Background Switcher (Hidden)

Earth Day, Every Day

Tuesday, April 24, 2018


It's raining this morning. The continual soft patter of drops on the roof and windows is the Lord's way of telling me to sit down, for once. Take a load off, do something other than dash around, muttering, hauling the garden cart behind me, full of tools and piles of weeds and bags of bulbs needing to be planted. Steady rain is the only thing that will send me indoors in late April.

A quick, unsolicited and unpaid ad here: If you're looking for garden gloves, look no farther than Foxgloves. They fit like a second skin, breathe like nitrile gloves don't, and protect my hands from rocks and dirt and drying. This time of year, I automatically put them on whenever I head outside, so I'll be ready to pull weeds and grub around in the soil.  Never walk by a weed, that's my credo, and it keeps my gardens pretty clean. 

They wear like iron. Yet they're sensitive enough to use for planting. Amazing! I finally wore through the fingertip of my green pair after more than a decade. When I'm finally through gardening for the day I just wash my hands with soap and water while wearing them, remove them and squeeze them out, then lay them in the sun to dry so they're clean and ready for tomorrow. Best of all, they now come in Virginia bluebell blue!! Hello, Mother's Day gift! Get them here.

Those of you on Facebook (stay with me here, even if you aren't) will be familiar with the occasional "challenge" that goes around like a a flu bug several times of year. In the one most frequently aimed at me, people tag you (a way of getting your cyber-attention) and "challenge" you to post a nature photo every day. Um. Wut. I do that anyway. That's all I do on Facebook. I post nature photos every day. So...the challenge is to, a better nature photo every day? A more naturey nature photo every day? Or are we just not thinking about this when we challenge a naturalist/photohound to post daily photos of nature?

That's kind of my first, gut reaction to Earth Day. I'll be making the rounds of my bluebird boxes or down on all fours, grubbing in the actual earth, when it hits me that humans have declared April 21 to be "Earth Day." The day we all talk about saving the planet. And I'll smile and remember back to the first Earth Day in 1970, what a big deal it was, and remember when the James River in Richmond, VA, when I was twelve, literally stank and foamed brown with pollution; when ospreys and eagles were so decimated by DDT that the females couldn't set their eggs without cracking them, and I realize that humans designating a day to talk about taking action to save the planet is important. It's important, like the massive bald eagle nest, stuffed into a powerline support, that  I saw from the bridge the last time I drove across the James River. It's important, like the osprey parachuting in to a nest full of healthy chicks on a channel marker in the Chesapeake Bay. I think about all the birds I thought I would never see, when I was twelve, and all around me I could see and smell the effects of humanity collectively soiling its own nest.

Coming of age in Richmond in the 70's was tough. The bulldozers were so busy making small roads into highways; wildlife habitat into shopping centers; leveling every patch of woodland and old farm and orchard that I and the wild things needed to survive. All I wanted was to get out of there, for they had left nothing for us. As I think about it, coming of age in Richmond has a lot to do with why I've stuck myself way out here in Appalachian Ohio, on the way to nowhere. And then I smile and shake my head. There's no getting away from humans and their nest soiling, especially when you live on top of the Marcellus Shale. However.

There are many things that have gotten so much better, since we started paying a little more attention to people like Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson. I think about Earth Day and smile. There is so much more work to be done. And this is the day we have designated talk about it. To plant some trees. To take children out into the field. And that's a good thing.  Then I go back to what I was doing, which generally has something to do with making this patch of earth friendlier for wild things. Spreading the welcome mat. Making an offering to them. Doing what I can here, now. When the larger world around you seems to have gone insane; when truth is called lies and lies are treated as truth; doing what you can here, now, is the only way I've found to hold on. Doing.

To-do lists are a vital mental anchor for me. This was yesterday's. If you're not hearing from me much, this is why. This list is late April for me in southeast Ohio.  I'm not talking; I'm at a flat-out gallop, dodging the rainy days, trying to get the living things taken care of on their immutable timetable, before I take off to distant places to... talk about it all.

I wanted to give you a taste of Earth Day on Indigo Hill. I was thrilled to see a sunrise after so many weeks of rain and clouds. I headed out toward it, like a moth, then thought to spin around and see what it was doing to the Big Red House. Oh!!

The old pear was lit from behind and within by the rare sunrise. A shelf of clouds waited to gobble the sun up, but I caught a little glow. 

The pear tree's awake.
Fruit good only for ferment
I've no use for that.
Its tall stately form
Great piles of ivory blossoms
Now those, I can use.

A tire still hangs from its lowest branch, mostly for remembrance.

  Entirely for remembrance. Nobody around here swings on tires any more. We're all too big now. Even that little flame-haired elf would need to be wary of the old, rotted rope.


I've mashed together April 20 and 21 into a single Earth Day post, because that was when I finally got around to checking all couple dozen of my far-flung bluebird boxes. 
There were some lovely surprises waiting, better than Easter morning. 
Paas makes a nice turquoise, but it's not as nice as the one Mrs. Bluebird makes with her own bile. Bluebird egg blue is its own miracle.

A typical Gilbertson PVC box first clutch of four.

The very first box I opened on Earth Day was a wooden box, and it had a full clutch of five. Any more, five-egg clutches are a rarity in my boxes. I think it may be because the boxes are small--mostly round Gilbertson style PVC--and the birds adjust brood size so they won't be so crowded in them. I'm going to pay closer attention, and see if I get more five-egg clutches in my wooden boxes. 

You can just barely see in the photo below that the base of the nest is made of maple petioles. Those are the stalks of maple flowers, and they are bright red when fresh. I know who made this nest. It's the same female who nested here last year. She's new to the box. 


I knew right away I had a new female in 2017, because her nest style and material selection was different from that of the bird who'd nested there for at least four years previously.  Here's her nest from May 4, 2017:

It's the most beautiful bluebird nest I'd seen. It was a like a layered cake. A Carolina chickadee had started it, with fresh green moss and bark fiber and fur, and this little gal took over with red maple petioles, dry grass and pine needles. And then she laid five perfect, dark-blue eggs. Just like she did this year.  

There were other reasons I knew this was a new tenant in the Church box. The former hen laid very pale blue eggs. And usually, all but one or two would be infertile. So years would go by with broods of one or two chicks. I'm not sure why this was. Perhaps her mate was infertile, and the fertile eggs resulted from extra-pair copulations by the female. In other words, she may have had to go find a fertile male in order to have any success at all. It seems to me that if a hen consistently lays eggs, most of which are infertile, but then always has one or two that are fertile, the problem may lie with her mate. We know that bluebirds, like many species that we believe to be monogamous, sneak around on each other, seeking mating opportunities with neighbors. I may have been seeing evidence of this in the single fertile egg in each clutch.

Whatever her problem, this benighted female either passed on or changed territories, and we were in full productivity mode again. 
I was so excited to find a full clutch of beautiful blue eggs from the petiole-fancying bluebird that I showed them to the woman who was carefully mowing the cemetery lawn.  I wanted to see her face light up when she saw them, too. And it did!

I put the nest back in its box, and watched her get off the mower and pick up a small American flag in her path. She shook it out, dusted it off, rolled it up, and stashed it for safekeeping as she mowed. There was a reverence in those small actions that moved me.

When I got home, I checked the driveway boxes. The one up on the right bank had treasures. Even cooler was the fact that the nest was made up largely of deer hair. 

I wondered if the hair could be Ellen's, as this is where I'd found her two Novembers ago. 

 You can be sure, since there is so much of it, that the bird got the hair from a carcass. Hair doesn't biodegrade very quickly; it lies at the kill site for many months.  As I thought about it, this nest could well be constructed of Ellen's hair.  For more on Ellen, click here: Fair Ellen: A Remembrance.

The thought pleased me, that my sweet crooked doe might have left something behind, that wound up cradling blue eggs and nestlings. And the wheels, they go 'round and 'round.

I am always pleased when my kids point out things they've found. Liam called me to the deck railing to identify an unusually large bird dropping. Squee!

A good inch long it was. And there was an identical one, but dried up, presumably from the same bird, from yesterday. I just realized, looking at this photo, that it even lies at the same angle, and at the precise same distance from the railing's edge. Same bird, much? Situational awareness, people!

I was happy to be able to tell Liam this was left by a mourning dove who had been sitting for a long time on its eggs. I can't specify the sex, because both sexes of mourning dove take long shifts on the nest. While sitting, they don't defecate, so when they finally do leave to grab a bite, they make these marvelous compacted bird-turds an inch long, with maybe four poops-worth of droppings in one tidy packet.  I wouldn't know they were made by a dove unless I'd raised several. One becomes intimate with droppings when raising birds.

'Tis the season for marvelous bird droppings.

Speaking of marvelous, that second planting of Buttercrunch lettuce I started in March has really kicked in. As the plants I'd started in October 2017 finally began to bolt after feeding us all winter, I pulled them, one by one, and planted new seedlings amongst them,  adding a couple inches of aged cow manure to the containers as I went. There was never a break in the continuum of delicious lettuce. On this Earth Day, I filled my shirt with huge, impossibly tender leaves. I head up to the tower room to pick every other day, and Liam and I gorge on salad with homemade tahini dressing every night. We can barely keep up, and we're totally spoiled by the safe, clean organic greens coming out of the tower. Container-grown lettuce--it's the only way to go. You should try it! Anybody can do it, anywhere, given good sun. And when spring finally comes, I'll move them outside on the front and back porches, where they'll get partial sun and be protected from baking and bunnies. A little shade makes much nicer, thinner, sweeter leaves. Elevation foils rabbits and slugs.

Anyway, there you have it, a grab-bag of thoughts inspired by realizing it was Earth Day as I walked from one bluebird box to the next, breathing in sweet balmy spring air and feeling indescribably grateful for everything I get to see, do, and witness out here in the middle of nowhere, on the way to nothing.

Squirrel OUT!

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

 The Easter morning squirrel saga continues with more ridiculousness. Ma keeps returning to the box, trying to coax Baby out.

 I'm not ignoring you, Ma. I'm just choosing not to come with you this morning. I have things to do.


 Neither am I! If she doesn't have to I don't have to!

 I would very much like a quick nurse. Why haven't you nursed us this morning? That's mean.

 I haven't nursed you because this morning you are not eating. You are learning how to jump down from the box. You cling with your hinders. And then you just jump down to this branch. Piece of cake.

 That is the most terrifying thing I have ever seen anyone do. Right now I am sorry I was born a squirrel. I should have been born a reptile. Someone who doesn't have to risk life and limb. Someone whose mother isn't CRAZY.

 You're kidding, right? About the jumping?

 I am not kidding. This is how squirrels make a living. By jumping, scrabbling, clinging, wild leaping. You're going to LOVE it.

 To a branch that's one inch wide? On their first ever jump in their whole LIFE?? Down THERE??

 Get over it, Liam. Either you leap or I'm going to pull you out of that box and drag you by one leg.

  Ma!! Say it ain't so! I want to stay in this box. It's cold and gray outside. I hate outside. In here it's soft and warm and cuddly. I need to work on my art. I have homework.

  All right, Mister. I'm done. I'm coming for you.

                                                                     Out you come!

 No turning back this time. You're coming with me.

  Just a little groin grab, not biting down, gentle but firm. Stop ow-ing. This is how we do it.

  Let go your dang hind foot! Mmmmmff...Stop hanging on! You are GOING WITH ME, Mister!

 All right, then, if you're going to hang on, we bite down a little harder. Have it your way. Let go and I'll let up. OW OW OW OW OW!! Geesh, Ma!

 That's it! Down we go!

 Thisisnothappeningthisisnothappening  I'mkeepingmyeyesshut   hoooommmggggg nooooo

In the end, Ma Squirrel carried the babies all the way down the willow trunk and into the woods. I'm not sure how many she had; I couldn't stay at it the whole two hours. I felt really lucky to get a whole sequence of one baby's forced removal. When she had this one moved to her satisfaction, she came back and took five on the roof of the  box. It was 11:34 AM. She had started working with the kids at 9:23 AM, and she had at least one more to go. To my mind, she struck a good balance between coaxing and coercion--always a mother's job. Sometimes coaxing works, and sometimes you have to bite down a little harder.

I put some extra peanuts out on the railing and saw her come collect them a few minutes later.

 Good job, Ma Squirrel! And good luck with whoever else is still to be moved. I hope your second home is warm and dry!

A Squirrel's Easter

Wednesday, April 11, 2018


Easter morning is when those who think about such things envision rebirth, everything and everyone becoming new again. What was dead is now risen. For the squirrels in my backyard owl box, Easter morning 2018 was, apparently, a time of emergence. 

I had suspected a squirrel was nesting in the box, because I'd seen one stretched out on its roof a few times, basking in rare spots of sun. I even said, "Liam, I think there are going to be some baby squirrels in that box before long. Keep an eye out."

And, always watching, he called me into the living room. "Ma! Come look! There's something peeking out of the squirrel box!"

Oh!! What a lovely April 1 surprise! The drama began at 9:23 AM on this gray, cold day. Two little squirrels take their first looks at the world outside. No idea how many are actually in there, but the most we saw at one time was two.

Ma comes to keep a watchful eye. The natives are restless. 

And hungry. Come on inside, Ma. Give us a nursing!

If you want to nurse, I suggest you come outside. 

It's nice out here. A bit chilly, but I have another warm dry place in mind. 

Here's how you do it. You cling, decide where you're going, then just...leap! 

You WHAT???!!

There is no way in the world I am going to do that. Nope. Staying here. 

Oh come on. We're squirrels! We were born to cling! If you don't want to leap, you can just scrabble. 

Like...this? You hang on with your claws? And you don't fall??

I...I can't. 

You can. You will. I will be here to catch you if you fall.  

And I am coming in after you if you refuse. You ARE all leaving this box, this morning. 

I'm hungry. You smell good. Come inside and give us a quick nurse. 
I love you. I love to nurse.

I love you too, but I'm not coming back in that box. If you want to nurse you'll have to come out. 

Maybe if I lean out and sneak a teat...

She left again! Ma! I...I...I'm going to try the clinging thinggg...

Brrrrrr woooo that is so scary! Back in with me. Nope. 
Nopeity nope nope nope. 

Cardinal whistles, "You can do it do it do it do it do it!"

I'm going to try again with you. Don't make me come in after you.

You cling with your hind feet and then you can do anything you want with your front feet. Like this!

By now, it's 9:47. The baby squirrels have been hesitating at the box entrance for 23 minutes.  Ma takes matters into her strong squirrely arms.

She's got him by a hind leg, and she's using her teeth now.  Ow ow ow!

I'm gonna get you out if it's the last thing I...mmmfff...

You little stinkpot. Hanging on with every claw you were born with.

I think I need to call for backup. This is like pushing soup uphill with a fork.

It's now 9:52, and Ma Squirrel's been trying to coax and finally manhandle her babies out of their warm box for 31 minutes. Your blogger's been glued to the window the whole time, shooting from inside the house, for none of this would have happened had Ma seen me outside, watching. 

The story goes on, of course, as they all do,  but it's taken me three hours to edit a zillion photos and get them posted,  and I've got to pack now. Because I'm traveling again! 


First: I'll be telling the story of Jemima Jay and my work on Baby Birds for the Explorer Lecture Series Celebrating Women in Science, Cleveland Museum of Natural History, 7 pm Friday, April 13. Booksigning afterward.

Second: I'll fly from Cleveland to Atlanta to kick off events with the Baby Birds/Jemima talk for the ten-day Atlanta Bird Fest on Saturday, April 14, 4 pm, Chattahoochee Nature Center. Booksigning afterward. Please note that online ticket sales end at NOON, Friday, April 13, so grab one of the remaining seats now. 

Thank you, as always, for reading and sharing my adventures. 
I hope to see you somewhere farther on down the line. 

[Back to Top]