Stephen R. Swinburne
I really like vultures. Sure, they’re ugly and they eat nasty dead things. But those are not necessarily bad characteristics.
First let’s deal with “ugly.” Vultures’ bald heads are what make them seem ugly to most people. But think about why they’re bald. Imagine thrusting your head inside the carcass of a white-tailed deer to reach the meat. A feathered head might capture bits of flesh, blood and gore and you end up with a face full bacteria and flies. Scientists believe that one reason vultures have evolved featherless heads is to aid in hygiene. A bald head stays clean and any remaining germs or bacteria are baked off by the sun. Vultures have also found that a bald head can help with temperature regulation. When it gets cold they can tuck their heads down to keep their neck covered with feathers. When it’s hot, vultures can extend their neck to expose bare skin. Their bald heads work so well that I wrote a poem about them.
It’s best to have no feathers,
When you stick your head in guts,
That way you don’t go walkin’ round,
Your noggin dripping schmutz.
Moving on to “eating nasty dead things,” the next time you see vultures eating a dead animal on the side of the road, be thankful! That carcass might be dead from rabies or contaminated with other harmful diseases. Vultures have the amazing ability to consume rotting and diseased flesh and stay healthy. It’s all in the stomach. Vultures possess very powerful stomach acids that destroy most bacteria and deadly viruses. In fact, vulture stomach acid is so strong it can dissolve metal! Except if that metal is lead shot -- many turkey vultures are killed every year by consuming shot that they encounter in dead deer. Vultures are the world’s natural “sanitation workers,” helping to stop the spread of disease.
I’m so appreciative of the work they do, I even wrote a poem about eating dead things:
I like my meat dead,
It’s best if it’s not moving.
Don’t want to see one final twitch,
I prefer it oozing
So, the next time you see a vulture circling in the noonday sky, think about the valuable and important clean up service this bird provides to us and to the environment. Maybe I’ll write a poem about that….
Steve Swinburne is a science writer, but as you can see from this Minute, he likes to write poetry too. In his book Ocean Soup, he offers verses in the voices of tide-pool animals, including the barnacle, sea urchin, sculpin, mussel, starfish, hermit crab, anemone, and lobster. For more about Steve's poetry, click here.
Steve Swinburne 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
Swinburne, Stephen R. "In Praise of Vultures." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 8 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/ In-Praise-Of-Vultures.
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
Nature’s Animal Ambassador
Have you heard about the “butterfly effect,” the idea that one small change can bring about big changes over time? This idea is important in the study of ecology, which deals with the interactions of living things and their environments. Each element of an ecosystem has its place. When one element is eliminated, it affects everything else.
The Yellowstone ecosystem centered in Yellowstone National Park provides a great example. Late in the 20th century, biologists were worried about the aspen trees there. Aspens occur in clusters that are actually clones growing up from shared root systems. Some of the Yellowstone clones were hundreds of years old, but the old, dying trees weren’t being replaced by strong young shoots. It looked like they might just die out, and no one was sure why.
When a severe drought in 1988 led to big wildfires in the park, the idea that fire might stimulate aspen growth proved wrong. Perhaps the elimination of wolves from the region in the early 20th century was to blame. Wolves? New trees? How could that be? Without wolves, the behavior of the Yellowstone elk had changed. No predators. No worry. So the elk became lazy, acting like cows, lying around in shaded areas along the rivers and creeks, munching contentedly on the juicy fresh growth of the willows and aspens.
In 1995, after much political battling, wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone. The wolf population grew and the elk learned to be on the alert. As the wolves’ favorite food, the elk had to change their behavior to survive—no more relaxing by a stream where wolves could easy sneak up and make a meal of them! They had to move around and spend more time in open places where watching for hungry wolves was far easier.
The wolves are changing the Yellowstone landscape in positive ways. The aspens and willows are coming back. Beavers, which had almost disappeared from some parts of the park, are returning. These rodents feed on aspens and willows and use them to build their dams and lodges. Beaver dams create ponds, and the ponds provide homes for hundreds of species of plants and animals, from algae and water striders to ducks and muskrats. The willows and aspen trees around the pond are nesting sites for songbirds and homes for insects and spiders, all thanks to the wolf.
Welcome back, wolves!
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent's book, When the Wolves Returned: Restoring Nature's Balance in Yellowstone, is an IRA/CBC Teachers' Choices book, an ALA Notable Children's Book, A Book Sense Pick, and an Outstanding Science Trade Book for Children, as well as receiving the Orbis Pictus Honor Book Award. Booklist calls it "A great choice for elementary units about science and environmental protection," and Kirkus gave it a starred review. Click here to read the reviews.
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. "Everything Is Connected: The Butterfly Effect and the
Wolf." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 27 Mar. 2018,
When I take a big bite into a hamburger, I am taking part in a food chain. When energy moves from one living organism (hamburger) to the next (me), scientists call this path or chain the Food Chain. Every living thing needs food. Food provides energy for plants and animals to live.
Food chains begin with plants using sunlight, water and nutrients to make energy in a process called photosynthesis. There are lots of different kinds of food chains— some simple, some complex. An example of a simple food chain is when a rabbit eats grass and then a fox eats the rabbit. I think food chains are so interesting, I’ve written some poems about them.
A Shark is the Sun
Shark eats tuna,
Tuna eats mackerel,
Mackerel eats sardine,
Sardine eats zooplankton,
Zooplankton eats phytoplankton,
Phytoplankton eats sun.
So...shark eats sun.
In every food chain there are producers, consumers and decomposers. Plants make their own food so they are producers. Animals are consumers because they consume plants or animals. Decomposers have the final say as they break down and decompose plants or animals and release nutrients back to the earth. Animals can be herbivores (plant eater), carnivores (meat eater) or omnivores (plant and meat eater). What are you?
Why Can’t I Be On The Top?
I don’t like the bottom,
I want to be at the top.
I’m tired of being crushed and stomped
and chewed into slop.
Why can’t I be the tiger
with claws as sharp as shears,
With a roar as loud as thunder
To threaten trembling ears?
Who designed this food chain?
Is there a chance I can opt out?
At least I’m not a plankton
Floating all about.
I hope you are happy with your place in the food chain. If not, you might want to sing along with the Food Chain Blues.
Food Chain Blues
Mama said be careful,
It’s a risky world outside,
Dangers lurking everywhere,
Hardly a place to hide.
She said some of us get eaten,
And some of us survive.
Count yourself quite lucky,
If you make it out alive.
We’re stuck in this cruel cycle,
Nature’s red teeth and claws.
You wanna do your best,
To stay clear of someone’s jaws.
I got the food chain blues
I got the food chain blues
Someone’s gonna eat me.
I got the food chain blues!
For more of Steve's poems about creatures check out Ocean Soup. It even has its own web page here.
Steve Swinburne 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
Swinburne, Stephen. "Food Chain Poems." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 8
Mar. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/Food-Chain-Poems.