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Fall School Programs

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Autumn bannerIntroduction                                                                                                    •  State Standards (pdf)

As Autumn encroaches, daylight hours progressively shorten. The subsequent decrease in the amount of light hitting Earth triggers many phenomena which prepare plants and animals for the approaching winter temperatures. Join our staff to discover some of the many spectacular natural changes that take place during autumn. Naturalist-led programs explore Mosquito Hill’s upland and bottomland forests in search of clues of the imminent winter while investigating the following concepts:

• Migration
• Hibernation
• Dormancy
• Natural Recycling
• Energy Flow
• Color Changes in Leaves
• Seed Dispersal
• Prairie Ecology 
• Environmental Awareness
• Insect Study

Fall Concepts

 At the end of the field trip, students will have been introduced to several of the following concepts:

  1. That animals possess unique adaptations that help them survive winter in Wisconsin, specifically the ability to hibernate, migrate, or go through physiological or behavioral changes to survive freezing temperatures.
  2. An understanding of the Mosquito Hill prairie planting, the unique plants and plant communities found within, the importance of seed dispersal within the prairie planting and the interrelationship between plants and animals in this setting.
  3. How the onset of winter causes changes in bodies of water and the plant and animal life in them; a basic understanding of pond ecology.
  4. That trees undergoing a series of chemical and hormonal changes in fall, evidenced by leaf color change, leaf dropping and bud formation, allow them to survive freezing temperatures.  

Fall Vocabulary

At the end of the field trip, students will have been introduced to several of the following words:


Abscisic acid
Pond turnover
Secondary buds
Thermal stratification
Water column


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1. Why Migrate?

OBJECTIVE: To illustrate that a bird’s food requirements determine whether or not it must migrate.

EXPLANATION: Migration is the seasonal movement of animals from one place or region to another. Migration is necessary for many animals, especially birds, due to their food supplies being significantly reduced during the winter months. Some animals simply require too much energy to keep warm; therefore, they must relocate to more temperate locations.

ACTIVITY: To make “You Eat” cards, write the following items on a 3x5 index card (one food item per card):

Fish In Small Ponds
Fish In Rivers
Insects Under Bark


Have each child pretend to be a bird. Hand each child a “You Eat” card. Ask the students to stand up and tell the class what it eats (read the card), whether or not its food is available in winter, and whether or not it will migrate.

Next, have each child select a bird from the list below:

Northern Cardinal
Eastern Blue Bird
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Great Horned Owl
Black Capped Chickadee
Red-Winged Blackbird
Great Blue Heron
Red-Eyed Vireo
Wood Duck
Pileated Woodpecker
Ruby Crowned Kinglet
Baltimore Oriole
American Robin
Canada Goose
Cedar Waxwing
American Crow
Turkey Vulture
American Goldfinch
Bald Eagle

Allow the students ample time to research their bird. After doing the research, students should be able to answer/do the following:

      1. Draw and color the bird.
      2. What is the bird’s actual size?
      3. What is the bird’s habitat?
      4. Does the bird migrate or is it a permanent resident?
      5. What does the bird eat?
      6. Write a story about the bird’s adventures, whether as a migrating bird or a permanent resident.

 2. What’s In A Prairie?

OBJECTIVE: To define a prairie and have students become more familiar with some common prairie plant species.

EXPLANATION: A prairie is characterized by a cover of native grasses and wildflowers, rather than trees or shrubs. There are several different types of prairies depending on the type of soil and the amount of moisture available. Wet Prairies thrive on floodplains and moist hillsides. Soils consist of deep clay silt loam or peat soil and have poor drainage. Mesic Prairies contain medium-deep silt or sandy loam soil and have good drainage. Xeric Prairies have dry shallow soil over sand or limestone.

Many prairie plants are adapted to dry, windy, hot climates. Leaves of prairie plants tend to be long and narrow to prevent dehydration. Some plants have divided leaves or broad leaves held stiffly upright, to expose fewer surfaces to the sun. Fleshy, hairy leaves and sticky sap help hold in moisture. Plants also have a lot of root mass-an adaptation to survive fires that occurred in grassland ecosystems. In the Great Lakes region, prairies need fire. Without it, invading trees and shrubs gradually turn grasslands into woodlands.

When the European settlers arrived in Wisconsin during the early 1800’s, they encountered more than two million acres of prairies, or six percent of the total land mass. Today, one tenth of one percent still remains. Mosquito Hill Nature Center’s 12-acre prairie was planted in 1975. Today it contains approximately 130 species of native vegetation.

ACTIVITY: Assign each student one of the following prairie plants/grasses:

Common Milkweed
New England Aster
Pale Indian Plantain 
Big Bluestem
Joe Pye Weed
Saw-tooth Sunflower
Rough Blazing Star 
Dotted Mint 
Wild Quinine
Purple Coneflower
Black-eyed Susan 
Cup Plant
Compass Plant 
Culver’s Root
Needle Grass
Indian Grass
Rattlesnake Master
Little Bluestem
Wild Lupine
Cardinal Flower
Bottle Gentian


 Ask each student to research their plant or grass and answer the following questions:

  1. What does the plant look like (provide a drawing or a photograph)?
  2. When does the plant bloom (what months)?
  3. What habitat does the plant grow best in (Xeric, Mesic, or Wet)?
  4. How tall does the plant get?
  5. Do animals use the plant as a food source? If so, what animals?
  6. Do humans use the plant as a food source or something else? If so, what?
  7. Optional: How did the plant get its name?

Have each student present his or her findings to the class. Afterwards, create a prairie in the classroom by hanging all of the pictures on the wall in one area of the room.

Butterfly3. Where Have All The Insects Gone?

OBJECTIVE: To understand where and in what stages some insects spend the winter.

EXPLANATION: Insects may overwinter in one of three or four different life stages depending on whether they go through complete or incomplete metamorphosis:


Complete Metamorphosis:

Incomplete Metamorphosis:








Many adult insects, including grasshoppers, crickets, aphids, moths and some butterflies deposit their eggs in or near the ground during the fall and then the adult dies. Leaf litter and snow insulate the eggs, which then hatch in spring as the temperature warms. It is quite common to see overwintering moth pupae attached to trees and shrubs, including the cecropia, polyphemus, and even the invasive gypsy. Not only does the exterior shell of the cocoon protect the pupae from the cold, but also many are camouflaged with dead leaves to protect them from hungry birds. Aquatic insect nymphs such as stonefly and dragonfly nymphs overwinter on the bottom of ponds and streams under rocks or vegetation.

ACTIVITY: Create a winter mural depicting field, woods, pond and building. Give each small group of children a folded card. The outer flap has a name or picture of a familiar insect. Inside is the name or picture showing the stage in which the insect overwinters (See some examples below). Next, call out the insect name and those children with that insect come up to the mural and tell the class in which stage they overwinter. Ask the children if they know where the insect belongs on the mural and then read the appropriate rhyme to confirm or to explain where the insect overwinters. Each group places its insect in an appropriate spot on the mural by taping it in place.

 Name Stage    Where
Ladybug Adult Ladybugs, ladybugs, where have you gone? To hide under the leaves near last summer’s corn.
 Honeybee  Adult You’re in the warm hive (in the tree) and sneak out when it’s sunny (and warm). Honeybees you can no longer make honey.
Monarch Butterfly Adult Monarch butterflies we know where you go. You fly thousands of miles to Mexico.
Housefly Adult Houseflies, you hide in cracks out of sight. But when there’s warm sun, you crawl into its light.
Carpenter Ant Adult Carpenter ant, you make your home under tree bark. You like it there because it’s nice and dark.
Woolly Bear Caterpillar Larva (of Isabella Moth) Woolly bears under leaves you’re sound asleep. But I’ve seen you on snow, how slowly you creep.
Dragonfly Nymph Dragonfly nymph you live in the pond. It’s the mud at the bottom of which you are fond.
Firefly Larva Fireflies you rest as “worms” in the ground. Come spring, you’ll glow when you crawl around.
Grasshopper Egg Grasshopper eggs you were laid under grass. To be snug under snow until winter is past.
Praying Mantis Egg Praying Mantis you live in a hard brown case. As eggs on a branch in some sheltered place.


 4. It Does What?

OBJECTIVE: To describe the ecological benefits of a forest ecosystem and relate the functions of everyday objects to the functions of a forest ecosystem.

EXPLANATION: Talk briefly with the students about forests in or around the area. Ask students why these forests are important. For example, brainstorm what happens in the forest during a severe thunderstorm. What effect do the trees have on torrential rain and strong winds? Briefly discuss erosion and how a forest helps to slow down and absorb the rainwater. Consider a tree near the school or home. What effect does the tree have on surrounding temperature, air quality, and noise level? Does the forest provide these same benefits?

ACTIVITY: Tell the students that they are going to think about the ecological benefits of forests with the help of some everyday items. Each team of two or three students will choose an item from inside a box or under a blanket. Teams will have 5-10 minutes to think about what their object does and how the forest is like that object. They will then share what they have determined with the class. Below is the item list and ecological benefits for each:

Sponge: Forest soils soak up water and recharges the water table. They help control flooding by regulating water flow within a watershed.

Air Filter From Car or Furnace: Leaves of forest plants help trap and hold small airborne particles such as dust, ash, pollen, and smoke that can damage our lungs.

Rechargeable Battery: Forests “recharge” themselves through the processes of death, decay, and new growth.

Picture of an Air Conditioner: Trees absorb thousands of gallons of water through their roots and release them through their leaves. This transpiration has an incredible cooling effect.

Dollhouse or Tent: Forests provide shelter and food for birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects.

Tent Stake: The roots of trees anchor the soil and the tree in place and also reduce or prevent erosion.

Padlock: Trees absorb and hold nutrients from the soil until they die. Then the nutrients are unlocked for use by other plants.

Ear Plugs: Forests muffle noises from traffic.

Air Freshener: Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen during photosynthesis.

Windbreaker: Forests slow down forceful winds, protecting homes and habitats.

Snack Food: Forests provide many foods for people-from nuts and berries to white-tailed deer.

Coffee Filter: Forests improve water quality by slowing the flow of water and filtering out pollutants.

Umbrella: Tree leaves provide shade and cool the forest and protects the ground from heavy raindrops (aids in erosion).

Ask the teams to show their items to the class, explain the functions, and tell how they might represent functions of a forest ecosystem. Afterwards, discuss this statement, “If forests are so important, can we afford to cut them down?” What are the implications of not cutting any trees? The earth and all its inhabitants depend on forests. We do need to conserve forest ecosystems, but we also need to harvest trees for the wood and wood products that they provide. Can we do both?

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 Post Activities

 1. Wooden Autobiography

OBJECTIVE: To illustrate that every living and non-living organism has its own unique history and demonstrate the benefits of recycling.

EXPLANATION: Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) is considered the father of wildlife management. He was a conservationist, forester, teacher, writer, philosopher, and outdoor enthusiast. In the spring of 1935, Aldo and his family purchased an abandoned farm on the Wisconsin River. They worked on restoring the property to its original health. This property inspired Leopold to write A Sand County Almanac, where he eloquently shared his land ethic. The following passage is an essay entitled, “Come High Water” from that book.

“The spring flood brings us more than high adventure; it brings likewise an unpredictable miscellany of floatable objects pilfered from upriver farms. An old board stranded on our meadow has, to us, twice the value of the same piece new from the lumberyard. Each old board has its own individual history, always unknown, but always to some degree guessable from the kind of wood, its dimensions, its nails, screws, or paint, its finish or the lack of it, its wear or decay. One can even guess, from the abrasion of its edges and ends on sandbars, how many floods have carried it in years past.

Our lumber pile, recruited entirely from the river, is thus not only a collection of personalities, but an anthology of human strivings in upriver farms and forests. The autobiography of an old board is a kind of literature not yet taught on campuses, but any riverbank farm is a library where he who hammers or saws may read at will. Come high water, there is always an accession of new books.”

ACTIVITY: Collect a variety of old pieces of wood (barn boards, driftwood, chair legs, etc). Spend some time as a class discussing what the “individual history” of one of the old boards might be and what clues could be used to determine that history. Then have each student or a small group of 2-4 students choose a board and write its imaginary autobiography. They may volunteer to read it to the class. Group presentations could include artwork, poetry, or music.

 Afterwards, discuss the merits of using recycled materials. Discuss the choices students have regarding the use of already used materials. Are there times when new is better? Discuss when and why.

 2. So Many Seeds

OBJECTIVE: To discover what seeds can be found in common foods, what foods are seeds and how they are dispersed.

EXPLANATION: Even though we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about seeds, they are all around us and they are very important to the life cycle of plants, animals and people. Something that is very important to seeds is how they are dispersed (spread) to new locations. If they weren’t spread, young seedlings would be competing with their parent plants for sunlight, soil, water and nutrients.

ACTIVITY: Bring in a collection of common fruits, vegetables and nuts and dissect them with the students. Some examples of foods to use are:

Sesame seed 
Kiwi fruit
Green pepper
Poppy seed
Sunflower seed


Examine and discuss where the seeds are and how people and animals contribute to seed dispersal. Afterwards, eat the different foods.

3. The Wetland Alphabet

EXPLANATION: With the addition of water, a once dry, dormant low area erupts with plant and animal life. These temporary wetlands usually appear during the wet season (spring) and then dry up later in the year (late summer or early fall). Water that collects in these wetlands either evaporates, percolates into the ground, or flows back into the river. A temporary wetland may exist for one day or up to four or five months. A whole world of life appears in such a wetland, with a fast-paced lifestyle designed to complete a cycle of life before the wetland dries up. During this limited time, organisms such as mosquitoes, salamanders, frogs, fish, insects, and microorganisms must find shelter, food, locate a mate and reproduce. Some organisms bury themselves in mud and become dormant when the water dries up only to return in the spring when the water returns. Still other organisms visit these wetlands during migration and relocate when the water disappears.

ACTIVITY: Have the entire class work on a wetland picture dictionary. Ask students to brainstorm words that begin with each letter of the alphabet and in some way relate to wetlands. Below is a partial list as an example:

A- algae  
B- beaver
C- cattails 
D- dissolved oxygen
E- erosion
F- fish
G- groundwater
H- heron
I- insects
J- jewelweed
K- kingfisher
L- leopard frog
M- mosquito
N- nymph
O- organic matter
P- pH
Q- quicksand*
R- rain
S- snail
T- turtle
U- underwater
V- vegetation
W- wild rice
X- xylem
Y- yellowthroat (warbler)
Z- zooplankton


*Quicksand is not found in wetlands but the organic material on the floor of the wetland is very thick and unstable which is similar quicksand.

Assign one or two letters per student depending on class size. Students should write definitions and include pictures on individual pieces of paper for the words they select. Students can use hand drawn pictures or photographs from magazines to illustrate their words. Have each student recite their word and definition in front of the class. Afterwards, compile all the definitions into a binder to be used as a reference guide.

4. Every Deer For Itself

OBJECTIVE: To illustrate the problems of over-population of deer in an area of limited food supply and how deer react to the situation.

EXPLANATION: The white-tailed deer has evolved as a species in North America and because of its ability to adapt to changing conditions, it continues to thrive. Deer are herbivores and their digestive system contributes to their ability to avoid predators. As a ruminant (four-chambered stomach), it can eat and run, storing the food in its first stomach. Later when the deer is relaxed, it will regurgitate the food, chew it again then pass it on through the last three stomachs for final digestion.

For three seasons of the year deer can usually find plenty of food. However, as winter approaches, deer have a more difficult time finding food in the snow. An adult deer needs a minimum of 3 pounds of browse (bark, plant material, twigs, buds) per day. Many deer will travel to find food but this becomes difficult when snow conditions are at their worst. If an adequate amount of food is not obtained, deer will eventually succumb to starvation.

ACTIVITY: Before the activity, gather 3 pounds of twigs and put them in a bag. Next, show the minimum amount of actual food (3 pounds of browse) needed each day by each deer to remain alive. Divide students into groups of twos, threes and fours. Have each student decide if they will be a buck, doe, or fawn. Give each group a pile of 8 pretzel sticks. Explain that each “deer” needs a minimum of one pretzel per day to stay alive and each pile should last each group three days. Begin to announce the days, starting with Day 1. Give the “deer” time to eat their pretzel then announce Day 2 and finally Day 3. Instruct the “deer” that if they are unable to eat on one of those days they must collapse due to starvation (have the students sit down to simulate starvation).

At the end, discuss who survived and who didn’t. Why or why not? Explain to the students what happens in the real world. Since bucks are dominant, they always eat first, leaving the does and fawns to eat what remains. If a food source were scarce, fawns would die first, then does and finally the dominant male deer.

Deer hunting is a popular sport in the fall. What would happen if deer hunting were banned? How would this affect the deer population?

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