The Case for Crows: Bright, Sociable Homebodies

 

The American Crow – a personal favorite

Let me try to persuade you (if persuasion is required) to join me in admiring the American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos). My early interest in these birds was nourished years ago when as a bookstore owner, I hosted an author presentation by Jean Craighead George about her middle grade book, The Tarantula in My Purse. (I know, great title!) The book chronicled Jean’s many adventures with various animals, including a crow she rescued as a fledgling that her children named Crowbar. Crowbar’s exploits with the George family were hilarious and brilliantly portrayed the bird’s ingenuity. An example: when Jean’s daughter complained that the crow was taking toys from her sandbox, her mother suggested she play on the slide, since the crow with its large, taloned feet couldn’t do that. Crowbar observed the child gaily swooping down the slide a few times, then flew to the sandbox, plucked up a plastic coffee can lid, flew to the top of the slide, stepped onto the lid and sailed down the slide! Another example: Jean once placed candy party favors under upside-down paper cups to keep Crowbar from bothering them. Crowbar waited until Jean was in the kitchen, then carefully tapped the little cups to the side of the table until the candy fell out, ate it, and then neatly tapped the cups back in place to hide his misdeed.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

So imagine my delight when the Bird Academy at Cornell Lab of Ornithology offered a 3-hour online course on crows taught by Dr. Kevin McGowan who’s studied these birds for 30 years! I signed up at once for “Anything but Common: The Hidden Life of the American Crow.” Since winter walks don’t offer much birdsong – but do frequently feature crow calls – I thought I’d take this opportunity to share some of what I’ve learned and my general enthusiasm for the American Crow.

First, the Bad Rap on Crows

Crows find a deer carcass provides a lot of protein on a winter day.

Let’s get the complaints about crows out of the way first. I know some friends who are frightened of crows or at least “creeped out” by them. The main reason seems to be that part of their diet is carrion. But consider, cleaning up carcasses is actually a service to both us and the ecosystem, since it reprocesses lots of nasty stuff that we don’t have to deal with! Crows eat just about anything –  sumac berries, wild cherries, seeds, fish, discarded pizza – whatever! They are often disliked because they do occasionally consume baby birds. But guess what! The most lethal predator of baby birds in our area is this guy!

Chipmunks are a major predator of baby birds;  crows are one of the least.

Yes, the chief wild predator of nestlings in the northern United States is chipmunks –  and their relatives the squirrels! They’re omnivores and excellent, quick tree climbers. In the southern U.S., the main predators of baby birds are snakes:

Snakes are the largest predator of baby birds in the southern US. This is an Eastern Garter Snake.

Dr. McGowan cites a meta-analysis study done in 2007 (“Factors Affecting Nest Predation on Forest Songbirds in North America“, F.R. Thomson). Out of 245 predation events on nestlings by wild animals, only 2 were caused by crows. Chipmunks, squirrels and snakes consumed half of the nestlings in the study. Outdoor cats kill a lot more baby birds than crows and among wild creatures, raptors, insects, cowbirds, jays, and mice are all more likely to kill or dine on baby birds than crows. Birds eggs are most often eaten by raccoons and opossums. So I think we can dispense with the notion that crows are killing lots of songbirds.

But you don’t want to park your car under trees in which large groups of crows roost on a winter night – very messy! And they can tear things apart trying to get at garbage or any kind of available food. Early morning is a noisy time to be around a family of crows, too, especially in the spring when young crows are hungry and insistent that they be fed right now! Crows are also loud and boisterous in flocks and a flock can consume large amounts of seed, which doesn’t endear them to farmers, of course!

You don’t want to park your car under roosting crows in the winter! Photo by jdkatzvt at iNaturalist.org (CC-BY-NC)

Now On to the Positives!

So yes, like all animals, crows can cause problems. But crows also provide a variety of services within a habitat. They keep insect and rodent populations under control, as well as some agricultural pests like Japanese beetles and corn borers. Their nests are often acquired by some owls and merlins who don’t make their own. And crows are superlative sentinels, warning other creatures about predators on a regular basis, as you’ve probably noticed when they start cawing whenever you’re around.

And of course, they become prey for higher predators; the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) is the most dangerous predator for adult crows.

Great Horned Owls are the creature most likely to feast on adult crows.

Raccoons (Procyon lotor) eat crow eggs and nestlings too, and occasionally add insult to injury by sleeping in the nest once they’ve finished! The birding group may have seen one of these culprits at Cranberry Lake Park a few years ago. The nest was made of sticks like crow’s nest are, and this raccoon looked quite content to be there early in the morning  – after a late night snack perhaps?

An apparently young raccoon waking up in what may be a crow’s nest, probably after feasting on eggs or even nestlings.

Crows will also “mob” hawks in their territory since raptors take a fair number of crow eggs.

Two crows attacking hawk
Crows harassing a hawk at Bear Creek Nature Park

But what intrigues me about crows are some of their special qualities, ones that are unusual in nature.

Crows Enjoy Family Life (or what scientists call “cooperative breeding”)

A family – not a “gang” or a “murder” –  of crows on Buell Road in 2016

In all seasons, crows hang out with their family, which usually includes a monogamous pair, this year’s young, plus young from previous years. None of the brownish yearlings breed. Some female crows can breed at 2 years old, but generally mature when the males do, at about 4 – 5 years of age. So during this long adolescence, they generally stay with their family and help out with nest building as well as caring for and feeding their younger siblings. According to Dr. McGowan, that’s a rare trait in birds.

Crow pairs are generally monogamous and occasionally will preen each other.

They also stick close to home, defending their territory year ’round, but they feel free to go off territory to forage and roost. They move together, feeding or just hanging around – but one of the family members is  always on guard, signaling when danger approaches. Both adults and young will groom each other occasionally, which is called “allopreening.” So Dr. McGowan admonishes us that if we see a group of 2-15 crows gathering consistently in one place, “it’s not a gang, it’s not a ‘murder.’ It’s a family.”

Crows are Social Creatures (or What Dr. McGowan Calls  “Fun- loving Party Animals!”)

A large flock of crows in the autumn at Bear Creek Nature Park

Dr. McGowan likes the fact that crows “never do anything quietly or alone.” Their families live within larger communities of crows. Foraging flocks can swell to 250 crows or more in January, and then drop off to 50 or so in April when breeding starts. As soon as the fledglings can fly, though, the numbers in flocks go right back up. A crow flock changes from day to day; an individual crow may spend time with different groups every day. Blackbirds and geese, I learned, are the same way.

Crows gather in large roosts starting in late fall. Photo by ellen hildebrandt (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

In winter, crows gather into very large groups to spend the nights together in huge “slumber parties,”  as McGowan calls them. They’re probably seeking safety in numbers from predators, since crows see no better at night then we do. These huge roosts can contain birds from areas farther north who are unfamiliar with the territory. They may be keeping an eye on the birds that look best fed,  so they can follow them when they go out to forage in the morning.

Researchers think that these social groups serve several other functions. The younger crows may be testing themselves as they call, chase and hold mock fights. They may  be trying to determine whether they’re going to breed soon or stay with their family for another year. Social groups provide a good opportunity for finding both your competition and your potential mate. In some cases, the young hang out in social groups during the day, but go home to their parents at night. Or they may spend part of the day being social and part of the day on their home territory.

Do Crows Have Empathy?

According to Dr. McGowan, the social nature of crows also shows up in some other interesting ways. He has seen crows “adopt” young from outside their family. A bird rehabilitator that my husband and I once knew received a crow with a broken wing, healed it and then put it in a big, open aviary in her back yard. A large group of crows gathered around the aviary and called to the bird inside for three days, until it finally flew out and joined them. An adoption? Or perhaps a family encouraging an injured member to rejoin them? Dr. McGowan, who tags each baby bird for identification, probably could have told us, but I’ll never know.

Dr. McGowan also documented on film a crow coming upon an unrelated crow that was seriously ill – weak, encrusted eyes, almost asleep out in the open during the day. Though the male was foraging for his mate, he stopped and put a seed in the sick female’s beak – and two other unrelated crows did the same shortly thereafter. I wondered if this behavior may have contributed to the huge die-off of crows from West Nile virus several years ago.

The Crows and Their Relatives (Corvidae) are Smart!

An American Crow with a nut. Photo by Scott Buckel (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

Because crows demonstrate so many unusual kinds of intelligence, they’re occasionally referred to as “feathered apes.” You may have seen the PBS Nova sequence on YouTube in which University of Washington researchers donned a variety of masks around campus, but one researcher wore a caveman mask when climbing to crow nests in order to weigh, measure, tag and band the young. Ten years later, the crows still reacted negatively to someone wearing that mask – gathering, calling and sometimes even attacking the person in the caveman mask! Evidently, the information from that mask is remembered and passed on within the crow community to birds not yet born when the mask was used!

The Cornell Bird Academy finds the same memory in a more positive sense. Crows recognize Dr. McGowan since he feeds crows peanuts to attract them for study; they even come up behind him, recognizing his walk. One crow who saw him leaving the Ornithology Lab, flew down to the far end of a parking lot and perched in front of his Subaru waiting for him to arrive with a peanut!  It knew his car as well as his face, despite the fact that were many Subarus in the parking lot.

New Caledonian Crows (Corvus moneduloides) in the South Pacific make tools to get at food – saw-toothed tools, curved ones and others. Here’s a video of a wild female crow in the lab of Russell Gray at the  University of Auckland in New Zealand.  She creates a hook by  sticking a straight metal stick under the duct tape at the bottom of a tube and then carefully bending it around the tube. Her hook complete, she then uses it to pick up a small bucket of food from within the tube. Pretty creative for those creatures that we disparage as “bird-brained!”

A New Caledonian Crow preparing to use its tool by Frédéric Desmoulins (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

A Common Raven (Corvus corax), the American Crow’s larger Northern relative, was documented in Scandinavia using its beak and foot to haul up an ice fisherman’s line to grab his catch. The PBS video on YouTube has clearly been staged for the camera, but demonstrates nicely what the raven learned to do when a camera wasn’t around.

A Common Raven by Catchang (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

And yet another favorite video comes from the science section of the New York Times.  An American Crow, after being taught to pick up rocks, quickly figures out how to raise the water level in a tube to get at a piece of floating food.  Aesop’s fable come to life! (Be patient – a short ad comes first.)

Seasons of a Crow’s Life

Crow on a snowy day on Lake George Road

Winter:  Huge flocks of dozens or hundreds or crows can gather at night. According to the Bird Academy class, the largest on record had as many as a thousand crows! Where many pines are available, hundreds of them will often disappear inside the branches for shelter. In areas where only deciduous trees are available, they will make do and sleep more exposed on bare branches.

In just the last 20-30 years, crows have begun to nest and roost at night in suburban and urban areas. Crows have always foraged in towns, but generally flew to fields outside of towns when darkness fell. Dr. McGowan attributes this change to several factors:  loss of natural habitat due to development, safety from predators due to city lights,  abundant food, simple curiosity and freedom from being hunted. The Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1970 allows crows to be shot but only in season; urban and suburban areas, though, generally  forbid hunting – a plus for the crows.

March and April: Around the time of the first serious snow melt, watch for crows carrying sticks.   They construct their nests high up in trees, usually just below the top or in the top quarter of a tree in a crotch or on horizontal branches.  The outer surface is all sticks, but the inner lining may be made of pine needles or animal hair from dogs or deer.  The whole crow family may help build a new nest each year.Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, spotted this nicely camouflaged nest filled with snow at Draper Twin Lake Park.  From the location and its stick construction, I’m guessing it’s a crow nest.

A well-camouflaged, snow-covered crow nest at Draper Twin Lake Park

April to May:  Females make a new high-pitched crow sound that the Cornell staff calls “whining.” They think it may be a signal that the female is hungry since males and their family helpers often fly to her with food when they hear it. The female lays 3-9 bluish to olive green eggs with gray or brown splotches near the egg’s large end. The female incubates the eggs for 18 -19 days and broods the little nestlings for an unusually long time, 5-6 weeks! As a comparison, our Eastern Bluebirds brood their nestlings for only 16-18 days.  Crows usually have 1-2 clutches per year.

June to July: Dr. McGownan describes the summer months  as often the noisiest time of the year for crows. Fledglings mouths are bright red inside as they beg loudly to be fed.  (Listen to the fledgling call at this link.) The nestlings and fledglings don’t venture far from the nest if they leave at all in this period.

A juvenile crow begging for food by Michelle at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC-SA)

September:  By now, baby crows are practicing more of their sounds. The crows start to forage outside of their territory again.  Gangs of fledglings and yearlings may gather together wherever they find a food source. The family feeds the fledglings for two months after they’re out of the nest, so it takes roughly 4 months of work to raise a family of crows – a long time in the bird world.

No Wonder I Like Crows!

An American crow acting as sentinel for its family.

Crows live relatively long lives for a bird, about 20 years –  and their feathers start to turn white here and there about halfway through their long lives. (Hmm…sounds familiar.) They clearly pass on information from one generation to another. Some of them are tool makers. Though DNA tests done at Cornell show there is infidelity among crow pairs (what researchers call “extra-pair breeding”),  the majority are monogamous and family-oriented.  In his 30 years of research, Dr. McGowan has only found one crow killed by another crow; killing their own kind is extremely rare. They clearly remember both good experiences and bad ones for a long time. In other words, despite being wild, winged creatures with vastly different lives, they still have many things in common with us humans.

Let’s see…crows can be described as a species that is social, curious, mischievous, creative, birds that enjoy investigating new things. Generalists rather than specialists, their behavior and skills show lots of variety and they enjoy a palate that ranges from nuts, seeds and berries to meat, beer and pizza. It occurs to me that those are some of the qualities I enjoy in my friends and family! So no wonder crows fascinate me – and I hope that now, they intrigue you a bit, too.

Stewardship Talk TONIGHT: The Poweshiek Skipperling Butterfly

For our first Stewardship Talk of 2020 we are excited to host Dr. Pete Blank from The Nature Conservancy for his talk, “The Poweshiek Skipperling Butterfly: The Life and Times of Michigan’s Most Endangered Species.” The talk is free and will be TONIGHT, January 30, 2020 at 6:30 pm at the Paint Creek Cider Mill, 4480 Orion Road, Rochester, MI 48306.

The Poweshiek Skipperling butterfly was once common in the Upper Midwest in tallgrass prairies and prairie wetlands. Over the last 20 years its population has crashed and the species is now endangered in North America and critically imperiled in Michigan. One of its last strongholds is Oakland County, Michigan. Dr. Blank will discuss the current population status of the Poweshiek Skipperling, its life history, and efforts to bring it back from the brink of extinction.

PoweshiekSkipperling_Presentation2020_Flyer

Hope to see you there!

Restoration Never Stops: Winter Planting and “Weeding” in Our Natural Areas

The Center Pond and the sloping trail to the west after December mowing by the stewardship crew.

Most home gardeners take a break during the winter. The gardens have been prepared for winter; no weeding or seeding is planned until spring. Winter is a time to dream about next year’s garden.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

But late fall and winter are busy times for our Parks and Recreation stewardship crew. Many native seeds need cold winter temperatures in order to germinate. According to the useful website Ecolandscaping.org, thawing and freezing loosen the outer coating of some native seeds, signaling them to germinate as the soil warms. The Milkweeds (genus Asclepias) and Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) would be examples of native seeds that require the winter’s cold before germinating. [Use pause button to see captions below, if necessary.]

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Other seeds may need multiple seasons in the soil before they germinate – like Round-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica americana) or Common Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum). [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

And of course, given the diversity of native plants, some seeds sprout and grow in one growing season like Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) or New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).

Native Seeds Can Be Planted Almost Year ‘Round

Because native plants are adapted to our climate, very early spring, late fall and even snowy winter days can all be times for planting in our parks and natural areas. In November of 2015, the northern prairie at Draper Twin Lake Park was seeded. In this case, the planting area was huge and special equipment was required to get the native seed distributed evenly across the site. So Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, used a native plant contractor. By 2018, a lush prairie began to bloom at Draper Twin Lake Park.

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In the winter of 2018, Ben and his stewardship specialist did a very orderly planting of moisture-loving seeds in the emerging wetlands at Charles Ilsley Park.  Last winter when I reported on interesting tracks at Charles Ilsley Park, I  mentioned a neat grid of “tracks” on the snowy surface of one of the wetlands.

Of course, they were the footprints left by Ben and Alyssa as they seeded the spring-fed pond with a native wetland mix.  (The birders had trekked across the pond earlier in the morning.) Ben had planted Water Plantain (Alisma triviale), some sedges (grass-like plants), and bright purple Monkey-Flower (Mimulus ringens) along with other wetland species.

Many of the plants they seeded aren’t apparent yet.  But nature took temporary advantage of the spot. Up out of the wetland sprouted a native annual Witchgrass (Panicum capillare). We’ll have to wait for Ben’s plants to grow larger – but meanwhile, the seed bank has produced a grass that feeds the caterpillars of several Skipper butterflies  and produces late fall seeds for lots of birds, including cardinals, woodcocks, bobolinks, bobwhite quail and many others.

Native Witchgrass emerged from the seed bank in the prairie wetlands at Ilsley.

Sometimes, Ben hand sows the native seed that his crew and volunteers harvest each year from various parks. Here on a cool April morning of 2018, shortly after a prescribed burn, Ben is casting seed at Bear Creek Nature Park by hand in a tradition that dates back centuries. It’s a simple way to plant smaller amounts of gathered seed in certain areas that can benefit from more native plants.

Dr. Ben Vanderweide 2018 seeding smaller areas at Bear Creek in 2018 with native seed gathered by his crew and volunteers.

A Kind of “Weeding” Happens Year ‘Round as Well

Just as in a garden, removing or thinning unwanted plants is an endless stewardship task in natural areas. Invasive shrubs that crowd or shade out our native species can literally take over fields. To give native plants a chance to establish themselves, the non-natives must be removed repeatedly for several years in a row. Vines like Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) must be cut and treated to keep them from strangling trees by spiraling around their trunks – or to prevent them from climbing across the crowns of trees, making them so top-heavy that they fall in wind storms. Non-native wildflowers and grasses can be invasive too, while providing little food and shelter for wildlife. Late autumn and winter can be ideal times to do those jobs, when plants are pulling down nutrients into their roots.

In the fall of 2018, Ben arranged for a forestry mower to remove a huge area of aggressively invasive shrubs that had blanketed the fields north of the pond for decades.  Last year in early spring, with snow still on the ground, he and his stewardship assistant spent a few days carefully seeding this vast area with native seed since the area was too full of mowed shrub material to be planted by machine.

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A month ago on a dry winter day,  he went over the area again with a bushhog since many of the shrubs tried to make a comeback during the summer before they were spot treated in August. It was great to see these areas cleared again so that the architecture of Bear Creek’s natural rolling landscape could be fully appreciated once more!

The rolling landscape of the north section of Bear Creek Park after Ben bush-hogged again this December.

In 2016, I wrote a history blog about how Bear Creek Nature Park looked when it was a farm during the Great Depression.  In the library’s local history room is a book entitled Incredible Yesterdays (Ravenswood Press, 1977) by local author George Comps who lived on the property in the 1930’s. At one point, he described a moonlit night when he and his sister walked to the Center Pond. While George stood on the south side, his sister went around to her favorite “Big Rock” on the north side and they could see each other across the pond in the moonlight. When I wrote the 2016 blog, I bemoaned the fact that what I believe was that “Big Rock” was buried in invasive shrubs that also surrounded the pond, blocking the view to the other side. But with Ben’s last mowing of the land, the Comps’ favorite rock is once again visible and the view across the pond that they saw some 75 years ago is possible again. Now that’s both land and history preservation!

Last week, a different kind of “weeding” was happening at the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail. In last October’s blog, I described the very special conditions of this natural area that blooms with many unusual wildflowers throughout the growing season.

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Though adapted to fire and  both wet and dry conditions, these rare-but-sturdy flowers do need lots of sunshine. Over the years, trees have grown up around the edge of the Wet Prairie, shading out some of the sunlight these lovely plants require. So this January,  Ben and his stewardship specialist Grant, have been felling some trees to bring more sunlight to this special spot on the Paint Creek Trail. They’re also working to eliminate a large, dense thicket of Glossy Buckthorn (Frangula alnus), like the ones they removed last year also at Bear Creek Nature Park’s marsh. An aggressively invasive bush, glossy buckthorn crowds out native plants and its admittedly attractive berries are also not as nutritious for wildlife as those of our native shrubs and plants.

Big Rewards for Year ‘Round Work

February of 2018 at the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park – an austere beauty seen through a scrim of Indian Grass.

The eastern prairie at Charles Ilsley Park is one of my favorites – a huge rolling expanse embraced by forest. In February last year, its austere palette of browns and dark grays suited the inward quietness of a winter day. This park has required years of “weeding” – removal of non-native shrubs, elimination of stands of non-native plants and coming this spring, another prescribed burn, if the weather allows. Like many of you, I imagine, I don’t relish the sound of chain saws against wood, the stoop work of treating stumps to prevent the return of invasive shrubs, the roar of mowers as they chew  through a thicket of invasive shrubs.

July at Charles Ilsley’s Eastern Prairie

But all of that is just preparing the way for native plants and their seeds to flourish. And the reward is great  – a richly diverse native habitat where bees and butterflies sip at blossoms, where birds build nests in the deep grass or along the tree line, where creatures and their young are fed by plants that they’ve thrived on for thousands of years. Jane Giblin, of the Michigan Wildflower Association, recently quoted someone who said we should “garden as if life depended on it,” because, of course it does! And that’s also the goal of our township’s stewardship program – to restore our parks and natural areas by  “weeding out” plants that don’t provide rich, healthy habitat while protecting, nourishing and restoring the plants that feed and house the creatures that called this land home eons before we did.

Bear Creek Nature Park: A Welcoming Refuge from the Holiday “Must-do’s!”

The meadow west of the Center Pond in December

At our house, we’ve just emerged from the joyful-but-somewhat-frantic bustle of the festive season. From just before Thanksgiving through the New Year, we enjoyed the noise, color and craziness of the holiday with lots of friends and family  – but it feels like we just didn’t stop moving for weeks!  I imagine that’s true for lots of you too.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

I managed to keep some  scraps of my sanity by – you guessed it – venturing out into the parks. Our home is about five minutes from Bear Creek Nature Park; that became my most frequent escape hatch. So here’s a look at the wildness nearby that (with a small nod to Will Shakespeare) knit the raveled sleeve of my cares during the last several weeks.

 

It All Began before Thanksgiving…

Ice forming on the Center Pond on a bitter day in November

In the first half of November, before the rush of the festive season, wild visitors from farther north began to filter into Bear Creek. The birding group got a glimpse of a Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) in the bushes. These large, chubby sparrows are usually rusty red with chevrons forming the stripes on their breasts. Since I didn’t get a good shot that day, here’s one in a very similar setting from generous iNaturalist photographer, Joseph Salmieri.

A Fox Sparrow by Joseph Salmieri (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

The birding group also saw a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) feeding in the grass along a path in early November. These birds make lovely black dashes against the snow on a winter day. They travel here from their breeding grounds in Canada – perhaps all the way from Hudson’s Bay! They’re often my first real sign that winter’s on its way.

A Dark-eyed Junco along the trail at Bear Creek in early November

The second half of November bore down on me suddenly since Thanksgiving came so late this year. Snow fell; the temperature dropped. Yikes! Time to design Christmas cards, turn my photos into a family calendar, think about gifts for special people. Out in the park, birds kept me company to soothe my jitters. One afternoon, my husband and I came across what seemed to be a friendly gathering of birds. Five species hung out together, moving about foraging and chattering in a grove of small trees near where Bear Creek runs out of the pond.

Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) caught our attention first as they chatted in a small tree. A male House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) listened in from behind a branch. The bluebirds probably moved a little farther south to escape the cold for a while, though some may return for short visits during the winter and some may be year ’round residents.

Five bluebirds socialize before moving south while the House Finch, a year ’round resident, listens in from behind a branch.

The House Finch just bears up in the cold of a Michigan winter. Like other small winter residents, he keeps warm by crunching on copious amounts of seed and fluffing his feathers into a winter jacket.

house-finch-male-bc.jpg
A male House Finch will stay with us all winter. Love how the red shows between his wings!

The woodpeckers, too, are a hardy crew. A Downy Woopecker male (Dryobates pubescens) tapped along a tree trunk searching for insects eggs or a frozen caterpillar, quite uninterested in the bluebirds.

A male Downy Woodpecker kept up a tapping rhythm near the bluebirds.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) joined the gathering on a nearby Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina). He seemed to be craning his neck to hear what was going on with the bluebirds behind him! But in reality, of course, he was just demonstrating the caution that all wild birds do when feeding.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker looks about while foraging at another tree trunk.

The fifth member of the bird gathering was the industrious Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), who pretty much ignored the others, having found something very interesting at the end of a branch.

A Tufted Titmouse sees something worth its attention at the end of a dead branch.

On the big loop path beyond the bird gathering, a White Oak leaf (Quercus alba) testified to the frigid temperatures. The water droplets on it had frozen and magnified the leaf’s veins in a way that always fascinates me.

Frozen water droplets function like a magnifying glass on a white oak leaf.

Our feeders at home got busy around Thanksgiving as well, providing visual entertainment as we buzzed by the windows, working on Christmas projects. New guests arrived at the feeder this year – the Hairy Woodpeckers (Dryobates villosus). Here the female sits in an aging black oak outside the window, just beyond the feeder.

A female Hairy Woodpecker in profile shows off her long, thick beak.

It’s sometimes hard to distinguish the Hairy from the Downy Woodpecker at a distance.  But when both arrive at a feeder at the same time, the difference in size is readily apparent!

The Hairy Woodpecker has a much heavier bill and is much larger than the Downy when seen up close at a feeder!

The Holiday Pace Picks up in December…

Eastern Meadow at Bear Creek on a later winter afternoon

Oh, boy. Hurried wrapping of presents for family in Australia. Multiple trips to the Post Office to send calendars to friends overseas and around the States. Trips out of town for special gifts. But on the way home from the errands, a stop at Bear Creek to slow down, breathe the sharp air and redden my cheeks.

One dark, late afternoon and as I entered the park, I noted an alarming sight. A lovely but deadly Oriental Bittersweet vine (Celastrus orbiculatus) had wrapped itself around a tiny tree. This terribly invasive plant will slowly strangle this sapling if it isn’t carefully removed and its roots treated with herbicide. Sad that such a colorful vine should have such a powerfully negative impact! Birds do eat the berries at times, but unfortunately get very little nutrition from them.

Vines like this invasive Oriental Bittersweet that wrap around trees can strangle them. And the berries have scant nutrition for our birds.

Looking for more benign color, I came across lots of rich green moss (phylum Bryophyta) in the forest. Mosses, unlike plants, can actually grow very slowly in cold temperatures, if not under snow or ice. Some mosses actually survive in Antarctica! Our mosses cope with winter winds by being close to the ground and benefit from the moisture of winter rain and melting snow. They can also go dormant when moisture is low and then regenerate quickly after a rain. What a relief to the eye to come across these bright green mosses on a wintry day! [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

A golden fungus and a bright yellow lichen appeared at various places in the park in December.  These bright touches against bark or leaves always catch my attention on a gray winter day.

Reminders of summer past help me put things back in perspective during the  holiday bustle. An abandoned nest of what I think was Bald-faced Hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) hung low in bush. Yellow Jacket Wasps (Vespula maculifrons) also build aerial nests occasionally, as well as using underground burrows, but theirs are usually higher up than this one. The hornets created this masterpiece with overlapping, striped scallops. Since the hornets nicely camouflaged the nest in a leafy bush, I’d missed it completely in the summer. Amazing that these tiny creatures can create such a beautiful design on the outside of their architecture and those myriad, perfect hexagons inside!

Along the path to the west of the Playground Pond, the abandoned, but still intact nest of last summer’s Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) swung gently in the winter air, but no fledglings rock within it now. Another architectural marvel, this one was woven out of plant fibers over the course of one to two weeks by a female Oriole. Such sturdy nests and they’re only used for one season!

A Baltimore Oriole nest woven last spring by a female using only her beak! And it’s sturdy enough to survive winter winds!

Some summer plants still stand tall in the fields, bearing their seeds for hungry birds. The giant Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) has done its duty. It’s  been picked clean, probably by the flocks of American Goldfinches in the park.

Prairie Dock from last summer has already offered up its seeds for hungry birds.

Its huge, spotted leaves that feel like sandpaper in the summer now lie crumbling beneath the stately stalks.

The huge, sandpaper-like leaves of Prairie Dock are now giving their nutrients back to the soil.

In December, Goldfinches had not yet devoured the seeds of this Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). This one was so fluffy that it looked like it was dressed in a down jacket for the winter. But with winter wind and wet, heavy snow, it will bow down to the ground before spring, making way for new sprouts.

A Canada Goldenrod still stands upright, looking like its dressed for winter weather.

One afternoon, my husband I found a gorgeous rock embedded with quartz crystals. From its location, I’m guessing it was  hidden under a vernal pool for most of the year. It shone white in the winter woods, looking like a stray snowball from a distance. Isn’t the coloring and crystal structure lovely? So rare to see such a large, white rock.

A beautiful white rock, perhaps granite mixed with quartz and feldspar crystals.

And Then the Post-Holiday Slow-down

Bear Creek meanders south from Gunn Road to join Paint Creek just west of the Paint Creek Cider mill.

Presents are put away.  Decorations are being stored in the basement. The bevy of much beloved guests is dwindling. And the park has gone mostly silent. Perhaps you’ve noticed that birds are a bit tougher to see or hear in Bear Creek Nature Park now. Sometimes they’re present, but I wonder if  their diminished numbers may be due to something good – a plentitude of winter feeders in the surrounding neighborhoods.

On our last visit, we heard a Red-bellied Woodpecker in the woods on the township hall trail and perhaps the “ank-ank-ank” of a White-breasted Nuthatch somewhere on the Big Loop. We watched a family of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) settling into some tall trees off the western field. The adults arrived first and one began calling. When no young arrived, the calling adult looked back at its mate and they cawed until all the presumably younger members gathered with them in the tree tops. Crow families often stay together for more than one season, the young helping the adults feed the nestlings of the next generation. Such intelligent and social birds!

Down at the Center Pond, the ice had temporarily melted and a pair of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) glided across the dark surface. They’ve evidently made their December choice of partners and will now spend the winter together before mating in the spring.

A mallard couple keeping company on the pond while the ice is gone.

Signs of spring feel rare and welcome after Christmas and its encouraging to notice that plants have already made preparations. A fuzzy little Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) held onto its seeds at the edge of a woodland trail. This plant produces oblong fruits with a thimble-like shape and pattern in summer that change into cottony tufts full of seeds in the fall. It keeps its seeds right into winter and depends on the wind to spread them. But it has another couple of strategies for survival. It produces a substance that discourages other seeds around it from germinating and its tap root is accompanied by rhizomes (underground stems that sprout and make roots) that allow it to spread beneath the soil. Look how its seed tufts in the photo below just happened to form an image of a frowning human profile, something I didn’t notice until I developed the photo! What fun!

I call this tufted seedhead Thimbleweed Man. Do you see the profile face looking right in the top stem?

The trees produce leaf buds in the fall which sometimes have a waxy surface to help retain moisture in the winter cold. The American Dogwood (Cornus florida) makes neat, round, little flower buds that face upward at the branch tips. Separately and sometimes just below the flower buds are leaf buds. I’ve only found one American Dogwood in Bear Creek Nature Park ; it’s on the east side of the Big Loop. Each fall and winter, I look eagerly for these buds with their pointed tops turned to the sun. In spring, I enjoy the way the white bracts (modified leaves) open to reveal a small cluster of yellow flowers at the center.

I saw this lovely bud on the Big Loop but can’t identify it yet! I loved its golden glow on a gray day! If any of you know which tree produced this bud, please tell me in the comments! It almost looks as though the leaves started to break from their buds with the warmer temperatures after the holidays.

A mystery plant – but isn’t its bud a pretty color?

Down near the Center Pond, I spotted the cache of an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) beneath the trunk of an old Shagbark Hickory tree (Carya ovata). I could hear the owner scolding me from deep within the tangled brush nearby, but I never got a clear look at it. Shagbark Hickory is a fine example of how productive native trees can be in their habitat. According to the Illinois Wildflower website, these big, distinctive trees provide sweet nuts for raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks and many birds. Their leaves host a wide variety of insect caterpillars and so are often sought out by birds like chickadees, vireos, warblers and others. The long shards of shaggy bark provide winter shelter for insects and even nesting sites for small birds like the Brown Creeper. And they’re deer and fire resistant! – though the saplings may be gnawed by rabbits. What a contributor to a healthy habitat!

The consumed cache of an American Red Squirrel at the foot of a large Shagbark Hickory which supplied most of the nuts. Hope this squirrel has other caches for the coming winter months!

Shagbark Hickory bark provides winter shelter for overwintering insects and nesting sites for birds.

On the way back down to the Township Hall the day after Christmas, we spotted the festive bark of another tree. Nice Christmas colors,eh?

The reddish bark and green moss on this Sassafras tree looked quite festive at the holiday season!

Ben identified the tree for me as one of the tallest Sassafras trees (Sassafras albidum) that he’s ever seen. We were certainly impressed! Its bark can sheer off, leaving this red layer exposed. Sassafras is another generous host, providing food for butterfly caterpillars like the Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus), the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) and for many moths. Bobwhites, Wild Turkeys and many songbirds feed on their pitted fruits called “drupes.”

A very tall, native Sassafras tree on the trail from the Township Hall

The Comforts of “Home” on a Winter Walk

A Walnut tree against a stormy sky at Bear Creek Park

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that… wildness is a necessity.”
― John Muir, in Our National Parks

Sometimes I notice that I’ve become an “over-civilized” person, don’t you? I find myself feeling crabby from too many “must-do’s,” feeling hemmed in by walls and getting stale from breathing what feels like the same old air. That’s when I rediscover Muir’s insight.  Wildness really is a necessity – maybe for all of us, whether we know it or not. Even in winter, I regularly need to immerse myself in the crazy quilt of a meadow full of  dry grass stems and listen to the pulsing roar of wind rushing headlong through the crowns of trees. The wild language of crows backed by the drumbeat of woodpeckers tunes me to a different key. For a short time, I’m enfolded within a complex world much beyond my small human one. And somehow that allows me to rest. I pull my hat down over my ears, snug up the scarf at my neck and I’m home, at ease in a place where I’m welcomed – and so are you – as just another creature making its way through winter days.

Holiday Greetings from the Natural Areas Notebook!

Tree Line Between Prairies Ilsley

Another trip around the sun. Transitions from bitter winter to resplendent spring, from riotous summer to fall splendor, from year to year. You’ve been here with us, reading our musings and celebrating our natural areas.

Transitions help us consider what’s important and appropriate, both in our personal lives and on our land. Transitions rarely come or go easily, especially if we really liked how things were, or had just done it that way for a long time. Trees grow, turning field to forest. We plant wildflowers where crops once grew. Wetlands rise from fields that were once drained. And through it all we come together, a community of people who care about restoring our connection to nature.

When I reflect on the transitions in my life, the ones I remember joyfully happened in community. We’re thankful for you, our community, and the support you give as we launch big transitions in the natural areas of Oakland Township’s parks. Even though we recognize the noble goal of restoring habitat, change is messy and hard. But since we work together as a community, we reflect on this past year with satisfaction and look forward to the next with joy.

Happy Holidays!