Archive for ‘Backyard Connections’

January 2, 2015

Backyard Connections: Take a Holiday Hike!

by Melissa Harding

bw falls-001

As the old year comes to a close, so does the traditional winter holiday that most students enjoy during this time of the year. While it’s always great to have a break, the lack of structure and schedule can make normally laid-back kids turn cranky. The same can be said for parents. The winter break can also be a long period of time to occupy your family, especially when there is the added holiday expectation of infusing every outing and activity with extra meaning. One activity that is always a winner for both kids and adults alike is a holiday hike. Spending the afternoon in nature is beneficial for everyone: it soothes frayed holiday nerves, provides an outlet for energetic children, and is the great backdrop for having meaningful experiences together as a family.

Taking family hikes is also a great way to help turn your children into future naturalists. Research has shown that having positive outdoor experiences with a trusted caregiver – especially a parent or grandparent – play an important role in the formation of a conservation mindset. When adults identify figures in their childhood who were most influential to the development of their love for nature, they most often mention family members. Your children will learn their environmental values from your actions; they see every time you stop to smell the roses or observe animal tracks in the snow and will derive more meaning from that than anything else. Hiking or taking nature walks as a family is a wonderful way to share your love of the natural world with your children and for them to share theirs with you!

Taking a hike together can be as easy as stepping out your front door or can involve a drive to your local park or green space. No matter where you decide to take your hike, you will have ample opportunity to breathe in fresh air, feel the wind on your cheeks, and observe the plants and animals around you. Whether you are in a warm or cold locale this January, there is a lot to see and do outside.

Here are some suggestions to make your family hike fun for everyone:

1. Plan a scavenger hunt: Make a list of easily-found nature items like leaves, bark, birds, mud and sticks for younger children; add harder to spot items like specific species of birds and animals for older children. Scavenger hunts are always fun for kids, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself playing along too!
2. Journaling: While not every kid is into writing, most love drawing and coloring. Bring along your nature journals or some paper and a variety of vibrant pens, colored pencils and crayons. If you have room in your pack, watercolors are fun to bring as well. Encourage your family to draw their favorite plants, trees, rocks, animals, landscapes or each other. Make leaf and bark rubbings. Play games to see who can draw the best tree from memory or who can draw the best leaf with their eyes closed. Don’t be afraid to be silly and definitely don’t forget to spend some time creating art yourself!
3. Engage the senses: Observation exercises are a great way to engage the senses on a hike. Classic outdoor education activities like Meet a Tree or Hide and Seek are fun ways to get everyone looking closely at the natural world without seeming too much like school. For more ideas for encouraging observation, check out this this blog post!
4. Play trail games: A meaningful hike in nature doesn’t have a to be silent! Play word and observation games together as a family to keep everyone interested and laughing at they walk down the trail. Ideas include playing I Spy, Twenty Questions, and telling riddles and jokes. For a great list of trail games, check out this website by the Washington Trails Association.

A few safety reminders: Remember that not every child will have the stamina to hike very far or for very long. Be sure to bundle everyone up so that discomfort doesn’t make their hike a poor experience. Also be sure to pack plenty of water and snacks to keep everyone feel full and hydrated. Finally, always take a trail map and know where you are at all times; a family hike is not the place to try new paths!

No matter where you hike or how long you spend in the woods, your family will all benefit from an afternoon spent away from the TV and on the trail! Long or short, there is no wrong way to take a hike, so get outside!

Looking for more ideas of how to spend your time outside? Check out this blog post of fun winter activities!

To learn more about the importance of caregivers on environmental attitudes, check out this post!

The above photo was taken by Science Education and Research staff.





December 26, 2014

Backyard Connections: Healthy Holidays Start Outside

by Melissa Harding


The holidays can be a wonderful time; they are traditionally a time for sitting by the fireside, drinking hot chocolate, and spending time with loved ones. Unfortunately, they are also a time for eating too many sweet and savory treats and spending a lot of time sitting on our collective bottoms in front of screens. While the holiday season is a great time to relax from the stresses of school and work, it can also be pretty hard on our bodies. Kids and adults alike get lethargic and can gain weight from all the rich foods and inactivity; this makes us sleepy, uncomfortable and even grumpy. No one wants to spend weeks feeling horrible, or even worse, parenting children who are feeling horrible. However, there is a simple solution to make your holidays healthier for everyone. Don’t worry, this post will not tell you to count the calories in your cookies or to hit the gym every morning before breakfast; instead, there is a much simpler and more fun prescription for a healthy holiday: go outside!

Being outside is not just fun, but good for you as well. Nature has a positive, direct impact on human health; it enhances the ability to cope with and recover from stress and illness, reduces the risk of obesity, increases happiness and positive life outlook, increases the body’s natural immunity to diseases, increases creativity, and improves mental health.  This is especially true of children, who benefit greatly from time spent outside as well. In addition to the above benefits, playing outside also makes children kinder and more compassionate, more confident and more likely to become a successful adult. Not bad for just building a snowman, right?

Spending time outside will refresh your mind and body, giving you back the energy and feelings of well-being that too many treats can steal from you. Whether the weather is rainy and gloomy, cold and snowy, or beautiful and sunny where you are, there is always something to do outside. Here are some ways to make the most of your time outside during this holiday season, no matter what your winter looks like:

1. Go on a treasure hunt: This works especially well for young children. Take a short walk around your yard, neighborhood or local green space and look for collectibles that catch your child’s eye; rocks, pinecones and bark are commonly treasured items, as are flowers and leaves. Encourage this by bringing a container for holding treasures – mason jars, plastic food containers, and even grocery bags make good collecting containers. As a bonus, scouring nature for treasures improves observation skills! Remember, while these nature treasures may not look like much to you, to a child these items are priceless indeed.
2. Take a hike: Taking a walk in nature is always a great way to spend part of your day. Whether this is a short walk around the block or a hike on a trail will depend on your family’s stamina and the weather. However, even seemingly inclement weather can be fun to walk through; a walk in the rain is a great excuse to splash in puddles and a snow storm can turn your landscape into a beautiful wonderland. Just be sure to bundle everyone up and use caution on slick or precarious surfaces.
3. Look for animal friends:
 Everyone loves to spot a critter outside, whether it is a hawk soaring in the sky or a deer feeding in the park. Any member of your family can keep a keen eye out for animals, no matter their age. Older children may enjoy bird watching in the woods and tracking their finds, while younger children will enjoy watching cardinals at the backyard feeder.  If you can’t spot the animals themselves, look for signs of their presence: tracks, bite marks, scraped tree trunks and piles of nuts or pinecones are just a few signs that show you have an animal visitor nearby.
4. Feed those critters: Winter is a tough time for all animals, as the cold temperatures and scarce food supply can make survival much harder. Do your animal neighbors a solid and give them a holiday treat! This can be a wonderful activity to do as a family; string berries, nuts and seeds together for beautiful and delicious garlands to adorn your trees and shrubs or spread shortening on pinecones and roll in bird seed to create feeders for your feathered friends. However, animals don’t need fancy crafts, so even filling up your bird feeders and restocking your salt licks will be much appreciated (and make them stick around longer for you to watch!)
5. Create some art outside: Nature is full of beautiful art supplies; use the natural world as inspiration to create a piece of art as a family. Create a nature mandala in the snow, nature weavings to hang on your doors, or snow sculptures. You can even get crazy and bring your nature inside to do some crafting; assemble pinecone bird feeders, press leaves and flowers, or create happy holiday cards and thank you notes. With nature as your canvas and your paints, the possibilities are endless!
6. Play and explore: Sometimes, activities and crafts are not necessary; what a child (or an adult) really needs is the time to play and explore. Sled riding, building snow forts, stamping in icy puddles and generally running around will connect you all with nature just as well as anything you may use to guide your family’s energies. Sometimes all you need to do is go outside and rest will take care of itself!

Spend ten minutes in the yard or several hours taking a hike; the longer you spend outside, the more benefits you will reap. If you take some time every day to explore nature as a family, you will certainly beat those holiday blues and feel healthier in no time!

Looking for ideas of how to spend your time outside? Check out this blog post of fun winter activities!

Learn more about the benefits of nature on human happiness here!

The above photo is taken by Science Education and Research staff.

December 8, 2014

Backyard Connections: Join the Christmas Bird Count!

by Melissa Harding

bird countIt is almost time for one of the most fun and exciting winter naturalist traditions: The Christmas Bird Count! The Christmas Bird Count, or the ‘CBC’ to those in the know, is the longest running citizen science project in the world. From December 14 to January 5, thousands of volunteers, armed only with binoculars and bird lists, will head out into their local wilderness areas to count birds. Scientists, birders, families and students all take part in this adventure, some even heading out before dawn to get the most accurate count possible. Counting the birds, number and species, in any given area provides data about population trends that help scientists to better understand overall bird health around the globe.  This is a huge contribution to science and helps guide conservation action.

The data that is collected by the CBC is used by researchers to learn more about the long-term health and status of birds in North America. This data is then combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey and Project Feeder Watch to create a fuller picture of how bird populations change over time. Scientists can look at the effects of things like pollution and habitat fragmentation; the count can also show scientists where environmental threats exist that may not have yet been identified, like ground water contamination or pesticide poisoning. Not only is this good for birds, but it can be good for people as well. Birds can act as environmental indicators that show us potential threats to our own well-being, including climate change.

Luckily, there are far fewer species of birds to be found in the winter than in the spring. This is because many of the birds that we take for granted in the summer, such as warblers and flycatchers, are actually only visiting. In fact, at least two-thirds of North American birds migrate some distance each fall. Most of these migratory birds are predators, feeding on insects and worms. These birds need to migrate in order to find food; many travel to tropical locations near the equator. Most of the birds left behind are seed-eaters, such as cardinals and sparrows, and can find food all winter long. Since the variety of species is reduced during the CBC, many of the birds left are well-known backyard feeder birds or larger waterfowl and raptors. This makes it easier and lot more fun to bird in the winter – you can be sure that you will know the birds that you see!

Getting involved in the Christmas Bird Count is easy, but does require a little bit of planning. This is not the kind of citizen science project that you can do on your own, since it is a true, scientific census. There is a very specific way that the count is organized, so registration is required. Each count takes place in a 15-mile diameter circle and each circle has a count compiler. There are multiple count compilers in an area, so there may be several counts going on near you.  If you are new to birding, your area count compiler will put you in a group with more experienced birders. Even if you are not great at identifying birds, you can still participate in the fun! If your home is within one of the 15-mile circles, you can even bird from your backyard! To get started, check out this list of counts near year on the Audubon website.

Want to learn more about the Christmas Bird Count? Check out the Audubon Society website!

New to birding? Check out the Audubon Society’s online bird guide.

Think the CBC is fun? Learn more about other upcoming Audubon citizen science projects, The Great Backyard Bird Count and Hummingbirds at Home.

The above photo is courtesy of the National Audubon Society, by Geoff LaBaron.

November 12, 2014

Backyard Connections: Celebrate Urban Birds With Citizen Science!

by Melissa Harding


Even though Phipps is located in the heart of the city of Pittsburgh, our visitors and staff are always reporting interesting animal sightings – from deer standing on the hill to hawks swooping down into the fields around the Conservatory. Urban areas may not seem at first glance to be a hospitable home to wildlife, but in reality there are many animals that have adapted well to the built environment. More than just a haven for squirrels and pigeons, the city is home to a variety of beautiful birds, deer, foxes and many other animals that are more commonly associated with woodland areas. People who live in these areas may not know that they share their space with such a wealth of critters, which is where citizen science comes in. Celebrate Urban Birds (CUB) is a project developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology whose primary purpose is to reach urban audiences who do not already participate in science, as well as to collect data about birds living in these environments. Birds are a perfect animal to study; they are attractive, plentiful, and easily spotted in any place.

Fall is a great time to think about birds, specifically helping them find food and shelter during the winter, as well as to provide safe and nourishing stops for them during migration. The more you are conscious of the bird populations that live near you, the better able you are to protect them from threats and encourage their habitation of your backyard or neighborhood. Additionally, participating in citizen science programs gives bird researchers useful information that they can’t collect on their own.

Why track bird populations? Bird populations are dynamic and constantly in a state of flux. Birds are always moving from place to place in search of food and shelter, especially during the colder months. Scientists need citizen help because no single team of scientists could ever completely document the complex distribution and movement of so many birds. The longer and more frequently bird populations are documented, the more useful the data becomes, especially as scientists begin to assess trends over time. Having so much data also helps scientists to ask more difficult questions, such as why bird diseases affect different regions or why the phenology of migration patterns changes from year to year.

Celebrate Urban Birds is a great way to participate in citizen science; the project focuses on just a few focal species, many of which are commonly sighted birds, and can involve as much or as little commitment as you desire. All you need to do to get started is to sign up and purchase your CUB kit from Cornell, then you are all set to start observing the birds around you. Here’s how you record your data:

  • Beforehand, pick a date, time, and place for watching birds.
  • Watch an area about the size of half a basketball court for ten minutes.
  • Record which of the focal birds you see and don’t see in your birdwatching area.
  • Send your data to CUB either online or on your paper form

Easy peasy, and you have just helped both birds and the scientists who study them! In addition to just watching birds and collecting data, CUB also supports related community programming in the arts, neighborhood greening and  habitat restoration. They offer mini-grants to support community festivals and really want to help people connect the importance of birds and nature to all aspects of their lives.

This project is great for scout and youth groups, homeschoolers, school classes, or any other group, as well as for families. To get started, check out the Celebrate Urban Birds website – there are resources to help you learn good observation skills, identify focal species and more! Even if you are new to birding, CUB is an easy way to dip your toe into the water of citizen science. Check it out today!

To learn how to participate in bird-related citizen science, visit the Cornell Lab website. Learn more about the Celebrate Urban Birds program here!

New to bird watching, check out Cornell’s excellent resources for identifying difficult birds, using binoculars, and more!

Learn more about citizen science projects to do with your family on the blog!

The above photo is copyrighted to Maria Corcacas and used courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

July 24, 2014

Backyard Connections: Conducting a Feather Study

by Melissa Harding


Late summer is an important time for birds. Fledglings are finally off on their own and the strenuous nesting period is over; for many birds, this is the ideal time to molt their feathers. Molting is the process by which birds replace their current feathers with new ones. Feathers are not alive; they are made of keratin, the same as human fingernails or hair, and therefore are completely replaced rather than healed when they are damaged.  Molting serves many purposes: to replace worn out feathers that have become too old, to revert from flamboyant breeding plumage back to dull-colored “basic” plumage, and replace juvenile feathers with mature ones. This is a very energy-intensive process, so it makes sense for it to occur during more restful times of the year.

Different birds molt at different times, some once a year and some more often. This is based on the age, sex and even habitat of the bird in question. Some birds can acquire adult plumage in one year, where others take years to reach sexual maturity. Of course, no bird can molt all of its feathers at one time – it would be bald and flightless! Rather, birds molt some or all of their feathers gradually over time. Since so many birds are shedding their old feathers, now is the perfect time to conduct a feather study on your backyard bird friends.

Many common feeder birds, such a goldfinches and sparrows, will be dropping their feathers in your yard. Since feathers typically comprise about 15-20% of a bird’s weight, you can be sure that they have a lot to lose! Collect those that you find on the ground and use them to learn more about feathers and flight with your child. Strive for a mix of downy and more structured feathers if you can find them.  Don’t have a yard or can’t find any feathers? Purchase some at the craft store; even though they are dyed, they are still real bird feathers and will work for this study.

IMG_0126For this study, you will need: flight feather, contour feather, down feather, ruler, binoculars (optional) and magnifying glass.

1. Feather observation: Lay out your feathers on a table and do a thorough initial observation. How are these different types of feathers similar? How are they different? Measure each one with a ruler – which is bigger and which is smaller? Use each to fan your face and observe how it feels – which ones move the air? What is the color and shape of each feather? Is it damaged? If so, what do you think happened to it?

2. Flight feathers: Flight feathers are perhaps the ones that we most commonly see on the ground. This feather has a hollow, central tube called a “shaft”; it runs down the length of the feather. There is also a broad, flat bit of feather along each side of the shaft that is called a “vane”. How does this feather look to you? Run your finger from the bottom of the vane to the top, noting how smooth it feels. This vane is composed of little individual barbs that resemble skinny hairs coming off of the shaft. Each of these barbs has tiny hooks along its length that zip together to form the vane. Run your finger from the top of the feather to the bottom, breaking apart the smooth vane and exposing the barbs to view. Using a magnifying glass, look for the hooks along the barbs. Now smooth the barbs back together by running your fingers up the feather. This action is similar to the act of preening, in which birds smooth out their feathers and groom them.

3. Down feathers: Down feathers look like what you would find inside of a pillow. They are small and fluffy. Feel the feather. Can you preen it with your fingers into a single vane? Why or why not? The barbs on these feathers lack hooks, making them fluffy rather than structured. Down feathers are used for insulating the bird; the fluff created by each feather creates an air pocket against the bird’s body, which keeps in heat and allows the bird to maintain a comfortable body temperature.

IMG_01304. Contour feathers: Contour feathers look like a cross between a down and a flight feather. This feather is smooth at the top, made of a small vane with barbs that form a triangle-like shape. The bottom of the feather is fluffy, called “pennaceous”. Feel both parts of the feather. What use to do you think it had for the bird? These make up the majority of a bird’s feathers; they provide most of the bird’s patterning and coloration, as well as cover the bird to protect its sensitive skin and give it an aerodynamic shape. Contour feathers overlap each other on a bird’s body like shingles.

5. Bird watching: If you have binoculars, watch some birds out your window and notice the feathers on their bodies. Notice how they are attached in patterns. Can you see the shingle pattern of the contour feather on their bodies? Do you see how the flight feathers are arranged on the wings? Do you see any birds that look like they are fluffing out their feathers? They are pushing air into the spaces between their down. What else do you notice about the birds that you are watching? Look for interesting behaviors; watch them eat and interact with each other.

A feather study is a fun way to get your child interested in birds and how they fly. If you want to watch the birds in your yard more regularly, consider putting up a bird feeder close to your window and investing in a pair of binoculars. Bird watching is a rewarding hobby for many people, even children, and a great way to connect them to the nature in your backyard. Birds are visible, beautiful and often very funny – they the best backyard critter with which to make a real connection. Consider making bird watching a family activity!

To learn more about birds and bird behavior, check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Check out this article to read more about molting.

To read more about connecting with backyard critters, check out our post “Who Lives in Your Yard“.

To learn more about feathers in general, check out the excellent book, Bird Feathers by S. David Scott and Casey MacFarland.

The above photos were taken by Cory Doman, photography intern.

July 21, 2014

Help Scientists to Find Lost Ladybugs

by Melissa Harding

Phipps Science Education 69

If there is one sight that gardeners love to see in the summer, it is a ladybug. Spotting a ladybug on a branch near the garden is always a good sign. These little red beetles are truly garden friends; instead of snacking on plants, like many other insects, ladybugs would rather eat those culprits responsible for the most damage – aphids. Aphids are soft-bodied insects that suck the juices out of tender, young plants and new growth; aphids target the sick and weak, making quick work of them as they feed in large groups. Ladybugs charge in like the cavalry and help to remove these pesky critters from the garden. Unfortunately, all is not right in the world of ladybugs. Species distribution across North America has been changing; over the past twenty years, several species of native ladybugs that used to be quite common have become very rare. This is partly because non-native ladybugs have been taking over their habitats and making it harder for them to compete for resources. Scientists are studying this phenomenon because the effect that these new populations will have on plants is unknown. They are trying to determine the impact that these changes will have on the control of plant pests both in the wild and at home.

This is where you come in; The Lost Ladybug Project, run out of Cornell University, is a citizen science program designed to help scientists gather data about ladybug distribution.  Citizen science programs, in which regular people collect data about the plants and animals in their communities, help scientists to have eyes and ears all over the country. These particular programs are not only important for data collection, but are also a great way to spend some time outside with your family and practice your observation skills.  In the case of the Lost Ladybug Project, entomologists at Cornell are really good at identifying ladybug species, but are unable to sample in enough places to find the really rare ones. They need you to be their legs, eyes and cameras! Send them in pictures of the ladybugs that you find and they can learn more about  the area where you live. Participating in this program is especially fun, since it involves catching and studying your specimens.

Here is how the Lost Ladybug Project works:
1. Go out into your backyard, local park or other natural area and look for ladybugs. Collect them in a jar.
2. Photograph each insect
3. Upload your photos to the project website, along with information on where and when you found them.

Sounds easy, right? You can choose to participate every day, or just one time; every data point is useful! The project website includes helpful hints for catching, collecting and photographing your finds.

Need convincing? Check out this wonderful video from PBS NewsHour about the Lost Ladybug Project; this work is a really effective way to engage children in science:

This is both an exciting project for your family this summer and a way to help scientists at the same time. It is also great fun for church groups, scouts or even adults. Head outside and give it a try today!

The above picture was taken by Julia Petruska.

July 17, 2014

Backyard Connections: Easy Bug Traps

by Melissa Harding


There are more bugs on this planet than any other animal. That means that there are millions and millions of insects out there, outnumbering us all in multitudes. There are so many insects, in fact, that it is difficult for scientists to truly know them all. Researchers are discovering new insects all the time; if you are looking to discover an animal and name it after yourself, entomology is your best bet. Thankfully, you don’t need to be a learned entomologist to appreciate how awesome insects are. Being a bug scientist is easier than you think. At summer camp, we teach all of our campers to use observation to practice good scientific skills. While we are always able to look through our native landscapes to find insects to study, we also like to set a variety of bug traps to see what we can catch. We set both bait and pit traps over the course of the week and check them daily, hoping to find an insect friend or two.

This activity works well in the Conservatory and even better outside! Here is how we do it:

Day 1 Bugs 050

Bait Traps
Bait traps attract insects with food. Rotten meat attracts carrion feeders, while other insects like overripe fruits, fermented foods, sugary foods, or oils (peanut butter). While not all of these are suitable for bait traps at home, knowing what you want to catch will help you decide what kind of bait to use. At Phipps, we use sugar and baked potatoes.

Sugaring is a method of painting tree trunks, rocks, etc. with sugar to mimic the natural weeping of sap from a wounded tree. This is a good method to catch nectar-drinking insects like butterflies and bees. To make sugar solution, mix two parts of sugar with one part warm water and stir until dissolved. Paint this solution on tree trunks, rocks, or other areas where you would like to attract bugs; areas that are easy to observe are best. Check after several hours to see what you’ve caught.

Baked potato traps are just what they sound like; the soft vegetation will attract decomposers like potato bugs, millipedes and ants. To cook potatoes, poke several holes in a potato and microwave on high power for 5-10 minutes until tender. Cut this potato in half and lay face down on bare soil. Choose a place that is shady and cool, not in direct sunlight. Leave the trap overnight and check the next day by lifting the potato and looking for bugs on the white underside.

059Pit traps
Pit traps are an easy way to catch ground-dwelling insects, such as ground beetles and millipedes. These little critters walk along on the ground and fall into your trap, where it is easy to catch and observe them. These traps also usually include some type of bait to entice bugs to come closer for a look.

We make our pit traps out of repurposed containers. Old pill bottles or small glass jars make great traps. Fill your trap with a small amount of mashed banana and cereal; add a small amount of dirt on top to give the insects something to hide in. Finally, smear a thin layer of petroleum jelly around the inside rim of the trap near the top. Take your trap and bury it in a moist, shady location; dig a hole deep enough that the entire container fits into the dirt and is flush with the top of the ground. Cover your trap with a large leaf to give it some cover. Let your trap sit for 24 hours and check to see what you’ve caught.


Creating a happy bug habitat
The bugs in your trap will not survive long if they are not put into a hospitable environment. While an empty bug box is best for observation, if you plan to keep your bugs for the long term they will need somewhere comfortable to stay. Creating a bug habitat is easy; all your bug needs is access to oxygen, food, moisture, and places to hide. A plastic bug box is built for this, but you can also use a shoebox or plastic container as long as you poke some small holes into the top for air. Next, add some vegetation and dirt for both places to hide and food. You can lightly spray your vegetation with water to add moisture to the environment. If you know what kind of bug you have, look up what foods they will enjoy most.

Once you have caught some critters, it’s time to observe them. This is the time to put your bug into a clear, small bug box or into a small, empty plastic container. Use all your senses to observe – look, smell, listen and, if appropriate, touch. Never taste or lick your bug friends – neither of you will enjoy the experience! Jot down your findings in a notebook; this is also a great time to draw your observations and make note of  your bug’s behaviors. When you are done observing, either let your bug back into it’s new home or let it go free.

This is a fun activity that you can do at home in your own backyard. Try out some of these fun and easy bug traps today – you may be surprised by the diversity of life that you find!

The above photos were taken by Science Education staff.





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