Who Ate Our Food?

As part of our Mammal Study this month we learned that we don’t always get to see the animals in the wild. Sometimes we have to look for the signs an animals has been in the area. One of the easiest ways is to look for animal tracks! So, we set up a field experiment to see if we could identify which animals live in our forest. Grab your Wildlife Tracks Field Guide and see which ones you can identify!

First, we set out bait to attract animals to the area. The bait was placed in the middle of a pile of smoothed sand to make it easier to see the tracks. Then we left it overnight and checked it again in the morning. What foods did we use? Why did we use both meat and plants?

First animals to arrive on the scene! Unfortunately, they aren’t mammals!

Here is the 5 year old class site. The food is gone! The sand has been dug up. And notice the hula hoop? It was missing! It was dragged into the woods about 7 feet away. I wonder if the mammal was hula-hooping in the woods? ūüôā

The 6-7 year old class only had one piece of carrot left on it. Check out all the tracks!


The 8-9 class added acorns to their bait. These tracks appear to be smaller. You can clearly see toe marks.

Last site belongs to the 10-12 year old class. In addition to turkey meat and carrots, they added peanut butter and granola bars! There were tracks every where!

The 10-12 year old class set up a game camera to see if we could snap a picture of our late night visitors. Our camera is motioned sensored and has night vision making it perfect for our bait sites. And guess who we saw on it?

Coyotes!! We were so excited to see them checking out the area. But, we wondered who else was coming to dinner? There were lots of prints of different shapes and sizes that we still needed to identify. So, we moved the game camera over to the compost bin nearby. What mammals do you think came to snack on leftover food?




Wait? Mr. Justin?!? Well, he is a mammal!


A few reminders!

Just a quick reminder that we do not have Home School classes this Monday, November 20th. We will return on Monday, November 27th to finish up our Mammal Study unit! It will be an awesome class as we learn about mammal tracks and other signs of mammal activity. AND we will see if any animals came to visit our bait sites! I think the game camera might have picked up a few pictures of an animal…..I wonder which one it is?

Who left their prints behind at this site?

For December, we still have a few spots open in the¬†10/12 year olds classes. If you haven’t already registered, please do so soon! Registration for those classes will close on Friday, December 1st.

And I know many of you are anxiously awaiting the Spring Semester’s registration. It will open up around mid-December. PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE make sure your Membership is up to date! We will send out an email for early registration for our members, but you will only receive it if your membership is current. Not sure when your’s expires? Email our Registrar at cspade@houstonarboretum.org for help.

Questions? Comments? Contact Patti Bonnin at pbonnin@houstonarboretum.org.

Thank you, and have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday!

Happy Fall!



Amazing Mammals!

What Makes a Mammal a Mammal?

So we all know that mammals are animals. But ladybugs, snakes, and hawks are also animals. We know all mammals are vertebrates (have a backbone). But birds and reptiles have vertebrae, too. Mammals are also warm-blooded. Oh wait, birds are also warm-blooded. So what makes a mammal unique? What are the characteristics that help us define what mammals are?

  • They are animals (clearly not a plant!)
  • They have a backbone.
  • They are warm-blooded.
  • They have a four chambered heart.
  • They have hair or fur.
  • They produce milk to feed their young using a special mammary gland.
  • All mammals (except for 2 species) give birth to live young.
  • They have a diaphragm which is a muscle between the lungs and the abdomen. The diaphragm works with your lungs to help you inhale and exhale air.

Cool Mammal Facts

There are over 5,400 species of mammals in the world! How many can you name?

Which species of mammals have the biggest population? Us! There are over 7 billion humans on earth! Whew!

When most people think of mammals, they think of 4 legged furry creatures running around. But did you know not all mammals live on land? Whales and dolphins are marine mammals that live in the ocean! Some mammals can even fly! Bats are the only mammals with the ability to take flight.

Rodents are the largest order of Mammals, with over 1,500 species identified. Some of their species include mice, rats, hamsters, beavers, squirrels, prairie dogs, and chipmunks, just to name a few. Can you guess the second largest order of mammals? Bats! There are over 1,200 species of bats.

source: wikipedia.com

The blue whale (Balaennoptera musculus) isn’t just the largest of the mammal species, it is actually the largest of any animal on Earth. It can grow up to 100 feet long and weigh as much as 300,000 pounds. They are also the loudest animals! A blue whale’s cries can be heard up to 1,000 miles away. (Watch a video about blue whales here.)

Blue whale swimming in the ocean. source: National Geographic

One of the smallest of the mammal species is the Kitti’s hog-nosed bat (Craseonycteris thonglongyai), also called the bumblebee bat due to it’s tiny size. Bumblebee bat’s bodies are usually no longer than an inch long, and weigh around 2 grams (about the same as a couple of paperclips). But don’t let their small size fool you – these guys are predators! At night, they fly around catching and eating insects mid-air. They will also consume spiders!



Pick 2 or 3 mammals to learn more about. Maybe you want to learn about a flying bat, a swimming sea otter, a tunneling prairie dog, or a pokey porcupine. National Geographic’s Mammals page is a great resource to check out. Once your research is complete, make a poster of your animal. What does it look like? Draw what type of habitat it lives in (rainforest, ocean, desert, etc). What does it eat? What are some cool facts about it?


Visit the Houston Zoo to learn more about the mammals who reside there.

Bird Behavior

There are several different ways you can identify birds. You can look at their size, shape, and colors. You can listen for their calls. You can even identify them by their behavior. For instance, a bald eagle will fly with their wings out flat while a turkey vulture will have a slight “V” shape to their wings. Some birds fly in a straight line flapping their wings constantly while other prefer to soar in circles. American goldfinches will flock together, flycatchers will dart out at insects, cardinals will feed in shrubs, and crows will mob other birds to scare them off for their potential prey.

Green heron fishing – photo credit Christine Mansfield

Birds often have their own unique ways for flying, sitting, moving, and acting. Studying these behaviors have helped scientists learn more about the different species, their migration patterns, and the changes to their ranges and habitats.

Female cardinal splashing in the bath

Below are some common behaviors you might find birds doing. Your challenge this week? Go outside and see how many different bird behaviors you can find! Then, act out as many of them as you can!

Bird Behaviors 

preening (cleaning their feathers)






calling  (sounding an alarm, looking for others, courting, calling for mom)

bathing (water baths, dust baths, ant baths, sun bathing)

feeding (foraging, hunting, drinking, dipping, scavenging)


movement (climbing, wading, swimming, hopping, running, diving)

nest building (stick nests, mud nests, cliff nests, tree cavities, rock piles, burrows)

courting (dances, displaying tail feathers, marching)


Check out these videos of different birds behaviors!

Spotted Sandpiper waggling his tail –¬†https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LqJqQjui55I

Red-capped manakin courting dance –¬†https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o42C6ajjqWg

Black capped chickadees at feeder –¬†https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SsYd5UqIGyo

Black skimmers – shore birds –¬†https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XxC6BIzAtGk

Meet Cookie!

We had a special guest this week to help us learn about birds!

Meet Cookie!

Cookie is an African grey parrot who belongs to one of our Staff Naturalists, Ms. Lois. African greys (Psittacus erithacus) are medium sized, dusty-gray looking parrots with black beaks, pale yellow eyes, and a brilliant red tail. African grey parrots are most famous for their intelligence and their talking ability. Their ability to mimic human speech makes them a favorite among avian pet owners. They are fun and gentle birds who like to have their intelligence challenged with puzzle toys and foraging.

Food: Fruit, seeds, and nuts. Cookie’s favorite treats are apples!

Life expectancy: They can live for over 50 years.  Cookie is currently 6 years old.

Range: Widely distributed across African tropical forests.

Habitat: They are found mostly in forests, along clearings or edges. They can also be found in mangrove forests, Savannah woodlands, or on offshore islands that contain oil-palm trees they like to eat.

Current Status: Listed as “Vulnerable” on the¬†IUCN Red List due¬†mostly to loss of habitat of nesting trees and capture for illegal pet trade.


Silly bird! Cookie likes to perch on top of the whiteboards.


About to take flight!


Tiger Beetle Masks

So you may be curious about the mask the students made this week. They are tiger beetles! These voracious little eaters are actually predators who eat a wide range of garden pests like ants, caterpillars, flies, grasshoppers, and even spiders! This makes them a great addition to your garden for natural pest control.

There are over 2000 species of tiger beetles worldwide, with over 100 species living here in North America. They come in a variety of colors including grayish brown, violet, orange and black, or even the brilliant green color that we modeled our masks after. Tiger beetles are approximately 1/2 inch long, with 3 body parts and 6 spindly legs. Adult tiger beetles have long antennae, large bulging eyes, and pointed mandibles used to grab and eat their prey!

 Close up of a green tiger beetle

These fierce hunters get their names from how they stalk and attack their prey. While waiting for the unsuspecting victim to come by, they will crouch down like a tiger. As the prey gets closer, they lunge out and pounce on it! Their strong mandibles grab the prey and hold it tight while consuming it.

Green tiger beetle with insect larva prey


So, who eats these beetles you ask? Spiders, dragonflies, and vertebrates like toads and lizards will prey on them.

Do this activity at home:

Ask your student to make a garden food chain or food web that includes the tiger beetle. Start with a producer (there are tons of them in gardens!) and end with decomposer!

Ms. Patti’s 6/7 class of tiger beetles!


Mr. Justin and the 8/9 class making their masks
10/12 class showing off their metallic masks!
10/12 class showing off their metallic masks!
Showing us how the mandibles work to grab their prey!

Who eats who?

When you live in the wild it is important to know what you can and can’t eat in order for you to survive. It is equally important to know who is trying to eat you! In an ecosystem the animal that does the hunting is called a predator. The animal that is being hunted for food is called the prey. A food chain shows how all living things get their food, and how nutrients and energy are passed from organism to organism. ¬†Food chains always start with the sun shining down. The plants will use the sunlight to create their own food. ¬†Some animals will then eat those plants for energy, while other animals will eat animals. Once a plant or animals dies, decomposers will start to break down the dead matter, returning the nutrients back into the soil. And the food chain starts over again!

Here is an activity to make your own food chain: Take Home_Food Chain Mobile

Questions to think about:

  • Is a coyote a predator or prey? Why?
  • Is a swamp rabbit a predator or prey? Why?
  • Can an animal be both a predator and a prey? How?
  • Where do plants get their energy from?
  • What are herbivores, carnivores, and omnivores? Give an example of each.
  • Draw an example of a food chain in two different ecosystems (for example: one in a forest and one in the ocean).

This Month’s Vocabulary Words:

  • Predator – animal who hunts other animals for food
  • Prey – the animal being hunted
  • Producer – a plant that uses energy from the sun to make it’s own food
  • Consumer – an animal who obtains their energy be eating other organisms
  • Decomposer – an organism that breaks down dead or decaying matter
  • Food Chain – describes who eats who in the wild. It shows the transfer of energy from one organism to another.

We are ready for you!

Home School returns next Monday, September 11th! 

The Houston Arboretum and Nature Center is open and ready for Home Schoolers! We made it through Hurricane Harvey with minimal damage, and we hope you did, too! The semester is kicking off with Eat or Be Eaten! Come join us as we study the relationship between predator and prey!

Here are the teachers:

  • 5 year olds – Ms. Lois in classroom D
  • 6-7 year olds – Ms. Patti in classroom A
  • 8-9 year olds – Mr. Justin in classroom B
  • 10-12 year olds – Ms. Tiffany in classroom C

We do still have a few spots open in the 5, 8-9, and 10-12 classes. Please share with anyone you think might be interested. Registration for this month will close this Friday at 12pm. 

Just a couple of reminders! 

  • Classes are from 1pm-3pm.
  • Closed-toe shoes must be worn
  • Prepare for the weather – jackets or rain coats if needed
  • Bring a bottle of water
  • Mosquitos will be bad this year due to all of the rain. We suggest spraying mosquito repellent before coming to class since we will be outside for each class.
  • Be sure to check the blog throughout the week to look for take home activities and pictures from class!

    Five lined skink

Questions? Contact Patti Bonnin at pbonnin@houstonarboretum.org or at 713-366-0376.

We look forward to seeing everyone next week!


Fall 2017 Schedule – Registration is OPEN!

Hello Home Schoolers!

I hope you have all been enjoying your summer! We have had a busy summer at the Arboretum, and can’t wait to get back to our Home School Classes! We already have a ton of registrations for the Fall semester, so I know you guys are excited to come back, too!

Here is our schedule for this semester:

September 11, 18, 25 – Eat or Be Eaten

October 9, 16, 30 – Bird Life

November 6, 13, 27 – Mammal Study

December 4, 11, 18 – Forest Rangers

We still have a few spots open! if you have not already registered, please do so now! (6/7 classes are full).

Questions about our Home School Program? Contact Patti Bonnin at pbonnin@houstonarboretum.org or visit our website at http://www.HoustonArboretum.org for more information!