Friday, January 30, 2015


This is a groundhog. Also known as a woodchuck, marmot, and "whistlepig" for the funny noise it makes. Cute... until they dig under my fence, get in my garden, and eat all the kale, broccoli, lettuce, peas. Then they are not cute at all.

They are related to squirrels, though much larger, and instead of staying active all winter and raiding the bird feeder they hibernate. Which requires a good layer of fat. Which explains the raids on the veggie garden.

In the spring, the moms give birth to anywhere from two to six pups. One mama, nesting in a burrow in the hedgerow, had four babies last year. I met them when she gave them a guided tour of the route from home to the garden. She was just about to demonstrate "how to dig under the fence" when I put a stop to her tour. With a squeak and a whistle she had those pups running back to the burrow. She, on the other hand, headed in the opposite direction - perhaps to distract me?

Sometimes in the middle of winter, say around February 2, when it's good weather,  male groundhogs will rouse themselves and emerge from their burrows to wander about their territory. This might be the origin of the "Groundhog Day" tradition of determining when spring will arrive: if the groundhog sees its shadow we have six more weeks of winter. Whether he sees his shadow or not, February 2 is conveniently located mid-way through winter, and there really are only six more weeks until the spring equinox.

As to whether groundhogs make good weather prognosticators,  experts at the National Climatic Data Center seem to agree that the data show otherwise. Punxsutauney Phil, the most famous groundhog of all, has correctly predicted the coming of spring only 39 percent of the time - that's worse odds than tossing a coin.

Check out more groundhog facts here  and here. And if you're wondering whether spring is on its way, walk outside on Monday and look for your shadow. If it's cloudy, you won't see it and spring is on its way. If it's sunny, you will see your shadow and we're stuck with winter for a bit longer. Either way, the first day of spring is 6 weeks away.

Today is STEM Friday, so head over to the STEM Friday blog to see what cool books bloggers are reviewing.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Sniffer Dogs Save the World - plus author interview!

Sniffer Dogs: How Dogs (and their noses) Save the World
by Nancy Castaldo
160 pages; ages 5-8
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014

After a hard day at work, someone might say "it's a dog's life", or complain that they're "dog tired". That's because many years ago, before dogs became pets, they were working animals. The cool thing: some dogs still are working animals. Besides livestock-herding there are all kinds of work for the modern dog.

Take Eli, a bomb-sniffing dog in Afghanistan, or Raider, a search-and-rescue dog. They work paw-in-hand with their human partners in dangerous jobs. Some rescue dogs worked at the World Trade Center, and some work in earthquake and hurricane zones. There are CSI dogs who search for evidence, and therapy dogs who help their humans avoid accidents. There are conservation dogs helping scientists, and library dogs who help reluctant readers just by being a good listener.

Nancy Castaldo has filled the pages of this book with the stories and photos of real "sniffer dogs" on the job from all over this country. Whether you live with dogs or just love 'em from a distance, you will find a lot to like in the stories. The cool thing: Nancy lives with a goldendoodle named Gatsby and once thought that she might become a veterinarian. It turns out she'd rather spend time hanging around healthy animals. I caught up with her the other day for a quick interview, so....

Archimedes: What inspired you to write this book?

Nancy: It all started with an article about moose scat - or at least about a study in the Adirondacks in which conservation dogs helped scientists who were studying the moose population. The dogs located moose scat and the scientists used the scat to document the population. I'd heard of tracking dogs, but the idea of searching for moose poop intrigued me. Some conservation dogs are trained to locate invasive plants - that's how sensitive their noses are!

Archimedes: Tell us about your writing process.

Nancy: My original idea was to write about the conservation dogs, but then someone asked me if there were other kinds of working dogs. When I discovered how many different kinds of work dogs do, I knew I had to write about them and the science behind their abilities to sniff out danger or find people trapped in rubble. Then I had to locate scientists and handlers to interview. Before I knew it I was also taking photographs of the dogs. I spent time with most of the dogs I profile in the book except, ironically, the conservation dogs. They were always out working. Overall, I spent about a year in the field, doing research and meeting the dogs and their humans.

Archimedes: Your book has received lots of accolades.

Nancy: Yes, it was listed by NSTA as an "outstanding trade book" for 2014. I'm currently working on a follow-up book about how animals think, and this fall I have a book coming out on seeds and diversity in plants.

Archimedes: We'll keep our eyes peeled for those. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Today is STEM Friday, so head over to the STEM Friday blog to see what other bloggers are reviewing.