Weekend Science Fun: Explore a Tree

Our science fun this week is inspired by the book Seabird in the Forest:  Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet, written and illustrated by Joan Dunning (the link goes to a longer review).

This nonfiction picture book tells the incredible story of the marbled murrelet, a tiny seabird that searches deep in old forests to find a place to nest in a large tree. Once they build the nest, incubate the eggs and the eggs hatch, the parent murrelets fly all the way to the ocean to catch fish for their nestlings. They bring the fish back to the tree, a journey that may be as long as one hundred miles per trip.

The fact that murrelets nest in old-growth trees was only discovered recently, after all who would think of looking for a seabird nesting in a big tree?

Activity:  Investigate what sorts of animals live in a tree in your neighborhood.


  • notebook
  • pencil
  • binoculars (if available)
  • camera to record observations (if available)
  • field guides to help you identify animals

Pick a tree in your yard, or nearby, to study. If you can, try to identify the tree. Go out each day for fifteen minutes. Slowly approach the tree looking for birds and squirrels first. Listen and look through your binoculars. Once you write down all the birds and squirrels that you see in the tree, then get closer and look for insects and spiders. Try to figure out what they are and what they are doing. Do this for one week. Or even better go out in the morning for ten minutes and the evening for ten minutes. Do you find different animals at different times of day?  After you are done, count how many animals use the tree.

Here is a list of some of the animals we found in our desert willow tree, Chilopsis linearis:

We chose the desert willow tree because it flowers most of the summer, supplying nectar and pollen for many visitors.



Some animals that visit the flowers include,

carpenter bees like this one,

honey bees, flies,

green june beetles, hummingbirds,

verdins, and lesser goldfinches.

The lesser goldfinches might be taking nectar, but they also peck around the buds, perhaps looking for insects.

Although many birds perch in the branches to preen,

or to wipe their beaks like this house finch is doing, no birds have ever nested in the willow. Perhaps the foliage is too sparse to provide a good cover for a nest.

A few insects use the leaves for food.

We think these eggs hatched into…

this large caterpillar, which will become a Manduca rustica moth..

Several kinds of birds like the seeds.


The trunk of the tree serves as a home for tiny ants that look for food (forage) around the flowers.

It is likely that the roots provide food for insects too, such as cicada grubs.

Of course, all the insects that feed on the willow may also serve as food for other animals. I suspect the verdins and the hummingbirds both feed on the small flies that are attracted to the flowers.

It seems like a whole community of animals depend on our desert willow for their livelihood.

How many animals do you think you will find on your tree?

If you try this project, we’d love to hear what you discover.

1 Comment

  1. dreamfalcon

    Great findings on your tree! Check out the “Tree Year Project” to see what others find on their trees: http://thetreeyear.wordpress.com

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