A frog in my throat

zoo volunteer with frog puppetSo yeah, that’s me with a giant frog puppet. The zoo’s education folks (including us volunteers) continue to highlight one form of wildlife per month this winter at the Tropics trailhead, and as Froggy February winds down, I’m still marveling at how much educational mileage I’ve gotten out of this big fake frog. It pulls in kids of all ages like a magnet, and then I’m off to the races with frog facts. Wiggling my finger inside its cloth tongue, I explain that a frog’s real tongue moves faster than the human eye can see as it catches flies and other bugs, and that its eye sockets then push downward to help it swallow those bugs whole. I ask if kids can tell frogs from toads and then talk about dry, warty skin and short-legged hops as opposed to frogs’ smooth dampness, webbed feet and long leaps.

froggy FebruaryLast week I found a great way to illustrate those leaps: by putting this plastic frog, which resembles the leopard frog found widely in Minnesota, next to a measuring tape on the floor to show how far he can jump — 5 feet 4 inches, a figure that sticks in my head because it’s my own height. I asked kids to see if they could leap as far as a leopard frog in a single bound, and quite a few could. Others hopped down the length of the tape, and I told them they were actually toads — still a type of frog.

Minnesota Zoo bullfrogAnd here’s a live one — ¬†our Minnesota Lodge bullfrog, whose size never fails to astound me. They’re the largest of our state’s 14 frog types (11 types excluding toads) at a maximum length of eight inches. Bullfrogs’ croak sounds like motors, leopard frogs’ like snoring; the interpretation booth has a handheld device that emits these and all the other types of croaks made by the 11 frogs. In a few days, the booth’s contents will switch from frog- to plant-related items, in anticipation of a spring that feels like it will never come. I’m not psyched up to talk about plants yet — but then, I wasn’t that excited about frogs at first, either. Until, eventually, I was.

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My favorite falcon?

Okay, I may not know enough types of falcons to have a legitimate favorite (and the owl remains my favorite raptor, that less specific bird-of-prey category). But proving the zoo’s thesis that you grow fondest of the species that you meet in person, I developed a keen interest in the American kestrel after a recent Close Encounters session by the turtle tank between Tropics and the Minnesota Trail. The encounter was advertised only as “Meet a Bird of Prey,” scheduled for a time when I did not have a “must-cover” volunteer assignment elsewhere. So I went to see what kind of bird it was.

American kestrel with Mary

Zoo staffer Mary presented kestrel Miici, whose name she described as an Indian word for “eat.” Miici is a former pet, which makes her “imprinted” on humans for food. (The zoo feeds her mouse chunks and mealworms.) The Warner Nature Center, which has a densely informative page on kestrels and other types of raptors, advises against adopting a kestrel as a house pet — which may be tempting, since they’re robin-sized and cute. But even as the smallest falcon, weighing just under 5 ounces (or the weight of a tennis ball), they’re an aggressive hunter, with a raptor’s hooked beak and sharp talons.

American kestrel head turnCamera-shy Miici kept turning her head every time I took her picture — not the full backward-facing 135 degrees that an owl head can turn, but much farther than our own limited range of motion. She also bobbed her head up and down, telescoping her neck, to an amusing extent. Mary described some of her falcon features — the black marks under a kestrel’s eyes serve the same function as the similar but artificial marks on a football player’s face: to absorb sunlight so it doesn’t reflect into the eyes. Kestrels are found throughout North America, especially near open areas where they can spot ground-dwelling prey with their excellent long-distance vision. At the zoo, in a season less bitterly cold than this one, a staff-led encounter with Miici would typically happen outdoors. I look forward to meeting her again on Lakeside Plaza in a gentler season.