A new study shows taking a walk outside makes a measurable difference in a person’s subsequent creativity. Any walk is good – but researchers noticed that people who walked outdoors in nature showed the biggest spike in creative thinking. Read the New York Times story to learn more.

Splash Orpington and blue copper Maran chicks explore grass for the first time.

Splash Orpington and blue copper Maran chicks explore grass for the first time.

By Amber Veverka

Chicks are arriving in Charlotte-area stores in the next couple of weeks, and nearby breeders already have batches of chicks ready for new homes. If you want to raise backyard hens, here are a few things to get you started.

Prepare a brooder.

A brooder box simulates the heat a mother hen would provide her offspring under her wings. Essentially it’s a box with water, food and a lamp for a heat source. You want high enough sides that the chicks, as they develop feathers, can’t leap out (or cover the box with screening or a grate) and you want to be sure to use wood shavings – not cedar, as its oils are toxic to birds – or newspaper changed daily as flooring. Chick waterers and feeders are available at stores such as Tractor Supply or Renfrow Hardware in Matthews and you can get a sack of chick starter food at such stores, as well. A warming light will use a 60-watt bulb and should be securely clamped so it doesn’t fall into the box. You’ll know if the chicks are at the right temperature if they sleep scattered slightly around the area where the light falls. If they’re huddled far from the lamp, it’s too hot. If they’re heaped up directly beneath it, they’re too cold.

Chicks stay under a brooder light until they're fully feathered

Chicks stay under a brooder light until they’re fully feathered

Brooders can stay in a garage, basement or other outbuilding though if the temperatures drop, check them to be sure they’re warm enough. Though some people keep them inside their home, chicks are messy and create a lot of dust.

Build or buy a coop.

When the chicks are fully feathered, they can move outdoors. They’ll need a coop and enclosed pen. Privacy fences work to keep adult chickens safe but small poults – that’s a chick that’s got its feathers – can squeeze through gaps beneath. Coops can be slammed together out of cheap materials such as pallets, or you can go the fast and expensive route by buying one ready-made. Check the classifieds or craiglist for pre-built, but to create your own, you can peruse plans at Backyardchickens.com.coop 001

Inside the city of Charlotte, your coop will need to meet certain restrictions. It will need to be at least 25 feet from any of your property lines, and contain ample square footage for each bird. To read the full list of rules go to the city’s municipal code. The key with any coop is to make it predator-proof, and that means using fencing with tiny holes, such as hardware cloth. Forget traditional chicken wire or dog-pen mesh – raccoons can reach right through that, hook a roosting hen while she’s asleep and kill her.DSC00895

Get ready for eggs.

Spring-purchased chicks will begin to lay in the early fall and you’ll get about one egg a day for the hen’s first year of life. You don’t need a rooster to get eggs (and in town, you won’t want a crowing bird, anyway). After the first year, laying slows somewhat. Plan ahead for what you’ll do with nonproductive hens. Will they retire in your yard as pets or do you plan to make them into soup? chickens-0011.jpgIt’s a reality you’ll have to face so think about it early.

DSC03040 The great news about backyard chickens is after you get your coop set up, they are easier than dogs or cats, interesting to watch, and their eggs – firm with bright orange yolks – have demonstrated higher nutrients than factory-farmed eggs from hens which are confined in tiny cages all of their short lives.


Spotted salamanders lay eggs in temporary woodland pools this in February. Photo: Mecklenburg Park & Recreation

Spotted salamanders lay eggs in temporary woodland pools, and larvae typically hatch this time of year. Photo: Mecklenburg Park & Recreation

By Amber Veverka
The springtime pools in Charlotte-area woodlands this week were sheathed with ice – so what does that mean for the salamanders whose eggs are usually clustered in the water this time of year?

The answer, says conservation biologist Don Seriff, is that in most cases, if the cold doesn’t last too long, the salamanders will be just fine.

“The spotted salamanders are usually obvious this time of year in the isolated wetlands and you can identify their egg masses,” said Seriff, who works for Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation. “They’re large masses of jelly-filled goo, and inside the goo are usually hundreds of eggs.” The eggs may already have hatched, and if pools have a thin coating of ice on top, you can even spot salamander larvae beneath, moving slowly because of the cold. Another species, the marbled salamander, which breeds in fall, already should have larvae present in the pool. These look like large tadpoles with gills.

Marbled salamander with eggs. Photo: MCPR

Marbled salamander with eggs. Photo: MCPR

However, if it’s cold enough for long enough, Seriff said, the temporary pools can freeze to the bottom, and salamanders won’t survive the lack of water and oxygen.

This year’s cold winter “may alter their behavior but I don’t think it’ll be detrimental in any way,” said Michael Dorcas, head of the Davidson College Herpetology Lab. For instance, this year, the salamanders Dorcas’ team monitors at Cowan’s Ford in the northwestern part of the county started breeding later this year because of the low temperatures. “Most amphibians are like that,” he said. “They breed at a certain time but if it’s too dry or too cold, they’ll just wait.”

Although Charlotte’s seen long stretches of ice, that’s not the most threatening event for salamanders. “We’ve noticed just anecdotally a big decline in spotted salamander egg masses and we also know from previous surveys that many of their breeding areas have been developed,” Seriff said. “Some of the housing developments in Charlotte are built on salamander breeding grounds or on the edge of them.”

What can local residents do to save salamanders? The No. 1 piece of advice: If you’ve got an isolated wet area that fills with water in spring, don’t drain it.

Spotted salamanders aren’t usually breeding by permanent ponds – there are too many predators, such as bullfrogs – but they seek out ephemeral pools. “These animals have to emerge, go to the wetlands, breed, and their larvae has to grow large enough to escape before it all dries up,” Seriff said. “Some years if there’s consistent drought, those areas don’t fill up at all.”

Salamanders also depend on the upland forest around their wetland breeding areas. “These animals may spend 90% of their life up there,” Dorcas said, “and then come down to the wetland to breed.”

Many Charlotte-area yards back up to tiny streams that eventually join larger creeks. Dusky salamanders and two-lined salamanders live in small streams and creeks, and they need a buffer of natural vegetation near the creek’s edge to shield the water from sediment and lawn chemicals. “You don’t want to have lawn all the way up to those creeks,” Seriff said.

Dorcas also said supporting land conservancies which protect wetlands and the woods around them aids salamander populations. The animals, Dorcas said, are “an important part of our natural heritage in North Carolina…[and] the number of salamanders in the Charlotte metro area has declined substantially, especially stream salamanders and the reason is urbanization.”

Want to learn more?

Mark your calendar for Davidson College’s Annual Reptile Day, a celebration of all things amphibian and reptile, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on April 12, on the campus next to Davidson Presbyterian Church. “There will be lots of live animals,” Dorcas said. For more information go to the Davidson Herpetology Lab.


By Amber Veverka

Our kids spend more time indoors, and in front of screens, than we did as children, and most of us realize instinctively that something has been lost in this transition to an indoor childhood. Even when kids are outdoors, it’s often for organized activities, such as team sports. The time many of us spent in the feral pleasures of wandering through woods, exploring creeks and examining insects and wildlife was a gift – a gift to our health and emotional well-being. DSC06311

It’s not too late to give that gift to our own children. Here are the top 7 reasons you should get your kids outdoors in nature this season.

1. Kids who spend time in nature develop more creativity. Studies of preschoolers in Chicago and Seattle showed the children who played in the rough, vegetative edges of schoolyards instead of solely on play equipment showed more creative play, and built stories for themselves which had a beginning, middle and end – something experts say is a sign of a well-exercised imagination.

2. Time spent in natural settings reduces ADHD and ADD symptoms. Separate studies showed that after children diagnosed with ADD or ADHD played in nature or walked in a park, they showed fewer signs of their condition. Parents of children with the diagnoses also reported that of the leisure activities their children tried, time in nature produced the most profound positive results on their children’s symptoms.020

3. Kids with unstructured access to nature – or who just have natural views out of a window – do better in school. A study of high school students found that those with views of trees and other green space outside their home or school windows showed better impulse control, concentration and test scores in school.

4. Children who get into woods and fields have less stress. Most of us intuitively get the peaceful effect a walk in a park or nature preserve can give us. A study of adolescents in Finland found that those who spent time in a natural environment were able to bounce back better from stressful experiences.

5. Young kids who play in natural settings have greater motor coordination than those who primarily play in manmade environments. We may think signing our kids up for another sport is the way to achieve physical skills, but studies of preschoolers in Europe found that those who play on stumps, logs and boulders are more physically coordinated than their playground or sports-field peers.

6. Learning while outdoors sharpens critical thinking skills. Researchers looked at teens in Florida, comparing those who attend regular schools and those who attend schools that heavily use the outdoors as a classroom. The kids who learned under the trees and sky outscored the others on measures of critical thinking – and were more excited about their lessons.

 (1) (1)DSC090127. Kids who are brought into nature by a loving adult bond with that adult – and the natural world. The natural environment is our birthright, not something reserved for a special class of people or an especially “outdoorsy” personality. Exploring forests, ponds and parks with our kids regularly develops a wonder – and keen interest that can sustain them into their adult lives.

Want to learn more?

Get the details on the studies mentioned and find out how you can help overcome “nature deficit disorder” at the Children and Nature Network.

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