Crow Show!

crowsThe crows are gathering! You may have noticed that in several places in Berkshire County the crows have been gathering by the thousands! They are not planning a crime scene, its not a ‘omen’, it is more likely a survival technique. When it gets cold they congregate in huge numbers and its called “roosting” just like with chickens. The hypotheses are they do it for warmth, companionship and discussions about where food can be found and as my friend Laurie Brown says, “for sex”. Yes, sex, breeding season for crows in this neck of the woods, according to the folks at Cornell, is in March. There is a hypothesis that they are checking out their potential mates.
Crows have been roosting for as long as there have been crows. What is interesting is that they congregate in some area away from the final roosting site, as pictured here a hundred or so where in the Black Locus trees by the food pantry garden at sunset, spending a lot of time calling, talking, chasing, and fighting, then just before dark then they join the main group for a final roosting spot for the night. Its quite a scene they make. Its wonderful to watch. I sat in my car shivering in the 5 degrees F just to watch this impressive ‘Crow Show’.

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Posted by on February 19, 2015 in backyard science, Science, science in the parks


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terrariumLate last fall I decided I wanted a terrarium. To bring a little summer inside for the winter if you will. My friend John has an amazing terrarium at the Berkshire Museum. Besides being stuffed with lush greenery, having a pond in it and a mister–it has hundreds of tropical frogs. There are even tadpoles. He has to raise fruit flies to feed them. Its impressive.

I attempted to take on a lesser challenge: local flora and fauna. I brought in a rotted log with moss growing on it, some small plants from the yard and forested property, put it in the turtles old leaking tank on top of rock and leaf litter. I had a couple of pieces of long glass I put on top to keep the moisture in and added the light to my old tracing table to the top. (I added some color with African violets, not native, but free.) Not a bad attempt for an inexpensive terrarium. But it needed a back, some old pink insulation did the trick using Styrofoam for build-outs, I broke down and bought some spray foam. Then applied the spray foam over everything making a bumpy rocky looking background. I painted it and slid it in the back of the tank. Then added plants to the outcrops. Added some clay and ceramic ornaments. Voila my terrarium! But its still not done. It needs a full size sheet of glass to cover the top, a cover for the old white light fixture and also a repaint of the chrome on the edges to make it all even.

african violet mushroom The latest update is the fauna is loving the terrarium as much as the flora. Last night a swarm of midges emerged and the spiders in there are feasting. Also there is some weird looking red eggs on stalks growing on the stem of the African violet and some type of white coral looking lichen or slime mold or mushroom growing near the bottom of the terrarium. Exciting!

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Posted by on January 21, 2015 in backyard science, Science


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Baby its cold outside!

bunny tracks 3It is cold outside, so cold that even the squirrels are staying in their nests. The upside is the sun is out and the light covering of white stuff is sparkling. There are some brave souls out there, the 4 crows that have made our property their territory. (One that was born last year and three that have been here for years.) But the bravest I think are the Lagamorphs hopping around on the snow. More specifically the Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus), a member of the family Leporidae. They are hardy. They are small rabbits that live in both the front and back of the property, they have their territories too. Although they are seen everywhere, and last year was an especially good year for these little bunnies, they are not native, but an introduced species that are creating a competition for the native New England cottontail. They are almost identical to the rarer native cottontail rabbits. The only way I know of telling them apart is by examining their skulls, not a good idea for the lesser of the two. You can recognize rabbit tracks by their patter, three paws in the front and one in the back.

Eastern cottontail rabbit tracks in the snow.

Eastern cottontail rabbit tracks in the snow.

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Posted by on January 15, 2015 in backyard science, Science, science in the parks


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Should we let sleeping flies lie?

sleeping flyDo flies sleep?

The quick answer is yes. The long answer can be found here.

I have dealt with sleeping flies in the the past. Not as an entomologist, but as a pet owner. When I was young my brother had a small rainbow skink. It loved to eat flies. But the flies had to be alive and moving. So I became a fly catcher. My prey: Muscid flies, aka house flies. I figured out how to sneak up on them. Early in the morning they could be found on flowers on the sunny side of the house. I remember waving my hand in front of them and they didn’t move. They just stood there with those big eyes, not seeing me. Asleep. I’d scoop them up in paper cups and release them in the skink tank. Easy.

Recently a cluster fly decided the kitchen was a good place to spend the winter. It found a crack between the sill and the wall. This fly was looking for a sleeping spot for the whole winter. This type of long dormant sleeping in insects is called “diapause”. During this time they don’t move much, they will drink if water is available. They don’t feed, no mating, not much in the way of flying, unless it gets unseasonably warm and they think it is spring.

Not just flies fall into this overwintering stage, squash bugs, lady bugs, bees, wasps and even mosquitoes do it.

I get countless calls during the fall and early winter about bugs in peoples homes. They come in with the wood, or they fly in looking for a dry, warmer than outside spot to curl up for the winter. Not a bad strategy. I kind of wish I could do it too as long as I had a pile of good books.

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Posted by on November 21, 2014 in insects, Nature Curios, Science


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Clematis Seeds

clemantis seed headOne of my favorite flower seed heads is the clematis. They are quite exquisite. You can see the seed pods starting to spin and sprout the feathery seed floats.

clemantis seedThis seed head is ready float its seeds into the cool autumn air.

Soon I will be collecting the ripe seeds and planting them into the ground. These seeds need to get cold, thaw, then get very cold through out the winter in order to germinate in the spring. Which is good because the ground in this area freezes pretty solid in the winter. I will bring some in and pop them in the refrigerator too, as a back up in case it gets unusually cold.

clematis flowersThis is what they look like when they bloom. Gorgeous.

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Posted by on October 2, 2014 in Nature Curios, Science


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Carbon Cycle and a Dead Cat

carbon cycle 1It was time to learn the carbon cycle in bio class. Two smarty-pants in the back of the class, copied the notes and decided they could now play games. Why not, they got the material. They have good grades. Fortunately I saw this opportunity as a break from my teaching. I handed them the chalk and my notes and said, “Teach.” They taught about carbon moving from the air, to the trees and plants through photosynthesis, then to the animals that ate the plants, and was eventually breathed out the carbon in the form of carbon dioxide.

“Keep going.” I prodded,
“Do we have to draw the dead rabbit?”
“What do you think?”
“Well we have a picture of a dead dog on our phone we found on our way home from school. Can we use that?”
“Heck yeah.”
dead cat bonesThey showed the picture around and explained that the carbon stored in living things is released after death during the process of decomposition.



cat giordonBut there is more to the story. The next day Giordon walks in all geared up carrying a plastic bag. Guess what was in the bag. If you think it was a dead dog, you would be wrong. We examined the carcass through the double plastic bags. It had passed through putrification and was pretty well dessicated. So it smelled sweet as opposed to rancid. We determined by the teeth and claws it was a cat.


Not to be out done by my students, in the area of “grossness’. I brought the carcass home and soaked it in a bucket of water. The fur was stuck hard to the skull so it took all summer for it to finally separate. I fished the bones out with a pair of needle-nosed pliers. Not a bad collection of bones. Some of the spine and ribs are still stuck in the guts, but the skull, leg bones and half the spine can be seen here. Remember some of the body tissue has been released as carbon gas back into the carbon cycle. That is what it is all bones


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Woolly Bear Caterpillars–What do they change into?

baby woolly bear caterpillar

Baby woolly bear caterpillar

I get asked this question often. What happens to the woolly bear caterpillar? We see them all the time in the late summer and throughout the fall. Then we forget about it until next fall. To answer the first question: The adult moth isn’t much to look at. Kind of drab beige to yellow, a few black markings. The scientific name is Pyrrharctia isabella, common name, Isabella Tiger Moth.

The caterpillar is the interesting part. No you cannot tell if the winter is going to be longer if the stripes are wider, or shorter. That is a myth. But this caterpillar can do something very interesting. It can freeze. It has to freeze. Freeze solid over the winter. And not just one winter, it can go through up to three winters suspended in a state of cryogenic suspended animation. We should send it into space I say!

The reason it is believed they freeze is to bulk up on more food in the spring before pupation. It is in the spring after overwintering as a caterpillar, not something many caterpillars do, that they spin their cocoons. What emerges, the drab moth you see here. It then lays tiny pearl-like eggs in the grass to start the cycle over again.

Photo by Tom Murray

Photo by Tom Murray

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Posted by on September 14, 2014 in insects, Nature Curios, Science


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