Thursday, April 25, 2013

Bird Behavior Scavenger Hunt

In this week's book, Moonbird by Phillip Hoose, we read the true story of a bird that's flown an amazing distance in its life. This week's science activity is a guest post by biologist (and good friend) Kate Grandison, who knows a whole lot about birds. Take it away, Kate!

Look what that bird’s doing! Birds not only have different physical characteristics but different behaviors.  A bird’s behavior may result from an adaptation that helps the bird survive. For example, flocking (grouping together) helps birds in several ways. It can protect a bird from a predator by safety in numbers- most flocks can more easily drive away predators as a group than alone. And birds can warn each other about predators, spending more time feeding and finding food sources.
With a friend or by yourself, look for the behaviors listed below (or click here for a printable version). Check those you find, then list the specific location or habitat. If you can, identify the species using an online or printed bird guide. If not, list some identifying characteristics. How many can you find in 15 minutes? I bet you’ll be surprised.
Can you find a bird doing each of these things?
  • Singing or calling
  • Preening (looks as if it is nibbling, tugging, or combing feathers with its beak)
  • Bathing in water
  • Taking a dust bath
  • Flying
  • Perched on a branch
  • Perched on a wire, or fence post
  • Walking or hopping on the ground
  • Standing on the ground
  • Feeding
  • Flying with a worm or insect in its mouth
  • A group of birds perching together on a wire
  • A flock of small birds chasing a large bird
  • A group of birds flocking together
  • Other (list behavior)
More Challenges: 
  1. Choose one species of bird and record behavior patterns at different times of the day for a week or more. 
  2. Conduct your observations in different habitats at the same time of day.
Helpful Resources:
  • All About Birds: Online bird guide, general bird and bird ID information.
  • Flying Wild: Curriculum and resources for environmental education, including math, language arts, and social science activities.
Thanks so much for this great activity, Kate! And happy birding, everyone!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95

From Goodreads: B95 can feel it: a stirring in his bones and feathers. It’s time. Today is the day he will once again cast himself into the air, spiral upward into the clouds, and bank into the wind.
He wears a black band on his lower right leg and an orange flag on his upper left, bearing the laser inscription B95. Scientists call him the Moonbird because, in the course of his astoundingly long lifetime, this gritty, four-ounce marathoner has flown the distance to the moon—and halfway back!
B95 is a robin-sized shorebird, a red knot of the subspecies rufa. Each February he joins a flock that lifts off from Tierra del Fuego, headed for breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic, nine thousand miles away.  Late in the summer, he begins the return journey.

B95 can fly for days without eating or sleeping, but eventually he must descend to refuel and rest. However, recent changes at ancient refueling stations along his migratory circuit—changes caused mostly by human activity—have reduced the food available and made it harder for the birds to reach. And so, since 1995, when B95 was first captured and banded, the worldwide rufa population has collapsed by nearly 80 percent. Most perish somewhere along the great hemispheric circuit, but the Moonbird wings on. He has been seen as recently as November 2011, which makes him nearly twenty years old. Shaking their heads, scientists ask themselves: How can this one bird make it year after year when so many others fall? 

National Book Award–winning author Phillip Hoose takes us around the hemisphere with the world’s most celebrated shorebird, showing the obstacles rufa red knots face, introducing a worldwide team of scientists and conservationists trying to save them, and offering insights about what we can do to help shorebirds before it’s too late. Through prose, research, and images, Hoose explores the tragedy of extinction through the triumph of a single bird.

My Two Cents: This is a well-written account of a really amazing bird, complete with helpful maps, gorgous photos, and profiles of the scientists who are working to help migratory birds. I especially loved the appendix "What You Can Do", which will help young readers channel the enthusiasm and interest they gain by reading the book into helpful outlets.

Grade Level: 4-8

Additional Resources (most from the "What You Can Do" section of the book):
More to Read:

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Desert Animal Olympics

See how many desert animals you can find in this awesome painting by artist Arlene Braithwaite! (Click for a larger image.)

In this week's book, One Day in the Desert by Jean Craighead George, we met tons of cool desert animals: roadrunner, peccaries, tarantulas, headstand beetles, desert tortoises, honey pot ants, elf owls, foxes, and even a mountain lion. These animals have all made adaptations so they're fit to live in such a dry climate. But they're amazing in other ways too!

Use the animal facts here to learn about your favorite desert animals and how they've adapted to their climate. When you've picked some favorite animals and their adaptations, design an Olympic activity to compete with your friends and compare yourself to your favorite animal! Would you survive in the desert?

Here are some ideas to get you started:
  • Kangaroo rats are tiny (their bodies are about 4-5 inches long), but they can jump up to 9 feet! How tall is your body? How far can you jump?
  • Baby scorpions crawl on their mother's back and stay there until they molt (7-21 days). Have a scorpion relay race using empty gloves or stuffed animals as your baby scorpions. Be careful not to drop your "babies"!
  • Hummingbirds can stick their tongues out 13 times per second to reach nectar. How long does it take you to stick your tongue out 13 times?
  • Leafcutter ants can lift about 50 times their body weight, and male rhinoceros beetles (the largest beetle in North America) can lift 850 times their body weight! How much do you weigh? How much would you have to lift to be as strong as the leafcutter ant or the rhinoceros beetle? How much can you lift?
  • Headstand beetles do a head stand to mix chemicals and shoot them at predators. Can you do a headstand? How long can you hold it?
When you're finished with your Olympic events, print one of these Desert Animal Olympics gold medals for each of your friends on card stock. Cut them out and attach a ribbon so you can wear them around your necks, and be sure to write some of your awesome results and favorite adaptations on the back!

This lesson is adapted from Exploring Adaptations: Animal Olympics from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Conservation Education & Science Department. They have lots of great resources for kids and teachers. Be sure to check them out!

Monday, April 15, 2013

One Day in the Desert by Jean Craighead George

From Goodreads: As day breaks in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, a wounded mountain lion limps toward a Papago Indian hut. The lion fears people, but today he is desperately hungry. And he has caught the scent of Birdwing and her mother. Then a loud thunderclap warns Birdwing, the mountain lion, and all the creatures of the desert that danger is near. A flood will soon wash over the land - and some will not survive it.

My Two Cents: This is a very short book that still packs plenty of information about the wildlife and habitat of the desert. There's enough of a storyline mixed in with interesting animal, plant, and geological information that kids will zip right through this book. The best part is how much they'll learn in the process. This is just one title in a 5-book series by Newbery-winner George.

Grade Level: 2-5

Additional Resources:

More to Read:

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Exploration and Observation: Graphing Water Pollution

In this week's book, Flush by Carl Hiaasen, Noah fought to keep the water from being polluted. We can help with water pollution too! This week's activity comes to us from my fabulous little sister Hope Braithwaite, who is the Programs Assistant at the Utah State University Water Quality Extension. So she's an expert on teaching kids about keeping water clean! Take it away, Hope! :)

In this activity, we'll evaluate the quality of a “water sample” (a bag of skittles), graph the results, and form a hypothesis about what was happening on the land near where the sample was taken.

  • Candy (we used Skittles)
  • Plastic sandwich bags
  • Graph paper
  • Colored pencils or crayons

Divide the candy into sandwich bags so that the assortment of candy represents a particular land use (see graph below).

Each color of skittle represents a different kind of pollutant.

  • PURPLE = Sediment
  • RED = Pesticides
  • GREEN = Fertilizers
  • YELLOW = Oil and Gas
  • ORANGE = Toxic Waste
Talk with your kids about pollution using the table as a guide. Where does each pollutant come from? What can they be used for? How can they be beneficial? How can they be harmful? Which kind of land uses do you think would cause each type of pollution?
For example, fertilizer may be one pollutant that comes from an agricultural field. Fertilizers are used to help plants grow. They can be beneficial by providing plants we like to eat get the nutrients they need to grow. Excess of these nutrients in streams and rivers can be harmful. They can cause excessive plant growth and when these plants die more oxygen may be used than can be replaced. Without enough oxygen fish and water bugs will die. Also, certain types of microscopic algae can be toxic if they reach high concentrations. Animals like dogs or livestock that drink from this toxic water can become sick or die.

Now it's time to analyze your "water sample" (bag of Skittles)! Have your kids separate and count the number of each pollutant and record it on a bar graph to show the number of pollutants in the "water sample". Write the different pollutant types across the bottom of the page (on the x-axis) and write "pollutant amount" down the left side of the page (on the y-axis).

Analyze the "water sample" with each kid. Ask them where they think each sample came from and how they came to that conclusion. Discuss how to reduce pollution as a community and in your own home. Here are some tips:

In the community:
  • Encourage friends and neighbors to recycle
  • Plan a science fair project about water quality and reducing pollution
  • Pick up trash in your neighborhood
In the home:
  • Fix leaky cars
  • Use less fertilizers and pesticides
  • Recycle items at home
  • Do not dump oil, gas, or other pollutants in the storm drains
Thanks so much, Hope! Bonus points for anyone who can guess what Hope's favorite candy is. :) (She likes Reese's too, but they didn't fit the activity as well.)

This lesson was adapted from Water Pollution Graphing by Utah State University Water Quality Extension. For the full lesson go to For more water related activities and information visit They have some really great ones, so go check it out!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Flush by Carl Hiaasen

From Goodreads: You know it's going to be a rough summer when you spend Father's Day visiting your dad in the local lockup.

Noah's dad is sure that the owner of the Coral Queen casino boat is flushing raw sewage into the harbor–which has made taking a dip at the local beach like swimming in a toilet. He can't prove it though, and so he decides that sinking the boat will make an effective statement. Right. The boat is pumped out and back in business within days and Noah's dad is stuck in the clink.

Now Noah is determined to succeed where his dad failed. He will prove that the Coral Queen is dumping illegally . . . somehow. His allies may not add up to much–his sister Abbey, an unreformed childhood biter; Lice Peeking, a greedy sot with poor hygiene; Shelly, a bartender and a woman scorned; and a mysterious pirate–but Noah's got a plan to flush this crook out into the open. A plan that should sink the crooked little casino, once and for all.

My Two Cents: Carl Hiaasen is the master of middle grade books with an eco-angle, and Flush is my favorite of his so far. The characters here are all flawed, but everyone in Noah's family means well and is really trying to do what they think is right. There's adventure, mystery, and humor here, but a lot of values and morals are presented too in a way that will help kids decide for themselves what they believe in and what they think is right. A great book to get kids reading, thinking, and discussing eco issues.

Grade Level: 3-5

Additional Resources:
  • Noah's little sister Abbey is named for "some weird old bird who's buried out west in the middle of a desert. Read more about Edward Abbey and see why you think Noah's dad wanted to name his kid after Abbey. (Also, why do you think he wanted a son named Noah?)
  • Watch this Minute Physics video about why we have high tide and low tide.
  • Check out these online resources for kids and teachers from the U.S. Coast Guard
  • There are so many marine animals mentioned in this book--barracuda, needlefish, snappers, pilchard, dolphins, turtles, muttonfish...Learn more about marine wildlife and how you can help preserve it at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
  • Find places from the book like the Florida Keys and Caloosa Cove on a map.
More to Read:
  • Hiaasen's other eco-adventures: Hoot, Scat, Chomp
  • Another kid who lives near the ocean and has to reconcile her dad's questionable actions with his love for her: The Year the Swallows Came Early by Kathryn Fitzmaurice
  • Another Southern story with a complicated family and plenty of water: Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Think Like an Animal

Temple Grandin was able to improve the lives of millions of animals. How did she do it? By thinking like an animal, caring about animals, and then working hard to make things better for them. You can do the same thing!

Temple Grandin loved cows, so she learned all she could about them. Then she was able to use that knowledge to design better facilities for them.
  • Temple noticed that cows don't like things that flap or move in the breeze--things like flags, jackets hung on fences, or chains hanging down. These things made the animals nervous, so Temple made sure none of them were near her cows.
  • Temple noticed that cows like to walk in curved paths rather than straight ones with sharp turns. They like to walk in single-file lines and to feel like they're headed somewhere safe. Can you guess how she designed her cattle-handling facilities? With curved, single-file paths of course!
  • Temple noticed that cows didn't like to slide or walk on slippery surfaces, so she made cleated concrete ramps on her dip vat. The cows were much happier!
Look at the animals around where you live--cows, horses, dogs, cats, pigeons--whatever animals are native to your area. You can think of your pets too, of course!

Now think of something they don't like. Maybe your pet doesn't like to go to the vet for shots. Maybe the ducks at the park don't like it when kids throw pebbles into the pond. Whatever it is, think of a problem, then think of a way to solve this problem.

The first step is to think like this animal. What doesn't it like? Can you figure out why? Is it the whole trip to the vet that's scary, or just getting into the travel kennel? Are the ducks scared when other things like crackers are thrown into the water? What would you be thinking if you were the animal?

The next step is to figure out a way to help with the animal's problem. And use your imagination! You don't have to stick to just supplies you have around your house or even things that have been invented yet. Temple Grandin did such great things because she didn't care about doing things the way they'd already been done.

The third step (and maybe the last) is to design your invention. Draw a picture of exactly how it will look and how it will work.  Make sure you think about the details--how big will it be? How heavy? How many animals will be able to use it? What color will it be, and what colors does your animal like?

If it's possible, build your invention for real! But make sure you consult with an animal expert before trying it out. :)

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World

Today is World Autism Awareness Day! In honor of those with autism and to raise awareness in some small way, this week's book is about a truly remarkable person with autism. 

From Goodreads: When Temple Grandin was born, her parents knew that she was different. Years later she was diagnosed with autism. While Temple’s doctor recommended a hospital, her mother believed in her. Temple went to school instead.

Today, Dr. Temple Grandin is a scientist and professor of animal science at Colorado State University. Her world-changing career revolutionized the livestock industry. As an advocate for autism, Temple uses her experience as an example of the unique contributions that autistic people can make.

This compelling biography complete with Temple’s personal photos takes us inside her extraordinary mind and opens the door to a broader understanding of autism.

My Two Cents: This is a book that can be read quickly and is totally accessible to kids (although descriptions of the slaughterhouses that Temple improves might be too much for very young readers). Temple's story helps the reader not only understand autism, but also appreciate the value of other kinds of minds as "different, not less." Rita Shreffler, the executive director of the National Autism Association, calls Temple Grandin "a source of inspiration to parents of children with autism who know their kids have abilities that often go unrealized." It would be hard for anyone to read this book and not be inspired by Temple Grandin's compassionate heart and brilliant mind.

Grade Level: 3-5

Additional Resources:
More to Read:
  • A story featuring another girl who had autism before it was widely diagnosed: Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
  • Another girl with autism who figures out how to deal with difficult things: Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine
  • Another kid on the autism spectrum with an interest in science: The Reinvention of Edison Thomas by Jacqueline Houtman
  • A great book from the perspective of an autistic child's sibling: Rules by Cynthia Lord
  • All of Temple Grandin's books (written primarily for adults)

Monday, April 1, 2013

April: Earth Appreciation Month!

April is here, and it's time for a new monthly theme! Now that spring is here and Earth Day is coming up, I'm going to highlight four great middle grade books that help readers appreciate this great planet. There will be a book about the land, one about the water, one about the air, and one about animals (although they all have lots of animals in them.) And, of course, there will be fun science activities, so keep checking back!

As usual, all comments this month (including comments on this post) will be entered to win their choice of our April earth books! (New followers get an automatic entry too.)

What are your favorite earth-friendly middle grade books? What are you looking forward to this month? Any suggestions for future monthly topics?

Added 12:13 pm: I forgot to add that the winner of the March giveaway (as chosen by is...Tasha! Tasha, let me know which of March's books you'd like, and whether you'd like a paper copy or an ecopy.