A delightful swatch of color flitted by as we sat on our back deck on one of spring’s first warm sunny days. It was a red admiral butterfly that landed on a post just a few feet from us. It appeared to be enjoying the weather as much as we were.
We’ve since spotted many red admirals in the yard, probably because stinging nettles thrive on the north end of our property. It’s the favored plant for red admiral caterpillars, although they’ll also live on other types of nettles. That poses somewhat of a dilemma.
What is a Red Admiral Butterfly?
These colorful butterflies depend on early blooming plants like nettles.
Red Admirals are a common butterfly across much of the temperate globe. They’re found across Europe and Asia, North Africa, Hawaii, and much of North America, especially the eastern half of our continent. The larvae feed on stinging nettles, which may not be native. So, if red admirals need stinging nettles what did they eat before the plant was introduced to North America in the early days of European exploration? It’s not even certain that stinging nettles are exotic. They may have been here all along, or early butterflies may have fed on wood nettles.
We appreciate both the insect and plant here at Winding Pathways. Red admirals add color and movement to the yard, while nettles make delicious eating. It’s the first wild green we harvest each early spring.
Can You Eat Nettles?
Carefully pluck the top three leaves off.
Stinging nettles are ready to harvest early – about the time when chard, spinach, and lettuce are planted. When the nettles are just a few inches tall we pluck off the top three or four leaves. They are called stinging nettles because the plant has tiny hairlike stingers. Walk through a patch in summer wearing shorts and nettles cause instant pain. But it’s temporary and not dangerous. Another name for the plant is the “seven-minute itch.” The sting comes from histamines.
We gather young nettles without getting stung by carefully plucking just the top leaves between our thumb and forefinger and snapping them off. About 100 young nettle tops make two servings. We bring them into the kitchen, rinse them a couple of times, and steam them for just a minute or two. The sting disappears and resulting greens are delicious. Plus they pack a nutritious array of vitamins and are high in protein.
Nettle season is short. By the time the plants are eight or ten inches tall, the new leaves are getting tough. But by then we’re harvesting chard and spinach from the garden.
We’re happy to share our yard with both red admirals and nettles. Anyone with a partly shady yard with damp soil might want to start a nettle patch. Wear a pair of gloves and dig up a few and plant them in the yard. They aren’t fussy and will provide excellent table fare and a higher likelihood that the yard will be home to the colorful butterfly.
Kids take to the woods.
Starting off carefully.
Nature reduces stress. We saw it in action at Winding Pathways on an early April Sunday morning.
About 15 kids from the Faith Formation Group of Peoples Church Unitarian Universalist visited. Most were five to ten years old. After collecting eggs and scattering treats for the hens, we took them to Faulke’s Heritage Woods. It’s a 110-acre woodland protected from development by a conservation easement held by the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.
It wasn’t a guided walk. It was a kid adventure. As we distantly watched, the kids scampered into the oaks where they discovered a huge fallen tree spanning a ravine. A natural bridge. They couldn’t resist making the crossing and then raced from fallen log to fallen log, traversing each. Laughter entertained the many standing trees as the kids were enveloped in nature, inventing games and having fun. No constructed playground in a city park or schoolyard matches the wonder and fun of ponds, prairies, and tiny streams.
Learning to navigate a log.
Exploring the log
Lots of research has been conducted on nature’s ability to relieve stress in both adults and children. Experts call time spent in beautiful places the nature pill and even 20 minutes spent walking in the woods reduces stress.
Mary Carol Hunter recently completed a nature pill study and said, “Our study shows that for the greatest payoff, in terms of efficiently lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, you should spend 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking in a place that provides you with a sense of nature.”
We’re lucky to have Faulke’s Woods adjacent to Winding Pathways, but most of our time outdoors is spent close to our home on our own property. Often, it’s simply sitting in the yard enjoying a cup of coffee as we watch chickadees flit around.
Hunter’s words, “sense of nature” are powerful. Although visits to national and state parks, wildlife refuges, and nature preserves are wonderful stress relievers, anyone’s yard or balcony can do the same. We created Winding Pathways several years ago to encourage people to enjoy their yard, even if that’s a tiny apartment balcony in a big city. Structuring the yard or balcony to create natural beauty attracts interesting wildlife while giving people easy and free access to the “nature pill.”
Go outside and have fun, just like the kids did in Faulke’s Woods.
As lingering snow banks melt we look forward to the arrival of our favorite spring guests. They arrive in late April, but we put out the welcoming mat a month ahead.
We welcome the wrens each spring
For many years a pair of house wrens have nested right outside our dining room window. We laugh at their bubbly energy and enjoy watching them bring caterpillar after caterpillar into their home to feed growing babies. In some years we get to watch as the youngsters peer outside their nest box before taking their first awkward and short flight.
How Many Species live in the United States?
Sometimes the Carolina wrens stay around in winter.
House wrens are only one of six wren species that live in the United States. We’re fortunate to have both house and Carolina wrens in our
yard. Carolinas don’t migrate, so we sometimes see one feeding on suet in winter. House wrens are, perhaps, wiser and leave Iowa each October to winter down along the Gulf Coast.
It’s almost magical when the house wrens return each late April. Suddenly the air is filled with their delightful song. We usually hear them before we spot their nervous energy as they seek a nesting location. The nest boxes we set up in March are their welcome mat.
Making a Birdhouse
Few birds are as easy to lure into a nest box as house wrens. In winter we make new ones out of scrap lumber. Wrens aren’t fussy. Many elaborate nest boxes can be purchased but all it takes to make one is a four-foot section of 1X6 inch pine lumber, a few nails, and simple tools. We like the plans posted on Birdwatching Bliss.
We’re crude carpenters but the birds don’t seem to mind if the joints aren’t perfect.
Many wren house plans call for a circular opening of 1 1/8th inch but we’ve had great success with a one-inch hole. Larger holes welcome messy house sparrows. We also never place a perch in front of the entry hole. Wrens are acrobatic flyers and have no trouble entering a hole without a perch nearby.
Few birds are as entertaining as bubbly house wrens, but there’s another reason we love having them around. They’re voracious predators of insects that love feasting on our garden crops, so our wren tenants help boost our vegetable crop.
Wrens start nesting almost as soon as they arrive. Their nest is carefully made of small sticks that nestle a few reddish spotted eggs that hatch in about two weeks. Babies grow like fury and leave the nest by the end of June. We then clean the nest out of the box, and often the eager parents produce a second brood in the late summer.
No bird is as likely to fascinate a child as a pair of bubbly wrens nesting in full view just outside the window.
Checking the nest box.
Eggs are spotted reddish
Looking out at the world.
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.
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 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.
Crossing the trail
Adults and young on a lake.
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.
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 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.
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 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 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
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!
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.