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.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Bilby Secrets

Bilby: Secrets of an Australian Marsupial
by Edel Wignell; illus. by Mark Jackson
32 pages; ages 5-9
Candlewick Press, 2014

Theme: nonfiction, endangered animals

opening: In the moonlight, Bilby canters - tail aloft like a banner - across the spiny grass and enters a steeply sloping, spiral tunnel.

This book, originally published in Australia a few years ago, introduces a shy, nocturnal animal. The bilby lives in remote arid and semi-arid areas in the northern part of Western Australia. It looks something like a rabbit, something like a possum, and something like a fluffy-tailed cat, but with strong back legs that can kick a predator and dig a burrow.

Bilbies are secretive creatures, living in burrows, hunting at night.They munch on termites, seeds, and fruit. When threatened, they can disappear from sight within three minutes. Unfortunately, they're threatened with habitat loss that could lead to permanent disappearance.

This book tells the story of a young bilby out on his own for the first time. He meets friends and foe, forages for himself, and figures out how to live in his desert world.

What I like about this book: The illustrations are warm - especially nice to look at when surrounded by ice and snow! I like that there's a forward telling about the status of bilbies, and an index at the back so we don't have to flip through the entire book for that one fact we wanted to note down.

Beyond the book: Learn more about Bilbies from the Perth Zoo (there are two videos of bilby babies).
Bilbies have been around millions of years. Here's an article about a recent find of bilby fossils.
Make a mask -even if it isn't International Bilby Day (yet - that happens in September.)

Today is STEM Friday - head over to the STEM Friday blog to see what other bloggers are reviewing. It's also PPBF (perfect picture book Friday) over at  Susanna Leonard Hill's site. She keeps an ever-growing list of Perfect Picture BooksReview copy provided by publisher.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Secret Galaxy

The Secret Galaxy
by Fran Hodgkins; photos by Mike Taylor
32 pages; ages 6-11
Tilbury House, 2014

"You might not know I'm here.... but if you look when the night is deep you'll see me stretched across the sky."

Fran Hodgkins tells the story of the sky from the galaxy's point of view, starting with the Greeks. To them, the night sky looked as though someone had spilled milk. 

What they didn't see is how our galaxy whirls in a spiral. We are on one arm. "But don't worry," says the galaxy in a soothing voice. "Gravity holds everything together." So we won't go spinning off into the void.

Hodgkins combines lyrical prose with fact-filled sidebars that, combined with Mike Taylor's gorgeous photos, take us out of this world. We learn how stars are born and how they die. We meet a black hole and contemplate dark matter. There are a few answers and a lot of questions and in the end you'll want to head outside and look at the sky.

Fortunately, winter is a good time for galaxy-viewing - at least here in the northeast. The crisp night air makes the stars stand out brighter, especially on moonless nights. Best of all, hot cocoa tastes twice as good after a short star hike.

Today is STEM Friday. Head over to the STEM Friday blog to see what other bloggers are reviewing. Review copy provided by publisher.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Big Red Kangaroo

Big Red Kangaroo
By Claire Saxby; illus. by Graham Byrne
32 pages; ages 5-8
Candlewick Press, 2014

It’s cold here in upstate New York. Cold enough to have me dreaming of earth-baked sand and warm breezes. Which makes this book a perfect choice for today – especially as the illustrations are rendered in warm oranges, yellows, and reds.

Red kangaroo lives in the center of Australia, where it’s summer now. He is the leader of a mob – that’s what you call a group a females, joeys, and young males. As dusk falls, Red leads his mob in search of breakfast.

Author Claire Saxby takes us into a day with Red and his mob. Along the way she offers insights into kangaroo culture. We learn that kangaroo tails aid balance – but also act as rudders when you’re hopping full speed ahead. We meet wallaroos, thorny devils, and large lizards called goannas. We avoid dingoes and watch Red fight off a male who challenges his dominance.

This is a great book to pair with Winnie-the-Pooh – especially when you read about Kanga and Roo. For one thing, kids will discover that there are more than 60 different species of kangaroo. Even cooler: their family name is macropod, which means “big foot”. Back matter includes an author’s note and an index.

Today is STEM Friday. Head over to the STEM Friday blog to see what other bloggers are reviewing. Review copy provided by publisher.