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  • Metamorphosing Monarchs

    Created: 3/14/2018      Updated: 3/14/2018

    Happy #LearnAboutButterfliesDay, everyone! Although every day is Learn About Butterflies Day at the Nature Museum, we thought we would showcase something you don't get to see very often -- the lifecycle of the monarch butterfly! A huge thank you to our Education Department who captured the video of this process. Did you know that we also have a field trip workshop all about monarch butterflies? Click here to learn more.

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  • Let’s work to bring nature’s benefits to all

    Created: 2/26/2018      Updated: 2/26/2018

    With melting snow and the first promising signs of Spring, I’m eager to be outdoors watching for those signs, including feeling warmer moist air, and listening closely for more bird songs. In these reflections, I’m reminded how fortunate I am to have access to nature through urban parks, trees, gardens, rivers, and our beloved Lake Michigan.

    Multiple studies prove there are many physical and psychological benefits to spending time in nature. But in reality, too many people don’t have equal access to these benefits. This is especially true for people living in predominantly African American neighborhoods in cities throughout this Chicagoland region. In many underserved communities there are significant barriers – transportation, safety, proximity, awareness – to enjoying parks, trees, school gardens, forest preserves and community green spaces.

    I strongly believe every person – especially every child – should be able to experience the gifts and benefits of nature. Addressing this issue is particularly profound as we reflect during Black History Month on how we must collaborate to create more nature equality.

    We need more visible environmental champions to challenge the status quo and fight barriers to a healthy environment. Environmental justice advocates like Dr. Robert Bullard, known by many as the “father of the environmental justice movement,” have increased the understanding of environmental racism and have led an important movement to end injustice that hurts many minority communities. 

    And I’m thankful for historic leaders like botanist George Washington Carver, who discovered healing and agricultural properties of plants and revolutionized farming practices. He faced immeasurable obstacles because of his race, but his intellect and determination helped pave the way for future African American scientists.  

    Nature offers many benefits to minority youth, which is why the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum places the highest priority on taking nature and science education programs to underserved communities, and on creating greater awareness and opportunities to experience urban nature. Everyone deserves to enjoy the benefits of nature and of being outdoors.

    Nature access and education can create more racially, socially and economically equitable communities. During this reflective time of year, let’s renew our commitment to environmental justice for all.  

    Deborah Lahey, President & CEO

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  • Why are tropical birds so colorful?

    Created: 1/22/2018      Updated: 1/22/2018

    In this series, we'll be addressing some common questions from visitors and readers. Do you have a science question that has you stumped? Ask our museum scientists via our form here and we'll answer it on our blog!

    Today's Question: Why are tropical birds so colorful?

    Parrots, macaws, parakeets… these rainbowed tropical birds put to shame the brown and gray birds that are so common in Illinois and Chicago. Even Chicago's brightest birds—cardinals, blue jays, gold finches—are vibrant, but single-colored. Why are bright and multi-colored birds so common in tropical rain forests, and nowhere to be found in temperate climates like Chicago? Do the changing seasons make bright birds sitting ducks in the winter? Do jungle birds eat bright berries and fruits instead of brown and black seeds? What gives?

    This Northern Cardinal is just one color: red. No one is flocking to see this bird in a zoo. Coincidence? No.[1]

    We can eliminate one option right away: a parrot's color has nothing to do with its diet. While a flamingo gets its pink color from the food it eats (brine shrimp and blue-green algae) and a cardinal is red in part because of the seeds in its diet[2], a parrot's color is determined by its genes.[3] The incredible colors of the blue-and-yellow macaw do not come from tropical mangoes and imported blueberries.

    Sorry about the awful pun in that other caption. Here, have a picture of an ivory-billed aracari.[4]

    It must be some other quality of the tropics that creates brighter birds: is it the rainfall? The year-round high temperatures?

    The truth is that tropical birds don't tend to be more colorful. Dr. Nicholas Friedman of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology explains, "if you look at birds in the tropics, there are a lot of colorful birds that stand out. But there are really more species in general there, and there are just as many more of the little brown ones".[5]

    In other words, the tropics are much more diverse in general than temperate or dry climates. The rainfall and year-round high temperatures contribute to rainforests having many more animal and plant species than other places. Of these many more animal species, some are brightly colored birds, but there are even more species that are plainly colored. The birds that are exported from the rainforests for zoos or as pets are the brightest birds, and these are the tropical birds that we in Chicago are familiar with. This leads to the overall impression that birds from the rainforest are more colorful as a rule, even though it's not actually true!

    This red-crowned ant-tanager is related to the cardinal. It lives in the rainforests of Central and South America, and it is less bright than the Northern Cardinal.[6]

    If you want to know more about tropical birds or even to see them up close, head to The Bird House exhibit at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum between now and June 18th to see some colorful birds you can't find in Chicago's trees. You can even see an ivory-billed aracari like the one pictured above during the daily Live Bird Showcase at 11:30am!

    Kyle Schiber
    Nature Museum Volunteer

    By Chris Hachmann (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

    [2] Koren, Marina. “For Some Species, You Really Are What You Eat”. (April 24, 2013). Retrieved January 8, 2018, from

    [3] Cooke, Thomas F. et al. “Genetic Mapping and Biochemical Basis of Yellow Feather Pigmentation in Budgerigars”. Cell , Volume 171 , Issue 2 , 427 - 439.e21. Retrieved January 11, 2018, from

    By Glenn Bartley. Retrieved from on 1/21/2018

    [5] Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University - OIST. (2016, November 4). “Plumage evolution: Explaining the vivid colors of birds.” ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 18, 2018 from

    By Hector Bottai (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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  • #MuseumSelfie Day 2018

    Created: 1/17/2018      Updated: 1/17/2018

    We had a blast participating in Museum Selfie Day! We compiled our photos of staff and volunteers, as well as Nature Museum visitors, striking a pose in and around our exhibits and put them all together in one spot. Scroll through and get inspired for your own Museum Selfie! Don't forget, Chicago Museum Week starts tomorrow and on January 20th and January 21st, we're encouraging museum-goers to post their museum selfies once again!

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  • Equality and Inclusion in Nature Education

    Created: 1/11/2018      Updated: 1/15/2018

    Museum educator teaching in a Chicago classroom

    As we reflect on a day dedicated to a fearless and inclusive leader, I am reminded of all the insightful lessons Martin Luther King Jr. has gifted us through his words and actions. These lessons have the ability to resonate with many different elements of our lives.  

    For me, today reminds me of the importance of equality in nature access and environmental education. Regular access to nature, whether it is time outdoors in a park or prairie, sitting next to a lake, or hiking in the forest, is proven to offer many benefits from reducing stress and improving health to increasing creativity and improving children’s aptitude for problem solving that contributes to academic success. The more we learn about the benefits of regular connections and access to nature, the more critical it becomes to ensure equality of access.

    I strongly believe all children should have equal opportunities to experience the gifts and benefits of nature. Unfortunately, there remains a wide gap in equality to access for many children, especially minorities and those who live in cities.

    Our team at the Nature Museum is continually evaluating and extending our reach and offerings with a goal of getting deeper into more Chicago neighborhoods, especially those with diverse populations whose access to nature and environmental education may be limited.

    MLK’s activism was centered around the theme of justice. Today, I’m reflecting on the injustice of the continued diversity divide in nature access and education. It is my goal, and the collective work of our team here at the Nature Museum, to narrow that gap in Chicago by increasing inclusivity and access to nature for all.

    Everyone, especially children, deserve to experience the joys, peace and benefits that nature provides.

    Deborah Lahey, President & CEO

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  • Feeling crazed? Nature offers antidote to hectic holidays

    Created: 12/20/2017      Updated: 1/5/2018

    Winter scene with candles in window

    As much as I love the holiday season, the constant hustle to juggle events, decorate, manage long to-do lists, and prepare for family gatherings can be overwhelming. So let me share an antidote, compliments of nature: Spend time outdoors in a few moments of stillness.

    Call it a nature “time out” or escape outdoors. Our family finds that time in nature, particularly in the quite of winter, is restorative and a time for reflection and connection.

    To me the rhythm of crunching snow underfoot helps me slow down and notice nature’s surprises, like the beauty of the stark trees in the winter cold. After spending some time outdoors, I feel restored and happier during a season that can feel exhausting.

    Let’s not use the excuse that “I don’t have time to stop for nature with so much to do.” A walk outdoors or even standing in your backyard looking at stars slows us down and gives us a quiet moment. Stillness can be energizing. 

    This Thursday is the Winter Solstice, the longest night (or, depending on your perspective, the shortest day) of the year. It is a perfect time to take a moment in nature -- in your backyard or park or forest preserve. 

    If you want to know more about the solstice, I’ve shared a few fun facts below. 

    Also, I would love for you to join us for a season celebration at the Nature Museum in our tradition of welcoming the new year at our Noon-Year’s Eve on Dec. 31, from 11:30am to 12:30pm. The Museum provides many nature moments both inside and outside for your family to enjoy.

    May you find joy in your season celebrations and in nature’s quiet gifts this holiday.       

    Facts about Chicago’s Winter Solstice:

    • Chicago will experience the Winter Solstice on Thursday, Dec. 21, at 10:27 a.m., when the Northern Hemisphere officially welcomes winter.
    • We will experience only 9 hours and 32 minutes of daylight that day.
    • At the same time, our friends in the Southern Hemisphere will celebrate the Summer Solstice.
    • Chicagoans who can’t wait for warm weather can be encouraged that we gain a minute or two of daytime each day beginning Dec. 22 as we march toward summer.

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  • How do Clouds Float?

    Created: 11/30/2017      Updated: 4/9/2020

    In this series, we'll be addressing some common questions from visitors and readers. Do you have a science question that has you stumped? Ask our museum scientists via our form here and we'll answer it on our blog!

    Today's Question:

    How do clouds float?

    Clouds are made of water. Water is denser than air. Water doesn't float in the air. Therefore, clouds can't exist.

    Clearly, that’s not true. Clouds do exist, and they do float in the air. How? Why do clouds form? Do clouds fall to the ground? Why do clouds sometimes disappear?

    Clouds are created from water vapor that condenses into water droplets, and warm air and water vapor will rise above the cold air around it1. Your breath on a chilly winter day or the steam from a tea kettle are examples of water vapor that rises. Are clouds warmer than the surrounding air, and if so, what makes clouds warm?

    Clouds form when the sun creates warm, moist air by heating and evaporating water on the earth’s surface. The warm, moist air is less dense than the cold air above it, so that warm air rises2. The warm air cools as it comes into contact with the cooler air above. Cold air cannot hold as much moisture as warm air: the vapor has to condense into a liquid. This is the beginning of a cloud.

    The sun heats the earth, and causes water on the ground to evaporate3. The water rises, cools, and condenses. A cloud is formed!

    Clouds form when warm wet air rises and condenses in cold air. This explains why clouds exist, but now how do clouds stay in the air? Once the cloud forms in the cold air, why doesn't the cloud cool down and sink back to the ground?

    There are several reasons clouds float: first, the droplets in a cloud are small. Very small. An average water droplet in a cloud may only be 20 micrometers across4. That is half as wide as a typical human hair, and about the same size across as a particle of dust5. Even though dust is heavier than the air around it, a dust particle is so small that it can float in the air for a long time before falling. Water droplets in air behave the same way as dust6.

    The second reason that clouds can float in the air is that there is a constant flow of warm air rising to meet the cloud: the warm air pushes up on the cloud and keeps it afloat.

    Third, clouds stay warmer than the air around them because they absorb the sun’s energy better than the surrounding air7.

    Clouds don't float forever—if the surrounding air warms up, then the air is able to contain the cloud's moisture as vapor, and the cloud will disappear. And sometimes, the cloud becomes so large and moist that the water droplets in the cloud begin sticking to each other, and grow bigger and bigger. The water droplets become so big that they no longer behave like dust particles. The droplets begin to fall. If you look up at this kind of cloud, your face will be wet: those droplets are now called "rain" and you really ought to go inside.

    This map shows how much cloud has fallen to the ground in 2017. More green means more rain8.

    Kyle Schiber
    Nature Museum Volunteer

    [1] Khan, Sal. "Ideal Gas Equation: PV=nRT" Khan Academy. 2017. Retrieved November 27, 2017 from

    [2] NC State University Climate Education for K-12. “How Clouds Form”. (August 13, 2013). Retrieved November 27, 2017, from

    [3] Precipitation Measurement Missions, NASA. “The Water Cycle” diagram by NOAA National Weather Service Jetstream. (June 8, 2011). Retrieved November 27, 2017, from

    [4] Space Math, NASA S’COOL Team. “Cloud Droplets and Rain Drops”. Retrieved November 27, 2017, from

    [5] Engineering Toolbox. “Particle Sizes”. Retrieved November 27, 2017, from

    [6] Scientific American. “Why do clouds float when they have tons of water in them?” (May 31, 1999). Retrieved November 27, 2017, from

    [7] My NASA Data. “Measuring the Temperature of the Sky and Clouds”. (2017). Retrieved November 27, 2017, from

    [8] National Temperature and Precipitation Maps, NOAA. “Total Precipitation, January-October 2017, CONUS”. Retrieved November 27, 2017, from[]=prcp-total#us-maps-select

    Do you have a science question that has you stumped? Ask our museum scientists via our form here and we'll answer it on our blog!

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  • Our Gratitude for Nature’s Connection

    Created: 11/21/2017      Updated: 11/22/2017

    I’m never more grateful for the gifts of nature than during the approach to the Thanksgiving holiday.

    Our Midwest Thanksgivings are accentuated by the profound season change to autumn, featuring abundant harvests, wildlife preparing for winter and leaves changing color then dropping along with the temperature. The holiday brings our relationships into focus through nature’s lens and through family gatherings.

    Anticipating family time and pausing to express gratitude for one another and our blessings affirms our feelings of connectedness. In our family, it also affirms a connection to nature. Even with our children now all adults, our family gatherings and adventures usually find us outdoors in nature -- playing, exploring, watching, reflecting, or running in a Turkey Trot. It just feels good to be outdoors.

    Our Thanksgiving celebration and meal is generally followed by a stroll outdoors, much as we did when I was growing up in Chicago’s west side where my police officer father connected to nature through his garden. He loved growing and harvesting the vegetables, and faithfully prepared the soil for its dormant, winter rest. He did so with appreciation and anticipation of spring planting.    

    Wherever you spend the holiday, a nature connection is not far away. Take a stroll outdoors. You may be rewarded by hearing the distinctive trill of sandhill cranes on their migration south. This week is expected to be the peak time for these large, highflyers to pass over Chicago. Many other birds, such as robins, are gathering in groups in preparation to migrate or are busy eating as many berries as seeds as possible to “bulk up” for winter.

    Notice nature. For example, watch squirrels scurrying around lawns and parks, busily stocking up on fallen seeds and nuts. Pause to notice the trees in your neighborhood. Most are nearly leafless and reveal the tangles of branches and limbs reaching skyward. Watch and listen with appreciation for nature’s stories.

    Like the connections we foster with our family and friends by spending time together, our connection to nature grows stronger through the time we spend in it.

    May you and your family deepen your connections and share in the abundance of nature’s gifts that we gratefully share. Happy Thanksgiving.  

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  • Spooky Science II: Chicago Academy of Sciences-inspired Halloween costumes

    Created: 10/25/2017      Updated: 10/25/2017

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    Halloween is less than a week away, but if you still don’t have a costume ready to go, don’t worry. We have even more scientifically-focused suggestions that date back to the early days of the Chicago Academy of Sciences! Click here to check out our first list of pioneering explorers and scientists, or read on for even more Halloween costume inspiration!

    Anna Pederson Kummer

    Anna Pederson Kummer

    Love plants? Anna Pederson Kummer's for you! She was a Chicago Academy of Sciences curator in the 1940s, as well as a botanist. Here's what you need to assemble the look:

    • A plaid vintage-style dress (long-sleeve, with the skirt hitting mid-calf)
    • Low- or kitten-heel shoes
    • 1940s-inspired hair (think lots of rolls with bobby pins and combs to keep them in place)

    Top it all off with a collection of pressed plant sheets or scientific plant illustrations. Kummer specialized in weed seedlings. Click here to check out a weed seedling leaflet published by the Academy and written by Kummer in 1942.

    Dr. William Beecher

    Dr. William Beecher

    In addition to being one of our beloved former directors, Dr. William Beecher was a noted ornithologist. Get his 1960s look by grabbing the following:

    • A gray suit
    • White dress shirt
    • Black tie
    • Thick, dark-framed glasses
    • Binoculars

    Find a plush bird or two and you'll have the complete look! Did you know that our Beecher Lab is named after Dr. Beecher? Learn about Dr. Beecher's legacy from students who studied with him here and here.

    Leonora K. Gloyd

    Leonora Gloyd

    Her husband Howard was Academy Director for several years, but Leonora was a noted Academy explorer in her own right (and we've got the photo to prove it!). To get her look, grab the following:

    • A Panama or asymmetrical sunhat
    • A loose-fitting safari or cargo vest
    • A white oxford shirt
    • Tall hiking boots and boot socks
    • Riding breeches (or similar pants)

    Grab a butterfly net and you're all set! While Howard was a herpetologist and specialized in reptiles and amphibians, Leonora was an odonatist and specialized in damselflies and dragonflies. There's even a damselfly named after her! Click here to read an Academy-published bulletin written by Leonora herself.

    Edwin & Roy Komarek

    Edwin and Roy Komarek

    These explorer brothers were mammalogists and curators who worked for the Academy in the 1930s and 1940s, and often accompanied the Gloyds on expedition out west. To get Edwin's look, find the following:

    • A patterned fleece pullover
    • Dark jeans
    • Tall hiking boots
    • Round-frame glasses
    • An old-fashioned motion picture camera

    To get Roy's look, grab:

    • Octagonal glasses
    • A Panama or safari hat
    • A button-down utility shirt
    • Khaki pants
    • Tall boots
    • A pipe

    Whether you choose Edwin or Roy, be sure to grab a plush furry critter or animal pelt to complete the look. To read about the brothers' work on expedition, check out this Academy-published bulletin from 1938.

    Planning on using one of the other looks for your costume this year? Be sure to share it with us on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram! We'd love to see it!

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  • How do Cicadas Make Sound?

    Created: 8/25/2017      Updated: 6/5/2020

    Today's Question:

    How do cicadas make sound?

    …and how are they so loud? Cicadas are the song of summer across the United States, Chicago included. Even just two miles from downtown the droning of cicadas in trees can be downright overwhelming in July and August afternoons. But cicadas are so small: how do they make such a powerful sound? With no vocal chords, no lungs, and no subwoofer it ought to be impossible to hear a cicada from a mile away and yet, it's not. The loudest cicadas can emit a sound at over 100 decibels[1], which can be heard over a mile and a half away.[2]

    If you suspect that cicadas make sound the same way that the cricket, that other noisy summer insect, does then you'd get points for effort, but no points for being correct. Crickets make sound by rubbing their wings together (not its legs!), and cicadas have a special organ called a tymbal that produces sound. The tymbal contains a series of ribs that buckle one after the other when the cicada flexes its muscles. Every time a rib buckles, the rib produces a click.[3] Many clicks produce a buzzing sound. The action is like how a bendy straw makes sound: pulling and pushing the ribs of the bendy straw together makes a series of clicks. If you could push, pull, and twist a bendy straw hundreds of times a second the sound of the clicks would be so close together that you'd only hear a buzzing sound: this is how fast the cicada is able to vibrate its tymbal.

    Chicagoans can hear several different species of cicada in the summer: the dog-day cicada, the Linne's cicada and the scissor-grinder cicada are all common.[4] In fact, the author heard all three of these cicada calls through his window while writing this post. Click on the links above to hear the sound for each cicada and to learn more about each of these species.

    Scissor-grinder cicada resting on a Chicago sidewalk

    Scissor-grinder cicada resting on a Chicago sidewalk. Photo by author.

    And yes, some online sources will tell you that it's possible for a cicada to damage your hearing. This is technically true and at the same time, there’s no reason to worry. The very loudest cicada, at 108 decibels[1], would permanently damage your hearing if you held it up to your ear for two minutes straight.[5] Chicago cicadas are not even close to being that loud. Even if we estimate them at 90 decibels, as loud as a motorcycle from 25 feet away, it would take 8 hours of continuous play time for it to damage your hearing. Cicadas are completely, absolutely harmless. Just loud. Very loud.


    Kyle Schiber
    Nature Museum Volunteer


    [1] Fleming, Nic. “The Loudest Insect in the World”. (2014, October 3). Retrieved August 8, 2017, from 

    [2] Wolfram Alpha LLC. 2017. Wolfram|Alpha. Retrieved August 9, 2017 from

    [3] Young, D., and Bennet-Clark, H. C. “The Role of the Tymbal in Cicada Sound Production”. (1994, December 19). Retrieved August 7, 2017 from

    [4] The Song of Insects. 2017. Retrieved August 13, 2017 from

    [5] IAC Acoustics. “Comparative Examples of Noise Levels”. 2017. Retrieved August 8, 2017, from

    Do you have a science question that has you stumped? Ask our museum scientists via our form here and we'll answer it on our blog!

    Subscribe to the Nature Museum blog and never miss a post! 

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