Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Winter Camouflage and Coloration in Iowa's Wildlife

For many Iowa animals, the stark landscape – bare trees and a bright white groundcover – makes them stand out more in the winter, which is good news for those who enjoy watching wildlife. But for a few Iowa critters, winter is a time for them to blend in with the scenery.

They may have “rabbit” in their name, but Iowa’s
jackrabbits are actually hares, related more to the snowshoe hare than the cottontail rabbit. Come winter, jackrabbits shed their summer fur – brownish-gray speckled with brownish black and a white tail – to make way for their white winter coat. The only coloring left is black on the tips of the jackrabbit’s ears and a light gray tinge to the ears and back. The changing coat allows the jackrabbit to hide better in the conditions that different seasons bring.

What it can’t hide from, however, is habitat loss and wet weather during nesting seasons. Once widely found in grasslands in northwestern Iowa and once a common game species, their numbers have declined in recent years.

Snowy owls
The snowy owl is Iowa’s most common winter owl visitor, flying in from the tundra when they can’t find enough food. We only see snowy owls in Iowa when lemming populations – the snowy owl’s favorite dinner item – crash on the tundra. That sends the snowy owls south in search of food, like mice and other small mammals. So if you spot one, it’s a rare sight indeed. This year, the Iowa Ornithologists Union has reported a pair of snowy owls in the Lime Springs area.

Learn more about Iowa's owls.

Least weasels
The smallest weasel in Iowa and the smallest carnivore in the world, the
least weasel also has two color phases. It loses its reddish-brown coloring on its back, sides, tail and top of its head to get ready for winter, when it may become all white. Spring and fall coloring are often a mix as the color transition takes place. It’s not likely you’ll see a least weasel, as they primarily hunt at night and below the snow, but you’ll occasionally find them caught above a hard-crusted snow. Least weasels are small guys, rarely growing longer than 10 inches long.

American goldfinch
Iowa’s state bird doesn’t lose all of its coloring in winter, but if you see one in winter, you’ll notice its hue is more muted than its usual bright yellow. Most birds sport vibrant colors in the spring to attract a mate during breeding season. They then molt their feathers to bring in a more drab coloration for the winter, as their normal bright coloration would make them more visible to predators.

Trumpeter swans
Trumpeters’ year-round white coloring does allow them to blend in with the snow – mostly. Their large black bills and black legs provide enough contrast against the white snow to allow you to spot them pretty easily.

National Invasive Species Awareness Week

Learn more about Iowa invasive species as we celebrate National Invasive Species Awareness Week (February 22-28).

Invasive Species Conservation Class Outline (9-12 Agriculature & Science classes)
What are invasive species?
Invasive species are species of organism that are not native to an ecosystem and which cause harm. Invasive species generally grow and reproduce quickly, and spread aggressively with the potential to cause harm to the environment, the economy, and even human health.
How do they spread?
Invasive species are spread intentionally and unintentionally through human activity. Throughout history people have introduced foreign species to new environments for aesthetic and economic reasons. Species are also introduced inadvertently on ships, in wood products, through ornamental plants, pet trade, and other means of transportation.

Why are they bad?
Invasive species can cause harm various ways. They pose a threat to native animal species by outcompeting native species for resources, preying on native species, and carrying diseases that harm them. Invasive plant species displace native plant species. They can quickly take over an area causing clogged waterways, and improper growth and germination of native plants species. Many invasive plant species provide no food value to native animal species. All invasive species also threaten the delicate balance of entire ecosystems by disrupting the natural food web, decreasing biodiversity, and altering ecosystem conditions.

What can you do?
  • Plant natives in your yard and remove any invasive.
  • Learn to identify invasive species in your area.
  • Report invasive plant and animal sightings to your local county extension office.
  • If you are traveling to another country or region, check your baggage and vehicle for “hitchhikers”.
  • When boating always clean your boat and check it for aquatic invasive species before putting it into another body of water.
  • When camping do not bring your own firewood, instead buy locally grown firewood.

Ideas for invasive species class, family, or community projects
  • Plant native grasses, flowers, and trees in your yard or schoolyard.
  • Design and implement a local invasive species study.
  • Raise awareness of invasive species. Put together an awareness poster or campaign and help spread the word.




Young Reporters for the Environment Competition

Students ages 13- 21 are invited to participate in the national Young Reporters for the Environment competition. They may enter as individuals or part of a class or group.

Participants investigate an environmental issue and report on it in writing, photography, or video. Entries must be relevant to participants’ local community, connect to a global perspective, include possible solutions, and be disseminated to an appropriate target audience.

Participants enter in one of three age categories: 13-15, 16-18, or 19-21. They may choose between three different media types:

Writing (article of up to 1000 words)
Photography (a single photo or photo essay of up to 12 photos)
Video (up to 3 minutes in length, in documentary or reporter/interview style)

Submissions are due to the U.S. national competition by Friday, March 13, 2015, 12 P.M. EST.

The national jury will select winners in each age bracket for each media type. Honors may be given for first, second, and third prize in each category. The jury has the option not to give an award if no submission is found to be deserving, and to give more than one award in the case of multiple exceptional entries.

First place winners in each category will continue to the international competition.

Complete submission requirements
Tips for choosing a topic to investigate


Thursday, February 19, 2015

Next Generation Science Standards Public Forums

The Iowa Department of Education is hosting a series of public forums and a statewide survey  (open throught February 27) following a state panel’s recommendation to get public feedback on the Next Generation Science Standards. These are a set of learning expectations in science for students in kindergarten through high school, developed by 26 states, including Iowa. All states can consider adopting and adapting them to meet their needs.

Public feedback will be used to provide guidance to the Science Standards Review Team, which is expected to submit a final recommendation regarding science standards to the State Board of Education later this year.

The public forums are scheduled as follows:

Tuesday, Feb. 24, Ottumwa
4:30 to 6:30 p.m.

Great Prairie Area Education Agency, Ottumwa Office – Auditorium
2814 North Court Street
Ottumwa, IA

Wednesday, Feb. 25, Dubuque
4:30 to 6:30 p.m.
Keystone Area Education Agency, Dubuque Office – Room 1 ABC
2310 Chaney Road
Dubuque, IA

Thursday, Feb. 26, Sioux City
4:30 to 6:30 p.m.
Northwest Area Education Agency, Administrative Office – Room A/Auditorium
1520 Morningside Ave.
Sioux City, IA

For more information, please visit the Iowa Department of Education’s website.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Iowa High School Students Invited to Attend Iowa Youth Institute

The World Food Prize Iowa Youth Institute invites students from every high school in Iowa to participate in its day-long program at Iowa State University on April 27.

This unique experience aims to inspire the next generation of leaders and offers students an unparalleled opportunity to explore academic and career paths in fields related to STEM, food, agriculture and global development.

To participate, students select a challenge facing a particular country, and write a three- to five-page paper explaining the issue and outlining potential solutions. At the event, they present their ideas in small groups with peers; participate in interactive activities in labs and classrooms on campus; interact with innovative professors and business leaders from across the state; and hear from high-level experts. All participants earn a $500 scholarship to Iowa State University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The top students will also be selected to attend the World Food Prize Global Youth Institute, a three-day event held each October during the Borlaug International Symposium, and will be eligible to apply for international internships.

The Iowa Youth Institute currently has participation from half of the high schools in the state and aims to reach every school in Iowa. It is offered at no cost to teachers or students. More details, instructions, and testimonials from past participants are available at

For more information, contact Jacob Hunter, Director of the Iowa Youth Institute, at or 515-245-3727.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Spring Trees For Kids Grant Applications

Trees For Kids applications are available online for schools and communities to involve youth in planting trees on school grounds and other public property.  

In 2014, Trees For Kids Grants were awarded to 40 schools and communities which planted more than 1,600 landscape trees, and involved over 5,200 youth. 

Trees For Kids grants pay up to $5,000 for landscape trees and mulch for schools and other public areas.  Trees may be planted in either spring or fall.  The deadline for submitting a spring application is March 2, 2015.

Each planting project is required to have an educational component with the youth, and Project Learning Tree training is also provided to educators to create lesson plans and utilize curriculum with the planted trees.

Trees planted around schools and in neighborhoods have been shown to give youth increased levels of concentration, lower levels of aggression, lower levels of obesity, and fewer symptoms of ADHD. Communities are made more livable by having a healthy, diverse tree canopy. 

The Trees for Kids and Trees for Teens grant program is funded by Iowa Department of Natural Resources Forestry Bureau, MidAmerican Energy, Black Hills Energy, Alliant Energy, Iowa Bankers Association, Trees Forever, Iowa Tree Farm Committee, and the Iowa Woodland Owners Association.

For information about how to apply for a spring Trees For Kids grant, contact the grant coordinator at, 515/281-6749. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

STEM Connections to Real Community Environmental Solutions

ICEC Winter Workshop 2015
February 6-7, 2015
Springbrook Conservation Education Center (2473 160th Road Guthrie Center, IA 50115)
Registration - Register By 2/3/2015 (Late Fee will be applied after 1/30/2015)

Learn how you can involve your students in real world conservation projects in your community and engage your students in STEM opportunities. You will partner with science experts (county naturalists, AEA Science Consultants, Natural Resource Conservation Service-NRCS, Department of Natural Resources-DNR and Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship-IDALS) working in your AEA to discuss potential new project based learning opportunities. We will clarify our mutual goals and identify resources that can be used to support these projects.

For teachers taking this for re-certification or graduate credit, *15 contact hours and pre-registration required at AEApd online. Heartland Activity #:DR395999991501. Contact Peggy Christensen at or (515)270-0405 for more information .

The REAP Conservation Education Program has provided funding to reduce the registration and meal costs ($135.00) for everyone attending to $60. Participants will be responsible for their own lodging (dorms $20.00 or nearby hotels) and transportation expenses.  There are a limited number of $100 scholarships per AEA to be used for substitute, mileage and registration costs.

For more information contact: or go to

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Winter Wildlife

Hibernation is one of many adaptations to the cold and decreased food supplies of Iowa winters. Most mammals, including people, tend to slow down a little during the winter. True hibernators actually curl into a tight ball and reduce to extremely low levels their heart and breathing rates, body temperature, and metabolism. They need less food to survive. Bats which eat insects have virtually nothing available to eat so they are forced to hibernate all winter. Other hibernators include woodchucks, ground squirrels, jumping mice, and a few other rodents. There are a number of mammals such as badgers, raccoons, chipmunks, and skunks which do not truly hibernate. They do, however, reduce their need for food by sleeping deeply for periods extending from a few days to two weeks.

As winter arrives in Iowa, many wild animals depart or hibernate. Birds which feed on non-dormant insects and worms or need open water migrate as the food disappears and the water freezes. But many birds, especially those that feed on seeds or dormant insects, remain in Iowa. Covered with great feathery insulation and equipped with a high metabolism that burns like a small furnace, these species are able to endure Iowa’s sometimes brutal winters. They exist wherever there is accessible food, adequate shelter, and a ready source of water. Where these requirements are met, birds are often the most visible and animated spectacles of winter.

Have students create a news cast in which they pretend to interview a just emerged hibernator. In a written script or in an audio recording, they can ask questions about the animals’ winter experiences and its plans for the coming warm weather.

Animal Antifreeze

Materials:1 film canister with a lid for each participant; thermos (1 quart) of liquid knox gelatin (will be enough for 20 participants); suitable habitat

  1. Explain that a hibernating animal (chipmunk) or winter sleeper (bear) must select a sleeping spot that will provide protection from the winter cold. If the temperature of the sleeping spot falls too low, the sleeping animal may freeze to death.
  2. Each participant is given an “animal”(a film canister), ask them to pop the head off (the lid) and fill the animal with “blood” (liquid knox gelatin from the thermos).
  3. The participants job is to find a suitable shelter – sleeping spot that will protect them from freezing over the winter months. Explain that burrowing and building with nonliving materials is permitted. Define the boundaries before sending the group out. Give the participants five minutes to select sleeping spots for their animals.
  4. The number one rule of this activity is not to lose their animal – they must remember where they put their animal.
  5. After all “animals” have found their resting spot…lead the group on a winter hike.
  6. Winter hike topics too include: good over wintering habitat for the animals; hibernation/migration; animal food (acorns, insects, plants/twigs); animal tracks in the snow
  7. After a 40 to 45 minute hike return to the spot where the “animals” were hidden.
  8. Send the participants out to retrieve their animals.
  9. Have them “pop” the head (the lid) off of their animals and see whose animal survived and who froze (solid gelatin).
  10. Have the survivors explain where and what they did to help keep their animals from freezing. Lead a group discussion on how more animals could have survived. Or other items that would have been helpful, i.e. an animal fur to wrap around the container, put in area away from the wind, hide deeper in a log or hole in a tree, etc… some individuals may have decided just to carry their animal during the hike. These are all good “adaptation” strategies for a group discussion. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

America’s State Parks First Day Hikes

Des Moines – Iowa State Parks will sponsor free, guided hikes in five state parks on New Year’s Day as part of America's State Parks First Day Hikes initiative in all 50 states. 

America’s State Parks First Day Hikes offer individuals and families an opportunity to begin the New Year rejuvenating and connecting with the outdoors by taking a healthy hike on January 1 at a state park close to home. First Day Hikes offer a great way to get outside, exercise, enjoy nature and welcome the New Year with friends and family. 

“We are excited to host First Day Hikes as part of this national effort to get people outdoors and into our parks.  First Day Hikes are a great way to cure cabin fever and burn off those extra holiday calories by starting off the New Year with an invigorating walk or hike in one of our beautiful state parks,” said Todd Coffelt, chief of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources State Parks Bureau.  

Priscilla Geigis, president of the National Association of State Park Directors (NASPD), said last year, state parks across the country hosted nearly 28,000 people who hiked 68,811 miles as part of America’s State Parks First Day Hikes. “Think of it as the start of a new and healthy lifestyle, for the whole family. Whether you’re staying close to home or traveling, join us at one of America’s State Parks on New Year’s Day,” Geigis said.

Iowa’s state parks boast a variety of beautiful settings for year-round outdoor recreation, and each First Day Hike will offer an opportunity to explore the unique natural and cultural treasures close to home. 

“Studies have proven that getting outdoors is one good way to relax and recharge the body, mind and spirit,” stated Lewis Ledford, NASPD’s executive director.  “We hope that hiking along a trail in a state park will become part of an individual’s or family’s regular exercise routine.”

First Day Hikes originated more than 20 years ago at the Blue Hills Reservation, a state park in Milton, Mass.  The program was launched to promote both healthy lifestyles throughout the year and year round recreation at state parks.  Last year marked the first time all 50 state park systems have joined together to sponsor First Day Hikes.

Park staff and volunteers will lead the hikes, which average one to two miles or longer depending on the state park.  Details about hike locations, difficulty and length, terrain and tips regarding proper clothing are listed on the America’s State Parks website.  Visit to find a First Day Hike nearest you.

In Iowa, hikes will be offered at the following locations and times:
  • Bellevue State Park, Jackson County – 1 p.m. – meet at South Bluff Nature Center
  • Brushy Creek State Recreation Area, Webster County – 1 p.m. – meet at Prairie Resource Center
  • Mines of Spain State Recreation Area, Dubuque County – 1 p.m. – meet at EB Lyons Nature Center
  • Walnut Woods State Park, Polk County – 9 a.m. – meet at Walnut Woods Lodge
  • Waubonsie State Park, Fremont County – 1 p.m. – meet at park office

For more information about the hikes, go to the events calendar on the DNR website.

America's State Parks is committed to promoting outdoor recreation in state parks as a way to address obesity, especially among children.  Getting kids outside and unplugged from video games and other electronic media creates a unique connection with nature that promotes physical and mental well-being and encourages creativity and stewardship of our shared resources.

Media Contact: Todd Coffelt, Chief, State Parks Bureau, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, 515-725-8485.