Learning from the Prairie
Wow. It’s August! We recently completed a management step on the prairie planted in early June. Weeds were outgrowing infant prairie plants that need sunshine. We buzzed off the weeds at the highest setting possible on our battery-powered cordless EGO mower.
We bought this mower because its battery powers a powerful electric mower that easily cuts tough grass while producing less emissions than a gas mower. And, it’s easy to use. No cord pulling to start it. Also, the mow height is simple to set and allows us a high setting that helps with prairie management.
The mower and wheelbarrow.
Prairie plants among grass.
Emerging prairie plants will get more sunlight when the competing grasses are mowed off
We planted a prairie in front of the house nine years ago and now spend hours sitting on the front porch reading and talking but always watching the prairie. Here are observations that make us delighted we converted a lawn to the prairie:
- Stunning beauty. We enjoy a changing array of colorful flowers and grasses that dance in the breeze. Coneflowers have been in bloom for a while. Milkweed blooms have faded. And, cupplants are just now coming into their midsummer glory.
- Insects. Monarchs and swallowtails cavort over the prairie on sunny days while stopping to sip nectar. Each evening the air over our prairie swarms with delightful lightning bugs. They are absent over the nearby lawn.
- Wrens, bluebirds, and goldfinches. A pair of wrens nested in a box just above our porch chairs. We love watching these industrious parents make trip after trip foraging for insects to feed the youngsters. They hunt in the prairie and nearby woods edge but not in the lawn. Our prairie enables our yard to support at least four pairs of nesting wrens and one pair of bluebirds. If the entire yard were mowed, we’d be lucky to have one wren couple to enjoy. In mid-summer goldfinches work the prairie.
- Garter and brown snakes. We’ve noticed an increase in garter and brown snakes, both harmless species as beautiful and interesting as goldfinches or cardinals.
Bluebirds hang out on branches.
This hardy late season bloomer is vital for pollinators and migratory birds.
Some birds homestead at Winding Pathways.
Phoenix Harmony Labyrinth Prairie
Marion crafted a labyrinth through our oldest prairie on the front yard. She welcomes anyone to walk its circular path. Contact us before you come. The labyrinth is a peaceful way to access the prairie and contemplate the beauty of our earth while walking along its path.
People call and stop by to walk.
Visitors can rest and watch the prairie labyrinth.
Prairie plants capture dew.
A rare treat is watching insect life emerge from one stage to another.
Cupplants hold water near their stem. Birds and insects sip
Make Like a Buffalo
When Sustainable Landscape Solutions did ground preparation for our new prairie, I asked Sean Pearl if he’d create two “artificial gopher mounds” in an older prairie in our backyard. He said “Sure.” A while back, we had planted this prairie with just grass seed. It has few flowers, and the roots of the big bluestem, Indiangrass, and switchgrass are tough and dense. Prairie needs disturbance. Once bison wallowed and gophers dug to create bare earth. Many prairie grasses need this bare earth to reseed. We had neither bison nor gophers so used a machine to create bare soil.
Sean’s machine chopped through the grasses. We followed up by planting 82 flower species seeds. Flowers add diversity, color, and attract pollinating insects. Looks like it’s working. Lots of new prairie wildflowers are growing in these two places in the midst of towering grasses.
Our next Prairie Renaissance blog will come in early fall.
Guest Bloggers Reply
Readers offered their activities in The Great Pause. Most were home-centered with some careful forays into society. And, of course, connecting with self and nature.
SA: My mother was in a nursing home in Bettendorf. Visitors were prohibited but I was able to wave to her and blow kisses through a glass door. After 3 weeks of isolation from family, she passed away on March 31. We could not have a proper funeral due to the virus. It was not how I imagined her life would end. My husband still had to go to work every day so my days were spent in solitary isolation.
Gardening Offers Solace
Looking out at the world.
Once the weather warmed up, I spent hours in the garden and puttering in the flower beds. I cleaned out my garden shed and found an old birdhouse one of the boys had built-in Cub Scouts 20 years ago, I painted it and hung it in our ash tree. A wren immediately investigated.
I had twice-weekly Zoom meetings for an organization I belong to. I acquired the Audible version of Stephen King’s unabridged book “The Stand”–which I read back in the late 70s–but at 1,000 pages, I chose to listen to it instead. (That took 45 hours.) Listening to it while I cooked, cleaned house, and drove around was entertaining and frightening, considering the subject matter.
Connecting with Nature
Leisure in the pasture.
Steve and I walked outside every day, hiked the Amana Nature Trail, Pleasant Creek Park, FW Kent Park, and others. On one cold, overcast day, we climbed into the car and drove backcountry gravel roads in the area east of Solon, with no idea where they led or where we would end up. We were rewarded with beautiful pastoral landscapes, green pastures dotted with peeks of sunshine between dark clouds, and a delightful trio of baby goats scampering in a pen next to the road. We were able to get out of the car and interact with them for a while. Such a joy in these dark times to watch new life scamper about, trying out their legs.
“Music Speaks Louder Than Words….”
JH: Well, I’ve spent almost every day since the middle of March on return from Florida playing every single piece of music that’s been stacked in the closet for many moons. I’ve kept certain pieces aside so that I can call a friend, a relative, an acquaintance, a business person, and play and sing a song to them over the phone. Some of the music is from 1897 and much of it is from the early 1900s to the mid-1970s. It’s been a total blessing to me and everyone has been most appreciative and one friend shed a few tears because her mom and dad’s favorite song was “Cruising Down the River” which I didn’t know when I selected it.
I’ve also written numerous Corner Shot articles and sent them to the Roanoke Times. Several of my articles have been posted in the master gardener’s newsletter. I’ll keep on keeping until we can mingle and hug one another again.
Self Care & Connecting
KK: Submitted to cataract surgery and nursed eyes back to health. Put in many eye drops. Learned a new healing skill. Spend too many hours on Zoom. Wore and washed the same few clothes over and over. I practiced gratitude.
Calming through writing.
Joined a new church in another city via Zoom. Ventured out to a couple of restaurants open at 50% and ate outside. Found a Tai Chi class on the labyrinth at the park. Made finger labyrinths. Washed clothes. Did much personal growth work. Wrote someone a letter and mailed it via snail mail. Received a letter in return. Planned a retreat that may not happen this year. Cleaned out desk and found someone else’s treasure, mailed it to them. Washed clothes. Did online Yoga. Washed more clothes….
Guest Blogger Jackie Hull
There is nothing that can surpass the natural ebb and flow of life passing by one’s window every day. The early morning symphony of spring birds creating their own composition of sound as each species awakens to another day. The goldfinches, chipping sparrows, Indigo buntings, robins, flickers, wood thrushes, chickadees, pileated woodpecker, nuthatches, downy and hairy woodpeckers, crows, hawks, catbirds and the unflappable mockingbird all announcing to the world that it’s a new day. Up and at ‘em!”
One particular morning after this grand symphony I noticed a chickadee zip into the mimosa tree near the back door. As he teetered on a branch, he seemed to be checking out the birdhouse attached to the side picket fence that surrounds our cottage garden. The chick came in for a closer look as he landed securely on a fence post. Then straight as an arrow, he went through the birdhouse entry for the final inspection.
Apparently the abode met with approval. Soon the male and female chickadees were padding the floor of the birdhouse with moss from the woods across the pasture. Diligently they flew to and from the woods with beaks full of moss. At one point my curiosity coaxed me to peek inside the box to view their progress. The moss-covered the floor and they had begun twining fine grass strands into a circle. One of the chickadees caught me and scolded me soundly for peeking.
Mid-day that there didn’t seem to be much activity. As soon as the sun began setting, the chicks stepped up their construction. Again my curiosity pushed me to the birdhouse. I opened the door. To my complete delight, I counted six cream-colored eggs with soft brown speckles nestled in a perfectly round cup of grass. Of course, the chicks caught me again and proceeded with another scolding. I retreated to the back step.
Every day I waited impatiently for the hatching. The male came regularly with worms to share with the mate. He would give a clear whistle and then softly chat before he popped into the house. It seemed to me that this breeding process was taking too long. Once more I peeked. Six chicks opened wide their beaks and begged for food. This seemed like the last straw to the doting parents. They clamored about chattering at me. Again I retreated and watched from the back step.
This preparing the chicks for fledging began at dawn and continued until dusk, quite a marathon. First, one adult came with beautiful green worms to be popped into the loudest mouth. The adults always announced that they were coming as they hopped from crepe myrtle to post and always bull’s eyed the doorway. As quickly as they entered, they were gone to forage for more bugs and worms.
One morning several weeks later I noticed a chick teetering in the doorway. The chick quickly retreated because that nosy woman was at the back door again. Sensing I was on the inside looking out, he hopped onto the door lip. Within a matter of minutes, he flew out the doorway, trying desperately to cling to the slippery vinyl house siding. In a twinkling of an eye, one of the adults was there to guide the fledgling to the butterfly bush. The chicks’ tail feathers were a bit short, but using every ounce of energy, the chick followed the adult across the yard into the wild rose bush.
Appreciation of Little Moments
Chickadees grasp suet feeders
This was certainly a morning of the natural ebb and flow of life. If I decided to leave the back doorway, that moment would have passed me by forever. Such a glorious moment I would have missed. Within three hours the other chicks had flown away following their parents into the woods further down the lane. I could hear them chattering to the chicks and the chicks answering them. They have gone on now leaving me to ponder the wonder of life. It was a special event to have had this chickadee pair decide it was just fine to nest so near my back door.
I will always cherish the sheer joy it gave to me.
What to Do About Raccoons
One June morning we peered out our dining room window to see bird feeder carnage. The shepherd’s hook that holds up suet and seed feeders were bent and the board it was anchored in shattered. The feeders were gone. One we later found in the little pond we have. We were frustrated and a bit angry.
Raccoons are skillful climbers. (Jill photo)
Raccoons were the culprits. Several had raided the night before. Young raccoons are loved everywhere for their “cuteness”. We like them too, but damage can’t be ignored, so we took action.
Raccoons are amazingly successful animals. They live nearly everywhere in the continental United States and southern Canada. A few years ago, our son sent us a photo he snapped of a raccoon in a dumpster in our nation’s largest city. They thrive in urban, suburban, and rural areas, especially those that have streams, rivers, or lakes nearby and denning places. Those could be hollow trees, road culverts, or even barns, garages, and house attics.
Raccoons were released in Russia and Japan, where they thrive and are expanding their range. Away from North America they are an invasive species causing ecological problems and probably raiding chicken coops and bird feeders in their new countries.
What do Raccoons Eat?
They are successful, in part, because of their eclectic diet. True omnivores, raccoons enjoy dining on carrion, frogs, crayfish, mice, dog and cat food, birdseed, fruit, and a host of other things, even human food scraps tossed in trash cans.
How We Foil the Raccoons
Raccoons forage wherever they find food.
We don’t want to physically harm the raccoons that damaged our bird feeding station so we are doing these things:
- Only put out as much seed as birds eat during the day, so night prowling raccoons find none to munch on. They move on.
- Bring silo, suet and hummingbird feeders inside each evening, so they’re not out to temp nocturnal animals.
- We don’t have a cat or dog but if we did, we would keep their food inside where raccoons cannot get to it.
- We close the sturdy doors that keep raccoons out of our chicken house at night. We’ve also installed heavy wire mesh over the coop’s windows.
- We feed food scraps to our chickens and compost what the hens won’t eat in a “tight” compost bin that raccoons can’t enter. Fortunately, chickens devour the foods raccoons love and shun foods that raccoons also don’t eat. If we had to put food scraps in the garbage, we’d keep the can in the garage where wildlife can’t access it.
Capturing the Culprit
This raccoon readily entered the box trap to eat the sardines.
The night after the raccoons ruined our feeders, we did one other thing. We have a metal box trap that catches, but doesn’t harm, animals. We set it near the feeder with a sardine for bait. A big raccoon went right in. We let him stay there for a while so he could ponder his captivity. Then we sprayed him with water from the hose and opened the trap. He zoomed out like greased lightning, but he may have enjoyed the stay. It was a hot night and the hose water probably cooled him down. We hope he remembers being confined for a short while and stays away.
So far, these actions have worked. Our chickens are healthy and safe. And, no damage to feeders will happen when raccoons prowl.
One morning while watching the arrival of spring migrant birds, we were startled and annoyed to see a cat lurking under the feeder seeking a bird victim. We so enjoy the Summer and Scarlet Tanagers, and Indigo Buntings at our feeders. They add diversity to our usual visitors – titmice, chickadees, cardinals, and woodpeckers who visit throughout the year.
We chased the cat away but began researching the history of domestic cats and their impact on wildlife. It’s both fascinating and concerning.
Challenges Facing Birds
Modern birds face many challenges, including habitat destruction, climate change, light pollution that disrupts navigation, and crashing into towers. However, the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists domestic cats as one of the world’s worst nonnative invasive species. They are the number one human-caused threat to birds in the United States and Canada and kill upwards of 2.4 billion a year.
Domestication of Cats
Cats have a strong hunting instinct.
People and cats have a long relationship. They were domesticated from the European wildcat over 10,000 years ago, probably in the Fertile Crescent. Wherever people have migrated to they’ve brought along cats. Even after so many years living with people this animal, Felis sylvestris, retains its predatory instincts, reproduces rapidly, and readily goes wild, or feral.
Domestic cats are fascinating animals loved by millions of people, so any criticism of them often brings a sharp emotional response. However, there’s no doubt they harm wildlife, and one of the main reasons is their artificial high population density.
Wild predators, like cougars, bobcats, and wolves have vast territories. It takes plenty of land to sustainably produce enough prey for a predator to live. So, if they are crowded together they’d starve. A naturally occurring population of predators in a healthy ecosystem simply has few individuals. For example, a healthy population of native bobcats may have only a few individuals spread over several square miles. The same goes for wild native European wildcats in natural areas in Asia and Europe. The problem comes when humans crowd many cats into a small area.
Families that don’t want cats stalking birds can take a few actions to reduce the death toll of birds. These include:
- Asking neighbors to keep their animals in their home or yard.
- Placing feeders on metal “shepherd’s hooks” that cats can’t climb.
- Configuring a ring of wire mesh around feeding stations to exclude cats from catching juncos, chipping sparrows, and other ground-feeding birds.
Birds face many hazards in this modern world. Cat predation is one that can be reduced. Both cats and birds can enjoy a safer life if the owners of descendants of the European wildcat kept their pets indoors.