Can Giuseppe Come Out and Play?

goldfinch at window

Giuseppe's little goldfinch buddy waits.

Giuseppe’s little goldfinch buddy showed up at the window this morning! Giuseppe was looking out the basement door at the time and didn’t make it upstairs before the little guy had to be on with his day.

Of course, I don’t know if he was the same one who has appeared before, but he certainly seemed acquainted with the window, which was closed, but he stayed around looking in for several minutes. Hope he comes back!

Goldfinch looking in window.

Where is Giuseppe?

 

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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.


Giuseppe and His Goldfinch Buddy: 2011

black cat with goldfinch

Giuseppe with his buddy the goldfinch.

I haven’t been able to get a photo yet this year, and I’m still not sure if it’s the same little guy, but the goldfinch is back!

I’m not sure exactly when this began or if it’s the same goldfinch, but this will be the third year a goldfinch has come to the window and engaged Giuseppe in a conversation. Likely, though, it is the same goldfinch—they are returning and this is the first time I’ve seen this visit this year.

You can see the goldfinch on the outside looking right at Giuseppe, and I might think he was reacting to a reflection in the window, but when I open the window during the summer, the goldfinch comes to the screen.

Giuseppe doesn’t jump at him, just paws the screen or window, but never acts like a predator. With other birds that come to the window and visit the feeder, he certainly does!

The goldfinch doesn’t say a word, just looks inside.

None of the other cats react to the goldfinch or even seem to notice it when it comes to the window. Often, once Giuseppe has noticed it, another will come by and chase it off.

I’m sure they know each other, these two, Giuseppe and the goldfinch. Maybe they’re just exchanging guy talk. Perhaps someday I’ll figure out how that is.

black cat with goldfinch

Giuseppe waves at the goldfinch.


Cat TV, Big Screen Version

cat outdoors with colorful ornament

Cookie with our WeatherFish.

After this week, and even on this rainy morning, certain kitties want to visit the yard. It’s my goal some day to at least screen in a porch for them, but I’d love to build a room for them like Chris Davis’s, mentioned at the end of this article.

As Cookie and I cruised the yard, cleaning up branches and pulling aside flattened leaves to find green sprouts—okay, I’m doing the work and cleaning while Cookie supervises—I could also look into each door and window of my house and see everyone else watching us.

I know how much they’d like to be out here with us, especially now that it’s spring and the air is just intoxicating, but unlike Cookie they’d be off to other adventures faster than I could spin around and see them go. And then so much for my Backyard Wildlife Habitat if I introduce a non-native species that would surely wreak havoc on the natural balance—so I see from the neighbor cats who visit. And cats don’t obey property lines and can climb most average backyard fences, and where would I be without them?

photo of cat and flowered dress

Cookie and I have lunch al fresco.

I don’t let my cats outside to roam, but I have always had two or more garden sprites who hang out in the garden while I work outside. Usually this has been the oldest ones in the house who didn’t move too fast and were happy just to be in the outdoors. Cookie, however, has been outdoors with me most of the time she’s been with me because she feels she is somehow responsible for me, or so I gather, because she is never far from me, quietly vigilant, checking in with a head butt or a body rub every few minutes, purring happily and squinting her green eyes.

four cats at door

Giuseppe, Namir, Jelly Bean, Mewsette and Mr. Sunshine watch me out the front door.

But while I enjoy having one or more of my kitties outside with me, I’d also just like to give them the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors without me chasing them and without a leash to be tangled in. I have always wanted to build an enclosure that they could access on their own which was strong enough to withstand both the rigors of clever cats and of the weather and wildlife that happen in my yard.

Chris Davis, author, artist and owner of Lighthearted Press, came to the same conclusion when she bought her property in Oregon and set up habitat encouraging native birds, then her dog found a litter of kittens and everything changed. The cats came inside for her dog Jake to raise, and she and her husband planned, designed and built an attractive and durable outdoor “room” using hardware cloth for the walls and roof, bringing in downed trees from the woods and building shelves for kitties walk, climb and snooze on. I haven’t let my kitties know about this or there’d be you-know-what to pay!

photo of cat enclosure

Colorful outdoor room.

When I first saw photos of it I thought it was a greenhouse room or deck with the colorful shelves, benches, tables and plants. Rather than leaving it as a plain and functional space with a grass floor and bare trees and a few shelves, they decorated the space to be a usable area for themselves as well. The room incorporates some of my favorite colors—purple, violet and turquoise—and people can fit in the room as well as cats so Chris can enjoy the outdoors with her cats.

Chris remarks that the enclosure is 366 sq. ft. on the ground. The large section of ground is 23′ x 13′, and the back portion is 10′ x 8′ (yikes, my house is 15′ x 22′, but at least it’s two stories). Plus there is another 66 sq. ft. of back deck.

“So yes, it’s a good size,” she says. “However, this could be any size—even a small enclosure would be loved and appreciated by any cat.”

They first built the structure 10 years ago, and it took about three weeks. Having designed the entire thing themselves they had no advice or other experience to help decide about materials or structure, but only a few changes needed to be made to their original idea.

“We upgraded all the decks and stairs a few years later when it became clear the pile of logs wouldn’t last in our wet weather,” Chris comments on the more rustic beginnings.

photo of cat enclosure

Original enclosure with grass

I wondered if she had left grass as the “floor” in the room, this being the most logical thing to do for kitties who like to be outside, but also thinking of the difficulty of keeping it trimmed in an enclosed space, probably by hand. Initially, most of the “floor” was grass, but ultimately that had to be changed.

“Unfortunately, the grass just could not thrive in the soggy ground. I tried over and over to bring in sod or seed it, but this is Oregon and there’s a LOT of rain. The slope behind the enclosure has natural springs, so a lot of rain wound up in the lowest part of the yard, which was the enclosure,” she explains. “I finally gave up and put in stepping stones with gravel for drainage, and have planted ground cover in the gravel which is growing better. In the summer the kitties love to sprawl on the stepping stones because they’re cool.”

She also decided to cut back on the plants she kept in the room.

photo of cat enclosure

Cat enclosure with Star.

“I do put out cat grass and a few safe cat plants in pots, but over the years I’ve pulled back on those because the kitties just LOVE to eat them…and throw them up. I can hang flowering baskets because they can’t reach those,” she said.

And do her kitties appreciate all her efforts? I can see a feline eye roll and perhaps a tail flick if they’ve found something that hasn’t met their specifications.

“I have 4 sibling cats—they’ll be 12 next month. When I had doggies they loved the enclosure, too,” Chris says of the lucky animals who share their special outdoor space.

And they don’t have the run of it all day and night, only under supervision, in part because of “visitors”.

“I used to keep the dog door open all the time, so they could come and go in any weather. Now I’ve closed that off and give them selected play time during the day, when I’m home and can supervise,” Chris says. “Although I’ve done my best to plug all the holes, I can’t keep the moles from digging under the enclosure and coming up. The cats brought three inside a few summers ago—they just drop them in the kitchen. Thankfully I rescued all the moles, but that’s when it became clear I had to supervise their time much more clearly.”

And do they have a litterbox al fresco?

“There are no litter boxes out there. It’s a hoot to see a cat come running inside, use the litterbox, and then go back out- just like a child!” Chris says.

As far as structural changes, “The only thing I would have done differently was build a weatherproof top. Right now it’s all the 1/4 inch hardware cloth (screen) which is hardy and has withstood our wet weather, but it doesn’t make it pet friendly in the winter,” Chris says. “That has never kept the cats from going out in the rain or snow, but I think it would have been more fun if it had an actual ceiling.”

Chris explains more about her cat enclosure on her website where you can read more about it, see more photos as well as click to a narrated video on YouTube.

cover for every cat an angel

Cover image

Chris Davis is the author and illustrator of beautiful gift books, For Every Dog An Angel, For Every Cat An Angel, Old Dog and the Christmas Wish and Shelter Dog, and most recently Forever Paws, books that celebrate our magical companion animals. When you visit her site to see the enclosure, make sure you read about her books and enjoy the samples pages she has from each one. I really love her whimsical style and the rich, bright blending of colors.

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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.


Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat: Bringing it All Together with Design

photo of two cats in a garden

Namir and Cookie inspect my gardening.

I’m happily planning out this year’s garden and I would bet those of you who garden and manage a habitat in your backyard are as well, so it’s high time to consider design and layout for this and your backyard wildlife habitat for the coming hear…and remember those sweet summer mornings in the garden with my feline companions.

Design to include pest control

Ick. Slugs. Everywhere. And they weren’t drowning in my beer traps, they were having a pool party and getting the munchies later.

photo of section of backyard garden

The upper section of my garden at prime growing time...and prime slug time.

When I first established my vegetable and flower beds in this yard, I used a number of ingenious methods of “clearing” soil to save time, much of which involved newspapers or other waste papers (those wide computer printouts from the old dot-matrix printers, for instance) covered with straw or wood chips, which I could get for free by the truckload from a friend with a tree service business. This layering killed off the grass and softened up the soil for easier tilling or hand-turning, kept the soil moist in the heat of the summer, and also became a convenient way to set up paths between the beds and walking paths.

The second year, I used some of the same methods to mulch the beds around my plants, and added the brick patio and brick edging on my raised beds.

white cat in garden

Sally of the Garden, sleeping under the Brussels sprouts.

The third year, slugs ate all my seedlings as soon as they came up. I had created the perfect breeding ground for slugs in the damp soil under all that paper and bricks. I had to get rid of the slugs or trying to grow vegetables and flowers was senseless, but I liked my brick paths and mulching. With my feline garden patrol I certainly couldn’t spread slug bait all over my garden and flower beds.

Carrying an armload of my trusty copies of Rodale’s Organic Gardening and all the books I’d purchased over the years to learn the various techniques of raised beds and drip-irrigation and composting along with organic pest control out to the garden, I tried every trap in the book—in all the books.

None was effective, even in combination. I was spending way too much time trying to kill slugs. Perhaps I should just whack them with the big heavy gardening books. Time to look at an alternative.

At about this time, introducing or attracting predator species became a possibility for home gardeners. This was practiced on organic and some conventional farms, but an entire field is a little easier for predators to find and inhabit than a row of green beans in your backyard. So, we just had to work a little harder.

photo of vegetable garden with lawn

The larger part of my garden mulched with newspapers.

Now, what ate slugs, aside from people who called them escargot? Nope, ducks and chickens were out in my community, so it actually looked as if I needed some sort of amphibian or reptile. Well, that would go over big with the neighbors. The neighbor kids would think it was cool, though.

But I didn’t need a big amphibian or reptile, something inconspicuous would do the job. A garter snake! I studied the sort of habitat a garter snake would need but this was early in my backyard’s career, and I had very little groundcover that a garter snake would enjoy.

How about a toad? I have a friend who has a farm and one big puddle in their driveway produces legions of toads every year. We managed to catch two, and I let them go in the garden near one of the three the little toad abodes I had carefully prepared for them. I know that at least one stuck around because I saw it now and then, that year and the next, though it apparently didn’t use any of the abodes I had set up. I didn’t care because the number of slugs slowly decreased.

I also used a variety of methods related to me by long-time gardeners at my nearby Agway which included using copper to zap slugs—on researching I discovered that copper transmits through the slug’s slime and gives them a good zap, not killing them but certainly repelling them. A friend’s father had saved miles of copper wire which I used around small beds and surrounded certain plants with circles of pennies, both of which worked as long as the wire and pennies weren’t covered up with mulch or leaves.

Decide what you want in your habitat, and learn about it

honeybee on goldenrod

A honeybee on goldenrod in later summer.

This, again, was several years before I declared my backyard a wildlife habitat, but it was my first real lesson in working with the system. I hadn’t ever used chemicals, but I was out there trying to use human methods to trap or kill some overburdening pest and hadn’t had any major infestations. Here I had learned about how nature keeps things in balance, and after seeing how well it worked it became my first line of defense and, ultimately, what led to developing my habitat.

You may not be concerned with slug eradication, but you may want to attract Baltimore Orioles, or monarch butterflies, or bats to take care of your mosquito problem, and you always want to attract pollinators like honeybees. The steps to do that are to find out what the species needs and prefers, then to determine how you can add those features to your habitat.

Enhancing your habitat

Consider birds, the most obvious fauna of any habitat. Nesting birds will arrive in the spring, eat, build nests, raise families, eat some more, then migrate South to be replaced by migrating birds coming from farther North. Each group of birds has slightly different needs, as do birds while they are migrating. You may provide for all groups and not even know it.

They all need:

  • cover for protection from predators
  • sleeping areas
  • food for themselves as adults
  • a ready supply of fresh water
sparrows in shrub

Sparrows waiting in line.

You’ve got some brambly shrubs like climbing roses, viburnum and forsythia that provide cover and protection from predators, a spruce where plenty of birds can sleep at night, you put out seed in the winter and you keep your birdbath filled.

In addition, nesting birds, spring through late summer, need:

  • nesting materials appropriate for their species
  • food for their young during nesting time

You’ve left some grasses to grow a little taller, tossed out some old yarn and dog hair for nesting material, and you have loose soil in all your garden beds where parent birds can find goodies to feed their nestlings.

Migrating birds, late summer through early autumn, need:

  • easily accessible, high energy food
  • easily recognizable cover for resting overnight
birds and squirrel at feeder

Birds at feeder with Buddy.

You put out seed and suet in September keep your birdbath filled, and birds can spot that spruce a mile away.

Winter birds, which are migrating from further north, need:

  • easily accessible, high energy food
  • a ready supply of fresh water, even on freezing days
  • cover for protection from predators
  • protected sleeping areas

You keep your feeders filled all winter and also have suet, the dense shrubs are still in place and the spruce is still doing its job.

You are actually taking care of a habitat with all you’re doing now.

But you could generally enhance what you are doing by providing a variety of seeds in different feeders. Goldfinches like thistle seed, which is dispensed in a perforated bag or a feed with tiny little holes. Woodpeckers like the suet, but they love a mix of nuts in their seed and even some dried fruit. Press some peanut butter into the bark of a tree trunk for nuthatches. Chickadees, titmice and cardinals will stand in line for sunflower seeds.

house sparrows

House Sparrows at the winter bird bath.

Also, don’t underestimate the need for water, especially in the heat of summer and the freeze of winter. In my yard in winter, the “winter birdbath” gets as many visits as the feeders. I put my concrete and clay birdbaths away, but use heavy plastic dishes like the bottom dish for a large flower pot or even a foil cake pan and fill it with hot water in the morning. I may fill it again later in the day, too, but I have several dishes and simply bring in the frozen one in the morning and put out a new one. Plenty of birds drink, and sometimes just sit near it for warmth. You can also purchase birdbaths intended for winter use or coils or other devices that keep the water from freezing.

Bergamot flowers attract hummingbirds—and bees.

What about other species?

In the same way as the list above, choose your species and determine what its needs are in all seasons it would appear in your habitat. A few examples:

You practically stand on your head to get hummingbirds to visit your habitat. With their long slender beaks, hummingbirds can reach nectar in the bottom of a tube-shaped flower, but they will also eat from other flowers and are famously attracted to red, orange and pink flowers, such as geraniums and petunias. Consider planting some perennial phlox and adding hanging baskets of red petunias along with your hummingbird feeders.

photo of monarch butterfly on echinacea

Monarch and Echinacea © B.E. Kazmarski (this was not taken in my backyard)

You would celebrate the day a monarch butterfly visited your habitat, but you’ve never seen one though you see plenty of other butterflies. Monarchs center their diet around milkweed, feeding from the flowers, laying their eggs on the undersides of the leaves, and, later, eating the leaves in various life stages. You may not be able to grow milkweed in your back yard, but before milkweed blooms and after it is done blooming they will eat from plants that have clusters of small flowers such as lilac and butterfly bush  or composites such as Echinacea and black-eyed susan.

And the bats to take care of those mosquitoes? Try also attracting other night insects—keep a light on to attract moths and plant fragrant night-blooming plants such as evening primrose and heliotrope. The bats will find the abundance and variety of insects and move right in. They also have the same needs as birds and other animals in shelter and water. Bats are extremely sensitive to chemicals, so don’t use any in your yard, including fertilizers. And keep your cat inside.

photo of rose turtlehead

Rose Turtlehead, there's a bee inside the blossom © B.E. Kazmarski

And I finally got that garter snake to move in when I let the grass and a ground cover called purple-leaf wintercreeper grow all along the fence next to the slope that I’ve let grow wild, so if you want a little snake to eat slugs and catch lots of insects, lit some dense groundcover grow undisturbed.

Other enhancements

Generally, reduce your lawn to a minimum because it’s just not useful to wildlife—it doesn’t provide food or cover, and in fact leaves most species vulnerable. Surround your grassy area with groundcovers, flower beds, and shrubs so that wildlife can quickly take cover if need be, or manage your lawn so that it grows longer and includes native plants instead of just grass.

Put your food and water features near or even in the planted areas. Don’t put the bird feeder in the middle of a grassy yard because it will leave too many birds vulnerable to predators, though it will make it more difficult for the squirrel to get to it. Of course, you want to see all this wildlife that you’ve attracted to your habitat, so don’t hide it in the woods, either.

Consider a pond so that ground-dwelling species can drink as well, and you can include some fish and water plants.

photo of cooper's hawk on brush pile

Cooper's Hawk on Brush Pile, I heard little bird scufflings in the pile when I took this photo... © B.E. Kazmarski

And minimize and eliminate your use of chemicals. Chemical smells mask the smells of food sources for wildlife, and those that come in contact with it will absorb it through their skin, paws, claws or even mouth and nose. My grass is only about half grass because I let grow whatever wants to, but it’s always green because the plants are hardy. I’ve also discovered that all the residents in my habitat keep each other in balance and I’ve only had to use traps and soap sprays on the things that grow in pots on my deck.

Set up a brush pile or two in your yard as well. I use the trimmings from my roses and other shrubs, just piling them in corners for the rabbits and other small mammals to hide underneath, and even the birds take cover when the Cooper’s hawk swoops in.

Try to stick with natives

close-up photo of fleabane

Fleabane © B.E. Kazmarski

Why native plants? We humans forget that every species on earth is not as adaptable as we are. Most species recognize only certain plants and insects as home and as food, but they aren’t able to make the judgment that other similar things may suffice if what they know isn’t available. Planting native species of flowers, shrubs and trees welcomes the species that are native to your area.

This doesn’t mean that non-natives are bad, only that they may not be recognized by all species as viable habitat. I have two huge forsythias directly under or near feeders, and they are constantly inhabited by the most adaptable birds—sparrows, jays, cardinals, chickadees—but I never see the oriole in them in the summer, or the woodpecker or blue bird. I often see them in the climbing roses and the mulberry and dogwood trees, however.

photo of raspberries

Every year it's a race for the raspberries © B.E. Kazmarski

Good for wildlife, safe for your pets

Most of us are owned by companion animals, and they share this habitat as well, to some extent. Not all natives are safe for your pets, though, so this will narrow your list a bit.

But only a bit. Remember that foliage isn’t only for cover and nesting, it’s also for eating, and berry bushes and plants are universally loved by birds and all other wildlife, and perfectly safe for pets—if you don’t mind a few thorns on your raspberry and blackberry canes. Highbush blueberries are about the best you can do, followed by cranberry, huckleberry and a host of other local berries that grow in dense forms with not thorns.

Other shrubs providing food (to the birds, not you) and cover are most viburnums, native hawthorne and native juniper, all perfectly safe for pets and recognized by most species as home.

photo of pink climbing roses

Pink Rose Bower © B.E. Kazmarski

And good old roses, not the hybrids but your grandparents’ fragrant climbing tea roses, provide a dense cover for birds and other wildlife as well as food because many species visit the flower and birds eat the rose hips in the fall as they migrate.

For trees, most species of fruit trees have some toxicity about the bark or the fruit, but I haven’t seen a pear tree on any list, and various dogwoods are native all over the country. I have two mulberry trees and I had heard somewhere that it’s considered the “tree of life” because everything can eat from it, and indeed I’ve seen everything from goldfinches to the groundhog eating in the tree.

photo of dogwood branch

Dogwood © B.E. Kazmarski

And for non-native species that most wildlife can live with, that old-fashioned forsythia and lilac can’t be beat. The species of spirea we use for landscaping aren’t really native to this continent, like bridal-wreath spirea, but they provide cover and are absolutely beautiful in full bloom. I have a variegated-leaf wiegela that small birds love, and hummingbirds visit the trumpet-shaped flowers.

But remember, a dog chasing your wildlife will not encourage it to stay, but most people don’t leave their dogs out all day long and the birds and bees learn to take off when they year the dog, returning when the dog disappears.

And it would be completely unfair to let a cat or two loose in your habitat. In photos of my habitat you’ll see one or two of my cats now and then, but they only go out with me, under my supervision—or rather, I’m under their supervision, but either way, they tend to stick with me, then I take them back inside. I can see what my neighbor’s cats do to my habitat, like little Mimi before I took her in.

A great online resource

photo of house with trees

The southwest corner of my yard with the silver maple, 60-foot spruce, river birch and dogwood (and my pink Escort)

An overall resource for finding native species and answering a lot of questions is www.eNature.com. This will give you a start in finding your local native species of flora and fauna, though it’s not as specific as I’d like it to be.

And am amazing resource in finding indoor and outdoor plants that are toxic to dogs, cats and horses is on the ASPCA website at http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/poison-control/ under both “17 Common Poisonous Plants” and a hugely comprehensive list of over 400 plant species in “Toxic and Non-toxic Plants”, which even has photos.

Good luck with your habitat

Get out that graph paper or that garden design program and take these long cold nights to dream of your summer garden!

About the art and photos used in these articles and on this blog

All the images used in this blog are mine, many from my own backyard. For years I’ve been documenting the flora and fauna here in photography and art, just for my own purposes. All of the images are also available as prints and notecards, some of which I have printed and sell regularly, but I can custom print any image on my site. If you see something you’d like, check my Marketplace blog to see if it’s a recent offering, the Marketplace on my website, which outlines everything I sell as merchandise, or e-mail me if you don’t find it in either place. Please also respect that these images and this information are copyrighted to me and may not be used without my consent, but please ask if you are interested in using something and feel free to link to my articles.

Identifying the fauna in your habitat

Next will be information on looking for and identifying the living creatures in your habitat.

Read the other articles in this series:

Previous:

An Introduction to Backyard Wildlife Habitats

What’s in Your Backyard? The First Step in Planning Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat

What Else is in Your Backyard: The Fauna That Fill It

Bringing it All Together: Enhancing and Developing Your Habitat

Also read about my art, photography, poetry and prose inspired by my backyard wildlife habitat:

Art Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Photography Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Poetry Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Prose Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

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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.


Al Fresco: From A Year Ago

tortoiseshell cat with weatherfish

Cookie communes once again with the weatherfish and pokes her nose on dry grass.

I’m not focusing on photos of Cookie from last year—she showed up about twice a week just because. This is pretty much what my yard looks like now, and Mimi and me have been exploring and remembering Cookie in all these places. Mimi still needs a leash, though; she stays right with me, then suddenly wants to take off to the front yard. We have to work on that.

Cookie communes with the weatherfish as we explore the backyard on an unusually warm, windy day.

tortoiseshell cat on deck

Cookie tells me to get a move on.

We’ve been going outside every day all winter long, but Cookie found the snow and ice just weren’t fun anymore on her 19-year-old paws, so we mostly stayed on the deck. But today we explored the yard in all its winter tatters.

Cookie knows I prefer her to wait for me to come with her into the yard, so she pauses at the top of the steps—but her expression is, “As soon as you turn around, I’m going to run down these steps.” She did. I followed. Sometimes my position of authority means nothing.

tortoiseshell cat on lap

Cookie on my lap on the steps.

But after a little sojourn including the weatherfish, under the deck, the fallen branch, picnic table and park bench, our favorite thing is just to sit together.

I’m so glad Cookie and I can share this time. She doesn’t move as well as she used to, but then all she needs to do is walk around the yard at her own pace. She and I also remember other friends who used to share our time in the backyard.

Plus it’s only February and the tomorrow weather will change and I know it will be a while before we get a day this nice again.

While Cookie and I were sitting on the steps, we were being very still so we could count the birds in our yard for the Great Backyard Bird Count, today, February 18, through Monday, February 22. I’ve been participating in this bird count and others for years, and tomorrow I’ll be writing about how to participate in bird counts and why it’s fun and important. (I actually wrote about this on Friday in It’s the Great Backyard Bird Count. Mimi and I counted today.)

Until then, curl up with your kitties as the temperature drops, and study your bird identification books!

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To see more daily photos go to “Daily Images” in the menu and choose “All Photos” or any other category.

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.


Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat: What Else is In Your Backyard, The Fauna That Fill It

bunny profile in spring garden

Bunny in the spring yard.

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

One lovely August morning I was harvesting tomatoes in my vegetable garden. The air was pleasantly warm and the garden was still dewy as I crept along, crouching between the tall beefsteaks, picking the newly-ripened tomatoes at the bottom of each plant.

I reached around the base of one plant to get to a tomato in the back and felt a tickly spiderweb on the back of my hand, pulled my hand back and saw A HUGE BLACK AND YELLOW SPIDER RUNNING UP MY ARM!

I jumped up and shrieked, tossing the spider off my right arm into the air, and holding tightly to the basket of precious tomatoes I vaulted a row of Romas in 30” cages from a standstill and ran out into the middle of the yard where nothing could get me, slapping at my arm and shaking myself.

Most of what lives in your backyard you will never see, or never notice, unless you go poking around into their protected little habitats, and it’s there for a reason. Even though I pictured something that had legs as long as railroad crossing bars, it was just a common garden spider, and perfectly harmless to me—but deadly to most of the tiny flying insect pests that might decide to munch on my tomatoes. I hope it didn’t mind being relocated in such an ingracious way.

bee on leek flower

Bee on leek flower.

Finding your residents

Birds are obvious, and are often the reason people consider backyard wildlife habitats, and butterflies have become very popular now that people have realized they can actually attract them with specific plants.

Wild rabbits are generally welcome, squirrels can’t be avoided, and the most dedicated even put up with groundhogs, raccoons, opossums, deer and plenty of other species depending on where you live (you can tell I’m in the northeast) as long as they aren’t predators and don’t pose danger to humans or other animals.
The story continues, keep reading…


It’s the Great Backyard Bird Count!

sparrows in shrub

Sparrows waiting in line.

Right now, as spring approaches and birds are beginning to migrate, pair off and settle into their new summer homes, it’s a really exciting time to participate in this international citizen-science event, February 17 through 20. All you need to do is watch your bird feeder and take a few notes.

birdwatching cats

The "baby" Fantastic Four

I can see from the number of people who reference my articles on backyard wildlife, backyard birds and bird feeding that many people maintain bird feeding stations of all sorts and enjoy watching, photographing and identifying the birds that visit their yard, neighborhood or favorite outdoor area.

chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee

I truly enjoy sharing my enthusiasm for the lives and welfare of these special little residents of our yards and neighborhoods, and I might also add I’m eternally grateful for the work they do in my back yard and elsewhere in constant and vigilant pest control—and in keeping generations of cats amused and active so long as I keep the bird feeders full. I’ve included photos of bird species common to most of the USA and Canada using my feeders, as well as my cats enjoying the view.

What is the Great Backyard Bird Count?

cooopers hawk

Coopers Hawk, a major predator!

The GBBC is one of several programs led by the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, the Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada which combines the enthusiasm and knowledge of everyday people with these organizations’ scientific capabilities to track bird populations and activities. A few other annual programs are the Christmas Bird Count, Project Feederwatch and eBird. The participant simply follows a simple set of instructions in how to count, track and report your data and it’s added to the data from millions of other bird lovers, all serving the purpose of real science in biology and conservation.

mourning doves

Mourning Doves

For instance, you choose a consistent period of time up to one hour to watch the activity at one of your feeders, and try to do this at the same time each time you observe, recording how many of which species showed up. Beyond that you can track other data such as the physical appearance of birds, unusual activity, information about your feeders and weather data.

downy woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker, male

Keeping the timing consistent helps to obtain data that’s easily compared from one observation to the next over the period of time you are observing. For this event, it’s four days in a row. For the Christmas Bird Count it’s a one-time event, though you can count in many different areas if you want, and for Project Feederwatch it’s for an entire season, November to April. Limiting the amount of time you watch helps to ensure you’re not counting the same birds over and over in one counting period.

And if, as I am, you are concerned about all the articles citing declining songbird species and putting the blame on cats in general, especially stray and feral cats, this is one of the most important ways the numbers of bird species are counted, by citizen scientists who get involved and report their data—so get out their and count your birds!

Don’t have a feeder, don’t know your species, don’t have the time to count all four days—don’t worry

sparrows at feeder

Sparrows at feeder.

Birds are everywhere, and the data is compiled in so many different ways that it doesn’t really matter if you’ve never fed your backyard birds, or if you only know one species for sure, or if you can only participate in one portion of the count. Part of your reporting is to describe this. For instance, if you only know what a blue jay looks like, you give your count for the total number of blue jays, and also note that other birds were present but which you could not identify. All the data is gathered and segmented off into the area it can best be used taking into account your additional descriptive information.

What do you do with your data?

american goldfinch

American Goldfinch, male, winter phase

Well, in the olden days we actually used to keep track on paper and, get this—mail it in! How old-fashioned, and how did anybody get anything done? Now you can still use paper, or you can use a combination of paper and electronic submissions, or you can do it entirely on whatever device you use that has internet access, wherever you are.

goldfinches with thistle feeder

Goldfinches, thistle feeder

And you can also watch the data change in real time as checklists are tallied. The counting just began on Friday morning and by 9:00 a.m.  the total number of individual birds counted was already over 16,000—check for yourself right now!

Like to get to know your birds better?

dark-eyed junco

Dark-eyed junco, "Snowbird"

I grew up knowing maybe four bird species well enough to recognize them when I saw them. But later, walking a trail in the woods, sitting in an abandoned pasture, hearing the birds sing as they flew about I felt as if I was a visitor to a land where the natives were friendly but I couldn’t speak the language.

male cardinal

American Cardinal, male

So I got Peterson’s Guide to the Birds of North America, and set about focusing on individual birds and flipping through the images to see what they were, then reading the descriptive copy for more details. It started out very tediously, but in a surprisingly short time I had gotten to know my local birds well enough and gotten to know my book well enough that matching the bird with the image and learning the details became as easy as finding a word in a dictionary, and suddenly I could speak their language and no longer felt like a visitor to my beloved woods and fields.

female cardinal

American Cardinal, female

I have several other identification books in addition to Peterson’s, but I purchased that one first because it seemed to be what everyone used and I also found it was referred to in articles about birds. It uses careful illustrations of birds, and while there are many guides that use photographs the illustrations are often much more clear in learning species identification. Getting one bird to pose for a photo at the right angle in the right light at the best distance to get clear details for a photo is nearly impossible—trust me! Trying to get all the birds in a book in the same way is a heroic quest.

song sparrow

Song Sparrow

A skilled illustrator will choose the pose and posture most universally identifiable for a species so that no matter what season or time of day you see your bird, even if all you see is a silhouette and vague color bands on the wings for instance, you’ll be able to piece together the details and identify your bird.

white-breasted nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch

In addition, the big three organizations mentioned above offer LOTS of information for regional bird identification on their websites and for download including illustrations, photos, posters, videos, recordings of bird calls, descriptions of nests and anything else you might need to correctly identify your chosen bird. The more information they offer, the more accurate your reports will be.

Don’t worry, be happy!

house sparrows

House Sparrows

Don’t be intimidated by what others know or what you don’t know, and don’t be impatient that you can’t tell a song sparrow from a chipping sparrow. We all started somewhere, and all of us who watch birds are somewhere along the spectrum from knowing, maybe, four birds to being able to identify by one note of a song.

red-bellied woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

And most of all, have fun with it! If you go to the GBBC site, you’ll see tweets from humans on how they are participating and what they see, the counts for birds and checklists increasing, town and city names increasing on the list and photo galleries filling up with birdwatchers’ photos. It’s what got me involved all those years ago, even before we had the internet to use for access, reading a magazine article about Project Feederwatch and feeling as if I was a part of something much bigger than myself.

birds and squirrel at feeder

Birds at feeder with Buddy.

In fact, sometimes it’s even more fun if you get a bunch of friends together and compare your data or count together. You can all argue about what bird that was and how many there were, arrive at a consensus and have lunch on a lovely February afternoon.

tufted titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

Links

Great Backyard Bird Count

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology

Audubon Society

Bird Studies Canada

European starling

European starling

Resources

In addition to those listed below, find your local chapter of the Audubon Society or other outdoor organization such as the Sierra Club or National Wildlife Federation. Many animal shelters also have a wildlife rehabilitation program and carry information. In addition, most communities or regions have local environmental organizations that offer information and sponsor guided bird walks, and also participate in the bird counts as a group.

CAROLINA WREN

Carolina Wren

Links around Pittsburgh, PA

These aren’t the only organizations around, but they are the ones I’ve used as a resource and many can be used to find chapter closer to where you live if you’re not in Western Pennsylvania.

Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania

Sierra Club, Pennsylvania Chapter, Allegheny Group

Venture Outdoors

The Widlife Rehabilitation Center of the Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania

Regional Environmental Education Center/The Outdoor Classroom

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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.


February 2, Not Just for Groundhogs, Well, Ever

groundhog

The Local Groundhog

Why all the fuss about whether or not this rodent sees his shadow?

February 2 isn’t just Groundhog Day and a holiday made by humans to break up the middle of cold winter season. It’s actually an occurrence in nature that humans have observed and found reason to celebrate long before people in Punxsutawney wanted to bring tourists to their little settlement in the woods of Western Pennsylvania.

sun and weeds

Imbolc-Brigantia-Candlemas

February 2 is exactly halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox, marking the date that winter, literally, becomes spring. The seasons don’t change as if you’ve flipped a switch, but they move gradually from one to another in a cycle. The solstices and equinoxes mark the highest points of those seasons, and the cross-quarter markers in between mark the day one season has clearly blended with another. I notice this every year from my garden to the trail to just observing wildlife.

By February 2, in our modern time we notice the days have lengthened enough that there really is daylight when we leave work at the end of the day where just a week before it was still pretty dark. Ancient and not-so-ancient people saw it another way.

Nearly every culture and faith tradition has a name and celebration for this event. At the Winter Solstice, the sun stood still just long enough to make civilizations think it may have stopped moving, leaving us to suffer in the darkness and cold of winter. Then it began slowly moving again, the days lengthening so gradually that all we may notice is perhaps feeling better because there is more daylight, but ancient cultures centered feast days and celebrations around the return of life.

basket of squashes

Harvest

The full moon in February is often called the Hunger Moon because, though people have managed through the deepest extended cold of winter, their food stores put by at the previous autumn’s harvest may be near gone:

Half your wood and half your hay, you should have on Candlemas Day.

February lies ahead, often as frozen as January with not much nourishment in sight for hunter-gatherer or agrarian societies until the first edible greens begin to sprout, about a month away in early March, later in far north regions. Animals are often just as undernourished as humans, female animals are often bearing young, so hunting is usually out of the question. Yet the end was in sight and that alone was reason to celebrate in the harsh world before furnaces in the house and cars for travel and grocery stores offering food all year round.

garden in the snow

My Garden Waits

And beneath the snow plants are gathering energy, seeds are swelling, roots are spreading, and above the snow the days are growing longer. The ewes, cows, goats and the females of other livestock as well as of wild animals are beginning to produce milk in preparation for the birth of their young later in the spring.

So this day has many names to commemorate all these observations that would become celebrations to humans weary of the cold and dark: Immolc or Imbolc, translated from “in the belly” referring to mothers and their young, and the first production of milk in preparation for birth; Brigantia or St. Brigid’s Day, who welcomes the light with candles and represents the light half of the year; and Candlemas when candles for the year are blessed celebrating Jesus’ presentation at the temple and the purification of Mary are the ones best known in Western culture.

Another traditional rhyme shows us that the day had become one for prognosticating:

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, winter will have another flight. But if it be dark with clouds and rain, winter is gone and will not come again.

male and female cardinal

Valentine's Day

And before English and German settlers began landing on these shores, they were keeping an eye on the hedgehogs to determine if the little buggers saw their shadow on Candlemas or Brigantia morn. Other animals leave their burrows around this time as well—it’s snakes in another tradition—and you’ll often see birds pairing off. It doesn’t always happen exactly on February 2, but because the day was a longstanding cross-quarter day in the ancient calendar it’s carried the reputation of being a day for prognostication and celebration.

As with most other traditions, taking stock of things on February 2 came over on the boat with those early English and German settlers, and Pennsylvania still has many towns and neighborhoods settled all those years ago dedicated to these nationalities.

groundhog in cage

My guy going off on vacation.

So why a groundhog? Why not a groundhog? They don’t get a whole lot of credit for anything else, especially not in my garden! This is one day when a fat, smelly, not-so-pretty North American native that reminds us of a large rat can get some respect and news coverage, and that’s never a bad thing for anyone. Really, they’re kind of cute and silly, especially when they’re little, they only become oily undulating eating machines in late summer when it breaks my heart to find all the beans I’d been looking forward to are reduced to bare stems.

Why Punxsutawney? Why do they wear top hats and dress coats? You can read about the Groundhog Day tradition and about Punxsutawney on the “official website of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club” http://www.groundhog.org/. You can read more about the traditions of this day and this time of year through links on Wikipedia.

And with that, I hope it’s another year before I have to type the name Punxsutawney again.

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All images and text used in this article 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.


Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat: Helping Avian Friends in Snowy Weather

three cardinals in snow branches

Three Cardinals

Clean off those branches, put out some seed and suet if you can, and don’t forget the all-important water!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t keep Cat TV up and running, even in cold and snowy weather! Not only does birdwatching provide my cats with healthy entertainment and environmental enrichment, it provides it for me too—and welcoming birds to my yard helps in myriad other ways of balancing the habitat and pest control.

birds at birdbath with snow

Winter Water for Birds

I first published this during the 2010 Snowmageddon and aside from the photos above, taken just yesterday, all photos are from February 2010; I’m really glad we haven’t gotten that kind of snowfall—yet.

Even if you don’t have a heavy snowfall, snow and ice hamper the ability to forage for any wild creature but birds have it especially difficult. Heavy snow fills the shrubs and brushy areas they use for cover, their little feet can be caught up in ice and landing on the ground just isn’t safe. They can quickly become exhausted just trying to find a place to perch, and if all their food sources are covered by heavy snow their little lives are actually in danger. Birds need to balance filling their bellies with their ability to fly, so “eating like a bird” entails eating just enough, and eating constantly, so they don’t weigh their little bodies down.

Here are a few things you can do for your backyard visitors once you get yourself shoveled out.

Heavy snowfall

photo of heavy snow on picnic table

Wonderland © B.E. Kazmarski

I was entranced overnight as the snow quickly fell and piled on every surface, even tiny twigs. By morning I was ready with my camera, photographing out of windows and emerging on to the deck and porch to capture the rare and magical transformation of a snow-covered morning here in Western Pennsylvania. Shrubs and small trees were bent down and everything, my brush piles and tall natives left in the habitat included, was covered with an undulating snow blanket at least 18 inches deep.

photo of doves on clothes line

Doves Online

Doves were lined up on the clothes line on my deck and wrens and sparrows were perching under the rockers and other chairs, using my deck for cover and no doubt waiting for me to put out the goodies.

However, as I cleaned off the deck and filled the feeders around the railings and the improvised bird bath I saw flocks of birds headed for both the deck and at least one of the feeders at the end of the yard (the other was hopelessly covered by its small tree completely bent over under the weight of snow), but they weren’t using the feeder and they weren’t perching, which was very strange behavior.

photo of song sparrow on rocker

Song Sparrow on Rocker

I had filled the seed and suet feeders and put out some ear corn yesterday afternoon so they would have it first thing in the morning instead of waiting for me to dig out. If the Cooper’s hawk had been around I wouldn’t have seen any birds at all, except perhaps a sacrificial mourning dove.

photo of birds at a feeder

At the Feeder

Then I took another look at this lovely landscape—the forsythia which is usually filled with sparrows, the pussy willow hosting the larger cardinals and blue jays, even the American Hemlock and brushy saplings around the larger feeder on which and in which the birds are usually perching in wait for the feeders, were all covered with several inches of snow which the birds couldn’t perch on. All the tall stems of goldenrod, asters, coneflower and bergamot that I leave standing for the birds to use as both perches and food sources were completely bent down and covered in snow. Even the ground around the feeders was covered with snow the birds couldn’t even land on top of without dangerously sinking in.

They had no place to land and nothing to eat.

photo of bicycle buried in snow

Backyard and bicycle

This was a totally different interpretation of a lovely snowy morning, and potentially fatal to all my avian visitors. Where smaller mammals can and do tunnel under the snow and larger ones travel over it or can walk through it, birds can’t brush away snow and ice before they land or dig through it to get to something underneath. In order to use the feeder they need to land close, then hop to the feeder. Unless they could land right on the feeder, they couldn’t eat from it, and all their natural sources were under snow, not only in my yard but everywhere.

photo of t-square in snow

36" t-square covered to 18"

Well, I’d probably gotten as many photos as I wanted, so out came the broom and I waded in snow that had drifted deeper than the 18 inches I had measured earlier and swatted away at the forsythia, pulling the longer branches out of the snow on the ground so they could swing free. Then I reached the pussy willow from the deck railing on one side, and the lilac from the other side. As I was working a large clump of snow fell from higher up in the trees at the end of the yard and conveniently knocked the snow off of the feeder in the yard as well as the hemlock and saplings. Thanks, nature!

Clean the snow out of shrubs used for cover

I was barely finished with clearing one bush and then the other before the birds were in it, chattering and fluttering. And even though they are familiar with me—the blue jay had announced that I had come out onto the deck earlier, and that’s the signal for birds to gather in the shrubs around the deck anticipating the daily feeder refill—they don’t usually fly right past my head to get to the feeders, but today they did.

wren under rocker

Wren Under Rocker

“Eating like a bird” has been famously misinterpreted indicating a picky eater, but while birds don’t all eat twice their weight in food every day, they do need to eat proportionally much more than humans, especially in cold weather. Imagine having to hop out of bed into a situation you physically can’t negotiate and having to forage for enough quality food to equal about a quarter to a half of your body weight just stay warm and alive for the day and overnight, using only your face and toes as tools.

Tonight is forecast to be in the single digits, and some birds would simply die overnight if they hadn’t been able to find or access any food today. Out in nature, nobody would brush off the trees and fill the feeders, but with songbird populations imperiled because of habitat fragmentation and pesticide use, they could use a little help from us.

High energy food

photo of cat sniffing snow

What is this stuff?

If you do feed birds, put out some extra stuff, especially high-protein, high-energy foods like hulled sunflower, peanuts and even other unsalted or plain nuts you might have on hand; I donated a cup of crushed walnuts, which were a really big hit. Dried fruits are very good for them now, too, even just a handful of raisins snipped in half so smaller birds can manage them. Many birds eat insects as well as seeds, and suet fills that part of their diet when no insects are available. The extra protein will help them get through a cold night and into tomorrow.

All-important water

Don’t forget the water—just a shallow pan of warm water will keep from freezing most of the day and be easy to punch out and refill in the morning. Rising steam from warm water will help attract them to it.

I have articles on making your own inexpensive bird treats in Birds?! Attract them with homemade suet cakes and also a series of articles on Backyard Wildlife Habitats for more information on inviting and feeding wild birds and other wildlife in your backyard.

photo of two birds on swing

Sparrow and dove on porch swing

If you don’t normally feed birds it’s highly unlikely you’d be able to attract them to a new feeder or water source today. But at least knock the snow off of any shrubs with twigs small enough for bird claws to grasp, and especially from any dense shrubs they would normally use for cover. Birds roost overnight in tree cavities and in other protected places, usually huddled together for extra warmth. While snow is a great insulator this snowfall was really unique in that snow is piled on branches where I’ve never seen it, on the lee side of trees, and some shrubs are completely filled with snow, leaving the most typical spots for avian protection unavailable.

For more information, visit my page for Backyard Wildlife Habitats, and enjoy this series of articles:

What’s in Your Backyard? The First Step in Planning Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat

What Else is in Your Backyard: The Fauna That Fill It

Bringing it All Together: Enhancing and Developing Your Habitat

Also read about my art, photography, poetry and prose inspired by my backyard wildlife habitat:

Art Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Photography Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Poetry Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Prose Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat


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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