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Investing in Your Child's Curiosity

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By Beverly S. Krueger

One Saturday on our way to the shopping mall, my husband took a detour. Heading down a road that wound through the local university's agricultural experiment station, all he would say was that he and the boys had a surprise for the girls. The surprise? Yellowbelly Marmots. At that point we didn't know they were yellow belly marmots. The boys were sure they were beavers. After much discussion half of the car decided they couldn't possibly be beavers because they were obviously jumping down holes in the ground and weren't big enough. The other half of the car held tight to the beaver theory because they were too big to be ground squirrels or prairie dogs. We decided to go home get our binoculars and some information and then head back out to make further observations.

Armed with information from the online field guide at, a copy of Peterson's First Guides: Mammals and the binoculars, we returned to our investigations. Peterson's First Guide told us that beavers grew up to 40 inches long and had a big flat paddle shaped tail. All things I had pointed out previously, but with the guide to back me up and a better look through the binoculars at the critters' tails, we ruled out beavers. It was also equally clear that they couldn't be ground squirrels because they were much too large. Browsing through the rodent section of our field guide, it also became clear that these animals were not muskrats--no conspicuous conical houses--not woodchucks---wrong part of the country. That left marmots.

Peterson's First Guides: Mammals includes this entry on Yellowbelly Marmots:
"Yellowbelly Marmot. To 28 in. long. Replaces the Woodchuck in the interior western U.S., from New Mexico to British Columbia and from the Black Hills to California. It is a rich, yellowish-brown, with a yellow belly and a bushy tail, which is reddish with a black tip. The black head has white patches in front of the eyes and a rusty patch below each ear. This marmot feeds on grasses and forbs in mountains and valleys usually in rocky areas. It gives high pitched chirps from a lookout boulder when alarmed."

This brief description clinched it for us. We were, in fact, observing Yellowbelly Marmots. We were able to confirm the coloring, the white patches in front of the eyes and even the high pitched chirps. As we were getting ready to leave, another nature observer pulled alongside our car and asked what we were observing. He had been out bird watching and was wondering if we'd seen an interesting bird. When we told him that we were observing what we had decided were marmots, he confirmed that they were indeed marmots.

And so I come to the point for telling you about our trip to see the marmots, make like a boy scout---be prepared. I was certainly glad that a year or two earlier I had picked up the guide to mammals. I've got several similar guides picked up in bargain bins or discount book stores. If the kids find a new caterpillar, out comes the butterfly and moth guide. I hesitated before purchasing the guide on mammals. Bird watching and bug catching are fairly frequent events in our family, but mammal watching? After all, I could distinguish a rabbit from a squirrel, a porcupine from a raccoon. My decision to make that $5 investment was in the end a good decision. My kids learned a great deal about the marmot that day, but they also learned more about habitats and the habits of various rodents as we used our field guides. All in all a far better lesson than we would ever have gotten from a book alone.

Field guides come in easy to use beginner guides, like the Peterson First Guides, to more advanced and detailed guides. They cover many topics including seashells, birds, insects, rocks, reptiles, wild flowers, and trees. On our bookshelves we have guides that covers all those topics. We use our field guides more often than our expensive set of encyclopedias. They're an investment in the curiosity of my kids.

Peterson First Field Guides and Peterson Field Guides are available in the Homeschool Resource Center.

Copyright ©  2002 Eclectic Homeschool Association

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