Let your imagination listen to the great historical menagerie of presidential pets and you’ll hear the sounds of their feathered friends, like Thomas Jefferson’s mockingbirds, or Calvin Coolidge’s canaries and maybe his pet goose – OR parrots? George and Martha Washington had more than one. When President James Madison and his wife moved into the White House in 1809, so did Dolley Madison’s green and yellow macaw parrot.
Dolley was known for her fashionable turbans and often, for Polly, the big bright, squawk-ative bird on her shoulder, helping to greet her guests. And how thrilling, when high-spirited Polly swooped about the high-ceilinged rooms and dive-bombed the company! Later, she was part of the scary War of 1812 drama, when, in 1814, red-coated British soldiers torched the White House. But at least Dolley made sure they didn’t get their hands on the precious painting of President Washington, or her precious Polly.
Just months later, General Andrew Jackson led a rough, frontier army down the Mississippi River to drive the British out of New Orleans. Victorious Andy Jackson, national hero, ended up being President, from 1829 to 1837. That old soldier knew a lot of salty language and so did his pet parrot, Poll. We know this because in 1845, he attended ex-President Jackson’s funeral – at least until a shocked human carried poor Poll out of the room. Too much sad excitement had set him to squawking curse words!
At the end of the 1800s, President William McKinley amused himself by teaching his yellow-headed Mexican parrot how to whistle “Yankee Doodle.” After Mr. McKinley died of an assassin’s bullet, in 1901, former Vice President Theodore Roosevelt took office. He and First Lady Edith Roosevelt and their six children had LOTS of pets, including a big, beautiful parrot named Eli Yale. Eli was a deep blue hyacinth macaw.
There would be other presidential parrots. After all, the big worldwide parrot family has 350 species. Parakeets, for instance: John F. Kennedy’s little girl had two of them. Lyndon B. Johnson’s family kept lovebirds, little candy-colored parrots. But more than a century has passed since a big, big-beaked macaw like Polly or Poll has lived in the White House. Deep blue Eli Yale was the last - so far.
Andrew Jackson owned an African grey parrot. Wikimedia
Cockatiels, cockatoos, and large flightless kakapos are just a few of the many kinds of parrots. One of the biggest is the gentle, South American hyacinth macaw – from head to tail, more than three feet long! Wikimedia
Teddy Roosevelt with Eli Yale. Wikimedia
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "Polly Wants a President." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank,
13 Mar. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
celebrating nature, inspiring good writing
Lots of people are fond of the cartoon character called Taz. He is loud, always hungry, not very smart, and sometimes spins his body around like a little tornado. He pops up in video games and even appears in television ads.
Cartoon Taz is based on a real animal known as a Tasmanian devil. The “devils” are marsupials related to kangaroos and wombats. They used to live in Australia, but now survive only on Tasmania, an island state just south of the Australian mainland.
Tasmanian devils have black fur, short legs, and are about the size of a beagle dog or a big house cat. Long ago, people named them "devils" because of their sounds. They grunt, huff, snarl, and click their teeth but especially give out loud, fierce, blood-curdling screeches and screams.
And you know that spinning tornado thing that cartoon Taz does? It is based on the animal's actual behavior. When a Tasmanian devil is in a fight, or defending itself, it moves very rapidly. It flashes a view of its side, making itself look as big as possible. Then it quickly shows its front, with gaping mouth and teeth. Back and forth, back and forth it turns, showing two kinds of threats, and appearing to be whirling around.
Tasmanian devils fight a lot. They battle over food, and in mating season, males compete for females. This behavior has helped put their whole species in big trouble. Beginning in 1996, a disease began to kill the devils. It's a cancer that grows quickly on the faces of these mammals. When they fight, they often bite one another's face. This spreads the disease. An infected animal soon dies. In less than 20 years the whole Tasmanian devil population dropped by ninety percent.
Still, there is hope. Scientists have learned more about the disease, and perhaps a vaccine can be created to protect devils. Also, healthy devils are being kept in zoos and other places where the disease can't reach them. And scientists have learned that some wild devils in Tasmania seem able to resist the disease.
With help from people, Tasmanian devils may survive. We can hope these fascinating creatures make a comeback, and once again scream loudly in the Tasmanian night.
We have been taught to fear scorpions in any form. But scorpions usually sting either to subdue their prey or to protect themselves. In fact, Earth has two thousand scorpion species, but only a few dozen are deadly to humans. With vivid descriptions of scorpions’ life cycle, body structure, habits, and habitat and beautiful, realistic illustrations, Laurence Pringle's Scorpions! Strange and Wonderful explores one of nature’s feared and misunderstood creatures. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Pringle, Laurence. "Taz in Big Trouble." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 9
Feb. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
celebrating nature, inspiring good writing
In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and a team of men on a vital mission to explore the wild, unmapped West.
Lewis brought his dog along. According to journals kept by several of the explorers, the dog helped a lot. He retrieved animals that had been shot for food. He scared away grizzly bears, and a bull bison that charged into camp.
The old journal pages are often hard to read, and this led to a misunderstanding of the dog's name. People thought that he was called Scannon. Not until 1985 did a historian carefully examine every mention of the dog. He found that Lewis had actually named the dog Seaman. The dog was a Newfoundland, a breed often kept on ships. They are great swimmers, and could save people from drowning.
In the expedition's journals, Seaman was last mentioned in July, 1806, two months before the explorers returned from the West and reached the little town of St. Louis on the Mississippi River. After that, there is no word about the dog in letters or reports written by Lewis, Clark, or others.
The mystery of what happened to Seaman was solved in the year 2000, thanks to the work of historian James Holberg. He had found a book, written in 1814 by historian Timothy Alden, which told of a little museum in Virginia. Alden found a dog collar displayed there that William Clark had given to the museum. On the collar were these words: "The greatest traveller of my species. My name is SEAMAN, the dog of captain Meriwether Lewis, whom I accompanied to the Pacifick ocean through the interior of the continent of North America."
The collar was later destroyed by fire, but in his 1814 book Timothy Alden also wrote further details about Seaman. Historians report that after the expedition, Meriwether Lewis' life became one of failure and despair. In October 1809 he took his own life. Alden wrote that Seaman was there when Lewis was buried, and "refused to take every kind of food, which was offered to him, and actually pined away and died with grief upon his master's grave."
People who know Newfoundland dogs say that this could be true, because these dogs are fiercely loyal to their owners. Unless historians find some new evidence, that is how the life of this great dog hero ended.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition was the first American expedition to cross what is now the western portion of the United States, departing in May 1804, from near St. Louis on the Mississippi River, making their way westward through the continental divide to the Pacific coast. Seaman was along on every bit of the round trip expedition of over seven thousand miles. However, like the explorers, he traveled many of those miles on a keel boat or canoe--up the Missouri and other rivers, downstream to the Pacific Ocean, and then the return journey to St. Louis in 1806.
Laurence Pringle has written a book about Seaman. This richly detailed account of the Lewis and Clark expedition includes its planning, its adventures and discoveries, and its aftermath. With intriguing sidebars, historical illustrations, journal excerpts, and original art, this account of what became known as the Corps of Discovery features the remarkable dog that was the expedition's most unusual member. For more information click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Pringle, Laurence. "Did the Hero Dog Survive?" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 29 Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
Nature’s Animal Ambassador
Do your feet sometimes smell rotten? Do you wish you could toss out your shoes and start with a new pair? We make jokes about smelly feet, but smell and feet have a very different relationship among some insects.
Take butterflies. Have you ever watched a butterfly flit over a plant, gently touch its feet to a leaf, and then fly on to the next leaf? That butterfly isn’t being picky about where to land. It’s hunting for the right kind of leaf for laying its eggs. It’s “smelling” the leaf with its feet!
Actually, we need to qualify that statement a bit. Some writers will say the insect is “smelling” the leaf while others may write that it’s “tasting” the leaf. Smelling and tasting are forms of “chemoreception,” or sensing of chemicals. Smell usually refers to sensing from a distance while tasting generally means actually touching the nerve cells that sense a chemical.
We humans have cells in our noses that send messages to our brains about chemicals in the air. We call that our sense of smell. We have cells on our tongues that sense chemicals dissolved in liquid in our mouths. That’s taste.
That butterfly doesn’t have a nose, and its mouth is a long tube for sucking up nectar from flowers. Its chemoreceptors are elsewhere, like on its feet, around its mouth, and on its antennae. Most butterflies lay their eggs on the plants that the hatched caterpillars will eat. Some species are very specific about what plants their young can feed on. Take the postman butterfly, which lives in Central and South America. Its caterpillars can only survive on certain species of passionflower vines. Other species are poisonous to their offspring.
The female postman butterfly has dozens of special nerve cells on her feet called “gustatory sensilla.” Scientists think that when she touches gently down on a leaf, these cells can sense chemicals there that would be poisonous to her caterpillars. She avoids laying eggs on those leaves. But when she finds a plant that will nourish her young, she’ll alight and lay her eggs.
Now take your shoes off and move your feet around on the floor. The only nerve endings on your feet are ones that sense touch. But then, you don’t need to be able to smell the ground you walk on. Imagine how gross it would be if your feet could smell the insides of your socks and shoes—yuck!
A dog’s nose is 300 times more powerful than a human nose, so it’s no wonder that dogs use their incredibly advanced sense of smell to do some very important jobs. In Super Sniffers, Dorothy Hinshaw Patent explores the various ways specific dogs have put their super sniffing ability to use: from bedbug sniffers to explosive detectors to life-saving allergy detectors . . . and more. This dynamic photo-essay includes first-hand accounts from the people who work closely with these amazing dogs. For more information, click here.
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Patent, Dorothy Hinshaw. "Smelling Feet or Smelly Feet?" Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 23 Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Sonora Webster of Georgia adored horses. At age five, she even tried to swap her baby brother for one. Alas, grownups disapproved. At age nineteen, in 1923, Sonora went to the Savannah fair. There she saw a huge, deep pool of water beside a tower as tall as a four-story building. High atop was a lady in a red swimsuit and circle of spotlight. At her signal, a gray horse pounded up the ramps. The lady jumped on. The horse tossed its snowy mane and tail, leaped into space, and down into the pool! Glittering sheets of water SPLASHED the shrieking crowd. After a breathless moment, the horse rocketed UP from the depths, made its way to the arena, and the smiling lady dismounted. How Sonora clapped and cheered— for that beautiful horse!
As it happened, the elderly showman who’d invented this amazing act needed extra ladies for his popular traveling shows. He advertised in the local paper:
“Likes horses?” THIS was the job for Sonora!
As a trainer, “Doc” Carver was tough, but so was Sonora. She learned how to dive with all five of Doc’s horses, all carefully trained and cared-for. (Veterinarians checked often to see that they were.) In time, she made countless dives— and fell for Doc’s son Al. They married. After Doc died, Al took over the act, starring Sonora and the magnificent diving horses.
Sonora met her day of destiny at Atlantic City’s Steel Pier, New Jersey’s great amusement park, July 14, 1931. She hopped astride Red Lips, her favorite horse. “Red” leaped from the tower. And somehow, Sonora hit the water face first, in the instant before she closed her eyes. They stung, but how could she know that the water collision had loosened her eyeballs’ retinas? She didn’t! Soon, despite medical treatments, 27-year-old Sonora saw her vision fading away. Could she accept that her diving days were over? She wouldn’t! She might have lost her sight, but her love and trust for her brave horses? Never! They’d keep flying through the air together, thrilling and splashing audiences for the next eleven years.
Sonora Webster Carver told her story in her 1961 memoir, A Girl and Five Brave Horses, which inspired a 1991 film, Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. She died at age 99, in 2003.
Because world-traveling sharpshooter, William Frank Carver had been a dentist, such friends as “Buffalo Bill” Cody called him “Doc.” Wikimedia
Sonora and her brave diving partner. Equine Inc.
An exciting day at Steel Pier, Atlantic City, N.J. NJ com
Cheryl Harness is an illustrator as well an author, as seen by her delightful poster-like illustrations in Women Daredevils by Julia Cummins. The book offers mini biographies of ten fascinating women who risked their lives in the late 1800s and early 1900s to entertain the public.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "Splash!" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 17 Jan. 2018,