Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Winter Field Trips
Nature Bulletin No. 508-A    November 24, 1973
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

In winter, our woodlands and prairies give an altogether different impression from other seasons. Their mood is one of quiet waiting and sleep.

Now is the time to plan a school trip into the out-of-doors to see how wild living things spend the cold months. Whether it is only a hike to some nearby park, meadow or vacant lot for an hour, or whether you take a bus and spend the day in some forest preserve, a little planning and preparation will make your trip a success regardless of the weather. Be sure to wear warm clothing and shoes or galoshes that will keep your feet dry and comfortable. Take along a few wide-mouthed jars, baskets, plastic bags and cardboard boxes in which to carry collections back to school for later study. The secret of winter comfort in the open is to keep moving.

In winter, abandoned birds' nests are easy to find in leafless trees, shrubs, vines and weed patches. They should be carefully removed, sometimes with the twig or weed supporting them, and carried back to school in a box or basket. There they can be sprayed with liquid plastic so they can be handled without shattering. The nests of each kind of bird can be recognized from the nest materials and style of building.

A few of the most commonly seen native birds that spend the winter in the Chicago region are the crow, blue jay, cardinal, junco, titmouse, nuthatch, chickadee and the downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers. Keep a list of the kinds and approximate numbers of these, and any others, seen on your trip. In suburban Cook County and the less crowded parts of the city, some or all of these birds can often be attracted to homes or school grounds by feeding in winter. Suet, drippings, peanut butter, sunflower seed, cracked corn and nuts are best.

Bring back a collection of wild seeds, burs and berries. Try to learn which kinds are eaten by birds and which are not. Plant a few kinds in pots to see what comes up.

A rotten log offers food and shelter to an abundance of life, both plant and animal, for years and years before finally returning to the forest soil. Each year some tenants move out and others move in: beetles, ants, flies, bees, spiders, sowbugs, centipedes, millipedes, slugs, snails, earthworms, salamanders, mice, shrews, molds, mushrooms, fungi -- and often several kinds of each. Find a rotten stump or log and tear it apart, piece by piece, to see how many kinds of these you can recognize. Take a chunk of this rotten wood back to school to see what crawls out when it warms up.

Mosses and lichens thrive during the cold months while other plants are dormant. A moss garden can be made by covering the bottom of a shallow dish or pie tin with pieces of the different sorts, then keeping it moist. A simple way to start a sealed terrarium is merely to put a quart of rich damp soil in a clean wide-mouthed gallon jar, screw the lid on tight and set it near a window. That's all. Soon, dormant seeds already in the soil will sprout and grow into a miniature enclosed world with its own weather and cycle of life.

Half fill another such gallon jar with pond water and drop into it a handful of sunken leaves, twigs or water weeds from the pond. Let it stand uncovered. Within a few days it will teem with tiny crawling, swimming, skipping animals. Watch them with a reading glass or hand lens.

Imagine you were in there with them.

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