Learning Outdoors

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Our activity today is inspired by the nonfiction children's picture book A Nest Is Noisy by Dianna Hutts Aston and illustrated by Sylvia Long. For a full review of the book, see our sister blog Wrapped in Foil.

A Nest is Noisy is appropriate this week because we noticed a pile of sticks in our hollyhock.

verdin-nest-009What could it be?


With a bit of patience and some luck, we learned it was a beginning of a verdin nest (a verdin is a tiny bird that feeds on insects here in the desert). We soon saw the pair of verdins visit the half-finished nest. After much chattering, they have apparently chosen another site. A finished verdin nest is a round ball of sticks with a hole in the side for the birds to enter, and this one is only about 1/3 done.

Activity 1. Who builds nests?

Of course, when you think of nests, you probably think of birds right away. In fact, a dictionary definitions of the word "nest" might be "a place where a bird lays its eggs and cares for its young."  In the book, however, the author quickly points out that insects, frogs, fish, alligators, and even orangutans make nests. A better definition might be that a nest is a structure made by an animal as a place to produce and care for its offspring.

Brainstorm with your children about what kinds of animals make nests (remember that birds are animals in the sense they belong to the animal kingdom). Make a list and then add to it as you read the book or research to discover new kinds of nests.

wasp-nestInsects like honey bees, wasps, and ants make extensive nests.

Activity 2. Take a nature hike and look for evidence of nests.

Take a walk around and look for evidence of nests. You can even see nests in the city, where birds like house sparrows often nest on buildings or other structures. Remember:  Always be respectful of animal nests and do not disturb them. Sometimes animals return to the same nest year after year and even a nest that seems abandoned may be recycled or reused in the future.

If you can't find any local bird nests, take a look at the awesome bird cams at Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Activity 3. Provide Bird Nesting Materials

Making index cards full of nesting materials can be a fun project that is easy to do with supplies from around the house.


  • index cards or roughly three-inch by five-inch pieces of card stock, enough for all participants
  • hole punch or scissors
  • yarn, preferably wool or cotton
  • thread, again natural fibers are best
  • hair, particularly horse hair
  • animal fur
  • clean chicken feathers (tree swallows love white feathers for their nests)
  • pesticide-free dried grasses
  • string or ribbon to hang card

Brainstorm about what birds might use for a nest. Poke holes in the index cards with a hole punch or cut holes with scissors (with an adult’s help). Tie a 12-inch piece of string, yarn or ribbon through one hole to serve as a hanger. Loosely stuff the rest of the holes with a variety of nest making supplies, making sure the birds can pull it out fairly easily. When you are finished, go outside and hang the cards in bushes or trees where the birds will find the materials, preferably where you can also watch them. Check over time to see which materials they chose first, second, etc. Refill the cards as needed.

Activity 4. Buy or build nest boxes to put out for local wildlife.

Help your local wildlife by buying or building nest boxes. Before you start, however, be sure to research what kind of animals use nest boxes where you live (for example, it turns out that bats don't use bat boxes where we live in the Sonoran desert). Also, find out where the boxes should be placed and if you have a proper location.

Just a few resources:

The National Wildlife Foundation has information about setting up bird boxes.

Bumble Boosters has a citizen science project for constructing bumble bee domiciles.

Even Amazon has a wide variety of houses for solitary bees for sale,

like this mason bee house.

Keep track of how and when your nests are used throughout the year. It can be a fascinating long term project.

If you chose to, leave a comment to tell us about your wildlife nest project.

Finally, check out A Nest Is Noisy by Dianna Hutts Aston and illustrated by Sylvia Long


Age Range: 5 - 8 years
Grade Level: Kindergarten - 3
Hardcover: 40 pages
Publisher: Chronicle Books (April 14, 2015)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1452127131
ISBN-13: 978-1452127132

Disclosures: The book above was from my local independent bookstore. Also, I am an affiliate for Amazon. If you click through the linked titles or ads and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission at no extra charge to you. Proceeds will be used to maintain this self-hosted blog.

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




For our regular STEM Friday feature we recommend two books about trees for children, just in time for Arbor Day, next Friday April 24, 2015. (Read the rest of the reviews and see a video book trailer at Wrapped in Foil blog.) Then we'll finish out Butterfly Gardening With Children Week with a discussion of trees for butterfly gardens.

The first book, Branching Out: How Trees Are Part of Our World by Joan Marie Galat and illustrated by Wendy Ding (2014), describes a particular species of tree, how it used by humans, and what animals depend on that kind of tree in a series of four-page spreads. The 11 species of trees highlighted range from red maples and downy birches to pau brasil and cork oaks.

The second book, Celebritrees: Historic and Famous Trees of the World by Margi Preus and illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon (2011), consists of a series of two-page spreads telling the stories of 14 famous, tall and exceptionally-old trees from around the world, the back matter gives more information about the trees and a number of suggestions about what the reader can do to help and encourage trees.

Appropriate for butterfly gardening week:  In the section about oak trees in the back matter of this book, we find out that a single large oak tree can support up to 34 species of butterflies!

That fact reminds us that although growing pretty flowers helps the adult butterflies, to have a truly productive butterfly garden you need to supply food for caterpillars as well.

Many beautiful species of butterflies require trees as larval hosts.


1. Hackberry trees (Celtis species) are larval food for

  • Tawny emperor butterflies
  • Hackberry emperor butterflies
  • Mourning cloak butterflies
  • Question Mark butterflies
  • Snout butterfly

mystery-butterfly-2-identicationThe snout butterfly

Hackberry_Emperor,_Megan_McCarty46Hackberry emperor butterfly (Public domain photograph by Megan McCarty)

(Seed of the Week post about Canyon Hackberry)

2. Live oaks are larval food for California sister butterfly larvae.

California-sister-butterflyCalifornia sister butterfly, Ramsey Canyon, Arizona

Some duskywings and hairstreaks also use oaks for food.

3. Black cherry (Prunus serotina) trees are larval food for:

  • Red-spotted purple
  • Eastern tiger swallowtail
  • Coral hairstreak

4. Citrus trees (orange, lemon grapefruit) attract numerous giant swallowtails. Their larvae are called orange dog caterpillars.

caterpillar-orange-dogAn orange dog caterpillar on a grapefruit leaf

In addition to larval food, trees provide shelter for butterflies (and a multitude of other animals), provide safe places for the caterpillars to pupate, and some flowering trees supply nectar for many more adult butterflies.

In his book, Bringing Nature Home, entomologist  Doug Tallamy gives a list of how many species of butterflies and moths are supported by 21 kinds of trees. The numbers are astonishing! He says oak trees (genus Quercus) provide food for some 534 different species of butterflies and moths. Given that those butterflies are important pollinators and parts of the food web, that is an enormous contribution.


If you are going to plant a tree for Arbor Day or any other event, consider choosing a local species that will host butterflies. You will get yet another benefit from a tree. Please leave a comment if you have any questions about how to choose a suitable butterfly host tree for your area.



 This is the final post for Butterfly Gardening with Children Week. Hope you enjoyed it. If you missed the previous posts from the week, check our links page for topics we covered.


Interested in reading more great books about trees for Arbor Day? Try our giant, redwood-sized list of children's books about trees at Science Books for Kids.



Disclosures: The books above were from my local library. Also, I am an affiliate for Amazon. If you click through the linked titles or ads and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission at no extra charge to you. Proceeds will be used to maintain this self-hosted blog.

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


The butterfly is a flying flower,
The flower a tethered butterfly.
~Ponce Denis Écouchard Lebrun


Butterflies are colorful, interesting insects. Many children find them fascinating. In fact, butterflies have become so popular that over the last few decades, butterfly houses and pavilions have sprung up all over. Children are more likely to have experienced butterflies close up than ever before. You may wonder whether you even need to plant your own butterfly garden when a trip to see butterflies is only a car ride away.

Although butterfly exhibits are educational and fun to explore, some children will be inspired to learn more about butterflies after visiting. Here are a few good reasons to consider butterfly gardening with children:

Butterfly-Gardening- Infographic2(By the way, this comparison is not intended to be negative about butterfly exhibits, but only to encourage exploration beyond their limits.)

Tips for Starting Your Own Butterfly Garden

What do butterflies need to survive? Food, water and shelter are all important. Let's find out how to provide butterflies with the necessities.

1. Adult Butterfly Nectar Plants

An easy way to get started with butterfly gardening is to provide some flowering plants to provide nectar for adult butterflies. These plants may be in your yard or even in pots on your patio.

Choosing plants can be a bit daunting at first. Try taking a walk around some local gardens and note which plants butterflies are visiting. Check with local butterfly societies and plant nurseries for suggestions, as well. Ideally you want to have a range of plants that bloom over the entire growing season.

Native versus non-native plants

When you are just starting out, you may just want to try planting some old favorites, like zinnias or cosmos. Butterfly experts recommend, however, that you also include some native or local plants. For example, given a choice between:

real-butterfly-weed-dcThe butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) which is native to eastern North America, or...


the the exotic tropical or blood milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, the butterfly milkweed is a safer bet. If you are an experienced butterfly gardener, you might want to check this .pdf article about the recent controversy about the tropical milkweed and the monarch butterfly.

Some butterfly favorite plants are:

  • milkweeds (monarchs, queens)
  • lantana
  • butterfly bush
  • ageratum (attracts male queen butterflies)
  • dill, fennel or parsley (swallowtails)
  • hollyhocks (painted lady)
  • passion flower (fritillaries)

2. Caterpillar host plants

If you are interested in raising butterflies and seeing the life stages, then it is important to provide the plants that caterpillars use for food. Caterpillars often have specific and limited feeding preferences. Look for information about your local butterflies and their hosts at websites like Butterflies and Moths of North America (click on the "regional checklists" tab).

black-swallowtail-larva-Papilio polyxenes-22

Dill and fennel are eaten by certain swallowtail caterpillars. Butterfly gardeners always plant some extra for the butterflies.

3. Water

Even though many butterflies drink nectar, some also drink water or obtain nutrients from wet spots in the garden. Providing a damp bare spot or patch of moist sand is likely to be enough.


4. Shelter

Butterflies need places to stow away at night, and to shelter from wind and rain during the day. Providing leafy shrubs and trees, plus not being excessively tidy are great ways to ensure butterflies have safe places to hide.

This video from University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension has some good ideas.

Other suggestions:

No two butterfly gardens will be alike. They will vary according to region, size and the individual taste of the gardeners. Make butterfly gardening a family project and don't be afraid to let your creativity run wild.

Consider recording your observations via a nature journal, photographs and sound recordings. You might even want to keep a blog or share on Instagram or Flickr to inspire other butterfly gardeners. The possibilities are endless!

Do you have a butterfly garden? Have you gardened with children? What tips would you share? Have you encountered any problems? What suggestions do you have to avoid them?

Be sure to check our Butterfly Gardening With Children links page for more activities throughout the week.