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The birds and the bees... or maybe just the birds

“Location, Location, Location” is not a maxim limited to human real estate. It is the primary reason we have abundant wildlife. Animals need locations that will provide food resources and shelter for their young. Habitat, Habitat, Habitat.

Quite by lucky accident, the 40 acres we purchased in 1973 has rich and varied habitats. We valued the creeks, and slowly began to learn how valuable the fresh, cold, flowing water is to harlequins, mallards, mergansers, dippers, herons, kingfishers, sandpipers. The lush growth of the riparian zone supports yellow and Wilson’s warblers. The striking colors of the American redstart are visible as it darts over the water to snap at a fly. Northern water thrush brood here, singing from nests hidden in thick alders. Catbirds squeeze into impenetrable hawthorn thickets to build their nests. A northern shrike will use a thorn on the same hawthorn to display his dead shrew. We have noticed that the more we encourage riparian growth, the wider variety of birds are nesting here.

The hayfields are not only a source of timothy and clover to bale; in early spring the fields are filled with returning robins. By dandelion bloom, siskens and goldfinches harvest seed. This week a hen turkey is weaving through the tall uncut, followed by five chicks. Following the hay mower, ravens will gobble exposed field mice. Red tailed hawks cruise the open field. Violet green, tree, and cliff swallows hunt overhead, clearing the air of mosquitoes, flies and aphids. They choose the power lines that cross the field as a favored perch.

The second growth forest maturing on the slopes above the hayfields resound in June with the spirally song of Swainson’s thrushes. This winter a pileated woodpecker moved in for several months, excavating deep rectangular holes in selected cedars. Chickadees, nuthatches, Stellar Jays, kinglets, sapsuckers, downy and hairy woodpeckers use this woodland year-round. Flickers swoop from the forest to dig holes for flies on the side of the house.

The widely spaced deciduous yard trees and fruit trees attract insect-eating birds. For many years we have been baffled by the almost continuos singing of a small, constantly moving greenish bird. This year, our maple is finally large enough to bring this mystery out of the towering willow and into binocular range; we think it is a warbling vireo. In May, cedar waxwings tenderly pass apple petals from beak to beak and western tanagers are drawn to the large cherry trees. By July robins and catbirds harvest cherries for their demanding offspring.

Once killdeer flew from Central America to our pastures where they nested. If a parent killdeer perceived a predator, she played the broken wing, helpless, follow-me tactic. If she thought the creature approaching the nest to be a big clumsy vegetarian, she flew at its face to turn its hooves. In some way, the killdeer needed those big cows. Most likely, the bovines kept the grasses and forbs cropped low enough to appeal to the birds. Two years after we sold our small herd, there was not a killdeer left on our place. Yet, some habitat remains; gravel bars and roadsides still exist around here, but we never hear the 2 am “Kee-dee” call anymore.

People have told me that there used to be year-round magpies in this western section of Sanders County. They thrived around the numerous local dairies, flipping cow pies and eagerly eating maggots. With the decline of dairies, we only see magpies in the autumn. They appear so suddenly, it is almost as if they were shot from guns of fall. Like their super smart cousins, the ravens, magpies have learned that big game hunters leave big gut piles.

In our brief tenure, we have seen the dramatic and total decline of barn swallows. Those blue-backed swallows with the deeply forked tail build mud pellet nests in the shape of a cup. They followed the pioneers west, finding farm buildings created good habitat. From hundreds of these swallows we observed in the 70s and 80s on our place, there is not a one left. Some of the reason is obvious, the old barns have succumbed to snow and gravity. Yet, in the past a few always nested in the garage and under the eaves of the granary.

In the early 80s there was a thriving population of barn swallows using a big barn about a quarter mile away. The barn, roofed in metal, is now the only old barn left in the valley. It should still provide the perfect location for barn swallows with fields and creek to hunt, power lines on which to perch. However, today the barn is strangely silent and lifeless; there are no barn swallows swooping through the structure squeaking rusty calls.

Banded birds have indicated that individual swallows return year after to year to the same winter and summer locations. Since barn swallows have disappeared from the whole creek valley, I suspect some calamity hit them in them in their South American winter location. At any rate, our small valley is missing a component.

Like all of the old homesteads, ours was graced with the bubbly, cheerful songs of feisty house (aka Jenny) wrens. The bold wrens eagerly accepted bird boxes, stuffing them with small twigs. They liked hop vines and plum thickets. One year, no wrens returned to any of the old homesteads; not one. Again, I suspect that some disaster befell ‘our’ wrens in their Mexican winter quarters. Yards are poorer without wren song.

Human actions effect every location on earth. Only if our actions reflect respect for the natural world, can we fully share in its richness. Some of these riches could be yours. Rise early and take a moment to listen to the dawn chorus. Barn swallows, killdeer and house wrens are in decline worldwide, and no one can predict which will be the next missing species. So, you best get out of bed while the songs are still being sung.

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Lou Springer Lou Springer lives in Heron when not out on a river somewhere.

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