Naughty by Nature: A Valentine’s Day Special Event

Birds do it, bees do it, and sentimental fleas? Don’t even ask. 

In celebration of the coming Valentine’s Day holiday, the Schuylkill Center cordially invites you to a special edition of our new Thursday Night Live series. “Naughty by Nature” features the amazing stories of sex and courtship in the animal kingdom, as these stories are extraordinary and just not shared often enough. I’ll be offering this PG-13 lecture on Thursday, February 11 at 7:00 p.m. The event is free, but you’ll need to register and get the Zoom link. 

Animals possess a wide range of adaptations to court their mates. So lion manes, buck antlers, firefly flashes, cricket chirps, cardinal songs, and peacock feathers—among many others—are all adaptations to seduce females. Let’s start with those buck antlers.

The antlers give a female strong visual cues as to the health and vitality of the male—the size of the rack matters, and as bucks mature the antlers tend to get larger and larger. But the story doesn’t stop there. Many times on autumn walks around the Schuylkill Center’s trails, I’ve come across a buck’s rut, a scrape in the ground made by the male. He not only scratches the ground clear of grass, but urinates down his hind legs, the urine mixing with hormones secreted by glands in his knee joints, and a witch’s brew of liquids puddles in the mud. The does find the smell, well, irresistible. He has staked out his turf, laid down his calling card—and likely will find does there the next evening. This system works exceptionally well, as just about every doe is pregnant by the time winter settles in. 

Let’s swim over to the clownfish, the brightly colored star of “Finding Nemo.” Well, surprise, the movie got it all wrong. In much of the animal kingdom, gender is relatively straightforward; an organism is oftentimes born or hatched as male or female. Bucks are bucks; does remain does. Not so among clownfish.

Clownsfih have this marvelous adaptation of being immune to the stings of the sea anemones that live alongside them in coral reefs. The clownfish uses the anemone as  protection, making it harder for those hungry moray eels to get them. A small cluster of clownfish live in and around one anemone, a little community of clowns cloaked by anemone tentacles.

But two of the clownfish are larger, one male and one female, and these are the two that mate; the others are not only celibate, they are all male. Let’s say that moray eel gets lucky, or old age catches up to the female, and she either perishes or is someone’s dinner. What then?

Easy. Turns out clownfish, like a surprising number of fish, are sequential hermaphrodites, possessing the sexual organs of both sexes but suppressing one until needed. In the sudden absence of a female, the large male shifts his sex over and becomes the new female; the remaining smaller males then jockey for position, with usually the next-larger male winning the right to be the new dominant male, bulking up rapidly in size to take his position atop the sexual food chain. Situation solved. 

Or let’s see how bees do it, as the song notes. Most of the honeybees you have seen in your life are female workers. There are male bees, the drones, but these bees do not work: they gather no nectar, make no honey, clean no queen, raise no brood. They have only one, albeit important, reason for being, a singular task to accomplish: they are living sperm containers waiting for a virgin queen to fly. They are flying insurance policies.

And somehow the drones of neighboring hives all know where to congregate—they all get an unwritten memo and map in a secret code that scientists have yet to crack. And there they wait… 

So when a new queen emerges from her special queen cell in the hive, her first task is to scour the hive looking for other queen cells, as hives with an aging queen likely raise multiple new queens to make sure one works out. The first queen that hatches then kills the others immediately; sororicide, the killing of sisters, is her very first act.

Her next act is to tank up on sperm. To do that, she flies to those same drone congregation areas; she’s got the map as well. And the fastest, maybe the luckiest, male who catches her first mates in mid-flight. Unfortunately for him, copulation results in death; he immediately falls to the ground as the climax to her nuptial flight, and she has the sperm she needs for a lifetime of egg laying.

Those drones are also incapable of feeding themselves; they beg for food in the hive by tapping on the antennae of female workers who obligingly regurgitate food for them. Until the fall. As the hive slides towards winter’s lean season, no nuptial flights will be occurring and the hive needs its honey to survive the winter. Now, drones are expendable. So when the males tap females for food, the workers deny the request, and the drones starve. They die in the hive, and are carried out by female undertaker workers to be unceremoniously dumped outside the entrance. Ah, love.

So calling all bucks and does, or even stags: join me for a lively evening discussing the delightful and surprising sexual antics of the animal kingdom, just in time for Valentine’s Day. 

 

–By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

At-Home Nature Exploration: Animals in Winter

COVID-19 has forced the Schuylkill Center to pivot and reimagine many of our programs. At the beginning of September, we began to reinvent our popular Schuylkill Saturday program so that families could explore our trails through self-guided activities available in Nature Kits. Every Saturday, Nature Kits have been given out on a first-come, first-served basis from 10:00 am–12:00 pm. Nature kits focus on a different theme each week and are meant to be done along our trails. Since the start of our nature kit program, we have seen more than 800 people come out and have handed out over 450 kits.

Starting this week, we are going to be featuring at-home versions of our popular Nature Kit activities so if you can’t make it out to the Center to pick up a kit, make sure to check our blog each week for ways to still get in some weekly nature exploration right where you are.

 

Animals in Winter

In the winter, temperatures drop and it gets really cold. In order to survive, animals will do one of three things: hibernate, adapt, or migrate. Animals such as bears and chipmunks will hibernate. This means that they curl up in a warm place, such as a cave or tunnel, and stay there until winter ends. Other animals, such as fox and deer, will adapt. To adapt means to use a special feature, such as a thick fur coat or stored food, in order to survive the cold temperatures. Lastly, to migrate means to travel to a warmer spot. Animals such as birds and even some marine mammals will migrate. Follow the directions for the activities below to learn more about hibernation, adaptation, and migration.

 

ACTIVITY #1: Squirrels and Adaptation

Squirrels are examples of animals that adapt in the winter. To stay warm in the winter, they will spend more time in their nests and less time out foraging—similar to us staying inside when it gets cold. Before winter starts, they will also bury food such as acorns. It can be hard to find food in the winter so squirrels will return to these stashes of food for something to eat throughout the winter.

  • Draw a number of acorns on a piece of paper (Tip: Put a paperclip on them if it’s a windy day!)
    • Hide them in either your backyard or a nearby park.
    • Wait 5-10 minutes—and then see if you can find them all again.
      • If you have real acorns around, you could do this same activity with real acorns—just make sure to mark them in some way (ex. wrapping a piece of yarn around them) so that you can tell them apart from other acorns. 
  • Take a moment to look around your backyard or a nearby park to see if you see any squirrels out and about.
    • Are they digging up acorns that they buried before the winter?
    • Try looking up in the trees for squirrel nests. Squirrel nests look like large bundles of leaves balanced between tree branches. They are often easier to see in the winter when there are no leaves on the trees.
ACTIVITY #2: Birds and Migration

Birds are an example of an animal that migrates. Birds migrate to warmer areas to find food and lay their eggs. Birds, however, often face challenges as they migrate. They rely on areas such as wetlands for food, rest, and shelter—similar to how we stop at rest stops and hotels when we travel. These areas though are oftentimes developed to make way for houses or shopping centers. Grab a piece of chalk and make a hopscotch board on a nearby sidewalk.

  • Take a moment to look around for birds in your backyard or a nearby park.
    • Although many birds migrate, some do stick around in the winter and will often change their diet depending on what foods are around.
      • For example, birds that eat insects in the spring and summer may switch to eating more seeds, nuts, and berries in the winter when insects aren’t as readily available.
    • What type of food do you see that is still around for these birds?

 

ACTIVITY #3: Bears and Hibernation

Bears, chipmunks, skunks, groundhogs, and snakes are all examples of animals that either enter true hibernation or something similar to it. Animals that hibernate usually find warm areas such as tunnels, burrows, or caves.

  • Make a warm den outside for a stuffed animal that you have at home.
    • Try to find a small crevice and use natural materials such as sticks and leaves to make it nice and warm.
    • Besides warmth, try to think of some other features that would make for a good den (ex. shelter from rain or snow, hidden from potential predators, etc.).
  • Take a moment to look around in your backyard or a nearby park. Can you locate some areas that would make for good places for animals to seek shelter or cover?

 

If you do any of these activities, be sure to snap a picture and share it with us on social media (tag us @schuylkillcenter)—we’d love to see what you discover in your own backyard!

A New Lens on Nature: Community photos in “Citizen’s Eye”

It almost could be another tree, except for the ears. Look a little closer and you realize it’s a deer, stock-still and staring at you through the morning mist. As autumn leaves rustle, its silent appraisal reminds you: you are not alone. These woods are a shared space.

This encounter is captured in a photo by Peter DeStefano, one he submitted to the upcoming community show, “Citizen’s Eye — A Kaleidoscope of Nature.” More than 400 photos taken by over 200 people—Schuylkill Center staff, members, volunteers, neighbors, friends—document surprising encounters with nature from the past 10 months. Every photo is included in the exhibition, making for a truly kaleidoscopic display.

Photo by Peter DeStefano, submitted to “Citizen’s Eye”

Director of Environmental Art Tina Plokarz and her team have been sorting through these images, arranging them in our gallery, while looking for patterns. Some photos show structures of bridges and buildings; many are close-ups of animals or plants. They all come from a heightened sense of awareness to our natural surroundings and a willingness to stop and focus on smaller things. Taking such a photograph of nature requires that you not just move through the world but slow down enough to notice it. That you become a reciprocal part of it and live in it.

While each image reflects its photographer’s interest, collectively they begin to tell a story, one that begins with people going out to find nature—whether for peace, solitude, or recreation—and discovering that it’s always right beside them. Nature with a capital ‘N’ may conjure up romantic notions of sublime landscapes in National Parks, grand mountains, and expansive deserts. But nature with a lowercase ‘n’ encompasses everything around us. It’s “the small things we’re experiencing every day,” Tina says. “It’s not only about blooming flowers, it is also about the little weed on the sidewalk.” 

A number of photos feature kids and adults outside—playing, building, exploring, living. Some are posed; some are candid; one is a silhouette. “When we really think about ‘nature’ and where this term comes from,” Tina says, “we quickly see that it’s not only the ‘natural world’—it’s also our world context, it’s also our body, it’s our human interaction with the environment. And I think that’s what I was really interested in seeing through other people’s eyes.”

Photo by Walther Vera, submitted to “Citizen’s Eye”

Nature is also around us, inevitably, in death. One particularly striking photo is of a funeral with masked mourners holding big red umbrellas and carrying a casket down the street. At first, it may seem like it doesn’t belong in a show of nature photography. But it made Tina consider how other nature photos capture death and decay. Several images, for instance, show mushrooms sprouting from dying trees. The rotting wood provides the nutrients necessary to grow a network of fungi that spreads throughout the forest—itself an offering to trees and a vital connection between them. “It’s this circle of life,” she says, “and death is part of our lives.” 

Photo by Peter Handler, submitted to “Citizen’s Eye”

That topic of death is “hard to grapple with as it relates to the pandemic,” Tina says. But that’s why offering a place for people to share their experiences with nature is so powerful. “I think it allows us a space for grief, and for thinking how, when a tree is dying, it is not dying, it is just transforming into something else.”

Ultimately everything in nature is interconnected, everything shared. “Citizen’s Eye” reflects this in its community display, ready to welcome you in and transform your own encounters with nature.

 

“Citizen’s Eye —A Kaleidoscope of Nature” will be available to view in person in our gallery and online from January 21– March 21, 2021. Join us for a virtual opening reception on Thursday, Jan. 21 at 7 pm for a conversation with mythologist and social practice artist Li Sumpter Ph.D., John Heinz National Wildlife refuge manager Lamar Gore, and designer CJ Walsh, moderated by Tina Plokarz. For more information and to register, visit: https://www.schuylkillcenter.org/blog/event/citizens-eye-a-kaleidoscope-of-nature/

 

—By Emily Sorensen

 

MLK Day of Service — Projects from Home

Martin Luther King, Jr. dedicated his life to the nonviolent struggle for racial equality. In his honor, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service is observed on the third Monday in January. On what is termed “a day on, not off,” we are encouraged to engage in volunteer service to our community. While we can’t meet in person this year, we know that you don’t have to go far to make a difference. You’re invited to join us at 10 am on Monday, January 18 over Zoom to connect with community and honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. before setting off on your own. More info and register here

At that meeting, we’ll answer any questions you might have and  encourage you to complete one of the following service projects to help your neighbors, your community, wildlife, and the environment.

Suggested Projects include:

Help the environment

  • Pick Up Litter: Grab a bag and a pair of gloves and set out to beautify your neighborhood or a nearby park, one piece of litter at a time. Try to fill at least one bag of trash.
    • While you’re doing this, reflect on the trash you create and how you might be able to minimize it. Find some suggestions here and here.
  • Write to a Representative: Let your representatives in the House and Senate know how important the health of the environment is to you by writing them a letter urging them to support climate change legislation, or—for younger children—drawing a picture of your favorite nature spot.

Help your community

  • Donate food to a community fridge: Community fridges have popped up across the city since the start of the pandemic. They provide fresh food for those in need.
    • Find a fridge in your area to donate food or donate money. Consider swinging by first to see what’s needed, and then come back with what you can supply.
    • Read more about community fridges here and find Philadelphia locations here.  

Help wildlife

  • Make Window Decals to Prevent Bird Strikes: Window collisions are a leading cause of death in bird populations. Birds fly into windows because the glass reflects the environment around it and therefore, birds do not see it as a barrier. Window decals can help to prevent this. Create some of your own window decals using the recipe below. Make sure to cover the entire window (no openings more than 4” vertically and 2” horizontally) when putting them up.
    • Ingredients: 2 tablespoons white glue, 2 drops of dish soap, paintbrush, plastic page protectors or wax paper, food coloring (optional), cookie cutters (optional)
    • Directions:
      • Mix glue, dish soap, and food coloring together in a bowl.
      • Use a paintbrush to paint designs on a plastic page protector or wax paper. If you have one, you can also lay down a cookie cutter and paint inside of that. The number of designs needed will depend on how many windows you have and the size of them.
      • The painted layer should be thick enough that there are no gaps or holes but not too thick or else it won’t dry.
      • Let sit overnight.
      • Peel the decals off and stick to windows in your house, making sure to cover the entire window so that there are no openings more than 4” vertically and 2” horizontally.
    • For more details and pictures, visit: https://teachingmama.org/diy-window-clings/
  • For more ideas, check out our article 20 Wonderful Ways to Help Nature.

 

Whatever you do, don’t forget to tag us @schuylkillcenter in a picture of the MLK project you completed using the #MLKDay!

Schuylkill Saturday: Self-Guided Nature Exploration for Families

From the colorful autumn leaves to the fresh snow of winter to the budding flowers of spring and summer, discover the beauty and wonder along our trails in every season through this FREE weekly self-guided program. Pick up a nature exploration kit at our Visitor Center and then hit the trails with your family to complete the activities inside. For the months of January and February, past explorer kit themes will be repeated (with the exception of a new Valentine’s Day themed kit on February 13). Two different themed kits will be available each week. Explorer kits can be picked up anytime between 10:00-12:00 on a first-come, first-served basis. All ages welcome. No registration required. Masks are required when picking up your kit.

Schuylkill Saturday: Self-Guided Nature Exploration for Families

From the colorful autumn leaves to the fresh snow of winter to the budding flowers of spring and summer, discover the beauty and wonder along our trails in every season through this FREE weekly self-guided program. Pick up a nature exploration kit at our Visitor Center and then hit the trails with your family to complete the activities inside. For the months of January and February, past explorer kit themes will be repeated (with the exception of a new Valentine’s Day themed kit on February 13). Two different themed kits will be available each week. Please see below for a schedule of themes. Explorer kits can be picked up anytime between 10:00-12:00 on a first-come, first-served basis. All ages welcome. No registration required. Masks are required when picking up your kit.

Schuylkill Saturday: Self-Guided Nature Exploration for Families

From the colorful autumn leaves to the fresh snow of winter to the budding flowers of spring and summer, discover the beauty and wonder along our trails in every season through this FREE weekly self-guided program. Pick up a nature exploration kit at our Visitor Center and then hit the trails with your family to complete the activities inside. Dive into a different theme and collect a new explorer badge each week. Explorer kits can be picked up anytime between 10:00-12:00 on a first-come, first-served basis. All ages welcome. No registration or fee required. Masks are required when picking up your kit.

Schuylkill Saturday: Self-Guided Nature Exploration for Families

From the colorful autumn leaves to the fresh snow of winter to the budding flowers of spring and summer, discover the beauty and wonder along our trails in every season through this FREE weekly self-guided program. Pick up a nature exploration kit at our Visitor Center and then hit the trails with your family to complete the activities inside. Dive into a different theme and collect a new explorer badge each week. Explorer kits can be picked up anytime between 10:00-12:00 on a first-come, first-served basis. All ages welcome. No registration or fee required. Masks are required when picking up your kit.

Schuylkill Saturday: Self-Guided Nature Exploration for Families

From the colorful autumn leaves to the fresh snow of winter to the budding flowers of spring and summer, discover the beauty and wonder along our trails in every season through this FREE weekly self-guided program. Pick up a nature exploration kit at our Visitor Center and then hit the trails with your family to complete the activities inside. Dive into a different theme and collect a new explorer badge each week. Explorer kits can be picked up anytime between 10:00-12:00 on a first-come, first-served basis. All ages welcome. No registration or fee required. Masks are required when picking up your kit.

Schuylkill Saturday: Self-Guided Nature Exploration for Families

From the colorful autumn leaves to the fresh snow of winter to the budding flowers of spring and summer, discover the beauty and wonder along our trails in every season through this FREE weekly self-guided program. Pick up a nature exploration kit at our Visitor Center and then hit the trails with your family to complete the activities inside. Dive into a different theme and collect a new explorer badge each week. Explorer kits can be picked up anytime between 10:00-12:00 on a first-come, first-served basis. All ages welcome. No registration or fee required. Masks are required when picking up your kit.