Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Holy Moley, Green Anole!

When did you first start learning science in school as a young child?

I don't recall ever having a science textbook in my hands during elementary school in the 1960s, despite this decade being the heyday of the Space Race after the 1957 launching of Sputnik.

Sure, we dabbled in science a little bit, at least in fifth and sixth grade, which was when I started public school.

I vaguely remember the eruption of Mt. Clay-and-Vinegar-and-Baking-Soda in the big sink of my sixth-grade classroom. A student had made it and brought it in as his science project, and I think the electrical circuit I built with my dad was part of this adventure, too.

As I recall, the teacher had told us all to go home and find a science project to do. I'm sure many a parent quaked then as they do today when the kid comes home and says it's time to get a trifold board because the science fair is coming up.

But my dad was an aeronautical engineer as well as a very capable carpenter, electrician, and fixer-of-things, so he was more than thrilled to throw himself into helping with this project.

I was in Catholic school for first grade through fourth grade, however, and there was even less science education going on. (Which is odd considering how Catholics are not biblical fundamentalists, and the Church, for example, doesn't reject the theory of evolution.)

My entire science education in those four years consisted of...a chameleon.

Yes. A single lizard. And actually, it wasn't even a chameleon. That's how poor our science education was. The little reptile was really a green anole--often called a chameleon in America, but a species distinction that would be pointed out by a teacher teaching science.

But the anole wasn't even used to do that. It just sat on a rock in a little terrarium for a month. Sometimes we were allowed to look at it. It looked back. Then it was given away to a lucky kid at the end of the month, and that was that for science.

Oh. Wait. No. I think the planting of the corn seeds must've been science, too.

We all brought in some dirt, put it in an empty half-pint milk container, stuck a corn seed in it, and set it on the window ledge.

Except for Bernadette.

Bernadette forgot dirt, so she used clay. Our seeds grew. Hers didn't. She looked ashamed and we glared at her as if she'd murdered a kitten.

Sum total of science learned in grades 1-4:

  1. Chameleon. 
  2. Grow plants in dirt, not clay.

It's a start.

This all changed when I entered the brand-spanking-new junior high school building constructed just an eight-minute walk from our house.

Thank you, Robert Bunsen!
Seventh-grade science and beyond was a dedicated class, held in spacious classrooms with long, sleek, black countertops equipped with sinks and glass jets (and Bunsen burners!).

We covered topics ranging from asteroids to zygotes. It was short on ecosystems, habitats, and animals, but otherwise absolutely, smashingly splendid.

Since those heady days (plus a few marvelous science classes in college, a training program to become a zoo docent, and a course for teachers of science taught at a local university), my acquaintance with science education lies mainly in writing books and articles on science topics for children, parents, and teachers.

Oh, that and helping my child with the dreaded trifold boards at science fairs.

Wiki commons photo
Watching my child learn science at school was an eye-opener, especially as I became curious about how science has been taught at the elementary level over the past hundred years or so.

If it barely ranked as a subject in my elementary school--a good public school on Long Island in a community packed with Grumman engineers--how was it treated in earlier decades?

For my daughter, science existed as a distinct school subject from her earliest elementary years. I still have one of her dedicated science notebooks buried around here in a box somewhere. I recall seeing little aquariums and terrariums sitting in the center of a cluster of kindergarten desks.

Nonfiction books are thriving in the elementary classroom. Kids are becoming citizen scientists. Science is properly part and parcel of their education and their lives.

Now, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is the acronym of the day. With a daughter who's going into a technical vocational field, I'm pleased that kids are learning how science applies to everyday life and that it's not some arcane realm of little relevance to their lives.

But as a reader and writer with a great fondness for natural-history writing of the past that reveled in the sheer wonder of nature, I sometimes wonder if perhaps we might err too much on the side of emphasizing science's utility. As if we're hustling kids to hurry up and get past that fascinating mammoth diorama on the field trip because we have to catch the bus.

I don't know if this concern has any validity. I only started wondering about it several years ago as my child entered high school. We visited the school during an open-house event and marveled at the lab rooms, the equipment, the artifacts. We wished we were students again as we heard about the biotech and maritime academies.

But when we asked one teacher about the biotech program, he resolutely refused to answer specific questions.

Arms crossed, looking across the room without making eye contact, he maintained that he taught science and taught kids to be interested in and thrilled by science. He was implicitly telling us that he wasn't a big fan of teaching science only as something you do as a career step.

So my goal now is not only to learn more about how science was taught to elementary school kids in the past, but also to find out more about what teachers think of today's focus.

Which means I have two-thirds of my trifold board started!

(This is Part 1 of an "I'm not sure how many parts there will be" series, but I can tell you that I have picked up some interesting old science textbooks at thrift stores and that there are also some Very Funny Bits in some of them, so please stay tuned.)

Friday, June 17, 2016

Downsizing. Decluttering. Uncluttering. Minimizing. Sorting. Whatever you want to call it, we're doing a lot of lately. (We've decided to call it streamlining, because that sounds cooler and more forward-moving than the other terms and suggests that we're progressive and might even distract the eye from all the stuff still piled up or packed in totes.)

This de-accessioning is partly due to winnowing my parents' possessions (55+ years of accumulated objects plus the half-century of items gathered by their parents and other relatives) ever since my father's death and my mother's move into assisted living.

The other part of the "partly" is our move into a smaller house.
I think we'd easily halve our possessions if we got rid of all our books, which I don't wish to do en masse, but I will grudgingly part with one or two...here and there...now and then. This small effort is continually undone by bringing fresh books into the house.

So, bit by bit, we open up a few square inches of space at a time.

I eked out a couple of inches this past week and forestalled occupation by future objects by taking an hour to peruse a binder full of craft pages torn from magazines. These were crafts that, presumably, I was going to create as part of hosting lovely birthday parties for my daughter, or inviting loads of friends over to my house for a party or meal, or giving beautiful gifts to loved ones, or simply to turn my house into a creative and inviting place for one and all.

I do not think I recognize the person who tore out all these instructions for would-be crafts. I do not think I share her ambition and certainly don't have the time she apparently thought she had. Or would have someday.

At any rate, I am about to send a lot of instructions into the recycle bin, and can report that the following items will never be produced by This Particular Craftswoman:

  • wire card holders formed out of radio wire
  • bookends made out of bricks
  • a bee-and-blossom toy constructed from a toilet-paper tube and pink foam
  • sea urchins made out of cut-up foam carpet padding
  • Yo-yos made out of knit gloves
  • A castle-shaped pencil holder thingy made of foam vegetable trays, foam insulation, and other stuff
  • Christmas wreath made out of 100 plastic sandwich bags
  • Dot-painted china
  • Hand-quilled greeting cards
  • Witch faces made out of pears and Oreos
  • Drawer knobs made out of polymer clay
  • Spiders made out of soldering wire and copper pot scrubbers
  • memory boxes made out of tissue boxes
  • Party invitations made out of old 45s
  • Tree branch hat racks

Among the articles I'm tossing for being (a) out of date, (b) pointless, as in "if I haven't taught my kid about this by the time she's graduated high school, there's no point, really, is there?", or (c) "Are you freaking kidding?" are these:

  • An article about family computing that's subheaded "Digital cameras are fast, versatile, easy to use--and cost a bundle. Is your family ready to forgo film?" 
  • An article about when to teach your child safety skills
  • An article called "It's Easy to Decorate a Goblet!"
  • A recipe entitled "Too Busy to Bake? Create a Pull-Apart Tower of Fun with Doughnut Holes and Frosting in No Time at All"
  • A recipe for "Hairy Daddy Longlegs Cupcakes"
  • Craft instructions called "How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Copy Center"

Sadly, all of this effort may be canceled out by having purchased a copy of "Adventures in Pompomland."

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Django and Junco

Sometimes our cat Django gives us the slip and darts outside, even though I have lectured him many times about why it's important that cats be kept indoors. He dives under the deck before I can grab him, shouting over his shoulder that he doesn't care if I want to keep birds safe. He just wants to go eat grass and drink filthy water out of a flowerpot.

Male junco on feeder pole in our yard.
But payback comes in the form of a fierce pair of juncos nesting somewhere in the yard. As soon as Django creeps out from under the deck, the two little birds perch above him and denounce him loudly. Chip! Chit! Chit! they scold, and he flattens to the ground, as much as an 18-pound cat can flatten himself. His ears stick out sideways. His gratitude, when I slide open the door, is immense, and he flees from the tirade to the safety of the back of the sofa.

Juncos are such exceedingly common birds that most people who pay scant attention to birds tend to lump them in with all the other little brown or gray things with wings that flit about the yard. They aren't really far off the mark in so doing--juncos are, after all, a kind of sparrow, and it's hard to get more common than a sparrow. (Well, depending on what sparrow you're talking about, that is.)

But I'd never seen one before I moved to the Northwest from the east coast more than 25 years ago. I quickly learned that this little gray and brown bird with the black executioner's hood was an Oregon junco--one of the many races of the species known as the Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis.

Actually, it would have been remarkable if I'd seen an Oregon junco on Long Island in New York; it's a western bird, found only casually in the East. What I would've seen back east was another race, the slate-colored junco. ("Casual" in birding doesn't mean that the bird is found in jeans and a tee-shirt leaning nonchalantly against a wall. It means "Species not recorded annually in the ABA [American Birding Association] Checklist Area, but with six or more total records—including three or more in the past 30 years—reflecting some pattern of occurrence." In other words, slim pickins.)

Dark-eyed juncos live year-round in many parts of the West, the Appalachians, and some northern states. In winter, they spill out to fill the rest of the country. This migratory habit earned them the common name of "snowbird." In warm states, the term would imply they're escaping winter's cold, but people in chillier states think of them as sticking around or arriving with the snow.

Juncos "drift into our gardens when snowy weather comes and when days are dark with rain, and winds blow cold," writes Francis Staver Twining in her book Bird-Watching in the West (1931). "I am always glad when the juncos come dancing in."

Male Oregon Junco, USFWS photo

The juncos in our winter garden join finches, sparrows, towhees, and chickadees at our feeder. Though they're ground birds, they will also struggle to snatch seeds directly from the feeder, flapping furiously as they try to cling to its sides with one foot and grab something before they lose their balance.

A junco's crisp markings stand out nicely in a snowy scene. The Oregon junco male's head is jet black, and his gray-brown wings fold neatly to form lapels on his russet sides. The female has much the same coloring but in paler shades. Both have white feathers on either side of their tails.

These white tail feathers serve many purposes. If threatened, juncos flare their tails as they fly away so the white feathers can signal an alarm to other juncos, in the same way that a raised white tail signals alarm in a fleeing deer. At the same time, the flash of white tells a predator, "I see you, you missed your chance, you've been spotted, hunt something else." Observers have also seen juncos flaring their tails to threaten other birds, including other species, in crowded feeding conditions on the ground.

Female junco, Marymoor State Park
In courtship, male juncos flare their tails to show off the white feathers as they seek to win over a female. Scientists have found that birds receiving better nourishment grow feathers with bigger white patches than birds eating merely a subsistence diet. If so, it may be that bigger white patches = more pugnacious bird = female selection pressure on male juncos to have hunky white tail feathers.

Another study seems to show that suburban juncos have less white in their tails than rural birds; the speculation is that there is less predation and competition in suburbia, and so female selection pressure is leaning more toward having a mellow dad around to help with household chores than an aggressive warrior.

Just recently, when Django the Cat made an escape and I responded to the junco's angry cheeps by stepping outside to fetch him, I nearly trod on a male junco apparently leading him up the steps by scrabbling along the deck with his tail flared, much like a killdeer feigning a broken wing. I'd heard that the white tail feathers might also entice a predator into going after the junco's tail instead of its vital head and body, so it's not such a leap to imagine the junco might likewise use its white feathers to lure a predator away from its young.

The white tail feathers, the variety in coloration, and much more make the humble junco "a rockstar study organism" for scientists. These scrappy little birds have been used in studies focusing on evolution, speciation, migration, ecology, and other topics. There's even a movie about them that can be downloaded or ordered and used in schools, museums, and other venues (find it here).

I poked around in a few old bird books to see if I could find some fascinating tidbit about these backyard birds, but without much luck.

My old reliable Birds of California by William Dawson devotes much of its account to the parsing of junco species and races. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds gives workmanlike accounts of each race (with an odd note in the Oregon's write-up: "Juncos attracted to warmth of caves in Yellowstone have died there from gases").

John James Audubon, however, had lots to say about juncos, which he was glad to see in winter when they migrated into Louisiana.

According to him, the junco was apparently quite well known among people in the mid-1800s:
So gentle and tame does it become on the least approach of hard weather, that it forms, as it were, a companion to every child. Indeed, there is not an individual in the Union who does not know the little Snow-bird, which, in America, is cherished as the Robin is in Europe. 
And his description of its behavior tells you exactly why a junco can put the fear of God into a fat housecat:
Although the Snow-Birds live in little families, consisting of twenty, thirty, or more individuals, they seem always inclined to keep up a certain degree of etiquette among themselves, and will not suffer one of their kind, or indeed any other bird, to come into immediate contact with them. To prevent intrusions of this kind, when a stranger comes too near, their little bills are instantly opened, their wings are extended, their eyes are seen to sparkle, and they emit a repelling sound peculiar to themselves on such occasions.
Our resident juncos are currently spending a lot of time emitting repelling sounds, because they even shout at the cat when he's indoors if they spy him through the glass sliding doors. Meanwhile, the rufous hummingbird will divebomb the male junco if he happens to be sitting too close to the nectar feeder. Which makes the other cat, Pebble, utter that weird chittering noise cats make when they gaze at birds from a window. Which  makes the dog come in to see what's going on. It's a busy season, springtime is.

Friday, May 6, 2016

A Fling with Spring Bling, Part 2

A friend requested "more, please!" after my last posting about life reasserting itself in the garden upon the arrival of spring (this one's for you, JB ;) and now that we're halfway through the season, life has certainly reasserted itself with a vengeance.

A bamboo grew four feet tall in one week and other plants are working hard to keep pace. The hummingbirds consume the contents of the nectar feeder faster than my daughter's weighty truck swallows gasoline. Chickadees snatch every bit of fluff shed by the dog. Buttercups threaten to engulf the house.

Here's a few pix. Planning to spend as much time this weekend in the garden as possible, as long as the sun's out!


Wild columbine, or at least the back of one. These beautiful little flowers
bashfully hold their heads down and don't look up til the last minute.

Leafhopper trekking down a columbine stem

The leaves of a heuchera get all the glory, but their flowers are pretty cool, too.


Always love pansy faces! So cheerful.

Interior of geum

Dizzying fern


Hard to capture maple flowers as it was breezy. They always
remind me of shooting stars.

Interior of rhododendron flower

Interior of rhododendron

Cottonwood-seed snowdrift

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Just a Little Spring Bling

All in all it was a pretty mild winter, but it's still nice to be bidding it farewell and welcoming the first signs of spring.

Mornings now ring with the songs of Pacific wrens, Bewick's wrens, song sparrows, and varied thrushes, with percussion added by the flickers drumming on trees, streetlights, and metal gutters.

I went out to poke around in the garden to see what it's been up to since I bothered much about it late last fall.

Periwinkles are the first fireworks to bring a burst of color.

Flower buds on viburnum, waiting to unfurl.

A trio of mushrooms. Couldn't quite catch the curly woolly-lamb
look of their stalks because their whiteness blinded my camera.

Somebody was nesting up in the magnolia last year!

Sedum rain saucer
Hellebore flower

The earthworms are still sleepy and quite grumpy about being disturbed.

Miniature daffodils are wide awake and honking.

Rhubarb is growing by leaps and bounds and will
be ready for harvest within weeks. Pie!

The first periwinkle.

Drops on a tulip leaf

Evidence that the red-naped sapsucker has been drilling in our plum tree.

Redtwig dogwood leaves serenely folded.

Huckleberry blossom

Branches that snapped and fell from on high over the winter bear
loads of fungi and lichen that are quite beautiful.

Moss! Acres of moss! Sit still too long and you, too, can be covered with it.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Bird in the Hand

Pacific Wren (formerly Winter Wren)
In recent weeks I've had the privilege of going behind the scenes at a museum to look at birds close-up in the form of study skins.

Poring over stuffed, dead birds might not sound like everybody's idea of a good time, but for birders it offers an excellent opportunity to observe details and compare and contrast species in a way you never get to do in the field, where birds often appear as silhouetted blobs on a brightly lit sky, a streaky dash amid branches, or a tiny speck beyond the reach of your binoculars.

A study skin is exactly what it sounds like: a bird skin complete with feathers, beak, and legs that's been stripped of all flesh and stuffed so that it can be measured and examined. The stuffing doesn't attempt to recreate the bird's form in life, as taxidermy does.

(For more information about preparing study skins, as well as some points of view on collecting birds, check out this ebird page.)

Sometimes wings are prepared separately from the study skins so they can be displayed fanned out, making individual flight feathers easy to see. A study skin wouldn't last very long if its wings were constantly being unfolded. The wings are actually threaded in place to prevent them from being spread.

A museum's collection of study skins includes the remains of many birds who were found dead and donated for preparation. (I once had a bushtit stored in my freezer for years after finding it newly dead on the sidewalk outside my house with this aim in mind.)

It also includes birds deliberately collected for study, though unlike the overzealous collectors in Audubon's time, today's scientists take legal and ethical considerations into account.

Handling and studying the skins evokes many feelings: wistfulness and a twinge of sadness at the stillness of the birds and the brevity and evanescence of life; humility at the connection between now and then, as you hold a tiny bird collected by someone who lived a century before you; and awe at the magnificent beauty and variety of species.

Northern Flicker's exuberantly spotted breast

The impressive beak of an Evening Grosbeak
The comets and stars on a Common Loon's back
The useful field mark, the "butterbutt," of a Yellow-Rumped Warbler
The tropical splendor of an American Redstart
The odd, waxy tips on the secondary flight feathers of a Cedar Waxwing
A MacGillivray's Warbler collected in 1894. Holding it makes you pause
and reflect on both this little scrap of life that fluttered long before you
were born and the existence of the person who carefully penned
the information on its tag.
Orange-crowned Warbler. The study skins of smaller birds really
demonstrate how much of a bird's volume consists of the life pulsing
in it. This is particularly true of the wrens, which resemble empty pen
cartridges in the drawer but appear much larger in life when they're
full of spunk and fury and scolding you from a branch.
The formidable talons of a raptor (I believe they belong to a Great Horned Owl).