Friday, November 26, 2010

Audubon Zoo review and learning activities

The Audubon Zoo is an excellent local attraction, a great place to take family and visiting friends. Here are 10 things to know before you go:

1. It's big. - Plan to take an entire day to do the zoo. With young children, it might be better to separate it into two or even three visits. In order to do that. . .

2. It's worth it to buy a membership pass. - The membership passes get you free admission to the zoo, which would otherwise be $13.50 for each adult and $8.50 per child. However, they also get you in free to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas ($18.50 adult / $11.50 child) and they drop the price of a visit to the Insectarium from $15.00 to $5.00 and the IMAX ticket price from $9.00 to $ 5.00. The membership not only supports Audubon's important conservation work, it can pay for itself in one holiday weekend!

3. Cooler temps make for better wildlife viewing. - The next few months are prime time to visit the zoo! The cooler weather not only makes it more comfortable for the human visitors, it makes the animals more active. If you want to see animals doing their thing, don't ask them to do it when it's 90-plus degrees out! When it's that hot, nobody is perky and active. November through February in New Orleans means temps in the 60s and 70s, so you can see real movement and action from the animals! If your only zoo-visiting days are hot ones, though, just try to schedule your visit for early in the morning or late in the afternoon, the coolest parts of the day. (The zoo is open from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.)

4. Don't dare miss the great apes. - The orangutans and gorillas on exhibit are truly great apes! The viewing platforms are incredibly close to the animals and one look in their knowing eyes will have everyone interested in a deeper study of evolution.

5. Make time for reptiles. - The reptile house is an excellent one, with a high

number of exotic and poisonous snakes, as well as rainforest poison dart frogs and super-cool lizards. These are the most active and interactive reptiles at any zoo this examiner has ever visited!

6. Learn about amazing Louisiana animals. - While you visit, make sure to stroll through the Louisiana Swamp exhibit. Though cooler temps do make the cold-blooded alligators less active, there are still many, many gators to gawk at in the swamp exhibit. By the end, though, you'll see that the gators aren't the only amazing animals in the swamp - from egrets and herons to snakes and turtles, awesome animals abound in the bayous, marshes and swamps. Seeing them up close and personal at the zoo will open your eyes to seeing them everywhere in the New Orleans area!

7. The feeds and chats are worth the time. - Whether you're trying to educate kiddos or not, the feeds and chats are lead by tremendously knowledgable professionals who welcome your curiosity and questions. Take advantage and you may even get to touch or feed an animal yourself!

Zoo Activities & Links

A to Zoo - find an animal for every letter in the alphabet and correctly spell their names (from informative signs).

Zoo Bingo - learn which animals are mammals, reptiles, and amphibians and which continents they come from as you try to be the first to get Bingo!

Audubon Zoo Visitor Page

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Great green, learning gifts for new parents and babies

August is the month with the highest number of births in the U.S., according to the CDC, and it has held the top spot for ten of the last 16 years.

Doing a bit of gestation subtraction, its easy to see that there are going to be a lot of folks who are newly pregnant between now and Christmas.

If you're looking for a gift for an expectant parent or a brand new bundle of joy, why not make it a great, green one? Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Baby Bee Getting Started Kit - made by Burt's Bees, this $13 set includes Apricot Baby Oil, Buttermilk Lotion, Shampoo & Wash, Buttermilk Soap, Diaper Ointment, Buttermilk Bath, Dusting Powder, and a cute Baby Bee Comb. The scents are natural and soft, not overwhelming, and the products are free of parabens, sulfates, petrochemicals, and phthalates, which are bad for everyone, but especially bad for babies! Most moms who have received this kit end up buying it for all of their pregnant friends! The only downside is that the products are so good, your friends will blame you when they can never go back to anything else for their sweet babies. . .and themselves! Available online at Burt's Beesand at many major retailers.
  • Kiddopotamus & Co. Organic Cotton SwaddleMe - this baby "burrito" wrap is excellent and easy to use; a lifesaver especially for new parents who are stymied by swaddling protocol and flustered by a crying infant who just wants to be wrapped up in a little chemical-free warmth and love. Additionally, a little extra love goes to the planet because standard cotton is an extremely chemical intensive crop; organic cotton has all of the softness, but none of the chemicals! The organic cotton SwaddleMe is available in a variety of colors and patterns and two sizes, with prices ranging from $10-25 at retailers including Amazon,Target, and WalMart.
  • Dandelion Classic Organic Toys - at just $10 each, you may choose to gift the new baby with more than one of these adorable little creatures - the frog rattle, the crinkle bear, the squeaker duck, or the baby doll. Each features a handy hanging loop and stimulates babies' hand eye coordination and brain development. Available at Amazon.
  • Eco-Friendly Disposable Diapers & Wipes - new parents can never, ever have too many diapers! Unfortunately, the planet can. While many parents opt for cloth diapers, they have their own environmental impact through the need for washing. And, to be perfectly blunt, disposables are just easier. The gift of ease is a big one for new parents or, really, all parents. So, the disposables that are best for the planet? Earth's Best and Seventh Generationoffer chlorine-free diapers and wipes that perform as well as their traditional disposable diaper brand counterparts. They will set you back a good deal more than the traditional disposable diapers, but its the planet that profits through less nasty, toxic chlorinated hydrocarbon pollution.
  • Made With Love Organic Cotton Infant Set - one of many super-cute and planet-friendly options available at UncommonGoods, these organic cotton onesie and cap sets are available for $35 in three colors: vanilla, chocolate, and mint chocolate chip. (If you think those are sweet, just wait till you see the baby in these adorable onesies!) If the parents have a good sense of humor, you should also consider the organic onesies available with sayings on the front, such as "Ask me about my compost pile," "All natural," "Produced Locally," and "Thanks! for all the global warming," ($28 each) or the Nerdy Baby "I love, love, LOVE my microsope," and dinosaur babysuits ($25 each).
  • Recycled Plastic Tugboat Toy - also available from UncommonGoods, this $13 toy is made from 100% recycled plastic milk jugs and contains no BPA, PVC or phthalates that could go into baby's mouth when the tugboat inevitably does. (Because everything,everything, will eventually go into baby's mouth.)
  • the little seed for Target Organic Bodysuits & Pants - tagless for extra baby comfort (and, therefore, less baby fussiness), these organic clothes are available in a variety of colors and sizes up to nine months - mix and match for just $8 each at

And, if you're not into clothes or diapers, there's just about nothing better for baby humans than when their local, loving grown-ups read them books! Wrap up one of the classics listed below, write an inscription in the front, and tuck in a coupon for babysitting and/or book reading - mom, dad, and baby will love you for it!

Excellent Books for Greenie Babies

Try to get the board books when you can - they'll stand up better to baby's gnawing and so will make it to the used bookstore instead of the landfill.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle - a wonderful introduction to caterpillars and butterflies

Green Start book series, by Innovative Kids - each of these board books features a different "green" topic, including endangered animals, trees, green gardening, and the rainforest.

On the Day You Were Born, by Debra Frasier - a beautiful tribute to the earth and a warm welcome for the newest member of the human family, babies will enjoy the bold illustrations and parents will be truly touched by the message. This is an heirloom book.

Baby Einstein book series, by Julie Aigner-Clark - an outstanding primer on things in nature for babies under one. The simple shapes and iconic images along with easy to understand sentences will entertain and inform baby, and the books come in board book or bath book format!

Stay tuned - next up are great, green and educational gifts for kids ages 7-10. If you have a great, green gift idea, please share it with others by adding it as a comment on this article!

Great green, learning gifts and books for ages 4-6

The school year is only one quarter over and already Pre-K student Abigail Birch has been invited to six birthday parties.

While no one wants to be the mom who always gives the educational gift instead of the fun one, there comes a time (just about the same time as you receive the fourth party invitation in as many weeks) where shelling out a large amount of cash for one more piece of plastic junk makes you feel like a brainless cog in the overly-consumerist, made-in-China, mercilessly-marketed American buying machine.

With more birthday parties looming, not to mention the holidays fast approaching, here are a few excellent, green and/or educational and fun gifts for the four to six year old set, all for under $25:

  • Green Toys Tea Set by Green Toys, $20.17 - made in the USA (less pollution because it doesn't have to ship from overseas) out of recycled milk jugs! Includes tea pot with lid, sugar bowl with lid, four cups and saucers and four teaspoons in lovely shades of pink, purple, blue, and green. Green Toys also makes a dish set, chef set, dining set, tool set, dump truck, and sand play set.
  • Sprig Adventure Toys - a full line of toys made from recycled woods and plastics, encouraging imaginative play in which the characters explore the outdoors. Prices range from $6.95 for an Adventure Guide to $24.92 for the Dolphin Adventure Playset or $19.99 for the Side Kick Vehicle Baja Scout.
  • Idbid Eco-Friendly Character Kits - Choose Waverly the Water Drop, Lola the Flower, or Scout the Cloud. Includes plush toy, organic cinch sack, and story book, and field guide that makes the concept of environmental sustainability simple for children. Packs in frustration-free packaging (no hard plastic cases or bindings - annoying and wasteful) and 50 cents of each purchase is donated to the Nature Conservancy.
  • Melissa & Doug - classic wooden toys of all varieties, from kitchen pots and pans and pantry items to puzzles, trucks and trains. Also arts and crafts supplies, learning mats, doll houses, puppets and stuffed animals. These are well made, high quality toys that will not disappoint the child or the Earth! Available at Target,, and
    • ImagiPlay ColorMe Up Animal Puzzles - 3D wooden animal puzzles that come with water color paint kids so that children can paint and assemble their own chick, stegosaurus, bunny, love cows, or butterfly. Prices range from $10 to $15. Made from renewable, sustainable, and fair trade materials.
    • Global Green Pals - Recycle Kyle, Carbon Offset Chet, Pink Coral Laurel, Clean Air Kate, Pani Rani - each available for $25, are made of organic cotton and stuffed with 100% post-consumer recycled plastic stuffing. Each comes with a character tag with tips on how kids can help save the Earth. Adults help save the planet with each purchase, as a portion of proceeds go to environmental efforts around the globe via One Percent for the Planet. This toy won the Creative Child Magazine seal of excellence in 2009 as well as Dr. Toy's Best Green Product 2009 and Mom's Best 2009.
    • Eco-Friendly Arts & Crafts Supplies - Did you ever wonder what happens to all those broken crayons? Well, the lucky ones get recycled! Crazy Crayons makes recycled crayons in classic colors as well as crazy shapes and color mixes for less than $9 per pack. Pair that with a roll of recycled newsprint art paper ($12.90) and you've got an eco friendly, artistic afternoon for one kid or a bunch!

    If you'd like to pair an eco-friendly or earth education book with the gift you give, here are a few favorites for young children:

    • I Can Save the Earth!: One Little Monster Learns to Recycle by Alison Inches, published by Little Green Books, $4
    • The Lorax by Dr. Seuss, published by Random House for Young Readers, $10 (a classic, worth twice the price!)
    • The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, published by Harper & Row, $10 (a tree-hugger's primer, not to be missed!)
    • The Let's Read and Find Out Science series of books, published by Collins, $6 each - this series covers everything from Clouds to What Makes Day and Night to How a Seed Grows to What's It Like to Be a Fish and Oil Spill (particularly appropriate for Gulf Coast kids right now). Series is divided into levels which are clearly marked on each book. Levels 1 and 2 are appropriate for ages 4-8. Outstanding introduction to all things earth science related; kids will love them and adults will learn something, too!
    • Why Should I series of books, published by Barron's Educational Series, $7 each - includes Why Should I Recycle?, Why Should I Protect Nature?, Why Should I Save Energy?, and Why Should I Save Water?. All are right on target for this age group, simple and entertaining.

As a last note, prices listed above are retail. There are great deals to be had on like-new items at tremendously reduced prices - and buying these is even better for the Earth than buying new!

And, don't forget, wrapping in the colored Sunday comics or, even better, with your own child's art drawn on a roll of recycled newsprint will save money, paper, and the planet!

Stay tuned for green gift and book recommendations for other age groups, from infant to adult!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Autumn's long nights a great time for lessons on night sky

At 2 a.m. this Sunday, the first Sunday of November, it will be time to “fall back” into Standard Time.

As you set the clock back one hour, sigh sadly, and contemplate the short days and long nights ahead, remember that long nights aren’t just a sun-lover’s curse, they’re a star-gazer’s blessing! An excellent lesson on the Earth’s rotation around the sun and how seasons change is attached below.

Especially here in southeast Louisiana, where the temperatures are still in the 60s and 70s at night, it’s a great time of year to gather the family, spread a blanket in the back yard, and check out the free show in the sky every night.

Saturday, November 6 brings the new moon, which means a dark sky and extra visibility for checking out nearby stars and planets. In fact, the whole weekend will have a relatively dark sky thanks to the late-rising moon, a great opportunity for nights outside.

The moon returns to fullness on November 21. With a clear sky and a full moon, you won’t need a telescope just a pair of binoculars or even the zoom lens on your camera to get a great look at some of the moon’s craters, mountains, and seas.

The moon’s magical waxing and waning in the night sky (plus the calm talking time on that backyard blanket) may even pique the interest of your youthful stargazers, which will give you an opportunity to teach them about the moon’s cycle. An excellent lesson on the moon’s phases is attached below.

If your young astronomers in training are ready to journey past the moon and into the outer reaches of the solar system, it’s time for them to learn that not all “stars” are stars. The planet Jupiter is extra bright this year, brighter than any star in the sky and found in the southeastern sky in the evening. Though a telescope could help you see some of the amazing cloud tops and the Great Red Spot, you can see a few of Jupiter’s moons using only binoculars!

An excellent lesson on the planets of Earth’s solar system is attached below.

So, whether your backyard blanket conversation covers stars and seasons, moons and magic, or planets and philosophy, bundle up and get out there! The celestial show and the learning it inspires are a gift from the universe, literally!

Next up: an awesome meteor shower, the Leonids, is headed our way on November 17. Stay tuned for an article on icy comets, dust on fire, and shooting stars!





The Sky – Astronomy Calendar of Celestial Events 2010

Lesson Plans:

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

No booing vultures, nature's clean-up crew

Happy Halloween! And yes, it's Halloween, not April Fool's Day. The following is a true and long overdue love letter to the vulture, full of fantastic fact, not fiction, and no kidding around!

Too often a child's voice will rise and hush in awe as she watches a huge, soaring bird circle in the sky, only to deflate in an "oh," or worse "eww," when she's informed it's "just a vulture."

Vultures are seen hunching, Igor-like, on headstones in Halloween images everywhere, as if waiting to harvest the parts of a passing trick-or-treater.

Yes, vultures should be associated with death, but they're cleaners, not killers!

As scavengers, not predators, vultures' closest association with killing is cleaning up road kill. If they're seen in a graveyard, it's because there must be a good roosting tree there. They may have an impressive wingspan and large talons, but neither is capable of digging six feet down to get a quick meal on the recently interred.

What vultures are capable of, however, is fairly fantastic. Read on, future vulture lovers:

  • There are two types of vultures native to the southeastern U.S., turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), named for their red, turkey-like heads, and black, or southern, vultures (Coragyps atratus), who have black heads - go figure.
  • If you want to identify the difference between these vultures at a distance, the turkey vulture always flies with its wings tilted up, making a broad V. (This is called a "dihedral" by ornithologists.)
  • The black vulture flies with its wings flat.
  • Additionally, the turkey vulture's underwing is half white and half black along the length of the wing, whereas the black vulture's wings look like black "arms" with white "hands".
  • Vultures are well adapted to be the carrion clean up crew - they can eat up to one fifth of their body weight in one sitting!
  • Vultures have special digestive acids that dissolve anthrax, botulism, and cholera. By eating decomposing bodies of wild animals, vultures dramatically reduce the spread of dangerous diseases to humans, including rabies and anthrax.
  • Vultures' naked heads are an adaptation for their messy diets - guts, gore, and bacteria bake right off in the heat of the sun.
  • Their dining might be gross by human ideals, but they don't dine alone. Vultures are social and mate for life.
  • Turkey vultures' wingspan can be as long as six feet and they can weigh up to 25 pounds.
  • A group of vultures is called a "venue" and when circling in the air they are called a "kettle."
  • Vulture poop, because of its strong uric acid content, is actually an antiseptic!
  • Vultures are gentle animals. In fact, their only form of defense is to vomit - counting on the foul smell of the partially-digested meat to keep dangerous intruders away.
  • Vultures soar on rising columns of air, or "thermals" in order to conserve energy during flight. They circle within the thermal's column while gaining altitude for a long flight or searching for food. They rely on a keen sense of smell (the turkey vulture) and keen eyesight (the black vulture) to spot their next carrion meal. North American vultures do not circle dying animals.

These amazing, soaring janitors deserve our thanks and, rather than "ewww," a good deal of awe.

Now that Halloween's creepy creature myths have been debunked, go out and enjoy the tricks and treats of the night. And please, pick up your candy wrappers and any litter you see along the way. The vultures have enough to clean up!


The Vulture Society

16 Cool Facts About Vultures on International Vulture Awareness Day

Photo: Jim Conrad via Wikimedia Commons