit (with a guest) our offsite collections facility to learn more about the 95 percent of our museum collections that aren’t on display in the Museum. These teachers can learn more about the important role specimens play in scientific research and talk with our expert biologists about the stories these specimens can tell. Of course, the teachers will leave the collections facility excited to share their new knowledge with their students! We love that we can share the history of the Chicago Academy of Sciences with teachers and students.

    Developed as a true collaboration between the Education and Biology Departments, this program is on its way to a school near you!

    Michelle Rabkin
    Student Programs Coordinator

    Nathan Armstrong
    Registration Coordinator

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  • Why Don't I Ever See Baby Squirrels?

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    Tags: squirrel, baby animals, autumn, fall

    Created: 11/27/2012      Updated: 8/10/2016

    The simple answer is, baby squirrels don't leave the nest until they are fully furred and can survive on their own so, without seeing the mother right next to the babies, they all look about the same size. 

    Most babies leave the nest in April or May.  At this point the babies are fluffy and fat but the parents have exhausted their winter fat and are beginning to shed their winter fur, so look relatively small.  A second litter of babies may leave the nest around September.  At this point the parents have begun putting on fat and winter fur, so the apparent size difference can be greater.  Because of this, it may be easier to identify babies born late in the year. 

    Although baby squirrels have been recorded in almost every month of the year, these two litters, early spring and late summer, are the norm.  Typically the early spring babies have the highest survival rate, especially in areas where it snows, since a small squirrel has to expend more energy than a large one to stay warm and find food.

    I managed to take a few pictures of a baby and a young adult male that were foraging near each other in the same park.  Unfortunately, tree squirrels aren’t very social so I couldn’t get any useful pictures of them near each other, but they found my pen interesting so there is some scale.  The pen is about 16cm long.

    • Baby grey squirrelA baby grey squirrel.

    • Adult greay squirrel

      An adult grey squirrel from the same population as the baby in the previous photograph.

    • Adult grey squirrel

      Another view of the adult.  Note the more “mature” features. 

    Even with the specimens in-hand, assessing age can be somewhat qualitative but when the babies are very young, they are simply more cute than the rest of the population.

    If you're a squirrel watcher, like me, I hope you take the time to record your observations at projectsquirrel.org . Your data, combined with that of others around the country, helps us understand more about squirrels and about the nature in your neighborhood!

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

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