Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat: Attract Birds With Homemade Treat Cakes

birdwatching cats

Birdwatching Cats

Among the requirements for my Backyard Wildlife Habitat, I provide food and shelter for native wild bird species all year round because aside from being fun to watch, they are an important insect guard in my vegetable garden.

Red-bellied woodpecker

The red-bellied woodpecker turns to look at me and my cats.

In winter, however, I am compelled to put feeders up everywhere I can hang one, and at least one seed feeder is visible from each window in the house as well as suet feeders, ear corn and water. Not only does it give the birds a safe place to eat, drink and be merry, it gives my cats something to do and it gives my eyes a break while I slave at the computer all day into the night.

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Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat: Fall Cleanup, Bird Feeding and Fleas

birds at the feeder

The feeder in autumn

So what do these three topics have in common? It’s time to start cleaning up the excess in the yard, raking leaves and giving the grass that last cut of the season, and time to put out the winter feeders as the migrants settle into your area. By taking care of a few extra details with the first two, you can manage the third, fleas, much more easily through the dormant season and into next year. Don’t be fooled after that first frosty morning when all fleas seem to be gone—there may be no more adult fleas, but there are plenty of eggs tucked all over your yard just waiting for spring.

Where Do Fleas Come From?

Fleas begin in the great outdoors, even in the nicest yard, and don’t think that simply because you don’t let your pet outside, or it’s only outside for a short while, that fleas won’t find them. Fleas are tiny and can hop amazing distances to get to a warm body for their blood meal, they can ride in on your own body though they don’t generally feed on humans, and encountering another animal that has fleas either on a walk outdoors or even at the veterinarian’s office can infest your pet without it ever setting a paw in the back yard.

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Holiday Cards: Greetings From Our Backyard Birds

pastel painting of cardinal in branches

Accent, pastel © B.E. Kazmarski

These designs don’t involve cats, but they do show our backyard birds which many readers here at The Creative Cat enjoy.  I’ve posted an article about them on Portraits of Animals Marketplace.


Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat: What’s in Your Backyard?

This is the second in a series of articles about considering your backyard wildlife habitat.

photo of pink phlox

Tall Phlox © 2010 B.E. Kazmarski

You think planning your garden is fun? Wait until you start an inventory of what’s currently available for wildlife in your yard. You will be shocked at what you have already, and if you’re not too clear on native species now just the process of identification will show you at least your most common native plants and animals and you’ll feel like an expert.

Where and how you garden

If you are reading about a backyard wildlife habitat, then it’s probably safe to assume that you are already gardening, even if you live in an apartment or just have a patio.

I gardened for a while with a flower box on my apartment balcony railing, a half-barrel with tomatoes, peppers and basil, a bird feeder and a deep-dish pie pan for a birdbath. I also had a garden behind an apartment building where I wasn’t supposed to garden, and I don’t suggest you do that, but it just illustrates that gardening can be done anywhere there is soil, light and water—and determination—and birds, bees and butterflies will come.

Likewise, the habitat doesn’t need to be in your backyard, nor be confined to your backyard. Community gardens, parks and other public places are also habitats—native flora and fauna don’t recognize our boundaries. The public area may also have most or all of the requirements for a habitat, or with permission of the authority for the public area you may enhance it. Whatever your space, consider it your habitat for the purposes of inventory.

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Find Cookie in this Picture

cat in leaf litter

Find Cookie in this picture.

Yes, tortoiseshell cats blend perfectly into any landscape! I constantly lose Cookie as her speckles and patches are perfectly camouflaged by leaves and mulch and moving shapes of sun and shadow through the trees. I was watching her out of the corner of my eye as usual but suddenly she disappeared! She hadn’t—she just sat down for a little break. She’s going to have to suffer the indignity of a flourescent pink collar lest I suffer the misfortune of a heart attack if I can’t find her—in plain sight!

cat with sawdust

Cookie with sawdust on her head.

We pitiful humans need feline supervision no matter what we do, even if it’s something no kitty would ever stoop to endeavor such as tree trimming and lawn clean up. Cookie is a specialist in everything.

This area was always shady under the high branches of the trees, mostly my neighbors’  and I encouraged woodland plants to grow in the shade and undergrowth. About ten years ago a mulberry tree sprouted in the corner of the yard and spread over the area somewhat close to the ground, providing a little too much shade for some of the plants.

photo of mulberries

Mulberries on a Summer Morning

However, it provided the best mulberries I have ever, EVER, tasted, like big deep purple blackberries, sweet and juicy and just falling off the tree. Really, when the tree was ready to bear these farthest branches touched by the sun would lean down toward the earth so that I didn’t even need to use a ladder but could stand and readily harvest them. I always felt as if the tree was telling me, “Look, now, my berries are just right, come and harvest, and make your jelly and juice and wine and dye and extracts, use my berries for all they are worth because there is more than enough for you and all the birds and animals.”

I had been about to remove her because I loved my shade garden and so did all my cats, but with all that, who could resist?

But two years ago the ice storm pulled her down and partially uprooted her. I tried to prop her and encourage her to produce her berries, but it appears she is done. I’ve been trimming back and cutting sections with lopping shears and pruning saw but leaving the lovely arching branches that have held my bird feeders for the past decade. I am looking forward to the renewal of my shade garden; with the iron will of these wild flowers I’ve no doubt they will return on their own since trees grow and fall all the time in the woods.

bench in greenery

My old bench.

I’m looking forward to spending time on my bench again to read and sketch and think and watch the birds, and commune with my little kitty memorial spot which is behind but near there. Perhaps Cookie and I will sit out there some sunny late afternoon this autumn.

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All images and text used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used in any way without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in purchasing one as a print, or to use in a print or internet publication.


Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat: Start Planning Now

many flowered aster

Many Flowered Aster leaning over the picnic table.

Leaves are beginning to fall, migrating birds are settling in, my favorite wildflowers, the autumn asters, are blooming and I’m planning what I’ll grow and do in my yard next year.

Enjoying the experience of an mild autumn afternoon or helping the birds through a cold winter day is a pleasure as I share the awareness of life in this little piece of wilderness, here in Backyard Wildlife Habitat No. 35393.

Planning Ahead

If, like me, you keep a garden of flowers or vegetables or both, you’re probably already planning out your garden for 2012 . And if you feed birds summer or winter and have an awareness of other flora and fauna in your yard and area, you might want to work a plan for a backyard wildlife habitat into this year’s garden, or you might find that you’ve already got the important parts and you want to enhance or start expanding it.

Just What Is a Backyard Wildlife Habitat?

photo of yard in spring with bench under trees

The woodland garden in spring.

It’s not turning your yard into a weed patch, as I’ve heard some people worry. It’s simply providing for the needs of your native species of flora and fauna so that they can thrive and reproduce.

Basically, if you have a bird feeder and bird bath, you or your neighbors have a few mature trees of various species and some dense twiggy shrubs or evergreens and flowering plants in your yard, you are providing for the needs of many species. And you can even provide habitat if you live in an apartment; if you feed birds outside your apartment window and have hanging baskets of plants that attract hummingbirds, and your neighbor has trees with nesting opportunities for wildlife, you have created a habitat.

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How Long Did I Sleep?!

tortie cat on picnic table with leaves

Cookie awakens to find she's covered with leaves.

Wait a minute, I’m covered with leaves! I thought it was still summer!

How long did I sleep?!

And I’m how old?! No way!

tortie cat covered with leaves

Cookie confides the truth of the matter.

Don’t believe it. I’m just humoring my mom.

I laid down here in my favorite spot for a nice cozy nap and she thought it would be funny to toss leaves all over me and try to convince me I had slept for weeks, even years. Really, she was scouting all over the yard for yellow and orange leaves and giggling at how clever she was.

I know my mom, and you have to let her follow her flights of fancy when she gets an idea. Well, more correctly, you have to just get out of her way because there’s no way to stop her. I’ve spent plenty of long nights keeping her company!

And time? I can tell time, but she was born without an internal clock. Really, years could go by and she’d still think it was yesterday! So she’s more likely than me to wake up—from one of her creative fugues—and discover a season or a decade had gone by.

She won’t even let me off the deck without her, no way she’d let me sleep out here for that long!

She can’t fool me!

But the last time I looked all the leaves were green.

I’m not sure what to think.

And I’m not really 19, am I?

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All images and text used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used in any way without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in purchasing one as a print, or to use in a print or internet publication.


Living Green With Pets: Pumpkin, Pumpkin, Pumpkin!

black cat with pumpkins

Mewsette approves of these pumpkins.

Celebrating the Autumnal Equinox, get some fresh organic pumpkins now to process for your pets, snacks for yourself, and free bird seed for your feathered friends!

If you haven’t noticed, pumpkins are coming into season. In part it’s because they are elemental in our Halloween tradition, color, shape, jack-o’-lanterns and all, but reverse that and you’ll see they are part of our traditions at this time of the year because this is their season of abundance, and they are a most versatile and nutritious fruit.

Pumpkins actually originated in Central America where related seeds at least 5,000 years old have been found. Native Americans planted them as one of the “three sisters” of corn, pole beans and squash interplanted to support each other. Apparently, a good thing can’t be kept hidden because European explorers learned of them from Native Americans in North, Central and South America and took them back to their respective countries. They are grown all over the world, and in many cultures they are much more than a seasonal decoration but are a principle food source because of their ease of growth and high nutrition.

Pumpkin for your pets

carved pumpkin

Cat and Moon jack-o'-lantern

Speaking of pets first, pumpkin is highly recommended to keep on hand for bowel issues, namely constipation or diarrhea, especially in older pets. The fiber in pureed pumpkin flesh works the same way as a fiber product for human use, softening the stool and cleansing the colon in the case of constipation and helping bind loose stool by absorbing excess fluid and soothing inflamed intestines in the case of diarrhea, without the use of any drugs.

Add to this effect the level of nutrition delivered in a readily accessible form: it’s obviously bursting with beta carotene and also rich in vitamins A and C and in potassium. Pumpkin may not be a natural part of your pet’s diet, especially for carnivore kitties, but considering that the bowel conditions described above often result from an illness or chronic or acute disease, these particular nutrients in an easily digestible form can only help your pet.

pumpkins

Pumpkins at Market

And not only that, but cats and dogs often really like it since it’s not icky chemical-tasting medicine. And if they won’t lap up enough of it to make a difference you can always fill a syringe with the right amount and gently dose it right into their mouth.

The basic dose is about one teaspoon per 15 pounds, so most cats and very small dogs would get one teaspoon, larger cats and small to medium dogs would get two teaspoons, and dogs larger than 30 pounds would get three teaspoons or one tablespoon. Cats larger than 30 pounds need to lose some weight.

It’s safe enough to give every day, and if they don’t need it it certainly doesn’t do any harm.

You could get a can of pumpkin, or you could buy fresh, buy local and visit your local farmer’s market or farm stand and patronize a local grower, even finding one who uses completely organic methods.

Choosing your pumpkin

pumpkins

Large Variety

From the grocery store to the farmer’s market you’ll see all sizes of pumpkins from small and deep orange to large and warty and yellowish. The flesh of all the pumpkins you see have about the same amount of fiber and nutrients, with varying amounts of natural fruit sugar. Usually, the larger the pumpkin, the less sugar and the coarser the fiber.

The smaller pumpkins—not wee tiny but about the size of a small plastic play ball, around three pounds and 20 or so inches in circumference—are bred to be “pie pumpkins” with thick-walled sides, fine smooth flesh and more sugar that average. These are the most versatile since you can use them for pies and other baked goods and use them for your pets. Most sellers have these sorted separately and marked for pies, so don’t worry about taking a lot of gear to weigh and measure.

pumpkins

Medium-sized Pumpkins

The medium-sized pumpkins, like the ones you carve into jack-o’-lanterns, are usually field pumpkins and often fed to livestock. The flesh wall is a little thinner, the flesh itself a little coarser and lighter in color with usually about 75% as much sugar. They aren’t good for pies, but they work just fine for constipation.

The extra-large ones that are often seen in competitions aren’t good for much but gawking at where most of us are concerned, though they are also used for livestock feed. They are raised for size and weight, not nutrition, though they do have fiber and buckets of seeds inside.

pumpkins and gourds

Gourds Displayed in Bins at Market

Be careful of gourds, since there is a gourd that looks like a small pumpkin and some medium-sized ones that are nice to look at as well. Gourds are edible but you probably wouldn’t want to since as they mature they grow more bitter and simply don’t have any of the nutrition or fiber you’d find in pumpkin. Better to let them dry and varnish them for decoration and use as homemade maracas!

squashes

Winter Squashes

Consider other winter squashes in your search. Pumpkin really is a winter squash just like butternut or acorn, the two most commonly found in grocery stores or farmer’s markets, and all have about the same amount of fiber and nutritional value. Butternut and acorn have slightly thicker and harder skin, or rind as some call it, and this helps the squash keep raw in your refrigerator or a cold cellar through the winter. Pumpkin has a thinner, softer skin and generally will not keep for more than a month or two.

Preparing your pumpkin

For ease of instructions, I’ll figure you found an average-sized pie pumpkin about the size of the one Mr. Sunshine is investigating or the one in front of it or up on the stand. The fourth one works just fine but is smaller and will yield less puree.

black cat with pumpkin

Mr. Sunshine inspects the pumpkins

Mr. Sunshine’s pumpkin, meant for pies, has flesh about 1” thick or more, weighs about three pounds and measures about 20” in circumference. It feels solid when you pick it up and when you knock on it (not too hard, please).

A pumpkin this size will yield about two cups of pureed pumpkin by either method below.

I roast my pumpkins just like roasted butternut or acorn squash because it takes less time, it’s much neater, it slowly evaporates the extra moisture but leaves enough to make a puree that generally doesn’t separate when used for cooking, and it carmelizes the sugars, which is better for pies than for your cat, but still not bad for them.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, cut your pumpkin in half from top to bottom, pull off the stem and toss on the floor for a cat toy, scoop out the seeds and keep in a bowl (directions for those later). Place the two halves of the pumpkin in a shallow pan with about ¼-cup of water, cover with foil, roast for at least one hour. It’s done when it’s tender by poking with a sharp knife. Let cool, peel, cut into chunks and mash or puree in food processor.

cat jack o lantern

Another Jack O Lantern

Stewing works just fine but you need to have several hours to watch over and stir your pumpkin as it cooks down; when it cooks down to a puree it can spatter, and hot flying pumpkin puree is not fun to deal with, though this is the centuries old method for pumpkin pie filling.

Halve and quarter your pumpkin from top to bottom, scoop out the seeds and keep in a bowl. Peel the skin and cut the flesh into 1” chunks, place in heavy pot and add about one cup of water. Set on medium heat, cover, and check about every 15 minutes to stir the chunks and see how they are softening, mashing as they do. When they are all pretty much mashed remove the lid and cook for about an hour to allow the moisture to evaporate. When completely cooked, let cool.

Storing your pumpkin

For your pet’s use, scoop tablespoons of the puree into the sections of an ice cube tray. You can remove the cubes one at a time to thaw and know how many doses you have for the pet in question.

For larger amounts, freeze by the cupful in plastic containers. A 9” pumpkin pie takes about two cups of pumpkin with other ingredients added.

pumpkins with kittens

Kittens and pumpkins

Using other pumpkins

These kittens at my local Agway are modeling slightly larger pumpkins than pie types but not quite jack-o’-lantern sized. With these, you’d simply do the same procedure, but if roasting cut it into smaller pieces.

How about a snack for you? Pumpkin seeds!

Who doesn’t remember the boxes of white pumpkin seeds that were so salty they made you pucker just to smell them? I loved them anyway, and when I found a way to roast my own without all the extra salt I began making a jar of them every year. The nutmeat is very sweet and nutritious, and by the name of pepitos it is included in some recipes. Here you soak the seeds in strong salt water, which helps to soften the shell but just leaves enough salty flavor that doesn’t overpower the nutty flavor.

Rinse the seeds and remove as much of the muck they are stuck to as possible. To a bowl that will hold about twice as much in seeds as you have add a quart of water and ¼-cup of salt. Stir to dissolve; the water can be warm, but not hot. Add the seeds and let soak for 30 minutes to an hour, drain off the liquid. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees, lightly oil a cookie sheet and place the seeds in a single layer, bake for 20 minutes, stir, bake for 20 minutes more. Let seeds cool. Store in tightly closed jar.

cat jack o lantern

Another Cat Face Jack O Lantern

And free bird seed!

Birds LOVE pumpkin seeds and the seeds from any squash or melon. I read about this in one of my birding magazines and tried it with squash seeds I’d saved, placing a quarter cup at a time in the trays of several feeders. There was a sudden bird riot and the squash seeds were gone in minutes.

To prepare clean and soak the seeds 30 minutes in salt water deep enough to cover to soften the seed coating, drain. Roast as outlined above, store for mid winter. You can just let them dry, but it’s difficult to tell they are completely dry so it’s safest to turn on the oven.

And next year…consider growing a few!

Big Cats love pumpkins!

Who would think big cats would play like kittens–with pumpkins! Pretty big pumpkins, swatting them like bizzy balls and chasing them in the water like beach balls! Each year Big Cat Rescue is lucky enough to receive left over pumpkins from stores after Halloween. Pumpkins are a great source of enrichment for the cats, as well as a great source of entertainment for the staff and volunteers at Big Cat Rescue. Watch this video on YouTube: BIG CAT HALLOWEEN!

Other articles about “Living Green With Pets”
Living Green With Pets: Clean and Green
Living Green With Pets: Put Bird Feeders Out Now for Migrants
What Could be Greener, or….Redder?
As Natural As Possible: Outdoor Flea Control

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All images and text used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used in any way without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in purchasing one as a print, or to use in a print or internet publication.


Living Green With Pets: Put Bird Feeders Out Now for Migrants

two black cats watching birds

Birdwatching

Birds are migrating right now, and while most people feed birds through the winter it’s not a bad idea to start a little early while they are migrating. They’ll appreciate the pit stop to be able to pack in more fat and calories, have a bath and a good long drink! Plus, a certain number will decide to stop and stay with you for the winter.

photo of cardinal in grass

Our silly cardinal

I feed birds year-round, and I always credit them with keeping vegetable and flower pests under control, especially fleas. I know they also peck around through the grass eating fleas. Those starlings and grackles who march around on your lawn? They’ll happily eat fleas. Robins in the spring? Fleas don’t stand a chance. Songbirds that eat insects? Fleas are a natural part of their diet.

woodpecker and wren at feeder

Ms. Wren had better watch her step

So put out your feeders early, while the migrants are arriving and food is still plentiful so they’ll settle in more readily, using as much black oil sunflower seed as possible since it’s the universal favorite of birds which commonly visit feeders and gives the most energy for the energy expended to open the seed and eat it.

If they aren’t finding your feeders try adding a suet cake to the display. Suet cakes aren’t just for winter feeding—they provide concentrated high-protein, high-energy food that’s easy to eat and easy to digest. Birds not only need this to keep warm in the winter, but also while they travel hundreds of miles each day to reach their winter destination, often without stopping at all. In fact, a recent study of migrating Swainson’s thrushes shows that birds pack in the fat not only to sustain energy while traveling, but also to provide water without stopping to drink. Suet cakes won’t melt in warm weather, so don’t worry about a mess. If you can’t find suet cakes yet, or find they are a little expensive, I have a recipe for homemade ones, though these may soften if temperatures rise above 80 degrees or they are in direct sun for some time.

sparrows in birdbath

Sparrow Bath

But a water source is just as important as the food and even more of an attractant, since flowers and seeds and insects are everywhere, but water sources can be scarce. You can keep your birdbath going until the temperatures drop below freezing, or if you have a special watering station you use in winter you can set it out now so they become accustomed to it.

Don’t worry that feeding birds will take away their interest in their natural diet—most studies show that birds get about 10% of their total food intake from seed feeders. Feeding them while migrating helps reduce mortality. And if insects are their diet, they’ll still happily devour any insect that visits your yard, including those that hatch on a warm day!

For great tips on birdfeeding, attracting birds and identifying birds, visit the Project Feederwatch website under Birds and Bird Feeding.

Plus, they’ll provide lots of entertainment for your cats, which might sound like a luxury but it’s a very important element in an indoor cat’s daily life. Don’t forget, it’s Happy Health Cat Month, and keeping them naturally entertained and flea free keeps them both happy and health!

four black cats at window

Let Us At Him

For more information on bird feeding and Backyard Wildlife Habitats, visit my Backyard Wildlife Habitat page.

For more information on naturally controlling fleas in your yard year round, read Fall Cleanup, Bird Feeding and Fleas, and also As Natural as Possible: Outdoor Flea Control.

All images used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in purchasing one as a print, or to use in a print or internet publication.


As Natural As Possible: Outdoor Flea Control

two cats scratching

Mewsette and Mr. Sunshine have a good scratch.

Have you had a flea infestation this year? If so, you’re not alone. The damp spring and early warm temperatures in many areas meant that flea eggs laid last fall hatched earlier than usual this year, before their natural predators, spiders and ants, were ready. Your pets don’t even need to go outside—fleas can ride in on you! Whether or not your cat or dog goes outdoors, that’s where fleas begin and where you can begin to control their populations with a few non-toxic annual practices.

Why are fleas in your yard and how did they get there?

Fleas begin in the great outdoors, even in the nicest yard, and simply because you don’t let your pet outside, or it’s only outside for a short while, don’t think fleas won’t find them. Fleas are tiny and can hop up to a foot to get to a warm body for their blood meal, they can ride in on your own body though they don’t generally feed on humans, and encountering another animal that has fleas either on a walk outdoors or even an indoor place can infest your pet without it ever setting a paw in the back yard.

Fleas can’t fly, they can only hop, and while they can hop up to a foot it’s debatable if they can take over the world one foot at a time. They ride around on other cats and dogs and wildlife, and wherever they hop off a host animal is generally where they will lay their eggs if they get the chance. After that they’ll colonize your yard if a flea host wanders through often enough for them to feed, lay eggs and die.

Integrated Pest Management

photo of two cats in the grass

Namir and Cookie in the yard.

The two basic steps in managing any pest that outgrows its controls is to find out where it lives and destroy that habitat to any extent possible, and then find its natural predators and encourage them to inhabit and flourish, forever if possible.

I’ve always taken one or more of my cats into my back yard, so I’ve always included fleas in my pest management. Adult fleas are very particular about moisture and temperature, but flea eggs can live through a lot of punishment and still hatch and carry on the next generation so they need to be managed from year to year, not just for the summer.

Aside from the dangers of insecticide toxicity, using an insecticide generally kills off all the insects in an area, not just the ones you are targeting. Where fleas are concerned, an insecticide just kills the adult fleas which are only about 10% of the total flea population. There may be some residual left to kill the eggs and larvae as they mature into adults, but with unpredictable weather it’s often washed away before it does any good.

Pest insects have adapted to reproduce more quickly than their prey so the fleas will return long before their predators return, resulting in a more serious infestation than before. Without any predators you really need to keep applying the chemical, but all you do is knock down the numbers, never winning the game, and often completely kill off all predators, and not just those of fleas, while building up toxic levels in your soil.

It’s obvious that species have been kept in balance for millennia by some means outside of human controls. I am a Master Gardener and began years ago to start my own plants, identify seedlings, diagnose pests and diseases and build soil. I manage my little yard as a wildlife habitat, friendly to all native species as well as the plants I choose to grow and have always called on the forces of nature to manage the populations as an ecosystem, allowing it to find its own balance, and this has worked for managing fleas as well as other insect pests in my lawn, vegetable garden, flower beds and natural areas.

Flea Habitats

Fleas live in moist, shady areas in the yard, in the thatch in your lawn, debris piles, leaf litter, cord wood stacks and even under your deck or porch unless it’s completely dry. They’ve often overwintered in these areas and with the moisture of spring eggs start hatching as soon as it’s warm enough and shady after trees and shrubs have leafed out, about when temperatures rise above 60 degrees at night or 70 degrees during the day.

Spring Cleaning

My two seniors join me outdoors to supervise spring clean up.

One of the first things I do in spring, way before fleas hatch, is clear off all the debris in the yard and toss it in the compost pile, which as the materials break down heats up to a point that kills any eggs or seeds within it. I leave native plants standing for wildlife through the winter, but in spring it’s all taken down, even mowed if possible, then raked in order to remove possible pest habitat (including plant diseases which may have overwintered). If you don’t have a compost pile you can throw the material away in a bag, but just don’t keep it around, piled in a corner, or it can become a breeding ground for everything that laid eggs in it last year. This helps immensely with reducing the initial populations and you’ve also destroyed a lot of eggs and habitat for many other insect pests.

This also helps to delay the onset of fleas in your yard, but they’re going to start hatching some time regardless of chemical or organic controls, so be prepared with methods to manage flea populations through their life cycle.

Manage Areas Fleas Prefer

gray kitty under bush

My neighbor's kitty visits.

To start with, try to minimize or eliminate damp and densely shaded areas in your yard—underneath a shrub, for instance, often a favorite place for pets to hang out on hot days because it’s cooler and the soil is a little damp. It’s absolutely flea heaven, especially if you’ve either left the leaf litter from last year or added some decorative bark or wood chip mulch. This one area can support three stages of the flea: eggs can be laid here, the larvae can live on organic matter, and they can build their cocoons here as well, hatching into adult fleas that feed on your kitty taking a nap in the shade.

My yard tends to be very damp and I also have a slug problem (that’s an understatement), and for years I’ve sprinkled diatomaceous earth (DE) in all the moist shady areas for the slugs that feast all night, also taking care of a good many fleas. This product is not soil at all but the shells of diatoms, tiny sea creatures, crushed to a fine powder. Sea shells are actually formed of minerals and while the powder looks like dust it is actually very tiny, very sharp particles that cut into the exoskeleton of the flea, causing it to dehydrate and die. It does the same thing to slugs, but other creatures, from earthworms to birds, simply digest it with no ill effect, and it’s completely a physical effect with no chemical effect at all.

Diatomaceous earth has a short-term effect outdoors, though, because it mixes with soil and other organic matter, diluting its effect, and is washed away by rain or even heavy dew, but generally sprinkling it weekly in damp shady areas through the summer is a good plan. Just make sure it’s the DE intended for gardening use NOT pool use because this has chemicals added, and wear a mask when you sprinkle it because prolonged inhalation can cause some respiratory discomfort.

At one time I used pyrethrum-based products to control fleas and other insect pests indoors and out, and while pyrethrins break down quickly in sunlight and are diluted by water, tests later showed that if they are not in conditions that break them down they can build up in soil and in the home, and can be toxic to some flora and fauna outdoors, and children and pets indoors. Many organic gardeners quit using them, though they are still sold for outdoor treatment as well as specifically flea control products. I have included a link to the CDC report at the end of this article.

Modify Your Lawn

Also manage your yard, especially your lawn, to encourage flea predators. You can apply beneficial nematodes to damp and shady areas as well as the DE, especially where you can’t change the conditions by trimming shrubs or cleaning up debris such as a bed of heavy ground cover like ivy or pachysandra, or where you’ve landscaped with mulch, sand, gravel or small stones. You may need to reapply every year or two; this was my experience, but they definitely keep populations down while they persist.

Natural Predators

cat in grass

Namir in the backyard.

You can also encourage the flea’s natural predators to come and live in your lawn and garden. Insect predators include ants, spiders and ground beetles, other species include amphibians such as toads and salamanders, reptiles such as garter snakes, and even birds that feed on the ground.

Hmmm… you don’t like spiders and snakes, and everything else sounds like something you don’t want anywhere near your house, except maybe the birds? Trust me, they are much more interested in their natural diet than they are in you, and unless you go looking you’d never know they’re there—except that you’d have fewer fleas and other pest insects generally.

Welcome them by managing your lawn in a way that might be different from the typical grass-only buzz cut, incorporating native plants and herbs and allowing your lawn to grow a little taller. My lawn is only about half grass, while the rest is a mixture of short native plants and ground covers, plus opportunistic peppermint, pennyroyal and marjoram escaped from my herb gardens and the seedlings for next year’s forget-me-nots, daisies and other biennials and spring ephemerals. This diversity of flora encourages a diversity of fauna and eliminates large areas of one type of habitat so nothing has a chance to overpopulate.

Because I have less grass, I only have to cut the lawn about once a month after May. The native plants have a predetermined growth habit, most of them staying below six inches, and after the spring flush of growth the grass grows much more slowly. I can cut it higher than two inches, the minimum height to encourage ants and spiders, the main predators of fleas. Cutting the grass taller and less often helps the predators develop habitat and do their job on the fleas.

I also feed birds year-round, and while I always credit them with keeping vegetable and flower pests under control, I know they also peck around through the grass eating fleas.

Even if you’ve done all this you can still expect a few fleas, but you’re suddenly totally infested—what else can it be?

Wildlife

groundhog in cage

One of many groundhogs, about to be moved.

It’s that darned squirrel that hangs out on your deck, or the groundhog that’s burrowed underneath it—or the opossum that nested in your piled-up porch furniture until spring, or the little field mice and voles who sacrifice themselves to your cats in the basement. This was actually the source of my infestation more than once.

I had sprinkled the house with diatomaceous earth, bathed and combed the cats regularly, washed everything washable, swept everywhere just about daily, removed throw rugs and pillows and such, tossed non-washable things into a hot dryer, and removed as much from my house as possible. This was all I needed to do for years and the flea population never reached an infestation.

But this year the fleas kept coming back, and increasing all the time. Where were they coming from?

I began to notice that when I walked out on my deck, my legs were immediately covered with fleas, a dozen or more at a time. Fleas don’t fly, they jump, and in a situation like this you can move around and check the numbers of fleas that jump on your skin (or wear a pair of white socks so you can see them easier) to help pinpoint exactly where they are coming from. I started stepping around the deck, knocking fleas off my legs into a cup of water, then stepping again to see where numbers seemed the worst.

Most wild animals harbor a few fleas, and some species are typically infested. My squirrels spend about half their time scratching, and wild rabbits, chipmunks, gophers, mice and voles are also heavily infested with fleas. The squirrels hang out on my deck trying to get into the bird seed, the rabbits hop around near the basement door, and I always have a juvenile groundhog who excavates under my deck before I can trap it, chipmunks run around chirping everywhere, and field mice and voles really do show up in my basement.

And I really did have an opossum on my deck this winter. Being nocturnal, we didn’t cross paths though I saw her through the back door now and then. With the unusually heavy ice and snow I didn’t have the heart to encourage her to find another home, and I didn’t unpack all my deck furniture this year, so I have no idea how long she stayed.

black cat at door

Mimi at the door, before the infestation.

It was the area right in front of the door—right over the groundhog den under the deck—and on one side of that unmoved pile of things for my deck. The groundhog had left my yard to eat someone else’s vegetable garden, but left the fleas behind. I began deconstructing the pile of porch furniture and found evidence of nesting, though not recent. In both places, a heck of a lot of fleas.

So this was the source of my infestation, right outside the door that I kept open for most of the summer, locking the screen door at night and when I was away. Fleas could hop in when I opened the door, and ride inside as I walked in and out the door. My basement door has a space at the bottom because the concrete walk just outside is lifted and the bottom of the door jammed against it, so I trimmed the door.

Normally every spring I clean off my deck, sweep, wash and apply water-based waterproofing to the wood, then move things back, but this spring’s schedule didn’t allow the time. Once I cleaned off the deck, swept and washed it as well as hosed down all the items that were there, the constant re-infestation stopped. Whew!

Some Resources for Chemical-Free Outdoor Flea Control

You can get ten pages of results or more in an internet search on flea control, diatomaceous earth, pyrethrins and so on though much of it is from manufacturers and sellers, but I try to find studies or information from non-commercial sources to cite.

Yardener.com has a series of articles about dealing with fleas in your yard, and the article about preventing fleas in the future is especially informative—plus the site is a great resource for dealing with all sorts of pest problems in your yard.

http://yardener.com/YardenersPlantProblemSolver/DealingWithPestInsects/BitingInsects/Fleas/PreventingFleasNextYear

Even though this article is from 1986, it gives a brief history of the use of diatomaceous earth from a study project at McGill University that is still applicable today about the effects and usage of DE.

http://eap.mcgill.ca/publications/eap4.htm

CDC Report on pyrethrins and pyrethroids: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp155.pdf

If you’re interested in more information about Backyard Wildlife Habitats, please visit the Backyard Wildlife Habitat page on my site with articles on developing your habitat and articles showing the photos, paintings and sketches I’ve done that were inspired but my backyard.

All images used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission.