Wild Plant Foraging and Prepartion

Along with our partners at the historic Roycroft Campus, we’re offering a 2-part program on ethical foraging and use of wild plants. Click the graphic below for details.

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Bird of the Year – 2016

There is a sweet tradition that holds the first bird sighted on New Year’s Day is your theme bird for the year, one which will share its lessons and inspire you both intellectually and spiritually. This year, the Tufted Titmouse (Parus bicolor) has taken on the role of Bird of the YeaTuftedTitmouser for me after an early morning sighting on January 1st. Personal experience has demonstrated that our fellow species, be they plant or animal, can teach us much about life and I look forward to learning more from the Tufted Titmouse as 2016 progresses.

Below is some of the information I’ve gathered thus far and will continue to decipher how this small songbird will enrich my life with its presence. I’ll share these insights with you later in in the year.

  • More known for its “peter-peter-peter” song than its appearance, the Tufted Titmouse is a small, jaunty passerine (5 to 6″) whose behaviors are interesting to observe.
  • Males and females look alike, although some research suggests that the black forehead patch may be slightly larger on dominant males. Beyond that, one will have to spend some time in observation and listening as the males are the producers of the boisterous “peter” song while females are the primary nest sitters.
  • Although an inquisitive species, Tufted Titmice are a bit less social with humans than their cousins the Black-capped Chickadee, who can be hand-fed after coaxing.
  • Titmice form limited families in that young remain with their parents through the first Winter and sometimes help raise the next season’s brood.
  • Male Titmice strongly defend their territories and their small Winter flocks have an “alpha” male of sorts who will drive off “alien” males who attempt to join the assembly.
  • Being a woodland species, Tufted Titmice are less likely to take up residence in open field next boxes as they prefer not to fly across open spaces.
  • The Tufted Titmouse uses tree cavities for both nesting and roosting. However, they do not excavate their own cavities but, instead, use existing ones. Use of nest boxes is mixed among birders who monitor them.
  • “TT” raises one brood of 5 to 8 youngsters per season. They will include human hair in nest materials but it should be cropped short as longer strands may tangle around the legs of baby birds.
  • Its range is moving northward, likely in conjunction with a changing climate.
  • Although heard often in the woodlands, the Tufted Titmouse rarely visits my backyard feeders in Summer and is almost exclusively seen on the property after the formation of Winter flocks in late Autumn (which include Downy Woodpeckers, Black-capped Chickadees and Nuthatches). It is a non-migratory species.
  • Can hang upside down on branches in search of arthropods hidden beneath bark.

Find your own “Bird of the Year” and enjoy the many pleasures and wisdom of these feathered friends!

Hunting (survival) vs. Killing (ego)

Homo sapiens love to claim a superiority over other species on the planet. We even have a loosely defined categorization method that generally places plants at the bottom followed closely by the “crawly” things (insects, spiders, snakes, etc.). High on the ladder just below our species we place the other primates. But it is not so simplistic since even within genetic families we differentiate (domestic dogs vs. wild canines, for example). And from what I can tell, this hierarchy is pretty much based upon our own species’ ego, likes and dislikes as individuals and societies, and/or religious convictions.

Coyote as bait

Trapped coyote being used as bait for the dogs of an employee of USDA’s Wildlife Services.

What this unilaterally defined hierarchy demonstrates to this writer, however, is a lack of intelligence on the part of H. sapiens because our knowledge and understanding of the roles individual species play within the complex network of Earth’s systems is quite limited. Consider there are thousands of species we’ve not even identified, much less perceive the significance of their niches. There are a few more open-minded scientists who have challenged the lower levels of this pecking order, such as John Marzluff and his research on Corvidae, which flies in the face (pun intended) of previous  “primates are the most intelligent animals” presumptions, but much more work along such lines should be done.

This self-named species’ superiority is the entire problem behind the current mass extinction event the Earth currently is facing. The causes are clearly understood (human over-population, habitat destruction, over-consumption, lack of education, profiteering, etc.) – these all speak of a species nearly entirely self-centered and, thus, woefully misguided.

The taking of a species’ life for a trophy is the epitome of self-centered egotism (one that is either too big, very fragile or potentially both). What other species causes such worthless death? What is wrong with H. sapiens? Is it a genetic mutation? Is our brain malfunctioning because it is more difficult for blood to reach it due to our “uprightedness?” Why do we as a species feel superior to all others? How has our existence improved the complex entity solely responsible for our survival – planet Earth? We seemingly have no beneficial niche unlike the other species with whom we share this blue marble.

Pursuing another species in a fair “sporting” manner for food or because one is under deadly attack can be called hunting. Taking an animal’s life in order to hang its head on the wall, put a rug on the floor, pin its remains in a book, etc. is killing – and ALL such intentional killing, regardless of species, should be illegal.

A few last notes in this highly controlled rant:

  • To recommend or inflict harm on those who collect animal trophies makes one no better than the trophy seeker. Pursue the higher ground and move for legislative and educational changes in our society.
  • For those in the U.S., if you are concerned about the wanton death of wildlife, then focus some of your abhorrence on your federal elected officials and mandate they dissolve Wildlife Services – an arm of the USDA responsible for the deaths of millions of wild animals every year and funded by YOUR tax dollars (see https://www.revealnews.org/article/theres-a-reason-youve-never-heard-of-this-wildlife-killing-agency/ for the gruesome facts, as well as the graphic below).
  • If you fear any wild animal or plant, educate yourself about the species. Learn what role it plays in the environment and understand how it benefits our own species. Knowledge can overcome fear and promotes tolerance.

Each semester, I provide my Environmental Science and Field Ecology students with numerous definitions. The most important one is as follows:

Homo sapiens (hoh-moh sey-pee-uh nz): n. – the only species on planet Earth knowingly engineering its own extinction.

May peace guide the planet…

WildlifeServiceStats_2013

An Oakmoss Summer

Our program line-up for the Summer of 2015 includes two field outings and a hands-on workshop in East Aurora, NY as we continue our mission to share the lessons of Nature to benefit the planet and all its inhabitants. Details and registration information available on our website. Please join us!

Twilight Trek
Saturday, July 11 – 7:00 to 9:00pm at West Falls Park. Enjoy an interpretive stroll through the woods and along the creek at dusk, one of the most active times of day as diurnal creatures wind down and nocturnal critters begin to rouse.

Field Flutterers
Saturday, July 25 – 9:00am to 11:30am at Knox Farm State Park. We’ll be seeking out the flighted creatures of the open field, be they insect or avian. From butterflies to birds, there are many species that fill the morning with activity.

Introduction to Herbal Concoctions
Saturday, August 1 – 1:00pm to 3:30pm at the Roycroft Campus Power House. A hands-on workshop in which students will become acquainted with incorporating common herbs into simple preparations for body care and overall general health.

Let it rain…

Today is gray and wet, dark skies loom and the world around us quiets. But when the Sun re-emerges, oh how life will sing – the birds, the butterflies, the bees will hum harmoniously – and the green of Kingdom Plantae will pulse with new life.

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Predation, Intelligence and the Neighbors

An ordinary day on “The Acre” with an extraordinary event last weekend. I was in about hour four of hand-tilling and weeding the vegetable garden. It was hot (~87F) and humid with the sun beating down between the fleeting clouds, and black flies becoming annoyingly prevalent as my body exuded more CO2. As one would expect, the air was filled with the calls of songbirds and field birds, a singing Chickadee still in search of a mate, the back and forth fluttering of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird and the irritated calls of Baltimore Orioles who were not comfortable with my proximity to their jelly feeder. Also droning in the background were human machines – lawn mowers, roto-tillers, weed-eaters – why could they not work more quietly?

Suddenly from the back of the property near a pair of Eastern Bluebird nest boxes came a frantic shrieking, the kind one might hear from an American Kestrel or Sharp-shinned Hawk but more desperate. Within 2 or 3 seconds, the Red-winged Blackbirds swarmed the spot, both males and females, quickly followed by a few Grackles. They combined to form a chorus of alarm calls while the shrieking continued.

Given the aggressive gathering, I presumed a now panicked small raptor was in the Silky Dogwood that grows along side the nest boxes. So I got up from my tilling to see if I could spot anything in the shrubbery. “Why don’t I ever remember to bring the  binoculars when I work out here,” I grumbled. Not seeing anything through the thicket, I stepped out from the fencing that surrounds the garden and fox-walked slowly toward the site to get a better perspective. The shrieking was relentless but my cautious approach was too much for the blackbirds, who took flight. Still the desperate wails continued.

I tentatively walked further toward the back and my sight-line cleared the high grass that surrounds the narrow mowed path leading to the nest boxes. That is when I spotted something brown writhing on the low grass. I was still too far to make out exactly what it was, but suspected it might be a female Red-winged given the coloring and concerned collective that had just flown off but still called feverishly a short distance away.

This is when my paced quickened, surmising that some smaller bird of prey had wounded the Red-winged and it needed help. “What the…”, said I as a small brown Weasel spun off the pile and bolted into the high grass. Left behind was this now smaller weakly wriggling mass. The air was silent of wildlife now and quickly I went to check on who it was that remained. A young Eastern Cottontail, perhaps a month or two old, was rolling slowly in pain.

As I gently scooped it up, the shrieking started again but silenced once I covered the rabbit’s eyes. Immediately its injuries were obvious as the back of its neck was raw and bleeding from the Least Weasel’s attack. Dashing across the property and into the basement, I gingerly placed the small lagamorph into a box and closed it up. Having taken some wildlife rehabilitation classes, I knew that stress is the number one cause of death for injured wild animals and that keeping it in a dark quiet place was very important to reduce anxiety. I raced upstairs to get the list of local rehabilitators and selected one close by. Grabbing my phone, I popped back down to the rabbit so to give an accurate appraisal of the animal’s situation once the rehabber was on the line. But, alas, the little one already had expired so the call was never made.

This entire episode was completed in not more than 5 minutes. Most astounding was the incredibly fast response by the local birds. The Acre regularly hosts one or two pairs of nesting Red-winged Blackbirds each season and the surrounding property likely another 2 or 3 pairs. At least a dozen Red-wingeds were present and, as mentioned above, a few Grackles. It was if they all came out of the ether at the doomed rabbit’s first shriek. Talk about being in the moment! But more interesting is how they knew trouble was at hand.

There have been a number of studies of late reporting on communication among birds and the possibility that different species understand each others’ languages. But this event seems to clearly show that these birds understand, at least to some degree, the language of a mammal.

As humans, we have a tendency toward intellectual superiority, often attributed to the size of our brain and/or complexity of our nervous system. I’ve heard rabbits make soft, muted squeals but never a shrieking sound. I hypothesized a raptor based upon the sharpness of the call and the behavior of the birds, which I have witnessed before when hawks or crows are too close to nest sites. But instinctively I knew it was a call of distress, and so did the birds. And they were at the location so fast and reacted far more quickly than any human could do. So in this situation, my intelligence was off the mark, while my instincts were right in line with those of the birds.

As I buried the box and its tiny contents in a pile of leaf litter, it was the inability to assess the situation as quickly as the birds that bothered me the most. Had I immediately been able to discern, as they did, that the event was natural predation in process, I would have let it come to its inevitable conclusion – the inexperienced wayward rabbit would have provided a meal to a cunning weasel (and perhaps some others). But it would have been impossible to achieve the adeptness of the birds without a pair of binoculars at a minimum. They definitely have an advantage being able to achieve superior sight-lines and their reaction time cannot be matched by any human I know. We simply are too caught up with our mostly needless distractions, particularly those in our own brains, to ever attempt matching the “at one with nature” talent of wildlife, a skill we let go of generations before.

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