Thursday, September 3, 2015

Forget the Blue Spruce, Go with a Midwestern Evergreen

I encountered something strange recently. Folks had homes built in a fairly typical mixed Oak, Pine forest in Wisconsin. They had removed most of the trees to put in turf grass, and then replaced the Pines and Oaks with Colorado Blue Spruce. I haven't quite wrapped my mind around bringing the suburbs to the wilderness, but here's a thought for Midwestern homeowners: forget the Blue Spruce and plant something that would naturally occur locally in your yard.

The Colorado Blue Spruce is a very popular conifer. They have vibrant color, and spruces planted together make excellent wind blocks. However, their native range is a corridor of the American West, and Blue Spruce has little ecological value in the Midwest. It's even become somewhat invasive in places where it's grown for Christmas trees, having escaped some plantations in the Northeast.

There are a number of evergreens native to the Midwest which are commercially available including: Eastern White Pine, White Spruce (sub species - Black Hills Spruce), and Eastern Red Cedar which should be considered in place of planting Blue Spruce.

All plants bring some value to our yards; that's why we plant them. In some cases, it's aesthetic like color or texture, in other cases it's functional like shade or barriers for privacy. All of the plants in our lawns also have some ecological value and function, some more, some less. All of these evergreens will establish roots that will help with water infiltration, and all provide cover for wildlife including nesting birds.

Eastern White Pines can be found in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, and northern parts of Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana. These Pines have good wildlife value and are a food source for both birds and mammals. Pine Warblers, Crossbills, and Pine Siskins, Chickadees, Nuthatches, and Woodpeckers can all be found foraging in Eastern White Pines. White Pines have low salt tolerance and are not necessarily good candidates to plant along roadsides.

White Spruce (subspecies Black Hills Spruce may be easier to find commercially available) is native to the northern part of the Midwest including parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. White Spruce is an important food source for many animals including Red Breasted Nuthatches, Evening Grosbeaks, and Pine Siskins. White Spruce is also an important part of the Red Squirrel diet, and Snowshoe Hares rely on White Spruce as a winter food source. White Spruce is a salt tolerant species and can be planted along roadsides.

Red Cedars procedure "berries" which a host of birds eat, most notably Cedar Waxwings. These berries can be an important food source in late winter or early spring especially for birds like Robins who may arrive to find colder than expected conditions. It is also a fairly salt tolerant species so it can be planted along roadsides.

When next you decide to plant an evergreen, consider one of these three before you purchase the Blue Spruce.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Feeding Hummingbirds the Natural Way in Wisconsin

In Wisconsin the only hummingbird one is likely to encounter is the Ruby Throated. In order to foster encounters with these tiny birds people often opt for hanging a hummingbird feeder, perhaps not realizing that their own lawn can be an effective all natural food source.

Amongst our variety of native plants, three plants grow which were explicitly planted for the hummingbirds.


Bee Balm

Cardinal Flower

The tiny birds show interest in other flowers, but they focus on these for a few reasons. Firstly each of these flowers (in our yard) is red (Note: We have red and pink Bee Balm). Just like the feeders and feed are red, hummingbirds really key in on the color red. Each of these flowers bloom at a different times of the year as well, in this order:

  • Columbine will open in May; they are one of the first to open in our yard every year.
  • Bee Balm blooms through most of the summer. It gets going around the time the Columbine is slowing down.
  • Cardinal flower blooms later in summer and with some luck will still have flowers in September.
  • By planting this combination of plants, the yard is pretty well set to provide a meal for hummingbirds for most of the duration of their stay. These flowers are all pretty easy to grow, and both Columbine and Cardinal flower will do well with some shade. In fact, my Columbines just get morning sun light, they spend much of their time in the shade. My Cardinal Flowers which are exposed to truly full sun seem to struggle a bit more than their neighbors which get some some shade.

    Bee Balm can be found in a few different colors. We have red and a pink color which is similar to the color of Wild Bergamont another member of the Monarda genus which is also good for attracting hummingbirds.

    Throughout the summer we have regular hummingbird visitors in the yard. We've even had some aerial combat this year. Planting for hummingbirds is pretty easy and adds splashes of vibrant colors to your lawn.

    Tuesday, September 1, 2015

    Backyard Apex Predators

    Take a minute to think about the wildlife which lives in your backyard. What comes to mind?

  • Eastern Cottontail Rabbits
  • Eastern Gray Squirrels (Maybe Fox or Red Squirrels)
  • Finches and Sparrows
  • Maybe some insects like ants or crickets.
  • Have you ever wondered about the food web of your yard? Or as Disney put it, "The Circle of Life"?

    To put it more plainly, who is eating who in your backyard?

    Who is at the top of the food web in your yard?

  • Neighborhood cats
  • Hawks or Owls
  • Foxes
  • Raccoons
  • Let's get one thing out of the way. Cats. Cats can be beneficial animals to have around, for example, on a farm to help control rodent populations. There is a neighborhood cat who frequently hunts in my yard, from watching him he's mostly interested in rodents and lagomorphs and other small mammals. The house cat is an introduced apex predator. This post is not going to address the environmental the complications of house cats on the ecology of a landscape; it is merely sufficient to say that cats are often our apex predators.

    Many of the other animals near the top of the food chain are birds. Coyotes, foxes, and raccoons certainly make their way into towns, and you may even have some in your yard. However to of the most common backyard predators are hawks. Red Tailed and Coopers Hawks seem to do rather well where there are people.

    Two Red Tailed Hawks hatched in our neighborhood this summer and spent a fair amount of time pursuing local rodents and stalking my bird feeders. While Red Tails are truly small mammal specialists, they are also well known opportunistic generalists. They attempted a number of occasions with more or less success to hunt birds in the yard.

    The Red Tails were never terribly successful at taking down other birds, but the Coopers Hawk with its smaller build and longer tail proved once again to be an effective Morning Dove hunter.

    When your yard is able to sustain more forms of life, the local food web becomes more apparent. Even if I had no bird feeders stocked full of seeds, the network remains intact. Our yard is now home to around 30 different species of native plant, many of which attract insects either as larva or later when nectar or fruits are available. In response, birds like House Wrens, or this evening, a Common Yellowthroat spend time amongst the plants eating the insects. If they are lucky they remain top of the food chain but of course a larger predator like a Coopers Hawk may prey on the birds.

    We don't often think of birds like Robins as being the top of the food chain but in many cases they might be. It is also important for us to keep in mind that if we are planting natives to attract butterflies and songbirds, we must also be prepared to accept the rest of the food chain. While the butterflies are beautiful they may be eaten, just as the songbirds may be silenced. We ought to consider the return of apex predators like hawks and owls a success and be confident in knowing that if our yard is healthy then its biodiversity with support all kinds of life even predatory kind.

    Monday, August 31, 2015

    Bluebird Summer 2015

    4 years ago when I started planting native flowers and shrubs, I also mounted my first bluebird nest box. I was told that the chance of getting bluebirds to nest in town were slim. In the first year, Black Capped Chickadees established themselves before a male Eastern Bluebird came to inspect the lone house. My neighbor commented that he'd never seen Bluebirds in town before. This brief visit gave me hope that such a thing could be done; it was quite the wait, but this summer it was worth it.

    During the second summer, I picked up a couple of extra nest boxes, one for Bluebirds, one for Wrens. The Chickadees established themselves in the original box only to be pushed out by some House Wrens, who successfully fledged three and then moved on apparently to my neighbor's bird house. By the end of the second summer we had 2 Bluebird houses and 1 Wren house which had produced three Black Capped Chickadee chicks and three House Wren chicks but no Bluebirds.

    The third saw Tree Swallows come to inspect but no birds took up residence in our nest boxes, but the Wren house was lost due to wasp infestation. Noting that the house was very near the rear entrance of our home, and we had other wasp related infestations that year including yellow jackets in our basement.

    Down to two boxes, I went about my wait this spring. Through April, I destroyed every attempt the House Sparrows made to use my nest boxes and eventually they settled in the house they use every year in my neighbor's garden. This actually worked somewhat well in that they did a good job scaring off other House Sparrows who came to close. May rolled around, and I was worried that like the previous year we wouldn't have any nests. In the last week of May, Mama and Papa Bluebird arrived and started building.

    They built nests in both boxes and used the older of the two boxes. 5 little blue eggs later, the weather got unusually cool and Mama Bluebird was regularly found elsewhere in the yard, not on the nest. We were the worried the eggs would not be viable. A week or so later, came out to find 5 little naked chicks in the box. All of which fledged.

    I cleaned out the bird house very shortly thereafter, closed it up, and waited. The babies and the parents had seemingly disappeared. We didn't see them in the yard for about two weeks. Then construction began again in earnest. This time they only built one nest, and we only ever saw 4 eggs.

    The really remarkable part was that some days, we'd spy the 2 adults and up to 3 of the juvenile birds from the previous nest. The juvenile birds spent a lot of time around the nest box and in our Black Chokeberry bush. They helped dive bomb Brown Headed Cowbirds and Blue Jays. It was really rewarding to watch them feed amongst the native plants we've established in our gardens.

    A few weeks ago now, I took a day trip with my daughter. When we returned that evening, gray Bluebirds were falling somewhat gracefully from the bird house and into the Black Chokeberry. From the kitchen we saw 2 eventually take off from the bush and into the neighbor's Maple. I insisted we go out to see them and opened the door, she bolted towards the Chokeberry while I grabbed a camera. By the time, I was out the door, she was next to the bush and baby #3 was mid flight into the neighbor's tree. We sat on the deck waiting for baby #4, he only peered out of the box. It got dark. We went to bed.

    By the late morning the next day, the box was empty.

    We didn't see any Bluebirds, no Mama or Papa, no babies.

    Last night, the House Finches and Mourning Doves fed at our feeders in a frenzy. A small gray bird jumped out of an Eastern Red Bud and landed in the grass and hopped about chasing some moths. Then another gray bird appeared. When the flew up to a nearby cable wire, their blue streaks gave them away. They were bluebirds. Before it got dark, the most I had counted seeing on the wire was 4, and I am certain I heard calls of others. I can't be certain it was our babies but I'd like believe it was.