Late Winter Sparkle and Early Spring Music: Charles Ilsley and Cranberry Lake Parks

Do you mind if I briefly take you back to February? I know we’re all getting itchy to  step into spring. But here in southeast Michigan, the line between the two seasons blurs a bit in late February and March.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

So I want to remember that the tail end of winter has it charms – and then spend some time relishing the early signs of spring before the Equinox.

 

 

FEBRUARY:  Sparkling with Ice, Patterned with Prints and Revealing the Shapes of Slopes and Seedheads!

Winter sparkling down the Hickory Lane at Cranberry Lake Park in February

Accompanied by our familiar year ’round birds and a few winter visitors, bundled against bitter days, I spent most of February in two parks – Cranberry Lake Park and Charles Ilsley Park. I puzzled over prints in the snow, admired ice patterns and worked at  re-identifying last year’s wildflowers by their winter architecture.

Wild Neighbors Make Brief Appearances on a Winter Day

It’s always a great comfort to me on a winter walk, when my numb fingers resist taking photos, that birds and animals keep me company. At Charles Ilsley Park, an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) scrambled onto a branch near me with its mouth stretched around a large nut, perhaps a walnut that had lost its outer covering since dropping last fall. The squirrel was so intent on conquering its prize nut that I got a quick shot before it jumped out of sight.

An American Red Squirrel with a nut almost too big for its jaws!

On a Cranberry Lake Park walk in February, through the thicket of tree branches, the birding group caught sight of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) on a perch near the lake, scanning for prey. It had plumped up against the cold and looked just a bit disgruntled. Perhaps that morning had brought slim pickings.

A cold, perhaps hungry Red-tailed Hawk didn’t look too happy on a cold morning near Cranberry Lake.

American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) visit us just for the winter and are everywhere now. With their gray breasts centered with a black spot and a nice chesnut cap and eyeline, they’re by far the most obvious sparrow in the parks in winter – and they make a friendly twitter when they’re flocking. On my coldest day at Cranberry, I saw one huddled in the dry stems of a field as an icy wind ruffled its feathers. It would venture out periodically to grab a few seeds and then hunker down again in the grass. But on a sunnier day, one perched quite calmly on a dry stem of non-native Common Mullein. At Ilsley, several whooshed up from the fields in small flocks and dispersed as I passed. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Across Ilsley’s central prairie, high up on a tall snag, I spotted a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). If you click on the left photo, you’ll see its head peeking above a short branch in the crotch of the dead tree. I began to take a series of slow, cautious steps in its direction, but it spotted my camera raised and sailed off into the distance, the large white patches under each wing flashing in the sunlight. To the right you can see those white under wings in a fine photo by dpdawes at inaturalist.org, who got a lot closer to her/his bird than I did to mine!

Near Ilsley’s north prairie, a lengthy repetition of the “Kwirrrr” call alerted me to my constant winter companion, the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). Hitching along a distant tree trunk searching out insect eggs or larvae, this male multi-tasked, firmly establishing his territory with calls while continuing to forage. I clicked the shutter in a hurry when he paused to check for any threats or other males in the area.

A foraging Red-bellied Woodpecker stops foraging long enough to be sure another male isn’t in his territory!

At Ilsley, I followed a flock of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) as they surged from one treetop to the next. Eventually one ventured close to me, as if checking my intentions. From what I learned in the Cornell crow class, this is likely an older member of a crow family since it has a few white feathers.

The white feathers on this crow make me think it could be an old one. Crows can live as long as 19 years.

And then there are creatures who just have a faulty sense of timing. Somehow, my husband and I spotted this tiny fly perched on the edge of a boot print at Charles Isley Park. Dr. Gary Parsons from Michigan State identified it for me as a Snail-eating Fly  (family Sciomyzidae, possible  genus Dictya), so named because the larval young of this fly have a preference for snails. He guessed that it probably “woke from it winter nap” prematurely, fooled by  a warm, melting winter day. I like its intricately patterned wings and legs!

A tiny Snail-eating Fly poised at the edge of a boot print at Charles Ilsley Park.  It most likely mistook a warmish winter afternoon for a spring day .

Some Wild Neighbors Leave Only Hints of their Presence

Part of the fun in a winter walk is trying to figure out a creature’s presence only from the prints they leave behind. Walking down the Hickory Lane, I saw the flash of an Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) as it dashed across the trail and into a tree hole so slim it seemed impossible that the squirrel could  fit inside! But it left its tracks behind as it approached the tree and leapt toward the trunk.

A large mammal left clues to its activity down near Cranberry Lake. I approached the lake on an icy day. I wanted to see  if the beaver I’d seen evidence of last year had come out of its den again to find some extra tree bark to chew on this winter. As I approached, bright scarlet fruits caught my attention, vivid against the silver of a frosty morning. Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, later identified them as the rose hips of a Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris). Color is such eye candy in the winter months!  And just beyond, as I prowled the frozen ground near the lake, was the evidence I sought – a tree stump recently gnawed to a point by what could only be a North American Beaver (Castor canadensis).

I cautiously stepped out onto the ice, but it held. Off in the distance, the snow lay like white satin on the lake’s surface. Around a bend in the shore, the beaver’s den loomed a bit larger this year and yes! I could see the raw end of a recently cut log protruding from its den. How the beaver stuck it in there mystifies me but the bark should make a cozy meal for the beaver/s inside on a cold day. A few other recently added sticks protruded from either side.

Pondering Snow Prints

Tracks of all kinds filigree the landscape on a winter morning. The birding group noticed the small canine tracks of what we guessed was some sort of Fox probably a Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) since it was in an open area rather than a woods. A neat line of single prints usually means a wild canine and these were rather small as they curved around the turkey breeder building at Cranberry Lake Park. The coyote’s tracks at Charles Ilsley Park have the same features but are considerably larger. Coyotes are mating now so you’ll see more of their twisty, fur-filled scat along the trails as they mark the boundaries of their territory. (I’ll spare you a scat photo….)

Lots of smaller creatures are scurrying about on the snow during the night. An indecisive White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) left its “sewing machine” tracks in the snow as it apparently darted out into a trail twice, retreated each time and then finished dashing across to dive into a tiny hole on the far side. I’m wondering if the strange track in the center photo is that of a Meadow Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) that nosed about just under the surface of the snow.  I’m guessing that from the fact that Voles stay closer to the surface when they burrow in the grass, leaving larger furrows than the smaller mice. But if anyone has a better idea, I’m open to it. And by the size, I’m guessing that tidy little squirrel print on the right is probably that of a pausing American Red Squirrel.

And can anyone guess what made this pattern of polka-dots all over the snow around Cranberry Lake Park one February morning? My first guess was snow melt dripping from the limbs, but I’ve seen a lot of thawing snow and I’ve never seen this tapioca design before. Maybe air bubbles being driven up from below? Anyone have a theory on this one?

What could have made these polka-dots in the snow cover? I’m mystified.

Admiring the Stark Architecture of Last Year’s Wildflowers

One of my goals is to be as familiar  with wildflowers in winter as I’m becoming in summer. I love the linear designs they make against the sere backdrop of a winter field. Here are a few examples paired with their summer finery.

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MARCH:  The Sweet Song of Running Water,Migrators Appear, Buds Swell –  but Can It Last?

Is it spring yet, or the last hurrahs of winter? It was hard to tell on an early spring  day when snow still lay beneath the russet tapestry of dry plants on Charles Ilsley Park’s west prairie. But a brisk wind chased the cloud shadows across the field and it sure felt like spring. (Turn up your volume to hear the wind and the Blue Jay calling.)

First Bursts of Irrepressible Spring Song!

A good pre-spring sign is that male birds have already begun trilling their familiar mating songs. A male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) flew down near me and threw back his head to let forth his song. As usual, he turned 180 degrees to sing in both directions, in an effort, no doubt, to broadcast his presence as widely as possible!

A Northern Cardinal singing his spring song at Charles Ilsley Park

We’re all pretty familiar with the Black-Capped Chickadee’s call (Poecile atricapillus). After all, “Chickadee-dee-dee” is how it got its name! But oddly, in spring they sing a very simple, two note song to establish territory or attract a mate. I couldn’t get a good shot of the lothario that I watched hopping manically from limb to limb at Ilsley, so the song recording below is his, but the photo is from an early spring in 2016.

A Chickadee in Red-Twig Osier.

The Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) have been around off and on all winter. But just lately, they’ve started checking out the bluebird boxes in our parks. Here’s a female evaluating the real estate at Charles Ilsley Park.

A female Eastern Bluebird checking out a nest box at Charles Ilsley Park.

Not all spring sounds, though, are mating calls. Our township stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, heard the exquisitely high, piercing call of two Golden-crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa) at Cranberry Lake Park during the bird walk last week. Cornell tells us that “This is one of the first bird songs that people stop being able to hear as they age.” Ahem…that’s me, I’m afraid. I did see them quickly through my binoculars but never got a camera on them. Here’s a photo of one of these pretty little migrators taken by cedimaria, a photographer at iNaturalist.org. Sometimes these Kinglets appear during the winter in our area, but it’s more likely that the one we heard and saw was on its way north to breed at the tip of the Mitten, or in Canada.

A Golden-crowned Kinglet by photographer cedimaria (CC BY-NC)

Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) flew far over head at Ilsley, braying their prehistoric call and by the first week in March, a male Red-winged Blackbird burst forth with his buzzing trill on a thistle stalk. The females will arrive in a few weeks.

The Trickle of the Thaw and Buds!

At Ilsley, water seemed to be finding it way everywhere as the ice melted in various wetlands. Within the eastern prairie, a narrow rivulet appeared to have sculpted a beautiful little ice cave under the snow. My husband and I were mystified as how it formed.  We thought perhaps the water beneath the ice had drained away along the narrow line to the right and part of the ice had dropped, because the inside of the cave was bone dry. But we’re just guessing. Anyone have a better theory?

A little ice cave formed on the eastern edge of a wetland in the prairie at Charles  Ilsley Park.

I could envision that  a small creature might shelter overnight in this wee cave for protection, since the ground within was dry!

The ice cave looked as though it could shelter a small creature at night.

Elsewhere at Ilsley, the trickle of water signaled hope for spring. Over in the woods, one of the ice covered wetlands had melted enough that a stream ran away from it into the trees.

A melting wetland feeds a stream running through the woods on the northern side of Ilsley’s Eastern Prairie.

And nearby, a brilliant spear-shaped mound of moss took advantage of all the water and glowed in the thin sunlight.

A spear of moss near at wetland at Ilsley.

The swelling, red buds of Silver Maples (Acer saccharinum) always give me hope in March so I keep checking on them each time I explore the path into Ilsley from the west. And in Cranberry Lake Park, Ben spotted the first cottony plumes of Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) breaking into the cold spring air. I’ve loved those fuzzy signs of spring since childhood when they bloomed right outside my family’s  kitchen window.

The Best Kind of “Social Distance”

The Northern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park in early March

As I finish this blog, the COVID-19 virus has taken hold in Michigan and we are instructed to avoid crowded places and keep a “social distance” from others for at least the rest of the month. That certainly makes perfect sense, but it can make all of us feel a bit isolated. Luckily, nature invites us out into the fields and woods where no threats exist really, except maybe wet feet and some spring mud. Wildlife has always believed in “social distance” so no problem there; they consistently respect my space by taking off when they see me  – as my camera can attest!

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So now’s the ideal moment to re-acquaint yourself and your family with the infinite variety of the natural world. Leave behind the confines of a centrally heated home and let the moist, cold air of March tickle your nose and redden your cheeks. Open a door and listen to the dawn chorus of the songbirds. (Listen for Sandhill Cranes down in the marsh at the end!)

Watch for bursting buds and catch your own reflection in a mud puddle.  Discover the joys of darkness and silence while watching the stars on a clear, moonless night.  Maybe we can rediscover all that we’ve been missing in the hubbub of a “normal” day. And that way, we can turn our “social distance” into an adventure in the wild  for ourselves and our children.

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!

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.