Backyard Buffet: Native Plants for Wildlife

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Native plants provide the best nectar sources for butterflies like this beautiful Monarch. In addition, many native insects can only reproduce on specific native plants.

I started this blog to celebrate our beautiful planet and the amazing diversity of life with which we share it, and hopefully, to inspire others to do the same. When we celebrate and appreciate the world around us, we want to take care of it. The effort we make, if only in our own backyard, makes a difference. Pretty soon, I will have a new backyard and with it, an incredible opportunity to create a haven for wildlife.

At the end of this year, my family will be moving to a 1.6 acre lot–a small patch of woods and open meadow along a creek. To make things even better, our property is adjacent to a large park with wooded trails and a lake. Although it is located in the same suburban neighborhood where we currently live, it feels a world away. I can’t wait to be settled in the home we are building, but more than that, I can’t wait to be settled in my own little nature sanctuary. So far, we’ve seen foxes and deer, numerous species of birds (including a resident Red-tailed Hawk), and scads of pollinating insects. One reason we have such an abundance and diversity of wildlife is the variety of native plants on the property.

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The leaves of Hearts-a-bursting are readily eaten by deer and rabbits, and the berries are consumed by birds.

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Goldenrod is a favorite of the American Goldfinch, and a number of other bird and mammal species dine on its seeds as well.

The lot we’ll soon call home has become overgrown with years of disuse, but in that disuse, it has become useful for the wildlife that shares the land with us. The meadow is covered with native grasses and wildflowers like heath aster, goldenrod, blue mistflower, and boneset, attracting many species of butterflies and birds. Splashes of jewelweed along the creek beckon the hummingbirds, and hearts-a-bursting bushes offer a bounty for woodland mammals and birds. The calls of nuthatches and chickadees resound from the tops of pines and oaks, and the dead tree that stands at the back of the property bears the marks of many woodpecker feasts. Aside from removing a few invasive exotic plants, I plan to leave the lot relatively untouched.

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Heath Aster is a favorite of butterflies like this Fiery Skipper.

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Jewelweed, which blooms in late summer and fall, helps migrating hummingbirds fatten up for their journey to Central America.

What we grow in our own backyards can profoundly affect the diversity of life around us. Non-native butterfly bushes, for example, are touted as excellent nectar plants, but cannot support the reproduction of a single species of butterfly in North America. Native plants are much better at sustaining biodiversity, which is crucial to the health of our planet and our very existence.  In contrast, the typical American yard, comprised of tidy, mowed grass and non-native flowering plants and shrubs, provides very little benefit to wildlife and actually does harm to the environment. Here are a few facts about lawns that may surprise you:

  • Lawn grasses are not native to the North American continent and make poor habitat for wildlife.
  • Lawn grasses and exotic (non-native) plants reduce or eliminate insects available for insectivorous birds, as well as for other birds when they are feeding nestlings.
  • Acre for acre, the American lawn receives four times as much chemical pesticide as any U.S. farmland, killing an estimated seven million birds each year.
  • Phosphorus runoff from lawn fertilizer causes algae blooms that suck oxygen out of our waterways, killing aquatic life.
  • During summer months, as much as 60% of municipal water usage goes to lawns. (In a time when much of our nation is facing catastrophic drought, water is a resource we should be using wisely.)
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Blue Mistflower produces dense flower clusters and covers the ground with a matt of leaves. I’ll take this over a traditional lawn any day!

Plants and animals share a profound connection. Plants provide food and clean air to breath, as well as sustain wildlife. Wildlife, in turn, offers a number of tangible and invaluable services to people–such as pollination, seed dispersal, pest control, and sanitation. We can’t afford to be careless about protecting our earth and the life we share it with.  We are currently living during the “sixth mass extinction,” the greatest extinction period since dinosaurs were wiped off the planet, so we can’t act too soon.

So, start with your own backyard–it needn’t be large to make a difference! Add some beautiful native plants to your landscape that will attract more butterflies, birds, and other wildlife. Learn more about backyard wildlife sanctuary certification programs in your area, and have your yard certified as an example for others. You’ll be doing yourself and the earth a favor. In the wise words of anthropologist Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  _____________________________________________________________________

An incredible and beautiful book about the connections between native plants and healthy ecosystems is Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home.

Many states have native plant societies which can help you learn more about the best plants to grow in your area. To learn about native plants in Georgia, including the best places to buy them, check out the Georgia Native Plant Society.

A wonderful blog about gardening with native plants is The Humane Gardener.

 

 

Praise for the Pigeon

Recently, I had the pleasure of “bird-sitting” a charming pigeon named Martha. Found on the ground with an untreatable injury and unable to fly, she was deemed non-releasable at the wildlife rehabilitation center where I volunteer (AWARE). Sadly, for most birds, this prognosis requires humane euthanasia, as wild birds are generally easily stressed and not suited for a life in captivity.* Well-adapted to living in proximity to humans, however, rescued pigeons often fair quite well, and because they are non-native to North America and not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, they are one of the few wild birds that can legally be kept as a pet. Many people would ask, “who would want a pigeon for a pet?!” Indeed, the pigeon is a much maligned bird, often referred to as a “winged rat.” Luckily for this particular pigeon, my friend Susie, a high school science teacher, wanted to give her a home and to introduce Martha to her students to foster an appreciation for birds and the environment. I enjoyed briefly having this calm, curious bird as a guest in my home and at my office at Atlanta Audubon Society (where she was, not surprisingly, a big hit) until Susie could pick her up. Having also worked closely with pigeons in rehab, I can tell you that they are smart, personable, and beautiful birds, and they have a rich and fascinating history.

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Martha the pigeon visits the office.

Determining the exact historical range of pigeons, also known as Rock Doves, is nearly impossible, but fossil evidence in Israel confirms they have been around for more than 300,000 years. They have been associated with humans for at least 5,000 years, having been raised for food, used as racing or homing pigeons, or kept as fancy pets (bred in a wide variety of color patterns, ranging from pure white, to rust, to slaty-blue). Pigeons in the United States are feral descendants of escaped or released domesticated pigeons; truly wild pigeons exist only in Europe, North Africa, and western Asia, where they typically dwell on rocky coastal cliffs. The birds we see in our cities have adopted the artificial “cliff” faces created by tall buildings and bridges for nesting and roosting, the best available substitute for their natural habitat.

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The adaptable pigeon has fared well living in urban areas.

Pigeons are smart and adaptable. Studies have shown that they can recognize human faces, learn the alphabet, and pass the self-recognition test when looking in a mirror, and their navigational abilities have been prized for thousands of years. In fact, selectively bred homing pigeons have the amazing ability to return to their homes when displaced 2,000 miles or more. They’ve served as long-distance messengers and as prized athletes in international races. Such notable figures as Genghis Khan and Julius Caesar used homing pigeons to carry important messages, and the Greeks used pigeons to send news of Olympic victories. One of the most famous pigeons in U.S. history, Cher Ami, saved 194 American troops trapped behind enemy lines during World War I by delivering a message indicating their location. In spite of being shot in the chest and losing a leg, Cher Ami delivered the life-saving message before she expired. She was awarded the French War Cross for her service and is enshrined in the Smithsonian Museum. The incredible navigational abilities of pigeons are not fully understood, but scientists believe they rely on a number of extraordinary capabilities, including the ability to hear infrasound (like the sound of the ocean hundreds of miles away), the ability to use olfactory cues (they follow their nose), and a sensitivity to the earth’s magnetic field (think built-in compass system).

If you take the time to look closely, pigeons are beautiful, too, and have a number of endearing qualities. Even your “run-of-the-mill” pigeon dons a spectrum of vibrant, iridescent color including purples, bronzes, and greens, and each bird has its own unique markings. Adult pigeons have striking orangey-red eyes, and who can resist those pink feet! Pigeons are strong and graceful in flight, too. They have been clocked at close to 100 miles an hour and are surprisingly acrobatic. Watch closely the next time you are stopped at a traffic light with a flock of pigeons taking wing. On the “personal” side, pigeons are faithful mates and devoted parents. They form life-long monogamous pairs and display affection to each other. Both parents play an active role incubating their eggs and feeding their young. Newly hatched pigeons (squabs) are fed by both parents for the first few days through regurgitation of “crop milk” (not to be confused with milk made by mammals; never feed milk to birds as they cannot digest it!) and are gradually introduced to seeds. Parental care continues until the young are nearly grown, which explains why baby pigeons are rarely seen.

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Pigeons don’t all look the same. Each has unique plumage.

This month marked the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, a related species that once darkened the skies for hours as they passed overhead in flocks of millions of birds. In just a few decades, humans drove this bird to extinction, the largest human-caused extinction in history. (Here is a fascinating and stark account of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon: Why the Passenger Pigeon Went Extinct.) Let’s hope we have learned a lesson. The last surviving bird was a captive named Martha (in whose honor I suggested the name for Susie’s bird). Let’s hope we’ve learned a lesson. Common as they may be, today’s feral pigeons deserve our compassion and respect, or they too may face an unthinkable fate. If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I have a special fondness for animals that are maligned and misunderstood—like opossums, coyotes, vultures, and crows. I hope that by reading you will begin to rethink these unique and wonderful creatures.

The beautiful Passenger Pigeon, which once darkened the skies with flocks of millions of birds, went extinct 100 years ago this month as a result of human over-exploitation. Let’s hope we have learned a lesson. Image courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

*Some exceptions are large birds of prey and members of the crow family, which can sometimes adapt to living with humans and can make excellent wildlife ambassadors with proper enrichment and training (see My Friend, Edgar Allen Crow). These birds, however, are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which “makes it illegal for anyone to take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter, or offer for sale, purchase, or barter, any migratory bird, or the parts, nests, or eggs of such a bird except under the terms of a valid permit issued pursuant to Federal regulations” and includes all species native to the United States or its territories. Anyone wishing to keep a wild bird must obtain a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Carrion, My Wayward Bird

Happy International Vulture Awareness Day! Today marked the 6th annual observance of this day that celebrates these vital and fascinating birds and brings attention to the serious threats they face worldwide. I guess there really is a holiday for everything, haha!  Seriously, though, as one of nature’s most successful scavengers, vultures provide an array of ecological, economic, and cultural services that are immeasurably valuable to humans and our environment. They deserve this celebration, along with our gratitude and respect.

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These Turkey Vultures, like other members of the vulture family, provide essential environmental sanitation services. And, believe it or not, I think they are also beautiful.

North America is home to three species in the vulture family—Turkey Vultures, Black Vultures, and California Condors. The only known obligate scavengers among vertebrates, they play a vital role in sanitizing the environment. The word vulture likely comes from the Latin vellere, which means to pluck or tear, a reference to the way it feeds on carcasses; however, I prefer the scientific name, Cathartes aura, which originates from the Greek words for “purifying breeze” and alludes to the tremendous ecological service that vultures provide. They patrol the air, finding and ridding the land of carrion, which would otherwise be a breeding ground for disease. These birds are uniquely adapted to their scavenger lifestyle, having keen eyesight and wings built for soaring flight. With a wingspan as large as an eagle’s, they can soar for hours and rise to heights of 5,000 feet in search of food. Their featherless heads (easier to keep clean) and highly acidic digestive system also equip them for their dining preferences. Studies have shown that diseases as potent as anthrax, botulism, and rabies do not survive passage through a vulture’s digestive system. These free sanitation services benefit humans ecologically and economically.

Turkey Vultures, one of the few birds to have an excellent sense of smell, provide another invaluable service to humans by helping identify natural gas leaks. Natural gas is by itself odorless, so gas companies add the unpleasant smelling chemical ethyl mercaptan to it so that people can smell gas leaks. As it happens, ethyl mercaptan is also one of the chemicals emitted by putrefying animal carcasses, so leaks in natural gas pipelines often attract great numbers of Turkey Vultures. Because natural gas pipelines often cross out-of-the-way places, a congregation of Turkey Vultures circling overhead is often the first to sound the alarm, alerting humans of the problem.

Fortunately, both the Turkey Vulture and the Black Vulture have healthy populations, and the California Condor, once driven to brink of extinction, is making a slow, but hopeful comeback, though it is still a critically endangered species. The greatest threats to these birds arise from the consumption of carcasses that have been poisoned or killed with lead shot. In other parts of the world, however, many species of vultures are critically endangered with disastrous effects for humans. In India, for example, vulture population declines of more than 95% have occurred in the last decade, largely as a result of the use of anti-inflammatory drugs in cattle, on whose contaminated carcasses the vultures feed. This decline, which has caused an increase in other scavenger species such as rats and feral dogs, has been linked to an increase in the transmission of deadly diseases such as rabies and bubonic plague. Clearly, human and environmental health is intimately connected to these unique birds, making their conservation critically important.

Personally, I find vultures beautiful and fascinating. They are spectacular in flight, and up close, their silly, bald heads are endearing. Having worked with them in rehabilitation and education programs, I can attest that they are smart birds and can be quite charming. A non-releasable black vulture at the wildlife rehabilitation center where I volunteer (AWARE) quickly learned the routine at the center when it was time for his cage cleaning and physical therapy. He figured out our hand signals indicating where he was to perch and also how to sneak dead prey items intended for other birds when his caregivers’ backs were turned. He became rather cantankerous when someone would try to make him move or retrieve stolen food, but his grunting was rather comical. So far, I’ve never met a vulture I didn’t like.

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Fabio, a Black Vulture at Amicalola State Park, teaches the public about the important benefits of vultures. Isn’t he adorable?!

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Orphaned Black Vulture in rehabilitation at AWARE Wildlife Center. He’ll grow into his good looks.

In some parts of the world, vultures are sacred for their cleanup role. Tibetan Buddhists practice “sky burials,” where animals, usually vultures, consume their dead. Similarly, Zoroastrians offer their dead to be consumed by vultures on a raised platform. They regard vultures as precious animals that release the soul from the body.  (To me, this sounds more appealing than being preserved and buried in a fancy, oversized coffin in the ground.) Hopefully, the celebration of these birds on this unique holiday will help more people to appreciate the vital services they provide.  Happy International Vulture Appreciation Day!

Other interesting facts about vultures:

Unlike true birds of prey, their feet are flat and poorly adapted for grasping, and their beak is less hooked and relatively weak, being designed for tearing partially rotting flesh rather than fresh meat.  Because the talons are almost useless for defense, vultures will either play dead or projectile vomit on their attacker if threatened while nesting or roosting.

Vultures lack a syrinx (vocal organ) and can only communicate with hisses and grunts.

Vultures cool off by defecating on their own legs. The water evaporates to provide a cooling effect, similar to sweating. This habit is the reason their legs often appear white.

Although the Black Vulture and California Condor are non-migratory, some populations of Turkey Vultures annually migrate in huge flocks to Central and South America.

A group of vultures has many collective nouns, including a committee, a vortex, and a wake of vultures.

Here’s another great post about vultures from an author and blogger I admire: Why So Many Vultures?

A great source of information about vultures and other North American birds is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/

You Might Be a Wildlife Rehabilitator If…

  • you do a quick u-turn when you notice flashing car lights and police officers in the middle of a busy road wondering what to do with a large snapping turtle stranded in the middle of four lanes.
  • you know how to handle a snapping turtle, and you happen to have a carrier for it in your car.  (See https://mefurr.wordpress.com/2014/05/13/a-snap-decision/.)
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Have carrier, will rescue!

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Orphaned squirrel takes a nap at the office between feedings.

  • you’ve been on a wild goose chase…literally.
  • you go to the doctor for a couple of stitches on your cheekbone because you’ve been clocked by the goose you were trying to catch. (The doctor thought my story was pretty crazy but figured it had to be true. Who could make up something like that?! I don’t think you want to see the photo–had a nasty bruise too!)
  • you’re more afraid of being bitten by a chipmunk than a coyote. (Those chipmunks bite hard!)
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Believe it or not, I’m more wary handling these little critters than large predators like coyotes and hawks.

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Edgar Allen Crow was very dear to me. I still miss her.

  • you love opossums, squirrels, coyotes, snakes, vultures, crows, pigeons, and many other animals that people disdain because you know they play an important role in their ecosystem. (See Carrion, My Wayward Bird and Pretty as a ‘Possum.)
  • You’ve worn a ghillie suit.
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Ghillie suits help prevent orphaned animals from imprinting on humans. They’re worn especially around predators like coyotes and foxes that need to keep their distance from human habitation to remain safe in the wild.

  • you can’t say no when you get a call to go rescue an injured opossum (goose, squirrel, fox, etc.), even when you’re exhausted and have just found a moment’s peace.
  • you’ve been bitten, scratched, or taloned by most of the native wildlife in your area.
  • you’ve said to a friend, “I’d give you a hug, but I have feces on my shirt.”
  • you deal with a lot of sh*t!

But aren’t these faces worth it!!

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The Right Place for a Robin

Today I had another one of those moments where the universe put me in the right place at the right time. I had spent the better part of the week conducting a professional development workshop for teachers, training them how to use birding and ornithology to teach science concepts and integrate them with other courses. These workshops, which take place over the course of four days and three nights at a North Georgia state park, are lots of fun, but intense, starting with a bird walk at 7:00 AM and ending with a documentary about birds at 8:00 PM. One of the highlights of the workshop was taking a bird walk with a few of the teachers during our afternoon break and seeing a fledgling Blue-headed Vireo hidden among some low branches, an unexpected gift we would have completely missed had we not heard its faint begging calls and paused to take a closer look. You’d think after four days of doing little but looking at and talking about birds, I would have had my fill of birds for a little while, but luckily for another little fledgling, this wasn’t so.

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Fledgling Blue-headed Vireo

At the conclusion of the workshop, I drove over to my parents’ mountain house about an hour away to spend the night with my parents and my two children, who were spending the week with their grandparents and attending day camp. The next afternoon, while running an errand with my parents at the grocery store, I noticed the sound of birds chittering above the parking lot. When I looked up swallows were circling. Nearby, more than 25 Barn Swallows were perched on the roof of the building, and several nests were tucked up under the eaves. Since we needed to hurry back to pick up the kids from camp, I couldn’t spend a lot of time observing, but I did snap a quick photo of some nestlings before leaving.

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Barn Swallow nestlings

In the evening, as I passed by the grocery store on my drive back to Atlanta, I decided to pull in for one last look at the swallows before making the drive home to go to work the next day. As I was pulling out of the parking lot, I noticed a small fluttering movement in the shrubbery along the side of the road. Unable to resist the temptation to have a peek at what I assumed to be a fledgling, I decided to pull over to have a look. A baby American Robin was flapping its wings while the parents circled and called anxiously, but the bird didn’t seem to be able to move. When I stepped closer to have a look, I saw that the poor bird had his foot tangled in some thread that was snagged on a bush.

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Fledgling American Robin caught on a bush

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Removing the thread

Fortunately, a nice clerk inside the grocery store loaned me a pair of scissors, and once I relocated the baby (who at this point must have been following his parents’ orders to stay stone still), I quickly cut the thread that was caught on the bush. Removing the tangled thread from the bird’s foot was more complicated as it was tightly wound around the bird’s ankle and toes, and I worried that the constriction may have caused injury. The bird’s parents flew about making a fuss, but the baby was quiet and didn’t struggle. I think he knew I was helping. Fortunately, once the baby was freed, he was able to perch in the nearby tree where I gently placed him. The parents immediately flew over, as did a Gray Catbird, who must have wondered what all the racket was about.

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Back where he belongs!

As I mentioned in my previous post, birding forces us to slow down and be attentive to our surroundings, be they nests hidden under the eaves of a grocery store or a small flutter or call from a nearby bush. Even when the birds aren’t cooperating, being outdoors with a birder’s frame of mind will bring unexpected and incredible discoveries and gifts. I guess you could say that baby robin was lucky that I drove by with my eyes open for birds, but I’m the one that was richly rewarded.

**This experience serves as a good reminder of the importance of not littering, even when we think that an item is small, harmless, and/or biodegradable. Sadly, far too many animals suffer needlessly or die slowly and painfully by becoming ensnared or stuck in our castaway items like six-pack rings, fishing line, aluminum cans, glass bottles, etc. Marine life suffers when they ingest trash like balloons, plastic bags, and other disposable plastic items. Please dispose of trash responsibly.

What Birding Has Taught Me

As I write this, I am flying back to Atlanta, having spent the weekend in Summit, New Jersey for my 25th high school reunion. Excited as I was to spend time with old friends and to visit old stomping grounds, perhaps the highlight of the weekend was escaping the dinners and the small talk and going birding with one of my oldest and dearest friends in our old neighborhood. Although I spent the first 18 years of my life in New Jersey, I don’t recall having any curiosity about the birds in my backyard. It must have attracted them, with its towering old trees and expansive lawn surrounded on all sides by thick tracts of rhododendron. Just beyond our fence lay hundreds of acres of woods, part of the Watchung Reservation. I suppose I could identify the pigeons and crows seen in town, as well as a few of the regular backyard visitors like cardinals, blue jays, robins, and mourning doves, but I certainly didn’t know about warblers or vireos. Visiting my hometown with a greater awareness of the birds around me was immensely rewarding. Strolling along the streets in my old neighborhood, I was treated to spectacular looks at Baltimore Orioles and Black-and-white Warblers. The Blue-winged Warbler at the nearby Audubon Sanctuary was a life bird for me. How fun to see Black-capped Chickadees and note their different song. By looking carefully for the birds, I also noted many other beautiful things about my hometown that I took for granted growing up.

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Baltimore Oriole–what brilliant color! How did I overlook this bird growing up?

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Blue-winged Warbler. Like many warblers, these insectivores are elusive and in constant motion. You have to look carefully and be patient to see them.

I only discovered the joy and excitement of birding a couple of years ago. Feeding injured and orphaned birds at AWARE Wildlife Center spurred me to want to learn more about them. I attended Bird Fest at Unicoi State Park in the spring of 2012, and I was hooked after the first bird walk. I was astounded that the small group of knowledgeable and convivial birders on that walk spotted 45 species in just one morning (and now realize that was a respectable, but not exceptional number). How could I have been so oblivious for so long?! Now I never leave the house without my binoculars, and my birding adventures have taken me from such birding hot spots as Dauphin Island in Alabama to Denali National Park in Alaska. I study my field guides and keep eBird lists. My yard list for my tiny suburban backyard in Tucker is currently at 50 species.

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Getting ready to release a Northern Parula (a warbler species) at a banding station on Dauphin Island. What a spectacular bird and memorable experience!

Birding makes life so much richer. It teaches us not only about birds, but also teaches us many other life lessons and skills. Birding teaches us to be in the moment and enjoy what is right in front of us. It demands us to slow down and pay attention to our surroundings–to notice the dappled sunlight in the trees, to hear the birdsong in the air, to feel the rustling wind on our face. It helps us to recognize the interconnectedness of all living things and the importance of protecting natural habitats. Birding also helps us to sharpen our observation and recall skills. In order to identify a bird, we must quickly process a lot of information–color patterns, call notes, the shape of the wings and bill, and so on. Such sensory workouts help develop mental acuity and keep our brains active. In addition, birding entices us to explore new destinations, from the park down the street to remote corners of the earth, enabling us to take in ample fresh air and beautiful scenery. From New Jersey to New Zealand and beyond, birds allow us to admire and enjoy all of the beauty and diversity of our remarkable planet.

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Looking for birds forces us to slow down and notice details about our surroundings–like the sunlight in the trees at my local park.

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This Pondhawk (seen during my recent trip to Dauphin Island) would have been easy to miss!

Having some reflective time during this trip to my childhood home reminds me how significantly my life has been enhanced since I really discovered the birds around me. I invite you to pay closer attention to the birds around you. I’d be surprised if you didn’t find that your life is enriched when you do.

Note: Earlier this year, I started working as the Director of Education for Atlanta Audubon Society, a dream job that allows me to share my passion for birds and nature with others. This piece was originally written to share in the AAS newsletter. I encourage you to find an Audubon chapter in your area and get involved. Audubon chapters often provide free bird walks and other opportunities to learn and to gather with fellow nature lovers, and they do important conservation and advocacy work.

A couple of great articles about the benefits of birds for further reading:

http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/blogs/can-bird-songs-boost-your-brain

http://us.cnn.com/2014/05/30/opinion/doherty-save-birds/index.html?sr=sharebar_twitter

A “Snap” Decision

As a wildlife rehabilitator, I’ve had a lot of interesting experiences with wildlife. Recently, I had one of the more unusual encounters I’ve had rescuing a wild animal. Driving back to my office at Atlanta Audubon Society after having taught a beginning birding class, I noticed two police cars with lights flashing parked in the turning lane in the middle of a busy four-lane road. Glancing over quickly, I noticed two officers standing near a large snapping turtle and looking perplexed about what to do. In an instant, I carefully made a U-turn, pulled up behind the patrol cars, and hopped out to offer my help. As luck would have it, I not only have experience handling snapping turtles, but I also happened to have a large pet carrier in my car, having been called earlier in the day about a mallard that might need rescuing. As I walked up to the police officers, I told them that I volunteer as a wildlife rehabilitator, knew what to do with the turtle, and had a carrier in my car. “What are the chances?!” one of them said, looking both surprised and relieved. Indeed the fates seemed to have been aligned for me to rescue that turtle that day.

Apparently the turtle had fallen (or climbed out?) into the middle of the road from the back of a truck, unnoticed by the driver. As large as the turtle was (the shell was about 18 inches long), the officers were, understandably, reluctant to handle it. Indeed, a turtle that large, with its long neck and strong, lightning-fast beak, can inflict a serious bite. Fortunately, my training at AWARE Wildlife Center has taught me the proper way to safely handle snapping turtles, and in no time, the turtle was loaded into my carrier and on its way to a nearby lake.

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Why the turtle would have been in someone’s truck is a mystery to me, but I can only assume it would have come to no good end. Some friends suggested that it was probably intended for someone’s supper. (I can’t image a giant, old turtle like this one would make good eating). Or, perhaps the intentions had been innocent–a desire to relocate the turtle to another location. But relocating wildlife is hard on animals and decreases their chances of survival. Many animals, and turtles in particular, are very tied to their home territory, often not venturing beyond a few miles their entire lives. In unfamiliar territory, relocated animals have a harder time finding food, shelter, and places to hide, and are often met with hostility by the local population. I wished I knew where the turtle had come from, but I did the best thing I could and drove to a nearby lake in a quiet neighborhood to release it. Getting the turtle back out of the carrier was a trickier task than getting him in! After a few minutes on the bank, he plunged in and disappeared into the muddy depths.

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As I walked back to my car, I noticed two Broad-winged Hawks, a migratory species that nests in Georgia in the summer, circling and calling. The first Broad-wings of the year for me, they seemed to be a nod from the universe saying “good job, Mel.” I hope that snapper finds its way home and lives a long life. I’m glad I was in the right place at the right time to help.

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Strangely enough, the very next day my neighbors called to ask for my help with a large snapping turtle that had mysteriously ended up on their back porch. Spring is the time of year when many turtles are on the move to lay their eggs, and they sometimes end up in unexpected places. If you see a turtle crossing the road and can safely move it, always help it across in the direction that it was heading. 

Springing Forward

Although Old Man Winter is still flexing his muscles here and there (Atlanta expects temperatures to drop below freezing again this week, and my northern friends are bracing for another snowstorm), we are definitely on the threshold of spring. With the arrival of warmer weather and lengthening days, the signs of spring are everywhere – blooming spring ephemerals, budding trees, birdsong, and baby squirrels!  Here are just a few of the tell-tale signs I’ve seen in recent days that remind me that warmer, greener days are ahead.

Trout Lilies are an early herald of spring.

Trout Lilies are an early herald of spring.

One of the earliest heralds of spring, Trout Lilies grow in sizeable colonies and are named for the mottled leaves which bear some similarity to the markings of brook trout. Like other spring ephemeral wildflowers, trout lilies are perennial woodland plants that sprout early in the spring to take advantage of the full sunlight. They bloom and quickly turn to seed before they are shaded out by the canopy trees. Once the forest floor is in deep shade, the leaves wither, leaving behind only the underground roots and bulb. Some other ephemerals to look for while walking in Eastern woods are Hepatica, Bloodroot, Trillium, and Jack-in-the-Pulpit.

Magnolia blossom

Magnolia blossom

Magnolia tree with maples and the moon in the background

Magnolia tree with maples and the moon in the background

Although we usually think of trees being their most colorful in the fall, they put on a variety of colorful displays in the spring, too. Aside from the showy blooms of flowering trees like the Dogwood or Magnolia, many other common deciduous trees bear colorful flowers in spring. Maple flowers, for example, can be green, yellow, orange, or red, and while the flowers are small, the effect of a whole tree in bloom is beautiful. Later, the flowers of the maple tree yield seeds called samaras – better known as “helicopters” or “whirlybirds” for the way they are shaped to spin as they fall, which helps to carry them great distances on the wind for dispersal. These seeds are an important food source for a variety of wildlife.

Maple tree in bloom

Maple tree in bloom

The birds are singing! (Carolina Wren)

The birds are singing! (Carolina Wren)

You’ve probably noticed that the birds are a lot more vocal as the days grow longer. The increased sunlight triggers hormones in birds that induce them to sing, especially the males, but the females of many species sing also. Vocalizations fall into two general categories, songs and calls. Songs are used to attract mates, declare territory, and bond with family members. The shorter calls are used to convey information about food sources, warn of danger, and help family members stay in touch as they forage. The Northern Mockingbird, named for its ability to mimic the songs of other birds, has one of the most expansive repertoires, copying songs from other species and incorporating them into thousands of variations. Most people are surprised to learn that Georgia’s state bird, the Brown Thrasher, has even more songs than the mockingbird! In fact, it has the largest repertoire of all North American birds. Early spring is one of the best times to watch birds – before the canopy hides them from view and before they have young mouths to feed and protect.

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbirds are expert mimics with hundreds, if not thousands, of variations in their songs (even when standing on one foot as this bird is, ha ha).

Finally, I know that spring is truly here when the wildlife center where I volunteer starts receiving a steady inflow of displaced and orphaned baby squirrels and other young wild animals. Already we are caring for close to twenty tiny squirrels, and that number will double, or triple as the season progresses. For me, making and warming formula, feeding bottles, and washing an endless stream of dishes and dirty laundry have become as closely associated with spring as any other of the tell-tale signs. So please, hold off on your tree pruning, keep your cats indoors, and when possible, place any young mammals or birds you find on the ground back in the nest. Our hands are full already!

Baby squirrels require numerous feedings each day.

Baby squirrels require numerous feedings each day. This one is about two weeks old.

To learn more about rehabilitating baby squirrels and see some adorable photos, see my earlier post Nutty for Squirrels, mefurr.wordpress.com/2013/09/26/nutty-for-squirrels/For information about what to do if you find an injured or orphaned animal, check out AWARE’s website at www.awarewildife.org.

To learn about the birds in your neighborhood, including audio files of their songs and calls, one of my favorite resources is www.allaboutbirds.org, a website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

A great resource for information on wildflowers and trees, as well as many different types of animals is www.enature.com/fieldguides/. This site allows you to type in your zip code to find out more about the plants and animals in your neighborhood.

Snowjam 2014: Birds, Beeches, and Blue Sky

Atlanta doesn’t see a lot of snowfall, but when it does, it’s a major event. A recent snow here, “Snowjam 2014,” made national news as a panicked city shut down government, businesses, and schools, leading to paralyzing traffic jams that stranded people on roadsides and forced them to camp out in gas stations and grocery stores. Yesterday we had a second snowfall (mixed with sleet and freezing rain) that shut down much of the city. Having grown up in New Jersey and Vermont, I find the frenzy and lack of preparedness for snow here to be somewhat unfathomable, but I have enjoyed the excuse to slow down, admire the change of scenery, spend time with my children, and hunker down in warm pajamas. Although the weather this week was dreadful with driving sleet and howling wind, it made for some magical scenery, which we enjoyed from our warm house while making homemade soup and coffee cake.

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Snowjam Sparkle

One of the nicest things about my snow day is that it afforded me the luxury of watching my bird feeders throughout the day–and were they ever busy! (I’m only mildly embarrassed to admit that I stayed in my pajamas all day long, though I did go outside a few times to refill bird feeders.) Even amid driving sleet and icy wind, the birds stayed active. I am always amazed how such small creatures, warm-blooded like ourselves, survive in such wretched weather. One of the ways they do this is by keeping their bellies full. Many species of birds put on an insulating and energy-giving layer of fat in the winter (much like some of us do!), so they spend the majority of their day seeking out fatty food sources—all the more reason to keep those feeders full during bitter cold weather. You’ve probably witnessed another strategy birds use to survive the cold, which is by puffing up into the shape of a little round ball to trap insulating heat close to their bodies. Birds also fight the cold by staying out of the elements, finding cover in dense foliage or cavities, and some species huddle together to share warmth. Some of the smallest and hardiest birds, like chickadees, drop their body temperature more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit at night to save energy. How lucky we are to be able to warm up with a hot cup of cocoa or by turning up our thermostats! Appropriately, my family ended the day by curling up on the couch with blankets and watching the PBS Nature “DUCKumentary.”.

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Female Northern Cardinal puffed up against the cold

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Female Eastern Towhee taking cover from the storm

This morning, sun shining, I woke to sound of a steady drip of ice melting from trees and a thundering crash of snow sliding from the roof. I dressed and readied myself quickly to get outside to hike in the woods at our local park before the magical blanket of snow was gone. My two children, ages 10 and 12, having had their fill of television and video games during the sleet and snow, willingly pulled on their boots to join me. Watching our step as we crunched through the wet snow and keeping our heads down to avoid pelting snow and ice melting from the trees made bird-watching unfavorable. Birdsong filled the air, however, and we were lucky to spot the resident pair of Barred Owls roosting in their favorite pine tree. In the wetlands by the lake, dozens of sparrows were scratching in the mud looking for good things to eat, and a Belted Kingfisher zipped by, sounding his loud, rattling call. What struck me most on this morning’s walk, however, was not the birds, but the trees – their starkness so beautifully accentuated by white snow and blue sky.

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Pondering the climb of the Ladder Tree

American Beech trees were particularly dazzling with coppery leaves fluttering in the breeze and adding a flash of color to the landscape. Young beech trees and many species of oak hold their leaves through the winter, a trait called marescence that may help them weather the hardships of the season. One possible advantage of marescent leaves–defined as “withering but not falling off”–may be that they help the tree withstand stress from cold temperatures and improve water balance. Holding leaves through winter may also provide frost protection for new buds and twigs or deter animals from feeding on them (since dead, dry leaves are less nutritious and palatable). Another theory suggests that by dropping their leaves in spring, beech trees are delivering an organic mulch at the time when it is most needed by the growing parent tree. I like the suggestion of Michael Snyder, a Vermont forester, who suggests that marescence may be “helpful to trees living in dry, cold, deer-infested environments,” but that because all trees evolved from evergreens, it may also be a “sign that beech and oak are evolutionarily delayed, still on their way to becoming fully deciduous from their more evergreen past” (northernwoods.org). Whatever the reason, the beautiful golden hues the beech leaves added to our walk today was not overlooked.

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Beech trees and blue sky

We returned home with wet hats and cold feet. The kids settled in with a cup of cocoa, while I took a hot shower before putting my pajamas back on, pouring a second cup of coffee and sitting down to work. Though the cold lingers long this winter and snowy weather has kept us from our regular routines, what gifts Mother Nature constantly provides.