This place is for the birds!

By LeAnn Luce, West Region Program Manager, Indiana State Museum and State Historic Sites 

Recently I heard a cheerful sound. A repetitive “fee-bee, fee-bee” call came from outside my office window located in the “House of the Singing Winds,” the historic home of T.C. Steele. I immediately registered it as one of the many bird sounds I hear every day … but today this call spoke to me.

Most days I have been inclined to completely ignore the bird, bat, butterfly and bullfrog sounds that are in constant symphony here. I work on the programming details of several Indiana State Historic sites; pursue grant writing and spend most of my time concentration at the computer. My mother has visited the site and says, “I don’t how you get anything done … I would spend all of my time looking out of the window.” She is right; I had to condition myself to ignore the seasonal and day-to-day splendor of the flora and fauna that is found here.

But on this particular day, that sound made work truly impossible. I was actually becoming annoyed at the frequent persistence and repetition of the call. I decided to step outside and investigate.

What caught my eye first was the flitting, manic flight of a little gray-brown bird. The bird landed on a nearby tree branch, issued several sharp chip, chip calls and began frantically pumping its tail in what I interpreted as a territorial defense. I looked around the West Porch to see what might be making the little bird so agitated. I looked up and saw the oddest sight. Right under the eave was a nest anchored with marvelously sculpted mud and covered with beautiful green moss. In it were three little heads poking up, but remaining completely still. I had never seen a bird or a nest quite like this. Now I understood what all the commotion was about.

I had just seen my first Eastern Phoebe and her unique architecturally developed nest. This little architect had built a handsome piece of art and she had chosen to do so right here under the eaves of the art-filled, enchanting home of T.C. and Selma Steele. What a smart little bird!

I researched information about the Eastern Phoebe. This bird species is quite loyal to their nests and will reuse them year after year. With a little spring cleaning an old nest can look like new. In contrast, most songbirds build completely new nests every year.

The irony of this information was not lost on me. It is exactly what the Indiana State Historic Sites do with our state’s architectural treasures that are visited each year by thousands of visitors. Preservation, conservation and interpretation efforts are made and guarded at these sites so that these places can be frequented for years and years to come by visitors in the future. The hardworking staff and their dedication can be seen at any of the 11 sites open to the public.

So take a lesson from a little bird and come and see what the State Historic Sites are all about.

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Archaeology saves (turtle) lives!

Written by Kara Vetter, Registrar

Even in the field, a registrar can't get away from paperwork!

5 a.m. came too early today, especially for a night owl like me. We left the hotel and headed for the site around 6 a.m. with ominous rain clouds in the distance. During a quick necessities trip to Wal-mart, I wondered if the dry weather luck would hold out. As we arrived, the sky grew even darker and thunder could be heard in the distance. Comments flew between Michele, Amy and me as to whether the rain would hold off. After prepping our gear we descended, very slowly I might add, down the ladder. I got my “wet muck/mud sea legs” under me and got to work. Michele graded the bank face with a trowel high up the ladder while Amy and I created a secondary profile for photography later in the week. If you ever have the job of clearing away the debris beneath someone who is grading make sure you keep your mouth closed. Dirt — no matter where it’s from — tastes awful! With Amy wielding the camp shovel and I the small pick axe, away we dug for about an hour until the sudden crack of thunder warned us to scramble back up the ladder before the rain set in. At the top, we met the unofficial mascot for this dig, Widgee! He’s an adorable little dog, some kind of terrier we think, who belongs to Indiana University professor Dr. Susan Alt. He scampered around, being as doggily cute as possible while I met IU archaeologists Liz and Mara.

Scrapped for the moment, we headed back to Wal-mart for distilled water and beef jerky! The water was for later testing and the jerky was for us hard-working state employees … thanks Amy!

About a half hour later, we went back to the site and resumed digging and grading. But not before we channeled our Curator of Agriculture, Industry and Technology (and known turtle aficionado), Todd Stockwell, by saving a large turtle from the middle of the road … good deed for the day, check! A break for lunch was interrupted with more rain. Soggy PB&Js are a sad thing indeed. After the rain slowed, we braved the weather and assisted Michele as she lined up the grid so we could map out the archaeological and geological features. I even got to prove my upper body strength by pulling a large stake from the ground so we could secure the measuring tape. Just call me Kara “The Hoss Lady” Vetter …ha! After being pelted with wind and various types of rain, Michele called it quits at 1:30 p.m. The weather was just too erratic and making the riverbank too unstable for further work and Michele said that we looked like a miserable lot and took pity on us. On the ride back to the hotel, we saved yet another turtle — this time a box turtle. Two good deeds for the day!

So, my first day of archaeology work didn’t go as smoothly as planned but at least I have some dirt under my nails and light farmer tan to prove I did something, not to mention helping to defend road-crossing turtles everywhere. Here’s hoping tomorrow goes better and that I am able to take notes and map while Michele describes features to me at the same time. Fingers crossed!

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Telling the whole story

One of the goals of The Indiana Reef is to not only highlight the beauty and wonder of the world’s coral reefs, but also to share how these reefs are affected by human actions and natural events. It does not take much environmental change to stress coral reefs. A slight increase in temperature, growing pollution, disease and increased sedimentation all play a part in damaging coral reefs.

The Indiana Reef will have a section dedicated to showing how vibrant reefs are disturbed by these factors in a section of the exhibit known as The Toxic Reef. Volunteers creating these pieces have worked hard to present a reef that visually shows the stress that underwater coral are currently fighting. On some pieces, the colors of yarn are faded and pale while recycled trash pieces are also attached. The fading of color is one way a coral reef reacts to changes in its environment and is the beginning of a process known as bleaching, where sections of the coral begin to die and turns white. The death of coral affects all the organisms that rely on it as a link in the oceanic food chain.

Efforts are underway in many areas in the world to conserve and protect living coral reefs from environmental dangers. Scientists are currently researching how corals in certain areas of the world seem to adapt to environmental changes easier than others with the belief that these stressors may have happened in the past. For more information about coral reefs and bleaching, check out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website.

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Jonesing for your critter fix?

Warm weather, strawberry festivals and no more school traffic on my way to work are just a few of the many reasons I love June, but one of my favorites is Scales & Tails Fest. Since 2006 we’ve planned this annual event to celebrate  all kinds of critters. And since that first year, when I adopted my own dog, I’ve enjoyed bringing in as many groups and different kinds of animals as possible. Snakes, dogs, skunks, pigs, chickens, horses — you name it and they’ve been part of this program at some point.

This year I’ll have a lot of snakes and exotic animals as well as the cats and dogs that we all love to pet and cuddle. In addition we’ll bring back the miniature horses and also talk a lot about Indiana wildlife.

I’ll also make my annual trek up to Purdue to pick up eggs for the incubators. We’ll keep these guys warm and cozy for a few days in the R.B. Annis Naturalist’s Lab before they start hatching just in time for the festival. It’s always a lot of fun to watch these little chicks peck their way out of an egg and realize they went from nothing to cute little chicks in only 21 days! At that time I’ll be somewhere near the 252nd day of my own pregnancy and will still have a month to go. Yikes!

We also have several great programs lined up this year including one on snakes as pets, training your cat (yes, apparently they ARE trainable!), exotic animals as pets and miniature horses.

So if you just like animals, you’re thinking about a new pet or are interested in how you can get involved with these great groups, stop on by. See some newly hatched chicks, touch a snake, meet some interesting people and enjoy a fine Saturday in June. 

For more information about the event and links to exhibitor information, visit our website.

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Them bones, them bones …

Written by Elizabeth M. Scott, Natural History and Archaeology Preparator at the Indiana State Museum

Professionals such as archaeologists often encounter bones during excavations. But how do they know what animals they belong to? One way to find out is to use a reference source called a comparative bone collection.

This kind of collection contains numerous skeleton specimens that identify the range of animals present within a particular ecological or geographical area. It may focus on current or ancient animal populations. Multiple specimens of each animal are contained in the collection to represent the diversity within each species, such as the differences between males and females and old and young. The collection also identifies additional evidence such as normal and abnormal growth and development, disease, injury, change over time and modification, for example by people, animals, or the environment. The identification of unknown bones can be assisted by comparing them to known specimens in a comparative bone collection.

Among its many collections, the Indiana State Museum has a large collection of teeth, bones and skeletons representing both modern and ancient animals from Indiana’s natural history. So how are animal skeletons prepared for the museum’s collection? Processing depends on the type of material, its condition, and its intended use. It can be a very smelly and dirty job. Case in point … let me introduce you to “Ford,” the newest member of the comparative bone collection.

Bison carcass in field prior to recovery.

At Wolf Park in Battleground, Indiana, an old bull of the bison herd known as “Ford” died. He was brought to the museum as a half mummified half rotting carcass that had been preyed on by scavengers. Over the course of several months the specimen was processed by various methods including: the separation of parts and the removal of flesh with various tools, the cleaning of bones by bugs outside, the cooking of the bones to cause further flesh and connective tissue failure and to force grease, fat, and blood out of the bones, the bathing of the bones in several baths of enzyme and degreasing detergents, the drying of the bones, and finally the staining of the bone to enhance surface feature characteristics.

Fully processed bison skeleton in biological position.

Ford now has a second life as an excellent scientific reference specimen: a complete large and older adult male bison skeleton containing evidence of previous injury with healing, pathology and potential predation marks.

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Canal Boat Season Opens!

Take yourself back to a time when pleasures were simple … just step aboard a canal boat and take a trip back to the 19th century! On May 1, the Whitewater Canal State Historic Site will once again offer canal boat tours on the Ben Franklin III, through later this fall. 

This is the 20th year of canal boat rides on the Whitewater Canal aboard the Ben Franklin III. The Whitewater Canal originally began in Lawrenceburg and terminated in Cambridge City, on the Old National Road (U.S. 40). When the era of canal transportation ended due to the railroads, the Whitewater Canal became a source of water power for many mills.

 Today, the Whitewater Canal staff operates a horse-drawn canal boat, the Ben Franklin III, and the Metamora Mill. Visitors can travel a 25-minute cruise aboard the Ben Franklin III through the Duck Creek Aqueduct, the only covered bridge aqueduct in the nation!

Simple pleasures from a simpler time … don’t you sometimes wish our lives were this uncomplicated?

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Bringing an ocean beauty to life … one stitch at a time

Carol Frohlich is a member of the Crochet Guild of Indianapolis and is coordinating the volunteer effort behind the creation of The Indiana Reef, a representation of ocean coral created through crochet, which will be exhibited at the Indiana State Museum from Sept. 1 – Oct. 31.  Recently, she and other volunteers came together for a work session to determine a plan on how many pieces of crocheted coral will be mounted for display. Currently, the group is experimenting with sewing the coral to upturned baskets.

Indianapolis Crochet Guild members and friends gathered together to make a coral reef. Since this was our first meeting, it was a time of trial and error, cheese, fruit and Mexican dip. We quickly learned to streamline our batting/backing process, making an outline of the basket first and then cutting and sewing these materials to the basket. Using strong thread and sharp needles, we found this to be very labor intensive. I think next time we’ll use hot glue for the attachments. The coral pieces still need to be sewn, no glue for the Stars!

What a pleasurable time we had! Each covered basket had several corals sewn on, and the results were stunning. The big corals were the “Stars” and were surrounded by smaller pieces. It took a lot of work to cover these baskets, and we soon realized that we need to ask for lots of small corals. An occasional fish, too! What began as a two-hour expectation ended four hours later. Thanks to this dedicated group, we now have an idea of how beautiful the coral reefs are and how much we need to protect them.

Interested in getting involved? Everyone is welcome to join in the effort to help make this exhibit a reality. We can’t do it without you! Whether you are an avid crocheter, or just a beginner, you can create a piece of beautiful coral that can be used in The Indiana Reef. For more information, or if you have questions, please contact Carol Frohlich of the Crochet Guild of Indianapolis at crochetcoral70@lightbound.com. And to learn more about programming and other activities related to The Indiana Reef check out the museum’s website.

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Snow on the mounds

Written by Mike Linderman, Sectional Archaeology Manager at Angel Mounds State Historic Site

Mound G covered in a light blanket of snow.

Evansville rarely gets any measurable snowfall, so when we do, we rush to get photos of the mounds being blanketed with the white precipitation. Several week ago we had a little over an inch, and it came down gradually, looking more like a fog on the site than snow.

Stillness falls over the site during a snowfall and you can forget that we are surrounded by a major city. It can give you a glimpse into what life may have been like almost 600 years ago at the time the site was abandoned.

Our wildlife becomes more apparent during times like this. Although we may not see them during the day, we see that they are actively leaving tracks all over the site after we leave at 5 p.m. Conservation Officers have counted a herd of over 80 deer in one evening on the site. Angel Mounds consists of 603 acres, over ½ in woods and therefore a great place to animal watch, especially in the winter. Jim Burton, our Site Naturalist, recently counted over 40 varieties of birds on the site, along with our year round residents the beaver, muskrat, fox and coyote.

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Looking for a good home: Bobcats, Bear and Deer

Written by Mike Linderman, Sectional Archaeology Manager at Angel Mounds State Historic Site

It’s not everyday that someone calls and offers up a collection of bobcats, bear and deer. But Charlotte Skelton did just that when she decided to retire from her taxidermy business. Skelton had been working in her taxidermy shop for nearly 20 years, all starting with a dare from her husband. Years ago he had a goose mounted, and she claimed that she could do better than the shoddy job they received with the bird. That started her career. Skelton came by Angel Mounds State Historic Site one day and spoke with me about whether or not we would want some animal mounts. Thinking she was talking about a couple of ducks and maybe a squirrel, I was amazed to find out she was talking about over 60 mounts, ranging from bobcats to black bears to mountain lions to deer in a full run.

I quickly called Damon Lowe, curator of biology at the Indiana State Museum, and we agreed that this was not a collection to let slip through our fingers. With the help of the New Harmony State Historic Site staff, over 10 loads of animal mounts were delivered to Angel Mounds.

We initially kept them in a secure room out of view of the public, but every time we opened the door, the prying eyes of the visitors caught a glimpse of this great collection and they were wowed. So, with that in mind, we decided to create an exhibit with the mounts for the winter and it has been one of most popular exhibits.

We plan to have the exhibit up for sometime until it gets shipped to the Indiana State Museum for processing. Our goal is to incorporate some of the mounts into a more permanent situation with our Mississippian exhibit at the site, with hopefully a rotating showing of them periodically through the years.

              Animals of North America: The Charlotte Skelton Collection
              Dec. 21, 2009 – Jan. 25, 2010
              Tues. – Sat., 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Sun., 1 – 5 p.m.
              For one month only, an impressive collection of animal mounts originating from Texas all the way to Alaska is on display. Highlights include deer, black bears, birds, coyotes, pheasants, a badger, a wolverine, rattlesnakes and much more.

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There was a little chigger …

There was a little chigger, that wasn’t any bigger…*

So begins this summertime song, sung by children scratching along in time to the melody. Sad to say, chigger season has returned — and the timing wasn’t so great for our first Sunday afternoon ‘Get-together in Selma’s Garden.’

Our new series of garden programs is a thinly-disguised attempt to recruit volunteers to help in maintaining the gardens at T.C. Steele State Historic Site. Eight brave souls showed up, hoping to learn about Selma Steele’s garden techniques and weed identification, but after doing some hands-on (and in) weed I.D. in the garden, I’m afraid they took home more than just information. Continue reading