Monday, March 26, 2012

Starlings are Stars - at Survival

Starlings are Stars – at Survival

According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, “European Starlings were released into New York’s Central Park in 1890 by a small group of people with a passion to introduce all of the animals mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare.” The original specimens took off, literally, until now the birds number in the millions and have established themselves across North America and Canada. A good story of survival and flourishing. Yet it is also a story of problems for homeowners, farmers, and other birds.

These prolific birds are not shy. Starlings nest in cavities so they sometimes get into dryer vents or attics, utility poles or cracks in buildings. They might even take over nest boxes and co-opt nests from native birds.

Starlings are aggressive about food, as well. They may prefer insects but they will eat fruits, seeds, plantings, and are sometime found rooting in garbage pails. They are a problem to farmers, especially as they can show up by the hundreds in freshly planted fields and feast on cultivated fruits – grapes, peaches, cherries, etc. – and may eat sprouting grains. They sometimes even damage golf greens digging for grubs.

To add to the negative profile, these birds are not neat. Their droppings are acidic and can corrode metal plus they carry disease spores that can be transmitted to livestock and occasionally to humans.

So although they are pretty birds, especially in the winter with their speckled feathers, and as they tend to flock with grackles and can deplete feeders rapidly, it might be a good idea to discourage starlings from your backyard. Here is a humane and practical way to do it without driving away the birds you prefer to have visit:

And here is some further info about Starlings:

Monday, March 19, 2012

Worms Deserve Respect

Worms Deserve Respect

Since the weather has been so balmy recently, I decided to get my hands dirty and start cleaning up the garden. I pulled up a clump of dried weeds from underneath the butterfly bush and exposed a host of earthworms. They immediately squiggled for cover; they don’t care for light and they don’t want their skin to dry out. Each time I dug into the earth more of them appeared. It seems to be a banner year for worms.

When I was a kid the boys used to try to scare girls by dangling worms in front of us. The frequent, and expected, response was, “Ewww!” As a mom, I tried to help my own children see the value of worms, without the ewww factor.

Worms aerate the soil. They dig down and churn up the subsoil, allowing air and water to penetrate, a valuable asset especially for any garden with marl or clay. Their droppings, known as castings, contain nutrients that enrich the soil and consequently the plants that are grown there.

And worms are great recyclers. Redworms are industrious creatures. Vermicomposting is becoming more widespread. Why not use worms to eat our garbage and transform it into usable addition to our gardens? It’s a win-win situation.

How intriguing, the variety of life forms – the interaction, support, and sometimes challenge among us. We share this earth, after all. Worms deserve our respect.

Be a kid again with some simple facts about worms:

Meet Mary, the Worm Woman and learn how to make your own worm bin:

Get serious about worms:

Monday, March 12, 2012

Oh Dear, Deer

The forest looks barren and lonely in winter. Its trees still hold onto the dried, brown leaves, a memory of more verdant seasons. The wind rustles the crisp foliage in a visual image that would be a good set for a sub-titled noir film. The scene is deceptive, however. Hidden behind the dreariness is new growth, buds emerging from branches with their green promises. And somewhere within the plot and between the trees is new life. Deer are concealed there, beautiful, limber creatures that bound through the self-made paths. If this were a protected and enclosed environment it would be delightful to watch them. But deer cause problems.

This is the suburbs, after all, where houses border the rare patches of undeveloped land and cars zip by even on 25 MPH designated roadways. There is no protection here and deer often emerge at unexpected times, springing across the road into the middle of traffic. If they are lucky, the cars will stop but that isn’t always the case. I saw a dead deer among the edge grasses two weeks ago; my sister saw one this week. Then there was the time when three tiny deer sprinted in front of my car. They were young and small; they almost looked like large dogs. I pressed hard on my brakes and put on my flashers to alert the cars behind. The deer made it safely across into the woods – this time - though it might have ended differently. The number of deer-vehicle accidents is in the thousands across the United States; cars, motorists, and deer are not always compatible.

Suburbs in general, however, and deer, are. The animals prefer the edge of the forest to deep woods so these sparse woodlands are ideal. In developing the land, we have removed the deer’s predators so the deer population has ballooned. Ask landscapers and gardeners how they feel about deer and the response may be less than joyful. Deer damage trees, eat crops, destroy flower gardens. Overpopulation is not controllable by hunting in populated areas. Fences and repellents have varying degrees of success in keeping deer away. And deer are hosts to ticks that transmit Lyme Disease.

It is a shame that people and deer cannot exist more comfortably together. I would rather think Oh! Deer! with a sense of wonder in the sighting than Oh, dear! when I see one on the road. Here is an article about the white-tailed deer, the good, the bad, and the problematic, from the Cornell Cooperative Extension program:

Have you had any deer encounters?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Robins are Ready for Anything

Robins are Ready for Anything

The robins are here, a visual announcement of spring’s imminent arrival (a more natural indication than Punxutawney Phil’s famous predictions). It is a treat to see them. Several have been hanging out in my backyard for a couple of weeks now. The birds I’ve been watching are having gourmet meals, feasting on the now-plentiful worms in the warm ground. They are patient, standing in one place and turning their heads to better view the field. Before long they jab their beaks into the dirt and emerge with a wiggly prize. Very efficient hunters.

But there is more to American Robins than just their familiar red breast feathers. These large members of the thrush family are flexible birds. They live in a wide range of habitats, in many different environments: in backyards, parks, marshes, fields, wooded areas, and even in the tundra. They are flexible eaters, too. In the warm weather they mostly eat worms and insects, but when it turns cooler or those aren't available they change their diet and eat berries and other fruit. Sometimes they eat seeds from shrubs or trees though they are not bird feeder frequenters. Robins tend to migrate but are not fixated on a date. Their departure depends more on the availability of food than of the time of year or the weather. Some robins stay put and don’t migrate at all.

I think that this flexibility has helped the robin to be more plentiful now than when the colonists came. The newcomers found a wooded land in the east, which they proceeded to thin out for dwellings and heat, exposing the land. The robins adapted - there were worms a-plenty! And in the mid-west where forests were sparse, the colonists planted trees, giving robins places to nest and breed.

In our changing world, as the weather shifts, technologies change, and cultures merge, we could use some robin-flexibility. We need to be able to work with the new circumstances and use them to our benefit to thrive. Robins are good examples.

Answers to questions you have always wanted to ask about robins:

And more about the American Robin: