Archive for March, 2010

Science to Watch: BBC’s “Life”

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

BBC’s Life

I’ve been waiting patiently (and a little bit anxiously!) since the end of last year for a chance to get to see the BBC’s latest series collaboration with David Attenborough: Life.

The series, which took four years to make and was filmed over 3,000 days on every continent, tells us the stories of 130 organisms in the natural world, 54 of which had never been filmed before! Think “Blue Planet,” but even neater and often drier.

Well, I can finally stop crossing the days off my calendar because the series is airing in full on the Discovery Channel on Sundays at 8 & 9 pm, Eastern and Pacific times. The first episodes, “Challenges of Life” and “Reptiles and Amphibians” aired on Sunday, March 21, but you can watch the videos on the Discovery Channel online.

Still to come? Episodes on mammals, fish, birds, primates and, the two I’m most looking forward to: “Insects” and “Creatures of the Deep.”

Click here for a sneak peek* of “Creatures of the Deep,” where nemertean worms and carnivorous sea stars prowl the Antarctic seabed in search of their next meal. Warning: in the clip, marine invertebrates eat a dead seal, which does get a bit graphic.

*This clip is narrated by David Attenborough. In the version of Life that’s airing in the United States, Oprah is the narrator. I’m a huge Attenborough fan (ask me about the time I tried to get him to sign my shoe), so please excuse my bias in highlighting his version. If you’re an Attenborough fan, too, you can watch clips from Life on BBC’s youtube page.

1920 Census injustice in Fort Collins

by Tiffani Righero, Research Assistant, Fort Collins Local History Archive

Like households across the nation, you probably received your census survey in the past few weeks. Since 1790, when the first census was conducted, the nation has gathered information about the population every ten years, as instructed by the Constitution. This survey of the nation’s population not only counts the number of people living in the country, but also provides valuable information about business, economy, agriculture, home ownership, employment, education, etc.

Occasionally, the census sparks great controversy because of the questions asked, the methods of counting, or inaccuracies. Inaccuracies were the cause of great concern ninety years ago in Fort Collins. During the 1920 census, Fort Collins residents worried that many people were missed in the count after the U.S. Census Bureau announced the population at 8,734. Tracking a series of newspaper articles in the Fort Collins Courier, this fear of census injustice unfolds.

In 1920, census takers visited homes individually (census by mail did not start until 1960). The Fort Collins Courier printed an article on February 6, 1920 addressing concerns of Fort Collins residents who were not visited by the census taker. They were reassured that information was gathered from neighbors if they were absent when the census taker visited. However, many still feared that the numbers gathered were not correct and did not reflect the community’s growth.

A few months later, on May 12, another article in the Fort Collins Courier shared the sense of growth, stating the “city has expanded in every direction” and “you only have to hear a renter cuss to know that a vacant residence in Fort Collins is as scarce as hen teeth.” The 1910 census reported 8,210 residents in Fort Collins, so the city worried that the 1920 census, showing such little growth, would discourage people moving to the West from considering Fort Collins. The Commercial Club, a local organization, made an approximate count of 10,000 people living in Fort Collins, 2,000 more than the Census Bureau’s original count.

The city sent an appeal to the Census Bureau and a verdict arrived from Washington, D.C. in August. The revised population was 8,755, adding only 21 people to the original count. Residents had to accept this number as it was reported as the final population. Residents disappointed by the results of the 1920 census were probably pleased with the 1930 census which showed a larger leap; the population was recorded at 11,489.

After today’s Fort Collins residents return their surveys, the number of people living in Fort Collins will be calculated. What is your guess for the current population of Fort Collins?

New museum update: the Digital Dome Theater

by Terry Burton, Digital Media Coordinator

One of the most exciting things we’re planning for the new museum, from my point of view, is the Digital Dome Theater. A digital dome theater is like the groovy love-child of a traditional planetarium and an IMAX theater: take a planetarium, with its ability to display shows in 360 degrees, and blend it with an IMAX theater with its stadium seating and all-digital projection and sound system, and you’ll start to get the picture.

We’ve had the digital dome in our plans since the early days of figuring out what this new museum is going to be. With ground breaking coming up in just a few months, I started recently to get serious about researching what this was actually going to mean for us. Starting from absolute scratch, I quickly realized that we had a whole lot to learn — everything from the steel and concrete considerations of architecture, to racks of workstations and digital projection systems, to understanding all the possibilities for the kinds of shows we can run in our dome. Associate Director Jason Wolvington and I have been on a crash course ever since, and I can tell you even at this early stage, it’s going to be an amazing ride!

We were very fortunate to get connected with Dan Neafus, who runs the Gates Planetarium digital dome theater at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Dan is a real guru in the world of digital domes (also known as “full domes” or “immersive theaters”) and we’ve made a couple of field trips down to Denver to start absorbing this new world of technology. Dan has taken us behind the scenes at Gates to see the nuts and bolts, and really helped us get our arms around this thing.

Dan Neafus (second from left) of DMNS walks our staff through some architectural considerations for the digital dome theater

WAY behind (or above) the scenes at Gates Planetarium

What sorts of things can you do with a digital dome? For one thing, there’s a great catalog of movies available, designed for the 360 degree environment. Many of these shows are about astronomical subjects, a reflection of the digital dome’s roots in the world of planetariums. But there are also shows about Egyptian mummies, ancient sea creatures, the African Serengeti — a variety of subjects, with new shows being produced all the time.

A digital dome theater will also allow our Education staff to do live, interactive science presentations, literally zooming through the Universe to land on Mars or to explore the heart of the galaxy. They’re pretty excited about that!

Best of all, for me, is that we’ll have the opportunity to create our own original content to show in our theater. We’ve produced several short documentaries here at the Museum over the last couple of years, and we’re really looking forward to having this incredible new way to share the stories of our local area.

Bottom line: we are so thrilled to imagine such an amazing resource here in Fort Collins. Stay tuned.

Confessions of an “owl-oholic”

by Treloar Bower, Curator of Education

Screen capture from the live "Owl Box" feed on ustream.tv

I am currently standing in front of my office mates: “I am an Owl-oholic. I have been for 100 hours and counting. I have no intention of curing my addiction until the last owlet fledges.”

How many of you have discovered The Owl Box on www.ustream.tv? I cannot stop watching! Every ½ hour or so, I have to bring it up on my computer screen and check on everything happening in the barn owl nest box. I love owls, always have, so I was destined to love Molly and McGee from the first moment I saw them. Apparently, so were 17,000+ others. Granted, there are a handful of people posting inappropriate comments on the live chat (as one poster said, it’s “a fascinating look at owl behavior and a hilarious look at human group dynamics”). But, on the whole, most people seem as charmed as I am.

I am amused by some of the questions people post. Some people demand that she be released from that box! (Um…she’s a wild owl that chose this nest box, which just happens to have webcams in it; this is completely normal behavior by a mama owl.) Others worry that her nest box must smell really bad and she must be miserable. (I’m sure it does, but only to us. Owls have poor senses of smell; they have highly attuned adaptations for hunting by sight and sound, not smell.) Some people worry she is smushing and/or eating her babies. (yeah…No.)

Aside from some good laughs, it does my heart good to think so many people are so invested in the success of this clutch of owl eggs. Many people on the chat confess to leaving the stream up on their PCs continuously. Others confessed to skipping favorite TV shows or putting off bathroom breaks just to watch Molly! I think there may be several reasons for this. First, who can resist a fuzzy baby? Next, owls are hard to spot, and then, even if you do, it’s just a glimpse of one in flight or the silhouette of one roosting in a tree. You certainly don’t get a view into a nest box like this! It’s like the best of reality TV: The Secret Lives of Owls, Exposed! And wow, was it exciting to see the male of the pair, McGee, enter the nest box with a rabbit last night! The chat stream goes berserk with people congratulating McGee on his hunting prowess, while others mourn the rabbit and still others complain, “ew, gross!” (Guess those people never eat fried chicken off the bone – ripping it off with their teeth, no less – do they?)

Right now, I keeping checking on Molly because I think she may be working up a cough pellet (the undigested bones, hair, teeth and claws of her most recently eaten meal). So far, I’ve seen her eat rabbits, rats and a pocket gopher. She breaks up the pellets to use the fur as bedding in the nest box. The box is full of fluff from eaten rodents!

It’s a bummer, but I have missed the pipping (the “chipping” of the first hole into the egg by the owlet) and hatching of both owlets. Thank goodness there are still three more chances over the next 5 or so days. After that, of course, will come the drama of whether all of the owlets survive and successfully fledge. The odds are against the entire clutch making it. In fact, the first egg laid, which would have hatched first, failed. Owls lay their eggs one at a time over several days. The first egg laid hatches first, after a 32-34 day incubation period, and then the others follow in order of their laying. That means first-hatched owlets have a size and strength advantage over their later-hatched siblings if food becomes scare and they must compete for it. Often times, the youngest owlets do not make it.

So far, people commenting on the chat stream have reported good hunting by daddy McGee. Maybe this entire group of owlets will make; I for one will definitely be watching!

Dog-gone fun education

by Treloar Bower, Curator of Education

Monte the Service Dog makes a new friend

Surprise, surprise, no pooper-scoopers needed around here last week! We celebrated Poudre School District’s Spring Break with a series of canine guest presenters, and every one of the dogs was very well behaved: not a single indoor lift of the leg in the bunch.

Actually, all of the dogs are highly trained working dogs, no couch-potato pooches in the bunch. They brought with them knowledgeable humans who shared stories of the jobs these dogs do, helping people. If you missed them, come in the week of March 30 – April 2 when all of our guests return during Thompson School District’s Spring Break.

The common theme among all the canines (Shadow the Arson Dog, Monte the Service Dog, K9 Officer Ace, and Skid the Search and Rescue Dog) is DRIVE. Each dog is driven to receive rewards for performing their trained tasks. For some of the dogs, like Shadow the Arson Dog, their reward is food. The only time Shadow is fed is when he successfully identifies accelerants. That means Firefighter Mike Manzo, Shadow’s handler, has to practice with Shadow about five times per day with actual accelerants so that Shadow can eat – directly from Firefighter Manzo’s hand, in order to build trust. For others, like Skid and Ace, the reward is a toy. Skid clearly lives for his tug-of-war rope, while Officer Ace has a heavy-weight, fabric chew toy that “hides” in his handler Officer Rob Knab’s back packet.

Each of the dogs is incredibly focused as well. For example, Monte the Service Dog must ignore all distractions (food, happy children, squirrels) to be safe for his human, Rich Dixon, to handle. For example, if Monte was tethered to Rich’s wheelchair and became interested in chasing the neighbor’s cat, he could pull Rich’s chair over, a very dangerous turn of events for Rich, no pun intended. Officer Ace watched his handler so carefully that, even when in a “stay”, if a suspect were to attack one of the police officers Ace would immediately leap into action and bite the suspect without a command!

Here are a few stories about our special guests:

Shadow the Arson Dog can detect 96 known accelerants with his nose. He goes to over 100 fire scenes every year to determine if accelerants were used by arsonists. Although he wasn’t trained to do this, he also once rescued a small dog hiding under a desk after a burglar had set fire to the building in which the dog was hiding.

Shadow the Arson Dog demonstrates his amazing nose

Monte the Service Dog can hear a pencil drop, even in another room, and retrieve it for Rich. If the pencil rolls under a desk, between electric cords, Monte can still get it without disturbing any cords (because, of course, if he tried to move a cord with his mouth, that could be very bad for him!). Monte is trained to perform up to 70 tasks for his mobility-limited companion Rich. Many service dogs are the sole reason their handlers can live independent lives, and have their own homes and jobs.

Monte the Service Dog loves to have his tummy rubbed

The Fort Collins PD does not use German Shepherds because of the risk of hip dysplasia in that breed. Instead, the corps of 4 canine officers includes a Belgian Malinois, a Dutch Shepherd, and one that is German Shepherd and Belgian Malinois mix. All of the dogs are super social. When they “attack” a suspect, they are actually having fun. As the police officers said, watch the dogs’ wagging tails and you’ll know the truth – these dogs are playing!

Officer Ace the Police Dog is having fun, but is the "suspect"?

Skid the Search and Rescue Dog is still working on his certification. So far, he has had 250 search and rescue “tests” – and he has located his lost hiker EVERY TIME. He and his owner, Jill Reynolds, are volunteers and put in many hours of training to do this. Jill selected Skid as an 8-week-old puppy to do this with her, but the way I heard the story is that the little fluff-ball Australian Shepherd may have picked her, jumping into her lap.

Skid the Search and Rescue Dog is working the crowd

Do we think dogs are amazing? Yeah. We really do.

(If you’d like to see more photos from our Dog-Gone Fun Spring Break, go to our Facebook page and check out the Photos section.)

Behind the scenes: Curator of Cultural Interpretation, part II

by Terry Burton, Digital Media Coordinator

This is the second part of a recent interview with Katie Bowell, the Museum’s Curator of Cultural Interpretation.

More to Explore: Tell us a little bit about your background.

Katie Bowell: I did my undergraduate in Canada at the University Guelph, and I wanted to be a zoologist, I wanted to be a researcher and work in a lab, until I actually got to be a researcher and work in a lab and learned that I was really, really bad at it. It’s a long process. Usually, you think of a question and then it’s a long time until you get the answer, and it’s a lot of work, and the people who can do it and do it well, that’s fabulous, but I wasn’t good at it. What I found I really liked doing was, once someone had figured out the answer to a question, I liked getting to tell people about that answer. And so about halfway through my degree in zoology, I also decided to get a degree in English, because I figured that if I wanted to tell people about stuff, I probably needed to be a good writer, a good communicator, and that seemed a way to do it.

And so I graduated, and then I couldn’t get a job anywhere. Finally I found a job at this little tiny butterfly conservatory. And I had never worked with insects, and I was terrified of insects, petrified. My mom used to tell the joke that I would never, ever walk around outside in my bare feet because the ants would get me. But I had to pay rent so I started this job as an interpreter of insects, and I got to practice what I thought I might be good at, which was interpreting and sharing information. And I actually discovered that insects were really cool, and I loved it and stayed there and became their director of education and interpretation. But I got a little tired of some of the things about the job, mainly that I was always dirty and sweaty, and there were cockroaches, and so it was fun but it was  gross. So I decided, maybe I can work in a museum, because it’s clean and air conditioned and they still have animals, they’re not alive, so it’s not quite as fun, but they have fewer cockroaches, so I thought that was a good way to go.

The University of Colorado in Boulder has a natural history museum and a very good Museum Studies program that I got accepted to, with a Zoology focus, because I was very sure I was going to work in a natural history museum. I did that for two years and ended up with a really cool thesis that looked at intersections of animals and people. I looked at art installations, fine art installations, in zoos and aquariums, and what happened when you had these human-created pieces that were side-by-side with animals, how were visitors responding to it? It was a really fun study and got me interested in this intersection of content. And then someone was smiling down on me and the clouds parted, because just as I was graduating this job opened and I applied.

MtE: How will your work feed into the new museum?

KB: I think my work is going to play into the new museum in a couple of ways. One of the really exciting things we’re planning for is really highlighting those interconnections. Like the way that the processes of the river affect how people were farming here, and affect what organisms are living there and where the cottonwoods are found and why Camp Collins was first established here. We really are helping people see these connections and that really is my big focus, that every story is a part of a larger story. I think that as an interpreter, the more connections you can highlight, the more you can help connect current visitors to what you’re talking about, and the more likely they are to remember what you’re sharing with them and get excited about it. And so I’m really excited to get to continue to develop those.

We’re also continuing to work with Natural Areas, they’re going to have a space within the new museum, a dedicated visitor’s center, and I’m helping them develop that. As well we’re going to have all the outdoor experiences around the museum and the opportunity to interpret there. So that’s what I see myself doing now with it, but I’m sure that more things will pop up.

MtE: What are you looking forward to in the new museum?

KB: A window [in her office]. Well, this is the second museum I’ve ever worked in, and both of those were buildings where we had to squeeze our experiences into those spaces. With this new museum, I am so excited that we get to plan out exactly what we want, and we’re going to have room for it. And I think that that can do a lot for the visitor experience that we end up having. I am most excited for everyone else to get to see this brand-new museum, full of really neat things. And it’s really dorky, but I’m excited to watch their reactions to it. One of the things that I do here, at least a little bit, is visitor evaluations, visitor studies. I’m really curious as to how people use our spaces, how they interact with what we have on the floor, what they think about what we’re doing, because we’re a community museum, we exist for our visitors. So I’m so excited to see them seeing our new museum. I think that’s really going to be cool.

From the Archive: Spectacular spectacles

by Lesley Drayton, Curator of the Fort Collins Local History Archive

True visionaries in Italy invented eyeglasses in the 1200s, but specs didn’t start becoming fashion statements until the Victorian era. During the mid-20th century, improved plastics allowed bespectacled folks to let their personality shine through their lenses. Take a gander at these examples of Fort Collins residents in their high-style eyewear from the 1950s and 60s! (Names have been suppressed to protect the innocent.)

Do you wear glasses? Do you have fond memories of a certain pair? Add a comment!



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