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So you live in the City

Nothing wild lives in the city. Or at least nothing bigger or more exciting than the occasional rat. This is the common perception among most people I talk to. On the surface it appears to be true. Many neighborhoods appear, at first glance, to be asphalt and brick. What green there is are small patches of ill tended yard. Cities are blighted places.

The truth of the matter is more complex. There are many areas so blighted but most parts of most cities have a diverse and hidden wildlife populations. There is more green than you would think. Wild things can make a fine living in the canyons and green patches of large cities. It is just not seen.

Wildlife makes its living by not being seen. It is of evolutionary advantage if you are able to travel on the down low. This is why so little wildlife is seen. Common urban critters include foxes, squirrels, a greater assortment of birds than most people would credit. There are of course the ever-present pigeons, house sparrows and starlings but if you look beyond those you will find a variety of tiny birds who specialize in a diet of insects. Along water courses there will be waterfowl from mallards to gadwalls and geese. There will be tiny waders like killdeer and large waders like herons. Living here will also be muskrats and, in some cases beaver.

The key to urban wildlife is knowing when and where to look. The best time for seeking these critters is at the transition times between dusk and full light on either end of the day. This is the changing of the shifts from night to-day and day to-night and the busiest time of the day.

Rise early and take a walk. Leave the iPod at home. Watch for movement out of the corner of your eyes. Walk quietly but not sneakily. A smooth, silent walk looks like an animal going about its business. A sneaky walk looks like a predator on the hunt. Keep your ears open. Listen for the sounds of the chitter of the birds. Listen for animals talking back and forth to each other. Yes, you will hear the caterwauling of the alley cats challenging each other and the dogs barking. But, if you listen closely you may also hear the yip of the foxes talking to each other or the coyotes calling out position for the hunt or the end of the night and time for home.

Cities are more alive with wild things than they appear at first glance. Take the time to walk around where you live and if you keep your eyes open you will see your hidden neighbors.


Saving Butterflies

Two articles from Science Daily inspired me to focus on butterflies this week. Article on focused on the difficult winter that Monarch butterflies faced in their wintering grounds in Mexico, this year. The weather was cold and wet. This, along with habitat destruction threatened the overwintering butterflies. The second article focuses on creating butterfly oases to help their north/south migrations.

One of the greatest threats to all wildlife is habitat destruction. The same forces that affect large wildlife affect the insects as well. Suburban sprawl, increased pesticide use to maintain that perfect monoculture lawn, along with loss of small farms and an increase in insect resistant crops is taking their tolls on insect populations.

The good news is that the suburban landscape is a the perfect place to build butterfly oases. Butterflies don’t need a lot. They need nectar bearing flowers. They need nursery plants on which to lay eggs. They need to be able to have a pesticide free life. That’s it. The reward we get for planting these oases is beautiful flowers, some with stems, some with wings. The other good news is that it is a great “connecting with children and nature activity”.

I’ll begin an intermittent series on butterfly gardens with a focus on Monarchs. Monarchs butterflies feed on the nectar from a variety of plants like zinnia, lantana and milkweed. The nursery plant for the monarch is the milkweed. Butterflies lay a single egg on the underside of a leaf. When the egg hatches it will begin its life by eating the host plant. The sap of the milkweed plant gives the monarch butterfly protection in the form of a bitter toxin that birds and other animals learn quickly to avoid. In a few weeks the caterpillar will find a place to create its chrysalis so that it can complete the final stage of life before becoming an adult.

The babies that were hatched in my yard have grown and flown. I like to think that they will pass through again, this September, on their way back to their wintering grounds in Mexico. I look forward to the next crew. The milkweed and lantana in my yard are ready and waiting.

To find out more information about how to plant a butterfly oasis go to Monarch Watch ( You can receive a way station kit that will help you build the best habitat for your monarchs. The kits include seeds for milkweed and other nectar plants.

Migratory bird day is typically observed on the second saturday in May, that would have been yesterday. This is a convenient date for the North Americas because this is the height of the migration of birds to their breeding grounds. The event is now promoted by Environment for the Americas (link at the end of the post). According to their web site they have removed the month and date from their promotional events to focus on the year. Everyday is Bird Day, they say. This give people freedom to celebrate the birds at the time that it is most appropriate for their region allowing the event to become more international in its approach.

As I am writing this post, I am torn. There are so many issues facing migratory birds and it is tempting to focus on them. This year, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, happening at the height of the migration and the beginning of the breeding season for birds in the Gulf, is at the center of world-wide attention. Across the globe, Iraq is dealing with the drying of its wetlands putting great pressure on birds migrating north from Africa. I could make a post full of links that document pressures to bird from loss of habitat such as the Iraq article, or environmental disasters, such as the Gulf oil spill but I am not going to. At least not today. Use Google news search and you’ll find dozens.

I have decided instead to focus on what is good and positive and builds relationship rather than pity and, potentially, frustration. To celebrate “Every day is bird day” there are a number of things you can do. Let’s focus on food. As I said in an early post, a simple hopper style feeder is how I started. I was living in a second floor condo southwest of Denver. I bought a simple hopper feeder  and some inexpensive seed from one of the box pet supply stores and hung it from a hook on my entry porch. I was a hit with the house finches. One day I noticed a chickadee trying to eat from it. I went out and bought a chickadee feeder, some black oil sunflower seed, and hung another hook. I only got a few chickadees, the habitat was too barren for them, but a few of my house finches did learn how to eat like a chickadee, a source of great amusement. By the time I sold the condo I had moved up to good bird seed and a pole feeder that accommodated many feeders, all from Wild Birds Unlimited.

Now I live in the coastal bend area of south Texas and I am blessed with a beautiful mesquite in the front yard. The tree attracts a variety of birds and enables me to see birds that eat insects rather than seed. My current arrangement is several tube feeders, a hopper feeder, some hummingbird feeders and the scattering of seed on the ground for the ground feeders.

My primary guests, as of this writing are:

  • White Winged Doves ( I think I have every WWDV in the county)
  • Inca Doves
  • Mourning Doves
  • Eurasian Collared Doves (non-native)
  • English House Sparrows (non-native)
  • Pairs of nesting Northern Cardinals
  • Cowbirds
  • Golden Fronted Woodpeckers
  • Grackles: Common, Great Tailed and Boat Tailed.

These are the regulars to the diner.

This spring I have scen:

  • Dicksissel
  • Common Yellow Throat warbler
  • Summer Tanager female
  • Ruby Throated Hummingbirds
  • Black Chinned Hummingbirds
  • several Warbler species I couldn’t name
  • Wood Thrush
  • Ash Throated Flycatcher
  • Several species I couldn’t identify at all
  • Coopers Hawk

This may seem like a short list but this is what I have seen at my feeders or tree in spite of the fact that I leave for work, most days, before 7 am and miss the times when most birds are most active.

I have begun experimenting with seed and feeders to attract diversity and reduce pest species, like the White Wing Dove and Red Winged Blackbirds, that devour everything they see and keep other birds from the feeders.

Right now I am using:

  • millet sunflower blend that I am making (link for millet seed below) in the main hopper feeder and as scatter seed for ground feeders.
  • one tube feeder with safflower seed that I buy at the box pet store,
  • one with Scott’s brand colorful bird blend food (ditto on the source)
  • one with a fruit and nut mix for the cardinals and the woodpeckers. (see above)
  • a 4 door wire feeder for suet and seed block

I will let you know, as I learn, what birds favor what feeders. My current observation is that my regulars will eat at all of them if they eat at feeders at all. Migration seems a little thin this year. I am not seeing the variety that I have seen in the past.

In closing, I find birds fascinating to watch. Right now the White Winged Doves are holding a pool party in the bird baths. Make every day Bird day by setting up a feeder system to attract birds to your yard. Remember, not all birds are seed eaters. Additional birds will come to fruit and to insects. Most people start with seeds. I did and I am just now branching out. We can learn together.

What’s in your garden?


Environment for the Americas Bird Day site

Wild Birds Unlimited

Bird Seed Central

I recently read an article that was published in The Independent (linked at the end of this post). The author talks about the trend to reconnect children to nature. He also talks about the limits we place on kids connecting with nature. He calls it “the don’t touch culture”. As I read it, the author postulates that looking is all well and good but to really connect you need to touch as well. I have to admit, he has a point. I have been to dozens of “don’t touch” museums and after a time your eyes glaze over. You feel separated, a distant onlooker, from the thing you are viewing. It applies to historical sites, a friend talked about being able to touch some of the objects during a recent visit to the Anne Hathaway house in Stratford-on-Avon, it was evident from her words that touching things was a high point of the museum.

If the delight in touching inanimate objects at an historical site exists, it exists in at least equal measure for living things in nature. I spent most of my youth outside and I picked, poked and prodded everything I came across. I totally agree that kids need to engage with nature using every sense imaginable. In the closing paragraph the author extols us to: “pick the common wayside flowers, gather wild nuts, berries and mushrooms for the pot, and take home interesting bits of dead wood or fossils. We could capture caterpillars and tadpoles, build wigwams out of fallen wood, and play games with elder stems or plantain guns. The wildlife can take it. And we would become freer, happier, and in the long run, more aware of the plight of nature and ourselves in a perilous and rapidly changing world.” I agree, we would be freer and happier in the long run.

The thing is, I don’t think the wildlife can take it.

Many of them need those mushrooms, berries and nuts for food, the bits of wood for shelter and the peace to be left alone to get on with their lives. With a world population of 6.7 billion people (up from the 3.6 billion in 1970, the year I started high school), we can’t all explore hands on, taking things with us, and have anything left to love. We will have loved nature to death doing that.

Further more, in the last 40 some years the way we do things has changed greatly. Small family farms have given way to large, commercial operations that maximize productivity at the expense of diversity and the health of the local environment. The focus of modern farming is the large, single crop plot. Often these crops, hybridized for the most yield, are vulnerable to pests and disease which is is countered by heavy uses of chemicals. Habitats are ever more fractured by intensive farming, increased building and roads. Some wild life will do well in the presence of people, foxes are an example. Others will not and, when their habitats become too fractured will cease to breed because they do not have enough territory to support themselves and their off spring.

So. What is the answer to this dilemma? I believe strongly that children need unstructured, unsupervised play that encourages curiosity and hands on exploration. I believe that we live in an over crowded, over developed world that is putting ever more stress on the other creatures that share our ecosystem. I have to believe, even though I don’t yet have the whole answer, that these two things are not irreconcilable. What about you?

The Independant: Getting close to nature: It’s time to grasp the nettle


This past week I did an exploration lab with my biology students. Over the course of the year, I had observed that their observation skills were sorely lacking so I wanted to give them practice observing things.

The lab was simple enough. Since we were concluding a unit on plants, I set up six stations with various parts of plants for the students to examine, take notes on, and eventually develop a simple report. I had one primary objective and two secondary objectives. The primary objective was for students to learn how to make a detailed observation about something. The secondary objectives were for the students to look at different kinds of plant parts as a follow up to learning about the monocots and dicots. For the non-science geeks, a monocot is science speak for a plant that germinates with a single seed leaf, like corn or grass. A dicot is a plant that germinates with two seed leaves, like a bean, almost all flowers, and most trees.

I created 6 stations that related to either monocots or dicots and one station that compared the seeds of monocots to the seeds of dicots. The students went to each station made two observations, one connection and one drawing at each station. Because this was the first time I had them do this kind of thing, I did not make them describe, draw and make sense of the function of each sample. The lab lasted three days.

Day one, I gave them the general overview of the expectations and let them go to town.

Day two, I reviewed the nature of the observations that they made and helped them self critique. I got observations, about flowers for example, like it is multicolored. I pushed them to be more descriptive. What colors? Where are the colors? How are the colors arranged? And similar questions. I asked them to explore the texture, the shapes, the surface features and so on and I sent them back around the stations. Some kids sat down when they reached the station where they had begun, saying they were done. I prodded to get them back and look again. Some did.  I sent all the students home with the assignment to begin to put their data into a neat, organized, presentable form.

Day three, I did a quick review of some of their observations, which had improved. Then I talked about what I meant by “make a connection”. For example, what do you think the purpose of some structure on the plant might be. Another example is that this structure reminds me of____________. One girl observed that a juniper twig reminded her of a Christmas tree when she crushed it. I asked her to consider what that could say about junipers and Christmas trees. Finally, I gave them a format for what needed to be included in every final report of their observational data, went through a non-plant example of a simple observation might look like and told them to write up their final observations. I left the stations up so they could return to them if they wanted to refine their observations. Many did.

Tomorrow, I’ll have the chance to begin reviewing the work. But, based on my observations of the kids at work, I think it was a good beginning. I wish I had more time between now and the end of the school year because I would like to do this kind of thing again. I think it helped the students learn to look at things critically and to take more charge of their learning. I think the kids enjoyed the activity and I think, because I had not told them what to look for, it gave them the opportunity to be look at what they found interesting.

I’ll let you all know.