Good Natured in St. Charles: Telltale giveaways you might be a naturalist

Years ago, a thoughtful naturalist, or perhaps a naturalist with too much time on their hands, compiled a list of traits that typify us nature nerds. In the style of Jeff Foxworthy’s “You might be a redneck if … ” – the list read something like, “You might be a naturalist if … "

  • You have to warn people before they open any container in your fridge.
  • You’ve ever stopped to get a closer look at roadkill or, better yet, brought it home for further study.
  • You’ve had to discreetly remove and dispose of a tick in a highly public setting (meetings, restaurants and church come to mind).

You get the picture. And so it is, in the spirit of giving that permeates this festive time of year, we present, as our gift to you, our very own “You Might Be a Naturalist … The Holiday Version.” Feel free to share it with friends and family so they too can gauge their naturalist traits – or at least be aware of what they’re in for when you join them ’round the wassail bowl.

You might be a naturalist if …

At the Christmas tree lot, you pick the tree with a crooked trunk and scraggly branches because it harbors, wonder of wonders, an empty monarch chrysalis.

You’re just as interested in mistletoe’s hemi-parasitic relationship with its host tree as you are in any human relationship that might have led you to buy a sprig. Maybe more so.

Your “Wish List” includes something called Repliscat.

You use your Christmas orange to explain plate tectonics and continental drift. (Here’s how: Remove the entire orange peel in as few pieces as possible. Flatten the pieces out on the table, and explain to all who will listen that they represent the plates of the Earth’s crust. Next, put the pieces back on the orange – use a toothpick to secure them if you need to – and tell how the cracks represent fault lines. Then lightly twist the orange to move the pieces, thus illustrating how shifting plates produce major geomorphological changes.)

You repeatedly point out the distinct possibility that all of Santa’s reindeer might, in fact, be female, as evidenced by the presence of antlers in winter. (I kid you not! Males use their antlers during the rut, or mating season, and then shed them in late fall. Females, on the other hand, retain their antlers through the winter and drop them in spring when their calves are born.)

Fingers crossed, you check your stocking to see if Santa left you a lump of coal. If he did, you check its color, hardness and luster, then hold it over a flame to conclude which rank – lignite, subbituminous, bituminous or anthracite – you received. You then proceed to chatter endlessly about coal formation and each type’s specific properties.

You’ve been dreaming of a white Christmas, but only so you can state, with authority and augmented by various diagrams of crystal formation, that it is virtually impossible for two naturally formed snowflakes to look exactly alike. (As an aside, per the good folks at the Smithsonian Science Education Center, the number of ice crystal combinations is astronomical. Scientists estimate that there are up to 10 to the 158th power snowflake shape possibilities, which is 10 to the 70th power times more designs than there are atoms in the universe!)

You decide to key out all the animals in “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” and learn that day four actually refers to “colly birds,” not “calling birds,” which is what you’d been singing all these years. You dig further and find out that colly birds are European blackbirds, Turdus merula, and, unlike our local blackbird species, are members of the thrush family.

With shopping and wrapping still not done, you delve deeper, and discover that “five golden rings” likely refers to ring-necked birds – perhaps pheasants – and not the jewelry you’d always pictured.

You relinquish all thoughts of heading out to shop, knowing that you can always hit up the rack of gift cards at Walgreens (and maybe score some half-price Christmas candy to boot). You then spend what you deem a very pleasant evening learning more about swans a-swimming, geese a-laying, French hens, turtle doves and, of course, that partridge – likely the French red-legged partridge, Alectoris rufa – in a pear tree, Pyrus communis.

Many thanks to all of you who read this column, as well as those of you who have taken the time to share your questions, comments and suggestions. Your input is invaluable, and much appreciated.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good period of darkness between dusk and dawn.

I mean night.

• Pam Otto is the outreach ambassador for the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at or 630-513-4346.