Category Archives: Wildlife

Worried About the Planet? Let’s Make a Difference One Garden at a Time.

It’s admittedly a worrisome time for those of us  who love our small, blue planet. Devastating fires, raging floods, 30 billion fewer birds in the last 50 years, a UN report that 100 million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction within decades. According to Eduardo Brondizio at Indiana University, half a million species have “insufficient habitat for long-term survival.” Their best hope is restoration of their habitat.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Aha! Now here’s something you and I can do something about! And we can do it without leaving home, or participating in protests or influencing recalcitrant politicians. We can enrich the habitat right beyond our kitchen windows. And it won’t take sacrifice – in fact, it’s rewarding! It won’t take giant sums of money or raising taxes. All it takes, dear kindred spirits, is adding native plants to our gardens and yards – as many as we can plant each year. By doing so, we can make a HUGE difference to the survival of species. Stick with me here. The news keeps getting more hopeful as we move along.

Is Your Yard Full of Non-native Plants?  Mine Is…

I’m betting your garden is a lot like mine – filled with non-native trees, grass, shrubs and flowers that evolved in distant countries.  I’m thinking of common garden plants like Lilacs (Syringa vulgaris) from the Balkans in Southeastern Europe, Forsythia (Forsythia intermedia) from eastern Asia,  or Vinca (Vinca minor) from Europe, Africa and Asia.  Take a short world tour in this slideshow and discover where a few of our most popular garden plants originated. [Use pause button for time to read captions.)

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Our non-native, international gardens look lovely;  butterflies sip nectar from the flowers and insects never leave a hole in the leaves.  The turf grass looks like a seamless green carpet if we fertilize it and water it regularly.  So what’s the problem?

Well, in their homelands, our non-native plants were not a problem.  They did just what nature asks plant to do – pass on  the sun’s energy (through photosynthesis) to all the other organisms in their habitat that can’t do that.  In its native Europe, invasive Phragmites (Phragmites australis subspecies australis), for example,  supports over 170 insect species. But not here! Here the invasive, non-native grass crowding every wet roadside supports only 5 species – and it’s been here for centuries!

Burning won’t kill phragmites! Here, we’re using controlled burning to remove dead Phragmites that was treated in fall 2014. We remove dead material in the hope that native plants may emerge.

Problem: Our Gardens are Missing One Essential Feature – Plentiful Caterpillars

Now you may be thinking, “Caterpillars eat holes in leaves! The lack of caterpillars is not a problem!!!” Well, actually, it is. Like me, you’ve probably always thought of your garden or lawn as an artistic or decorative enterprise. And it should be! We all need beauty around us. But nature needs our garden flowers, grasses, shrubs and trees to be productive, as well as beautiful. Our yards also need to nourish creatures large and small who live around us. The sad truth is that  most of our gardens are green, colorful food deserts that leave nature hungry and malnourished. Luckily, we can easily change that!

Insects: “The Little Things that Run the World”

Insects, including butterflies, moths, and many other pollinators keep an ecosystem fed. They really are, as the famous biologist E.O. Wilson said, “the little things that run the world.” An insect’s chubby caterpillars chewing and hunching along a plant stem provide essential food for the whole web of life. Birds stuff them down the scrawny throats of baby birds; caterpillars are soft and filled with the fat and protein nestlings need. Adult birds snag insects from the air, pluck them off the ground, and snatch them from leaves. They even spend winter days probing loose bark looking for frozen insect eggs or caterpillars to get the protein that helps keep their small bodies warm on icy nights.

Without enough caterpillars, birds won’t lay a full clutch of eggs in the spring. Their  young will not be as large and healthy. And they need a lot of them! Chickadees, for example, need 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to raise their clutch of nestlings! Caterpillars are simply the most important food source for birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and some mammals. Seeds and fruits contribute to food webs too – but caterpillars are essential.

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So Why Are Our Yards Missing So Many Caterpillars?

Ninety percent of our native caterpillars, the young of daytime butterflies and the moths who maneuver through the night, are picky eaters! They can only eat plants with which they co-evolved. They are specialists who, over eons, have overcome the chemical defenses of particular native plants and are now adapted to eat them and nothing else. Unfortunately, they aren’t able to switch to what’s available. It would take thousands of years of evolution to make that possible. So if our caterpillars don’t hatch out on a native plant, they generally die of malnutrition before reaching adulthood.

The Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), of course, is the classic example; its caterpillars can eat only one genus – the milkweeds (genus Asclepias).  Monarchs will sip nectar from all kinds of flowers, but their caterpillars need one of the milkweed species for food that will nourish them to adulthood. And 90% of all our insects face the same challenge of finding the native plants their young can eat. Not enough native plants means not enough insects and their caterpillars, which means not enough birds, not enough amphibians –  and on it goes as hunger spreads through a habitat’s food web.

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A Beautiful, Simple Solution: Plant More Native Flowers, Grasses, Shrubs and Trees

So many environmental issues are beyond our control. But we can control our yards, our gardens, the fields and woods on our land. And we can turn around the declining numbers of butterflies, pollinators, birds and more by nourishing wildlife around us with beautiful native plants. They come in all kinds of colors and shapes. Some thrive in wet areas, some in dry. Some need the sunshine, some the shade. Some bloom in only one season, some in more than one. Some are even green all winter! Here’s just a tiny, rainbow sampling  to whet your appetite!

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Our Gardens and Yards Can Change Gradually, Right?

We don’t need to overhaul our gardens overnight. I plan to just gradually add in more native plants each year. Ideally, our goal is to reach at least 70% native – but any increase in native plants benefits our local habitats. For example, I can’t afford to eliminate the non-native woods of invasive Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) next to our driveway – but I can remove its invasive sprouts wherever I come across one. And maybe year by year, we can remove a bit more of the Vinca and Lily-of -the-Valley that have choked out native woodland flowers on the forest floor. I’m thinking  of removing Locusts that are crowding the few native Wild Black Cherry Trees (Prunus serotina) in the woods and perhaps adding in a few native understory trees to help out the birds and insects.

Dense woods of non-native Black Locust

Three years ago, I started taking on the invasive Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) that has encircled our yard and infiltrated the woods for years. Pulling them out by the roots is quite easy; my 4-year-old neighbor enjoyed doing it with me! And the reward at our house is that beautiful, native White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) now rises out of the earth each autumn wherever I pulled the Garlic Mustard in the spring! (Have a look at the beautiful bank of white blossoms below!) I’m anxious to know what else may be hiding in the seed bank under the forest floor!

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If placed in the right environment, native plants are less fussy than non-native plants we usually get from the garden store. They’ve evolved in our ecosystem so they don’t need the regular watering, fertilizing or soil amendments that non-natives usually do. In fact many of our native plants do better in poor soil! Rain generally provides enough water for them, except in severe droughts. You’ll need to experiment to see what works, just as you do with non-native plants. Some will grow more vigorously than you’d like and need to be thinned; consider sharing them with neighbors! Others will need to be moved to a new location. That’s OK! It’s all a learning process, right?

A Word about that Lawn…

Douglas W. Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, a sort of  “bible” for native gardeners, points out that millions of acres in America are covered by our lawns. In fact researchers say that the American lawn covers an area the size of New England! Turf grasses are non-native and require huge amounts of water, chemical fertilizers and herbicides to keep them  green. Mowing them frequently also uses lots of fossil fuel.

Now neither Doug Tallamy nor I are not advocating that you ignore your lawn and let it grow into a fallow field full of invasive plants! What Tallamy and other conservationists are asking is this: Could you do with less grass and plant more native gardens? Could you plant a native White Oak (Quercus alba) in your front yard? (White Oaks can support over 500 different insect species and still look great! Could you put native shrubs along your driveway? Maybe you could plant a more formal native garden in the front with drifts or masses of native plants that love to be planted close together.  (No need for mulch!)

Grass paths could be used to guide you through your landscape; turf grass is great to walk on. If your children play outside (and I fervently hope they do!), leave a play area but surround it with native wildflowers or flowering native shrubs. And where you have slopes or large open areas with plenty of sun, consider taller native grasses like Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) or Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) and a variety of sun-loving prairie plants. Native grasses and shrubs provide artistic structure in a garden, but also give caterpillars safe places to spin their chrysalises and cocoons.  The possibilities are endless.

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An Inspiration for the Future:  The “Homegrown National Park”

In his newest book,  Nature’s Best Hope, Dr. Tallamy proposes a glorious vision of what a dedicated nation could create for its people and its wildlife. He envisions all of us together creating huge swaths of native habitat by linking our native-growing neighborhoods into a “Homegrown National Park.” Imagine that! Our new national park could be as large as 20 million acres if we all reduced our lawn areas by half. Wow! An audacious idea, but theoretically possible. For the moment though, our goal can simply be to enhance the habitat around our own houses and perhaps eventually a network of houses and neighborhoods full of both life and beauty.

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Wild geranium and wild columbine make a stunning spring combo

Imagine Your Native Garden as Living Landscape, a Beautiful Habitat Where Nature Thrives

February is a great time for garden dreaming. Envision the possibilities outside your kitchen window. A green path wends it way between native gardens that change with each season. Warm patches of sunlight bring butterflies looking for nectar. Perhaps fledgling bluebirds beg to be fed beneath your native flowering shrub. In the shade of the native tree canopy, migrating birds stop by to sing while looking for caterpillars or to pluck a few berries on their way south for the winter. I’m finding a whole new set of yard dreams myself. I hope you conjure up a few too, and add some natives to your yard this year.

RESOURCES:

Ready to Plant Some Native Plants this Spring and/or Fall?  We Can Get Them for You Wholesale!

Starting last year, our Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, created a new native plant sale for township residents.  All the information for this year’s sale is right at this link  or under “Native Plant Sale” at the top of the Natural Areas Notebook home page.  But you need to order by March 4th!

Need More Detail about Native Plants, In-Depth Information or Answers to Frequently Asked Questions?  

  1. Get hold of a copy of any of Dr. Douglas W. Tallamy’s books:  Bringing Nature Home – How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants (Timber Press);  Nature’s Best Hope – A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard (Timber Press), and one he wrote with native landscaper, Rick Darke, The Living Landscape – Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden.
  2. Listen to this podcast of Dr. Tallamy being interviewed about native plants.
  3. Find native plants for your county by using this national database and putting in your zipcode!
  4. Check out the somewhat more comprehensive blog about native plants that I wrote last year after attending the Wildlfower Association of Michigan annual conference.

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!

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park: From 60 Beautiful Acres to 268 Spectacular Ones! Wow!

Looking north from E. Snell Road into new Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park expansion

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park has always been amazing. Its original 60 acres feature open meadows full of wildflowers and butterflies and a shady woods plunging down into a deep ravine with the West Branch of Stony Creek sparkling below. Now, thanks to our township Land Preservation millage, a willing owner and a grant from the Michigan Nature Resources Trust Fund, the Parks Commission added 208 more spectacular acres to the park in late September this year.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

The first time I saw this land in 2016, I stood on the Overlook Hill and looked down on a huge, flat field encircled on three sides by deep mature forest.  I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was!

Forests surround the heart of the park on three sides

But what I didn’t appreciate then is abundantly apparent now. Long ago large ponds at the heart of this land had been tiled and drained for a farmer’s crops, a common occurrence in the 19th and 20th century. Beneath the soil, the water flowed away rather than rising to the surface. Water waited to emerge, water that could restore the wetlands that fed plants, dragonflies, frogs, turtles, butterflies, abundant bird life and thirsty mammals that once had gathered there.

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Restoring the Land:  First Steps

Now that the purchase is complete, wetland restoration has begun. The former landowner is creating wetland mitigation banks, which are restored wetlands that help somewhat to offset wetland losses due to development in other places. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE, formerly DEQ) holds wetland “conservation easements” on these wetland restoration areas. The folks designing the wetlands determined that they needed to fence off these areas for 5-10 years to make sure that the native trees and shrubs they plant are able to grow. Otherwise our abundant deer would kill them by browsing. As a start to restoration, low berms were created to capture and hold the water, “habitat structures” were placed throughout the fields, and the drainage tiles purposely broken so that water could once again flow to the surface. And wow! Big beautiful ponds have already begun to form in both areas!

A large pond is already forming on the north wetland where it was previously drained for farming.

Within the wetland restoration areas, 4,000 tiny wetland plants were sown this autumn. You’ll notice stumps, logs and branches left within these areas for now.  Those are the  habitat structures which allow wildlife to find cover or perch while the trees and native plants grow back.

A smaller wetland has formed on the south side of the park along E. Snell Road. The logs, brush etc provide structure for wildlife while restoration continues.

Birds Already Flock to the Renewing Wetland Areas

One of the huge benefits of this expansion’s location is that its directly across from Stony Creek Metropark. That helps create a larger “wildlife corridor” where local creatures can spread out and find more habitat in which to stay and raise their young. Migrating birds and insects will also find a larger area to rest and replenish themselves in spring and fall. On my two visits to the park in late November, birds were everywhere! Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) ratcheted out their prehistoric cries as flock after flock soared above me.

Multiple flocks of sandhills croaked out their raspy voices overhead.

Some, of course, settled to feed at the edge of the forming ponds.

A flock of sandhill cranes rest and forage at the edge of the newly re-formed wetlands.

A flock of  20-30 Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) cruised back and forth in the shallow pond forming at the north end of the field.

Mallards enjoying the newly restored wetland pond at the north end of the field.

And of course, Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) found their way to the rising waters as well!

Canada Geese make the most of the open water now at the surface in the park.

Outside the easement fence, other birds also found plenty of sustenance. A flock of winter visitors, American Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea), had arrived from the Arctic tundra to spend the winter here. Their call-and-response twittering keeps them in contact with the group as they dash into the grass to feed and then back into the trees to look around. [Click photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

A dozen Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) poked along at the outside edge of the wetland fence, their red and blue heads pumping with every step. One of them repeatedly showed off her impressive wingspan as she walked. Not quite as impressive as the male’s dramatic display of tail feathers, but still quite a show!

The Farmer’s Woodlot to the East

On the east side of the field, some wise farmer left a large tract of beautiful woods as a woodlot. Woodlots provided a source of lumber or firewood, if sensibly managed over the years. They also provided habitat for wildlife that could be hunted for sport or for the dinner table in hard times. The woodlot at the Stony Creek Ravine expansion is a beautiful example.

The Woodlot on the east side of the park was a farmer’s source for lumber and prey.

The small woodlot is different from the larger western woods. Its trees are mostly oak and maples and its understory is less tangled and bushy than the woods on the west. Perhaps that’s because for years it was managed by the farmer who left it next to the field. It’s a peaceful, open woods where you can see from the shade out into the sunlight. I like to imagine that the farmer or his wife also just enjoyed having a quiet place nearby to listen to the birds and where the children could play within earshot of the dinner bell.

Dr.Ben VanderWeide, the township Stewardship Manager in the woodlot with the field in the distance.

The sensible farmer also had the good sense to leave a beautiful old White Oak (Quercus alba) on the west edge of the field. It must have been a great place for a picnic on a warm day. Now it’s also wonderful habitat. According to Douglas Tallamy’s useful book, Bringing Nature Home, oaks are unmatched in their ability to provide food and shelter for wildlife. Blue Jays, deer, turkeys, squirrels consume large amounts of acorns. Cavities in giant oaks make nesting sites and winter shelter for chickadees, wrens, woodpeckers, bluebirds and others. They support a huge number of species of butterflies and moths, their caterpillars providing soft, nutritious food for hungry little birds all summer long. I’m glad these giants are our national tree!

An old White Oak at the western edge of the fields

The Deeper Forests on the West and North Host Some Less Familiar  Trees (to me anyway…)

I’d already seen a beautiful American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) at the edge of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in the original 60 acre parcel. What a beauty with its smooth gray bark that looks almost unreal! And those graceful, toothed leaves!

An American Beech stands just over the edge of the ravine on the 60 acre parcel, so you can feel you’re in the treetops! Such smooth bark, eh?

When Ben showed me the northern woods that connects to the high ridge of the in the original park, I began to see more beeches. These trees favor moist air and germinate well in the shade. They host even more species of butterflies and moths than the oak. And like oaks, beech nuts are high protein food for lots of wildlife. We came across a big one in a group with two other mighty trees. Look at the size of this one’s “foot!”

The great big “foot” of a large American Beech in the woods in the new 206 acre parcel

A tall wild Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) stood nearby, with its dry flowers still clinging to the topmost branches! Tulip Trees are fast growing and can reach 80-120 feet here in Michigan, nearly 200 feet in the South! Their yellow flowers always bask in the sunlight in the crowns of the trees, making them difficult to see for everyone but the birds!

A very tall tulip tree with the dried flowers still showing at the top of the tree.

Between the Beech and the Tulip Tree stood a big Red Oak (Quercus rubra) – three large, beautiful hardwoods standing in just one small area of the forest.  The red oaks are distinguished from the white oaks by having leaves with pointed tips with bristles, rather than the rounded lobes of the white oak. Their acorns, unfortunately, are not particularly tasty to wildlife like the ones on the white oaks are. (The yellow leaves in the foreground below are probably from small beech saplings.)

A Red Oak rounded out a trio of big, beautiful hardwoods in one small area of the forest.

The forest is full of little wetlands like the vernal pool below.  You can see that the forest floor in the woods is a bit more  wild than the woodlot;  saplings, bushes, fallen logs and snags (standing dead trees) provide a diverse habitat for all kinds of wildlife.

The  logs and standing snag in this forest wetland create habitat for wildlife.

Even though Ben and I visited in November, green plants still flourished in the forest. A trailing vine of Bristly Greenbrier (Smilax hispida) was a new plant to me. It drapes over bushes and low branches of trees in moist thickets and attaches itself with tendrils. The dark blue/black berries provide food for game birds, song birds and many mammals during fall and winter. Luckily, it’s not a killer like non-native Oriental Bittersweet; Greenbrier climbs over shrubs but doesn’t wind around trunks and choke its hosts like Bittersweet .

Greenbrier is a trailing vine whose berries provide food for birds and mammals throughout the autumn and winter.

Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) added a lovely spray of green beneath our feet. This pretty evergreen plant can be identified through its scaly stalk and its leathery leaves. It’s also a new plant for me. Who knows what else I’ll see for the first time when spring and summer arrive in this 268 acres?

Deer only nibble occasionally on Christmas Fern  during the winter, though its tender spring fronds are food for turkeys and grouse. It’s awfully pretty against the russet leaves, isn’t it?

So Much More to Explore, but Patience is Required For Now

Gazing into the treetops in the woodlot

This is just a first taste of what this new 208 acre parcel has to offer. In 2020 park staff plan to add a small parking lot and a few rustic trails following existing two-tracks that wind through the park. More investigation will be required, though, to know where to locate additional paths and other improvements without harming valuable wetlands or special stands of fragile, protected plants. Inventories of plant life will need to be taken, drainage issues dealt with, prescribed burns conducted and perhaps thousands of native plants need a chance to mature and spread without disturbance.  The Parks Commission and staff have years of work to do on any piece of land to add improvements that work with nature – and this park expansion is a huge one! Plans are in the works to restore native habitats to the remaining farm fields throughout the park.

I’m already dreaming of how magnificent this park will be when the fences come down and trails lead you and I from one spectacular habitat to the next. Imagine those ponds reflecting a blue sky surrounded by native grasses and wildflowers bowing and dancing in a summer breeze. Imagine animals slipping through the surrounding greenery at the pond’s edge for a drink, while dragonflies zip through the air and turtles bask on logs. Envision those 4000 native plants and trees becoming tall and full enough to create nesting spots for birds we now rarely see. Some day we may wander along a winding path through the beech and maple forest to the tap-tap of woodpeckers or the burbling spring song of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

I feel a deep sense of contentment and gratitude that this land is being restored rather than “developed.” Now, after decades of producing crops, it can return to its first assignment –  providing food, shelter and comfort for wildlife. And that restoration of our natural heritage will eventually result in a beautiful and peaceful retreat for us and future generations as well.  It’ll be worth waiting for.  I’m sure of that.

Coexisting with Coyotes: Keep Them Wild!

A coyote among wildflowers by Jonathan Schechter

The cartoons and legends about coyotes were right about one thing: coyotes truly are wily tricksters, though perhaps a better phrase is clever survivors. While their original habitat was the dry, open areas of the western half of the continent, coyotes gradually moved into every state but Hawaii and are in every county of Michigan. I imagine they might still prefer open fields, but coyotes now live successfully within suburban neighborhoods, the heat of the desert, the humidity of the tropics, the snow of Alaska,  and the hustle and traffic of huge urban areas as well. Curious but shy, these daytime (diurnal) animals have learned to be most active at night in order to avoid us loud and slightly scary humans. Their complex, coordinated howling can allow a few coyotes to sound like a sizeable pack. That’s a lot of adaptation!

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by Cam Mannino

Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our Stewardship Manager, has hosted two well-attended, useful coyote presentations for Oakland Township residents. The first took place in 2016 with naturalist educator Laura Zoet who founded Nature on the Go, and the second earlier this month with Jonathan Schechter, a nature education writer for Oakland County’s blog, “The Wilder Side of Oakland County.”

We’ll soon be entering the mating season for coyotes in Michigan, which runs from December through February or March. That’s when you’re most likely to see two coyotes trotting along in the distance, see two sets of single tracks in a snowy meadow or hear a pair howling and barking in the dark. The breeding and pup-raising season is when most human-coyote interactions take place. So now’s a good time to get better acquainted with coyotes.

Let’s Start with the Facts about Our Northeastern Coyotes

Their DNA: Are They Part Wolf?

You’ve probably heard the term “coywolf” applied to our Northeastern Coyotes (Canis latrans thamnos). Well, our coyotes are much more coyote than wolf. When the wolf populations in eastern Canada and New England were decimated by European settlers, western coyotes migrated east seeking abandoned territories and mates among  the few wolves that survived. As a result, according to an article published in the National Library of Medicine of the National Institues of Health, the current DNA of coyotes in our area is about 66% western coyote, 24% eastern and western wolf and 11% domestic dog. (Rarely, if ever, does a coyote mate with a dog these days. Those genes are quite far back in their genetic history.) The wolf DNA has resulted in our coyotes being somewhat larger than western coyotes. But they are still far smaller than wolves and have a different appearance and behavior. Here’s a useful link from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for comparing the appearance of wolves and coyotes.

The Size of Our Coyotes : Less Than Half of the Size of a Wolf

Though Northeastern Coyotes look large from a distance, they are mostly skin and fur and seem bigger because of their long legs. (Photo by Jonathan Schechter)

Though our Northeastern coyotes can look large from a distance, their bone structure is actually slighter than most domestic dogs. As you can see above, the size effect is created by their thick fur and long legs. People compare them to wolves, but wolves can weigh 70 to 150 lbs., whereas coyotes weigh 15-40 lbs. That means that our coyotes are slightly smaller than a German Shepherd and on average, less than half the size of a wolf.

Identification: The Tail Carried Low is a Good Clue

Yellow eyes, upright pointed ears and a tail that droops downward are distinguishing features of Northeastern Coyotes.(Photo by Jonathan Schechter)

Three of the most common field marks for coyotes are: yellow eyes; pointed and upright ears; and a bushy tail carried below the back, nearer the ground. (Coyotes do not have the muscles needed to raise their tails like dogs do.) Their long legs and narrow muzzles with a small nose pad are other distinguishing features. The coyote is known for its short, high- pitched howl which most often is mixed with yips and barking. They use it to bring their family group together during individual foraging, or to announce their territory to other coyotes.

The Coyotes’ Diet: Varied and Always Aimed at the Most Food for the Least Effort

A smaller Western Coyote probably hunting a mouse or even a grasshopper! Photo by Franco Folini (CC BY-NC-SA) at iNaturalist.org. Notice how much less fur it has than our coyotes!

Any wild animal wants to expend as little energy as possible in getting food. As a result, the main diet of our coyotes are rats, mice, and deer carrion. In summer, they also eat fruits, frogs, insects, snakes, goose eggs or goslings. Some birds and small mammals like squirrels, rabbits, and chipmunks can make a meal year ’round. Coyotes will occasionally take down a fawn, but rarely an adult deer unless it’s already injured or ill. After all, dead deer along our roadsides are sadly plentiful and require little effort on the coyote’s part. Feral or outdoor cats with their twitching tails in the night are an occasional food source for coyotes; some research indicates less than 2% of their diet. Unaccompanied, unleashed small dogs are an even lower percentage. Larger dogs are generally more trouble than they’re worth to a coyote. You can prevent your small pets from becoming prey by keeping them indoors or accompanying them outside, especially at night.

Hunting Style and the Famous “Howl”

A Western coyote approaches a crow. Photo by makriverside (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org.  I’m betting on the crow to survive this encounter!

Coyotes don’t hunt in large packs like wolves, but in mated pairs. They may venture off alone for a short distance while hunting and then rejoin their mate as the hunt continues. In late summer or early fall, a family group of adults and youngsters (which can resemble a pack) may hunt together but most of the work is done by the adults. Between October and December, the young disperse, seeking new territory.

A pair or small family of coyotes can sound like a much larger group! According to Dr. Scott Henke, a researcher at Texas A&M University, coyotes use many different sounds and pitches in one howl. As a result, two yipping, barking and howling coyotes can sound like eight. Or three coyotes can sound like a dozen! Coyotes pick up scents up to a mile away, run up to 39 mph, jump 4-6 foot fences, swim and have figured out traffic patterns on our roads and highways. Coyotes, in other words, have all the skills they need to survive.

The Threat to Humans? The Animal on the Left is More Dangerous to You!

Only two human fatalities from coyotes have EVER been documented in North America.   Deer inadvertently cause 200 deaths EVERY YEAR in approximately one million car collisions. According to the journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, even domestic dogs cause 19 deaths each year.  It’s wise not to take chances with any wild animal, especially in urban areas where coyotes become more habituated to humans and food sources are plentiful. Coyotes are predators, but our caution with coyotes needs to be proportional  to the actual threat.

How Do We Humans Coexist with Such a Successful Predator? Keep Them Wild!

Wild coyotes avoid humans. You’ll usually see them walking away.

Coyotes will be with us from now on, but luckily they are naturally shy around humans.   A wild coyote will take one look at a human and head the other way. It’s our job to keep them that way! We don’t want them to become accustomed to being close to us and our habitats, i.e.,  our yards, parks, playgrounds or neighborhoods. Our goals must be to  remove what attracts them to our surroundings and to scare them away when they venture too close to humans. Here are the strategies the presenters recommended.

Hunting Doesn’t Work Well to Lower the Number of Coyotes

As of 2016, coyotes can be hunted year ’round in Michigan. (See “Fur Harvesting” regulations at this link.) But as a method for reducing the population, hunting is ineffective. According to naturalist Laurie Zoet, there is some evidence that when coyote numbers begin to decline, the females produce more pups and the juveniles breed at a younger age. Other research indicates that the rebound of coyote populations after hunting is due to other coyotes simply moving into empty territories. Hunting or trapping can only temporarily decrease their numbers. So what to do? Read on!

Remove Temptation!

A Coyote sniffs for a vole near a bird feeder. Photo by Jonathan Schechter

For starters, NEVER INTENTIONALLY FEED A COYOTE! You want coyotes to avoid you and your home if you are to protect them, your family and your pets. Be careful to eliminate food sources that attract coyotes or that attract their most common prey. Don’t leave dog or cat food out in the open, especially at night. If coyotes are a problem in your yard, consider eliminating your bird feeder – which attracts mice, squirrels and chipmunks, some of the coyote’s easiest meals. If you can, put your garbage out for pick up in the morning rather than at night. If it has to go out at night, be sure it’s in a tightly sealed can. Other ideas include:

  • Wood and brush piles are good shelter for small mammals and birds and so are often attractive to coyotes.
  • Bird baths are water sources so if you’re worried, remove them, too.
  • Close off crawl spaces under decks which might look like a cozy place for a den.
  • Outdoor motion-sensor lights can also be a deterrent in some instances.

Nature lovers need to remember that you are not being heartless by keeping coyotes at a distance! You are keeping an animal wild and very likely saving its life, because coyotes that don’t fear humans usually end up dead.

If a Coyote Approaches You or Others, or is Seen Near Humans or Your Pet, Look and Sound Big and Fierce!  Don’t Retreat! And Be Consistent.

If you see a coyote on a playground, in your yard, near a school, visiting a neighborhood during the day, it shouldn’t be there. It should not approach you or engage you in any way; it should be turning to leave as soon as you appear. These behaviors mean the coyote is getting comfortable around humans. So this is your chance to act crazy and obnoxious in public – and be appreciated for it! We all need to be consistent about keeping these bright, curious canines wild, i.e., uncomfortable when close to humans. The acronym that’s been created to help us remember the most effective system in keeping coyotes wild is S.M.A.R.T.

S:  Stop, establish eye contact and perhaps make a firm stopping gesture. Don’t run.  Don’t hide.  Don’t retreat.  You want to establish that you are the scarier animal.  Running, hiding or speaking softly makes you look like prey.

M: Make yourself look big!  Spread your arms over your head.  If you have a rake, large stick or golf club at hand, wave it overhead or pop open an umbrella.  If you’re on a trail, shake a can full of pennies (great trail accessory for kids) or let off a pocket air horn.  Throw things toward the animal (not food!), but don’t try to hit it.

A:  Announce yourself. In other words, shout!  “HEY! GET OUT OF HERE”  will work – or whatever you want really – as long as its fierce, forceful and loud!

R:  Repeat the shout over and over again, while making yourself look as huge as possible until the coyote turns and leaves.

T:  Teach others to do the same, including family and friends.

This strategy makes sense to me and both presenters assured us that it will work! Check out this video to learn more. Remember, coyotes are naturally intimidated by humans.

The Exceptions:  If a Coyote is Cornered, Injured, at its Den or with Pups, Don’t Threaten It!

In the above cases, if you inadvertently come across a den or a coyote with pups and are with a pet, pull the pet close or pick it up if possible and SLOWLY, quietly back away. If alone, make yourself look as large as possible and SLOWLY, quietly back away.

Coyotes are Curious Creatures – So Are We!

Coyotes are curious who are always looking for food. Photo by Jonathan Schechter

Predator animals are hard for many of us to love and can seem frightening. But sometimes we scare ourselves simply by the language we use. As Jonathan Schechter wisely pointed out at his presentation, coyotes are not “lurking” at the edge of your property. They’re usually standing, looking, being naturally curious. I’d add, despite what a reporter might say, they are not “skulking” across a field; they’re exploring and searching for food. Are they “devouring their prey,” or simply eating a meal and thereby keeping the numbers of  rodents around you in check? Words have power to create fear or understanding.

Remember that if you see a coyote in the distance at one of our parks or natural areas and it is simply pausing to look at you from afar rather than approaching, there is no reason to frighten the animal. Remember SMART while you watch to the coyote to see if it will continue on its way. It’s probably looking for a mouse, a grasshopper, a mole, some fruit, or other easy prey – not you.

It’s sensible to be wary of coyotes as predators. After all, we’re predators from their perspective and they’re very wary of us!  They don’t like us near their young or their dens.  We don’t like them near our young or our homes either.  A certain respect and caution is called for on both sides.  All that’s required by residents is to avoid tempting this curious and hungry predator with food and  to consistently encourage it to keep its distance. Ultimately, like most animals,we need to protect our young and our territory, and by doing so we can continue to  respect and enjoy the continued existence of our wild neighbors.