Canada Geese

Too many people hate Canada geese. Once rare, this giant bird is now common across North America and enjoys living in town.

Geese were once uncommon rural birds, but starting several decades ago people began restoring populations in places where they were long absent. Our town of Cedar Rapids is an example. Nearly 40 years ago a few of the giant Canada subspecies were released in town. No one dreamed how successful they would be. Geese multiplied like crazy and now seem to be everywhere as they relax along the river or wing over downtown.

People dislike them because of the mess they leave on sidewalks, lawns, and golf courses. The expression loose as a goose is apt. Despite their mess, we find geese fascinating and love watching them, especially during our walks around Cedar Lake near downtown.

Goose couple in the snow

Geese pair up in late winter.

There’s much to admire about Canada geese. They mate for life and are devoted to their partner and babies, live many years, and have plenty of leisure to socialize and relax. Food is usually abundant. City geese enjoy eating lawn grass and the corn that spills from railroad cars.

Because geese are common, big, and unafraid of people they’re easy to observe.  Having knowledge of their annual pattern can help see them as fascinating animals rather than messy pests.

The Seasonal Goose Pattern

FEBRUARY AND MARCH:   Geese are now in pairs, rather than mixed in big flocks. Males and females show the same plumage, making it difficult to tell genders apart but usually, the ganders, or males, are slightly bigger than the females and have thicker necks. When we spot a lone goose in March, we know it’s likely a gander. Its mate is either laying an egg or incubating nearby but out of sight.

Goose nests are usually hidden, although sometimes one will be in plain view.   Normally it will be in a low spot near water, but we spotted a goose nest in an old bald eagle nest high in a cottonwood tree. Over a couple of weeks, the female lays a clutch that can have from just a few to a dozen eggs. When the clutch is finished, she’ll start a 35-day incubation period. During this time, she stays out of sight. People are most likely to see a lone goose, the gander, in plain view nearby.

APRIL:   Most goslings hatch in April, and the proud parents lead them to water.   Amazingly these balls of fluff can walk and swim when only hours old. Mom and Dad protect them from predators and people who approach too closely. Crowd a goose family and the parents will hiss and threaten. A big goose is intimidating but we know it’s mostly bluff.

Often several goose couples bring their goslings together, so we sometimes see as many as 25 or 30 babies intermingled in big groups. Adults seem to share parenting duty.

Adult goose and goslings

Adult geese protect their young.

SUMMER:   Goslings grow amazingly fast and by mid to late summer are almost as big as mom and dad. They gradually develop their adult feathers and by late summer look identical to their parents and have learned to fly.

FALL AND WINTER:   When the grass stops growing our Cedar Rapids geese often leave town in the morning to fly into the country, where they snack on corn that farmers’ combines missed at harvest. They wing back in the evening and spend the night along the Cedar River or lake. Winter geese socialize in groups of 20 or 30. Should a hungry predator approach, the flock will make a racket and send it on its way.

Many Canada geese are migratory, although some stay in town all year. In the fall and winter, some individuals in a big group of geese may have hatched as far away as Canada, while others are locals. It’s during winter that young geese form pair bonds that can last for life. Usually the female determines where home is. So, if a Cedar Rapids hatched male goose takes a fancy to a young Canadian girl Canada goose, he will follow her north to nest, perhaps in Manitoba. But if a young Canadian boy goose pairs with a Cedar Rapids girl goose they’ll set up housekeeping here.

Geese are fascinating wild animals. Because they are amazingly common and easy to see they are one of the best birds to observe as they go about their annual pattern of life.

Do Birds Like Milo?

Bird Seed

Sunflower seed, cracked corn, milo.

We recently bought a bag of cheap wild bird seed. It contained mostly milo with some sunflower, cracked corn, and millet mixed in. We should have known better but dumped a scoop of it on top of our platform feeder at Winding Pathways and watched what happened.

Birds swooped right in. Cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, and even a cardinal. They were joined by red-headed woodpeckers. The birds quickly devoured the sunflower seeds, then the corn, and finally the millet. They left the milo untouched.

Birds don’t like milo. Sure, they’ll eat it if they are hungry and there’s nothing else available, but they often leave it uneaten.

Milo is a type of sorghum grown in places too arid for corn. Its seeds are round, reddish, and about the size of a BB. The less expensive a bird seed blend is the more likely it is to have a high percent milo seed.

The very best all-around seed for feeding a diversity of seed-eating birds is black oil sunflower.  Many birds like cracked corn, which is inexpensive. Ground feeding birds like doves and juncos love millet, but they just don’t like milo.

Leave it in the store. It’s not a bargain.

What Kind of Cherry Trees Should I Plant?

Catalog Dreaming

While subzero cold enveloped Winding Pathways we discovered delightful seed and nursery catalogs in our mailbox. Leafing through their photos of rosy ripe tomatoes, peaches, and sweet corn made us dream of warm days as the frigid wind whistled around the house. Catalogs also made us think of our upcoming cherry tree crop.

We love our cherry trees and are happy to have two types growing at Winding Pathways. Most are the wild native Black Cherry, a member of the Rose family and common throughout the Eastern half of the United States.

Black Cherry

Black cherry juice was mixed with brandy or rum to make “Cherry Bounce.”

Early pioneers sometimes called this tree the Cherry Bear because bruins would walk for miles to feast on its juicy fruit. Bear cubs learned how to climb trees by following their mother up the trunk to reach ripe fruit.

Birds love wild cherries. They’ve helped spread this tree far and wide by feasting on a cherry dinner here and then flying there to poop out the seeds. In many areas, the American Black cherry is almost an invasive species, but one with many attributes.

Thomas Jefferson’s Cherry Tree Wood

People today rarely bother eating the bitter small fruits, but pioneers made Cherry Bounce by mixing the juice with brandy or rum to make a bitter, but flavorful, cordial.   Most people today enjoy this tree for its beautiful cabinet wood. When newly cut it is goldish in color, often with an intricate grain pattern. The wood darkens with age. Visitors to Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, Charlottesville, Virginia, often wonder why our third president loved such dark paneling. They don’t realize that when he lived there the newly installed wood glowed with cherry’s warm texture. Two centuries of aging have darkened it.

In our mail recently came the newsletter of the National Arbor Day Foundation with an amazing story about today’s popular Bing Cherry. That’s the delicious fruit often sold in grocery stores to be eaten fresh. In 1847 Henderson Lewelling, of Salem, Iowa, loaded his eight children, pregnant wife, and 700 of his prized cherry tree shoots packed in dirt-filled boxes, into wagons for the long trek to Oregon. They endured freezing temperatures, scurvy, and dysentery but made it and established the Pacific Northwest’s cherry industry.

Two Types

Today, two types of domestic cherry are readily eaten by people. They are distinct from the American Black Cherry and are native to Europe and Asia. One type is called Sweet Cherries with the Bing variety best known. They are delicious when eaten fresh. Sweet cherries thrive in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana but don’t like the upper Midwest’s harsh winters. Ironically, Bing cherries got their start in Iowa but don’t grow well in the state today. We don’t have any at Winding Pathways.

Tart cherries

Tart cherries make great pies.

We love our sour cherries. They thrive here despite winter’s cold and summer’s inferno, yielding an abundant crop in June. Most commercial sour cherries are grown in Michigan, but they love Iowa. Our favorite variety is the Dwarf North Star. It resists bugs and diseases, and even the deer leave it alone. In some years our cherry crop is almost sweet enough to eat fresh. We love them best blended with mulberries in a pie or mixed into oatmeal. A handy cherry pitter removes some of the tedium of evicting the big seed from each fruit.

 

 

 

Tart Cherries

Tart cherries come ripe in June.

Planting a sour cherry in the yard yields delicious fruit for a family to enjoy. Dwarf varieties can be bought from many nurseries. They like full sun and don’t take much space. In contrast, plant an American Black Cherry and eventually, it will produce fruit savored by birds. The tree needs plenty of space. It can grow to 100 feet tall and likes full sun.

 

Two Great Sources to Learn About Trees

Lied Lodge

Elegant lodging awaits at the Lied Lodge.

The Arbor Day Foundation, arborday.org has a wealth of information about trees and sells dozens of species at low cost. A few years ago, we enjoyed a delightful visit to Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City, Nebraska. We overnighted in the Lied Lodge on the property and wandered trails while enjoying tree lure. Adjacent is the home of J.  Sterling Morton, Arbor Days founder.

A wonderful old book on tree natural history is a two-volume series called A NATURAL HISTORY OF TREES OF (Eastern or Western) NORTH AMERICA. If you find one at a used book store…….buy it!

ARBOR DAY

Most northern states honor Arbor Day on the Fourth Friday of April each year, but many southern states celebrate it at seasons more appropriate for planting in their climate.   Arbor Day dates for all states are listed on this link.

Urban Coyotes

Coyote

Coyotes are secretive creatures.

At 2 a.m. one frigid February night we were startled awake by coyotes yipping and yapping right behind our house at Winding Pathways. The next morning, we discovered their tracks all around our snowy yard. It explains why we haven’t seen many cottontail rabbits in recent months.

The amazingly adaptable coyote has spread to many parts of the United States.  Most Americans might not realize it, but they live close to these efficient predators. In towns and cities, coyotes are most active at night, stay out of sight and are usually quiet.  In rural areas they’re more likely spotted in the daylight and often vocalize at night.

Coyotes are amazingly successful predators. Adaptable and intelligent, they are common in Los Angeles and have been spotted in New York’s Central Park. A pair successfully raised young in a culvert near Chicago’s Soldier Field. Once only found in the rural West they are now common all the way to the Atlantic Ocean and thrive in deserts, forests, farmland, towns, and cities.

Coyotes prefer dining on mammals and specialize in eating mice, voles, cottontails, and other small furry creatures. They’ll also eat carrion and sometimes scrounge food from dumpsters.

Although coyotes will eat birds, they don’t target them and consume few. Numerous studies have shown that when coyotes increase foxes and raccoons decrease. Since these two smaller animals are the major bird and egg predators, an increase in coyote density often means more birds in the area. Anyone who likes pheasants should appreciate coyotes.

Coyotes pose no threat to humans. They thrive on a continent where people have eradicated mountain lions and wolves from most places where they once lived.

After a newly fallen snow do some backyard tracking. Wherever someone lives there is a chance of finding the doglike tracks of coyotes that worked the neighborhood the previous night.

This blog is similar to one that Winding Pathways wrote for the Cedar Rapids GAZETTE.

Walking the Labyrinth in the Snow

The subtleties of walking a labyrinth in fresh snow or in the dark have not been lost on me.  Muscle memory, night vision, and simple observation help navigate the terrain when obvious landmarks are obscure.

Night in the labyrinth

Muscle memory helps find the path in the dark.

Before the snow fell, when I walk the labyrinth in the dark, the memory of the path, familiarity with the number of steps to a turn, and the various plant heights help me navigate.  The funny little statues and boulders along the way form the boundaries.  Lights from passing cars not only illuminate the path briefly and also wreck night vision.  So, counting steps and simply being aware of where I am on the labyrinth help keep me on the path.

 

With snow on the ground, the snowshoes make terrific “pat down” equipment and after a few times walking is easy. So, until a new snow, I can just wear boots. Stay on the beaten path or find myself “post-holing” through deep snow.

The brilliance of a sunny day can be confusing, so after a fresh snowfall, I look for the burned stems of plants and the slight depression of past walks as guides. And, how the drifted snow reveals a different texture is fascinating.

Odd marks in the snow capture my attention.  Little holes that appear from nowhere, then tiny tracks of a rodent, then another little hole where it dropped back in the security and relative warmth of the snow tunnels.

The fate of the incautious rodent is evident where tracks suddenly disappear with telltale feather strokes on the snow. Whoooo’s for lunch?

Walking the labyrinth in winter brings its own rewards.