Book: Ravens in Winter

One of my goals is to read more nature and science books, and I particularly love birds, so when I found Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich at a library book sale, I couldn’t pass it up. I knew that more research had already been done on ravens because I had seen an interesting documentary about them. (This book was published in 1989.) But since I still don’t know that much about ravens, I knew I could enjoy the book anyway. (The latest news is that scientists have figured out that ravens can plan ahead for the future.)

This is the first science book I’ve ever read. That is, it’s about one scientist’s ongoing study of a subject and what he learned through his observations and experiments. (He had help from graduate students too.) What I loved about the book is that it perfectly illustrates the scientific method. Heinrich had observed ravens on some land his family owned in Maine. They seemed to be sharing their food and calling other ravens to join them. From this observation, he formed a question, or hypothesis, in his head. Did ravens recruit other ravens when they found food? Most animals do not share their food with others, so what advantage did this give them? Heinrich took a sabbatical from his job as a biologist at the University of Vermont to try to find out the answer.

The study ended up taking four years, and he did most of his work whenever he had some time off during the extremely cold, Maine winters. While I read about his adventures in the subzero temperatures, sleeping in a non-insulated and non-heated cabin, carrying heavy carcasses to places in order to attract the birds, climbing to dangerous heights in the trees to get a better view, I quickly decided that I would never have been a good wildlife biologist.

But I’m glad there are other people crazy enough to go to extremes to observe ravens because he found out some amazing facts about them, and his descriptions of their behavior were fascinating. While reading the book, I felt like a detective, sitting with him out in the woods, spying on these creatures, trying to figure out what all their odd behavior meant. Take this, for example:

NOVEMBER 27. I’m awakened to a rosy red dawn under a crystal clear sky with temperatures at 10 degrees F.

At 6:38 A.M. a raven flies over, then a second one. The pair has come–the Hills Ponders. They quork a few times during their apparent morning inspection for intruders and return down the valley to the pond. For the next three hours I see only the ever-present blue jays. They have not made a sound all morning on their frequent trips to the pile of new bait.

At 9:45 I suddenly see several ravens. I cannot count them because in the next half hour they circle over only briefly, disappear behind the trees, return, circle some more, and disappear again in to the forest. One flies to a tree where another has landed, and the first leaves; the second flies on to another perched bird, and that one leaves also. Two circle the bait together. I hear one set of deep quorks and one set of knocking sounds. There are no juvenile yells and no trills.

The chapters in the book alternate between a diary of his observations and experiments and also the research he did on previous scientist’s observations about ravens around the world. He also writes about observations from people who are not scientists, and though their observations can be helpful, he explains that it’s important for a scientist to remain subjective and not assume that certain behavior equals human behavior.

I was joking, a little, when I called him crazy. I can clearly see how appealing it would be to spend so much time out in the wild — sometimes alone and sometimes collaborating with others. You can get the sense of how he feels about about his work in the following passage:

FEBRUARY 5. The days are getting longer, but it is still deep winter. Last night, the northern lights were flickering across the sky. Tonight the sky is lightly veiled in clouds, and the quarter moon has a halo around it. It does not shed much light as I snowshoe up with my gear. I have to make three more trips, each time carrying about seventy-five pounds of frozen meat in a burlap bag slung over my shoulder. All of this is unpaid volunteer work, of course. It is fun. What I do will never have any major significance in the scheme of things. So it had better be fun.

Finally, near midnight, I’m done with my exertions and gratefully crawl into a cool but comfortable bed. Alone–unfortunately. A coyote barks from Gammon Ridge. It sounds like the dog next door. But out here it seems wild and exotic, elemental and beautiful. I am paid many times over for my efforts. But the same things I experience would not be rewards at all if it were not for the efforts I’ve invested.

Heinrich had to conduct many experiments, but he did find out that juvenile ravens will recruit other ravens to a food source, if it is located in the territory of an adult pair. This way, the adults cannot chase them off as easily. But that’s a very simplified explanation, and there is much more to glean from his data. These birds are very clever and deserve our respect. I encourage you to read the book, if you have any interest in science or birds.

Note: A high school student interested in science may enjoy this book, but younger kids would probably think it was boring.

Heinrich has written many books, and I see he has other books about ravens too. Have you read any of his books? Which do you recommend the most?

My Year of Citizen Science

{A Year of Easy Citizen Science Projects for Homeschoolers}

From the University of Oklahoma’s Soil Collection Program

Last year I gave myself a big project by declaring it “My Year of Citizen Science.” Every month, I tried doing one citizen science project, and I wrote about each one on the home/school/life magazine blog. It was a lot of fun, I learned a lot about citizen science, and I felt I was doing something good for the world right from my home. I’m continuing to participate in some of them too.

I picked easy projects that I could do from home because as a homeschool mom, our schedule is full, and I don’t get out much by myself. Sometimes my boys would help me with these projects and other times not. I didn’t require them to. This was something I wanted to do for myself because over the last few years I have come to love science, which I always hated when I was in school. I don’t think it was introduced to me properly when I was a child, but that’s another story.

Anyway, any homeschooler or conscientious citizen could easily do any of these projects. I’m going to list them here with links to my blog posts on home/school/life where you can learn more about what they were like to complete. From there, you can find the link to the project’s website. I can’t promise whether the researchers will continue to make these projects available, but most of them should be ongoing projects.

#1: Lab in the Wild: A project you can do right at your computer.
#2: The Great Backyard Bird Count (Takes place every February): Just what it sounds like. Lots of fun, if you love birds.
#3: Budburst: Find a plant or tree to observe year-round. Lots of good activities on their website for teaching kids about plants.
#4 & #5: Project Noah and iNaturalist: A way to record your nature observations and get help identifying them. Your observations may help researchers too.
#6: Citizen Science Soil Collection Program: Perfect for kids who like playing in the dirt.
#7: Got Milkweed? (The Not Quite Citizen Science Project): An organization who wants to help you plant milkweed, which will help the monarch butterflies.
#8: Bugs In Our Backyard: Learn about true bugs and try to find them.
#9: Project Squirrel: Easiest project in the world, especially if you have squirrels in your yard.
#10: mPING crowdsourcing weather reports: An app that uses crowdsourcing to improve weather radars.
#11: Project Implicit: Another project you can do at your computer. Researchers will test you for hidden biases that you didn’t even know you had.
#12: Flu Near You: Every week you will receive an e-mail asking if anyone in your household has flu-like symptoms. Helps the CDC and other organizations track illnesses.

There are many other citizen science projects that you can find by searching on the Internet and checking out the Project Finder on SciStarter.com. If you have participated in one that isn’t listed here, please tell me about it in the comments. Also, if you try any of these, please let me know!  I’d love to hear about your experience.

Our 4th Grade Piano Adventures

At the end of May, my 10-year-old marked a full two years of taking piano lessons. In less than two years, he advanced to playing late intermediate/early advanced repertoire. This is quite remarkable, and for me, it finally sunk in just how remarkable this is over the past year. Of course, my husband recognized it right away, and I give him full credit for his swift and fierce support!

My son has a natural talent, and I think it’s safe to say that becoming a classical pianist has become a serious goal for him. But I can’t underscore enough how hard he works at this goal. It’s been inspiring to watch, and my husband and I are so proud of him. Not only does he practice a lot, he loves listening to classical music and learning about composers. His knowledge about music, music history, and modern pianists is remarkable in itself. And we don’t have to make him do any of this or fuss at him to practice. Not at all! My husband is always right there with him, encouraging him and sometimes advising him (he’s not a musician; he just loves doing research), but if my son didn’t want to do this, none of this would be happening.

I’m calling this post our “piano adventures” because it’s been an adventure for all of us. My husband and I have learned so much about classical music right along with our son, and we love it! Just like with all my sons’ interests, I have loved getting a real education and exploring and discovering things that I didn’t know about before. Not only do I love listening to classical music now, I love learning about the world of classical music and how pianists learn and grow. On this adventure we’ve also met various teachers and learned how they work too. This year we found a new teacher for our 10-year-old, and our younger son began lessons in October with another teacher. The 7-year-old is not as passionate about playing the piano as his older brother, but he likes it and wants to continue. He is certainly benefitting from having such a talented older brother and everything we’ve learned about on this journey.

During this past year, our 10-year-old entered his first competition. He had to receive the reward of “Outstanding Performer” at a local and then a regional event before he could go to the state competition, and he did this. Then, at the state competition, he competed with 28 other 4th graders who also made it to the state competition, and there, he received the “Award of Excellence.” They don’t do “places,” but essentially, this put him in the top 10. His was the 6th name listed.

At the end of the year, he participated in the nationwide, non-competitive guild auditions, which are open to any piano student as long as their teacher is a member of the guild. There, he received the ranking of “Superior Plus,” which was the highest ranking he could get.

My son has a long and challenging journey ahead of him. If he wants to continue pursuing this goal, we’ll give him all the support that we can. If not, that’s okay too. I have no idea what to expect, but I hope it continues to be a positive experience for him.

Since he’s turning eleven at the end of summer, I feel he’s almost at that age when his privacy will be of utmost importance to him, so I probably will not post much more about his piano adventures or other projects on my blog. When he’s older, if he wants to create his own social media accounts, I’ll be sure to share them, and occasionally I’ll offer some highlights from this “ultimate project.” I’ll continue to write about the curriculum we’re using for our homeschool and my life as a homeschool mom, of course.

If you have a child who wants to pursue classical music, please e-mail me! It would be great to meet other families who are on a similar journey.

Nature Watch: Horned Lizard

Look closely. Do you see it? It has great camouflage.

When we were in New Mexico, we stopped along the road to enjoy the view and take photos. If I hadn’t of almost stepped on this little guy, I would have never seen him. My boys knew exactly what it was and told me it was a “horny toad.” After searching on the Internet, I’ve learned that they can be called that or “horned toads,” or more accurately, “horned lizard.” There are 14 species of horned lizards. I’m not sure what species this is, but he sure was a cute little guy, and I’m so glad we had the privilege of seeing him.

We saw many wild animals on our trip west that we can’t find in Georgia, which was a thrill. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any good photos of any other animals, so I’ll just share the “nature discoveries” list we made on that trip. I keep a small journal listing all our wildlife finds. At least one of us has to see an animal to make it into the journal.

Birds: great-tailed grackles, ravens, magpies, cliff swallows, and a hovering kestrel (we think it was a kestrel)

Mammals: pronghorn antelope, mule deer, elk, prairie dogs

Reptiles: horned lizard, whiptail lizard

What have been your latest nature discoveries?

My 1st Grader’s Ongoing Projects

As I look back over our school 2016-2017 school year, it’s been fun to think about what my boys’ major projects were this year. For my eldest, it was pretty much piano and gaming. But for my seven-year-old, he pursued many endeavors, and I had fun pursuing some of them with him. Yet it was so different from when his older brother was seven and I assisted him with his many building projects at that time. This has also been part of the fun — to see how these boys are both similar and different.

I used to feel that it was a bit of a shame that while my eldest son got so much of my one-on-one attention, his younger brother had to be a sidekick or share my attention. Well, the tables have turned a little bit. Now that my 10-year-old spends so much time practicing piano, I get to spend more one-on-one time with my first grader. I partly use this time for teaching lessons. The other part I let him decide what we’ll do together. Sometimes, he likes to play by himself, and that’s fine too. (Then I can be an audience for my 10-year-old!)

So what does this little guy like to do? Well, I’ll show you. The following are snapshots I took with my phone camera, but each of them reveals a bit of my first grader’s favorite pastimes!

Playing games

Truly, his favorite games to play are digital games. Both my boys adore their digital games, and much of their conversation and make-believe are inspired by digital games. So, I’m going to write a post just about their digital games. (I know I keep saying that — I promise I really am!)

My youngest son also loves to play board games, card games or dice games with me. What I love about this is that many of the games we play help him with math skills, and he’ll insist on doing the counting himself. He likes to be the banker in Star Wars monopoly! As I’ve noticed in the past, he seems to be good at math, and he’s always been a little bit obsessed with numbers. So I’m more than happy to indulge him in this pastime, although I sure wish he weren’t such a sore loser.

Serious Make-believe

While his elder brother used to like building things (but he rarely played with his creations), younger brother will build lots of little things with zoob pieces or Legos and then use them for battle. He covers the entire floor with his imaginary worlds, and for this reason, he rarely wants to go outside — the action is clearly inside! This happens on a daily basis, and I love it!

Drawing and Painting

If you’ve read my blog in the past, you’ll know my son used to love drawing and coloring. For many months, this interest went away, and I thought it was gone forever. But a few months ago, he suddenly wanted to draw and color again. Then painting came back too. He likes for me to draw with him, and I’m more than happy to. Sometimes he’ll try drawing what I’m drawing such as the mug above. I was also drawing mugs as I was working through the exercises in Drawing for the Absolute Beginner. I would love to do more exercises with him, but he resists being taught. So I just do what I want to do, and sometimes I’ll get lucky, and he’ll follow along.

Baking & Cooking

This kid loves to help me bake and make other things in the kitchen, which is a great motivator for me to cook more! (And believe me, I need the motivation in this area.) I’m planning (hoping!) to continue to bake seriously and have him help me frequently. I want both my boys to learn how to cook basic meals, but I feel that this boy may someday be a more serious hobbyist chef, at the very least!

Puzzler

My 7-year-old has always loved doing puzzles. Again, I think it has something to do with that math brain of his, but I’m not sure. He used to put together puzzles often when he was a little tyke, and this year, he got into it again. I also bought some 300 piece puzzles and one 500 piece puzzle, which were harder for him, but I helped, and even the whole family got into these puzzles a little bit because they sat out on the table for awhile. It was a lot of fun, and now I just need to talk him into letting me take them apart so that we can do them all over again!

Piano

This was my 7-year-old’s first year taking piano lessons, and he did quite well! We weren’t sure whether he would like it or not, but he says he wants to keep taking lessons, and he continues to practice once a day for about thirty minutes.

(Obviously, this is the one thing we don’t do while his older brother is practicing!)

 

 

 

 

Last But Not Least: Birds

Again, if you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you’ll know that birds have been this young boy’s major passion for several years now! (See: Birds & Feathers and It’s All for the Birds) He has been carrying around his toy “Chick,” a black-capped chickadee, for well over a year. (You can see it perched next to him at the piano.) He even wanted to be a black-capped chickadee for Halloween, so I made him a chickadee costume! But mostly he’s just had me read to him — just one or two pages at a time — about birds from some bird guides at the end of his lesson time. I’m quite impressed how this has been a steady interest of his for several years now, and though it’s subtle, he continues to learn about birds in his own way.

Observing and identifying my child’s major interests helps me consider how I can continue to support his endeavors. I’ve realized I can do this effectively in these ways:

  • Give him the time and tools. Then get out of his way!
  • Don’t tell him what to do. Get out of his way!
  • But be there. And pay attention. Help him when he wants help. (He won’t always say he wants help. Sometimes he gets frustrated and cries. Sometimes he gets “bored” or tired. Sometimes he needs a break more than my help, and he’ll return to the project later.)
  • Start my own similar projects without expecting him to join me. But the magic is that he often does! 

Both my boys have showed me that these tactics work. Children will feel their interests are validated when they see adults doing the same things! There is no better expression of love than this.

Summertime for a Homeschooling Family

For most families, summertime means a huge change of pace. The children are home and need entertaining. There are trips to the pool, BBQs, family gatherings, outdoor entertainment etc. Well, we don’t have access to a pool, and we rarely eat BBQ, and we see our extended families about the same as always. While we love getting outside, we do that more in the fall, winter & spring when the weather isn’t so unbearably hot…and places aren’t as crowded either. 🙂

Our kids don’t need entertaining. They are home all the time and know how to entertain themselves, if they need to. So mostly, our routine changes very little. I still do homeschool lessons because it’s easier to keep some structure to our days, but I always do something a little different. This summer I’m concentrating on Spanish lessons and read-a-louds. I’m hoping to find a Spanish curriculum that we will stick with, and I have some books I want to read that I didn’t get to in the winter.

But even though not a lot changes, that doesn’t mean summer doesn’t have its seasonal treats, so to speak. Here’s a list of everything I think about when I think about our summers. I’m including some links to posts I’ve written about our summer habits.

  • Going out of town. Though I guess it’s technically still spring in May, that’s when my husband usually has some time off, so if we can swing it, we go on vacation. This year we went west, and it was our most memorable trip yet.
  • Gardening. I always plant a garden, and it has to be watered frequently, which is a good way to get the boys outside even for a few minutes everyday. This year I planted roma tomatoes, cucumbers, basil and dill. We’re also trying to grow milkweed and sunflowers, but so far, that’s not going too well.
  • Plants and more plants. We also have some permanent flowers and herbs in the garden and around the house, and it’s fun to see them come back to life and grow. The boys take good care of their carnivorous plants, which provide insect control and entertainment every summer!
  • Baby Birds. We have two birdhouses around our house, and there’s usually at least one brood being reared at all times during the summer. We’ve also found bird’s nests in our trees and bushes. Sometimes we’ve been lucky enough to see the chicks fledge. These little miracles are my favorite part of summer.
  • Nature Discoveries. Even though we’ve lived in our home for 14 years, there is always new stuff to discover in our wooded yard. Sometimes it’s wild animals, and sometimes it’s plants. This year we discovered we have four wild black cherry trees in our yard! (It produces fruit infrequently, which is why we haven’t noticed them before.) We’ll probably leave the fruit for the birds because we love the birds and are happy to have a natural food source for them. (Well, I think the squirrels are going to finish off the cherries before the birds do.)
  • Lemonade. My 10-year-old loves lemonade, so I make him fresh lemonade every summer. He says mine is the best, and since he’s tasted a lot of lemonade at restaurants and his grandpa’s house, I am going to trust that assessment. 😉
  • Fruit. We love fruit in this house, so we love it when strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, peaches, watermelon, and many other kinds of fruit come into season. My 10-year-old loves fruit too, which makes me happy. Oh, and we love to make smoothies and sometimes margaritas! (Those are just for the adults!)
  • Summer day camps. Every year my boys attend at least one summer camp each. The camps at our local botanical garden are our favorite. I appreciate how the garden gets them involved in nature and with other kids in a way that I can’t, and they take great care of them too. My boys have so much fun playing large group games and activities – something they don’t get at home. It’s a nice change of pace for them, and it’s the only time I get a day off, so it’s a bonus that it’s five days in a row!
  • Homeschool Wrap-up & Planning. Summertime is record-keeping time. I have to write up progress reports, and I print out reading lists and certificates of completion. I put everything in 3-ring binders, and I generally clean up the year’s work. Then I store all that away and I make new binders for next year, and I plan what we’re going to start in the fall. It sounds like a lot of work, but the only thing that takes a significant amount of time is a slideshow I put together with all the photographs from our year. I use that when we have our end-of-year review, and the boys love it.
  • Part of my homeschool wrap-up involves getting my blog up-to-date too, so you can expect a few more posts from me in the near future. 😉

I’m sure I’ve missed something, but that’s pretty much what summer looks like around here. It’s pretty simple, but it’s pretty wonderful too.

Trip West

In May, we took a trip out west. We weren’t expecting to undertake such a big trip this year, but we often mused about taking the boys out west. Then, my sister asked us when we were coming for a visit…she and her family live near Denver, Colorado. That was the push we needed to get us on the road.

It was the longest road trip we’ve ever taken, so we weren’t sure how anyone would behave (most of all, the adults!). But we made it almost-painlessly on the two day drive to New Mexico, which was our first destination.

New Mexico

I used to live out west, but seeing it with my children was like seeing it for the first time again. The boys were thrilled to see the desert landscape, pronghorn antelope, a horny toad, and my 10-year-old was even lucky enough to get a glimpse of elk while we were driving! They were familiar with these animals from all the documentaries we watch, and especially Wild Kratts, so seeing them in person was very exciting! We (especially me!) were also thrilled to identify some birds that don’t live in Georgia — grackles, ravens, magpies, etc. It was so much fun!

Santa Fe, New Mexico

We spent a couple of days in Santa Fe, which I’d always wanted to spend more time in, and so did my husband. It’s a beautiful, artsy, touristy town with a lot of history. We spent an afternoon looking through the art galleries, and I thought the boys might get bored there, but they enjoyed that! My seven-year-old said he had fun because he “saw many things I liked!” The only place they did get a little bored in was the Georgia O’Keefe Museum, but I enjoyed that.

Oldest church ever built in the U.S.A. It was built by the Tlaxcalan Indians under the direction of Franciscan Padres, circa 1610.

The second day in Santa Fe, we headed a short distance out of town to see Bandelier National Monument, and this was perhaps our favorite site to see. We took what was at least a 2-mile hike through a beautiful landscape that was quite different from home.  This hike ended at some incredible Pueblo ruins. I had never even seen anything like that before. (We bought some books about the Pueblo Indians at the visitor center, which I’m reading to my boys now!)

“Tyuonyi (pronounced Qu-weh-nee) is a free standing pueblo from the 14th century built in an unusual circular shape in Frijoles Canyon midway between Frijoles Creek and the north canyon face. Two and perhaps three stories high in some places this village housed about 100 people in 400 rooms and was constructed of carefully shaped tuff blocks cut from the canyon walls. There was a single ground-level entrance and a plaza area that had three small kivas which served as the center for social village ceremonial life.”
My boys viewing the Pueblo ruins at Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico.
a kiva

After Santa Fe, we drove up to Denver and spent four days at my sister’s house. My grown-up niece and nephews stopped by to see us too, so my boys got to meet their cousins, which was great. There was a big snowstorm in the area when we arrived, which kept us from going farther north. But since we were tired from traveling, it was nice to stay around my sister’s area, enjoy the mountain view from a local park, and go to the pool at her gym.

Approaching the snowstorm.
View from Bluffs Regional Park. Overlooking Denver and suburbs.

After our time in Denver, we headed south again, but this time we went to Albuquerque. We were there for just one day, but we packed a lot in. We went to the Indian Cultural Arts Center, Petroglyph National Monument, and Old Town Albuquerque for dinner and a bit of shopping.

Indian Cultural Arts Center

This was an incredibly educational trip. The Indian Cultural Arts Center was a fascinating place, and I read most of the exhibits to my boys, which were full of stories and inspiring messages from various Pueblo cultures. The museum is owned and operated by the 19 Pueblo tribes that are located in New Mexico.

I had seen petroglyphs before, but I had never seen as many as I saw at Petroglyph National Monument. The petroglyphs are carved into large basalt boulders, ancient volcanic rock that had once flowed around a hill, but now the hill has eroded away. This is called reverse or inverted topography, and the canyon that is left behind is called Boca Negra Canyon.

This trip created memories that will last a lifetime, and we’re so glad we took the plunge and went.

Do you have any special trip plans for this summer? I would love to hear about them.