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

Mountain laurel seeds are quite poisonous. If you take one, rub it on a hard surface like a sidewalk, and then touch it to your skin, it feels somewhere between touching a hot surface and being lightly zapped by a battery. Rub it long enough and hold it on your skin long enough, and you can produce a blister, but brief rubbing and a quick ‘zap’ is harmless. Apparently this is a commonly known trick in some areas, where kids use it to bother each other. I think it’s neat. I learned about the blister thing accidentally, after repeatedly ‘zapping’ myself while figuring out the sensation.
I’m not sure I would demonstrate this to strangers, though. Maybe teenage boys. I think that’s the demographic most likely to find it funny.

I like to point out birds that people haven’t noticed. I’ve also found that pointing out bee mimics as not being bees gets good reactions.

Finding something that other people don’t notice is generally interesting, but my favorite ‘trick’ is to go “watch this”, reach into a plant or patch of grass, and pull out a bug that they weren’t expecting. People are often surprised to find out just how many bugs are everywhere around them.


I find antlion traps to be good for catching people’s attention. Just take a small blade of grass and tickle the edge of the pit very lightly. The antlion larva will spit a small plume of sand from the seemingly empty pit. After a brief explanation you can point out that the sarlaac pit in Return of the Jedi is based on the antlion pit traps.


The things I remember being shown as a kid:

  1. My dad taught me how to make a Dallisgrass seed head into a “walking caterpillar”.
    You hold you forearms horizontally in front of you, pressed together al the way from wrists to elbows, with the “underside” of your arms facing up. Then you or another person drops the seedhead in the valley formed by your arms. Then you shift you arms forward and back against each other & it will “walk” up from your elbows to your wrists.

  2. Dropping an ant into an antlion pit trap to see it fling up sand & get a meal.

  3. My dad told me when he was growing up a trick was to rub a mountain laurel seed arainst the concrete, and then touch it to the exposed skin of your unsuspecting friend’s arm. I do NOT demo this one, though, as it can be a good way to start a fight.

[addendum: I see 2 & 3 have already been covered]


I’ve never tried a finger, but bobbing your head at green anoles (from a distance, they don’t like it when you get close) can make them bob back or inflate their dewlap.

There’s rules preventing taking plants from state parks around here, but in city parks or wild areas (so I don’t have to worry about pesticides), I’ve always liked foraging.
I’m not great at IDing plants, though, so I’m limited to super obvious ones like dewberries, honeysuckle flowers, prickly pear petals (it’s like biting an iceberg lettuce leaf - not much flavor, but wet, cooling on a hot day and a little crisp), the occasional escaped loquat or mulberry, raw agarita berries and some oxalis leaves (for those last 2, I don’t mind acidic/astringent tasting things)


Successfully pishing out a bird or identifying a bird by call before it actually appears is really appealing

…I’ve been told




Obligatory disclaimer: don’t try this at home unless you know how to do it safely.

Obligatory disclaimer 2: do not call me an adrenaline junkie, daredevil, etc. Handling most “dangerous” bugs is easy as hell if one does so responsibly.


Seeing how many pieces of Catchweed Bedstraw you can throw and stick to somebody’s back before they notice. Very fun backpacking game for anybody behind you, but beware you will become a target!!


It really is fascinating how well pishing can work. You make a funny noise at a little flickery motion in a bush, and all of a sudden, here’s a bird! Fun to watch them pop out to check you out.


Love of nature starts with exploring, touching is very valuable experience and beetles don’t do that because of pain.


Tried something similar to @m_whitson and @josegarrido, but with Hedge Parsley (Torilis arvensis) which also has velco-like seeds.

The first few “darts” I threw were easy to remove, but the last one ended with the seeds crumbling and leaving only the velcro-like hairs behind…

… and that’s when I learned why it’s also called Tall Sock Destroyer.


The bay laurel fruit trick might work like a soap boat experiment, where soap (or laurel fruit volatiles?) dissolving in water changes the surface tension and creates a force, maybe?

Possible way to test this is with a bowl of water and pepper flakes. Sprinkling pepper flakes on top of the water should stay on top due to surface tension. Once fruit/soap is put in, some of the flakes should move to the edges of the bowl after surface tension changes.


When I’m hiking with friends, it’s usually just ‘smell this!’ It’s about 50/50 whether I’m offering them something pleasant or something smelly XD


Pointing out the variety of little birds, and their nests, that proliferate in suburban parks and backyards, or birds that are camouflaged and well-hidden such as owls. I get a lot of “how did you spot that???” Pishing is always fun too, and if you feed corvids or pigeons they’ll start following you.


i want to befriend a corvid so badly xD


If you close your hand over the pod to catch the jewelweed seeds, you can rub off the black covering and the seeds are a pretty pale blue underneath. And you can eat them, although I probably wouldn’t mention that.


What about the one where you can use jewelweed juice (from crushed stems) as a kind of first aid relief from poison ivy rash?

And of course they both grow in the same places, so it’s extra handy.

Is that one just folklore?

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I figure over the years I must have walked under the trees of dozens of hidden small owls. But when I looked at a picture of a perched screech I figured out why.

Any tips on spotting these?

If you are in a warm or tropical climate, the sensitive mimosa can be a neat trick – show how it “wilts” instantly when you touch it.

I have heard of a nighttime trick involving Dictamnus, but I’m not sure I would recommend it.

Little kids love roly-poly bugs when they roll up.


If you are in an area where casuarinas grow there is a way to use them to entertain children. In most species if you pull apart the segments of the ‘needles’ (actually modified stems), they can be fitted back in place quite easily. A number of needles can be joined to make one super long one. They can also be made into a circle. I tell the kids that they are ‘lego plants’.