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Dead wood can be good. June 20, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our wonderful tree pruner decided to switch over into landscaping about ten years ago, and I’m ashamed to say that we haven’t had our trees pruned here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and I share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, since that time. (I should say “voluntarily pruned,” since our local electric utility has taken to scalping and shaving whole sides off trees, including evergreens, in an attempt to preempt storm damage. It might have occurred to them that evergreens evolved to resist snow and ice damage, but nooooo.)

Our former pruner had everything we wanted: horticultural knowledge, so he only pruned out dead and diseased or damaged wood; affordable rates; and commonsense (so he took all the safety precautions and didn’t end up flying). We had him come twice a year to keep our friendly forest of trees shipshape. And we’ve been agonizing over his career change ever since.

We’re not eager to bring in an unknown pruner who charges thousands of dollars and believes that trees should be “topped” into hideous balls, like so many pruners around here do routinely. (One of our favorite bumper stickers says “Topless Trees Are Indecent.”) And since we want all downed wood chopped to size for our firepit and woodstove, rather than hauled away or chipped, we fear the costs would skyrocket.

What to do?!! We don’t own a chainsaw, much less know how to use one, and damned if we’re putting ourselves in harness and climbing trees. Some things should be left to the professionals. No point in ending up like Bran Stark. We prefer enjoying our trees from below the leaf canopy.

However, over ten years of not having pruners come attend to our trees, a lot of big branches and many smaller ones have died. This past bizarre winter did in a couple of large shrubs, and hurled forked branches onto the limbs of others. There’s a lot of dead wood around here that needs to be taken down and cut up. So we finally decided to bite the bullet and find a new pruner to clean things up.

Then, this noon, something happened to make me reevaluate a large-scale pruning sweep. I love sitting out on our deck with OFB and our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, surrounded by colorful, fragrant, blooming container plants, with our deck water garden brimming with plants, fish, snails, and sometimes frogs, and our creek, Hawk Run, burbling away just beyond the deck, with a sweeping view of our property on the other side of the deck bridge. But in summer, by about 11 and continuing to about 2, the sun falls on the deck and makes it too hot for me to handle.

Normally, I just hide in the house until the sun moves on. But today OFB persuaded me to sit by our firepit under the shade trees on the far side of the creek. I was looking in despair at all the new dead branches sitting there had brought into view—how many thousands of dollars were we going to have to pay to get them all cut down and cut up?!!—when I heard a racket going on directly overhead.

Yikes! There was another dead branch. This one was covered with lichens and mushrooms and had two perfectly round holes in it, doubtless bored by our resident woodpeckers (we have downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers, though the holes were too small for the latter). The racket was not, however, being made by woodpeckers, but by a pair of wrens who had nested in one of the woodpecker’s holes and were flying in to feed their clamoring babies.

I love wrens (and woodpeckers, for that matter). Wrens are tiny, fearless brown birds that are instantly recognizable by their long, straight beaks and the way they hold their tails up when they perch. They have often “visited” me in my home office by landing on the a/c outside my window and strutting around. They’re incredibly cute and seem unafraid of anything. I’d seen that they’d actually nested in one of our birdhouses this spring, but had no idea that they would nest in abandoned woodpecker holes.

“Ben! You have to see this! Wake up!!!” I tried with limited success to rouse OFB from his fresh-air-induced slumbers. But I was absolutely riveted. Both parents constantly flew to their nest with bugs to feed their babies, who chittered appreciatively (though I thought more appreciatively when the bugs were bigger and juicier).

The adult wrens displayed great intelligence, heading to a blooming privet nearby, which attracted innumerable bugs with its flowers and fragrance. And they were tireless, taking turns bringing their catch to the nest-hole, popping in to feed the babies, then returning to the hunt. If anyone ever doubted the importance of birds in controlling insect populations, I wish they could have seen the scores of bugs brought to the nest in the hour or so I sat there.

At first, the wrens were rather perturbed that OFB, Shiloh and I were sitting almost directly below their nest hole, and there was a fair amount of fussing directed at us before they disappeared into the branch. But, again displaying intelligence, they eventually realized that we were posing no threat, and the alarm calls ceased and were replaced by contented calling to their offspring. (“Look what I’ve brought this time! What a beautiful day! Just wait ’til you can fly!”)

Well. I think we’ll still need to hire pruners this year. But that’s not a branch we’ll let them take off.

‘Til next time,


Finally, flickers. April 5, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, Uncategorized.
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Or at least, one flicker. As winter finally transitions into spring—something Silence Dogood and I had begun to think would never happen—our friend Ben is seeing the birds of winter that fill our landscape here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home Silence and I share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, start to give way to the birds of spring.

Amazingly, there are still juncos here, the first time I can remember them being here this late. I blame the ongoing frigid temperatures, which are supposed to dip into the teens again tonight, for keeping the juncos from their northward path. Just yesterday, I saw snow geese still passing over, again to my astonishment. Global warming, where art thou?!

Nonetheless, the birds of summer have begun their annual arrival. I saw our first robin of spring this past weekend, and there was a goldfinch—not yet in bright yellow breeding plumage but still recognizable—on one of our tube feeders just yesterday.

But happiest of all our returning visitors was the Northern flicker we saw flying through the backyard en route to our suet feeder. When Silence and I first bought Hawk’s Haven, flickers were a constant sight. The big, colorful woodpecker relatives cheered us up no end with their entertaining antics.

Not that you’d necessarily recognize the handsome birds as woodpeckers, since they look and act more like big songbirds, sweeping over the lawn rather than hanging out on trees and hammering away. And unlike most woodpeckers, rather than sporting mostly black-and-white plumage, often with red on the head and sometimes with a crest (as in the case of pileated woodpeckers), flickers for the most part are a soft mourning-dove brown, with discreet yellow and red markings. The easiest way to recognize a flicker is to see its white rump-patch flashing as it flies by.

For the first few years, Silence and I delighted in our flickers. Then, about three years later, they disappeared. And not just from our backyard, but from all the yards, parks, and other landscapes in our part of PA. What had happened? Where had they gone?!

One of my favorite backyard birding references, Birds at Your Feeder (Erica H. Dunn and Diana L. Tessaglia-Hymes, Norton, 1999), which summarizes data from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch, suggests the answer: Flickers are ant-eaters. That’s why they tend to hang out on lawns, searching out ant colonies in the ground and in fallen branches that have decayed and invited ants to make their homes. This of course makes them allies in our war against pests. But unfortunately, it also makes them susceptible to our shortsightedness.

Our ever-increasing use of chemical pesticides on lawns has wiped out the flickers’ food source. And in the South, where flickers feed on fire ants while overwintering, the battle against the nightmarish fire ants has made the flickers an inadvertent casualty of war. According to Birds at Your Feeder, their numbers have declined steadily for thirty years.

So how did it happen that Silence and I saw one in our yard this weekend? Well, maybe the organic lawn-care movement is helping the birds recover. We’re not sure what else to think. But Birds at Your Feeder offers a few tips if you’d like to encourage these delightful birds to visit your own yard: Setting out suet, especially in suet logs (logs with round holes drilled into them that are filled with suet) rather than suet cakes, is the best way to attract them. A large, open yard with a few trees and lots of fruiting shrubs provides their favored habitat. Flickers may eat mixed seed, millet, sunflower seed, corn, peanuts, niger, peanut butter mixes, baked goods, oats, dried fruit, and, of course, water, but are more likely to eat them when spread on the ground than to take them from a feeder.

When Birds at Your Feeder was published, the latest trend in birdfeeding—setting out live, freeze-dried, roasted, and canned mealworms, fly larvae, waxworm larvae, mealworm-suet pellets, mealworm-infused suet cakes, and the like had not caught on. (For a representative sample, check out the selection at Duncraft, http://www.duncraft.com/.) But our friend Ben is willing to bet that the ant-loving flickers would enjoy this fatty, protein-rich fare as well.

Whatever the case, welcome back, flickers! We’re so happy to see you.

Knock-knock-knockin’… October 15, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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There’s nothing like working at the computer and suddenly hearing someone pounding, not on your front door, not on your deck door, but on the outside wall of your bedroom. Rushing into the room, our friend Ben observed Linus, our big and beautiful but clueless cat, plastered against the window behind the bed, which is well above head height from the outside. Knowing Linus, who hides at the approach of any person other than yours truly and Silence Dogood, our friend Ben felt that familiar sinking feeling that comes when you know your beloved home is under attack.

Armed with a stout broom handle, I raced out the deck door and around the side of the house. Sure enough, there was a downy woodpecker, merrily hammering away on our clapboard wall. By the time I could identify the sound and get out there, it had already drilled three holes and was working on a fourth.

This had happened a couple of years ago, and after fruitlessly attempting to chase the determined woodpecker off, our friend Ben was finally able to deter it by pounding on the inside bedroom wall exactly opposite to where it was hammering on the outside wall. I suppose it figured that it really wasn’t worth trying to drill in to whatever was waiting inside there! Then I painted over the damaged wood, and that was that.

Until now. This time, our friend Ben attempted the “speak softly and carry a big stick” approach. Brandishing the broom handle, I informed the startled woodpecker that this was my house, not its all-you-can-eat buffet. I pointed out that there were lots and lots of lovely trees all over the property, and it was welcome to drill on any of them. I added that Silence and I kept the feeders filled with black oil sunflower seeds, its favorites, and even set out suet blocks for it and all its friends each winter. Then I suggested that it refrain from demolishing our home, since if we had to pay for expensive repairs, we could no longer afford to feed it.

At which point, the woodpecker, who’d removed to a nearby branch upon our friend Ben’s appearance and observed this lecture with considerable interest, flew away. I wish I could say that it left because it was convinced by the reasonableness of my arguments that house demolition wasn’t in its best interests, but I suspect that its reasoning was more along these lines: “Geez, isn’t that human ever going to shut up?!! I’m hungry, and I can’t sit around here waiting all day for lunch. Time to opt for Plan B.”

Unfortunately, Plan B turned out to be the second-storey wall of our studio, well out of our friend Ben’s reach, as I discovered upon taking our black German shepherd, Shiloh, outside a few minutes later. This time, the woodpecker continued its investigations undisturbed, doubtless saying “Nyah, nyah, you can’t get me!” between beakfuls of board.

Our friends were uniformly unsympathetic—to the woodpecker, that is—when our friend Ben related these events to them later. Comments ranged from “Stupid woodpeckers! They’re so destructive” to “Why don’t you just shoot it?” But we love our woodpeckers here at Hawk’s Haven. Seeing them (usually) brightens our day. So no, we won’t shoot them. We won’t even stop feeding them. But we have a call in to our handyman, who is unafraid of heights (in marked contrast to yours truly) and will cheerfully climb the ladder to the top of the studio, where he blocked off a squirrel hole only last year. Our friend Ben is eager to see how he plans to thwart the little woodpecker’s dinner plans.

What’s with the woodpeckers? February 20, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Here at Hawk’s Haven, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood welcome woodpeckers. (Well, except for the one that tried to hammer its way through the bedroom wall one year. Our friend Ben finally resorted to hammering loudly with a fist on the exact opposite side of the wall when it began excavating. Sure enough, after three or four of these episodes, it remembered a pressing engagement elsewhere.)

Typically, we have downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers here, as well as those other woodpeckerish comedians, the white-breasted nuthatches*. We have rarely—far too rarely, for our taste—seen red-headed woodpeckers, northern flickers, and red-breasted nuthatches here as well. (Where have all the flickers gone, anyway? When we first moved to Pennsylvania, we often saw them.)

We have, sadly, never seen a pileated woodpecker in our yard, though our friend Ben saw an ivory-billed woodpecker once. (Until, that is, Silence pointed out that it was actually a plastic bag that had blown in from the street and gotten caught high up in an evergreen. OFB has seen all manner of rare birds over the years, but they inevitably prove to be, not misidentified birds, but normally inanimate objects that have found themselves in unexpected places. But we digress.)

Point being that we love hosting woodpeckers here at Hawk’s Haven, but around here, they don’t act very woodpecker-like. What do we mean? Well, during breeding season, we do indeed hear them drumming for mates in the trees and see them scouring trunks and branches for insects and insect eggs. But in winter, woodpeckers are supposed to eat suet, right?

So we set up our little suet cage and slide in a square of some enticing suet cake studded with mixed seeds and sporting a name like Citrus Delight, Berry Delicious, Peanut Butter Supreme, or even Energy Bar. Pleased with ourselves for helping the woodpeckers fuel up, we return to the house and wait to see them enjoying their high-cal treat. And wait. And wait.

True, we’ve seen birds eating the suet cakes. Crows especially seem to appreciate them. But woodpeckers? Never. Instead, they seem to favor the same black-oil sunflower seed we set out for our other winter visitors. The small birds—the downy and hairy woodpeckers and the nuthatches—eat them right from the tube feeders. The red-bellied woodpeckers prefer to take them from the cabin (“hopper”) feeder. What’s up with that?

Today, our friend Ben finally spotted a red-bellied woodpecker on the gigantic maple tree where the suet feeder is hanging. “At last!” I thought, calling for Silence. But did the woodpecker actually go to the feeder? Nooooo. Instead, it flew all over the branches, checking them out for pupating and hibernating insects.

Mind you, it’s not that we have the least objection to woodpeckers decreasing our surplus insect population. And we’re happy to keep them well stocked with sunflower seeds. But why aren’t they eating the suet cakes?!

* Silence would like to note, for her fellow stinkbug-haters, that white-breasted nuthatches are said to eat stinkbugs. She’s trying to figure out how to lure a nuthatch into the house to deal with the upcoming annual stinkbug invasion…

What is it about woodpeckers? November 17, 2009

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Here at Hawk’s Haven, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are lucky enough to have a lot of backyard birds stay with us through the winter. Our property is densely planted, and the trees, shrubs, vines, groundcovers, grasses, and perennials provide plenty of food and shelter for all sorts of birds. In addition, we have a stream that offers water, and we also set out numerous tube feeders, a cabin feeder, and a suet feeder for our feathered guests.

Like everyone, we have our favorite winter birds: in our case, the juncos, cardinals, bluejays, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, goldfinches, house finches, wrens, and purple finches. We long for towhees, cedar waxwings, flickers, and rose-breasted grosbeaks. We wish the snow geese would choose to spend the entire year in the fields behind our house, rather than just two weeks every spring and fall, and that more wild turkeys and pheasants would decide to turn up here.

But there’s one special group of birds we always are thrilled to see: the woodpeckers. Typically, here at our rustic home in Pennsylvania, we attract downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers, along with both white- and red-breasted nuthatches (which are sort of woodpeckerlike). We’d love to see red-headed woodpeckers, flickers, and pileated woodpeckers join them here, but so far, no luck.

Still, anytime a woodpecker does show up, it’s a huge thrill for us. The first red-bellied woodpecker (which has red down the back of its head, not on its belly, what were those idiot taxonomists thinking) showed up at our cabin feeder this morning. Welcome, redbelly! You and all your kind are what helps us get through the winter. Looking at you, your kin, and all feeder birds, we can appreciate the brevity and uncertainty of all life and of our lives. But if you hang on, grab the rope of human connection and hang on for dear life, we may yet pull through and rise above me and mine to find ours and everyone’s. Let’s please at least give it a try.

A word on woodpeckers. November 4, 2008

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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have just returned from our annual trip to Charlottesville, Virginia and the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains. Every Hallowe’en, we head down to visit our friends Cole and Bruce in their eyrie in Peavine Hollow outside of Charlottesville. We enjoy Cole’s extraordinary garden, Bruce’s luscious cooking, and the breath-catching beauty of the Blue Ridge during peak fall foliage season.

No trip is perfect, and there were a few glitches this time. We didn’t realize that Cole’s computer had crashed just before our arrival, so we hadn’t brought a laptop and were unable to post during our visit, despite the many things we saw and wanted to say while we were there. We’d been looking forward to visiting Montpelier, the home of James and Dolley Madison, which we hadn’t seen since it was in the middle of structural renovations, but discovered that, while the renovations had been completed, the house was empty, as the furnishings had not yet been put back. We decided to wait ’til next year to see it in its restored state. And we wanted to stop in at Plow & Hearth, one of our favorite stores, to try to find a rocking-chair cushion for OFB’s new rocker, but ended up at their distribution center rather than their store, with (of course) no clue as to where the store might be. Heartaches, nothin’ but heartaches, as our friend Edith Eddleman says.

But in our travel experience, for every aggravation, there’s an unexpected delight. You’re forced to take a detour; you stumble on a delightful little restaurant. The antiques store you’ve visited for years is closed, but there’s a marvelous crafts center just minutes away. In this case, the unexpected bonuses were hearing foxes bark and seeing pileated woodpeckers.

Silence and our friend Ben both adore woodpeckers. We delight in the appearance of the red-bellied, downy, and hairy woodpeckers (and, of course, the nuthatches) at our feeders each year. We glory in the occasional visit of a flicker, and pray that more of them will make themselves at home at our little rural cottage, Hawk’s Haven. We’ve seen exactly one red-headed woodpecker in the years we’ve lived here, and live in hope that more will show up soon. But one thing we’ve never seen here is a pileated woodpecker.

Pileated woodpeckers are the monarchs of the woodpecker clan, dwarfing all others at 16 1/2 inches long, with their triangular red crests making them instantly distinguishable from all other birds in their size range. (Say PIE-lee-ate-ed, please.) Their unappealing name comes out of ancient history: A pileus was a brimless cap worn in ancient Rome, and the crest of the pileated woodpecker must have reminded some history-loving ornithologist of a Roman cap. Too bad! These majestic birds deserved a better name (at least “great crested woodpecker”).

The largest recorded woodpecker is, of course, the legendary ivorybill, topping the charts at 19 1/2 inches. If you’re a birder or keep up with the news, you’ll be aware of the search for this bird, long thought to be extinct, along the Arkansas/Louisiana border. Ornithologists at Cornell University think they’ve found live specimens of the iconic woodpecker, tracing it by call, but confirmation remains elusive. It reminds our friend Ben of the hunt for the “abominable snowmen,” the Yeti of the North, or of aliens out at Roswell. Maybe they are out there. But if so, couldn’t we just leave them alone?!

Pileated woodpeckers are exciting enough for us. Our friend Ben grew up with an entire pileated family next door, on a former field that had gone back to woods. I love them so much that I was ecstatic to find a special edition of John James Audubon’s print of the pileated woodpecker in a consignment shop, complete with the perfect rustic wood frame. It now hangs proudly over our sofa, and it cheers me up every time I see it.

Unfortunately, we’ve never seen a pileated woodpecker here at Hawk’s Haven, doubtless because we’re surrounded by fields, with a too-small woods across the road. So you can imagine our friend Ben’s excitement down at Cole and Bruce’s when I saw a great bird sweep into one of their feeders, glide and drop, glide and drop. Silence and I were enjoying a warm morning cup (OFB, coffee, Silence, tea) and soaking up the beauty of the mountains before Cole and Bruce got up. “Silence!!!” I hissed. “Look at that!” “Ohmigod!!!” she shrieked. “It’s a pileated!!!” “SHHH!!!”

OMG. So majestic, so primitive. We saw it or another of its kind flying across an opening in the canopy before we had to head home to Pennsylvania. Two sightings in two days. Now we have pileated envy. Maybe we should put out a big sign, “Pileateds Welcome!!!,” in our front yard. Oh please. Please come.

A couple of years ago, our friends Delilah and Chaz, who always think of the best presents, gave us a suet cake holder with a cylindrical cage surrounding it to keep out squirrels. We have set it out every year when the weather turns cold with those premade suet cakes inside. The first year, we expected bazillion woodpeckers and other suet lovers to turn up. But it didn’t happen. Even pests like squirrels, raccoons, and—God forbid!—bears have failed to show any interest. We wonder if a big old hunk of fresh suet from our local farmers’ market might have more appeal. Maybe we’ll hang some out this year and compare results.    

If pileated woodpeckers visit you, we say, make the most of it. If not, enjoy any of the colorful, amusing woodpeckers that do choose to call your property home in any season. They’re so great, we know you’ll be glad you did.