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.

020

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!)

Blackberry blossoms (1)

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

Red Buckeye (4)

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.

005

Coyote track

021

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.

014 (5) - Copy

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

001 (7)

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

010 (3) - Copy

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.

041 (2)

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

029 (4)

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.

001

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

036

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.

023 - Copy

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.”

Advertisements

Backyard Buffet: Native Plants for Wildlife

DSCN6587

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.

DSCN6546

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

DSCN6549

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.

DSCN6593

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

Jewelweed

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.)
015

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.

photo 3

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.

045

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.

053

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.

Aloha (Goodbye!) to Plastic Bags!

Have you heard the incredible news that HAWAII has become the first STATE to BAN the use of PLASTIC BAGS at checkout counters?! The ban has already been enforced on the islands of Kauai and Maui, and the ban goes into effect on the Big Island of Hawaii next week. The most populated island, Oahu (home of Waikiki Beach and the state capital, Honolulu), will comply with the ban by July of 2015. In honor of this monumental step, I thought it would be a good time to post about some of the measures my family and I have taken to eliminate plastic bags (and other plastic items) from our lives. I rarely bring plastic bags home from stores, and I haven’t purchased any plastic storage bags in many months. I hope I will never again have the need. It’s not so hard to do.  Here are a few ways to get started:

Invest in reusable containers for school or work lunches:

Options include reusable sandwich bags, hard-sided containers, and thermoses. I found some great, dishwasher safe options at The Container Store, but several other options are out there if you do an internet search for reusable lunch containers/bags. We love Lunchskins bags for sandwiches, and the stackable stainless steel Ecolunchbox is a great option for a variety of foods. I often send dips or yogurt in the small dipping container (which comes with its own lid), accompanied by fruits, granola, veggies, or chips on the side. Don’t forget the reusable cutlery, and skip the juice boxes/pouches and send a reusable water bottle or thermos, too!

???????????????????????????????

Reusable sandwich bags by Lunchskins.

???????????????????????????????

My kids love using an Ecolunchbox. Don’t forget the reusable cutlery! This bamboo set includes chopsticks for added fun!

Reuse what you have:

If you’re like I am, you probably have a drawer devoted specifically to plastic storage bags. There’s no reason not to reuse the ones you already have after giving them a good soapy wash. I find that I rarely have a need for the bags anymore, but when I do, after using them I turn them inside out, wash, dry, and put away for use again. To aid the drying process, my son created a drying rack for me with Tinker Toys, which was a great way to put his creative skills to use!  In addition, numerous grocery items we regularly purchase come in plastic bags that are easy to clean and reuse, like the bags from bread loaves and tortillas (which often have the added bonus of being resealable).

photo

Plastic bag drying rack created with Tinker Toys.

BYOB — Bring your own bags:

By keeping several totes under the front seat of my car, I’ve finally gotten into the habit of bringing my own bags to the grocery story. The habit took some practice (and many dashes back to the car when I’d forget), but I am faithful about it now.  I also keep a compactly folded reusable tote in my purse to use when I am shopping at department stores or other retailers. When I forget to put it back in my purse, I simply try to refuse a bag whenever possible. I know I’ve looked pretty funny coming out of QT with my arms overloaded with milk, ice cream, juice and other miscellaneous items!

Now that I don’t have a steady stream of plastic grocery bags coming into the house, I’ve had to find other ways to dispose of our cat waste, but there is never a shortage of plastic bags around (sadly). Plastic bags from bread, chips, and other snack foods are perfect for pet waste!

???????????????????????????????

BYOB – bring your own bag! Not only to the grocery store, but to other retailers as well. Many bags will fold compactly and slip into a pocket in your purse.

Keep a few straws and reusable utensils in your car, and bring your own take-home containers to restaurants:

Keeping reusable straws and utensils in your glove compartment saves plastic when you are grabbing a quick meal on the go. (When dining out, my family always refuses the straws, but they are handy in the car). On a recent road trip, my family each brought our own reusable bamboo straw to use when we stopped for lunch. Once we got to our destination, we washed the straws in the dishwasher and returned them to the car. (The same company that makes the straws, Brush with Bamboo, primarily sells bamboo toothbrushes, which my family has also adopted in lieu of plastic ones.) Like the straws, the cute pink spoons I reluctantly took awhile ago when we stopped for frozen yogurt one afternoon now stay in my glove box to be used whenever we stop for a frozen treat. I’m still working on trying to remember to bring my own reusable containers to restaurants for leftover food. Maybe they’ll find a spot in my car next!

???????????????????????????????

Reusable straws and utensils stay in the glove box of my car.

Hopefully, we are all aware of the tremendous harms that plastics have on the environment, as well as the fact that recycling them only postpones their impact on the earth, as well as degrading it in the process. If you haven’t watched the heartbreaking footage of the birds on Midway Island in the Pacific Ocean, you need to see it: http://www.upworthy.com/people-should-know-about-this-awful-thing-we-do-and-most-of-us-are-simply-unaware. In addition, who has not yet seen the horror stories (like this one here–http://csglobe.com/gray-whale-dies-bringing-us-message/#comment-1911) of  animals like whales and sea turtles who suffer painful, slow deaths after ingesting plastic items inadvertently or mistaking them for food?

I loved the opening to the recent Huff Post article about the big news from Hawaii and will share it here as my hopeful conclusion:  “Imagine a future where endless balls of plastic bags aren’t jammed underneath the kitchen sink, where the idea of a “plastic bag holder” is as quaint as a CD rack, and where that famous scene in “American Beauty” prompts children to ask their parents about the bygone days of plastic bag pollution.”

Can you picture it?!?

What measures have you taken to eliminate plastic bags and other plastics in your daily life? Please share your ideas here!