When the Trees are gone, part 1

Pale Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea pallida)

A pollinator patch, or garden, would look beautiful in that spot in the yard where the hostas are now sunscorched, right? Right. Absolutely. From monarchs to bumblebees, lack of habitat continues to cause pollinator population declines. You may as well enjoy some beauty, while making the world a better place, while you wait for your new oak tree to mature into a shady canopy tree.

Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly (Battus philenor). To help identify the butterflies you see, visit https://www.butterflyidentification.org/

The ecological benefits of a pollinator patch are tremendous, and the maintenance goes down after the first few years. A pollinator patch creates an expanding positive impact on the environment, an oasis in a monoculture of lawns and pavement. Plant the plants, and the insects will come. The rabbits will come to feed on the plants. Owls will come to feed on the rabbits. Songbirds will come to feed on the insects. The hawks will come to feed on the birds. Native plants will create a dynamic array of life and beauty. A few thoughts to get you started:

1. Most native flowers are perennials. After the first few years, the plants won’t require watering. Buy a hose splitter and a soaker hose to minimize the time spent watering. You can get both locally for less than $20 to make those first few years easy.

2. Prairie plants evolved in an environment rich in limestone and poor in organic material. A plant that typically grows two feet high in a competitive prairie environment may grow five feet high in a weeded, composted garden bed. Keep the taller plants in the middle of your planting, or be prepared to fence them.

Close up of the prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) flower spike.

3. Leave the stems and pods up for the winter, as insects will be overwintering in the stalks and birds will be feeding on the seeds. Instead, cut them back as late in the spring as possible.

4. Weeds will be need to be controlled, just like they do in an an ordinary flower or vegetable garden. Consider weed control fabric, mulch, or pea gravel to minimize the time you need to spend weeding.

5. Add a bird bath. It will be used by the birds, but also by the chipmunks and butterflies.

6. Order your plants…soon. Most dealers don’t sell native plants during the growing season, because they have low survivability. Many do take orders throughout the year, and ship in the spring and fall. If you wait until you want to plant, you may find yourself waiting until the next season. If you live in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, consider Indian Creek Nature Center’s Spring Plant and Art Sale as your source for plants.

For its plantings, Indian Creek Nature Center often orders seeds and plants from Prairie Nursery, Prairie Moon Nursery, IonExchange, and Linn County Soil and Water Conservation District. All of them provide good stock and excellent customer service.

Take a Walk on the Wild Side

I love setting the first set of footprints in a fresh falling snow. It is, quite likely, the closest I will ever get to boldly go where no person has gone before. This winter has provide me with ample opportunity.

First, I had to find my snowshoes. With my winter gear? No. In the shed? No. In the attic? No. They were hiding under some dust and cobwebs in my former office, which I evacuated abruptly in March of 2020 due to the pandemic, when snowshoeing season was still happening.

Then I had to sprint-nothing like sprinting in snowshoes to get your heart rate pumping-to beat some skiers to the trailhead. The extraordinary feeling of being the first one on the trail wears off relatively quickly, as that means one is also breaking the trail. It takes roughly three times as long to break a trail as it does to follow one.

A new path, still under construction, will allow guests at Indian Creek Nature Center to visit this oak tree. Unlike the shattered pines and black locust trees around it, the ancient oak withstood the forces of the derecho.

This winter I had fresh falling snow and a brand new, yet-to-be-opened trail to enjoy. It was awesome. If you can’t find your snowshoes or don’t own any, the Nature Center will rent some to you to do your own exploring in the winter magic.

The Flock: the first addition

Upon seeing the delightful little chicken house my flatmates had built for their chickens earlier this summer, a friend knew exactly what I needed: keets. When he said he was giving me some, I tried to conjure up in my mind what a keet was to no avail. We drove to pick up the seven cute, little, incredible wild birds. I fell in love immediately, until the drive home when they started shrieking, each at 96 decibels, the whole way. The magnificent seven spent their days frolicking in the garden.* Their volume crescendos when they are excited about things like learning to fly, or when strangers come up the driveway, or for various reasons beyond human comprehension.

A young keet.

The very kind couple who sold me the keets provided me with everything I need to know: they were a mixture of pied and pearled coloring (which meant nothing to me), they needed more protein than chickens, and they preferred to roost in trees and nest on the ground, which made me wonder how any survive ever.

The keets enjoy the blueberry patch during the day; at night, they go into a pet-carrier and spend the night inside where it is warmer and safer.

If your knowledge of fowl beyond chicken, pheasant and turkey is a bit rusty like mine is, keets are baby Guinea Fowl. Originating from Africa, they were introduced here primarily as a meat bird. They are hunters, which means no tick, grub, or grasshopper escapes their attention. They also run on the wild side, preferring not to be picked up. Unless their options are being carried or having to walk in the snow. In which case being carried suddenly becomes a very attractive option.

Charles (a pearled guinea) eats moss off of the side of the front step. At dusk, he was quite adamant about not going down into the snow. I ended up carrying him, along with the rest of his flock, to the aviary for the evening.

*Why did the keet cross the road? To prove you can’t build a fence good enough to hold it. I drove over one of the keets within days of their arrival because they were too small to see. I hadn’t been worried about that because I knew they safe were in the garden.

Terrence Nutworthy the Third

January 21 is National Squirrel Day. If you already have a bird feeder, you know that every day is squirrel day. To celebrate squirrels, here are a few more things we can do for our furry friends:

Set out some grapes, cashews, and pecans.

Add a year-round water source.

If it is snowy or wet, put your treats out a board to let the animals have dry feet for a bit.

Add selectively tasty compost scraps, such as sweet potato peels and apple peels.

A year and a half ago, I raised an orphaned grey squirrel, born around July 21, 2019. Later that fall, he vanished. It’s not unusual for young squirrels to move out and establish their own territories. Squirrel kits born late season often overwinter with their mom. As his mom, I had hoped he would stick around. I made him a nice nest box, filled the feeder tray regularly, and visited him at least twice a day.

One morning, he was gone. I said he was on walkabout, experiencing the world. What squirrel doesn’t dream of driving his motorcycle down the Pacific Coast Highway 1? But odds were equally good he had been taken out by a red-tailed hawk, a great-horned owl, a raccoon, or even a mink.

I went outside to feed the flock on December 23, 2020 and a squirrel came running up and jumped right into the middle of the flock, scattering the birds. It made me laugh, he was so bold. I knew immediately it was Terrence Nutworthy the Third.

This is the point where people say, “uh-huh.”

My case that this really is Terrence:

-Fox squirrels have lived in my woods longer than I have, but I have never seen a grey squirrel in the yard. The grey squirrels are around in the forest, of course, but the fox squirrels keep them out of the yard itself.

-Both Terrence and this squirrel have a little dark scar under their left eye.

-A wild squirrel, when confronted by a human, should run up the nearest branch, and will likely chatter fiercely. This is what my yard squirrels still do, despite generations having grown up with me as a fixture in their lives. A wild squirrel will not literally ask for a human handout. Which this squirrel did. He came right up and ate out of my hand.

As if my day couldn’t get any better, Terrence brought a rare black squirrel with him. Black squirrels are really grey squirrels with different fur color (melanistic subgroup). The black squirrel, being a wild squirrel, wants nothing to do with me.

I immediately purchased an addition for my yard for Terrence:

a heated, ground mounted bird bath

Winter is hard on wildlife. Obviously, animals have adapted and populations can survive without us. But the heated waterer will make survival a little bit easier, and possibly more enjoyable for everyone, including the squirrels, opossums, deer, mice, song birds, and fox. It may even enable me to get a decent picture of the black squirrel.

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The Flock: The Beginning

When you hatch your own chicks, approximately 50 percent of them will be male. As the overseer of Sugar Grove Farm, dealing with the baby roosters is my problem. The hens get to live an organic, free-ranging lifestyle at the farm. A neighbor was initially interested in raising the cockerels as meat birds, but decided there were already enough projects in her life.

“I will feed them to Mr. Friendly,” I said.*

Mr. Friendly is famous for his ability to swallow a bird whole when he is hungry. To avoid depleting the bird population, he spends most of his time inside and well-fed. Here, he is curled up in his favorite catnip box.

“We would raise them,” my flatmates said.

“You’ll do everything? Feeding? Care? Building a house? They could live in the garden. It’s already fenced.”**

“Yes.”

“Kill them at the end of the season?” One of my flatmates is a vegan and the other is a vegetarian, which makes this question a bit deeper than asking your average person if they are up for killing what they will put on their plate.

“We think the experience would be valuable.” I couldn’t argue with that. But looking at their honest, hopeful faces, I recognized the expression. It was the same expression on my face when I was young, and sprung the mouse traps in my parent’s house because I did not want the mice to get hurt. It is not the face of someone who is going to find killing something easy or even possible.

My flock of five ISA Brown roosters-which are actually white, because they are sex linked-was started. The hens, which are brown, are some of the most productive egg layers on the market. At the time, the roosters were a week old and living in a kiddie pool.

The kiddie pool quickly got cardboard sides to prevent “hop-overs.” When the hop-overs became fly-overs, my flatmates took the birds outside and built them a chicken house.

My flatmates were amazing in how seriously they took chicken care. As the birds got bigger, they were carried back and forth to the garden each day. A small chicken house was added to the garden. Eventually, a larger walk-in chicken house was constructed.

Nanotig is very curious, but he isn’t really interested in eating birds; he prefers mice.

When my flatmates were getting ready to go back to college, I asked the question: were they still planning on slaughtering the roosters?

“It is hard to kill something you have spent so much effort keeping alive,” they said.

“I’ll take care of them until they get mean,” I offered. “As soon as they get mean, I will do it.”

Because everyone knows roosters get mean, right? That was August. It is now December, and the Cluck-Clucks still expect to be petted regularly, like to be carried into the chicken house at night, and try to sneak into my house.

Nitro was chewing on a bone (hence the towel to protect the floor). When he went outside, I propped the door open so he could come back in whenever he wanted. It was a beautiful summer day. the chickens took it as an invitation.

*One of my flatmates insist after I said that, I followed it up with, “unless you guys want them.” I don’t remember saying that. But it is the sort of thing I would have thought, and I frequently say what I think without fully thinking through the consequences, and my flatmates have an extraordinary strong sense of honesty.

**My garden fence was built to keep the deer out. It does that well, and holds up squash vines well. We quickly learned that it fails to keep anything besides deer out, and fails to keep anything in.

The Trouble with Trigger

Trigger is-as you can see-not a bird. The flock is a mixture of guineas, ISA Brown Roosters, and Black Star Roosters. They all agree on one thing: an opossum is not a bird, and does not belong in the aviary. Or so I thought earlier this fall, as they threw very vocal temper tantrums whenever Trigger wandered inside and they refused to go in for the night. Refusing to go in at dusk has resulted in the death of many a bird.

Trigger has emptied the chicken feeder of feed.

Trigger would let me carry him back out. He didn’t even fear me enough to bother playing dead. His tail was rubbery, his fur silky. As much as I love opossums, I thought, I can’t feed everyone. I feed the flock, I put tasty scraps out for everyone, and have a bird feeding station and a ground feeding station. I already am feeding everyone, in limited, affordable quantities. But Trigger eats a lot of food and upsets the flock.

Last night, I went out to button up the chickens. It was cold (it is 12 F now) and there is a foot of snow on the ground. The flock hasn’t ventured outside. Trigger was inside the aviary with the birds. I don’t know that anyone was happy about it, but those roosters are roosters. If they wanted to kick a young opossum out, they could. I sighed. Trigger moseyed out into the snow and headed for the woods, instead of waiting for me to take him into the shed for shelter. Nitro makes him nervous. I know this because he plays dead for Nitro. The tip of his tail was already suffering from frostbite.

This morning, I fed and watered the birds. Then…I took a bowl of cat food out to the shed for Trigger and the two other opossums who live there. One of the opossums is Kip, Trigger’s mother; the other is a skittish black opossum who hasn’t shared his name with me yet. Because it is higher in protein than bird seed, the cat food will support the opossums better through these cold nights.

To age a tree

It is impolite to ask a lady her age. It is impossible to ask a tree her age. But as these old, ancient ladies with their lacy leaves have finally fallen, I have been able to ask some of them. In death, they can share with me what they could not share in life.

The 9″ diameter Ohio buckeye: 32 years old

The 28″ diameter honey locust: 56 years old

The 24″ diameter white oak: 124 years old

The 36″ diameter cottonwood: 47 years old

Ancient oak shattered.

The soil conditions, available sunlight, precipitation, and even genetics contribute to how big a tree gets. Some species simply get bigger faster than others. It is not a good thing or a bad thing. It makes it a very challenging thing, when people ask me how old a living tree is. An oak is probably older than you think. A cottonwood is probably younger than you think. Many of the massive trees brought down in the derecho were hollow inside, so we will never know. The massive sycamores and black walnuts growing along Indian Creek predate when the area was logged. So old.

Check out these imprints of an oak, walnut, and maple that were brought down by the derecho.

Since August 10th, I have sawn on trees that I planted. I have sawn on trees that I loved for more than 20 years. I have sawn on trees that were growing before women had the right to vote. I have sawn on trees that were growing before Iowa was a state.

I have touched trees that are still in the agony of dying, and I did not have the strength to give them a quick and merciful death by chainsaw. I have cried over and over again.

Trees are strong. Some of the trees I plant today will still be strong 100 years hence. Some I will cut down. Some others will cut down. Some will fall under the pressure from the termites, the buck rubs, the lightening and the wind. Some will remain. The massive old trees we grieve for today were young, once. Someone loved them and gave them space to grow. Nurturing our young trees and creating protected spaces for them to grow is the best thing we can do to honor the trees that have fallen and pay homage to the forest we love.

Young maple seedling.

To Start a Fire

We had a beautiful, restorative fire on the Bena Prairie Friday. It started, like many fires, with a simple strike of a match. To start a prairie fire, I like to make a small ball of dry material, similar to a mouse nest, and place it at the base of standing prairie grasses, such as big bluestem.

From the match strike, the grasses of the tallgrass prairie, the topography of the land, and the wind should combine to create a prairie fire. We coax it along with our rakes and suppress it with our water tanks, but the fire itself is a living force on the land, bringing dynamic change. In the long term, it will be a positive change on the landscape. Locally, it will look stark until spring. When spring comes, the burned areas will green up sooner than unburned areas. There will be more flowers, and the vegetation will be taller than in areas that didn’t burn. Many of the young seedling trees trying to become established will die in the fire, enabling the prairie to remain a prairie for years to come.

The Sounds After The Storm (Sept 1)

I am done for the evening. Done with the sound of chainsaws, the sound of dying trees, the sound of dump trucks. Done with the smell of wood chips, the smell of two stroke engines, the smell of burning green wood.

Done with the sight of blue sky instead of green canopy, the sight of brush piled higher than me stretching for miles, the sight of shattered wood a solid mass across what was the forest floor.

Tomorrow is another day. But tonight, as the darkness brings a temporary peace, and the cicadas and owls replace the sounds of living inside a sawmill, tonight I am done.