For STEM Friday we are featuring the new middle grade nonfiction book Crow Smarts: Inside the Brain of the World's Brightest Bird by Pamela S. Turner and photographs by Andy Comins, which chronicles Dr. Gavin Hunt's intriguing research into tool use and learning by New Caledonian crows.


Why New Caledonian crows? It turns out they have a lot going for them. They are pretty smart. Not only can they use sticks as tools to pry their food- in this case large beetle larvae - out of wood, but also they can fashion new tools by shaping and modifying twigs and stems. As more sophisticated experiments have shown, they have a remarkable ability to solve problems (see some of the videos below). They also have bigger eyes than other species of crows and their eyes are closer to the front of their head, which means they have better depth perception.

Although the special crows are fascinating enough, author Pamela Turner's discussion of Dr. Hunt's research is written with just the right touch of humor to keep young readers fully engaged. For example, she notes one of the crows is named "Crow we never got around to naming." Many of her observations are highly entertaining.

Andy Comins's amazing birds-eye-view photographs (see the one on the cover above) help us see the crows as individuals. It isn't easy to photograph active birds in the wild, and he makes us feel like we are right there studying the birds, too.

Whether you have read all of books in the Scientists in the Field series or none of them, you are going to want to pick up this one. Perfect for anyone interested in learning, animal behavior, birds, tool use, or science in general.

Below are some bird science activity suggestions that could be used to accompany the book.

Activity Suggestion 1: Building a Bird Blind

Dr. Hunt knows he might change the crows' natural behavior if they knew he was watching them, so he uses shelter to observe the crows unnoticed. The camouflaged shelter is called a "hide" or a "blind." In the field he uses a portable tent as a blind (photograph page 12 of the book), but children can design and build their own bird blind.


  • Sheet, large piece of cardboard, or cardboard box
  • Twine, cord, rope or painter's tape
  • Twist ties
  • Paints in camouflage colors (optional)
  • Paint brushes (optional)
  • Scissors (craft knife for adults only)
  • Markers
  • Birdseed (optional)
  • Birdwatching supplies:
    • Notebook
    • Pens and pencils
    • Field guide for identifying birds
    • Binoculars (optional)
    • Clock or watch
  1. Find a location to set up the blind, either indoors or out depending on the weather and other factors. If you already have a bird feeder near a window, setting up a blind inside the window would be ideal.  Outside, look for areas where birds are active on a regular basis, such as in shrubs, trees, or near a food source.
  2. If you choose to, paint the sheet or cardboard with camouflage colors (investigate what colors birds can see and plan accordingly). Allow to dry.
  3. If you are setting up inside, cover the window with a cardboard box with the bottom facing out or tape up the sheet with painter's tape. Outside, tie the twine or cord between supports such as poles, fences or trees. Drape the sheet over the cord, or lean the cardboard against the cord, and fasten with clothespins or twist ties.
  4. Have the children stand or sit in a comfortable position. Using the markers, mark where the eye holes should go. The holes should be a small as possible so they aren't obvious to the birds, but large enough to allow for comfortable viewing. Cut out the holes.
  5. If you choose, sprinkle some birdseed in the viewing area or feed the birds to attract them (optional). Sit or stand quietly behind the blind and view the birds. Younger children may simply draw a picture of a bird they see. Older children may want to keep a more detailed record of what kinds of birds visit, what time of day, how long they stay, which direction they go, etc.
  6. Suggestion for experiment:  Do blinds really work? Design an experiment to test whether birds behave differently when observed through a blind versus when viewed from similar distances and circumstances without a blind.

Activity Suggestion 2:  Watch some videos/bird cams of the behavior of crows and other birds.

Even if you don't have the opportunity to observe bird behavior in nature, learn more about birds by watching videos like the one below and/or by visiting bird cams online (The Lab of Ornithology has a number of ongoing bird cams to get you started.)

Check Pamela S. Turner's website for many more videos of crows doing funny and amazing things.


We have a list of children's books about birds at Science Books for Kids.

scientists-in-the-field-series-book-reviewsAlso, see our growing list of books in the Scientists in the Field Series.

Visit our birdwatching Pinterest board for many other bird-related science activity ideas.

Age Range: 10 - 12 years
Grade Level: 5 - 7
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (August 2, 2016)
ISBN-10: 0544416198
ISBN-13: 978-0544416192

Disclosure: This book was provided by the publisher/author for review purposes. Also, I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. As you probably are aware, if you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission, at no extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.

Come visit the STEM Friday blog each week to find more great Science, Technology, Engineering and Math books.

Today we're wrapping up the Spectacular Summer Science Series, hosted by Share It! Science News  by exploring nocturnal creatures and light pollution.


First, however, let's take a brief look at the children's picture book that inspired our activities:   OH! The Things You Can See In The Dark! by Cathleen Francisco.

OH! The Things You Can See In The Dark! is a celebration of wonders that happen at night. Interspersed with natural marvels, like northern lights and fireflies, are human-made things such as hot air balloons and fireworks.

The first thing the reader notices are the unique illustrations. Set on a shiny black background, the lights and colors of the images emphasize the concept that darkness is almost never complete. The reader soon learns that there are many things to see after sunset.

The text is written in two levels, with lively short sentences accompanying the illustrations meant to be read by the child, and longer sentences and paragraphs on the other page that are meant to be read by older helpers.

You can get a sneak peek at the illustrations and some of the text at Cat Francisco's website. Or, pick up a copy and help a child explore the many marvels that can be discovered after dark.

Hardcover: 36 pages
Publisher: Self-published (2016)
ISBN-10: 1364877457
ISBN-13: 978-1364877453


Nocturnal Animals

About half of the animals on the planet are nocturnal, which means they are active after dark. This number may seem surprising at first, but remember, for example, moths are nocturnal and there are many more species of moths than their day-flying cousins, the butterflies.

Can you guess the nocturnal animals seen and heard in this video?

The Science of Light Pollution

When you look up into the sky on a clear night, do you see the Milky Way? If you are like roughly 80% of Americans, the Milky Way is no longer visible because of the light from streetlights, etc. Astronomers who study the night skies were among the first to notice the negative consequences of excessive artificial light, which is called light pollution.

Light pollution does not only effect humans. Lights from manufactured sources can disrupt the ability of nocturnal animals to find food, to reproduce, and to disperse or migrate.

Light levels effect the natural cycles called circadian rhythms. Animals exposed to high levels of light at times that are normally dark can have changes in hormones and activity patterns. They may sleep too much or sleep too little. They also may be ready to reproduce during the wrong season.

Animals that migrate at night often use the moon and stars to navigate. For example, newly-hatched baby sea turtles are attracted to the ocean via natural lighting cues. If there are too many artificial lights in the area where they hatch, they crawl inland and die.

Activity 1. Investigate Light Pollution

a. Check the internet for images of the Earth at night to see how much light is visible from space. (An example from NASA here).

b. With family or friends, take a walk or ride at night and look for sources of light pollution (Note:  Safety first!). Keep your findings in a journal. Later you might want to write a report or blog post about what you find out.

Scientists studying light pollution have identified different types.

Urban skyglow:  Refers to the brightening of the skies or "glow" that can be seen over cities at night.

Glare:  Occurs when your eyes are hit with more light than they are able to process, for example when you are blinded by oncoming headlights when driving at night.

Light trespass:  Describes when light extends into areas where it is not wanted or needed.  A prime example is when a neighbor's porch light or street light shines into your bedroom at night, making it difficult for you to sleep.

Uplight:  Just as it sounds, uplight is lighting that is directed upward towards the sky, where it does no good as illumination.

Clutter:  The type of lighting that occurs when lighting sources are too bright and/or too close together. Most of the light is misdirected or unnecessary.

How many types did you find?

Learn about what changes can be made to lighting in your community to help lower light pollution.

c. Globe at Night is an International Citizen Science Project is looking for volunteers to help track light pollution by counting the number of stars you can see in various constellations.

Activity 2. Investigate Circadian Rhythms

Many natural processes cycle or fluctuate over 24 hours, often in response to changes in lighting. These cycles are called "circadian rhythms." Some processes that fluctuate include heartbeat,  body temperature, sleep, and kidney output.


  • Paper
  • Pencil
  • Graph paper
  • Timing device that counts seconds

Experiment:  Take your resting heartbeat/minute every hour throughout the day, over several days. Plot the numbers on a graph and look for patterns.

To obtain your heartbeat for minute, use the first two fingers of one hand to locate your pulse at the wrist of your other hand. Once you have located the pulse, count the number of beats for 15 seconds. Convert to heartbeats per minute by multiplying the number you obtained by 4.

How do you think your results might change if you got up three hours later or went to bed three hours earlier?

For more great activities, see Five Biological Rhythm Experiments for Kids

Related Posts Here at Growing With Science:
1. Bat science activities
2. Moths vs. Butterflies, and  Gardening for Moths
3. Fireflies


See our growing list of children's books about nocturnal animals at Science Books for Kids.


Disclosure: This book was provided for review purposes. Also, I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. As you probably are aware, if you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission, at no extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.

And don't forget the Spectacular Summer Science Series.
spectacular summer science









Scientist Rob Dunn's lab at North Carolina State has two new citizen science projects which might be fun learning experiences for you and/or your family if you choose to participate.

shower-head(Photo via Visualhunt)

Project 1. Showerhead Microbiology

Have you ever wondered what microbes might be growing in your showerhead? If so, you will be interested in the Showerhead Microbiome Project.  If you sign up, the members of the project will send you a short interview and a kit to take samples. You will need to send those back to the lab for analysis. They warn it may take some time for the kit to arrive and also for it to be analyzed.

bread-home-made(Photo via Visualhunt)

Project 2. Sourdough Bread

Members of the lab are also interested in the microbes in sourdough cultures. They are looking for people to send in active cultures and also for people to use cultures to bake bread. People without sourdough starter or with no cooking experience are still encouraged to participate. See the website for detail.

We would love to hear from you if you participate. Let us know what happens.