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February 24, 2011

Put a Little Life in Your Lawn

Americans are so obsessed with the idea of the perfect lawn that many neighborhoods have become little more than green deserts - huge expanses of a single type of grass that are regularly treated with so many chemical pesticides and herbicides that all other life forms have been destroyed.  No wonder our honeybees are disappearing!

Lawns don't have to be barren and lifeless.  They can be rich mixes of lush, low-growing plants, from beautiful white clover and bugleweed (ajuga) to beloved flowers like violets and scarlet pimpernels and herbs like thyme and prunella, with a mix of grasses forming the backdrop. 

A mixed lawn will attract all kinds of life to your yard, from insects like butterflies and bees feeding on the abundant nectar of flowering lawn plants to toads and ladybugs looking for an insect dinner.  You'll get bonuses like fireflies (also known as lightning bugs), too, lighting up your summer nights.  The life that's drawn to your lawn will bring birds flocking, looking for bugs, seeds, and nectar.  A lawn like this is not only beautiful, it's exciting! 

Every summer I am always amazed at the level of activity in my backyard compared to my neighbors on either side.  All three of us share identical acres of land.  However, every evening I sit on my back porch and watch birds flying around my trees and skittering on the ground, squirrels spastically zooming all over the place, butterflies fluttering near my head, ducks make their way up on a nearby slope from the river and head to my yard where they always stay to feed, occasionally a rabbit stops by (or I get surprised by deer), and at dusk, fireflies are everywhere!  It's a regular nature show, and I try to always tune in.  When I look out at my neighbor's yards - or I'm in their yards visiting - it's lifeless.  My yard is like a vortex into another world, a world full of life. 

Many people think of a mixed lawn as an overgrown, weedy mess.  But that is dead wrong: A lawn like this will thrive when it's kept mowed, just like an ordinary lawn.  You may have heard that lawns do best when you set the mower higher than you may have learned to do, since even conventional lawn grass is healthier and grows best when its roots are shaded.  The same is true of a mixed lawn: Raise the mower blade to 3 inches for the health of your lawn.  And as with a conventional, all-grass lawn, you should always leave the clippings to fertilize your mixed lawn.  I am always amazed when I see my neighbors bag and throw out their grass clippings, then dump chemical fertilizers on their lawns to replace the lost nutrients.  What are they thinking?!

Finally, I leave you with a thought: If all the pesticides people dump on their lawns are killing "pests," what are they doing to your pets, kids, friends and relatives, and you - not to mention birds, butterflies, and other wildlife?  If you encourage a mixed lawn of beautiful (and often useful) plants, nature will take care of any "pests" without additional help from you.  Your lawn will look lush and inviting.  You can watch your kids run barefoot across the lawn with the puppy without wondering, "How long has it been since the lawn service sprayed?"  And you'll be rewarded with a wealth of birdlife. 

Just think - you're actualy gaining all these benefits from not doing extra work or going to extra expense.  How great is that?

February 22, 2011

Five Fast Ways to Attract Birds

Planting bird-friendly trees and shrubs or installing an in-ground water garden with features designed to bring in the birds can take time to produce the desired results.  But there are plenty of quick - and inexpensive - things you can do to put out the welcome mat almost instantly.  Jump in right now and see how you can boost the bird population in your yard or space with these five fast ways to attract birds:

1. Hang a tube feeder.
Tube feeders are available at bird specialty stores (Wild Birds Unlimited, Wild Bird Center, etc.), hardware and farm supply stores, and home centers, as well as many pet stores and, at least seasonally, at discount retailers (Walmart, Target, etc.).  Get one to start, along with a supply of sunflower seed to fill it.  Black oil sunflower attracts the greatest variety of birds, but any sort of sunflower seed will draw birds to the tube.  If your new tube feeder will hang in a place where cast-off sunflower hulls may pose a problem, avoid the mess by filling it up with shelled, or hulled, sunflower seeds. 

2. Set out water.
Water features for birds can be elaborate or they can be very simple.  If you have a casserole or shallow bowl that you've never liked, you can donate it to the birds, and do a good deed while getting rid of something you've always hated at the same time.  Set it out, fill it with water, add a few pebbles to help the birds find a perch, and voila!

3.  Grow a nectar plant.
Columbines, trumpet vine, cleome (spiderflower), impatiens, nasturtiums, annual red salvia, cardinal flower, rose-of-Sharon, snapdragons, coral honeysuckle (what I grow), cannas, bee balm (monarda), zinnias, and many other nectar rich plants are especially good hummingbird attractors.  Add a few of these hummingbird flowers to your garden - or to a container to two on your deck or patio - and see how many hummingbirds you can bring in. 

4.  Add a hummingbird feeder.
From the ruby-throated hummingbird on the East Coast to the many species in Texas, the Southwest, and the West Coast, it's easy to attract these flying jewels to your yard if you set up a nectar feeder.  You can buy ones ranging from standard plasic feeders to handcrafted glass and ceramic versions, or make your own from recycled soda bottles

5.  Set out some fruit.
Half an orange, apple slices, a piece of melon, an overripe peach, a handful of berries - birds love fruit as much as we do.  Set some out on a plate (a plastic plate or even a piece of cardboard is fine) and watch the birds and butterflies come over for dessert!  You can also attract orioles by hanging half an orange from an oriole or fruit feeder, readily available in bird specialty stores.  (Some feeders even come with cups for jelly as well as hooks for fruit!).  Or make your own: Pierce the rind of an orange half by running a skewer through the fruit parallel to the cut side.  Then make a hanger from a length of twine, knotting it securely on each end of the skewer.  Hang the skewered fruit from a branch or hook.

National Bird Feeding Month.

Bird feeding leads to bird conservation.

Quirks of the backyard bird.

Put a little life in your lawn.

February 16, 2011

Quirks of the Backyard Bird

When you're feeding your birds this month, and the rest of the year, here are some fascinating and interesting things to look for.  These are some of the birds in my backyard that are on the National Bird-Feeding Society's "America's Top Ten Backyard Birds."

American Goldfinch
The plumage gradually brightens from late winter to late summer.  Watch for it to turn bright yellow. 

Black-capped Chickadee
Put some natural objects near your bird feeders, such as strips of bark, plant galls, unusual seeds, nuts, or berries.  Watch what the chickadees do.  They'll actively examine, investigate, and probe the objects.  Also watch for chickadees feeding upside down to reach insects and their larvae. 

Downy Woodpecker
Listen closely to find out where the Downy Woodpecker's hammering is coming from.  Look high in trees and search the dead parts to see the downy's small form, parallel to the tree trunk. 

Northern Cardinal
Male cardinals often tap fiercely at windows of houses.  They see their reflection and think it's a competitor.  If it's annoying, try soaping the window until the males get busy with hatched young. 

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
In spring and summer, watch for the "pendulum display" of the male Ruby-throat: He flies back and forth in a long arc of about 50 feet, like a clock pendulum, while the female sits and watches. 

White-breasted Nuthatch
This famous upside-down bird is a little acrobat and a familiar sight around backyard feeders.  Look at the size of a nuthatch's feet.  They're larger for their bodies than the average bird's feet.  They help with hopping and clinging to the underside of branches and limbs. 

Find out what other interesting things your backyard birds are up to.

Happy Bird-Feeding and Watching!

February 10, 2011

National Bird Feeding Month

"Feed the birds, tuppence a bag."

February is National Bird Feeding Month.

This national event was created by the National Bird Feeding Society to advance and publicize the wild bird feeding and watching hobby.  There's a new theme each year.  The 2011 theme is "Most Wanted - Americas Top Ten Backyard Birds." 

Ok, so you're not being asked to hang out with Mary Poppins and spend your tuppence on increasing the pigeon population in downtown London.  (Though that does sound pretty awesome!)  But I am encouraging you to pick up bird-feeding as a new hobby this month.  I know you're busy, but this is minimum effort and maximum delight and pay-off. 

Why February?

February has been identified as one of the most difficult months for wild birds in the US.  During this month, individuals are encouraged to provide food, water, and shelter to help wild birds survive.  This assistance benefits the environment by supplementing wild bird's natural diet of weed seeds and insects. 

I thought all birds went south for the winter.

Most, but not all, birds migrate south for the winter.  And when they do, you could possibly live in their southern territory.  Take the herring gull, for example.  It's year-round range is Canada, and it can be seen migrating only as far as the Alaskan coastline for winter.  And the Purple Finch is known to spend it's winters in Minneapolis and Buffalo. 

Here's the percentage of the world's birds that are endangered:

76% = Birds that are not threatened, reasonably safe, stable.
16% = Proven to be endangered or threatened, vulnerable
8% = Critical or entirely dependent on conservation.

The well-being of one species, no matter how small, can have a significant impact on the well-being of many others.  It makes good global sense to pay attention to how birds are thriving, both close to home and around the world. 
So, what's causing the problem?

One hundred years ago, the main threats to birds in the United States were over-hunting and clearing of forests. Now habitat loss is the main reason bird species are endangered.  States like Massachusetts, once cleared for farms, are now mostly forested.  The remaining farmland is being sold for house construction as the population spreads out.  Because of these trends, many grassland birds - species that require fields, meadows, and other grassy places - are endangered in Massachusetts and other eastern states. 

And habitat isn't being lost only in North America.  Birds that migrate to the south face habitat loss on their wintering grounds.  Migrating birds need forests and other habitats in Central and South America, which are disappearing at a rapid rate. 

Birds and Biodiversity

There are between 9500 and 10,000 species of birds worldwide.  Why is it important that there are so many bird species in the world?  Does it really matter?  Will it change your bird-watching experience? 

The Big Picture

If you're like me, you care about nature and want to understand how the many species on earth depend on each other.  We're concerned about maintaining biodiversity, the dazzling variety of life on earth.  That variety includes all species and habitats combined, and every little piece is a priceless part of the whole picture.  As human activities destroy habitat and change climate, some of the earth's species may be lost before we even discover that they exist.  And when a species is lost, near you or far away, other species can be affected.

The Power of One

But what can a single person do to help preserve biodiversity? 

More than you think!  Even one person feeding, studying, enjoying, and understanding just one species can make a difference.  Feeding the birds around you will make you a better citizen of the earth, and a better friend to all life. 

"Early each day to the steps of St. Paul's,
the little old bird woman comes...
In her own special way to the people she calls,
come buy my bags full of crumbs.
Come feed the little birds, show them you care,
and you'll be glad if you do.
Their young ones are hungry, their nests are so bare;
all it takes is tuppence from you.
Feed the birds, tuppence a bag.
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag.
Feed the birds, that's what she cries,
while overhead her birds fill the skies.
All around the cathedral the saints and apostles look down as she sells her wares.
Although you can't see it, you know they are smiling each time someone shows that he cares.
Though her words are simple and few,
listen, listen, she's calling to you.
Feed the birds, tuppence a bag.
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag.
Though her words are simple and few,
listen, listen, she's calling to you.
Feed the birds, tuppence a bag.
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag."

- "Mary Poppins."

February 9, 2011



Animals huddle, shiver, or withdraw into near-death sleep to survive the year's lowest temperatures.

Snow covers half the land.

Lengthening light liquifies ice.

Just a reminder of how beautiful February can be. 


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