Picture this: It’s cold gray October 1918 in France, in the Argonne Forest. World War I has been going on for four hideous, deadly years. You and about 500 of your fellow Americans are smack in the middle of a MASSIVE battle. You’re running out of food and ammo. Shells are EXPLODING all around you and some of them are American! Those guys don’t know where you and your buddies are, trapped in a hillside valley, surrounded by enemy Germans!
How can Major Charles Whittlesey, the commander of this lost battalion, let those other Americans know where his unit is? They’re cut off from the telegraph wires; so what, wave a flag? That’ll just draw more enemy fire! The messengers he’d sent had been shot or captured. How about homing pigeons? In this awful war, more than a 100,000 of them were used to carry battlefield messages. The major had sent all but one of his pigeons only to see them shot out of the sky. Finally, the desperate officer calls for his last one, named Cher Ami, the French words for Dear Friend.
Major Whittlesey scribbles out a message: “We are along the road parallel to 276.4.Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.” He rolls the scrap of paper, stuffs it into the tiny silver canister attached to Cher Ami’s leg, and sends him up and away. This pigeon has flown 11 successful missions— will he make it now? He must!
The Germans fire.
Cher Ami falls! He’s hit!
But he beats and flaps his wings, gains altitude, and flies 25 miles. Despite being blinded in one eye and shot in his bloodied breast, Cher Ami delivers the critical message, still attached to his leg, dangling by a bloody tendon. And 194 American soldiers are saved by their brave dear, feathered friend. For his heroic service, Cher Ami was awarded France’s highest medal, le Croix de Guerre (the Cross of War).
In the months after the war ended, on November 11, 1918, ocean liners carried Cher Ami and many thousands of other veterans to America. He continued to be treated, but in the end, his injuries were too serious. Cher Ami died on June 13, 1919.
Back in the USA, Major Charles Whittlesey gave speeches about the war. He said nothing about any sorrow or awful memories, so no one knows just why he jumped off a ship to his death in the sea, late one night in November 1921. But the memory of soldiers’ heroism and of one bird’s stubborn courage will never die.
Cheryl's Latest book is Flags Over America. Click here to find out more about the book or click here to find out more about the author.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "Dear Friend." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 8 01 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/dear-friend.
Weaving Tales from the Web of Life
Today is World Migratory Bird Day—a holiday designed to celebrate the many birds that travel our globe. Why do birds migrate? Why don’t they just stay in the same place all year long? There are many reasons…warmer weather, better nesting sites, and more plentiful food are just a few.
Some birds travel very short distances. One example is North America's dusky grouse. This bird spends its winter in mountainous pine forests. In the spring, it “migrates” a mere 1,000 feet in elevation to deciduous woodlands. Here it feeds on seeds and fresh leaves.
And then there are birds that travel very long distances. One world traveler is the Arctic tern. This bird migrates an astonishing 44,000 miles annually from the Arctic to Antarctica and back again. And finally there are birds that travel distances in between those two extremes, like the turtle dove. This bird migrates about 8,000 miles a year.
You might wonder how scientists know where birds go, and how they get such accurate data about the birds’ migrations. They do this by tracking birds using satellite telemetry. Birds are fitted with small satellite tags. These tags transmit information about their journeys to scientists via orbiting satellites. You can sometimes see these satellites on dark nights. They look like tiny stars moving very slowly across the sky.
An environmental organization called the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) fitted a turtle dove named Titan with a satellite tag. Titan’s tag had a tiny satellite transmitter, a battery, and a solar panel to keep the battery charged.
Using this technology, scientists were able to track three of Titan’s migrations. The first was in the fall. Titan flew from a nesting site in Suffolk, England down to his wintering site in Mali, in West Africa. The second was in the spring when Titan migrated back to Suffolk, England, to the very site where he was originally found! The third was in the fall when he migrated back to Mali again. After that trip, the scientists lost track of Titan.
Let’s celebrate World Migratory Bird Day by learning more about migratory birds and what we can do to help protect them. Click here to view some actual turtle dove migrations.
Madeleine Dunphy has written a book based on the migration of a real turtle dove that traveled 4,000 miles from England to Mali, in West Africa. To find out more about The Turtle Dove’s Journey: A Story of Migration click here.
Many people think vultures are disgusting. Yes, they eat dead, rotting animals. Yes, they can smell pretty bad. And yes, they can vomit at will… and even use that as a self-defense mechanism if necessary. But vultures are very interesting—and important—creatures.
Most vultures live together in families or other groups. Male and female vultures are often monogamous, meaning they will stay with the same partner year after year. Vultures lay one or two eggs at a time, and the parents take turns sitting on the eggs for five to eight weeks to incubate them. After the eggs hatch, both of the vulture parents help nurture their offspring.
Vultures must bring food for their young chicks. Whether it’s an animal that died from natural causes, one that was killed by predators, or even one that ended up as roadkill, vultures eat food wherever they can find it. The vulture parents eat their fill, then fly back to the nest and regurgitate the food into their chick’s throats. Vomiting at will comes in handy once again!
Both vulture parents will care for the chicks until they are able to fly. Then, they’ll teach the young vultures how to find their own food and take care of themselves. Some young vultures will eventually go off on their own, but most choose to join the group and stay near their parents.
That’s not all that’s fascinating about vultures, though. Ever wonder how they can eat all that gross stuff and not get sick? Well, vultures have special, super-strong stomach acids that kill all kinds of bacteria. And that’s great news for us, because if they didn’t get rid of all those rotting corpses, we’d have a much more disgusting—and dangerous—problem on our hands.
So remember, they may not look or smell very nice, but vultures are highly social animals who depend on one another for survival. And we depend on them, too, to be nature’s cleanup crew. Vultures aren’t vulgar… they’re vital!
A wake of white-backed vultures eating the carcass of a wildebeest. A group of vultures is called a kettle, committee, or wake. The term kettle refers to vultures in flight, while committee refers to vultures resting on the ground or in trees. Wake is reserved for a group of vultures that are feeding. Wikimedia
Authors Ammi-Joan Paquette and Laurie Ann Thompson have teamed up to create a series of sneaky stories about the natural world designed to amaze, disgust, and occasionally bamboozle you. Every story in this book is strange and astounding, but one out of every three is an outright lie. Some false stories are based on truth, and some of the true stories are just plain unbelievable! Don’t be fooled by the photos that accompany each story—it’s going to take all your smarts and some clever research to root out the alternative facts. Don’t believe everything you read!
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
Nature’s Animal Ambassador
The question “how smart are animals?” has puzzled many people for generations. Scientist Irene Pepperberg became intrigued with this problem after viewing NOVA TV programs about communication studies in apes and dolphins. Trained as a chemist, Irene decided then and there that her true passion was actually animal intelligence, not chemistry.
Irene plunged into learning what was already known and the revolutionary ideas of scientists who were changing how people thought about animals. At that time, in the early 1970s, people thought that animals didn’t think and make decisions but merely responded moment by moment to their environments. But researchers working with apes and dolphins were overturning that concept and showing that indeed, animals could think, solve problems, and act intelligently about what they had learned.
What about birds, Irene wondered? She had kept pet parakeets and knew they were smart and could learn to speak at least a few words. . She decided to study an African Grey parrot, a popular pet that can learn to pronounce words especially well.
She bought a young parrot, named him Alex, and got to work. To probe Alex’s mind, Irene needed to teach him to use words to describe his world. This took long, patient training. After a few years Alex could name objects and foods, such as a key, a piece of wood, or a banana. He also learned several colors, and soon could label an object by both its label and color, such as identifying “green key” or “yellow corn.” He learned to distinguish whether an object was made of wood, paper, or rawhide, and could distinguish shapes such as “three-cornered” or “four-corner.”
Alex also used his vocabulary to express his own desires. In the middle of an experimental session he might say “Want nut,” or “Wanna go shoulder.”
As the years passed, Alex kept learning. If Irene presented him with a tray of items of different numbers and colors—say 2 green keys, 4 blue keys, and 6 red keys—he could correctly answer the question “What color four?”
By the time he died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2007, Alex had learned more than 100 labels and showed understanding of many concepts. When people asked Irene why Alex was special, she’d reply, “Because a bird with a brain the size of a shelled walnut could do the kinds of things that young children do. And that changed our perception of what we mean by ‘bird brain.’ It changed the way we think about animal thinking.”
Alex isn't the only bird Dorothy has written about. This book explores a University of Montana research project using blood samples from osprey chicks to investigate the effects of heavy metal refuse from mining on the ecology of the Clark Fork River.
To learn more about The Call of the Osprey, go 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. "Alex the Parrot, a Real Bird Brain." Nonfiction
Minute, iNK Think Tank, 15 May 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/
Dogs depend on us for friendship, food, and shelter. But wild animals run from people. They don’t turn to humans for help in getting out of trouble. Or do they? Until recently, most scientists thought animals could not think through multiple steps to solve problems. They believed only people could do that. But research into animal behavior shows this is not true. At least some animals think through their problems and come up with possible solutions.
Take a young, wild raven, in Elmsdale, Nova Scotia, for example. In 2013, Gertie Cleary spied the bird perched on a fence—with porcupine quills stuck in its wing and face. Porcupine quills are barbed, like a fish hook. And they really hurt. So Cleary slipped on a pair of gloves before approaching the bird. Now you might think the raven would get scared and fly away. But not this bird. This bird wanted help. It screeched in pain each time Cleary plucked out a quill. But it sat still and let her do it. “When I pulled the one out of his wing,” Cleary says, “he fell off the fence I pulled it so hard.” Once quill-free, the raven flew away.
A real-life mother goose went a step further. When one of her goslings got tangled up in a balloon string, she “called” the cops by pecking on the door of a police cruiser parked nearby. When the curious cops got out of their vehicle, she led them straight to her helpless baby.
My family and I also encountered a bird in trouble. We were walking on a nature trail when the bushes suddenly erupted with chirping. We stopped, and the chirping increased. Looking closely, we found a sparrow stuck on a thistle bush! It was hanging upside down. We felt like heroes when we freed the little creature and watched it fly away.
Birds aren’t the only animals that ask for help. In Fairfax, California, a deer approached a police car and stared at the officer inside until he noticed her broken leg. On a scorching hot day, in Adelaide, Australia, a thirsty koala begged a group of cyclists for a drink of water. And on a nature reserve, in South Africa, a desperate mother giraffe led a wildlife guide to her injured calf. In every case, kind humans helped.
Maybe someday you will rescue an animal and save a life. Wouldn’t that be great?
A baby bird in trouble— has another bird gone for help? Photo by Aline Alexander Newman
A desperate koala approaches humans, letting them know he needs liquid.
A giraffe mother was willing to ask for human help in order to save her baby.
For more stories of remarkable kitties, check out Aline Alexander Newman’s new book, CAT TALES. In it, you’ll meet Millie, the adventurous cat who rock climbs with her owner; Pudditat, who acts as a “seeing eye” cat for the family dog; Leo, a lion who changed the life of one family forever; and 20 other charming cats that will pounce into your heart. Personalized copies of CAT TALES and Aline’s other books are available at www.alinealexandernewman.com.
Aline is also a member of Authors on Call. Bring her into your classroom via interactive video conferencing. Here’s where you can learn more about her and her programs.
MLA 8 Citation
Newman, Aline Alexander. "Do Animals Ask for Help?" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 9 May 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
For Vicki Cobb's BLOG (nonfiction book reviews, info on education, more), click here: Vicki's Blog
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