Friday, February 28, 2014

Feathers are Not just for Flying

Feathers ~ Not Just for Flying
by Melissa Stewart; illustrated by Sarah S Brannen
32 pages; ages 6-9 (great for older children too!)
Charlesbridge, 2014

Themes: animals, nature, nonfiction

How can you not want to pick up a book with a huge peacock feather looking you right in the eye?

Opening: "Birds and feathers go together like trees and leaves, like stars and the sky." And most birds, notes Melissa Stewart, have thousands of feathers. But not all feathers are the same, because feathers have so many different jobs to do.

Did you know that juncos use their feathers to distract predators? That ptarmigans use feathers like snowshoes? Stewart shows many ways that birds use feathers, from keeping warm to carrying nest materials to making music. Sarah Brannen's gorgeous watercolors fill in the details.

What I like love about this book: I like the scrapbook-style design that makes it look like a field notebook. And I like the combination of simple text for younger readers complemented with sidebars (or text boxes) with more details.

On the first spread, Stewart writes that feathers can warm like a blanket. I love the way the supplementary text is shown at the bottom, as a scrap of paper "taped" into a notebook. In addition to the lovely painting of a blue jay, Brannen includes details of blue jay feathers and a woven blanket. Every page is a treasure!

I like how, at the back, there is a spread showing many kinds of feathers and explaining how scientists classify types of feathers. It's like a picture dictionary for folks who want to know the difference between a bristle feather and a contour feather.

I also like Stewart's "author's note" where she talks about the inspiration for this book - and how it took three years of tinkering before it came together. A wonderful reminder that books take time, and many revisions.

Beyond the book: Get out a notebook and a pencil, maybe some watercolors or colored pencils, and start watching what the birds in your neighborhood are doing with their feathers. Do they warn off other birds (or squirrels) at the feeder? Are they fluffing up on cold days? Are they starting to carry things to build nests?

Look closely at a feather. When you find a feather on the ground, bring it home to study. What kind of feather is it? Draw a sketch - maybe color it in with pencils or watercolors. Use a magnifying lens to look closer. What do you observe?

I've got birds on the brain today! Head over to Sally's Bookshelf and check out another bird book and activities. Drop by STEM Friday to see what other science books and resources bloggers are sharing.

Today's review is part of PPBF (perfect picture book Friday), an event in which bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's site. She keeps an ever-growing list of Perfect Picture Books.

  On Monday we'll fly over to join the Nonfiction Monday round-up, where you'll find all kinds of great nonfiction for children and teens.  Review copy provided by publisher.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Squirrel Studies Beneath the Birdfeeder

Squirrels are pretty smart. Not only can they figure out the best route to your birdfeeder, but they remember where they’ve hidden nuts.

You don’t need to build a maze to test your backyard squirrels’ IQ, but you do need to think like a squirrel. For example, which is better: a big nut or a little nut? To find out, create a “squirrel feeding area” and offer your neighborhood squirrels their choice of peanuts of walnuts. Put ten of each out and count how many are left after each squirrel visit. Then replace so you have 10 of each.

Can squirrels associate food with a specific container? Since squirrels can see color, you might offer peanuts in a white cup and filberts in a black cup. Do they show a preference for one container over another? If they do, what happens when you put the nuts in the wrong container?

Squirrels can open a box and figure out how to get in vending machines, but can they learn how to open a plastic jar? If you have a large wide-mouthed plastic jar, put peanuts inside it and leave the lid off. Let the squirrels learn to associate the jar with food. Then put the lid on, but not very tight. Do your squirrels figure out how to turn the lid? Let me know if they do, because my squirrels got frustrated and bit the lid off my jar.
Check out other science resources and book reviews at the STEM Friday blog.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Who's at Your Feeder?

Every winter we hang a bird feeder from the clothesline. We fill it with sunflower seeds and millet and thistle... a whole mix of nutritious seeds for the local flocks. We also hang suet for the woodpeckers - then we watch from the living room window.

Here's who visits our feeder:
blue jays
downy woodpeckers
hairy woodpeckers
red-bellied woodpeckers
mourning doves (they pick up seeds that fall)
goldfinches, cardinals, sparrows, turkeys and squirrels. Lots of squirrels.

Gray Squirrels who climb up the tree, clamber out onto a limb, leap onto the clothesline and tightrope walk to the feeder. They chew the suet. They scoop out seeds by the pawful, tossing them to bird and mammal below.

We wondered if giving the squirrels their own food would keep them from raiding the birdfeeder. So one day I lugged home ten pounds of unsalted peanuts in the shell. We put some outside on the chopping block. We tossed a handful beneath the feeder. We watched and waited. What we discovered: blue jays love peanuts! If the squirrels are too slow, the jays swoop in and try to make off with peanuts in their beaks. They fly around the house to the thicket of forsythia and lilac where they sit around their card table, playing poker and cracking the nuts.

What backyard wildlife visits your feeder? Check out other science resources and book reviews at the STEM Friday blog.

Friday, February 7, 2014

What if You had Animal Hair?

What if You Had Animal Hair?
By Sandra Markle; illus. by Howard McWilliam
32 pages; ages 6-8
Scholastic, 2014

"What if one day when you woke up, the hair on your head wasn't yours? What if, overnight, a wild animal's hair grew in, instead?"

Themes: animal adaptations; nonfiction

If your hair were polar bear hair, the top hairs would be hollow and clear. They would reflect the light, just like snow does. And, writes, Sandra Markle, you wouldn't need to wear a hat when you go outside to play. Through the pages of this book, Markle explores the diversity of animal hair, from long shaggy musk-ox hair to scaly pangolin hair. Howard McWilliam's clever illustrations show kids sporting various types of hair - and hair styles. In the end, we don't have to worry. Because even when the hair on our head gets "wild" it's still "people hair". And, like the animal hair in the book, our hair has a job to do.

I caught up with Sandra a couple weeks ago and she was delighted to answer a couple of questions.

Archimedes: Did a "bad hair day" inspire you to write this book?

Sandra: Not hair! Teeth! So many kids responded to my previous book, What if you had Animal Teeth, by sending me photos of them wearing a mask with animal teeth. They loved pretending that they had wild teeth! So I started wondering what else would give that kind of playful response. I also think about the children who will read my books, and what sorts of things appeal to them.

Archimedes: What sort of research did you do for this book?

Sandra: I always start with thinking about what animals I want in a book - especially beyond those usually found in children's books. Then I start talking to experts - sometimes as many as 30 for a book. I want to make sure I have all my facts right, and I'm also looking for new information, or something uncommon  - a fun fact that will make this book different. Underlying it all is the question: what does an animal need to thrive in its environment?

Archimedes: Why did you include the Pangolin?

Sandra: According to scientists, those things that look like scales are actually hairs. They start small, grow longer, get thicker, and replace other flat scale-like hairs that fall out.

Beyond the Book

What would you look like with animal hair? Create a mask or self portrait that shows your head topped by the hair of a different animal. Will you be wild and woolly? Scaley? Will your hair change color with the seasons?

How strong is your hair? Some cultures used human hair to make ropes and twine. But how strong is human hair? Sandra gives directions for how to test hair strength over at her blog. You'll also learn some pretty hairy history. 
This post is part of STEM Friday round-up. It's also part of PPBF (perfect picture book Friday), an event in which bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's site. She keeps an ever-growing list of Perfect Picture Books
On Monday we're over at the Nonfiction Monday blog. You'll find lots of nonfiction resources there. Review copy provided by publisher.