Near the end of September, 2018, we received an email from the folks at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Kempton, PA. They had seen some pictures of the kestrel costume that we had been using at ROC Animal School and Braddock Bay Raptor Research and had some questions about the best way to create a vulture coatume for an upcoming program.
I decided I would build their vulture, and thus, in November, construction began. But, trying to build a full costume in a few weeks from scratch while juggling holiday hours at my day job proved to be a difficult task; I profoundly misjudged my timing. Katie managed to build the entire bodysuit while I focused on constructing the mask. This was my first time putting together a head and it ended up taking all of my time.
We finished it around Thanksgiving. I then packed up the suit and began my long drive to the Mountain to deliver it. Under normal weather conditions, the drive would merely take 4.5 hours. However, it rained heavily for most of the drive with thick patches of fog. On the mountaintops, the rain was freezing into ice, making for a tricky drive.
Luckily, by sundown, the temperature climbed high enough to convert any ice to rain. Of course, it was still heavy and foggy, which made for a very slow go along the narrow and winding mountain roads.
After seven hours of driving, I arrived at the Mountain. It was pitch black in the rain and fog. The only light I could see was coming my car, which didn’t travel far. And yet, being alone in the darkness on the side of the mountain was oddly humbling. I had grown up in areas like this where it was just you and not much else for miles (the woods of North Carolina and the prairie of southern Minnesota) but this felt different… somewhat peaceful. It may sound funny, but it was as if I realized how small I was compared to the world around me and I found a deep comfort in that.
The good folks at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary had arranged lodging for me and I slept well. The next morning, they were able to try out the costume and get ready for their program, “Treasure All Vultures.”
Barnaby the Turkey Vulture debuted in front of a crowd of children and their families. He gave them a telescope and a map with instructions on where to locate some of his vulture friends around the Mountain.
At each location, folks would find a display, symbolizing a different location on the globe, with a species of vulture from that region. An activity would start that would demonstrate a hardship faced by that particular bird that’s dramatically affecting their numbers. We made stops in Egypt, India, Portugal and other spots.
These issues ranged from chronic habitat loss (Egypt), poisoned food supply (antibiotics in cattle that had died in India), and a nearly complete disappearance of food sources in Portugal and other areas of Europe. I was mentally taking notes most of the time.
Once the activities were completed, patrons returned to the auditorium to get some prizes from Barnaby and a summary of why vultures are essential to their ecosystems.
I sadly had to head home right after the program, facing a 4am opening shift the next day at my regular job. But, I felt reenergized. Getting a chance to visit a group of educators and scientists and seeing how they reach out, educate, and empower audiences made me very eager to try out new ideas with the groups we work with.
I hope to return to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary before too long. It was a beautiful place under clear skies and sunshine and I have trail passes I am eager to use. Maybe I can bring down some of our Animal School characters and team up with them for a program. A working vacation, perhaps?
The spring and summer of 2018 will be a very productive period for us here at ROC Animal School. After a successful February, we are eager to keep the momentum going! Here’s what we’re up to!
New Programs in Development
We’ve been hard at work creating new educational content. Obviously, our goal is to spread knowledge and to be as involved in the community as possible. While some programs are ready to launch (see below), we have some others in the works that will be ready to go later this year. Currently in development are initiatives to educate people on wildlife native to our area (county and statewide), a program on being a pet parent/domestic animals, an in depth program on local nocturnal animals, as well as new bird of prey programs.
New Programs Launching
We are adding to our list of available programs! Here’s what’s ready to go!
Curious about “Coywolves?” – The Eastern Coyote: This program will be hosted by our talking coyote mascot, Dakota, and will focus on the amazing eastern coyote, sometimes referred to as the coywolf. This animal is has a mixture of coyote, wolf and dog DNA which makes it quite an adaptable creature with the ability to call both the countryside and urban areas home. Are you curious about coywolves?
Coyote Class: Coyotes are often dubbed the song dog because of their dynamic range of vocalizations. This incredible canine is one of the most adaptable animals of all time, expanding its range across much of North America and making itself right at home in cities as well as the wilderness. Do you have what it takes to live as a coyote? Our mascot, Dakota Coyote will get everyone howling along!
Animal Jams – Nature Rocks! Animals can make a lot of noise! Some animals are more musically inclined than others. Come learn about the songs of birds, coyotes, wolves, owls, insects and other wild animals!
And as always, we can create custom programs to fit your needs. Just let us know what you’re looking for!
Animal School: Out and About!
This year, we will be appearing regularly at the Pittsford Famers Market, showcasing new themes every month. This will give us a great chance to interact with more of you while allowing us to hopefully shed some light on what creatures might be living in your backyard and some local environmental issues you might not know about. Or, you can just pop by to learn some fun animal facts while shopping! We’ll have one of our talking mascots on hand at each appearance to give folks the chance to ask them questions about wildlife and maybe get a few selfies!
We will also be appearing at area libraries over the summer, as well as some area festivals. If you haven’t heard by now, we will be attending this year’s Rochester March for Science and Expo on April 14th. We’re really excited!
New Mascot Characters
We are slowly adding to our roster of educational talking mascots. Oslo the Owl just debuted at the annual Owl Moon event at the Genesee Country Village and Museum. We hope to have our lion and Dalmatian up and running by the fall as well. Skye the Eagle, who debuted in October, has been making several appearances alongside our friends from Braddock bay Raptor Research through the month of February.
It’s National Wolf Awareness Week! We here at Animal School have been hard at work! We’ve filmed multiple videos this week featuring our talking wolf mascot, Howler Wolf, showcasing wolf facts and profiling some of the different wolves found in North America. Each short video will lead into a blog post regarding each wolf.
These will include the gray wolf, red wolf, eastern wolf, the Mexican gray wolf, arctic wolf, island wolf, and the coywolf (aka, the eastern coyote). We’ll wrap up the series with some information about wolf conservation. So keep your eyes open, Wild Things!
We wanted to make everyone aware of wolves! With such a varied reputation, it’s sometimes hard to separate fact from fiction regarding these lupines. Wolves aren’t as big and bad as they’re often made out to be. They’re actually extremely important creatures in their ecosystems.
As many of the wolf sanctuaries, biologists and wolf fans share their knowledge as we celebrate National Wolf Awareness Week, we wanted to do our part. We hope you enjoy the videos and the posts!
Welcome back, Wild Things! Since we have been working on our fox adaptation program, we thought it would be fun to share some facts about foxes and what makes various vulpine species unique.
There are six major fox species in North America (excluding subspecies and admixtures): the Red Fox, Arctic Fox, Kit Fox, Swift Fox, Channel Island Fox and Gray Fox
Red Foxes are the longest foxes in the world and Fennec Foxes are the shortest. From nose to tail, Red Foxes are usually between 30 to 56 inches long (762 – 1,422.40 mm), whereas Fennec Foxes are typically 17 to 28 inches long (431.80 – 711.20 mm).
Generally speaking, a fox’s tail is ¾ the length of its body. In other words, a fox with a body length of 20 inches would have a tail that is 15 inches long. Obvious, length and size vary depending on the species, the fox’s age and its sex, but most foxes’ tails are long and serve as blankets for the foxes to wrap around themselves to stay warm while they sleep.
Red Foxes are well adapted to a variety of environments. In fact, they will live in cities and urban areas where people live and take advantage of the free meals our trash cans provide!
Foxes will stash excess food underground for safekeeping. To keep other animals away from the food, and in order to find it later, the fox will mark its cache by urinating over the buried pile.
Red Foxes are the most common species of fox on the planet
Red Foxes have a lot of stamina to hunt prey and avoid predators. They can run up to 30 mph!
Because Arctic Foxes live in cold, barren locations, they are physically adapted to their environments. They have white fur to blend in with snow, which camouflages them from prey and predators alike.
Arctic Foxes also have round, compact bodies to minimize their exposure to cold air. Their short muzzles, ears and legs conserve heat, and their deep, thick fur allows them to maintain a consistent body temperature. They even have thick fur on their paws that allows them to walk on snow and ice.
The Arctic Fox is Iceland’s only native land animal
Arctic Foxes have lighter weight brown fur coats in summer that, again, allow them to be camouflaged in their surroundings
Foxes get the jump on their prey! They use their ears to locate the precise position of their prey, which is sometimes underground. When they hear the prey, they will leap into the air and pounce, breaking through any soil or snow to land right onto the prey underneath. Arctic Fox Pounces For Prey, via Discovery
Foxes will change their diets with the season in order to survive. They are opportunistic eaters, and will eat animals and plants. They will also scavenge for other animals’ leftovers.
Foxes are typically nocturnal. They evade predators and have an edge over their prey this way! Their speed, sense of sight and hearing give them an advantage.
Kit Foxes, which live in warm desert regions, are named in reference to their size. Fox babies are called “kits,” “pups” and “cubs.” Kit Foxes are called such because they are small. They have slender bodies, large heads, large ears, long tails and bushy fur
Kit Foxes only weigh around 4 pounds!
Kit Foxes big ears act as cooling vents, releasing excess heat from their bodies through the veins
Kit Foxes will occasionally come out during the day, which makes people more likely to see these guys around
Kit Foxes mate annually. Sometimes, they will keep the same partner, but they will often pick a new one each year.
Kit Foxes do establish territories, but they are not as protective of them as other fox species. It is common for Kit Foxes to share hunting ground with other Kits, but they will hunt at different times of the day or night.
Swift Foxes are named for their speed. They can reach speeds of 31 mph, which allows them to catch fast prey and escape predators
The Swift Fox lives in the Great Plains region, between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. Swifts can be found as far North as Canada, and have historically lived in Western Canada.
Swift Foxes hunt mostly at night, when it’s cooler out. This way, they won’t easily overheat from strenuous exercise. They usually only go out during the day to sun themselves, and only during winter.
Swift Foxes build several entrances to their underground burrows, which are up to 13 feet deep, so they can avoid being cornered by predators. When Swifts hunt at night, they don’t stray far from their den, in case they need to scurry back to safety.
Swift Foxes prefer open desert and short-or-mixed grass prairies, generally avoiding dense areas of vegetation. They live in cropland habitats such as wheat fields and ranch areas.
Swift Foxes can survive high on hilltops or down in valleys, as long as they can dig burrows that won’t be exposed to environmental threats like flooding.
Channel Island Foxes live on six of the eight Channel Islands in California. Because the foxes are specially adapted to their specific islands, each island has a distinct species, meaning there are six species of Channel Island Foxes.
Channel Island Foxes are offshoots of Gray Foxes, which is why they look similar. Channel Island Foxes are smaller than Gray Foxes, though
Channel Island Foxes get fish not by hunting but, rather, by scavenging for leftovers in bald eagles’ nests.
Channel Island Foxes have long legs, which help them to run fast, sneak up on prey and escape predators. In fact, their legs are the longest part of their bodies.
Channel Island Foxes turn their paws inward to climb, which helps them get fruit and birds to eat and, again, lets them escape predators.
Gray Foxes are the only species of fox, excluding the Channel Island Fox, that can climb trees! They do so to escape predators like coyotes and wolves. They take advantage of this ability to hunt tree prey, such as squirrels
Gray Foxes are incredibly nervous around people. Therefore, unlike the Red Fox, the Gray Fox rarely enters urban areas.
Gray Foxes are gray, white, black, and russet, or reddish-brown. They blend into their woodland habitats, which camouflages them to predators and prey alike.
Fennec Foxes are the smallest fox species in the world. They are native to North Africa, are less than 5 pounds and only about 2 feet long from nose to tail!
Fennec Foxes are nocturnal, since the North African deserts are HOT! The deserts get ridiculously cold at night, though, so the Fennecs have thick fur to keep them warm when they’re out on the prowl.
Fennec Foxes have massive ears. They can get as long as 6 inches, which is about ¼ of their total body length. These ears let them ear bugs and rodents that are underground, which Fennecs love to eat. Their ears also provide extra body surface area, which reduces the little guys’ body heat and keeps them cool!
Fennecs have thick, sandy fur that reflects sunlight and keeps them cool if they must go out during the day. Fur also covers the bottoms of their feet, preventing the hot sand from burning their little toes. The fur on their soles also provides traction, so they fox can easily run on loose sand and quickly dig burrows.
Fennec Foxes’ kidneys retain water to prevent dehydration, since deserts have little to no free water. These foxes can survive for long periods on only the moisture from what they eat, and possibly from dew that collects on the insides of their burrows.
Back in 2008, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I designed a coyote character to be a storyteller and educator of sorts. The body suit was a refurbished wolf I bought on eBay and a friend of mine built the head. I named the coyote Kyp, and was really proud of what I was able to put together.
As events increased in frequency, I realized the costume just wasn’t working in the way I had hoped. The mask was very much a traditional mascot-styled head. That is to say, it was made of thick foam and it was very hard for people to hear my voice through it. And, more importantly, it was hard to breathe in.
For those reasons, I shelved the character and focused my attention on other projects. Eventually, once I had come across the mouth-mover masks from Elope Inc., I realized I had finally found a solution to the issue of not being heard at programs. Once we had our red fox, gray wolf and arctic fox, we put out a request to get a second wolf mask donated so I could, in theory, switch the colors around a bit and fashion it into a coyote.
After several months, we had the extra mask. I thought I could apply the colorations with an airbrush, but sadly, it was far too costly to purchase one and I was not able to find anyone locally who had one. So, the head sat on the costume rack for another year.
I was at a standstill on the coyote project until a friend of mine, Erin, who is a professional mascot costume designer, suggested I try just using various permanent markers to apply the colors. Honestly, I was afraid to try, as I feared the ink would smear after use. So, for another few months, it sat there.
Finally, a few weeks ago, I was shopping for supplies at an art store in town when I spotted some high quality markers that would work on fabric in the colors I needed. I decided to take a risk and buy them. I quickly returned home and experimented on scraps of faux fur. I worked until I had the results I wanted before trying it out on the mask.
After two days of work, the wolf had transformed into a coyote. It was realistic enough for my liking and once we tweaked the eye color a bit, friendly as well.
We decided to change the name of the character since the new look was a far departure from the old one. Katie and I narrowed it down to four names with the help of our friends and posted an online poll for our fans to vote on.
As luck would have it, we were able to debut the coyote character at the Pittsford Community Farmers Market. We brought a tally sheet with us and invited folks to vote in person as they shopped. At the end of the day, we counted the votes from both polls and announced the winning name the next morning.
Dakota won in a landslide!
Now I’m working hard behind the scenes to rewrite the coyote program. There’s some new information out there on coyotes, yet I’m finding there is a lot of information that seems to be missing. The song dog is quite fascinating, yet mysterious! Once I get all of the pieces together, I can promise an entertaining and engaging program.
In the meantime, Dakota Coyote has been appearing at area farmers markets as we at Animal School celebrate our first anniversary. So keep your eyes and ears open for the newest howler in town!
You never know what information a person is going to divulge when you start a conversation with him or her.
On Sunday, June 18, we attended the Brighton Eco-Fair. Fun fact: this was the first official event Animal School participated in after we began working as a mom-and-pop operation last year. To celebrate our paper anniversary, I crafted up 50 origami animals, packed them in a shoebox and gave one to each person at the event who told us a fun animal fact. We later extended our offer to those who performed one of the wolf calls Howler was teaching.
One of my favorite things about working with Animal School has been meeting so many interesting people. You all have such an amazing breadth of knowledge, experience and creativity. The cute kids and dogs who run up to our mascots, greet them with great big smiles and start playing are high on the list, too. Having fun while learning is what Animal School is all about. We are constantly learning new things from the people we meet, and we strive to share our knowledge with you.
This year’s Eco-Fair focused on the theme of conservation, so we had Howler Wolf talking about why conserving wolf populations is vital. As anyone who has seen our Lupinology presentation knows, wolves are a keystone species, crucial to an ecosystem. Pluck them out of their environment, and all other living things are drastically affected. Everyone’s favorite example of this is the gray wolf’s reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park in 1995, which allowed several animal species to thrive. It also kept coyote populations in check – ’yotes tend to become invasive species that throw off the balance of an ecosystem when their numbers get too high. Even some tree species that had long been absent started to grow again once the wolves were brought back into the ecosystem.
The results of this reintroduction teach us two things. One: wolves are imperative to their ecosystems. Two: we can never be entirely certain how a plant or animal affects its surroundings. Therefore, we should never assume that adding infrastructure, plants or animals to an ecosystem will be perfectly safe. Even when scientists and environmentalists perform studies to project what will happen when we build architecture in an ecosystem, there can still be unanticipated consequences. Nature exists in a delicate balance, and we must be mindful of that so that we can conserve it and flourish for generations to come.
Wolves used to live all around North America. However, when hunters started becoming overzealous, particularly as myths about wolves attacking livestock and people without provocation rose, the lupines’ numbers plummeted. Today, there are only a handful of areas in the U.S. where wolves live. Here in upstate New York, there are no known wolves roaming around, though there have been some unconfirmed sightings in the Adirondacks and extreme upstate region. The good news is that wolves are slowly being reintroduced to various states across the U.S., so there is still hope of reviving their grand ecosystems of centuries past.
Now, moving on to fun animal facts, we got a good number of responses from people at the event. Some of our favorites are:
Owls’ wings are structured in a way that prevents other animals from hearing the birds coming. There are a couple of mechanisms at work here. First, the broadness of owls’ wings keeps them from flapping too much, which reduces noise. Furthermore, as How Stuff Works states, “When most birds fly, turbulence – created when air gushes over the surface of their wings – causes noise. Owls’ wings, however, are unique because they reduce noise caused by turbulence. An owl’s primary feathers are serrated like a comb. This design breaks down turbulence into smaller currents called micro-turbulences.”
We learned from Braddock Bay Raptor Research that you can tell the age of a broad-winged hawk by its tail feathers. Juveniles’ tails have narrow bands of color, whereas adults have broad black and white bands on their tails. At about one year of age, a hawk reaches adulthood and will molt its feathers, allowing its new plumage to come in. This is similar to how humans lose their baby teeth and have adult ones grow in their places!
As we mentioned above, in 1995, humans reintroduced gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park, which changed the park’s entire ecosystem. Someone informed us about a documentary she saw regarding Yellowstone, which showed how even the bends and path of a river changed as a result of the wolves’ presence. Remember: wolves are important to an ecosystem because they bring vitality. Ask Howler Wolf if you would like to learn more.
There is widespread misconception about how two species crossbreeding is a symptom of climate change, global warming and habitat loss. However, as one woman mentioned to us, creatures have been mating with other species for centuries, so these hybrids are not necessarily a result of negative effects on our environment. I will have to do additional research before I say anything conclusively, but it is probable that the convergence of certain traits between species could produce evolutionary advantages and be examples of adaptation. On the other hand, there are animals that breed with other species due to loss of habitat and human interference. Pugs, for example, which humans have and continue to selectively breed, have severe respiratory distress throughout their lives due to the shapes of their skulls. (Yet another reason it’s always better to #AdoptDontShop, because some animal breeders inbreed cats and dogs for their purebred status, which can cause severe and lifelong health problems for the animals.) Other possible concerns for interspecies offspring are health problems, infertility and shorter lifespans. A few common examples of hybrids species are wolfdogs, coywolves, coydogs and grizzly-polar bear hybrids.
The best response of the day, however, came from a young man with a vivid imagination and knack for storytelling. He said that snails and ants are two of the strongest creatures in existence, and that a snail-ant hybrid could take over the planet by invading power plants. These snail ant assailants would be the ultimate destroyers and overtake the earth!
This kid captivated me. I just stood there, eager to hear more, engrossed in the yarn he spun. So many questions came to mind, including: where would these hybrids come from? Why is this not already an amazing splatstick B-Movie horror flick? Where did this elementary-school-aged kid come up with this dystopian future filled with Godzilla-like super bugs? (Thinking back, I don’t know if he ever said they were giant monsters, but I was definitely getting a Mothra vibe from what he described.) Which parts of the snails and ants would be the strongest? How do the two fuse into one species? Genetic engineering? Would they be able to naturally reproduce, or be infertile like mules, the horse-donkey hybrids? Would these creatures stay their original sizes, or adapt to support their larger and smaller sections? Which sections of each animal would make the evolutionary cut? Would they be giga-snail ants, or under-the-radar mini assailants? Would it be a gradual takeover or a snowballing situation? Where would the takeover start? Would the world end up like the “true” ending of Little Shop of Horrors, with these devious creatures we unknowingly nurtured taking over humanity? How intelligent would they be? Are these snails intentionally seeking out power plants, or just looking for shelter and sustenance? What draws them in? How do they get in? Does their slime make machines and electricity malfunction, or does this massive wave of them get into nuclear reactors, which turn them into Hulk-like beasts? Where do the ants fit into this equation? Do they become snail ants before or after taking over the power plants? Can this be avoided if we switch to greener energy? Do the snails feel malice towards humanity? Do they have an agenda? This scenario prompts a lot of thought-provoking questions, and I want to know more about the world this little guy created with his words. Most importantly, where did he come up with this idea?
I am going to have to do some research into snails and ants to see if they are like cockroaches and can allegedly survive a nuclear blast. I also want to see if I can find media that may have inspired this kid, because I am now invested in finding answers to this hypothetical scenario, and maybe making some concept art.
The funny thing was, after this kid told us all about the snail ant takeover, he didn’t even want an origami animal! So we ended up giving one to his brother instead.
It is amazing what you can uncover when you have an inquisitive mind, a thirst for knowledge, natural curiosity and the ability to problem solve creatively.
Sixteen years in a mascot head will give you such a crick in the neck!
Yes, I just made an Aladdin reference, but how better to introduce a person who puts on masks for a living? Nick has dressed up in many different personalities and donned countless names during the past 16 years, all for the amusement of others.
Living with a mascot is a unique experience. Trying to address Nick as his character(s) of the day ends up with my sounding like a frazzled parent, just cycling through the pile of names until I land on the right one.
He has been a lot characters, each with a distinct personality. It’s neurotic and annoying how much thought he puts into a character’s persona, minutiae that 99 percent of people would never notice or care about. Frankly, an existential crisis seems imminent with how often he switches personalities.
Hence, making a pun with the Three Days Grace song, “Animal I Have Become,” we compiled some fun animal facts based on the creatures Nick has been over the years.
Coyotes are omnivores, eating both meat and vegetation. They will eat anything they find. Their favorite food include: rabbits, rodents such as rats, mice, and squirrels, antelopes, lizards, birds, cactus fruits, flowers. They will even eat dead animal carcasses and garbage if they cannot find anything else.
The red-winged blackbird, a North American songbird, changes its diet with the seasons.
During the breeding season it eats mostly insects. As the babies fledge, the bird switches to eating more and more seeds, and can become a problem for farmers. During winter, the bird eats almost entirely seeds.