Friday, December 24, 2010

Why the Catbird Sings

There are some birds who are known mimics; mocking birds, if you will. The Gray Catbird is such a bird. Generally, it mews. Mewing is perhaps it's first or native call? I spent an entire morning in my yard trying to find the crying kitten...before I discovered I was hearing a Gray Catbird. Unless he is singing, the Catbird is difficult to find...preferring to skulk about in deep cover. When I finally saw one, I was amazed at how pretty they are; almost completely gray, with a dark cap and pretty red 'panties'. Well, that's how I think of them.

The following clip, from BirdChick (AKA Disapproving Rabbits) shows a young bird, still practicing his mewing.

Here is another bird, a Northern Mockingbird this time, which has his song a bit more polished:

But, why do they mimic? What prompts a Catbird or Mockingbird to imitate all these sounds? Some even learn car alarms, cell-phone rings, police sirens. Why do they do this? Cornell's Laboratory of Ornithology has the answer in this stunning clip which takes us through the songbird's even does frogs!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Cats Kill...

Well, here I am again...going on about outside cats. I used to have cats (but have developed an allergy,) and yes, some were outside cats. But, that was before I learned better; and I just read some new data. Cats are an invasive species and reek havoc on native wildlife. I started getting a clue that perhaps I should contain my pet when my cat, Spike, decided beheading my neighbor's tulips was great fun. He went right down the row; jumping on a beautiful flower, pulling it down and kicking it apart with his back legs as he chewed the petals off. Oh my he had fun...and made my neighbor so mad! Rightfully so; I got just as mad when my other neighbor's dog killed and buried Spike. So yes, through the years I've decided cats do belong indoors and have found even a feral kitten will make a fine, indoor pet.

The following includes bits and pieces of a recent article that came to my attention. As you read, remember that there are more owned cats than feral cats...and some 47% of owned cats are allowed outside...where they hunt. Much analysis is based on each cat killing only eight birds per year...and I'm sure we all know pets who bring home far more dead birds than that...not to mention mice, voles, lizards, and bats. Yes...even well-fed pets make a huge dent in local flora and fauna.

(Washington, D.C., December 8, 2010) A new, peer-reviewed study report titled, Feral Cats and Their Management from the University of Nebraska—Lincoln, has put the annual economic loss from feral cat predation on birds in the United States at $17 billion. The report analyzes existing research on management of the burgeoning feral cat population – over 60 million and counting -- in the United States.

Feral cats are domestic cats that have gone wild. They cause significant losses to populations of native birds, small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians; can transmit several diseases such as rabies and toxoplasmosis; and may be a general nuisance. Cats are the definitive host of the parasite taxoplasmosis; the disease can affect the brain, lung, heart, eyes, or liver. Serious consequences are evident in pregnant women as well as the young, the old, and those with compromised immune systems.

"Communities seeking a solution to their feral cat problems need to consider the science on the issue and the well being of animals impacted by feral cats as well as the cats themselves. These other animals – birds especially – don’t deserve to die at the hands of a predator introduced into their environment by irresponsible pet owners. A humane decision-making process on this issue must also recognize that feral cats live short, miserable lives because of disease, other predators, severe weather and traffic hazards. Thus their life expectancy is about one third as long as owned cats,” said Darin Schroeder, Vice President for Conservation Advocacy for American Bird Conservancy.

Some of the many findings of the report include:

• Feral cats are invasive and pose a threat to native fauna and public health.

• Three separate studies showed that most feral cats (62 to 80 percent) carry the parasite responsible for toxoplasmosis – a condition of special concern to pregnant women.

• Cats are responsible for the extinction of at least 33 species of birds.

• Feral cats kill an estimated 480 million birds in the U.S. each year (the study did not address the question of bird predation by owned cats. Studies suggest that there are 80 million owned cats in the U.S. and that 43 percent have access to the outdoors. Total cat predation on birds is likely around one billion birds per year, though some analysis suggest much higher figures.)

• Cats kill far more native wildlife species than nuisance (invasive) species.

• Cats will kill wildlife no matter how well they are fed; they kill for sport & play.

• The life expectancy of a feral cat is 3-5 years as opposed to 15 years for owned cats, which sometimes live well into their twenties.

Feral cats are prolific breeders and can produce up to five litters per year. Females give birth to 2-10 kittens per litter. The Humane Society estimates that a pair of breeding cats and their offspring can produce over 400,000 cats in seven years under ideal conditions, assuming none die.

About 60 to 88 million cats are owned in the US and 60 million more are feral. Outdoor cats pose a serious threat to native wildlife, particularly birds. While the loss of habitat is the primary cause of species extinctions, cats are responsible for the extinction of at least 33 species of birds around the world. Cats kill an estimated 480 million birds around the world (assuming eight birds killed per feral cat per year). Estimates indicate that between 500-000 and 8 million birds are killed by rural cats each year...not counting damage by urban cats.

Proponents of feral cats and those who insist their cats should be allowed outdoors, suggest that well-fed cats do not prey on wildlife. Research shows that cats maintain their predatory instincts, no matter how well fed they are. The diets of well-fed house-based cats in Sweden consisted of 15-90% native prey, depending on availability.

Cats are opportunistic hunters, taking any small animal available, such as pheasants, quail, grouse, turkeys and waterfowl. They also impact free-ranging chickens and other domestic fowl. Cat owners should be aware that feral cats also kill pet house-cats that are allowed outside.

Feral cats pose risks to public health and safety. Unlike owned cats that are required by law to be vaccinated; few feral cats are. Feral cats can transmit diseases to humans and other cats, including cat scratch fever, plague, rabies, ringworm, salmonellosis and taxoplasmosis. In fact, in 3 separate studies 62-80% of feral cats tested positive for taxoplasmosis...a disease of serious concern for pregnant women as well as older and younger members of the population.

As a cat owner who used to let cats roam, I had no idea that people have to fence cats out of their gardens and children's sand boxes for reasons other than just being a picky. Cats cause problems when they defecate in food-growing gardens, not to mention the unsightly damage they cause when murdering tulips. Seriously, even if you believe your cat doesn't poop in the kiddies sandbox, please consider what it contributes to in dead wildlife...for the fun of it.

Read the entire article is HERE. Photos from Wikipedia.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Making a Pond

In 2004 I moved from my cabin in the woods into a house I bought in town. I lived in that house for two years without furniture while my cabin looked 'homey' for the few people interested in a home off-grid. It was hard, but when the cabin sold, I immediately set out to get my home remodeled. I'd purchased the place purely for the 4-lot yard and the lovely location; the house was a mess, but...that is another story.

This is about the pond I've dreamed of since I looked out the kitchen windows (there were several, miss-matched windows across the back wall of the house. Unfortunately, about the only thing to look at was the old root-cellar just ten-feet away.

The only photo I could find of the old cellar included a very embarrassing shot of my poor dog. We'd just moved down from 9000' to two-thousand feet lower and he was going to be very hot. Yes, there is snow in the picture, but it was already spring...and he was miserable. I'm quite sure he was more-so after his shave! I'd asked for a trim...and this is what he got; poor guy was as pink as a new-born hamster. But, back to the story at can also see the lovely view out the old windows; mostly roof and one bears had fallen through, to boot. It was ugly.

As I said, as soon as I could I remodeled the kitchen and ended up with beautiful, new windows that still spanned the entire kitchen. As soon as I could, I removed that old roof.

I can't understand why someone would live with such a lovely view possible, and leave that ugly ol' roof in the way. It's not like we don't have refrigeration in La Veta; we're rural...but on the grid.

Here you can see just how close the pit, as I called it for a couple years, was to the house. It's about 9 x 11' and 3' deep. Not as large, nor as deep as the pond I built in Denver...but plenty big enough. I believe a girl should work with what she's got!

When the house was remodeled, I had the guys pile all the organic stuff on the far side of the pit. A pond needs a water-fall and I remember buying some 20-tons of dirt and having to move it last time. Thank goodness my son John was there to help...but it still took us three weekends. This 'rip-rap' as a base would mean I'd have to buy less dirt. Gotta use the ol' noggin', huh?

Just above are a couple more shots showing the pit in relation to the house and the rest of the yard. In the one on the left, you can also see where the steps led down into the thing. The stairs had to be walled off in line with the side and made a perfect place for the skimmer I wanted.

This one was taken from the top of the rip-rap just before the dirt arrived...and then one of the dirt; another 20 tons or so. They did a good job, not much actually fell into the pit, and they missed burying the volunteer currant bush that had sprung up. Well...pretty much.

You can see how close that old cloths line was; it was going to have to be moved. I choose to live without a dryer, so the line is important...and for more than just holding up more bird feeders! Oh, and you can see the beginning of the place for the skimmer, which would also house the pump. That hose was to give me an idea of where to put the biofilter up on the berm.

Here is my neighbor Rob, working on the hole for the tank that would become the bio-filter. The skimmer pulls water in, the pump pumps it up to the bottom of the tank. Inside the rubber tank is a grate holding a net bag of bio-medium. It looks like a bag o' rocks, but I believe they are a man-made medium on which bacteria will grow and flourish. It is that bacteria which helps to keep the pond clear. On top of the bag go several rounds of additional medium that will assist in keeping the water clean and clear all the time.

Poor Rob...I was absolutely no help with the heavy liner. First a felt-like underlayment went down, with the thick rubber over top. The liner helps protect the rubber, which is a special, untreated rubber that's safe for fish and animals that might drink the water. We used rock to try to hold the liner in place...and discovered the thing was too small. Sigh

You can just see the top of the bio-filter in the above well as the shoot that would become the waterfall. Rob included a small pond at the top, too; it's really pretty...or will be when it's finished, rocks and plants are placed and everything grows in.

Another friend, Allen moved that gawd-awful cloths-line pole. Rob had dug up the other one, but couldn't move it and just having moved here, didn't yet have tools to break up the concrete. Allen discovered the pole he worked on was at least two-feet below ground and had about 300' pounds of cement around the thing. He used a chain, a board and a huge jack...and very carefully managed to lift the block up and out. Unfortunately, he's not yet moved the broken cement. I'm also thinking I might need more dirt...or perhaps more rocks. The idea is NOT to see the tub up top...which temporarily has a lid while we worked on things.

That's the flower-spike from the Red Yucca I bought for it's architectural, thin, spiky leaves. The other is a sunflower blossom that popped up under a feeder...and a couple friends. I call those bees 'Red-butt Bees' and later discovered there really IS such a creature!

The cloths line was finally out of the way and I couldn't wait to fill the pond. I even went out and got some plants and fish...and had quite a celebration releasing and naming the first three fish I got; Casper is the white one, that Tegan (Rob's daughter) calls Marshmellow; Saffron is the pretty solid-orange one and Spot is what Tegan named the white and orange and black speckled one. They're all Shubunkins...with longer fins. Pretty!

As all ponds do, this one turned green immediately. Before long, things settled down and it's already clear. I can sit at the kitchen table and watch the fish swim. I love it. I couldn't stand it and got more fish at the pet-shop. Feeder-fish that were pennies a piece. That's Jolsen with the black-face, Pretty-boy in the middle...and One, the orange fish with the black line down his back. Doesn't it look like somebody 'numbered' him? They're only about three inches long, but they'll grow. Some say I'm nuts to name them...since I happen to consider the pond a bird-feeder. We have Kingfishers around, ya know!

After one false start were we got rocks that were too big way down at the end of the fall, this is what we ended up with...though things are still unfinished

Yes, the water flows, but it really needs to flow over the lip and not so much under it. I've got a few plants in, up on the berm...which may have died already. I discovered that when I water the berm, mud gets into the pond. Sigh My plan is to cement three layers of rock leaning back into the berm. I think it'll work...but it's just too cold to be working in the water now. Heck, most mornings it's frozen over! It'll get there. What should have been a weekend project has taken me about five years...I can wait till spring. As it is, the birds love it, I can hear it inside the house and I love my new view. It'll get better...

This is the pond I built when I lived in Denver. It's 12 x 10' and 5' deep. I loved it. No Koi this time though; I live with bears and lions not to mention raccoons and skunks. Shubunkins are cheap and pretty...even if I should name them names like Lunch or Sushi.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Location, Location, Location

I thought I’d talk about the difference in my yard and my neighbor’s across town. While we share a great many birds, of course…we each also have birds the other seldom, if ever, sees in their yard.

Case in point, I’ve never seen Bluebirds, they’ve never had Rosy-Finches. I get hundreds of red-winged blackbirds; they get a few. Eurasian Collared Doves don’t seem to be a problem for them, but I get hundreds of them, too. I’ve never seen a Towhee here…but they have several; even an Eastern Towhee visited them! While I regularly have half a dozen Blue Jays, a few Scrub Jays and once a single Steller’s…they get those plus dozens and dozens of Pinyon Jays that I've never seen here. They've never had a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, but I get them every year. Once, I believe they even had a Snipe in their yard! I could go on about the difference in birds. And while I am plagued by squirrels, can count a dozen at about any time and can hardly keep them from destroying feeders…they don’t have a problem with them. We both get bears, though my Akbash keeps them out of my yard; same goes for deer.

Like my friends, it was where I bought that got me into birding. Mine, like theirs, is a very birdy yard. Because of that, and also much like them, I’ve started feeding, watching and counting birds, as well as continued to add more shrubs and trees to increase the ‘birdiness’. I’ve discovered old, native, species plants work best; beautiful cultivars are bred for neither nectar nor seed…just beauty or perfume.

I bought the house where I live now because of the large lot (it’s four, long, town lots: 100 x 150’ or about 1/3 acre). I believe it’s on one of the prettiest streets in town; due to the huge willows, old cottonwoods, and assorted evergreens that surround the area and follow the river through town. And many people have planted different kinds of apple trees…most of them quite old by now. The river, a creek much of the time, flows about 100’ from the back of my house; when it’s high, I can hear it. The rectangular lot has an open back-yard with beautiful, southern exposure.

In spite of all the trees around the perimeter, my lot is actually quite open. While I do conduct what I call 'Turf Wars', there is a good expanse of lawn in the front and back of the house. The house is toward the front; leaving a good-sized open area out back. When I arrived, there was one small Blue Spruce, several old apples (I’ve removed two), a couple lilac, some wild plum, chokecherry, Virginia creeper and a large patch of raspberries. Two, rather small, old Cherry trees are back there, too. Near where I cut down a huge and rather nasty apple tree, I planted a smaller and not so dominating crab apple. I specifically looked for one with 'persistant fruit'; fruit that hangs on all winter rather than making a mess under the tree. When apples freeze and thaw, they make great food for deep winter feeding. This tree has apples not much bigger than coffee-beans; smaller even then the cherries. I love it, as do the birds.

I’ve added a ‘screen’ around the propane tank that sits towards the center in the back of the lot: New Mexican Privet, Low-grow Sumac and Cotoneaster; all of which offer berries. In the corner of the lot is a huge mass of the creeper; climbing where the back and west fence meet. Two more Cotoneaster and a River Birch were planted ten feet or so in front of the two, large chokecherries against the west fence, just up from the 15’ raspberry patch. I hope they make quite a nice thicket; a banquet for birds. Also along that same fence, about 30’ from the house and where the Blue Spruce and apple trees live, I also planted a (thornless) Hawthorn and an Elderberry Bush that’s gotten nearly as big as the huge chokecherry bushes.

Closer to the front of the yard, past the old apple trees next to that Hawthorn, are several Golden Current. At each front corner, on the street-side of my property…there are huge trees. These trees line both sides of the street and are mostly cottonwoods and willows. The bears love to sleep in them. More Virginia creeper lines the lower front fence and a Box Elder grows in the corner, under the bigger trees. I planted some Honeysuckle on the East corner, near the front gate. It offers berries, too, though not as many as the creeper.

Back down the Eastern side of the yard, there are wild plums and on the other side; several more old apple-trees. Past those trees, and all around me, I see more giant cottonwoods, aspen and evergreens, as well as big willows, and more chokecherry thickets and large Maples. Along that fence, near the center of the yard, I’ve planted more Elderberry, Mock Orange, Serviceberry, a cone-shaped little juniper. Curving into the yard behind five or six 50-year old Peonies are now Sand Plums, Mugo Pine, and several Viburnum types. Behind those and towards the very back I planted three, old-variety, own-root roses like the one I had in Denver. It was a huge thing that climbed up over the garage, had clusters of sweet, pink flowers nearly all year…and is thornless! Those three are already about 5’ high; I love that they need absolutely no fussing over. In a couple years they should drape about 25’ of fence. Those are for me, not so much the birds!

Along the back, perhaps 10’ in front of the fence, I’ve planted some goodies I brought down off the mountain where I lived; a foot-tall spruce, an 18” Ponderosa Pine, some Kinnickinnic and Creeping Mahonia. Next to that I’ve added a regular Sumac, and an odd, spiny Cotoneaster. Behind this ‘screen’ are the rather casual compost heap and a brush pile. There is another brush pile behind the two cherries on the other side of the yard. And that’s the loop.

Here and there, especially in the walkway between the house and garage, I’ve planted wild grasses, many native flowers and a couple more Mugo pines. On the little hill where the water-fall starts, I’ve planted several very low junipers, yet another mugo, a Coralberry, two Cranberry cotoneaster, some native, red ‘Hummingbird Flower’ and a sweet clump of what I know of as Sea Oats. Along the water fall is Creeping Jenny, more creeping, purple mahonia (it berries) and other low-growing goodies that I hope fill in and hide the liner. I can see the whole back yard from my big, new kitchen window; even the fish in the pond.

Like my friends across town, I’m protected from winds by both the hill down the street and all the huge trees. My yard stays quite calm most of the time. I’d like to get a few more shrubs, but leave the openness of the yard. Most plants that I buy these days are for bird-food or shelter…and, if possible, 4-season beauty. I like hardy, xeric stuff that I don’t have to mess with. I am an organic gardener; with the water-table less than 3’ below me and feeding birds as I do…how could I be otherwise? I even worry about neighbors spraying as ‘drift’ can kill pond fishes. While I consider the little pond a bird-feeder (there are lots of Kingfishers around), I don’t need a fish kill, too.

Most of my feeders are away from trees; an attempt to keep squirrels off of them. I offer different food in different feeders and don’t offer much mixed seed. I find it a waste of both money and seed; common millet is a filler-seed that most birds don’t especially like. Most of my feeders have Black Oil Sunflower Seed, some have Safflower Seed (Evening, Black-headed and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks LOVE it) and every morning I offer unsalted, in-the-shell peanuts on a flat-bed feeder, along with a cup of large dog kibble for the jays and magpies. Sometimes I also dump leftover bakery goods, cooked pasta and a bit of meat scraps. A bunch of grapes brought in Robins.

Smaller seed on an open feeder would attract flying pigs that decimate the contents in minutes. I also offer home-made suet during the winter and orange halves during the spring along with a small cup of grape jelly. Everything from Grackes and black birds to uninvited doves and starlings mob the suet; but if I can possibly avoid them, woodpeckers, chickadees and the flickers love suet too. Black-headed Grosbeaks, Summer Tanagers and Bullock’s Orioles love both the oranges and the grape jelly. Once, a Baltimore Oriole did, too!

Lastly, several feeders are for small finches only. In those feeders I do use a mix. It’s called Finches Feast and is an equal blend of black thistle, canary seed and sunflower-heart chips. The mix works in any finch feeder and is half the price of the Nyger seed sold as thistle for finches. Oh, and in the spring, when I put out nectar feeders for the hummers, I also make sure all the holes are enlarged enough to accommodate both Orioles and Tanagers, too. They love nectar.

Perhaps this spring, I will offer one feeder (set for only light-weight birds) with White Proso Millet. I understand common millet and milo (sourghum) (cheap birdseed fillers) attract mostly doves and sparrows; White Proso is also favored by finches, juncos, siskins, sparrows, titmice, towhees, woodpeckers and…buntings! I love the Lazuli and Indigos that come through.

Polly Wren who lives just outside of town, amid fields of grazing cattle, nestled amongst the tall trees that follow the river. Their quite different habitat is wilder and thicker than mine, with many trees. Many, if not all, of their feeders hang from or are built beneath the overhand of trees. Their yard is beautiful, and quite different from mine. She writes:

"Our personal property consists of 2.5 acres. Paul's parents own the adjacent 4 acres (all running along the stream) so the family parcel is 6 acres. We have a stream about 100 ft. from the house with a completely natural screening of old cottonwoods, choke cherry, box elder and other shrubby stuff between the house and stream. This provides us with much needed protection from the winds...While the winds might be howling all around us...our yard most times is relatively calm. We are about 7,000 ft. elevation.

In the actual 3/4 acre that we call the yard...we have natural grass, and have planted lilac, aspen, Newport plum, cherry, crab apple, one elm tree, purple and mountain ash, weeping willow...white fir, bristle cone pine and blue other words: it's a jungle out there.

The strange thing is we did not set out to make our yard "bird friendly"...we were not birders when we built the place 16 years ago. We became birders because of the birds that would "just show up", and then we have sort of discovered some things along the way.

Deer tend to be a problem we have deer fencing around the base of the trees...this we noticed protects the trees from the deer but is a pain to we don' simply being a little lazy we created great little hiding places for the birds at the base of our conifers and shade trees. We are also pretty lazy about cleaning the brush completely off the property...hence we discovered birds like those "brush piles"...more shelter.

For the most part I think we just really sort of lucked out by building in a place that was already "birdy"

As far as seed goes I discovered these great seed blocks at of all places Safeway. Birdola brand, Deck and Patio blocks...peanut hearts, sunflower chips; no hulls. Nuthatches, Pinyon Jays, Blue Jay, Chickadees, and Goldfinches all love it. Next is plain Black Oil Sunflower Seed, and suet blocks. Beverly turned us on to Purina Mills Wild Bird Chow called Finches Feast. That is about it.

We tend to take the feeders down around the first to middle of June to keep the bears from habituating themselves to them. We put them back up around the 1st of November.

Also as to feed, this spring was the first time we put up oranges around the yard and it really paid off with more that 2 dozen Western Tanagers and over a dozen Bullock's Orioles coming in daily (more than we have ever had before).

Over the years we have racked up quite a nice little yard list of 116 species which does contain some real rarities...again I think this is due to location more than anything else...

So; theirs is a forest, mine is more open. While I leave brushy, tall grass around the edges, they leave their yard wild, and mow paths through it. They've planted many large trees, I plant smaller trees and islands of shrubbery. I'm guessing habitat makes all the difference...and it's all good. One thing is for sure, their photography is so much better than mine! All pictures here, are theirs. Thank you two, so much!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Late Hummingbird

Yesterday I worked on my pond...again. Still? Anyway, I was watering some plants I was going to put up on the hill where the waterfall starts. I turned around to see a female Black-chinned Hummingbird feeding from one of the new plants! She's late; only a couple days short of the (late) record, here.

I got some really interesting plants: some spectacular 'Cranberry Cotoneaster' which looks very similar to pyracrantha but has no thorns! I remember, as a kid, watching waxwings get drunk eating the berries.

It seems the older I get, and the more arthritis swells my knuckles, the less interested I am in plants with nasty thorns and stickers. They hurt like hell! This plant, oddly pronounced: Co Tone E Aster and not Cotton Easter, is perfect...and the birds love it. I've got several varieties already; each with its own particular leave structure and berry. Sweet.

The guy at Rocky Mtn. Landscape in Pueblo West, also suggested a Mountain Fuchsia; a pretty 'hummingbird shrub' that is fine at higher altitudes, and is xeric to boot! This is what the little hummer was sipping from, when I saw her on October 9th. I hadn't had the plant in my yard more than a day; it was still in the growing pot.

I also picked up a stunning new plant for the yard: a Red Texas Yucca...which is not a yucca at all. It has long, thin dagger-like leaves, sort of leathery like yucca but instead of sharp hooks along the leaves, it merely has a fibrous look.

I think a single one, planted as a 'feature' plant will look spectacular. It is so architectural looking and yet, each blossom is stunning in its own right.

I like plants that don't bite! I think it will look spectacular even when not flowering, and again; no thorny spikes along the leaves. I like leaves...heck, I a couple years ago I planted some artichokes just for the leaves and found the thistle beautiful, too.

Photos are from Wikipedia, including the hummingbird collage, which I constructed.