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/
Who doesn’t like penguins? Their waddling gait is fun to watch. They have little fear of humans so it’s easy to get next to them. Penguin movies such as Happy Feet and The Penguins of Madagascar are box office hits.
World Penguin Day on April 25 focuses attention on these loveable flightless fowl. Some people dress up in black and white clothing. Many read books about penguins or watch penguin movies.
I was fortunate to get up close and personal to thousands of penguins during a trip to Antarctica. As our ship neared the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula—the closest point to the southern tip of South America which had been our departure point—we marveled at how effortlessly they skimmed through the water beside us. Soon we marveled at another characteristic. We were at least two or three miles offshore when the harsh odor of the poop generated by all those penguins wafted over the ship.
We relished the opportunity to go ashore and wander through their rookeries. There were lots of juveniles, covered with gray fuzz that would eventually fall off and be replaced by their characteristic black and white plumage. None of them seemed to mind our presence.
But we had several harsh reminders that we weren’t in a zoo. Several century-old stone huts provided shelter for explorers who slaughtered hundreds of penguins to eat during the long, harsh Antarctic winters. Skuas, nasty predatory birds, routinely feed on penguin chicks. We saw the discarded remains of several skua meals. Danger can also come from the depths. A couple of times we observed large seals relaxing on ice floes with bright red stains next to them.
The saddest sight came one afternoon when we took a Zodiac inflatable boat to shore. A penguin stood forlornly on top of a small ice floe, a leopard seal thrashing the water next to it. We asked our guide if we could rescue the doomed bird. He shook his head. “The water is too rough,” he said. “Too much chance of falling in if anyone tried to step out onto the floe. And you don’t want to be anywhere near an angry half-ton leopard seal that feels his dinner is being taken away from him.”
On our way back to the ship, there was no sign of the lone penguin. We had to accept that we couldn’t interfere in the natural course of things.
All images ©Jen Goode
Jim Whiting has written more than 100 titles and edited another 150 or so, with subjects ranging from authors to zoologists and including classical musicians and contemporary pop icons, saints and scientists, emperors and explorers. Many of his books have received glowing reviews.
He's also ventured into a number of classrooms and served as a presenter at writers' conferences, conveying the enthusiasm for writing and for a good story that still animates him. Check out his work here.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "World Penguin Day." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 25 Apr.
the "Julia Child" of kids' hands-on science
I’m often asked where I get my ideas for books. Let me give you an example:
The other day, when I was walking in a neighborhood park, there was a man doing whole-body lifts on a piece of exercise equipment with a huge, brilliantly–colored parrot on his shoulder. It was so unusual that, without thinking, I called out: “What a beautiful bird! May I take your picture?” I was full of questions so we chatted for a while.
Me: “What kind of bird is that?”
Scotty, the parrot-man: “She’s a green-winged macaw.”
Me: “What’s her name? How old is she?”
Scotty: “Her name is Lucky. She’s 2 ½ years old but she can live more than 60 years. She’s a vegetarian, like me. Her beak is a nut-cracker. ”
Lucky repeatedly kissed Scotty on the lips with her giant hooked beak as he turned to talk to her. She had been an expensive gift to him—they cost about $1500 at Bird Jungle, our local bird store. She couldn’t fly because he kept her wings clipped; it’s dangerous for a 2 ½ pound bird to be able to fly around the house. He had given her a bath that morning. She had communicated that she wanted one by putting her head under the faucet and looking at him.
“Why did she want a bath?” I asked. “Was she dirty?”
Scotty wasn’t sure why, except that it rains every day in her natural habitat—the rain forest. Then he pointed out a new feather on her neck. It was encased in a white sheath. A bath makes the sheath fall off and the feather fluffs up. Maybe that feels like undoing a pony tail
This is often how I get ideas for books. I find something interesting and start asking questions. Of course, I paid a visit to Bird Jungle. What a noisy store! There I found more people to interview. It’s amazing how much you can learn from people who are experts.
After a while I ran out of questions. That’s because I didn’t know enough to keep going. How can I remedy that? Go read a book or two about green-winged macaws and other rain forest birds. It could lead to a book idea about the rain forest like: This Place Is Wet.
When I write, I don’t write just about content. I write what interests me about content. There’s a big difference.
Vicki made a trip to the Amazon rain forest with her good friend, Alaskan artist, Barbara Lavallee. You can find out what they learned there by reading This Place Is Wet. For more information about the book, click here.
Vicki Cobb is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through FieldTripZoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Cobb, Vicki. "I Met a Man about a Parrot." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 18 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
I-Met-a-Man-About-a-Parrot. Accessed 18 Dec. 2017.