Christmas Bird Count Coyote

While looking for birds during the Audubon Christmas Bird Count on a cold, early-January day, my team of birders had the unexpected and delightful surprise to witness a beautiful coyote taking in some sunshine. Although I regularly come in close contact with coyotes at AWARE (and wrote about helping to raise and release coyotes in Back to the Wild), seeing a healthy one in the wild, even at a distance, was thrilling. I’m reassured to know enough wildness still exists where I live for these amazing animals to survive, yet I worry for their safety, too. Unfortunately, coyote sightings still make most people uneasy, and they continue to be persecuted on a national level.  How has the dog achieved the status of “Man’s Best Friend,” while its wild cousins, especially the coyote, continue to be feared and persecuted?

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Without our binoculars, I don’t think we would have ever spotted this coyote.

In order to understand why coyotes are so misunderstood, a few historical facts are worth mentioning. In the early history of wildlife management, as our nation expanded westward, Americans generally agreed that predators such as wolves, coyotes, and panthers should be killed indiscriminately. In 1909, under pressure from livestock owners, Congress began funding a large-scale predator control program aimed at large carnivores from eagles to bears. Both the Red Wolf and the Gray Wolf were completely wiped out in the United States in the ensuing decades and have only recently been reintroduced to the American landscape. Sadly, this predator control program persists even today with the government killing approximately 100,000 carnivores each year–using methods that include trapping, aerial gunning, poisoning, and killing young in their dens–and spending an estimated $100 million of our annual federal budget, with very little regulation, to do it. Coyotes are targeted in particular. Statistics provided by the United States Department of Agriculture indicate that more than 75,000 coyotes were killed in 2013 (The Toll Taken by Wildlife Services). Although most livestock losses come from weather, disease, illness, and birthing problems, coyotes continue to be persecuted, in spite of the vital role they play in maintaining healthy ecosystems. These federally-funded predator control activities, driven by narrow agricultural interests, kill untold numbers of non-target animals and ignore the public need for a healthy environment, fiscal responsibility, and safe public lands.

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Coyotes play an integral role in healthy ecosytems and pose little threat to humans, livestock, or pets when a few precautions are taken.

Little suggests these control measures are working anyway. In spite of persecution from humans, coyotes not only have failed to decline in numbers, but have expanded their range in all directions, flourishing in a wide range of habitats from the Canadian tundra to metropolitan cities. In fact, scientists and wildlife officials estimate coyote numbers to be at an all-time high, and studies show that efforts to reduce the population usually end up increasing it instead. In short, the resilient and resourceful coyote is an amazing evolutionary success. Many factors have contributed to this success. Until recent decades, coyotes lived only in western North America, often in harsh, dry climates with scorching days and freezing nights that enabled them to adapt to a wide variety of conditions. The eradication of wolves boosted coyote populations, both by eliminating their biggest predator and by making more prey available to them. Humans further contributed to the coyote’s expanding range by clearing forests and creating fragmented habitats ideal for small mammals, the coyote’s favorite prey. And, interestingly enough, many wildlife biologists argue that the overkill of the species has served only to transform the coyote into a more adaptable, intelligent, and indestructible animal since the individuals that escape the guns, traps, and poisons are those that possess the keenest survival instincts. Studies also show that efforts to control coyote populations actually cause a population increase within a short time. In a stable family group (a breeding pair and one or two offspring, known as a “pack”), only the alpha male and female reproduce, keeping the population in check. When individuals are killed and more resources become available, females tend to have larger litters with higher survival rates. If an alpha female is killed, other females in the area will seize the opportunity to have litters of their own. In any case, the population ultimately increases quickly. The coyote’s generalized diet gives it an additional evolutionary edge. Though excellent hunters, coyotes are also opportunistic, dining on carrion, insects, nuts, fruits, grasses, and other vegetation, in addition to small prey. In spite of our best efforts to defeat it, the coyote has adapted and persevered. Like the well-known Wile E. Coyote of cartoons, the coyote just keeps bouncing back.

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Intelligent, adaptable, and family-oriented, coyotes have outwitted attempts to eradicate them. And how can you resist this face?!

As a top predator, coyotes play an integral role in the environment, helping to maintain healthy ecosystems and species diversity. Recent studies show coyotes may even be a benefit to declining bird populations by controlling mesopredators like raccoons that prey on bird eggs and young.  (For a cool video about the importance of top predators, check out this amazing video: How Wolves Change Rivers.) Although they are moving into our neighborhoods, their presence needn’t alarm us when we take a few precautions. Instinctively fearful of people, these animals go out of their way to avoid humans. (I tell people all the time I’d rather wrangle a coyote than handle a chipmunk). When people feed them, intentionally or unintentionally (by leaving pet food or garbage outside overnight, for example), coyotes may become less wary of our presence, which can lead to occasional sightings, but rarely more than that. Most of the time, coyotes go about their coyote business–living in small, close-knit family groups that hunt and play together, care for each other, and protect their territory from intruding coyotes and other predators. Having a healthy family group in your area is an asset, as coyotes help to control pest populations and maintain the balance of wildlife, including their own species. With minor adjustments we can learn to appreciate and coexist with these intelligent, adaptable canines. For me, seeing one during that chilly Christmas Bird Count was the best sighting of the day.

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Coyotes typically avoid humans. This one looked at me for a minute, then trotted off.

DID YOU KNOW…?   In Georgia and many other states, coyotes receive very few protections. They may be hunted or trapped at any time of year and their pelts commercially sold. By law, coyotes trapped as “nuisances” may not be relocated. Trapped animals are either euthanized or sold to licensed hunting facilities where they are put in penned enclosures and hunted with dogs. Trapping is not a humane solution. Please find ways to coexist. 

EDUCATED COEXISTENCE from Project Coyote
Urban landscapes offer an abundance of food, water, and shelter for coyotes. Take the following steps to prevent coyotes from being attracted to your home:
*Wildlife-proof garbage in sturdy containers with tight fitting lids.
*Don’t leave pet food outside.
*Take out trash the morning pick up is scheduled.
*Keep compost in secure containers.
*Keep fallen fruit off the ground. Coyotes eat fruit.
*Keep birdseed off the ground; seeds attract rodents which then attract coyotes. Remove
feeders if coyotes are seen in your yard.
*Keep barbecue grills clean.
*Eliminate accessible water sources.
*Clear away brush and dense weeds near buildings.
*Close off crawl spaces under decks and around buildings where coyotes may den.
*If you frequently see a coyote in your yard, make loud noises with pots, pans, or air horns, and haze the coyote with a water hose.
*Share this list with your neighbors; coexistence is a neighborhood effort.

 

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For a Flitting Moment

In my last post, I shared photos and facts about the gulf fritillary butterfly, dozens of which were laying eggs on the passionflower vines along the edge of my yard at the time. Having gone out to photograph the butterflies (who weren’t cooperating) one afternoon, I stumbled upon several of the fritillary larvae–bright orange and black caterpillars–that sparked my curiosity. I checked on the passionflower patch regularly over the next few weeks, keeping a close eye out for any chrysalises (chrysalides). I decided to bring a couple of caterpillars inside to observe and put them in a terrarium with lots of passionflower leaves, which is the only food they eat. Watching the life cycle unfold was fascinating, but the life of butterfly (if it even becomes a butterfly) is certainly fleeting and full of peril.

One of the caterpillars in our terrarium formed its chrysalis while we were out of town for a couple of days. I was disappointed I’d missed seeing it happen but excited that I might get to see a butterfly emerge for the first time ever.

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Gulf fritillary chrysalis from our terrarium.  You can see the shed exoskeleton of the caterpillar on the stem.

I found only one chrysalis in the yard, and I checked on it daily. (I suspect most of the other caterpillars, if they survived predation, crawled off to the denser thickets nearby to pupate, while this lonely individual struck out for the middle of the yard.)  When the chrysalis began to turn orange after about a week, I hoped it meant that a butterfly was soon to emerge.

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In this photo, the caterpillar has gone into the “J” position, indicating its readiness to pupate. You can see the patch of silk to which it has attached its tail end. The white patches beneath the head, in the curve of the “J,” are the emerging wing buds.

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The chrysalis had such incredible detail.

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I hoped the bright color meant a butterfly was soon to emerge.

Meanwhile, the time approached when the butterfly should emerge from the chrysalis we had inside, and nothing seemed to be happening. I feared that our caterpillar had not survived. But, in case it should emerge, I placed the stem with the chysalis in a shot glass and placed it on the fireplace mantle on our screened porch. When the other caterpillar in our terrarium crawled off the passionflower (indicating its readiness to pupate), I carried it outside and placed it among some foliage near the house, hoping we’d have better luck there. That same afternoon, it went into its “J” position and its wing buds began to emerge (like the caterpillar pictured above). The next time I checked on the caterpillar, just a little while later, I brushed a marmolated stink bug (an invasive insect) off the stem next to it. I didn’t realize it right away, but I think the stink bug had dispatched the caterpillar; by the end of the afternoon the caterpillar had shriveled up and turned black. My efforts to raise a butterfly were not to be successful, it seemed.

I continued to check on the chrysalis in the backyard daily. When I found it covered with several ants one afternoon, I was disappointed. I gently flicked the stem to try to stop the flow of approaching ants, but instead the chrysalis flew into the tall grass and was lost. I suspect the butterfly was already doomed, but I felt terrible nonetheless. Now I was batting zero for three.

Except… remember that shot glass on the mantle? I came home from work one afternoon to a most spectacular surprise!

Since it had been more than two weeks (I’d read the chrysalis stage lasts 11-14 days), I was totally surprised to see that a butterfly had emerged. Although I’d missed its emergence, it was magical to see it completely new–its wings still too wet to flutter.

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This photo shows three stages of the butterfly’s life cycle–the exoskeleton of the caterpillar is still attached to the base of the chrysalis from which the butterly hangs.

I took the fritillary outside (shot glass and all) to take some photos and considered leaving it on the deck to take off when it was ready. I then reconsidered, remembering that it would be vulnerable while waiting for its wings to dry, so I brought it back into the screened porch and kept an eye out for signs it was ready to fly away. When it started to stretch its wings, I carried it back outside. I put a few drops of hummingbird nectar in my hand as an offering, but it wasn’t interested and fluttered to the ground.

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My “shot” of a fritillary–haha!

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Nature has the prettiest embroidery!

I lifted the butterfly up on my finger where it rested for just a moment before taking off, flying high and fast. As I turned to watch it, I caught a glimpse of blue out of the corner of my eye and knew what was coming before it happened…

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Ready to take off!

A bluebird flew straight for the fritillary and snatched it in midair, flying up to a limb in a nearby tree to enjoy her prize. I was stunned! The poor butterfly–taken out on its inaugural flight. (Although I was really bummed about the butterfly, I do love my bluebirds. I still see the whole family I posted about this summer, and knowing the female’s hunting skills, I’ll bet it was she that nabbed the fritillary. Check out Empty Nest Syndrome to see her eating a lizard!)

A few fritillaries are still flitting around the backyard, stragglers making their way to their wintering grounds in Florida and other places along the gulf. Given the dangers they face–both natural as well as man-made threats–I have a new appreciation for the ones who make it there.

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A few fritillaries are still lingering in the yard in October. The lucky ones will make it to Florida and other places along the Gulf Coast to spend the winter.

When the Butterflies Won’t Sit Still…

One morning this weekend, beckoned by the butterflies in my backyard, I ventured out to see what I could find. I was immediately drawn to an area where dozens of gulf fritillaries were flitting about. While trying to get close enough to photograph one, I noticed a bright orange caterpillar on some emergent vegetation nearby. Since the butterflies weren’t cooperating, I parked myself next to the caterpillar to have a closer look.

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This caterpillar seems to be enjoying his breakfast!

Looking underneath a leaf, I discovered another orange caterpillar, this one much smaller than the first. Although the plant wasn’t blooming, I recogized it as passionflower, having just recently noticed some mature plants flowering in another part of the yard. When I checked the other emerging passionflower plants nearby, every one of them was host to some of the bright little caterpillars.

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And perhaps one that didn’t make it…?

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Hmm…what have these ants gotten hold of?

Closer inspection on the underside of the leaves revealed tiny eggs here and there.

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Gulf fritillary egg

It was pretty easy to guess that the eggs would become the little orange caterpillars, which must be the larvae of the fritillaries. Later, I confirmed my guess in my butterfly field guide. I also learned that the caterpillars’ black spines do not sting, but their bright orange and black coloration helps warn birds and other predators of their toxicity when eaten (although some specialized insects eat them and larger caterpillars will eat smaller ones). How cool to witness three stages of the butterfly life cycle–egg, larva, and butterfly–right there among that patch of passionflowers! I never did get a photo of the butterfly–I have included one I took last summer below–but making new discoveries in the backyard is always interesting and fun!

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Since the chysalis of the gulf fritillary looks like a dry leaf, I’ll be keeping a closer eye on the dry leaves around the passionflower vines in the coming weeks!

Note: Passionflower (pictured below) is the sole host plant for the gulf fritillary as well as several other butterfly species. Many butterfly species are specialists in this way, underscoring the importance of using a variety of native plants in our landscaping.

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Passionflowers are the sole host plants for a number of butterfly species, including the gulf fritillary.

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Gulf fritillary

Empty Nest Syndrome

For the last handful of years, my family has had the good fortune to have a pair of Eastern Bluebirds grace the nest box in our tiny suburban backyard. When we set up a box this spring in our new backyard (a suburban oasis I wrote about here), I feared we might not see any action this year because several dead trees on our property provide natural cavities. Typically, we see males start to check out the box for a period of days beginning in February, perching on top, fluttering their wings, and flying in and out carrying nesting material. Once a female is sufficiently impressed, she takes over all of the nest construction and egg incubation, and the male delivers food to her while she is on the nest. I only saw a bird fly into the house once or twice after we set it up, and never with nesting material, so when I peeked in the box in mid-April, I was surprised to discover not only a nest, but five gorgeous blue eggs.

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Eastern Bluebirds generally lay four to six eggs which are incubated for about two weeks.

Every few days, I checked on the nest to monitor the progress of the clutch. Aside from my personal interest in the nest’s success, I had registered to monitor the nest with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Neighborhood Nestwatch program, a citizen science program that provides scientists with hard-to-get data about the survival rate of backyard birds. Nestwatch scientists also visited my home recently to band some of my backyard birds so that I can monitor them and record sightings into their database. Participating in such programs is a great way to spark curiosity and excitement for birds in kids and adults alike, as well as a way to contribute valuable data that scientists can use to guide conservation measures. If you have an accessible, active nest in your yard, I encourage you to register with Nestwatch and record your observations, but do make sure to read the important nest monitoring guidelines first so that you don’t hinder the success of the nesting efforts.

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Scientists from the Smithsonian’s Nestwatch program visited our home in April to catch and band birds for us to monitor. The program provides valuable data for scientists about backyard bird populations.

Bluebird babies take about two weeks to hatch and just another two weeks to fledge. As with all babies, they grow up way too fast—in just a blink of their sleep-deprived parents’ eyes. Every three days or so, I’d watch for the parents to fly off, then take a quick peek in the nest and snap a photo.

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Newly hatched–5/3/15

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Five or six days old–5/8/14

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Getting bigger everyday–5/11/15

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“Excuse me, could you move over a bit. It’s getting crowded in here!”–5/14/15

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Last photo before they fledged. So shy!–5/16/15

Watching the adults bring food back to the nest was fascinating. Each afternoon after work, I sat on our front steps to enjoy the show from a distance. Mama bluebird brought back much larger prey items than Dad did, and she was also more reluctant to enter the nest box while I was watching than he was. I watched her bring various large flying insects or earthworms back to the nest on several occasions, but I rarely saw her go in. I’d take my eyes off the box for just a moment only to turn back and see her flying off out of sight. One afternoon she even brought a lizard back to the nest!

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Daddy Bluebird was an attentive father. He brought smaller food items to the nest, but seemed to make more frequent visits.

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The female pounded and pounded this hapless lizard on the top of the nest box! I didn’t notice until I cropped my photo that the lizard appears to have already dropped its tail—so much for that defense mechanism. I’m not sure, but I think she gave up and flew off with it rather than feed it to her young. It would have been quite a mouthful!

As the chicks neared two weeks of age, I frequently saw them poke their heads up to look out of the box.  I knew their time to fledge was approaching and hoped it wouldn’t occur the day I would be out of town for a work event. In spite of careful observation in past years, I’ve never seen the babies leave the nest, and I was hoping this year I might get lucky. When I checked the box first thing in the morning after my work trip, I was crushed to discover that the nest was empty. Not only had I missed their departure, they had chosen the first cool, stormy day in almost three weeks to do so. I looked high and low in all the surrounding areas. In my experience, baby birds typically hang around low to the ground for a day or two, or at least up in the trees in the area near the nest, but these baby bluebirds were nowhere to be found. I listened for their begging calls and could detect nothing, and I saw no sign of the parents. I worried that a snake had taken the whole clutch before they even left the nest (which is exactly the reason why birds leave the nest as soon as they are able, often when they haven’t mastered flying yet).  I worried that a predator had gotten them after they left the nest.  I worried that they had gotten wet or gotten lost and succumbed to chill. Feeling disheartened, I headed to work.

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The babies are almost ready to explore the world. Their heads popped up each time their parents visited. 5/15/15

When I returned home that afternoon, I immediately set myself on the front steps with my binoculars. After several minutes I saw the male fly in and grab an insect from the ground and fly off into some distant trees. Several minutes later I saw the female do the same, but I couldn’t make out where they had gone. Surely the babies weren’t that far away? Were the adults just returning to business as normal? The sinking feeling returned. Determined to know more, I watched several more minutes until the male returned to the yard again. This time as he flew off, I changed my vantage point and watched as carefully as I could with my naked eye as he landed at the top of a tremendously tall tree. I could just make out the fluttering of wings and distant begging calls. The babies were safe—and apparently very well equipped to get off the ground!  Phew!  As much as I had hoped they would hang around a little longer, I was relieved and happy to see them safe and sound—the best cure for empty nest syndrome. If I’m lucky, the parents may return to raise one more clutch before the summer is over!

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Empty Nester–Daddy Bluebird poses for the camera.

Note about bluebird conservation:

I’ve commented in the past that I must have walked through the first four decades of my life with blinders on not to have noticed the beauty and diversity of bird life around me, but I think that even had I been paying more attention growing up, I wouldn’t have been likely to see an Eastern Bluebird in my backyard. Eastern Bluebird populations steeply declined in the early part of the 20th century as habitat loss and competition from introduced species such as European Starlings and House Sparrows made nesting holes increasingly difficult for bluebirds to claim. Fortunately today, in spite of the tremendous pressures facing birds, the Eastern Bluebird seems to be doing just fine. The establishment of bluebird trails and other nest box campaigns beginning in the late 1960s helped Eastern Bluebird populations rebound by almost two percent per year between 1966 and 2010.* The success of these efforts is an important reminder that when we work collectively to make small conservation actions, we can effect significant change. So, leave those dead trees standing (60 species in N. America are cavity nesters!), or put up a nest box or two (make sure it is designed to keep out the larger non-native and more aggressive starlings). I’m doing my part!  *www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Bluebird/lifehistory

Suburban Safari*

I can’t believe it has been more than six months since I wrote my last blog post.  It hasn’t been for lack of inspiration. Aside from the demands of careers and raising two middle-schoolers, my husband and I have been busy settling into our new home on 1.6 acres after the long process of zoning, designing, and building (and keeping our old house in pristine condition until it sold). Our “subdivision” (four lots, two currently undeveloped) also has shared access to a one acre lake and adjoins a large wooded park of more than 100 acres. I am in wildlife heaven. Although minutes away from conveniences, when I pull into our driveway at the very end of our street, I feel like I’ve entered a small patch of wilderness.

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The view from the lake looking toward our house

The backyard is a small “meadow” of untamed grasses and wildflowers that run down to a brushy area along a small stream, and towering trees surround the property. I have enjoyed watching all of the different plants and trees come into bloom and trying to learn what they are. We have lots of beautiful and beneficial native plants, which I’ve written about previously, although we also have invasive English ivy and Japanese honeysuckle, unfortunately. (I’m considering renting goats to tackle this problem). We’ve added our own mark to the landscape by planting blueberry bushes and fruit trees, including a native persimmon tree, which I’ve heard is a favorite with wildlife. The edges between the yard and wooded areas are lined with wild blackberry bushes, their blooms the promise of summer cobblers if the birds are gracious enough to share. The first shrubs I bought and planted were three native red buckeyes, which I’d learned are an important early food source for migrating hummingbirds. I had to laugh at myself when they bloomed a few weeks later—along with the dozens of other red buckeyes in the woods around the house. (If you want some, I can hook you up!)

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Wild blackberries are abundant in the yard. Hopefully the birds will share.

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One of the native red buckeyes I planted (then discovered we have them everywhere!) This is an important early food source for hummingbirds on their northern migration.

Wildlife viewing is a daily pursuit in our new home. A pair of Red-tailed Hawks live nearby, and two Barred Owls call almost nightly. Four white-tailed does regularly pass through the yard, occasionally accompanied by a buck. Recently, we saw two gray foxes gamboling about in the backyard early one morning, though our occasional sightings are typically of a single individual, usually after dark. We’ve heard them rustling in the brushy area on the side of the house during the day a few times lately; the alarm calls of the chipmunks and squirrels give them away. Are they hunting during daylight hours because they have young mouths to feed? In addition to the foxes who share our home, we frequently find coyote tracks near the stream, as well as the tracks of opossums and raccoons.

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Coyote track

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Raccoon tracks

The yard is bustling with bird activity, offering boundless opportunities for new discoveries—-my yard list is already up to 66 species! The thickets attract towhees, thrashers, wrens, and cardinals, while the tall, grassy areas attract sparrows, finches, and doves. Dead trees provide a bed-and-breakfast for woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees, as well as snags for flycatchers to sally out to snatch insects in midair. Having the lake nearby means we never know when we might see our local Great Blue Heron fly through the backyard or hear the rattling call of kingfishers. Spring migration brought some delightful and unexpected surprises like Indigo Buntings, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers, and a few species of neo-tropical warblers.

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Female Rose-breasted Grosbeak. In sexually dimorphic species, the female is more camouflaged in order to blend in with her nest.

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Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak–the brighter the better as far as the ladies are concerned.

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Male Indigo Bunting passing through on migration. This species will nest in the mountains of North Georgia and all the way up to southern Canada.

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Northern Flicker, a local resident. This bird has gorgeous yellow feathers underneath its wings. Unlike other woodpeckers, it often feeds on the ground.

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I wonder if this is the Song Sparrow that serenades me every morning. His morning song is different from the one he sings later in the day.

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Hairy Woodpecker on a tree snag. Dead trees are actually “trees of life”–they provide food, shelter, and nesting places for birds.

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House Finch, another local resident. House Finches are not native to the Eastern United States. Captive birds were released on Long Island in the 1940’s by pet shop owners selling them as “Hollywood Finches” who wanted to avoid being persecuted under the Migratory Bird Species Act, which prevents citizens from keeping any native bird in captivity without a USFWS permit. The birds flourished and spread and are now naturalized in most of the United States.

Clearly I have plenty of inspiration for writing, yet what little free time I can carve out of my day is often spent just sitting outside on the porch quietly watching and listening to my surroundings.  Who wouldn’t rather be outside enjoying nature than sitting at a computer writing about it anyway?!  I feel gratitude daily for the opportunity to live in a place where I feel rooted in nature while staying connected to family and friends in our suburban community. I am thankful, too, that I can share this small patch of wildlife-friendly habitat with my wild neighbors. Creating such patches, even on a small scale, is one of the most important and empowering conservation actions that individuals can make, and collectively our actions can provide tremendous benefits for wildlife and the environment. You can even have your yard certified as a Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary, a designation I plan to pursue (once the goats take care of that invasive honeysuckle!).

I look forward to having lots more “wild” stories to tell. We’ve had some real excitement here this month watching the pair of Eastern Bluebirds that nested in our birdhouse, so stay tuned for an upcoming post documenting their story. You won’t believe what mama bluebird brought to the nest for her babies one afternoon! Thank you for sticking around, and look out for my next post soon.

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I’ve been watching this male Eastern Bluebird and his mate closely as they tend to their young. Stay tuned for a post about them soon!

*Note: Suburban Safari was actually the first idea I had for the title of my blog, but when I did a search for the name, I discovered that it was already the title of a book, which I proceeded to check out of the library and enjoyed reading very much. A review on Amazon says this about the book: “The suburban lawn sprouts a crop of contradictory myths. To some, it’s a green oasis; to others, it’s eco-purgatory. Science writer Hannah Holmes spent a year appraising the lawn through the eyes of the squirrels, crows, worms, and spiders who think of her backyard as their own. Suburban Safari is a fascinating and often hilarious record of her discoveries: that many animals adore the suburban environment, including bears and cougars venturing in from the woods; how plants, in their struggle for dominance, communicate with their own kind and battle other species; and that ways already exist for us to grow healthier, livelier lawns.”

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.

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

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.