Sunday, February 26, 2012

Gardening for Wildlife

This blog claims to be about nature and garden, but the garden side of it has not had a lot of attention since its first couple of years. And since I shifted my focus primarily to birds and other encounters with nature, any gardening posts I have written seem like an abrupt switch of topic.

But there's a reason I subtitled this blog "Nature and Garden in Northfield, MN." It's because I feel that the garden, in its largest sense (not just a vegetable patch or a flower bed, as in common American usage, but a plant-focused environment that we design and manage for our sensory pleasure and leisure use, as well as sometimes for growing food) is absolutely linked to nature. So are farming and the other ways we use or misuse land, and that's one of the reasons I'm passionate about sustainable agriculture and land use policy. Nature isn't something detached from everyday life and food production; they are inextricably linked, and gardens and farms are two of the main places where nature and culture intersect. (Michael Pollan's book Second Nature is a wonderful exploration of this truth.) I've always been repelled by the notion of a garden as completely under human control, where insects (beneficial as well as destructive) and weeds are ruthlessly poisoned for a more "perfect," blemish-free appearance. That's not perfect to me; that's the antithesis of what a garden should be, and in gardens like that the hum of bees and the singing of birds tend to be silenced.

On the page of this blog called The Bookcase that Became a Blog, I wrote:
Penelopedia, the blog, came to be when I realized I had a cluster of interests that seemed to me fundamentally related. The way I realized this? I had a special bookcase near the kitchen that housed all my cookbooks and food magazines, organic gardening books and magazines, frugal living guides, Mother Earth News magazines, and field guides for birds, insects, wildflowers, trees and regional wildlife. That bookcase was essentially a blog waiting to happen. And then I read Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about the pleasures and values behind leaving behind much of the industrialized food system and eating locally and traditionally raised food, and everything seemed to come together: respect for nature, animals, natural and traditional foods, sustainable food production that preserves biodiversity and doesn't abuse animals, simpler ways of life including growing your own food, and the deep importance of place.
We feed birds year-round and have added to our feeding program over time to invite a greater variety of birds to our feeders. Watching birds and learning more about them so I can explain what I've seen have been an easy focus for my interest in noticing the intersections between our daily, distracted human lives and the natural world around us. It seems to me now that the natural evolution of our birdfeeding program is to take what we have learned about birds' needs to make our generously sized yard more of a garden: a place where nature and culture intersect for the benefit of both, where birds and other small creatures can find shelter and sustenance while we humans can enjoy a pleasing view, a peaceful respite, and some home-grown food.

So this year, while planning our most extensive vegetable garden in several years, we're also starting to think more creatively about how we might use our outdoor space in support of the birds I love to photograph and write about. We're already well along that path. There are good features in place, from purple coneflowers and some other native plants, to a few established shrubs (good shelter for birds); to medium-sized and mature trees (and more nearby). We've been using a heated birdbath to provide welcome water for wildlife throughout the winter. And we garden organically for the most part and we never use pesticides in our garden. But there is more we can do.

We're going to get some advice from our friend Mary, a master gardener, editor of Northern Garden magazine, and author of the My Northern Garden blog. And we've been looking at websites like Ecosystem Gardening and the National Wildlife Federation's Garden for Wildlife. I've also been collecting landscaping-for-wildlife ideas (and other gardening and birding links) on Pinterest.

We're leery of taking on a larger project than we can manage in a growing season, so our steps will be modest. But I'm feeling energized by this vision, and I look forward to reporting on our progress.

And so here at Penelopedia, along with plenty of continued birdwatching and phenology and the rest of my typical fare, I hope to weave in a greater focus on gardening for wildlife -- thinking purposefully about how to make our little portion of the outdoors more hospitable to birds, butterflies and other creatures that may pass through. I also welcome hearing about your experiences and any advice you have on creating a more nature-friendly garden.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Transfixed by a Barred Owl's Call

Dave and I went for a walk in the Arb late Sunday afternoon, at the north end coming in from the Canada Ave. bridge. The trail was a real mixture, depending on the prevailing angles of the sun -- in some places it was still coated with snow as seen above, in other places darkly and squishily muddy, in some places icily slick, and in others a patchwork of slushy snow remnants and bare ground.

As we approached the thick stand of pines, I was transfixed to hear from ahead of us, close and loud and very clear, the call of a barred owl, three times within a minute or two. Dave said the look on my face was of utter joy to hear my first wild owl calling. The call of the barred owl is often described as "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?" and that is indeed the pattern of the call.

Here is a wonderful video, NOT my own, of a barred owl calling in northern Alberta. This is just what it sounded like, but we did not see it, and it did not call again within our hearing.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Downy Woodpeckers Frequently at Our Feeders

A male and a female downy woodpecker have been very frequent visitors to our suet log recently. Yesterday was the coldest day in some time, with a morning low of close to 0 F., and they were at the feeder almost constantly, it seemed, gaining fuel to stay warm. Here are three photos and a short video of the male. Above, he is resting in the maple tree in front of our house.

I was happy to capture the sun shining off the red dot on the back of the male's head in the photo above. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


Around this time last year, when we were deep in snow, I wrote twice about the female cardinal / the beauty of the female cardinal and once about a pair of cardinals at our feeder.

Female cardinal, February 2011

This year, of course, we have had such a mild, dry winter that unless we get some big storms we're likely to be completely snow-free within a few weeks (one good warm day would probably do it, around where we live). But the cardinals are still here and still beautiful, even if they don't look quite so stunning without a blanket of white behind them.

Male and female cardinals, January 2011
I noted last year that the male is not friendly to the female until the spring breeding season arrives, at which point he stops chasing her away and starts offering her food. In the photo above, taken last January, it's unclear whether he was tolerating her or whether the divided feeding area kept him from being aware she was so close.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

House Finches on January Morning

The same day I was collecting brief video clips of the birds at the feeders, I also took some stills in rapid-fire mode to see what I might capture. Here is a sequence of house finches at the tube feeder. I love the house finch in flight below. Click on any of the photos to see them larger.


Caught them both with their mouths full