Groundhog Day 2015–Books, Activities, Fun!

Yellow-bellied marmot lounging at Yellowstone NP. Groundhogs are a species of marmot.

Yellow-bellied marmot lounging at Yellowstone NP. Groundhogs are a species of marmot.

Groundhog Day is my favorite holiday. There are no expectations. No rituals that must be observed. No cards to send. No gifts to buy. Just an adorably furry animal prognosticator and whatever celebrations we can muster on the actual day.

Books

Just in case you feel like celebrating too, here are my favorite Groundhog Day picture books. Click book images to link to the book at IndieBound.

Brownie Groundhog and the February Fox, by Susan Blackaby, illustrated by Carmen Segovia (2011 Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.)

This adorable tale from one of my favorite Oregon writers stars a plump, intelligent groundhog, Brownie, who must outsmart the February Fox to avoid becoming lunch. The illustrations are so fun, that I’ll forgive the illustrator for depicting a European robin with a North American groundhog. (The illustrator is from Spain, home of the original robin–smile.)

Go to Sleep Groundhog, by Judy Cox, illustrated by Paul Meisel (2004 Holiday House)

This is a fun book from another Oregon author! Poor groundhog is suffering from insomnia and gets help from some other holiday icons. It’s cute and funny and is a great bedtime read.

Groundhog Weather School, by Joan Holub, illustrated by Kristin Sorra (2009 G.P. Putnam’s Sons)

After the official groundhog gets a complaint that his forecast was not helpful because it is too far away, he recruits other animal prognosticators to help him out. The recruits go through the paces at Groundhog Weather School in preparation for the big day. Holub has crafted a fun story that is packed full of factual information about weather and groundhogs. Does sharing the load make the predictions more accurate? You’ll have to read this one to find out.

Groundhog Day! written and illustrated by Gail Gibbons (2007 Holiday House)

Gail Gibbons is one of the most prolific nonfiction picture book authors out there. Like all her books, this one is a nice overview of the topic. It includes information about groundhogs, the history of the holiday, and information about how Groundhog Day is celebrated today.

Crafts

  • Peek-a-boo Groundhog and a Groundhog Day mask can be found here.
  • Puzzles, coloring sheets, and crafts can be found here.
  • This site has a cute groundhog and shadow craft and also a pretty cool potato stamp project.

All about Groundhogs and Groundhog Day

Winter Books

The holiday frenzy is over, and we are settling into the firm, misty grip of winter. Time for frosty walks, hot tea, and a pile of books. Here are a few of my favorite winter-themed books:

Over and Under the Snow, by Kate Messner, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal (2011 Chronicle Books)

This picture book explores winter wildlife–foxes, owls, and deer above the snow and voles, shew, frogs and more below the snow. I really enjoy the use of the human story arc–a girl and her father enjoying a day in the snow–to bring us close to each of the animals. The muted, winter-colored illustrations have hints of woodcut and collage with splashes of red and yellow. Just a lovely book with lots of animals, beautiful pictures, and nice author notes at the end.

Under the Snow, by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by Constance R. Bergum (2009 Peachtree Publishers)

Melissa Stewart is one of my favorite nonfiction writers. Her take on the winter world explores some different creatures, including pond animals, making it a nice companion piece to Messner’s book (it stands just fine on its own as well). Bergum’s drawings are warm and lovely.

Survival at 40 Below, by Debbie S. Miller, illustrations by Jon Van Zyle (2010 Walker & Company)

This book explores the unique adaptations arctic animals employ to survive harsh winter weather. It is packed with information about animals from musk oxen to woolly bear caterpillars, actually explaining how these animals manage to survive. The realistic illustrations bring the world to life. It is much more text-heavy than the previous two books–perhaps a little much for a bedtime story, but definitely worth sharing.

“Big People” Book for January

This month I’m going to be tackling Winter World: the Ingenuity of Animal Survival, by Bernd Heinrich (2003 Harper Perennial) From the flap copy: “From flying squirrels to grizzly bears, and from torpid turtles to insects with antifreeze, the animal kingdom relies on some staggering evolutionary innovations to survive winter. . . . Winter World awakens the largely undiscovered mysteries by which nature sustains herself through winter’s harsh, cruel exigencies.” I’d love to chat with others who’ve read this book or who want to join me in reading it this month.

Happy New Year to you all. May your 2015 be filled with adventure and peace.

Frozen—the Caterpillar Version

This is a woolly bear caterpillar from my part of the country.

This is a woolly bear caterpillar from my part of the country.

A year ago, I wrote an article about frogs that have adapted to survive being frozen. Turns out these frogs are not the only creatures that have developed ways to survive extreme cold. One of my favorite cold tolerant species is the Gynaephora groenlandica (no, I can’t pronounce it either!). It’s also known as the Arctic woolly bear moth. Now I realize that most of us don’t have these creatures in our backyards, but their ability to survive harsh winters make them a fun topic to explore with kids this time of year.

Arctic woolly bear moths spend the majority of their lives in caterpillar form—fuzzy, golden-and-orange little guys about 2 inches long. In order to pupate (form a cocoon), they must reach a certain body mass. However, the short Arctic summers don’t allow them to eat enough in one season to reach this magic number.

The caterpillars solve this problem by overwintering in their larval form. Specific adaptations in their bodies, including the ability to produce antifreeze compounds in their cells, allow them to survive temperatures down to -90 degrees F. Each summer they emerge for to eat and eat and eat before spinning a hibernaculum (silk “sleeping bag”) that will house them until the following summer.

Artic woolly bear caterpillars actually spend the majority of their lives frozen! After around seven summers (and up to 14!), they build up enough food resources to pupate into an adult moth. The adult moths have a few frantic days to mate and produce the next wave of super trooper caterpillars. Then the whole cycle starts all over again!

  • Frozen Planet from Discovery had a segment on the Arctic Woolly Bear Caterpillars. You’ll find it here.
  • My article on Antifreeze Animals (wood frogs) appeared last year on the KIDS DISCOVER Teacher’s Blog. It includes a classroom activity that examines one mechanism (cryoprotectants) that these animals use to survive being frozen.
  • A woolly bear caterpillar craft from Samantha at Stir the Wonder–you can change the colors to match the Arctic woolly bear.

Creature Focus–Hummingbirds

Annas hummer for resource sheetsTeachers/Homeschool Families—hummingbird feeders are an inexpensive, low-maintenance way to invite wildlife to your schoolyard, as well as your backyard. For student/teacher handouts, please see the end of the article.

On frigid fall and winter mornings my backyard fills with a most unlikely sound—SQUEAKA! SQUEAKA! SQUEAKA! The caps are intentional because if there is such a thing as a bird yelling, this is it! The voice belongs to an Anna’s Hummingbird, demanding that I thaw out the hummer feeder so he can catch a morning snack.

The presence of these tiny birds sparked my interest in birding back in 2007. Hummingbirds are summer jewels, or so I thought, who fly off to warmer climes during winter. I learned this is not the case with Anna’s Hummingbirds. Their range now extends all the way up into southwestern British Columbia and they are perfectly happy to hang around the entire winter.

In the early part of the 20th century, Anna’s Hummingbirds hung out in Southern California and Northern Baja. Non-native flowering trees planted by gardeners gradually lured the birds north. The fact that they don’t head back to the homeland during winter is due to two other adaptations. First, Anna’s Hummingbirds aren’t strict nectarivores. They also feed on tiny insects, which are active all winter on our side of the Cascade Mountains, except during periods of extreme cold.

In addition, Anna’s Hummingbirds are able to enter a state called torpor, which is similar to hibernation except that the duration is much shorter. Their breathing and heart rate slow. Their normally toasty body temperature (around 107 degrees F) falls as low as 48 degrees F. When the temperature warms, they can become active again in a few minutes. (Want to know more about torpor vs. hibernation? Click here.)

This explains the yelling. Most likely, my backyard visitor has just emerged from a cold, sleepy night and needs some breakfast to recharge his little batteries. Does he need to hang out at my feeder? That’s a trickier question. In general, birds don’t choose their wintering location solely based on human-provided food sources. You aren’t going to mess up a migration pattern just because you provide backyard feeders in the fall or spring.

That said, our West Coast hummingbirds do become accustomed to food being available at specific places, and the presence of feeders during cold snaps may increase the likelihood that “your” little friends will survive until the next thaw. If you’ve been feeding, keep it up, especially during cold snaps. Seattle Audubon Society has ideas for keeping feeders thawed here.

For Teachers
Teacher Resource Sheet–Hummingbirds

For Students
Creature Focus–Hummingbirds