"Want to see something neat?" — your favourite cheap nature tricks for non-naturalists

I frequent a lovely local trail that gets a lot of family traffic through on the weekends, and sometimes I hear young kids asking bewildered adults in their group all kinds of questions about what they’re observing. (Often followed by horribly wrong answers from the adults.)

On occasion though, I have gently pointed out things that they may have overlooked and it’s quite a rush to see the expressions on the faces, especially the kids, if it’s something totally surprising and you can really feel their awakening curiosity in their expressions and sometimes follow up discussion.

So it made me want to pool the community here about this common ‘recruitment’ long-game interaction.

Have you a favourite observation trick that you often share with non-naturalists that helps spark greater interest in nature observing?

To start us off:

My most popular ‘hit’ (by far) is something for when the jewelweed pods are ripe. (It grows in thick patches along this trail.)

I will carefully pick of a few thick pods and ask the kids to hold their hand out flat and gently lay some pods on top.

Then I ask them to slowly tickle the pods (if they’re really young, I will demo with my own hand.)

There’s almost always a cry of delight, and quite a few insisted repetitions of the ‘trick’ for mom, dad, etc. And… big smiles, followed by a lot more questions and general natural discovery excitement.

Lately I’ve been thinking it might be great to somehow get our public library involved in this little interaction.

I’d love to have a little card with their contact and promo to hand out. (Wouldn’t it be great if their kids programming would promote being vectors that connected young naturalists to good, safe info resources?)

But that’s just one of my local nature ‘trick’. What are some of your favourite ways to spark more interest in natural observation in the young and/or curious?

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I always point out galls when I spot them; invariably most people have never seen or heard of them, or if they have they know little about them. They always seem to be a big hit no matter the demographic

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Elateridae - click beetles - can be fun to lay in the hands of unexpecting non-naturalists

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I’ve always found that people of all ages and backgrounds are extremely interested in Native, ‘survival’, historical, or scientific uses for things in nature.

It’s important to caveat any discussion and demonstrations with a warning on overuse (or even use at all in some locations).

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When I lived in England, I learned that of the bumblebee species there, only males have a yellow tuft of hairs on their face. Male bumblebees have no sting. It entertains kids to catch a bee in your hand without being stung, and then release it unharmed. Fair warning: recognising male bumblebees in different regions may depend on other features!

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When the Korean Chrysanthemums are in flower in October I often hear people (usually adults) saying, “Look at all the bees!” Then I usually tell them – “Most of those are not bees, but flower flies, which are bee mimics.” Many times they refuse to believe me, so I point to one and say, “Is that a bee?” and when they say yes, I show them how I can catch it in in my closed hand without getting stung. “Now do you still think it is a bee?” They find that surprising and interesting,

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Yes! Though it’s been years since I’ve seen one in the wild. I just checked and see that there are just a few scant observations in my area. (Going on the most wanted list, for sure!)

Absolutely. I mean, we see this frequently in discussion, even here in the forums.

It also highlights the enormous gap that has developed over time between natural science and the citizenry, and to a large extent, the educational systems.

Small anecdote: when my 7 year-old son spent a month at a local childcare summer camp, held at the local university many years ago, he was delighted that the activity list included walks along the Bruce Trail, which runs right through the university grounds.

It was a good camp and well-staffed, mostly by young, energetic students studying in child related fields.

Which was why I was surprised to receive a frantic call shortly after he started there with the news that my son had been ‘caught’ eating wild berries as the group hiked along.

And even though he insisted that they were perfectly safe and that he had done this with his dad for many years, they were now very concerned about possible poisoning.

They were, in fact… wild blackberries.

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Ha! A couple of years ago I was browsing for Saskatoons, and a young girl and her father walked past. I offered some to her, and her father adamantly said no. Shame really - they were good!
I don’t have any tricks, though occasionally I will point out things to people. I don’t know if it makes much difference!

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Male velvet ants are similarly entertaining and quite curious and don’t buzz so much compared to male bees. Male Melissodes, in particular, vibrate furiously when held.

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Orange Bush Monkey Flowers (aka Sticky Monkey Flowers) have white stamens that look a bit like 2 “lips”, pursed for a kiss. If you touch them lightly with a finger or twig, they quickly close.

https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/46546062

This is because the flower thinks it’s been pollinated and the stamens close to avoid losing the pollen. After a few moments, flower senses it was not really pollinated and the “lips” open again.

Also, the leaves are sticky. Occasionally, since I sometimes have them growing in the yard, I would show the kids how to make mustaches by taking the sticky leaves and pressing them against their upper lip. This is an opportunity to explain how the sticky residue protects the plant from drying out in our arid summers.

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Strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and mulberries are perhaps the easiest ‘Genesis’ botanical ID of many young naturalists. At least in my zone.

Something I struggle with, even today, is the buckets of beautiful mulberries I see going to rot in urban areas because the property owners haven’t a clue as to their deliciousness. You’re more likely to hear them cursing about the ‘mess’.

Anecdote 2: waiting in line one afternoon with my wife and daughter outside a theatre in downtown Toronto a few years back. As we get closer, my daughter spies an old mulberry in prime ripening form, hovering just above us. Up go our hungry arms as we gobble handfuls of the treasures. Much to the shock (and some horror) of the patrons around us.

Closer to home I remember asking my wife once if it would be ethical to ‘midnight-harvest’ a similarly laden mulberry on a suburban front lawn a couple blocks away from my house.

Especially when I know for sure that this resource has never been harvested in the decades it’s been there.

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Filaree (Erodium) seeds - find a nice ripe dry seed, dribble a little water on it, and it starts to drill itself into the ground like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=578lKODmavM

One I remember from my own childhood: if you take a california bay fruit, and nick a bit of the fruit in the right spot, then drop it in water, it’ll propel itself around for a while (anyone know exactly how this works)?

If you’re lucky enough to find any kind of longhorn beetle (already an impressive sight) it’s fun to grab them and listen to them squeal: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Ue77zg8Ydo

Luring tarantulas or calisogas out of their holes with a bit of grass is always a hit as well.

If you see a Western Fence Lizard, and you mimic the “push up” motion with a finger, it’ll usually start doing it back at you.

My family has a favorite story of my oldest brother and something similar - back then they were super poor, and foraging was a major part of their survival. So even though he was only 2, he knew all the edible berries. One day he and my mom were going along on a guided “nature walk”, and my mom hears a frantic “Spit it out! Baby, spit it out!” and sees some lady removing berries (also wild blackberries, of course) from his mouth. The lady gave him a stick of gum to chew on instead, which he promptly brought it to my mom and asked “Is it edible?”

She explained that you can chew on it, but not swallow it, and you spit it out when you’re done, and he regarded it with extreme skepticism and had no interest in trying that one out, lol.

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If you’re at a pond with a lot of dragonflies (mostly Libellulidae) flying around but none are landing where you can easily view or photo them, I plant a few upright sticks in the shallows near shore, close to where I’m standing, to provide perches. On occasion I’ve had them land on my perches within seconds, but usually within a few minutes. This also works for rock-perching dragonflies like clubtails – put a big stone in the riffles of a stream where one or more are flying their regular beat. I’m going to employ the stick technique at our local nature center for a public event in a few weeks.

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I adore teaching my fellow city-dwellers about the nature around them:

  • When I’m foraging for service berries (June berries) in public parks, I love to offer some to the curious onlookers I know are eyeing me, even if they’re not being obvious about it.

  • Pointing out the variations in a mockingbird’s song can blow the mind of folks who never stopped to listen before.

  • I love showing people my macro insect photos; I believe that seeing the faces of these creatures up close makes folks see them more as living things and less as pests or something that can just be smooshed, swatted away, or ignored.

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Um, are you sure this isn’t imposing unnecessary stress to them?

As soon as you said “fun to grab” in the context of observing a wild animal, my mind goes back to those kids (didn’t we all know some like this?) that truly found the torture of little animals ‘entertaining’. (You know, the guy who’s yearbook pic said something like, “Most likely to grow up to be a killing machine”.)

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I’m significantly more terrified of the super suave gentlemen who look like they’re more likely to attend an Ivy league and inherit inter-generational wealth.

These types are often than not, just as likely, if not more, prone to acts of violence, abuse and psychopathy.

Look at who runs our government(s), everywhere.

Sorry if this offends, but I’ve been unfortunate enough to have no shortage of experience living around and serving the rich, while being subjected to living in their financial playgrounds.

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Plucking male bumblebees, or male yellowjackets, paper wasps, etc, off of flowers as casually as possible in front on onlookers, or better yet do so beforehand and then ask folks to guess what’s in my hand before releasing four or five from my closed fist like Pandora’s box haha. Part of the wizardry is the nonchalance with which you must perform it :wink: I also just like to walk around for extended periods with some sort of insect on my hand, and people seem to think it’s magic that it doesn’t fly away. So I go about giving my talk or leading the hike with it still there. I think I had a katydid on my hand for almost seven hours once, and folks would actually leave for a while and come back later to check if I still had it and it became a great outreach tool haha.

As for the longhorn beetles, especially Tetraopes, holding one up to someone’s ear and their amazement at hearing them squeak for the first time is super cool! Holding any insect imposes stress on it, though rarely lethal stress such as can happen in the case of mist-netting songbirds for example. I tend to err on the side of ‘would this experience be valuable for someone to change their view of nature and be inspired to seek it out and act to protect it?’ I don’t know where I’d be today if I didn’t get the chance to hear milkweed longhorns squeak as a child! Tactile formative experiences are crucial esp for children to be able to form a personal investment in the natural world. I consider something like that very different than pulling the wings off a fly or stepping on bugs.

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This is one of my favorites too. I asked my friend to film it with a macro lens for his Instagram and it turned out great: https://www.instagram.com/p/CaneVnAPV3y/

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Galium aparine (catchweed bedstraw) is very common along woodland trails here, and covered with recurved, velcro-like hairs. I introduce this plant when I lead nature hikes. I’ll pick a little chunk with leaves, gently toss it at someone wearing cotton or other fuzzy clothing, and it sticks (for example, see https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/64487128 ). I call them “trail darts” and even my college students usually enjoying tossing a few pieces at each other. It is also a good introduction to talking about seed dispersal.

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I like to do the bird call where you put your hands together and blow down the knuckles of your thumbs to call to the barred owls. They call back nearly every time, unless maybe there’s some other weirdo doing owl calls out of sight! :) It also works for mourning doves, but nobody cares about them.

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