What Synanthropes Live Near You?

What is a Synanthrope?

People are surrounded by synanthropes. It’s a long and obscure word that is descriptive of hundreds of wild plants and animals.

A synanthropic species is one that benefits from and lives close to people. Essentially, if people disappeared these plants and animals would struggle to survive and, perhaps, disappear themselves. They need us! Other species are semi-synanthropic and live close to people or benefit from human action but might live in lower numbers in wild places.

At Winding Pathways, we strive to restore species native to our area of Iowa.  We’ve had success, but we’re still surrounded by synanthropes that require our presence.  Fortunately, we don’t have Norway rats or rock pigeons but these and other species are common in the biggest cities worldwide. They are wildly successful in the grittiest urban areas.

Animals:

House mouse and Norway rat
House fly
House Sparrow, American Robin, House Finch, House Wren, Rock Pigeon, Canada Goose, and Ringneck Pheasant
Raccoon, Opossum, Woodchuck

Plants:

Dandelion, Purslane, Lambs quarters, Kentucky bluegrass, And many common weeds.

We encourage everyone to look around and notice plants and animals in their homes and yards and learn whether they’d be there without human presence. Expand our list!  If they would disappear should the yard be a virgin wilderness and people were absent, then they are synanthropes.

Enjoying Lamb’s Quarters

Every summer we enjoy dining on Swiss chard and spinach, but one of our favorite greens to come from the garden is lamb’s quarters. It’s a plant with many common names that is ready to pick and eat before chard or spinach mature. Some call the plant pigweed but that name is also used for other species. Lamb’s quarters remain edible through the summer as long as only tender young leaves are plucked.

Lamb’s quarters is a “no work” green. We never plant, cultivate, or water it. It’s not necessary. It’s a weed that plants itself and pops up in the garden and on the edge of the lawn. We only have to pick, wash, cook, and eat it.

What IS Lamb’s Quarters?

This amazing garden and yard weed grows almost everywhere in the United States and probably lives near just about every person. A usually disliked garden chore is pulling or hoeing weeds. Often those weeds are just discarded or composted. It’s ironic that often those weeds are tastier and more nutritious than the crop being weeded.  Lamb’s quarters is one of the best and easiest of the edible weeds.

Lamb’s quarters is an erect branched plant with leaves that shed water. Sprinkle a few drops on the plant and they’ll either bead up or run off, leaving the leaf dry.  Try it!

How Do You Process Lamb’s Quarters?

We pick a small pot full of young lamb’s quarter leaves and stems, rinse them well, and steam or boil them for about ten minutes. They are delicious when topped with a dab of butter or a bit of oil and vinegar. Lamb’s quarters cook down significantly, so a pot full of raw leaves will yield only a small amount of cooked vegetables. Pick plenty. If the plant is allowed to mature the tiny seeds are also edible and nutritious but processing them is beyond tedious. Lamb’s quarter leaves can also sparingly be used raw in salads.

Caveat!

Before eating a new wild plant make sure you have correctly identified it from at least two reputable sources, such as wild edible books, the Internet, or a skilled foraging mentor. Then only eat a small amount the first time. Occasionally a plant may be delicious and harmless to most people but allergic to a few.  

Use Identification Sources

Our favorite sources for wild edible information are the classic Stalking the Wild Asparagus book by Euell Gibbons and A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants by Lee Peterson.   Many websites also feature this plant.   A helpful website is Edible Wild Food.

What is a Weed?

Weeds Brighten Our Lawn

Too many people worry about lawn weeds and spend money to buy and spray toxic chemicals. We take a different view. What many call weeds are actually beneficial and we find fascinating. The often-uninvited plants that diversify our lawn connect us with human history, teach us botany, sometimes provide nutrition, and add color to our yard.

We don’t spray or fertilize our lawns at Winding Pathways. The mower gets exercise when grass gets shaggy, but we’re never bothered when new plants show up. Instead, we try to identify them and sometimes mow around them to let them bloom and add color to Winding Pathways.

Here are three “weeds” that we are enjoying this summer for their color:

Hawkweed

Patch of Yellow Hawkweed

Hawkweed is “asexual”.

In mid-spring, a small patch of tiny hawkweed plants was poking through our grass.  Rich mowed around them and by late May we enjoyed watching bright yellow hawkweed blooms dance in the sunny breeze.

There are many species of hawkweed. Most are exotic but some are native. Most sport yellow flowers although some can be reddish. Farmers sometimes consider them a weed. Perhaps the most interesting thing about them is their unusual reproduction.   They usually spread by seed, but hawkweed seeds aren’t fertilized, meaning that the seed is an exact genetic clone of its parent. They’re asexual!

We’ll enjoy our Hawkweed until their blooms fade and then likely will mow the patch.

Star of Bethlehem

One of our favorite early spring wildflowers is the impressive but delicate bloom of the native Bloodroot. Its pure white petals are showy against the late March or early April ground. A common early summer lawn weed that has a bloodroot-looking flower is the Star of Bethlehem. It’s a lily that is sometimes sold in nurseries. The plant is not native and shows up in our lawn, probably the result of a previous owner planting bulbs years ago. Star of Bethlehem can be invasive, so we enjoy its showy bloom but mow it off before it has a chance to seed. The plant is a perennial and comes up from bulbs each year, so mowing won’t eliminate it but may keep it from seeding.

Shepherd’s Purse

Shepherd's Purse plant

Shepherd’s Purse. From Pixabay

An intriguing plant that grows more on the side of the lawn than in the middle is Shepherd’s Purse. Its name comes from the triangular flat fruits that look like a tiny purse. Native to Europe and Asia Minor it may now be the second most common weed worldwide. Shepherd’s Purse has medicinal and food value and may have been deliberately spread by people.

Nature loves diversity. A function of invasive plants is their very nature. Spray a lawn and kill every plant species other than Kentucky Bluegrass and soon “weeds” will move right in. Diversity creates a certain degree of ecological stability, but there’s always change. A fascination of tending a natural unpoisoned lawn is learning to identify new species as they arrive by themselves and watching plant transitions over the years. A common uninvited plant one year may totally disappear the next to be replaced by some new species. Observing is just plain fun that can never be enjoyed by the person who poisons fascinating lawn plants.

How Can You Attract Birds?

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

How much time/money do you want to invest?
Do you want to create a naturalistic landscape with native plants?
Do you want to harvest food from the space?
Are your neighbors tolerant of change?
What local codes affect what you want to do? (Ordinances or Covenants)
How prevalent are deer in the neighborhood?
How long do you plan to live in the home?

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.

What Do Baby Owls Look Like?

A Tale of Baby Owls
Guest Blogger, R’becca Groff

The first sign of an owl living back on our acreage happened late last summer when I heard a rabbit being taken late one night. A rabbit sounds like a human baby when it’s in trouble, and it is the painful reality of the food chain.

Throughout this past winter, my neighbors and I have been listening to two owls living across our adjoining properties – a very large one and his smaller mate — we assumed.

I was the only one who wasn’t getting outdoors in time to see them, however.

The other day I heard the hooting midday and ran outside, determined to see where this owl was perched. It sounded so close to my office window. And there it was…staring down at me from one of the old Austrian pine trees between my house and my neighbor’s.

I spoke softly to it, hoping it wouldn’t mind but it wanted nothing to do with me, and promptly vacated its branch perch, gliding gracefully across my neighbor’s back yard to a safer distance.

As I’d been hearing about a huge hawk nest way at the back of our property line, I went to have a look for myself. Studying the tree line as I walked, I came upon an owlet watching down from one of the lower branches of another pine tree. I couldn’t resist it. I had to try and converse with this beautiful creature. It sat there watching back at me, unhinged by my presence. Just for fun, I circled the tree, and the baby followed my every move.

Of course, I texted the neighbors, only to learn there are two new owlets as my northern neighbors have been watching that hawk nest through binoculars. They’ve been observing as mama owl hunts and feeds these babies around dusk. She obviously is doing a fine job as we all have plenty of owl pellets on the ground around our trees.

Throughout the day I couldn’t keep away. I kept walking back out to view this new baby living in my yard. Later that day I finally caught a glimpse of its sibling perched near the top of the pine tree at the end of our acreage’s property line.

The neighbors and I had a chuckle, as we’ve noticed the rabbits seem to have moved across the street —
out of our yards!