Saturday, October 5, 2013

Listen to What the Birds Are Saying

What the Robin Knows offers keys to the real world

Often, when I might have been doing some chore or other in the garden, I've instead been sitting, watching the doings in my backyard. Other times I've gone into the woods for a short walk along the river and have ended up sitting for hours, watching and listening. The longer and quieter you sit, the more there is to see and hear. But except in a general way, I never realized how much information birds offer to anyone paying the right kind of attention. So I was intrigued when Gavin van Horn at City Creatures put up a charming post about encounters with a robin whose "language" he began to understand after reading John Young's What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).

As an adolescent, Young was mentored by naturalist Tom Brown, Jr. and grew up to become a professional tracker, naturalist and teacher. The book, which is very readable, combines stories from his own education and experiences as a naturalist with discussions about what different calls and behaviors mean, and also offers useful guidelines to anyone who wishes to sharpen their own observational skills. Recorded examples of different kinds of situational calls compiled by his scientific consultant Dan Gardoqui are accessible on an accompanying website.

Birds communicate with each other, comment on the general state of the yard or woods, express territoriality, let the neighborhood know that a cat or other predator is lurking--and specific calls and behaviors express definite messages. They are the lookouts and news bearers in any given neighborhood--and other animals pay as much attention to their broadcasts as other birds. To begin to learn how this web of behavior and communication works, Young suggests that common backyard birds found nearly everywhere should be our guides and shows how anyone can learn to understand what a given situation might be and mean. Anyone, that is, with the patience to make it a habit to sit quietly, in a receptive frame of mind, in a place where birds are likely to be. 

Young offers other lessons as well. What the Robin Knows also opens a door to more ancient ways of understanding the natural world and our place within it that are often only encountered in stories and myth.

In some old stories there are personages--they might be hedge wizards, or wise women, they might be village elders or medicine men--who understand the language of the animals. This magical gift sometimes is given to a young hero or heroine to help complete a quest, solve a problem or effect a rescue, often by a tiny, wizened person encountered in the woods. The instructions are to drink the contents of the tiny flask or crack open the silver walnut only at a time of great need; suddenly, understanding what the birds and other animals are saying offers a way out of danger. And while western writers from Aesop to George Orwell use speaking animals as vehicles for commentary on human nature with stories that put people in animal guise, many Native American stories and shamanistic/animist religions approach this speech from the other side, as it were. Animals sometimes speak with the voices of the ecosystem, of the biosphere, of the spirit world, which worlds merge to create a landscape alive in a way that many people in modern society might not recognize.

These stories demonstrate a particular kind of wisdom well worth learning about how humans should behave towards the natural world and other creatures. Young explains how, in traditional societies, persons who can listen and comprehend the workings of the natural world are indeed wise and can help their people thrive in existential ways. The old reality is that our ancestors (and present-day members of indigenous cultures) relied for survival on a deep knowledge of the ways, habits and vocalizations of the other living creatures with whom they shared their world, knowledge that can seem magical to most of us. As Young points out, birds are gatekeepers: if, instead of noisily blundering about in the normal urban human way, a person moves quietly and mindfully, with an attitude of respect, the birds are far less likely to set off the alarms.  By learning bird language and how to behave when in natural settings we can begin to recover some of that old, vast, nearly forgotten inheritance which is all of ours by rights. Besides being a delightful way to spend time, you could say it's important for our survival.

Related Posts :
When You Go Outdoors, What Room Do You Enter?
A Date with Some Turtles
Two Classic Accounts of Living with Nature

Friday, July 26, 2013

Flowering Plants that Native Bees Love

Bumblebee on cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum)
In high summer, many gardeners take some time simply enjoy their gardens. It's not too soon, however, to be thinking about next year. I've started collecting seeds of native flowers, to sow immediately or to save and cold stratify for next spring's planting, as the case requires. If you want to make your garden more bee-friendly next year, here are some planting guidelines and a list of species suggestions. I have experience with every plant listed and therefore feel I can recommend them. Don't forget, many perennials can be planted in early fall. Though I am focusing on native bees, honey bees will also of course take advantage of the foraging opportunities you offer.  

In general
Bees and other pollinators such as butterflies prefer sunny areas that are protected from wind and offer plenty of different kind of flowers. Ideally there would be several types of flowers in bloom spring through fall. In my yard, different areas might be blooming at different times--but I have a small yard, so the bees don't seem to mind. Those with larger yards might plan for groupings of different varieties in one or more beds. No matter what size your yard or garden is, every area planted with mostly native flowers will be beneficial for pollinators, particularly in urban and suburban areas, because it increases the availability of pollen and nectar these creatures need to thrive. The plants listed here are suitable for large parts of the Midwest. This is not a complete list and something that works well for you might be left off. There are many more species of Midwestern prairie and savannah plants that could be included. If you live elsewhere, this simple rule applies: bees native to an area are best adapted to plants native to that area. Finding out what those plants are and adding them to your garden can be a worthwhile, enjoyable endeavor.

Learn more about native plants and use them in your garden 

According to the Xerces Society, "research suggests native plants are four times more attractive to native bees than exotic flowers." Garden herbs (allowed to flower) and annuals, especially heirloom varieties, can also provide good foraging. Avoid hybrids that have double blooms, since they often do not produce as much nectar or pollen. Native flowering shrubs also provide nectar and pollen for bees and often serve as host plants for caterpillars. If using non-native garden plants, please make sure they are not invasive in your area. Also, certain kinds of weeds (but definitely not all!) can be a good thing: early-appearing bumblebees appreciate dandelions and creeping Charlie, for example.  

Plan to have something in bloom all season long
Bees and butterflies fly at different times. They, and humans, appreciate a garden that has many varieties of flowers and a long season of bloom. If you mostly have native perennials, it's good to slip some long flowering annuals in various areas to keep going during perennials' in-between times. This is also a good strategy when starting a new area of young natives that might not bloom the first year.

Group flowers together in attractive drifts 
This old design rule makes good sense to bees as well as humans. Bees find good forage by sight. Clusters of flowers of the same species will attract more pollinators and enable better foraging than individual plants scattered through the garden. Where space allows, plant big clumps (at least four feet in diameter) or sizable drifts, which might require five or more plants.

Plant different types of flowers to support a wide variety of bees

Bees range in size from minute sweatbees at less than 1/8-in. to robust carpenter bees over an inch long. They also have different tongue lengths, and need suitable flowers. Some prefer flat, daisy-like flowers, while others prefer tubular blossoms. They are also attracted to brightly colored flowers that are blue, white, purple, and yellow--nor, in my observation, do they object to red.

Do not use insecticides in your garden

Even organic pesticides can be harmful. Other chemicals such as fungicides can be dangerous--to humans as well as bees.  I have discussed the dangers of neonicotinoids in "City Bees, Country Bees." Habitat loss and insecticide use are the two main threats to bees and butterflies. A well-run ecological garden attracts birds and beneficial insects that help keep pests to a minimum.

Suitable Plants
Spring can be a difficult time for native bees, especially in urban areas with few early-blooming perennials. Queen bumblebees emerge at this time and fly for several weeks foraging before settling down to make their nests.An asterisk denotes species that flourish in areas that become shady when the trees leaf out.
Native Perennials
Columbine Aquilegia canadensis
*Violets Viola spp.
*Virginia bluebells Mertensia pulmonoides
*Virginia waterleaf Hydrophyllum spp.

*Wild geranium Geranium spp.
Wild indigo Baptisia spp.
Non-native Perennials
Siberian Squill Scilla spp.
Chives Allium spp.
Periwinkle Vinca minor
Summer-Late Summer (into Fall) is a halcyon period for native bees if the foraging is good. Plenty of sources of nectar and pollen ensure good populations, which in turn insure a continuation of the species. Male bees use flowers as sheltered places to rest while they look for young queens with whom to mate.
Native Perennials 
Aster Aster spp.
Beebalm Monarda spp.

Asters Aster spp.
Black-eyed Susan Rudbeckia spp.
Blazing Star Liatris spp.
Butterfly weed Asclepias tuberosa
Compass plant Silphium lanciatum
Cup plant Silphium perfoliatum
Giant hyssop Agastache spp.
Goldenrod Solidago spp.
Joe-pye weed Eupatorium spp.
Milkweed Asclepias spp.
Penstemon Penstemon
Liatris Liatris spp.
Phlox Phlox spp.
Purple coneflower Echinacea spp.
Rattlesnake master Eryngium spp.
Sage Salvia spp.
Spiderwort Tradescantia spp.
Sunflower Helianthus spp.
Tickseed Coreopsis spp.
Non-native Annuals and Perennials 
Basil Ocimum spp.
Catmint Nepeta spp.
Cosmos Cosmos spp.
English lavender Lavandula
Marjoram Origanum
Marigold Tagetes
Parsley Petroselinum crispum
Rosemary Rosmarinus
Salvia Salvia spp.
Stonecrop Sedum spp.
Zinnia Zinnia
Flowering Trees, Shrubs and Fruits offer more foraging opportunities from early spring through summer, and are often butterflies' preferred host plants.
Natives are best
Chokeberry Aronia spp.
Dogwood Cornus spp.
Lilac Syringa vulgaris
Raspberry Rubus
Redbud Cercis canadensis
Rose Rosa spp.
Serviceberry Amelanchier spp.
Strawberry Fragaria
Viburnum Viburnum spp.

Willow Salix spp.
Note: This is part of a series about how urban areas might offer the best hope and some of the best habitat for native bees. "City Bees, Country Bees" is here; "City Bees, Country Bees, Part 2" is here. The next post in this series will focus on what bees need besides flowers and will offer a few suggestions to vegetable gardeners as well.

References: Illinois Wildflowers,;  Xerces Society Fact Sheets, “Upper Midwest Plants for Native Bees” and “Butterfly Gardening,” the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation,; USDA.

Related Posts:
Creating a Hummingbird Habitat
In Praise of Native Shrubs
Attracting Native Pollinators
An Excellent, Timeless Book

Monday, July 8, 2013

Urban Neighborhoods Can Be Good for Native Bees

Honeybees are not the only ones in trouble--bumblebees are too. This is the second of a two part series that discusses how urban areas might be bumblebees’ and other native bees’ best chance for survival. Part one is here.  

In City and Country
Leafcutter Bee
The morning of June 19th, before leaving for a retreat, I went out in my urban, Chicago-area backyard to see how the bees were doing. I do this nearly every day, spring through fall, several times a day if I’m at home and working on gardening chores. Warm, with a light breeze, the sun lighting up the flowering plants--it was perfect pollinator weather. Sure enough, back towards the alley, in an area perhaps 10’x20’, a couple of bumblebees were assembled at the spiderwort, honeybees and carpenter bees browsed the nepeta, and at least two other species cruised the coreopsis and the raspberries. I also saw a leafcutter bee and quite a few minute creatures resting on leaves, their golden or green metallic abdomens gleaming, that could be bee or wasp or flower fly. There were also assorted hover flies, wasps and a few butterflies. In my yard, this is completely normal, and what I would expect to see in those conditions.

Later that afternoon a friend and I strolled the retreat property in Putnam County, scouting for bees. Owned and maintained by Illinois Quakers, the twelve acres of grass and mostly native trees such as black walnuts, oaks, ash and maples also include a couple of old field/quasi-prairie areas and remnant hedgerows anchored by some gnarly old osage orange trees. The meetinghouse sits on a slight rise, slight enough that only people from these parts would probably even notice, particularly when the corn is up. Because of extreme spring rains, the corn and soy were not well-grown. You could sit at a picnic table under a maple just southwest of the meetinghouse and look south, southeast and southwest all the way to the horizon. The effect is one of sitting on an island surrounded by a sea of corn and soy, with here and there a distant cluster of farm buildings, metal roofs glimmering in the sun, embraced by their own clusters of trees. The sky, often cluttered with piled-high cumulus clouds, is a dominant element in the composition. To my Midwestern eyes it is restful to be able to see so far, and the contours of the land contain a spare beauty. Visitors from other parts of the world or the U.S., however, find this landscape surprising or even shocking: surprisingly green, open, and flat; shockingly large and uniform.

So, as I said, my friend and I, that first afternoon, patrolled the grounds. We found exactly two bees in a small patch of clover. They looked like some kind of solitary native species but were unfamiliar to me.

A Country Landscape Toxic to Pollinators
At various times during the next four days I would sit at that table, contemplating the landscape and considering this triumph of the industrial farming system that supplies corn and soy to the entire world. Aldo Leopold, in his mid-twentieth century essay “Illinois Bus Ride,” accurately pegs the monotone Illinois landscape and inhabitants’ lack of knowledge regarding the native prairie; the clean-farming practices he describes have only become more predominant since then. I sat with the constant awareness that in those vast fields every single plant as far as the eye could see had doubtless been treated with, among other dangerous chemical products, fungicides and neonicotinoids, and so, virtually every plant in that landscape was toxic to bees. There are vanishingly few refuges.

The common saying goes that every third bite of food is enabled by bees. But what does that really mean? Simply that bees and other pollinators are crucial to the conversion of the sun’s energy into food we can eat. A landscape without pollinators may as well be a dead landscape. It is like a machine missing certain crucial gears that allow it to function: complexity is radically diminished, energy flows depleted, life processes interrupted, and spacial-temporal-energy-matter relationships crucial to ecosystem functioning distorted. A lack of pollinators tears holes in the web of physical and biological relationships that enable the sun’s energy to be converted into matter, i.e. the plant based biological systems that simultaneously embody and power life on earth. The landscape I was viewing was imbued with an ineluctably tragic quality. Sure enough, though during my visit I saw other insect life--a few butterflies, various moths, beetles, flies, mosquitoes and gnats, a dragonfly-- I never saw another bee. When I got back home, I immediately went out in the backyard. Bees galore.

These were not-one-time-only experiences or comparisons. I go to that place regularly and am just as regularly struck by the differences between the biodiversity there and in Chicago. This is not to say more biodiverse areas don’t exist in and around Putnam County. A hobby beekeeper of my acquaintance maintains a combination bee meadow/natural area on 30 acres a few miles from from the meetinghouse; Matthiesson and Starved Rock State Parks are fairly close by; the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge, a restored area along the Illinois River, lies ten miles away. Yet these are small in comparison with the vast areas of monocropping that prevail there and throughout the state--and the country--an area so large that in seasonal time lapse satellite photos you can see how thousands of square miles of bare brown fields become green in spring and summer. When driving back to Chicago (there is no other way to travel between the two), the experience, paradoxically, is that as the concrete increases, so does biodiversity, so that one has a sense of moving from barrenness into lushness.

 Biodiverse habitat makes a huge difference for bees and native bees seem to be in trouble--or not--depending on where they live. Two studies bear this out. In the first, native bee populations (bumble bees were not included in this study) were counted Carlinville, Illinois. This study compared species counts done in the late 19th century and the 1970’s with the last couple of years. In the 1970’s, 82% of species remained. Since the ‘70’s, the number of species has declined by half. A primary reason seems to have been loss of habitat. Meanwhile, two currently ongoing studies of bees in various habitats (including green roofs) in the Chicago area show that in comparison with a count in the 1930’s, numbers of species (approximately 150) have remained stable, though there is some difference in species between then and now. (Please see 8/10/14 update below.)

What Cities Have: Neglected Acreage and Contiguous Back and Front Yards
A Chicago Neighborhood
My personal experience and these kinds of observations and studies lead me believe that, in North America, at least, cities hold untapped potential as pollinator reserves. Most farmers continue to plow up ever more habitat, remove land from conservation reserve programs and use neonics and other pesticides with abandon. It seems clear that until these farming practices change, it will be up to urbanites, whether in cities, towns or those suburbs that have abandoned the atavistic, pristine-lawn aesthetic, to see to it that our bees survive. With regard to honeybees this situation has been recognized for some years, as the proliferation of urban beekeeping has demonstrated. It is equally important for our native bees. Metro areas really are bees’ last best hope.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

City Bees, Country Bees

Honeybees are not the only ones in trouble--bumblebees are too. This is the first of a two part series that will discuss how urban areas might be bumblebees’ best chance for survival. 


Part 1: A Little about Bumblebees and Neonicotinoid Insecticides

Life as a Bumble Bee 
Bombus ssp. on wild geranium
Put aside being human for a moment. Imagine you are another creature--no, not one of those charismatic ones--not dolphin, whale, bear, or wolf, nor even soaring eagle. Take it down a notch or a hundred and imagine you are a bee: not the glamorous, attention-getting honeybee, star of books, articles and films, either, but a wild bumblebee, Bombus impatiens, for example, common in the Midwest. Don’t worry about getting used to seeing in the ultraviolet range, or having six legs, or suddenly being able to fly, or able to pollinate flowers simply by making a buzzing sound. This is conceptual.

So you are a young queen. It’s early spring and some combination of time, temperature and length of day has caused you to awaken from your winter hibernation, or diapause. You pull yourself out of bed--the hibernaculum you dug for yourself last fall after you had left your birth nest and mated--scramble out from under the dry leaves that cover the area, and survey the landscape. If you are lucky, you’ve emerged in an area where there are plenty of spring-blooming flowers. You will, assuming you evade hungry predators and don’t succumb to mites or disease, live a happy, if short, bee life. You’ll fly for several weeks feeding on pollen and looking for a good nesting area, which might be at ground level or just below--perhaps under a tussock of prairie dropseed grass, or in an old mouse nest. Then you’ll settle in, lay eggs, and provide pollen for and raise your first group of daughters. Subsequently, while you retire to lay more eggs, they’ll take over foraging and raising young to keep the nest going, ensuring the survival of the next year’s population. Along the way, countless plants will be pollinated, allowing fruits and vegetables to grow and ripen. As a result of your efforts, and those of the thousands of other bee and pollinator species, life on earth will continue.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

When You Go Outdoors, What Room Do You Enter?

Tennessee warbler
Recently a colleague and I led a workday in Adena Woods. In attendance was a group of students,
mostly present in the interest of extra credit. They seemed to be having a pretty good time--floundering around, crossing the creek on some logs, picking up trash--chilly and muddy though it was. As we explained a few things about the plants and hydrology of the area, I considered what they might be experiencing. What would it be like to go in the woods and not really understand what you were looking at or hearing? How would you tell things apart? How would you access meaning? And where would you start? When I walk into woods and savannas around here, I know many of the forbs, grasses and trees and some of the birds and insects--though my knowledge pales beside that of the naturalists, ecologists and expert birders I've encountered, some of whom I name mentors and friends.

But what about these students? Say, for example, you enter a room, and it is full of abstract expressionist paintings and fine mid-20th century modern furniture cleverly accented with art glass and ceramic objects crafted by the best 21st century artisans. Or you enter a large, noisy room full of what look like plain gray metal cabinets with racks full of narrow boxes connected by cables in chilly, climate controlled air. In the first case, unless you have a certain education and cultural background, you are not likely to know that the painting of large rectangles with blurry edges is considered a masterpiece of 20th century art, that the plain, unadorned furniture of light-colored wood is valuable,
"Untitled (Painting)"
or that the small sculptural pieces are not just weird-looking but are wrought to an extremely high standard of craftsmanship. No one has told you about these things, or named them for you. Similarly, unless you knew what you were looking at, that dim, dustless, chilly room full of humming metal boxes and loud cooling apparatus might seem impressively large yet alien in function until someone informed you that it is a server farm through which the world's information passes and which enables you to use your smartphone to look up information about Mark Rothko, the man who painted those big rectangles.

So it is for what we call the natural world, by which name we imply that it is a world somewhere else than the one we reside in, our world of understandable houses, cars, streets, shopping malls, politics, scandals--our human world, furnished in part with trees, grass, bushes and birds. But of course the natural world is a room that interpenetrates the human world, a room that is part of a palimpsest of experience--and a room that requires guidance to enter fully.

A few days after the workday I went to Ryerson Woods (in Riverwoods, Illinois) for a meeting that was followed by a short nature walk. Ryerson Woods is open, well managed, and borders the Des Plaines River. We had binoculars, and the naturalist began telling about and pointing out where to find various warblers. It was peak migration season and, as he said, a strong south wind overnight had blown thousands of birds into the area. He started pointing out bird songs as he heard them. This is something that only in the past few years has really clicked for me, so that when I walk down the street I mostly know who's singing. These songs were new to me, in particular, something high-pitched that started slowly and ended up sounding like a sewing machine. What was that? A Tennessee warbler. After an aggravating search with the binoculars, I caught a glimpse, high in the trees: a small bird colored like the shadows among spring foliage that kept hopping, annoyingly, behind the new leaves where it promptly became invisible. But that song! Loud, distinctive--how had I never heard it before? Of course I had heard it--probably most springs of my life, and had never differentiated it from the general noise of "birdsong." But there it was, sort of analogous to how, to continue the mid-20th century motif, John Coltrane's or Charlie Parker's distinctive style of playing might suddenly emerge from general saxophone noise for a student taking a history of modern jazz course.

The next morning, I sat on the back porch steps drinking coffee and dang if there weren't Tennessee warblers in my backyard. And in the neighbor's apple tree and high in the silver maple across the alley. Carrying on with great vigor, a descant accompanying the usual robin/cardinal/mourning dove/ house sparrow/American goldfinch notes. And again later that day as a friend and I walked at lunch past the woods where I'd led the workday: noisy, noisy little things--how could you miss them?

Easily enough. A few days later they were gone, passing in the night to their summer regions. But my nature room, my garden room, is a little fuller, more interesting, and more present because that naturalist shared with me what he had learned over twenty-five years, the way someone, sometime, had shared it with him.

Note: The Tennessee warbler song can be heard at All About Birds.

Related Post:
Midewin Means "Heal the Land"

Friday, April 26, 2013

For Earth Day I Wrote a Letter about the Keystone XL Pipeline (Instead of Signing a Petition)

A Little about American Quakers

"You mean you folks are still around?"…"Aren't you like those people that dress in old-time clothes and have horses and buggies? Yeah, the Amish, that's right."

Every so often I encounter this kind of reaction when I let it be known that I am a member of the Religious Society of Friends, in other words, a Quaker. Yes we are still around, no we are not the Amish and furthermore, after over 350 years we are still upholding our peace testimony. American "unprogrammed" Quakers still do not have paid clergy, a church hierarchy, or a set of orthodox doctrines and creeds. We continue to meet weekly for silent worship. We continue our rich tradition of living our testimonies as we are able, which, considering that we are devoted to peace and non-violence, individually and as a group, has landed a surprisingly large number of us in jail: for refusing to worship state religions; for helping slaves go free; for according women equality within our community and working to achieve it in general; for refusing to fight in wars; for objecting to the use of weapons of mass destruction; and most recently for opposing the Keystone XL Pipeline and what it stands for.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Read "Cranes and Kenosis" at City Creatures Blog

Happy Earth Day!

I’m pleased to say my piece about whooping cranes, "Cranes and Kenosis” has been posted today at City Creatures, a blog published by the Center for Humans and Nature. These are the folks who co-produced the Green Fire, the documentary about Aldo Leopold, and they do other interesting work as well.

Related Posts:

Friday, April 19, 2013

Walt Whitman, Deep Ecologist

Poetry Month 2013 


My respiration and inspiration....the beating of my heart....the passing
     of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore
     and darkcolored sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
The sound of the belched words of my voice....words loosed
     to the eddies of the wind,
A few light kisses....a few embraces....a reaching around of arms,
The play of shine and shade as the supple boughs wag,
The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along
     the fields and hillsides,
The feeling of health....the full-noon trill...the song of me
     rising from bed and meeting the sun.
For a long time I resisted Walt Whitman—the lists, the grandiosity, the boasting, the loose lines, the ellipses--yikes! Was he for real or was he a fraud, an American huckster? No, Emily Dickinson and her intense compression were what counted as real poetry. So I neglected Whitman, much as I suspect much of America neglects Whitman. So many of our poets are “great,” are “classics,” are easily Googled and largely unread. To read serious poetry seriously is to risk having mundane reality crack open: maybe all kinds of things will look radically different--worse, possibly, but also better.
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin
     of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and the sun....there
     are millions of suns left,
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand....nor look through
     the eyes of the dead....nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.
It happens that my father died recently and it was my job to write a eulogistic piece to be read at his memorial service and also to be sent to distant friends and relations. This remembrance took some time to write. While working on it, I was led to reread Leaves of Grass, the original 1855 version, which is what I found lying around the house. (E-version is here.) This edition is Whitman at his most exuberant, before his Civil War experiences, coupled with his increasing fame, took him in more serious, sometimes sententious, directions.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Creating a Hummingbird Habitat

Hummingbird and columbine
(Josh Haas, Auduban Guides)
According to Journey North's map, the ruby-throated hummingbirds are pretty far  south, held up by cold weather--but they'll be in the Chicago region soon. I wrote the following short piece for a start-up magazine that never got going.
In summer, I love to sit outside and watch the resident hummer. She might perch in the pagoda dogwood and preen, disappear, reappear by the scarlet runner beans, hover at the feeder, then zip up to the honey locust tree across the alley. It seems quite miraculous.

Hummers didn’t always frequent my backyard. Not one had been seen on my block for decades when, in 2008, my next door neighbor Muriel and I decided to try attracting them. We already had native-plant-based gardens; attracting hummers meant learning their needs and then adding hummer-specific elements. Muriel put out two feeders and we both planted tubular red flowers, which suit hummers’ long bills. To our delight, two ruby-throats showed up that August.

We were were practicing what evolutionary biologist Michael Rosenzweig calls “reconciliation ecology” in his book Win-win Ecology. Reconciliation ecology is “the science of inventing, establishing and maintaining new habitats to conserve species diversity in places where people live, work and play.” Further inspired by citizen-science hummingbird project, we gave informational fliers to our neighbors. Several planted appropriate flowers and vines and one or two put up feeders. Our whole block has become hummingbird habitat. 

About ruby-throated hummingbirds
There are approximately 350 species of hummingbird, a bird native only to the Americas; only one species, the ruby-throated hummingbird, breeds in the upper Midwest.  Ruby-throats winter in southern Mexico and Central America and fly north in the spring, reaching the Chicago area in late April to early May. A remarkable part of their migration is their non-stop, eighteen-hour, approximately 500-mile flight across the Gulf of Mexico. They follow the same routes and tend to return to the same places, one reason maintaining habitat is very important.  They find suitable habitats by sight, which is why clumps of bright red flowers as well as feeders help attract them. 
Incubating (Dorothy Edgington, Journey North)

Ruby-throats often arrive too early for many flowers and survive by drinking sap and eating trapped insects at the holes yellow-bellied sapsuckers have drilled in trees. The females construct their tiny, walnut-sized nests on branches about twenty feet up. Once they’ve mated, the females lay two pea-sized eggs and raise their young alone. A mating cycle lasts about 45 days, and there can be two clutches a season. Their job done, males sometimes start back south as soon as July; females follow somewhat later and juveniles later still, up to the first frost.

Hummers can live up to twelve years, though the average is three to five years. To fuel their speedy metabolisms, ruby-throats must consume up to half their bodyweight in nectar each day, making use of at least thirty species of native plants as well as many garden flowers. At least nineteen native plants such as jewelweeds and columbines depend on hummers for pollination. Because nectar has no protein, small, soft-bodied insects and spiders make up one fourth of their diet. 

How to attract hummingbirds
Sometimes people will put up a feeder and then get disappointed when hummers don’t show up. But, like humans who can’t survive only on sports drinks,  hummers need more than sugar-water alone. If you develop a generally bird and insect pollinator-friendly garden habitat that includes hummingbird-specific features, you’ll probably have more success than planning only for hummingbirds. If you get your neighbors involved, you’ll strengthen the whole neighborhood ecosystem. That’s reconciliation ecology in action. 

What ruby-throats need
  • Places to perch and nest. Like many other species of backyard birds, hummers prefer layered edge habitats, with trees, shrubs, flowers, grasses and a water source. When planting choose at least a few hummingbird-attracting varieties. Hummers also find hanging baskets attractive. Plant flowers in groups of at least three or more of the same kind, and plan for a long bloom period by planting early, mid and late-blooming varieties of flowers.
  • Tubular red flowers. Native species often offer more nectar than nursery hybrids and single blossoms offer easier nectar access than double blossoms. See list here. Scented and composite flowers, while good for insects, aren’t as useful to hummers. Non-tubular flowers often don’t have as much nectar. Very diverse flower areas are best—the more species of flowers, and thus pollinators, the better!
  • Nest-building materials. Hummers use fuzzy plants such as cinnamon fern, pussy willow and “weeds” like thistle and dandelions for nests. Hummers use lichen from tree bark stuck on with spider silk to camouflage nests.
  • Feeder. Put out a hummingbird feeder in spring and keep it filled with sugar water until fall. Use a solution of one part sugar to four parts water which has been boiled for no more than two minutes. Clean and refill the feeder frequently (every two days in hot weather). Saucer-shaped feeders are easier to clean. Making extra sugar water solution to store in the fridge and keeping two feeders in rotation reduces work. There's no need to hang out more than one feeder: sugar water is not nutritious, so plantings should provide the most nectar.
  • No chemicals. It’s best not to use any insecticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers in your yard (this includes chemical lawn care). A healthy garden ecosystem starts with living soil, nourished by organic material, that supports a complex, dynamic web of life: beautiful in the elegant way it naturally functions, as well as the way it looks.

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    Hummingbird Facts and Nature Rants
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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Backyard Phenology

From Susan Clotfelter, The Denver Post
One day snow all over the ground, the next day muddy grass sprinkled with snowdrops shining in the morning gloom. Rain. A solitary robin appears, nearly black among the flowers and flies to a tree branch where it sits, silhouetted among the leafless tangle. This is phenology. I know by these signs that it's time, past time, to start paying attention, serious attention to what's going on outside, that is, to turn from observing shapes, colors and weather--those clouds, these tan grasses drooping along the path, that maple's shape--to keeping a sharp lookout for stirrings, returns, expansions. Time to, every day, go check the area where the bumblebees tend to emerge, notice how far the buds on trees and bushes have expanded, see what perennials are turning green at the base--and so on and so forth. Time to pay attention to details. There's a lot to do, it's a big job, this noticing, keeping track, celebrating. And then recording in my gardening notebook.

In my backyard, the snowdrops have always told me when to start my phenological year. When the first ones appear is when I begin making notes on plants, birds and pollinating insects, scanty at first, working up to a sustained crescendo and then diminishing with cooler temperatures and greater darkness. When I began doing this, at first just with flowers, the early snow drops generally bloomed in mid to late February. Looking through my notebook, I see I was pretty haphazard: some years I didn't get past June in my efforts, as though only spring-blooming flowers had appeared. In 2009, only the snowdrops are recorded--March 1. What happened that year that pulled me away from the garden? Only in the last several years have I gotten more comprehensive, as my understanding of garden interactions has grown; but I despair of ever being truly methodical or scientific.  All this time I've been paying attention, though writing not much down.

 For two reasons I've gotten more serious about record-keeping. One is coming to a greater understanding of Aldo Leopold and his emphasis on phenological notation. Another is that I signed up to observe for the USA National Phenology Network, whose mission includes tracking phenology in order to monitor the impacts of climate change. Thousands of people nationwide are contributing their observations to USA-NPN's online program, Nature's Notebook; these data are used in turn by scientists researching climate change effects. Our observations form an invaluable resource that would be unobtainable any other way. I like to think the records of my completely unremarkable lilac bushes are contributing to the common good.

Back to the snowdrops. Usually in my backyard they've bloomed in mid to late February. Last year, the no-winter year, they appeared earlier--my note says February 1. This year, even though we've had more of a winter with a nearly average amount of snow, the beginnings were mild. The snowdrops started shining under the pagoda dogwood in mid-January--the earliest I've seen them there. What else is happening? I'd better get outside and look.

Related Post:
Something New to Do with Your Lilacs

Friday, March 1, 2013

In Praise of Miserable Weather

Any person who has lived in the Chicago region for any length of time knows miserable weather. The temperature hovers at around 32 degrees, a damp wind angles right in your face the mix of snow/sleet/rain/ice pellets descending from the flat, dull-aluminum-colored sky, and slushy snow slumps on the ground. Our winters are famous for this. Residents moan and complain. People migrate south to escape. Not for us the pristine whiteness, the invigorating crispness of the northern or mountain winter.

I've missed this weather.

Last winter and the early part of this one I've waited and worried, sulked, even; but now, at last, we've got it--all of the above plus the added bonus of occurring when the snowdrops are blooming and it should, as meteorologists inform us, be heading towards the 40s.

It's the kind of weather I imagine they were having in Japan, the old Japan of wooden and paper houses and no central heat when a traveler, I think American, in a story I once heard, complained of the cold. He was wishing for sturdy walls and a roaring fire and wondering why on occasion they opened the doors to view the snow--and an old woman replied, "it's winter. You're supposed to be cold." She was perhaps wondering why this person was so ignorant as to not understand that one is supposed to endure the cold, yet appreciate the aesthetics of miserable weather.

So I go out for snow walks. Yesterday I found myself by the pond at Thatcher woods in a landscape of black, white and gray. I stood in the quiet, looking around as a fresh breeze bearing ghostly precipitation came off the not-quite-frozen water, slushy with rotten snow. I heard a woodpecker, then saw it fly to a snaggy oak, where it commenced its bobbing vertical walk.

Basho, the great Japanese poet, wrote many haiku about winter. Here is one (translated by Robert Hass):

Winter solitude--
in a world of one color,
the sound of wind


Related Posts:
Meteorological Winter
Gardeners' Work

Friday, February 15, 2013

Two Books that Shed Light on Our Present Predicament: Arcadia and The Dog Stars

Dickens, to Begin With
It is a truism that certain aspects of life in present-tense America are best understood by reading Charles Dickens. Pick up Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey & Son or any of his other novels: they all vividly depict the effects of extreme income inequality and the sickness of an overly stratified society in which the rich reap the rewards of empire while the poor live physically miserable lives. Alternatively, care to know what life might be like in a western society without electricity, or modern conveniences and medicine? Read Dickens and understand that, while love and friendship can be found under even dire conditions, without the material benefits of fossil fuels life will not be as lovely as some utopians would like to believe. Death abounds.

Dickens inhabited a pre-peak-everything world. For him, heir to the Romantics, nature in all its parts was an inexhaustible matrix from which life—and his novels—emerged. In his fully realized fictional world, all those descriptive bits that high school students yawn over when forced to read, say, Great Expectations, are completely integral. For how else would one get such a sense of people existing completely within nature—out walking or riding in heat and cold, in snow, wind, rain, a balmy spring morning, under trees and among flowers; and how else would Dickens be able to use weather and landscape as outward expressions of his themes and his characters’ emotional lives? In his novels, nature is eternal, abundant and taken for granted, the world still large enough to contain humankind and all our sins, our cruelties, our wastefulness, and our glories, to little deleterious effect.

However dystopian, Dickens’ was a society on the way up, in which the full effects of the tech/fossil fuel revolution were yet to be realized. We moderns, on the other hand, are living on the downslope, learning to our sorrow that, keep pushing nature’s limits too far and dire consequences inevitably accrue. The times are out of joint—ours is an uneasy age, haunted by memories, in many cases not our own but told to us, of “before,” when there was still a "freshness deep down things,” earth systems had not yet had to adapt to our manifold excesses, and whatever trashing we did could easily heal. Nature may still be vast, but no longer is there a sense that it forms an abiding cradle for human civilization.

Two Novels Worth Reading
There’s no shortage of modern writers who are exploring our modern dystopia by, as someone has put it in a different context, “remembering forward.” Recently, I happened to read two such novels back to back, both quite fine and both illustrative of that something in the zeitgeist that makes our grinding apocalypse worth writing about. Neither is a techy, sci fi, plot-driven novel such as those of William Gibson or Paolo Bacigalupi, nor are they fully akin to sociological horror stories such as 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale. They are less didactic than World Made by Hand or The Road.