My Dad And His Bluebirds

Last week, during a time when the weather seemed ‘unfit for man nor beast’ and while Rick was working on reglazing some barn windows…working inside the barn not out… two bluebirds showed up to feed on the dead flies trapped along the window sill. Bluebirds! Yes, really, a pair of bluebirds! Well, this is odd and it meant two things. First, call George. George is the retired vet in our area and also an avid birder. George is the only other person we know besides my father who has a great love and appreciation for bluebirds. When my dad was alive he and George would often consult one another with regard to the comings and goings of the bluebirds. This was great for my dad, (who by the way also wore the covers off of every sequel to ‘All Creatures Great And Small’), and his being able to converse with someone who was a vet and also kept track of this areas bluebird migration.

George filled us in on some of the habits of bluebirds and then (secondly) we did some research of our own. My dad would be very happy to know we did this.
So, bluebirds don’t always migrate. When they do leave the frozen northeast, they head for places as far as Texas but may only travel as far as they need to find a food source. Their winter fare is mostly berries. It is true that some hardy bluebirds do brave the winter here, apparently making their way through by eating berries and fruit from various trees and shrubs. They’ll also feast on dead and frozen bugs, like the bluebirds who were eating frozen flies along the window sill at the farm. Not an easy choice I would say, but not as uncommon as you’d think. When not nesting they move in flocks and beginning in the Fall, these groups of bluebirds start meandering south following food sources. But, some do stay. At least these two did. In the winter, if they remain in a frigid climate, like Maine, they will find shelter in a hollow tree. Often as many birds that can fit inside that hollow will do so creating warmth in numbers. Unfortunately, there has been a significant decline in bluebird populations over the last several decades. Most of this is due to habitat loss, insecticides, and the introduction of starlings and house sparrows that out-compete them for food and shelter. This makes me even prouder of my Dad ( and you, too, George!) for taking such an interest in the well being of our bluebird population.

When my Dad passed away, my mom forwarded some of his books to me. Mostly because my dad and I loved many of the same things…nature, farming, and food ( he was known to drive 100’s of miles for a good piece of pie…who wouldn’t!). In one of the books that was passed along, ‘Song And Garden Birds Of North America’ I found pages of my Dad’s bluebird notes folded up in the back. He had been tracking the bluebirds (and building them boxes) since 1966! His last entry was 2002, just two years before he passed away. I love that my dad did this, I love seeing his carefully handwritten notes, excerpts like “A pair of Bluebirds arrived, they did not nest until April 2nd or 3rd. The female laid a clutch of five eggs”. This was written in 1971. On another account, in 1969, he wrote this “A pair of Bluebirds arrived and soon nested in the same bird box of previous years. Also, I noticed the presence of a house wren. Which seem to be a menace to the bluebirds. By the sound advice of a friend, Mrs.Trudy Smith, who is quite familiar with all birds, I netted the female house wren who had nested in one of the bluebird boxes. With somewhat of a struggle, I might add. Mrs. Smith then took the house wren, banded it, and took it to the Harkness Estate in Waterford.The bluebirds had two eggs in the box at the time of the house wren departure. The female bluebird has been in the nest two days. So I think she may have laid a clutch of four eggs”.

In honor of my Dad and all other bird watchers, we’ll keep a close eye on the two bluebirds that have stayed. We’ll hope that they brave the winter so that this spring when the first hatch of insects descends upon us, they’ll be swooping through the fields having their fill.
In addition, consider checking out this site:
Perhaps you have the perfect location for some nesting boxes or maybe you’d just like to find out a little more about those birds my Dad so carefully thought of throughout his years.

Where Does The Pesky Woodchuck Go?

5149859-clear-close-up-of-woodchuck-in-clover-fieldThat pesky woodchuck ( Marmota monax) is hibernating. Yes it’s true, and they are amazingly designed to do so. There are only three true hibernating mammals in the North East. The brown bat, the jumping mouse, and the woodchuck. Other mammals that you may not see and who often disappear during the colder months, like bear, skunk, or raccoons, are actually considered deep sleepers, not true hibernators. These animals do become inactive for part of the winter, but their body temperature remains higher than the surrounding air temperature, and they may stir occasionally to venture out during a warm spell. A true hibernator stays hibernating for the long haul. Knowing what I do about the woodchuck’s ability to hibernate, allows me some sympathy during the summer when he’s out munching our beans or enjoying the neat rows of greens in my garden. During the summer he is eating almost constantly to store fat for the winter. He will live on this fat for the entire time he spends underground in his burrow of grass and leaves, where he’ll curl into a tight ball ( less surface area) and remain for the next 5 months or so. Woodchucks generally go into hibernation from November to early April. At this point they are able to reduce their breathing rate and body temperature to extremely low levels. A hibernating woodchuck takes a breath about every six minutes. They are able to lower and maintain a body temperature of about 38 degrees, their normal body temperature being closer to 96.8. Its heartbeat will drop from its normal 80 beats per minute to about 4 beats per minute. During their time in hibernation they will lose about 47% of their body weight. They live the entire time absorbing stored body fat. There is really no fecal matter during hibernation because there is nothing moving through their digestive tract. Woodchucks, during hibernation, have an increase in brown fat deposits. This brown fat is usually found around an animals vital organs and along its back and shoulders. Brown fat has a higher rate of oxygen consumption and heat production than white fat. It’s the kind of fat you want to burn when sleeping through the winter. Considering the energy that it takes for a woodchuck to endure and survive a long Maine winter, I should be growing a row or two in my garden just for him. Fortunately, we have not had woodchucks in the gardens for a long, long time. Two patrolling dogs probably have something to do with this.
Years ago I spent a couple of winters teaching a winter ecology program in Vermont. I became fascinated with how plants and animals adapt to a cold climate. Understanding just how difficult it can be for plants and animals to acclimate to extreme winter temperatures, makes the arrival of spring and warmth even more of a celebration. We’ve had really cold temperatures lately, the woodstoves are eating up wood, and being outdoors means lots of layers. I think of the animals and plants who all have their unique ways of tolerating and surviving the cold. Amazing, really.

Surviving the Cold

Picture 423It looks like winter is here and the temperatures being forecast for this week are certainly going to impress upon us that reality. Like most people who garden, our thoughts turn to how well our plants will survive the bitter cold. The ground is now frozen in most places and the recent snow cover will help moderate the soil temperatures from fluctuating too drastically. Unfortunately the temperatures above the snow can and will change dramatically with the weather. If the plants in the garden have been chosen for hardiness in your area, and enter the fall healthy, then in most cases all should be fine. What is interesting is how they endure the cold. Understanding the adaptations that plants ( and animals) go through to survive living in a cold climate, has always fascinated us. If you reside in the North, you have to have strategies for surviving these extreme temperatures.
PictureWhile not growing, the plants cells are actually active during winter. The plants hardiness is determined by its ability to adjust the chemical combinations within its cells. The more they can adjust to the impending cold, the greater the chances for making it through the winter. Lower temps, reduced soil moisture, shorter days, and less nitrogen, are also factors that will increase tolerance to cold temperatures. The plants started the acclimation to cold weather with the shorter days in June, and then again during a second stage initiated after a frost, and will continue to do so even more as the temperature drops. The plant cells are trying to keep themselves from freezing to the point of rupturing and damaging the cell membrane. The way they do this is by moving water out of the cell itself and storing it in spaces between the cell walls. Ice formation inside the cell membrane is fatal. Within the cell, the concentrations of sugars, organic acids, and water soluble proteins are modified to prevent the water that is still in the cell from freezing. A bit like plant anti-freeze. The colder it gets, the more they adjust. More water out, results in higher concentrations of solutes inside, and a lower freezing point for the cell. In some relatively rare cases, a prolonged warm period in winter can have the cells bringing more water into them. If the temperature should drop rapidly, the cells may not be able to remove enough water fast enough to prevent ice from forming within them, resulting in damage to the plant. This might explain the winter damage to woody plants after what may have seemed like a relatively mild winter.
We go out everyday to tend the animals, bring in firewood, and shovel snow here at the nursery. We’re outdoors a lot. We are well aware of how quickly these below zero temps can cause discomfort or even frostbite ( or hypothermia), if we don’t dress appropriately. Wearing wool, a down vest, and good insulated boots are just a few of the adaptations we humans have for tolerating the cold. Again, once you start uncovering some of the behavioral or structural adaptations of the plants and animals here in the north, you begin to really appreciate how fine tuned and effective those adaptations have to be. Life depends on it. That being said, time to head out to the chicken coop to collect eggs before they freeze solid. Picture 426