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19Aug

The American Crow

19 August, 2013, 13:00

crow01tk

I’m sure everyone has heard the Caw – Caw – Caw of the American Crow and recognizes this jet black bird found throughout the United States. Adult American crows are completely black birds weighing an average one pound. The feathers have a glossy and slightly iridescent look. Crows have strong legs and toes. The bill is also black with a slight hook on the end. Stiff bristles cover their nostrils. Some of the male birds are slightly larger than the females. The Crow is one of the most intelligent of all birds. It has been said that you can teach a crow to talk and I would swear I heard one say “Hello”;  from a tree close to our office one day.

Young crows are about the same size as adults, but have blue eyes and pink inside the mouth. Both the eyes and mouth darken as the bird becomes an adult. In young birds, the ends of tail feathers are symmetrical and are more pointed than the wide, flat-ended feathers of adults. The wing and tail feathers of the young can become quite brown and ragged through the first winter and spring and only become darker and glossier; like adult feathers after the first molt.

The Crow averages 5 ¾” – 6 ½” inches length and have a wing span of 9 ¼ – 10 inches and are native all over North America. They can be found in the lower part of Canada and throughout the continental United States.

They prefer open areas with nearby trees. Agricultural and grassland areas are ideal habitat for crows to forage for their food. They will also use nearby woods and forest edges for breeding and roosting. Crows thrive in suburban neighborhoods and urban parks, as well as in coastal areas.

Crows are omnivores and will eat almost anything. During the breeding season, they consume insects and their larvae, worms, fruits, grains, and nuts. They actively hunt and prey on small animals such as frogs, mice, and young rabbits, though they more likely to scavenge carrion such as road kill. They also are significant nest predators, preying on the eggs and nestlings of smaller songbirds.

In the fall and winter they eat more nuts, such as walnuts and acorns. On rare occasions, they will eat from bird feeders put out by humans. Crows often take advantage of human garbage.

Crows store food items such as meat and nuts in short-term caches. Caches are hiding places that are scattered around, rather than in one place. They may be in tree crevices or on the ground, where they are often covered with leaves or other material.

Crows forage primarily by walking on the ground and picking up the item, or by walking along tree branches. Foraging is usually done by a few individuals in a small area, but can occur in groups over a larger area. I’ve seen a group of crows land on a garbage bin and proceed to tear open garbage bags and then one would pull things out of it and if there was any food it would then give it to another one standing off to the side; tossing the nonfood items to the side.

Crows will hold a nut under one foot and strike it with the bill to open it. To open a particularly heavy-shelled item such as a walnut or clam, a crow will fly high with it and drop it on a hard surface.

Crows are highly vocal birds. Unlike most other songbirds, males and females have the same songs. They have a complex system of loud, harsh caws that are often uttered in repetitive rhythmic series. Shorter and sharper caws called “kos” are probably alarm or alert calls. Slightly longer caws are probably used in territorial defense, and patterns of repetition may be matched in what may be considered “counter-singing,” or exchanges between territorial neighbors. “Double caws,” short caws repeated in stereotyped doublets, may serve as a call-to-arms vocalization, alerting family members to territorial intruders. Sometimes pairs or family members coordinate their cawing in a duet or chorus. Harsher cawing is used while mobbing potential predators.

People are less familiar with the large variety of softer calls crows can make. Melodic, highly variable coos accompanied by bowing postures are used among family members, possibly as greetings or other bonding signals. Coos of cage-mates become similar over time; this vocalization may therefore be the basis of the mimicry ability shown by pet crows. Crows also give several kinds of rattles.

Young crows make gargling sounds that eventually turn into adult vocalizations. Yearling crows also “ramble” or run through long sequences of different patterns and rhythms of cawing.

Breeding in American crows may begin as early as February and last through June. Nests are usually built by both males and females high in a sturdy conifer or hardwood tree. Females lay 4 to 5 light green colored eggs with brown markings. The eggs hatch after 18 days. While she is sitting on the nest, the female will beg for food like a baby bird, and her mate will bring it to her. Crows mate in late winter. Males and females build a nest together.

The parents take turns incubating (sitting on) the eggs. Eggs take about two and a half weeks to hatch. Once born, nestlings are fed by both parents and young crows fledge (leave the nest) after five weeks. Usually the nest is in a tall tree, but sometimes it is built on the ground. Nest materials include sticks, twigs, bark strips, grass, leaves, roots, moss, feathers, and hair. They are usually about a foot wide.

The flight pattern of the Crow is Steady direct flight. A lifespan of six  to ten years is the norm since there is a mortality rate of about 50 percent in the first year. Crow tracks range from two and a half to three inches long with three toes in front and one long toe in the rear.

      Bill Church is a certified Master Naturalist. Articles courtesy of Gilmer County Master Naturalist Association.

14Aug

The New Garden Gadget

14 August, 2013, 11:57

rotorsWEB

Spring came late. We had a long, lingering winter and I didn’t get most of my seeds into the ground until weeks after I did last year. I can tell the difference.

Last year, after the Derecho tore through the area (wiping out power for some of us – like me – for a week and a half), I remember being in a panic about what to do with zucchini and tomatoes that seemed overflowing. They sure weren’t going into the fridge.

This year, it’s different. All my tomatoes are still very green and I have one, lonely zucchini.

I’ve managed to get a jump on my second seeding, which is almost identical to the stuff I got in the ground early: spinach, lettuce, beets, turnips and carrots.

I did OK with the carrots and beets, but the spinach didn’t take and I wound up with one single head of red leaf lettuce, which I’ve been plucking leaves off for almost a month to put in very occasional salads.

With this second planting, I put out some pumpkins. Mindful of how many quarts of pumpkin-butter I had to make to get rid of the pumpkins I had last year, I cut back a bit. I also threw caution to the wind and planted some weird looking watermelons. I don’t like watermelon, but others in my house do. I figured if I got one or two melons out of this late planting, they could consider it manna from heaven and I could tolerate the stray big, green bowling ball clogging up my fridge.

With the second planting, I had a new toy to help with the tilling, courtesy of my dad in Michigan. In the early spring/endless winter, I dug into the ground with hand tools: a shovel, a hoe and a cultivator. It did the job, but it was a lot of work. The new gardening gadget isn’t a full-sized tiller. It’s an attachment for a pretty hefty John Deere weed eater. The lower part of the weed eater snaps off, and you can plug in a particularly fearsome looking set of rotors that makes the thing resemble an accessory to one of my son’s crime-fighting superhero action figures. It’s heavy, noisy and after you start it up, the thing can drag you around the yard if you let it.

“You’ll get a good workout with it,” Dad promised and he was right.

It feels like taking a chainsaw to the ground, but it breaks up the earth and minces roots much better than I can manually. For the first time since I started trying to grow anything, my rows are relatively straight and my garden looks closer to the way I want it to look.

And the plants seem to be growing better and faster -except for the lettuce and spinach, which should be thriving but aren’t. The pumpkins and melons, however, are really taking off.

I’m not sure how happy to be about that.

  While not a particularly skilled gardener, Bill Lynch has fallen asleep with various books on raising vegetables on his lap more times than he can count.


08Aug

Outdoors – Do We Need New Stuff?

08 August, 2013, 9:58

Here we are again; the dead of summer. You know that I am not a fan. What is there to do? This year, to compound matters; I got an unexpected and unplanned for week off. It was a pleasant surprise; especially since I haven’t had a week off since 1998. I have to admit that I panicked when the week began. My bass fishing tackle has pretty much been put away and forgotten for about 6 years. Oh my, I’m going to have to run around and find stuff on short notice. I hate rushing and having to just make do.

I proceeded to the black widow shed to start digging around. I hate digging and sifting in there; you just never know what you may find or what may find you. I first found my tent; which hasn’t been out since 2000. I did not however unroll it or the sleeping bag to see what may have taken up residence. Yes, I resisted that urge. I can stand to save that for another day. I did however dig out a couple of propane lanterns that I had forgotten about. You never know when you may need a lantern around here.

My old musky fishing stuff emerged from the rubble. I peered inside the over-sized tackle box. It did bring back some fond memories as I looked at the tooth scars on several wooden lures. I quickly closed the lid. Too addictive. It may sit for another twenty years. Soon, the numerous plastic boxes began to appear and get shoved to the front. I accumulated about 10 boxes to take out into the sunlight for further inspection.

The boxes were stuffed with Rapalas, Rebel Crawdads and Rattle-Traps. Pumpkinseed worms, bullet sinkers and hooks filled another. One box held close to a hundred of the gliding soft plastic stick baits in various colors that I found to be very effective years ago. I have even forgotten what they were called. I cleaned the dust from the top of one large box and found it to be stuffed full of deer hair and rubber-skirted jigs in various sizes and colors. The box also contained several plastic crawdad trailers to go along with the jigs. I was happy to find all of this stuff in good shape and in un-rusted condition. The only damaged goods to be found were some slip-bobbers on which something of undetermined make-up had apparently melted on and removed the paint. No big deal.

I then went to the rod and reel corner. Two rod tips were broken off and one bait-caster was locked up and frozen solid. I guess that I neglected to hose it down after a flounder fishing trip. Everything else was fine and I’m happy to say that what was junk was thrown away. Not kept for future repairs; which we all know will never happen.

It all turned out well; when I found out that I didn’t need new stuff. I bought a couple of spools of line. The extra money can be spent at the pump to go somewhere good. Nope, no new stuff needed, more time to use the old stuff would be much appreciated.
Visit Randy online  at  highvirginiaoutdoors.blogspot.com.

14Jul

Tracking Birds

14 July, 2013, 13:05

CardinalWEB

Bird tracks are often overlooked, but many species can be identified accurately once the field marks are known.

Try to place the track into one of 5 categories:
1) Classic – 3 toes forward and 1 long toe pointing backward [ex. herons, songbirds, ravens, hawks]) – This group of birds includes passerines, which are tree dwelling birds or song birds; as well as egrets, eagles, hawks, crows, ravens, towhees, and many others. This is the most common group.  Measure these tracks from the tip of the claw on digit one to the tip of the claw on digit three to determine the overall length and from the tip of digit two to the tip of digit 4 for the width.

2) Game Bird – 3 toes forward and a very short toe pointing backward [ex. turkey and quail]) – These tracks will show three digits forward. A small portion of the rear digit may show but it is not reliable and this is what separates this class from the first one. This category includes shorebirds such as sandpipers and stilts, rails, coots, plovers, and pheasant, quail, turkeys, etc.  Measure from the base of the metatarsal pad to the top of the claw on digit three to get the overall length and from the tip of two to the tip of four for the width.

3) Webbed -3 webbed toes forward and a very short toe pointing backward [ex. ducks and gulls]) – These tracks are webbed between digits two, three, and four, but doesn’t usually show a rear toe. This category includes ducks, loons, geese, avocets, gulls terns and more. Like game birds you measure these from the metatarsal pad to the tip of digit 3 since the rear toe is greatly reduced or doesn’t show.

4) Totipalmate – all 4 toes are webbed [ex. cormorants, pelicans, and boobies]) -  This category is similar to the previous except they will show the rear toe and they are webbed between each digit including the rear toe. Pelicans and cormorants are in this class. Even though it’s a webbed track, the rear toe show so measure its length by going from the claw on number one to the tip of the claw on number four which is the longest digit.

5) Zygodactyl – 2 toes point forward and 2 point backward [ex. roadrunners, owls, and woodpeckers]) – This class includes owls, parrots, ospreys, woodpeckers, flickers, and roadrunners. You measure the length of these tracks at their longest potential by going straight up the length of the track regardless if that is on the inside or outside. Roadrunners and woodpeckers such as the Northern Flicker have two digits pointing forward and two to the rear. For all but owls these tracks will look like the letter “K” with the straight bar being on the outside of each track and the angled digits pointing towards the inside of the track. These tracks are longer in the front portion than in the rear making it easy to determine the direction of travel. Owls however are the exception as the straight part of their track is on the inside and the two angled digits are on the outside.  On the Great Horned Owl digit number 4 might point out at a 90 degree angle.

Once you determine the category, look at the sequence of the tracks to determine if the bird normally hops or walks, and then measure of the actual track. You will be on the way to making an identification. When you measure the bird tracks, include their claws in the measurement. The toe pointing to the  rear is the one to start with, then number them going around the inside and going forward. If there are two digits to the rear, the inside rear digit will be the first one and the outside rear digit will be the fourth one.

Birds, like animals, have gaits. There are four of these:
1) Walking – A walk is the preferred gait for ground dwelling birds as well as for those with a reduced rear toe. The track will show on one foot in front of the other and they will be closely spaced. Birds that use this gait are pigeons, ducks raptors, crows and ravens.

2) Running – Often we will see this gait being used by ground dwelling birds. Their stride will be 2 to 5 times the length of the track and it will show as one track placed directly in front of the next one but with a much greater space between the tracks than seen in the walk. You can see the change in the pace (from a walk to a run) by measuring the distance between the tracks. This group includes towhees, and many other ground birds and often crows and ravens. Some birds such as crows and ravens can either walk, run or hop.

3) Hopping – These tracks are paired or placed side by side. This is normal for tree dwelling birds and other such as finches.

4) Skipping – Tracks come in pairs but they are not quite side by side as each foot lands independently and in front of each other. These are usually made by sparrows or other perching birds and shows an increased level of speed.

If you know a little about the habits of the individual species it will help to either confirm you identification or to aid in making them; such as if you know what steps proceed a takeoff you might be better able to identify the bird by its track. Ravens and few others require a running or hopping start while others such as crows, doves and most game birds can take off directly from a standing start. Take a closer look at the last track a bird leaves before its takeoff to see if you can observe that the track is deeper in the front than the preceding ones.

Compare what you see in the tracks with known measurement of your local birds and consider the environmental aspects and you will have you identification.

A good book to learn about this is “Bird Tracks & Sign : A Guide to North American Species” by Mark Elbroch available from Amazon (link below) and other book stores.

      Bill Church is a certified Master Naturalist. Articles courtesy of Gilmer County Master Naturalist Association.

 

05Jul

Inflatable Snakes — In the Orchard

05 July, 2013, 8:17

inflatablesnake

     One of the charms of my property is the previous owner installed several fruit trees and some honest-to-God blueberry bushes.

There were four of them, which seemed like a treasure of culinary possibilities. I imagined blueberry pancakes with blueberry syrup, warm blueberry muffins in the morning and maybe blueberry ice cream whipped up to impress my friends and family. Obviously, I’m kind of a fan.

But I had to wait. I moved in during the middle of summer, too late in the season to get even one blueberry, but it gave me months to obsess about it and plan.

From the very beginning, I knew to fear the birds. When I was a kid, my parents had cherry trees in the backyard. My father tried hanging pie pans on the branches to keep the birds away. The reflected light and little bit of noise was supposed to keep them at bay.

It didn’t really work. Some years, we had cherries. Other years, flocks of starlings and robins heading south remembered to write down the house number before they moved on to parts further south.

I wanted to keep my berries.

Most of the experts I read said to hang netting and that would help stave off our fine feathered felons. So, I bought nets. I bought a big, black roll of plastic netting to hang over my berry bushes and wrap around them like bandages and after the bushes had blossomed and the pale, green berries started to turn lavender, I carefully hung the nets on the branches with smug confidence. I was ahead of the game.

The birds cleared me out over a weekend. It was like they went on a binge, a blueberry bender. The berries were just gone. It wasn’t fair.

I complained to friends, who told me, “Yeah, nets didn’t work for me either.”

Depressed and defeated, I only removed most of the nets. The rest hung on the bushes for almost a year, like cheap, black cobwebs: a symbol of my frustration and failure.   So, I went back to the books and that’s where I read about snakes.

Birds don’t like snakes. Snakes eat birds and the books seemed to suggest all I needed to do to keep the birds away was to have a healthy population of timber rattlers, copperheads and King Cobras on the premises at all times, which was a situation I imagined where the cure was worse than disease.

I settled on an inflatable variety, a worthy substitute, some sources said, and less likely to kill you.

At first sight, the blow-up doll snakes bear only a passing resemblance to an actual, living, breathing snake. They look like something you might win at the ring toss booth of a particularly crappy county fair, though under the right circumstances, they could be used as a very weird flotation device.

This seemed like the worst kind of voodoo gardening and the clerk who sold them to me doubted I’d get much out of them. His doubt didn’t stop him from selling them to me, of course, but he advised, “If they work, you need to move them around. The birds will figure it out they’re fake if they stay in the same place all the time.”

As if the smooth, cartoonish appearance of the devices weren’t already a dead giveaway, but I tried anyway. While the berries were still greenish, but starting to turn, I posted the snakes in the branches of the bushes and like the man said, I moved them around every couple of days.

You know what? It worked. Birds turned up, but they came in small numbers and didn’t stick around.

Harvesting has been an ongoing process. I check every other day, but the supply is steady -a couple of cups a day.

Now, if I can only find an inflatable bear to put in my garden to keep away the deer.

While not a particularly skilled gardener, Bill Lynch did watch every episode of “Green Acres” twice and has fallen asleep with various books on raising vegetables on his lap more times than he can count.

18Jun

Natural Medicine for Stings, Poison Ivy

18 June, 2013, 8:56

Summer living is easy – but not much fun – when beset with biting bugs and exposure to dreaded poisonous plants. Here are a few first aid tips from Mother Nature.

When wildflowers and clover are in bloom, pollinators are busy at work. If you fall victim to a bee sting, look around for some plantain. It grows plentifully in most yards as a weed. You’ll recognize its broad, oval, almost heart-shaped leaves that form a rosette close to the ground and its cattail-like spikes when it goes to seed. Simply chew or crush the leaves, then apply directly to the sting. Plantain is a natural antidote for formic acid, the irritant in insect venom that causes swelling. It works on ant and mosquito bites too, but it is not helpful for spider bites. This humble weed was considered one of nine sacred herbs by ancient Saxons. Indians and settlers also used it, and it is still good medicine today.

It’s always good to have a few over-the-counter remedies on hand. Sting Stop is a homeopathic ointment containing active natural ingredients for temporary relief from pain, itching, redness and swelling of minor bites and stings. Many topical treatments are available in a number of forms – lotions, sprays and salves. Keep bugs away with natural repellents made with a combination of essential oils including citronella, thyme and eucalyptus.

If you spend any time outdoors in the woods, no doubt you can identify poison ivy, sumac and oak. These plants transfer their natural oils to human skin and can be very irritating to people with sensitivity to it. I recommend taking Ivy Gone before the summer season gets started. This is a small capsule containing part of the poison ivy plant harvested before spring. We have sold this at Mother Earth Foods for more than 20 years with great success.

If you have already come into contact with poison, you’ll likely find jewelweed, a natural antidote, growing nearby. The leaves and juice from the succulent stems have been used for centuries as a topical treatment for plant poisons and other plant induced rashes. Jewelweed counter-reacts with the chemicals in the poisonous plants. Slice the stem and rub it on the affected area. It is also a handy folk remedy for insect bites. Jewelweed grows in moist, cool places and is from 3-5 feet high. Its pale yellow or orange flowers are trumpet-shaped. It is also commonly known as “Touch-Me-Nots” because the seeds will pop and fly when touched.

If you are suffering with blisters and skin eruptions from poison ivy, there are washes and sprays available for relief. We carry Oak & Ivy spray under our Earthworks label. It contains the essence of fresh jewelweed and grindelia flower to relieve the nagging itch and mildly astringent witch hazel to help dry it up.

Mother Nature has been wise in providing us with remedies for stings, bites and poison oak and ivy in the very same habitat where you’ll run into stinging insects and offending plants. There’s no need to suffer this summer if you are armed with this knowledge and a little common sense!

    Comments be sent directly to   herbdoc@motherearthworks.com.

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