As autumn progresses in the upper Midwest, birds appear and disappear, group and spread out. Pileated woodpeckers have returned to the suet feeders. Chickens help grind up the garden residue and eat the bugs. White-throated sparrows sing a different tune on their way south. Juncos suddenly appear. Bluebirds sit on branches surveying the yards. Hawks send everyone scurrying. Vultures wing one more time overhead before catching the north winds and head to warmer climes.
Enjoying a Welcoming Yard
On the evening of May 17th, one of nature’s brightest colors greeted us at Winding Pathways. It was a brilliant male scarlet tanager, a somewhat rare bird that we only see briefly each May.
The next morning, he was joined by a female, and we assume they’ll nest in Faulkes Heritage Woods that adjoins our property. Tanagers are birds of the big woods, and they’ll find comfortable lodging in the big oaks nearby.
We bought Winding Pathways ten years ago partly because it adjoins the 110-acre Woods protected from development by a conservation easement. It’s mostly steep land that drops down to Indian Creek about a quarter of a mile from our home.
Creating a Welcoming Yard
Since we bought our land, we’ve diversified the yard by restoring prairies and increasing the variety of savanna and woodland wildflowers in shady areas, used prescribed fire to reduce exotics, and installed many birdhouses and feeders. Thanks to the nearby woods and our more open prairie yard with the savanna in between, we enjoy a rich array of bird species. Some, like woodpeckers and chickadees, stay around all year but more migrate to nest here or stop by on their trek to nest further north. We keep a running list of the birds we see from our dining room table each spring. Some we just see winging over but many stop to eat and rest.
Growing Bird List
We’re adding to this list daily but here’s what we’ve spotted and heard so far in May 2019:
Great Blue Heron, Barred and Horned Owl, Canada Goose, Black Capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Cardinal, White and Red Breasted Nuthatch, Downy, Hairy, Red Bellied, Red Headed, and Pileated Woodpeckers and Flicker, Turkey Vulture, House Sparrow, Wild Turkey, Red Breasted Grosbeak, Northern Oriole, Wood Duck, Common Yellowthroat, Indigo Bunting, Yellow Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Blackpoll Warbler, Yellow Rumped Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Eastern Kingbird, Phoebe, Great Crested Flycatcher, Cooper’s Hawk, Bald Eagle, Cowbird, House Sparrow, Starling, House and Carolina Wren, House Finch, Red Tail Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Crow, Pelican.
And the list keeps growing. You, too, can create a welcoming yard. This introductory YouTube video from Canada gives a quick overview of the important elements in attracting birds to a yard. It’s totally “Homegrown” and short. You can create welcoming space on a condominium patio, at a retirement or nursing home, an urban lot or spacious acreage.
Another YouTube video explains how to bring natural elements together to create natural areas. In this case, a “forest.” Again, from large scale to small we can all do this! We would, naturally, adapt to our region of the country and world. The concepts are similar.
What to Consider When Creating a Welcoming Yard
We’re lucky to have Indian Creek and Faulkes Heritage Woods near Winding Pathways, but even yards not adjacent to natural areas can increase bird variety by creating diverse habitat. Spring is the best season to plant prairies and shrubs! Learn more about birds, their habits and habitats at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.
One pleasant Saturday morning a couple dozen heavily armed people walked to the interior of Faulkes Heritage Woods. Their weapons were those used to help heal the forest and included thick leather gloves, lopping shears, hand saws, and clippers. They were out to defeat Japanese Barberry.
For two hours they attacked a huge patch of Japanese Barberry that had infiltrated the Woods. Grasping small ones with both hands people yanked them from the soil, shook them off and placed them so the roots would dry out and not re-root. In winter, when the Barberry has berries, the plants are placed on tarps and hauled off so the berries do not drop and root. Ones too big to pull were cut off at ground level.
Volunteers were organized by the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. It holds a conservation easement on the property that’s owned by the Marion City Parks Department. Park staff helped, and so did a crew of young people enrolled in AmeriCorps. Various local volunteers pulled and cut.
In Its Native Habitat, It is OK.
Just why is Japanese Barberry such an onerous plant? Actually, it’s a fine shrub in Japan and other parts of Asia where it’s native. There it has natural forces that keep its density in check. It was brought to North America as a landscaping plant because barberry is easy to propagate and transplant. It thrives in many locations, including compacted soil of building sites. It is an ideal landscape plant with one terrible trait.
The plant produces red fruits in late summer that birds find delicious. They gobble them up, fly away, and poop the seeds out. So, birds snacked on barberries planted in yards and delivered the seeds into Faulkes Woods, where the seeds grow with gusto into impenetrable “pukka brush”.
Barberries crowd out native wildflowers and do much more damage. They actually change the soil chemistry to their advantage while making it less suitable for native plants. And, the dense shrubs create pockets of humidity. Each becomes an oasis of comfort for ticks.
Preserving and Exploring Faulkes Heritage Woods
Faulkes Heritage Woods is a gorgeous 110-acre steep forest adjoining Winding Pathways. We walk there often. Huge oaks and other native trees fill its wondrous spaces. Wildflowers abound, especially in the spring, and birding is excellent for woodland species. Pileated woodpeckers are common.
A looping footpath starts and ends at a trailhead off Tama Street Southeast. Visitors can park along the street and enjoy the woods. But, they don’t have to stick to the trail that only covers a small area. Walkers are welcome to go off trail and scramble through the woods to enjoy its beauty and solitude.
Marion Parks and Recreation: (319)447-3580
Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation: (515)288-1846
Several months ago, we looked out our dining room window and saw an unusual woodpecker enjoying suet at a feeder only a few feet away. It was a downy but it’s head was almost completely white, unlike all others of the same species we’ve seen.
Last year we had a fox squirrel with an unusually short tail that hung around our yard for months. We’ve also spotted other wild animals with distinctive markings unusual for their species, healed but visible wounds and other characteristics that help identify it as an individual.
The Power of Observation
Being able to identify an individual animal adds to the fun of wildlife observation. For example, from the squirrel, we learned that he or she mostly just stayed in our yard and nearby woods. We never spotted it at a neighbor’s yard. Then, one day we remarked, “We haven’t seen’ shorty tail’ for a while”. We actually never saw the animal again and assumed he or she met his end due to an accident, predator, car collision, or some other catastrophic incident. Because we could tell him from other squirrels, we know he lived at least ten months.
The piebald woodpecker still comes to our feeder, and we’re getting to know it as an individual rather than just a generic downy. It adds to the fun of wildlife observation.
Like people, animals are individuals. At first glance, every one may look the same but with careful observation, it’s possible to spot differences in plumage, fur, size, shape, gait, and even personality that help identify it as an individual. Scientists studying animals ranging from whales to snow leopards often learn to distinguish one from another by the pattern of barnacles on a whale’s body to the markings on a cat’s fur.
It’s a totally noninvasive way of distinguishing one from another. We can do this with common yard wild animals.
Do Squirrels Ever Fall?
Squirrels are amazingly agile, but they do slip and fall. It’s not common, but it happens. Rich has seen two squirrels fall from the top of large oak trees.
One squirrel lost its footing on a huge oak tree at the Indian Creek Nature Center when Rich was walking nearby. It spread out its legs and tail and fell horizontally, hitting the ground with a “thump”. Although it fell at least 40 feet the squirrel appeared uninjured, scampered off, and climbed right back up the oak.
Another squirrel fell from an even bigger oak in our home’s backyard. It did the same as the Nature Center Squirrel and spread out its body, hit the ground, and ran right off.
Squirrels rarely fall, but once in a while, they do. Fortunately, as this YouTube video shows, they seem amazingly able to recover from a fall that would instantly kill a human.
What are some of the animals you know as individuals? Let us know!