This is a story about the birds and the bees (and the bats and the bugs).
That’s right, it’s a story about plant pollinators. Insects like bees and butterflies, as well as animals such as birds and bats, are responsible for pollinating two-thirds of the world’s food crops.
I admit it. I love cats. I also love songbirds. And, while my home cats are 100% indoor cats, my work cats are indoor-outdoor cats - in part because they keep the mouse and vole populations under control. (That's Remley doing his best panther imitation to the left.)
The work cats wear collars with bells, but that doesn't keep them from catching the occasional songbird. And it breaks my heart every time I see a dead goldfinch lying in the yard, because I know one of my cats killed it. So, I might as well say that I killed the bird since I let the cat outside.
Well, there is a new product available that was designed by people who love their cats, let them roam outdoors, AND also love songbirds: Birdsbesafe collars.
Today, most people know that birds migrate by flying south during winter, and then fly north again as the days grow longer and temperatures rise. We also understand that some birds fly great distances each year to move from their summer homes to their winter spots.
Did you know that our understanding of bird migration is a relatively recent development?
November has always been a misfit month to me.
Fall colors are giving way to browns and greys. The bright white of the first snow usually waits until December. Sure, there’s Thanksgiving – my favorite holiday – but not until the end of the month.
Rather than just biding my time until Thanksgiving this November, I’m going to get out and appreciate the good things this season has to offer:
- Take a nature hike. One advantage of this pre-winter month is that the weather is cool, but not cold. On the next sunny day, I’ll take walk through the woods and enjoy the sound of leaves crunching beneath my feet. I’ll also keep my eyes open for late season mushrooms, particularly if there has been some rain recently. If I’m lucky I’ll see some turkey tails, which do look like their namesake, albeit much smaller.
- Look at the stars. Nights are longer now, which means there is plenty of time to enjoy some star-gazing and still get to bed early. On a clear, moonless night, I like to find a dark area in the country, wrap myself in a blanket with a thermos of hot cider, and just look up. (The new moon was November 3rd, so this is probably a good time for stargazing. The end of the month should be good too.) The website www.stargate.org/weeklytips posts a nice list of celestial events to look for each week. Cassiopeia, Pisces and Pegasus are visible in November, as is the Andromeda galaxy, which is in Pegasus. To the naked eye, it will look like a faint smudge. Andromeda is located 2,500,000 light years from Earth, so the light from that smudge took 2.5 million years to reach us!
- Clean and fill the birdfeeders. It is a good idea to clean bird feeders monthly when in use, but annually at a minimum. The cleaning helps remove bacteria, mold and diseases that can build up on a feeder. If an infected bird uses the feeder, it will pass the illness on to other birds. A solution of one part bleach to nine parts hot water is recommended. Be sure to clean all parts of the feeder.
Something else to look out for in November is deer. This is peak breeding season for deer, so they are a little distracted. Their coloring blends in well with the drab landscape right now, so many people don’t see them approaching on the side of the road until it is too late. Be especially alert when driving at dusk and dawn. With all of the wonderful natural areas in McHenry County, most parts of the county have deer populations, so stay alert even when driving in built-up areas.
On November 9th, from 2-5pm, TLC will hold its first acorn planting day. The inaugural event will take place at the Beeson Conservation Easement north of Chemung at 8216 White Oaks Road, Harvard. The planting will be used to test whether direct seeding of areas with acorns is an effective way to restore oak woodlands.
On November 21st, from 6-7pm, on Speaking of Nature radio program, I’ll be talking with local business owners about nature-themed gifts to consider this holiday season. Tune in through the website www.harvardcommunityradio.com or on the radio at 1610 AM.
I read this great article about how native plants can help reduce mosquito populations by attracting more of the critters that eat them! I saw it on the blog for a company based in Idaho called Conservation Seeding & Restoration. Rather than trying to rewrite a great piece, I present it here in its entirety! Their blog is excellent, by the way, and I highly recommend checking it out here.
Mosquitoes. The pesky insects don’t just bite; they can spread disease. CSR’s answer? Install native plants to attract mosquito predators! Dragonflies, various birds and bats are all wonderful mosquito-eaters that we can attract using native plants.
Western Coneflower, Sunflower and Owl’s Claws are three great draws for small birds. Cattails and bulrushes attract dragonflies and other mosquito-eating insects. You can add dense shrubs that provide cover for birds and mosquito-eating insects such as Sagebrush and Rabbitbrush, and food such as Golden Currant, Chokecherry and Serviceberry…just to name a few!
The addition of bird houses and trees for nesting are also beneficial. You can attract chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, finches, cardinals, grosbeaks, sparrows, blackbirds, jays, woodpeckers and indigo buntings by filling your bird feeder with sunflower seeds and safflower.
A birdbath is also a good method for attracting birds. Birds are naturally attracted by dripping water. If you are shopping for a birdbath, try to find one that has a fountain or some type of running water -which will also prevent it from becoming a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
Lets not forget about bats! Each night, one bat will consume thousands of insects – including mosquitoes. Attracting bats to your yard is as simple as placing a bat house. For best results, bat houses should not be placed in a secluded corner. However, bat houses need to receive at least six hours of sunlight each day. Suspend two houses back to back on a pole about twenty feet off the ground. One house should be painted a light color, and the other one needs to be painted a dark color. The light color house should face the northwest and the dark colored house towards the southeast. This will help enable the bats to switch houses as the climate changes.
By making a few changes in your landscape, you can control those pesky mosquitoes -naturally!
The last year or two, I’ve noticed changes to the farm fields I pass on my commute between Harvard and Woodstock each day. The hedgerows are thinning and in some cases, disappearing altogether.
As used here, the term hedgerow means a linear strip of vegetation (trees, shrubs and grasses) that runs along the fence line – or property boundary – between fields.
A hedgerow provides a wind break, which in turn reduces the amount of exposed soil that blows off of a farm field each year. It also reduces the amount of blowing a drifting snow, which can be a severe problem along US Route 14 between Harvard and Woodstock.
A hedgerow provides valuable habitat for a diversity of wildlife including deer, fox and birds. A hedgerow provides shelter that allows mammals to pass safely across the landscape and offers insects and birds a place to rest, nest and/or feed.
On some properties, hedgerows are the only place where old oaks are still found. When land was cleared one hundred of more years ago, farmers left many of the trees that were located on or near the property line. Over the years, these trees provided a comfortable spot to have one’s lunch on a hot summer day in the fields.
So, why are the hedgerows disappearing?
The high price of a bushel of corn.
Just ten years ago, the price of a bushel of corn was less than $3. Now that same bushel of corn sells for more than $6. And that was before the 2012 drought. Farmers are looking for additional land where they can plant corn to maximize production. And at 150-200 bushels an acre yield, even one additional acre of corn will generate $1,000 or more.
Demand for corn is high due in large part to federal Clean Air mandates that require blending ethanol with gasoline to reduce the emission of carbon monoxide. Increased use of ethanol also reduces America’s dependence on imported oil. Both seem worthy causes.
But the world is never that simple, is it? Corn is also needed for livestock feed and has become a staple in American processed food (high-fructose corn syrup, corn starch/baking powder, and corn oil being just a few).
So, basic economics tells us that competition for a product drives up the price, and scarcity (like happened in 2012 because of the drought) will drive up the price even more.
I’ve heard some folks say: “Most of those trees and shrubs are just junk anyway: box elders, buckthorn and honeysuckle.” Sure, but the wind doesn’t pay attention to what tree species is blocking it, and a bird that needs to take a break doesn’t mind if the only resting spot is a honeysuckle bush.
What does matter is whether there is something versus nothing, and the removal of more hedgerows for a few more acres of corn will have an impact on the future productivity of the land and the sustainability of the area for wildlife.
As the soil and birds start to disappear, we all may be wishing those hedgerows were back in place.
I've been watching the little dark-eyed juncos at the bird feeder today. They keep hopping onto the tube feeder and then quickly off. I did some reading, and found that they are ground feeding birds, so would really rather peck some seed from the ground. I'll have to remember to spill some seed for them.
Some people call them snow birds since they seem to appear at the first snow. Their summer home is in Canada and far northern US, so when we see them in the winter, they are actually just visiting for the better weather!
February is National Bird-Feeding Month in the United States. Congressman John Porter from Illinois introduced a formal resolution to Congress on February 23, 1994 to help raise awareness of the fact that February is the toughest month of the year for birds in most parts of the country. Their natural food supplies - berries and seeds - are often running low and insects have not yet started to emerge.
The winter has been odd this year - feeling more like late spring than winter most days - but it has still been winter for the birds. Their natural food sources have dwindled, and, other than the occasional confused fly or beetle, there are not insects for them to eat.
Rep. Porter's resolution also suggested that bird-feeding was a worthwhile family activity that does not take a lot of time or expense yet provides many hours of pleasure and opportunities for young and old alike to learn about birds. So, if you already have a bird feeder, remember to keep it full. If you don't yet have one, this would be a great time to take up a new hobby!
So, Happy Anniversary to National Bird-Feeding month!
For more information, visit www.birdfeeding.org
While on the phone with a friend the other day, I spied a hummingbird at the feeder by my window. “Wow, that’s a fat hummingbird,” I exclaimed. He pointed out that this is the time of year when the tiny birds start to bulk up for their fall migration to Central America. Good thing I refreshed the nectar earlier in the week.
Hummingbirds literally double their weight before they head south. To put that in perspective, for most of the year, they weigh as much as a dime. So, that bulky hummingbird I saw might have weighed as much as two dimes!