Early one May afternoon we arrived home, glanced into the woods past our property, and were astonished to see an enormous red oak on the ground. The tree looked healthy, solid, and unlikely to topple, but it fell on a clear calm day. On its way down the old veteran broke two younger trees growing nearby.
A week or so later we woke to an enormous crash. It was pitch dark so we were only able to search around with a flashlight to learn that nothing had hit our house. The next morning, we discovered a giant elm prostate on the ground about 150 feet from our bedroom on a neighbor’s property. Like the oak, it fell when it was calm. Unlike the oak, the elm had been dead for years and many mushrooms were growing from its trunk.
We enjoy a huge diversity of birds and other wildlife in our yard, in part because we adjoin Faulkes Heritage Woods, a 110 wild forest protected by a conservation easement. The Woods have not been logged for over a century, so many enormous oaks, hickories, and maples live there. Many are dead or in decline, but that’s great for wildlife.
Dead trees provide food and nesting sites
Of all landscape features few are as valuable to as many wildlife species as an old dead tree. Nearly as soon as a tree dies insects, bacteria, and fungus begin the long process of recycling wood and bark back into humus. Woodpeckers drill into dead trees to extract tasty insects and carve out nesting cavities. Often their old cavities are used by chickadees, wrens, and many other cavity nesters. Dead trees are favored perching sites for raptors, perhaps because they are leafless, so the sharp-eyed birds can spot prey on the ground.
We let dead trees stand on our property, as long as they are far enough away from the house so they can’t cause damage or injure someone when they crash down.
Are Dead Trees Dangerous
We’ve been in the right place at just the right time to see big trees fall. Usually, there’s a crack or two before a giant tree crashes down with lightning speed. If someone were underneath it then it would be hard to run fast enough to escape injury.
The odds of a person being hit by a falling tree while walking along a trail are infinitesimally small. It almost never happens. Most injuries and fatalities occur when people camp, picnic, or sit under a tree. The risk comes because they are under the tree for hours while sleeping or in a position where they can’t run and escape quickly.
Look up when placing your tent near trees.
Before setting up a tent always look up and never pitch it under a weak or dead tree that could fall in the night.
How to Tell If A Tree Is Likely to Fall
It’s a wonder this tree stood as long as it did.
Determining if a tree is likely to fall isn’t always easy. Sometimes seemingly healthy strong trees fall over, but often one gives notice that it is in decline and weakening. Here are visible signs that a tree is vulnerable to falling:
- It’s dead. No leaves. Branches occasionally dropping off. Bark sheathing off.
- It’s alive but increasingly branches are dying and are bare of leaves.
- Mushrooms are growing from the wood.
- Little piles of sawdust at the base show that insects or woodpeckers have been at work.
- It’s old. As trees age, they stiffen and eventually, their wood weakens. Young healthy smaller trees are more flexible and bend back and forth in heavy wind without damage. Wind can crack the wood of old stiff trees.
- All trees eventually fall down but some have notoriously weak wood that breaks easily. Silver maples, black locust, and Siberian Elms often shed big limbs or break during storms.
Should I Have A Tree Taken Down?
Log ready to be bucked up to firewood.
Losing a beautiful old tree is painful, but there is a time when the tree should be removed to prevent an injury, death, or damage. At Winding Pathways, we let even old weak trees stand as long as they are well away from the house or places where sit. But if the tree could fall and hit a parked car, house or barn we call a tree service and have it repurposed into firewood.
This Youtube video provides an excellent overview of live and dead trees, saving or cutting the appropriate trees. My Woodlot.
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.
House mouse and Norway rat
House Sparrow, American Robin, House Finch, House Wren, Rock Pigeon, Canada Goose, and Ringneck Pheasant
Raccoon, Opossum, Woodchuck
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.
English Sparrows thrive around people.
Raccoons forage mostly at night.
Pigeons depend on people to thrive.
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 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.
Bloodroot is an early spring bloomer. Photo credit Susan Hrobar
Star of Bethlehem.Six-petaled flower. Pixabay photo
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.
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.
Catbird by water
The Swainson’s Thrush moves through in the spring.
Bluebird in tree
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.
A hummer at the feeder.
A water source helps attract birds.
Female Cardinal at window feeder.
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?
A hooked rug by Yvonne Fellows
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.
Extra nutrition at the feeder.
A male northern oriole
A robin surveys the area
For the past few years, Marion and I have conducted managed burns on our prairie and woodland areas in the fall. We let the fire rise from the woods up into the prairie near our home. This followed removing some maples a few years back to allow more light to reach the ground. I’ve attached a photo taken this week. In the foreground is the burned area. Behind is the unburned. The impact on wildflowers is amazing. The density and diversity of wildflowers in the burned area are much greater than in the unburned and they emerged sooner. In nearby Faulke’s woods, we removed maple understory several years ago but it has not burned. With the elimination of additional shading from maples, wildflowers are certainly increasing, but this area has not been burned so they are not nearly as prolific as in the burned area on our property. The dark, bare ground free of leaf cover warms more quickly and the woodland and prairie plants access the ash nutrients and receive the warmth of the sun. So, they grow more quickly and robustly.
A fall labyrinth burn warms the soil for spring’s growth.
Leaf little slows plants emerging in the spring.
Note the difference between the burned area and unburned area.
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.