Insect Pests? No such thing…

So many wild species struggle to survive in the face of human activity. Serious population declines over the last half century should instill fear in every human heart – we need these wild animals for our own survival.

  • 76% population decline in freshwater species
  • 70% decline in seabird populations
  • 68% loss of common birds in the United States
  • 40% of terrestrial populations lost worldwide
  • 40% worldwide loss in marine species

Humans, by-and-large, disdain insect and arachnid species, either fearing them or labeling them as pests. Reasons are, for the most part, based in ignorance of the value these animals provide. We call these ecosystem services and natural capital, functions rooted in Nature upon which Homo sapiens depend for our own lives.  Some of these, like the water cycle, are obvious to us – although we still foolishly complain when it rains. Also trees often get lots of credit for their oxygen production, however, when allowed to form a forest, trees up the ante on the services and capital we rely upon – erosion and flood control, water purification, lumber and paper products, etc., etc.

Insects, Spiders and other such animal species, however, do not get much credit for anything other than being “pesty”.  When one considers the full web of life, it does not take long to realize that these invertebrates are critical to all life on Earth. I might even risk saying that they are second only to plants in importance, which explains why they vastly outnumber all other animal species.

This 1st and 2nd place rating is no coincidence. Without plants, no animal eats – none of them. All food is based in the plant world – and many, many plants greatly depend upon insects in order to reproduce, be it through direct pollination services or the protection certain invertebrate species provide to plants.  Consider that approximately 75% of flowering plants rely on animal pollinators to reproduce. Of the over 200,000 species of animals who perform pollination services, 99.5% of them are insects, such as beetles, bees, ants, wasps, butterflies, and moths, or spiders.

Clearly we must educate ourselves on these essential animals.  We need them or Homo sapiens becomes extinct.  The factors that threaten invertebrates are far more than just fear and disdain. While we directly target some for annihilation with chemicals, others are being threatened by our use of resources – habitat loss, pollution (air/water/ chemical) and climate change being the top factors.

And our best-loved insects, the Butterflies, are not immune to humans’ insatiable use and misuse of natural resources. A recent study states that the Monarch Butterfly, an icon of Nature’s beauty, may be only 20 years from extinction. Why? Habitat loss in both its Winter and Summering grounds (they Summer and reproduce in Western New York), pesticides, genetically modified crops and climate change are the reasons.

And let’s think about those devaViceroyButterlfy_inHandstating population numbers above.  What is the link to the invertebrate world? Many of these animal populations feed upon invertebrates, be it the adults, larvae and/or eggs. Mosquitoes are a favorite food of both birds and freshwater animals. Is it any wonder there is a rise in Mosquito-borne disease recently? The interconnectivity of Nature is still a mystery and we need to understand these complex relationships as they relate to our own behaviors and use of the natural world.

What can you do to help reverse such trends? Here’s some suggestions:

  • Become knowledgeable about insects and spiders. Learn what services they perform that eventually trickle down to our own survival. And remember, the vast majority of these species pose no harm to you.
  • Put the chemicals and fly-swatters away. First, it is a losing battle – their numbers are too great and many evolve quickly to survive chemical applications. Instead, make sure your screens are tight and intact, turn off lights near windows and doors, use natural repellents (like citronella, cloves and lemon balm).
  • Create wildlife habitat, especially for those native pollinators in peril. All of Nature will benefit – see http://oakmossed.com/garden.php for lots of information on environmentally sound gardening, native plants and our invertebrate friends.

The future of Planet Earth is literally in our hands now. Our actions and failure to act will not only dictate the further existence of wild animals and plants, but our own existence, as well.

Sources:

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!

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.

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.

LeastWeasel_rabbit

Habitat Restoration Series: Native Plant Suggestions for Western New York/Southern Ontario – Part 4

Here is the fourth installment in our Habitat Restoration Series for Spring.
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Native Plantings for WNY/Southern Ontario – Submission #4 for wet/moist soils:
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Catail (Typha latifolia)Common Cattail (Typha latifolia): Native to North American wetlands, shores, banks and even ditches, Cattails are an important species for wildlife. Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) and certain species of duck and geese will use Cattail “groves” for nesting. Fish can find safety from prey and sun in the Cattails or lay their eggs among them (as do many other aquatic animals) while Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) and Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) use them as a food source. Growing from rhizomes, Cattails are generally found in clumps or stands where each individual is often a genetic clone of its neighbor. The dense growth of Cattails has other benefits, including filtration of water and erosion prevention. Traditionally, these plants were an important protein source in Spring among native peoples who also made use of the leaves for weaving baskets and mats, the fluff for insulation and padding, and fibers for string or paper. Cattails are being challenged for habitat by the invasive Common Reed (Phragmites australis) and can really use our help in getting established in suitable locations. So if you’ve an area where it is continually wet and soggy or is characterized by seasonal flooding, Cattails might be an excellent candidate. Wildlife will appreciate it and you will be able to enjoy those “sausage heads” swaying in the Summer breeze.

Previous posts in this series:

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)
Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis)

Habitat Restoration Series: Native Plant Suggestions for Western New York/Southern Ontario – Part 3

Here is the third installment in our Habitat Restoration Series for Spring.
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Native Plantings for WNY/Southern Ontario – Submission #3 for wet/moist soils:
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Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis)

Whether called Serviceberry, Shadbush, Shadblow, Juneberry or Saskatoon, the local name of this important shrub is tied to cultural legacy – the timing of flowering or fruiting often coincided with events like the running of shad, the arrival of traveling preachers, or the month of the year; saskatoon is a shortened version of the Cree name for this shrub, mis-ask-quah-toomina, and also points to this species’ predominance in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. Historically, native tribes used Serviceberry for food (including pemmican), medicine and its hard wood for arrow shafts. So valuable was the dried fruit, Indians utilized it as a form of trade with arriving Europeans.

amelanchier_canadensisHere in Western NY, you will find Serviceberry is tolerant of a wide range of soils and light but probably does best in locations that are slightly acidic, moist but well-drained, and partially shaded to sunny. Is has more upright, rounded growth reaching anywhere from 6 to 20 feet, producing small white flowers in late April to May. Its food value to wildlife (songbirds, game birds, squirrel and many other mammals – including bear) is high and, like the elderberry, we humans can enjoy the fruit for pies, jams and wines. Serviceberry is our first fruiting shrub with its gifts ripening in June. Like most fruiting shrubs, its age determines maturity in terms of fruit production, sometime around 4 to 5 years. Ornamentally, Serviceberry, if planted close enough together, can form a natural fence or windbreak and its fall color is very vibrant.

Other than protecting young shrubs from nibbling Deer, this shrub needs little or no maintenance, which is a great bonus. Be advised, if you plan to harvest berries for your own use, prepare to net the shrubs early as our bird friends can easily strip them completely of fruit in one day. Here on The Acre, we net until ready to harvest but leave plenty for wildlife. If you’ve a number of Serviceberry plants, you can also net just one for your own use and leave the others available for critters. You’ll love the deliciously sweet fruits and wonder how you lived this long having not enjoyed them.

See our previous postings in this Series:
#1: Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
#2: Common Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)

Habitat Restoration Series: Native Plant Suggestions for Western New York/Southern Ontario – Part 2

Here is our second installment in our Habitat Restoration Series for Spring.
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Native Plantings for WNY/Southern Ontario – Submission #2 for wet/moist soils:
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Common Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)

web_MistyElderberryThese shrubs grow best in rich, moist, neutral soils that have good drainage. I have mine planted on a very shallow slope just above a very mucky spot and they do tremendously well. Sunlight should be from full sun to partial shade (they are often found along the woodland edge in the wild). They will shoot up new canes each year and are subject to spreading so you can choose a spot where they can spread at will or control them through pruning back older woody canes or mowing. It generally takes from 3 to 5 years for fruits to develop after planting young canes. Flowers develop in June so are not usually subject to fruit loss due to frost. Fruits begin to ripen in late Summer and persist well into October. This area native has many, many benefits. It is rich in vitamin C and potassium and has many medicinal qualities, especially in terms of the immune system.

Homeopathically (like treats like) Elderberry is considered to be good for the areas of the body that are “tubular” or “hollow” – blood, respiratory, nerves – based on the plant’s hollow stems. Both flowers and fruits can be used. Be advised that raw Elderberries Elders in flower on "The Acre"can have a strong cathartic effect so we advise that the fruits be heated for 5 minutes to neutralize those characteristics (generally small amounts may be eaten raw – just be prudent). Wildlife thrives on the berries and these shrubs can produce more than enough for sharing. You can have your pie, wine, jam and medicinals while leaving enough for birds and deer to “fatten up” on for Winter.

Sources for Elderberry, other than local nurseries, can be found on our webpage. Be sure you choose the Sambucus canadensis varietal as this is the true native in Eastern North America.
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Did you miss Submission #1? Have no fear, you can read all about Winterberry HERE!