Best Birding in the Yard

At Winding Pathways, we venture into our yard nearly every day, even if it’s raining, windy,

House Finch

Some birds homestead at Winding Pathways.

or frigid out. Of all the times, early May is our favorite to linger outdoors. Why? It’s the best birding.

Very late April and the first couple of weeks of May boast normally glorious weather, blooming flowers and birds. Lots of birds, including those we can only enjoy for a fleeting week or two.

Here’s how we group the birds that we enjoy in our yard. Odds are the same or similar species follow this pattern in backyards with good habitat across much of the continent.


Some birds don’t migrate. They brave the cold and grace winter feeders. In summer, they often raise broods of babies on the edge of the yard. These include titmice, chickadees, cardinals, nuthatches, house sparrows, and many woodpeckers.


Juncos are almost always under our feeders all winter gleaning seeds. To a Junco Iowa is the balmy south with a “warm” winter. Around mid-April they head north to nest in the boreal forests of Canada and Minnesota.  We won’t see them again until around Halloween.

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26 Hours Old: Baby Chicks Arrive

Baby Chicks Find a Home at Winding Pathways

Enjoying the chicks

Enjoying the chicks

 The call from our post office came at 6 a.m. “Could you please come soon and pick up a box of peeping baby chicks,” requested the pleasant postal worker. Soon we were in the car en-route to retrieve the babies. We were excited, but the story really began months earlier.

The Girls are Getting Old


Going on their third lay cycle, the girls are getting old.

Our 13 hens were laying well but we knew they were on the downside of production. Young hens, called pullets, start laying when they are around 20 to 24 weeks old. During the approximately 14 months of their lay cycle we expect about 275 to 300 eggs per hen.  Then they declare a vacation, take a break, shed their worn feathers, fatten up a bit, grow new feathers, increase their calcium, and after six or eight weeks begin their second lay cycle. They’ll produce fewer eggs this time and as they continue to age we can expect ever fewer eggs. So, about every third year we order baby chicks that grow into pullets to replace the old girls. The process takes time and requires planning.

Getting Ready for Baby Chicks

Around Christmas we began planning our new chick order. This year we cooperated with two friends.  Each wanted some chicks but not a full order of 25. So, we placed a joint order with Hoover’s Hatchery in the tiny town of Rudd, Iowa. Leafing through their paper catalog and double checking their website helped us decide to order 50 chicks of diverse breeds. They’d collectively be a rainbow of feather colors and would lay light and dark brown, white, and blue/green eggs. We placed our order in January. Then, preparation really began.

Preparing for the Arrival


Keep adult chickens separate from chicks.

Our old chickens are in a coop Rich built in the corner of our small barn. We wanted to keep them until the new ones start laying in mid-summer. You don’t put baby chicks in with old ones. It just doesn’t work. Birds, like most creatures, are territorial and the old birds will kill the newcomers. The hens and chicks need to be kept apart. So, Rich made a second coop next to the existing one but separated by a wire and plywood wall. Inside the new coop, he made a large plywood box, complete with a plywood lid and two heat lamps to keep the babies warm until their feathers grew in and the weather warmed.

Hoover’s Hatchery sent a confirmation that the babies would arrive on March 15th. Gulp, the Ides of March. And, as it turned out, one of the colder days of winter.

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Can You Hear What I Hear?

Sometimes change happens as quickly as flipping a light switch. One moment it’s dark. A second later brightness fills the room. Other changes creep up so subtly that it’s hard to notice them at all.

That’s what happened to my hearing acuity. It probably started years ago when massive machine gun noise assaulted my ears during Army training, and running chain saws, lawn mowers, and other machines didn’t help. Gradually and pretty much unnoticed I developed tinnitus and lost the ability to hear many of nature’s delightful sounds.


Rich could not hear the sweet sound of the finch.

One day my wife, Marion, and I were sitting in the living room when she asked, “What bird is calling outside the window?”  I couldn’t hear a thing! It was time to get my hearing checked and a few days later I was at Heartland Hearing Center in Cedar Rapids. Audiologist Jennifer Reekers positioned me into a small booth and tested my ability to hear sounds of varied intensity and wavelength. The test proved what I already knew. I could not hear many sounds well, especially high pitches.

“Hearing aids will help restore your ability to hear many sounds,” she said. Over the next few weeks, she fitted me with a different trial pairs until I found one that did the trick. It was in spring and I could hear bird calls I hadn’t heard in years. Some sounds were odd, like hearing my own footsteps and my pants legs swooshing together as I walked.

My experience with the aids has been positive and, although they were expensive, it was money well spent. In the Premier section below is an article on the causes of hearing loss and how to improve hearing. It includes tips to protect hearing before loss sets in and what can be done to enable better sound detection and is reprinted from OUTDOORS UNLIMITED Magazine.

Wildlife and Hearing

Humans are fortunate. We have a fair ability to see, hear, taste, and smell. The senses of many wild animals have senses much better than ours, but they usually aren’t as well balanced.

Karla Bloem with Barn Owl

Barn owls can find prey in complete darkness using only their hearing.

For example, according to Karla Bloem, Executive Director of the International Owl Center, a barn owl’s hearing is so keen that it can detect and catch a mouse in complete darkness. Its vision is also outstanding, although probably only in black and white. But, that owl may not have a sense of smell or taste at all.

Like owls, wild turkeys have outstanding vision and hearing but probably no sense of smell or taste.

The sense of smell and hearing possessed by deer is amazingly well developed, but their vision isn’t very good. Humans are fortunate to have all our senses, although none of them may be as keen as those of certain animals. Hearing loss can often be prevented.   Take care around loud noise.

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Lyme Disease and Ticks

We are proud of and fortunate that our yard is home to a wide array of fascinating plants and wildlife.

Ticks in solution

Only a good friend would know that we want pictures of creepy crawlies and save them for us for our blog!

But, last year Rich encountered a wild animal that he wishes he’d avoided. A deer tick found and bit him, although he never saw the tiny eight legged creature. A classic symptom of Lyme Disease is a red rash shaped like a bull’s eye. But Rich never had one. Instead he became overwhelmed with lethargy.
“I never felt sick, just tired, and kept thinking I’d be fine in a day or two,” he said.

But the fatigue dragged on for months, so he called our family physician who urged him to come right in. She gave him a thorough check over, and prescribed a chest X Ray and a Lyme Disease blood test.

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For the Love of Pumpkins

Pumpkins are amazing plants. Intriguing and delicious, they are one of America’s gifts to world food and are fun to grow and eat.


Pie pumpkins are smaller with thicker stems.

Pumpkins were domesticated and cultivated by Native Americans long before Columbus. They valued them as a nutritious food that would keep well into the winter. Not only is the meat nutritious but also the seeds are packed with important vitamins and minerals

Pumpkins exist in enormous diversity. Today, most people buy one in the fall and carve it for Halloween, or just use it as an ornament.  Then it gets tossed out. Most sold for carving and decoration are field or cow pumpkins. They are edible, but the ring of flesh outside the seed cavity is usually thin and the meat is stringy and needs straining. Transforming cow pumpkins into pie takes work.

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Corn an “A-maizing” Crop

Corn is one of the world’s most important agricultural plants. It’s loved by both people and wildlife. Corn is readily available and inexpensive. When used appropriately, it is an outstanding addition to a backyard feeding station.

It’s surprising how little most people know about its history. Corn is a human created plant that does not exist in the wild. It has no ability to reproduce on its own, and without people planting and tending it, corn would become extinct.

Wheat, oats, rye, millet, rice and barley originated in the Old World. In contrast corn is New World. Domesticated from a wild ancestor in Central or South America thousands of years ago, corn cultivation gradually spread north and east as Native Americans traded seeds. The Spanish conquistadors named it maíz” from the Taino Caribbean culture whose people called it “mahiz.”  By the time of Columbus, corn was an important human food throughout what became the United States. Early European explorers brought seeds back to Europe and it was soon grown around the world. Today China is a major corn grower but the production epicenter is the American Corn Belt. Billions of bushels are grown in Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana, but cornfields can be found in nearly all states.

Geneticists have developed dozens of corn varieties. Best known may be the delicious sweet corn enjoyed at summer picnics or as popcorn at the movies. It is a major ingredient in livestock feed, and most corn is indirectly eaten as beef, eggs, poultry, pork, and even domestic catfish. Corn derived ethanol powers vehicles and it is used to produce syrup to sweeten beverages and has hundreds of industrial applications.

Corn is an outstanding wildlife food. Gardener’s know! Keeping deer, birds, and raccoons out of a patch of sweet corn is a major challenge.

Corn is readily available for wildlife feeding in grocery, farm and bird feeding specialty stores. It’s usually less expensive at farm stores and can be purchased either as whole (sometimes called shell), dried on the cob or cracked. The shell corn name comes from the Native American practice of using a clam shell to scrape hard kernels off the cob. Shell corn is intact kernels too large for most songbirds to swallow but eagerly eaten by deer, wild turkeys, blue jays, squirrels, pheasants and many other species. Cracked corn has been run through a machine that breaks the kernel into pieces small enough to be eaten by tiny birds as well as all those that can eat the full sized grain.

Corn is not the best choice for the most desired feeder birds. Chickadees, finches, cardinals and many others prefer sunflower seed. Corn’s advantages are its low cost and attractiveness to English sparrows, pigeons, starlings and other less desirable species. These birds prefer to eat on the ground. At Winding Pathways we sprinkle cracked corn on the lawn a distance from the sunflower stocked feeders. It helps lure less desirable birds away from the more expensive seeds. Almost daily a flock of wild turkeys visits the yard and devour every scrap of corn.

Squirrels and deer also love corn and readily gobble it down. It’s sometimes possible to buy dried corn still on the cob and many people enjoy watching mammals chew the kernels cobs.