Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Bird Food

There are a lot of winter resident birds around here and Beans is very concerned about them. This may have been partly prompted by the book "Miffy in the Snow" in which Miffy helps a bird in the snow. Her initial question was: "What are they going to eat and can I share my toast? It's getting cold and all their food will be buried in the snow." She’s pretty convinced that chickadees would like strawberry jam (I’m inclined to agree – I mean, strawberry jam is a pretty universally liked food).

So the easy answer to that is no, no bread. Bread isn’t very good for birds. It's like bird junk food, sure they like it but it can fill them up without providing the fat they need for winter. The opposite of our junk food, which gives us lots of useless fat. That fat is how they keep themselves warm, so maximising their food intake is key to surviving winter. While there is a lot of wild food available to them and they don’t really need us, winter bird feeding can be pretty fun and a good chance to see who sticks around. So we put up some feeders to ease Beans' mind. Prompted by this we joined Project FeederWatch this year because it’s never too early to teach your kids how to collect data and I'm nerdy enough to want to do it in my spare time too.

The girls were very excited to get their bird ID poster in the mail. OK... I was excited too.

We have a small hanging feeder and a suet feeder in our yard. Suet feeders are a great choice for winter because they have a ton of fat and also seeds – it’s basically a cage that you put the suet pucks into and hang somewhere. Plus with them you can get woodpeckers, and woodpeckers are cool. I suppose if you were really crafty and had a lot of time and fat on your hands you could make suet pucks and a holder, but I have none of those things and my craftiness ends at gluing stuff to other stuff. I also found a few examples where people just tacked big chunks of fat to a board and put that out, which is an option if you happen to have large chunks of fat you were looking to build something with.

We do sometimes make pine cone feeders though! Ridiculously easy (just my style) because all you do is take an open pine cone, slap some natural peanut butter mixed with oats or cornmeal on it (I bolded natural here because the birds don’t need sugar and salt and also it’s fun to bold things) and roll it in seeds. VOILA! Fat and seeds – just like the suet feeder. Now that I think about it you could totally use the crunchy peanut butter for extra peanutty-ness. The cornmeal/oats are to make it less sticky and easier to eat, because nobody wants peanut butter stuck to the roof of their beak. If you have a nut allergy in your house (or are opposed to peanut butter) you could do this with lard or shortening or maybe leftover bacon fat – the key is FAT! The nice thing about this project is if you are doing it with little kids it is okay if they eat the stuff (I guess even the lard).

Regular bird feeders for seeds can be bought or made out of milk cartons, pop bottles, juice jugs…just hang and wait for birds (just make sure there's no sharp edges). A good tip if you are making them is to make sure you put a few drainage holes in the bottom for water or they fill up if it rains (we discovered this the hard way unfortunately). It’s also important to remember that seeds can become mouldy and poisonous if they are wet, so change them often. They are also hard for the birds to get if they are frozen in a solid chunk of ice (yep, hard way again). You can also just fling some seed out on top of the snow on a nice day and see who shows up. The best all-purpose seed is black oil sunflower seeds (not the stripey ones) as it's a favourite of a lot of birds.

 A handy-dandy chart of who eats what!

OK. Now, it’s all well and good to give them peanut butter and sunflower seeds, but it doesn’t really answer Beans’ real question – what do they eat in winter in terms of wild food? Bird feeding is a relatively new phenomenon and birds have been around for a loooong time, so I’m sure they made it through a few winters on their own. While habitat loss, particularly in urban areas, does make it harder for them there is still a fair bit of food out there.

Insectivores will dig out hibernating beetles, larvae and grubs from under tree bark. Woodpeckers are still actively tapping away for bugs. Grass seed is still available from those of us who don't mow much and in fields (although harder to access once the snow stays) as are a variety of berries and seeds in woodlands. Poison ivy is actually a great source of food as the fruits (a drupe for those who read the fruit post) stick around all winter. The reaction to the urushiol oil that makes us so itchy is a human-only thing, birds find poison ivy delicious.

 mmmmmm...anyone for poison ivy jam?

The one thing they do have trouble finding in the winter is water - so next up is a non-frozen bird bath, and maybe a suet plug feeder, and a birdhouse.... Dear Santa.... 

Some good pages on bird feeding for those who want to know more:

Thursday, 6 December 2012


The stormwater pond near our house is frozen over. 

I know what you are thinking right now. So what?  It’s a pond, ponds freeze over in the winter.  So do lakes, rivers and the cup of hot chocolate we left out the other day while tobogganing. But to Beans this was very upsetting news (as was the hot chocolate) because there are frogs in that pond and are the frogs FROZEN?

She knows enough about ice fishing to know that the fish are ok, they hang out down near the bottom where it's not frozen and people (like Daddy) catch them. Clearly the frogs can't go south for the winter, that is an exceptionally long way to hop. And they don't go down to the bottom of the big lake to hang with the perch. So they are here somewhere, but where? The answer is that they are exactly where they always are - in the pond (or the woods if you happen to be a wood frog). Frogs use a form of hibernation to get through the winter.

Not surprisingly, aquatic frogs hibernate in the water. The water frogs, like the leopard frogs (the ones with spots) and green frogs (the ones that sound like elastic band guitars) we usually catch, basically go hang out near the bottom where it's warmer and basically sit there until spring. The water temperature at the bottom is pretty consistant at 4°C in the winter, which is why fish, frogs and turtles go hang out there. They are a bit slower (anyone who has tried to zip up a 4-year-olds jacket in -10°C without mittens on knows that you are slower and clumsier in cold) but they even swim around a bit. The turtles bury themselves in the mud at the bottom, the frogs don't because that would suffocate them, so they just sit partially in or on the mud at the bottom. Their metabolism slows down enough from the cold that they don't need to eat and get by on limited oxygen.

And while that's pretty cool, it's not that overly exciting I know. But wait, there's more!

Hi there! I'm a wood frog and I'm awesome.

Terrestrial frogs - the wood frogs specifically - do something that will knock your socks off. They freeze. Seriously - they freeze and thaw as the temperature fluctuates! They hop on into a crack somewhere and then just freeze for the winter. They go into suspended animation (like in Red Dwarf - bonus points for awesome british science fiction show reference!) where their heart stops and their brain stops and they are basically a frogsicle - to quote the researcher: "when you drop it, it goes clink". To stop their organs from freezing and collapsing they produce mass amounts of glucose which packs into the cells and keeps them viable. Their body temperature can drop to as low as -6°C. When it warms up they thaw out, their heart starts back up and off they hop!

Watch it happen:


And the awesomeness doesn't end there! This is such an impressive feat of nature that it is being studied to help out in human organ transplants. Right now you can't freeze organs for transport, which gives them a limited shelf life and makes it necessary for donors and recipients to be in surgery on the same day, the closer the better. If the frogs method of removing water from organs with special proteins and the extra glucose can be mimicked it means there could be organ storage and longer transport distances. Livers for everyone!

So, while Beans' fear was true, some of the frogs are frozen, it's okay that they are frozen and now apparently we have to go find one. So if you see a little girl in pink zebra mittens out in the woods in the snow peering into cracks in a log, that's Beans, looking for a frogsicle.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Leaf Collection

There are a lot of leaves in our house. There are a lot of leaves in our car. There are a lot of leaves in Beans' and Bunny's backpacks, because that's what the mesh pockets on the side are apparently for - leaves. A few leaves have even been through the washing machine, which I suppose is better than the rocks and dandelions that went through it all summer.

A little Beans with a lovely oak leaf

We're lucky to live somewhere with a beautiful autumn. People travel from around the world to see fall in central Ontario. Reds, golds, oranges, yellows (yes, it's different than gold) and browns and the hilly landscape gives spectacular views. This fascination with colourful leaves starts early and often manifests itself through obsessive leaf collection. Because you never know when you might see another red leaf quite as pretty as that last one. And of course you then need to glue it to something.

A little Bunny with a lovely oak leaf

You can see the question coming can't you.

Why do the leaves change colour and why are they all different colours?

So leaves start out green because of the chlorophyll, which is what plants use for photosynthesis to make up their food stores. Basically it helps them turn sunlight into sugar. I wish I could turn sunlight into sugar. No, wait, I wish I could turn sunlight into dark chocolate (which I suppose cocoa trees actually do already). There's usually so much chlorophyll you don't see anything else. Leaves also have other pigmented things in them - carotenoids (yellow/orange), tannins (a waste product - brown) and anthocyanins (produced later in the season - red/purple) but there is usually so much chlorophyll that these other colours don't show up. As the days get shorter the plants slow down their food production and the chlorophyll breaks down allowing the other pigments to show through.

Cool fact: A banana turing from green to yellow is the same process - losing chlorophyll to reveal the yellow colour!

The change is triggered primarily by the shortening days. The longer nights mean less sunlight to produce the sugars and slows the chlorphyll production. Leaves are pretty delicate - they wouldn't survive the winter here which is why at these lattitudes they go through the whole process of shutting down and losing their leaves only to grow them again in the spring. A good example of this is if you have your fridge up too high and the lettuce freezes - pretty useless wilty stuff. It's not all for naught though - the leaves decompose providing nutrients into the soil. Nature is pretty good at not wasting. There is some speculation that the anthocyanins in the soil from decomposing leaves will supress plant growth in those areas leading to less competition for the tree the next year. Not bad, nature, not bad at all. And on top of all that the leaves can provide some good habitat too.

The actual colours themselves depend on what and how much of the pigments are in the leaves. The anthocyanins are not produced throughout the year though and are only present in some species and at different levels - which is why they don't all go red and we get the great variation. Yellows and oranges are already present and revealed as chlorophyll lessens. The type of summer and fall weather can have an effect on the production of these pigments as well, which is why some falls have more vibrant colours than others. A dry, sunny fall with temperatures that stay above freezing at night produce brighter colours. Species wise - oaks vary from reds to browns, aspen, poplar and birch go yellow; dogwood goes red. Maples vary - red maple not surprisingly goes bright red and sugar maple a more orangey-red. Sumac goes a lovely fiery red, which is why I plan to plant some next year.

I'm a bit late on this one as the colours have already pretty much finished here for the year, but if you happen to be around here Ontario Parks tracks leaf colour and timing in their parks - Fall Colour Report

So while we do have an abundance of crunchy leaves in the car, it doesn't lessen my love for the fall colours. I've been known to glue a few leaves to stuff myself.


Sunday, 4 November 2012

Fantastic Fall Fruit!

Bunny is a pumpkin fanatic – pie, ice cream, muffins, roasted seeds, jack-o-lanterns...even she’s impressed with their versatility. Beans is currently obsessed with apples, but don’t mess with them – just whole please. This sparked a debate on what was fruit versus vegetable and the realization that what things actually are is not what we call them.

In the botany world pumpkins and apples are both fruits, even though in culinary terms pumpkins and their squashy relatives get called vegetables. This happens a lot – there’s quite a disconnect between what we call things in food related terms versus their actual botanical classification. In the plant world not all fruits are edible, but I would assume that chefs don’t bother classifying inedible things. For example dandelion fluff and maple keys are both fruits.

Fruits, in plant science terms, are the parts of the plant that are formed from the actual flowers and ovaries. Once the flowers are done and pollinated they magically (ok not really, science only seems like magic sometimes) turn into fruits.


Fruits serve a specific purpose – spreading seeds around. That can happen by a variety of methods - floating around (milkweed), sticking to your socks and travelling (burs) or being eaten and carried by various animals and being dropped (or pooped!) elsewhere (apples!). Because of these relationships fruit and animals are dependent on each other – this is a symbiotic relationship (any relationship where we get pie is good in my books).

Beans being symbiotic with an apple

Apples are in the family Rosacae and are a fleshy, simple fruit called a pome. The core is actually the important part to the plant formed from the ovary, the delicious part we eat is just extra tissue from the flower petals and sepals that fuse with the ovary wall that evolved to make us want to eat and disperse.

The ovary forms three parts – the endocarp surrounds the seeds and is hard, the mesocarp is next and is fleshier, the exocarp (not pointed out in these pictures but you can see the line) surrounds that and together they form the core. We eat the hypanthium that surrounds the whole deal, and sometimes accidentally we eat parts of the hard endocarp and spit them out dramatically (at least Beans does).  

Pumpkins are the fruit of Cucurbitaceae plants. The fruit is actually a modified berry called a pepo that has a thick outer rind. Berries are simple fruits where the seed and flesh is formed from a single ovary. Other common berries? Avocado, watermelon, blueberry, cranberry and tomato. What’s not a berry? Strawberry (accessory fruit), cherry (drupe) and raspberry (aggregate fruit). So once again what we call things in real life versus what they are botanically makes no sense.

Bunny’s very first no help at all carved Halloween berry

I can’t find a decent picture of the parts of a pumpkin so here’s a watermelon, just to prove it’s a berry, because I got a seriously unbelieving face from Bunny. She was quite willing to accept that pumpkins were a berry but watermelon was a little out there for her. Same deal though – the ovary forms three parts but in this case there is no surrounding tissue that forms the edible part (why it’s a berry and not a pome). The part we eat here is the mesocarp and the exocarp is the hard rind that makes an excellent jack-o-lantern. The endocarp isn’t shown in this one but it’s there surrounding the seeds.

We all agree though, no matter what you call them – they are still delicious. So whether cooked or raw, pie or plain – we will continue eating lots of fantastic fall fruit (I just wanted to do the alliteration again).

Thursday, 25 October 2012


It’s the deceptively simple questions that always trip you up.

It rained yesterday. I would have been happy to explain the water cycle or re-answer Beans’ question on the composition of clouds for the fourteenth time (water not fluff – she remains unconvinced) or even take a stab at how plants use the water. At 7:45am what I was unprepared to answer was Bunny’s question.

What is water made of?

It started off okay – I know what water is made of. It’s made of hydrogen and oxygen. Two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom. H2O. She knows what oxygen is. She does not know what hydrogen is or what an atom is or why two things in air hook up and become liquid. Or how they find each other. Or how they stick together. I used to know. At 7:45am on a Tuesday morning I do not know.

I have one rule I made for myself when answering questions from the girls. Never make something up. Admit you don’t know and then find out together.  

So here’s what we found. I am hoping it will help the next parent whose kid isn’t satisfied with “H2O” as an answer.

A single drop of water has millions of water molecules in it. Water molecules each have one oxygen atom (red) and two hydrogen atoms (white) connected by covalent bonds. Covalent just means they share electrons to stick together. Hydrogen atoms are positively charged and oxygen atoms are negatively charged when stuck together (dipole).

I think it’s kinda cute. I mean slap some googly eyes on that guy and it could happily star in a morning cartoon.

But then how do they stick together to make water? That would be hydrogen bonding. When lots of water molecules hang out together the electrical attraction from the charges make them get really close together, making them hard to get apart which raises the boiling point and makes it a liquid at room temperature. They are also constantly breaking apart and sticking back together, which give water some of its more unique qualities.

Water molecules stickin’ together. Bunny and I think the water molecules look like cartoon frog heads.

Here we are enjoying the properties of hydrogen bonding on our vacation:

Some cool water things to know:

  • Water is 11.1% hydrogen and 88.9% oxygen by mass even though there are two hydrogens. This is because hydrogens are way smaller atoms than oxygens.
  • Water is the only natural thing on earth that can be in all three states: liquid, solid and gas.
  • The water that is on earth now is made up of the same exact elements that made the water on the planet when dinosaurs were here.
  • Trees are two thirds water. So is your brain.

PHEW! Well, now we will all have a big glass of hydrogen covalently bonded with oxygen. I’m going to put a tea bag in mine.


Thursday, 18 October 2012

Honk if you love geese

This post has a soundtrack!

So it seems the intro to my last post brought up some questions about geese. Good ol’ Branta canadensis. A true Canadian icon or a true Canadian pest… I guess it depends on how you feel about goose poop.

But no one can deny that the Canada Goose migration is iconic and a clear sign of fall. And it’s hard not to notice, what with all that honking and all. The CAGO (that’s its nickname in the birding world – all birds have a four letter code) has its distinctive V formation and coupled with their need to communicate during flight (click here to hear them!) and you have a sight that often stops us in our tracks to stare upwards. The wing-whooshing as they pass over is pretty cool too.

The geese are headed to the southern US, much like my in-laws, and can travel more than a 1000km a day, also much like my in-laws (family groups with goslings take longer to get there though, probably because they have to stop and pee a lot.) However I’m pretty sure my in-laws don’t feel the need to honk at things the whole way. At least I hope they don’t.

So why do the geese?

Simply, communication. They need to tell each other where to stop, changes in speed, direction – they are simply keeping everyone updated of the plans. Geese are one of the most vocal species out there - starting even before hatch. Research has shown about 13 different calls – ranging from “hey there” to “holy crap run!” to “this grass is seriously awesome, no seriously, try this patch here.” (Yes, I make up voices for birds when I’m watching them). No one wants to be the guy who took the wrong turn in Mississippi and missed the cornfield party. The V-shape is linked to communication too – everyone can see everyone, sound travels easily and changes are done quickly.

And you know that weird taking turns being the leader thing that cyclists do? (It always confuses me – you are leading, why are you letting the other guy just go ahead? It’s a RACE!) Anyway, they didn’t invent that – geese have been doing it for years. Scientists (aren’t they awesome) think that the V creates a drafting effect where the geese in behind take advantage of the air currents. Plus the geese aren’t racing, so taking turns on the hard job makes sense, unlike cyclists (seriously, you are racing guys).


For anyone who wants more goose information here’s a link to another Canadian icon – Hinterland Who’s Who.

Dooo doo doo doo doo doooooo. 

Monday, 8 October 2012

The Birds.

We have a few different games to play in the car. A particular favourite is called Canada Flag Ahoy. It’s a complicated game where if you see a Canadian flag you have to yell “Canada Flag Ahoy” at the top of your lungs before your sister does. But driving also offers the opportunity to stare out the window and take in some of the things you wouldn’t necessarily notice and ask a bajillion questions about them in the five minute drive to school. It’s fall here now so we’ve talked about why leaves change, why the geese need to yell while flying, where all the butterflies went and if they will they see the geese when they get there. 

The girls have noticed a lot of species are on the move south this time of year, including their grandparents, and we’ve been talking a lot about which species stay, which go and how they get to where they are going. This brings me to my real topic. 

Bird Shows.

Some species gather in large numbers around this time of year to prepare for migration. I have spent a number Augusts and Septembers with a VHF receiver driving the shorelines of Lake Erie listening for my tagged Black Terns within in the hundreds staging. I’ve inspected hundreds of Great Egret legs standing on mudflats looking for the little red bands we’d put on a couple hundred kilometers away.  Birds do some significant travelling this time of year and even birds know a road trip is more fun with a buddy, or a couple of thousand buddies.

What we usually see here on our way to school are robins, blackbirds and starlings. They are putting on some impressive displays rivalling the snowbirds at the air show (and sometimes just as loud). There’s a few old trees out behind our place that are a favourite roosting spot, so luckily we get to witness quite a few bird shows. I’m sure you’ve all seen the large flocks seemingly moving as one unit, changing direction and then all suddenly landing. In late summer a number of species join flocks, they fly together, feed together, roost together and migrate together. These staging flocks can be tens of thousands of birds (although not that many fit on the trees in our neighbourhood). Nobody quite knows yet all of the hows or whys, but that doesn't make it any less stunning. 

A video of this phenomenon in starlings (as a bonus it's a nice wetland restoration story too):

And just to make this post extra awesome - did you know that the larger flocks actually show up on weather radar? And that since the discovery that the strange ghosting patterns that kept showing up on screens were actually birds migrating it’s been tracked (thank you fellow science nerds).  Now even the air force uses it to avoid collisions! Bunny was thrilled to know that you can track insects too and is planning to watch for her beloved butterflies to return in the spring (OK – it’s not that good, you can just see swarms, but we’ll pretend they are butterflies). Now instead of trying to describe all this I will let some of the ridiculously cool images speak for themselves:

Dispersal at Sunset:

Roost rings as the flocks depart:

More information and pictures here: (which is where the above images are from) 

I wonder if they play games on the way down. We should teach them Canada Flag Ahoy.