It Might as Well Be November

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It might as well be November today, October 25–the sky is gray, the trees though still green and gold and brilliant red are silent and no birds sing. In fact, as is usually the case as the season turns, many birds stop coming to our feeders. Even those who remain here all winter, seem less hungry. I read in the paper that this is the time when they change their feathers (like us, changing our wardrobes), and become more quiet.

Yet a few days ago in sun, the feeders were swarming with all kinds of birds–woodpeckers (more about those in a moment), chickadees almost flying into each other to get to the pole feeder with its four sites for food, nuthatches, and finches too, swarming around the long, fat tube feeder with its openwork access to seeds.

We have a new woodpecker, a ladder-back, red-bellied woodpecker. This ladder backed woodpecker has a wide stripe of red all the way from its forehead down the back of its head. It’s identified as having a red belly, but I don’t see that. This is a big bird, 8 inches to our more common Hairy at 7.5 and Downy, at 5.75. These two frequent woodpeckers, who are almost identical with black and white patterning and red spots at the back of their heads, take turns swooping toward the suet and fruit/nut cakes. The Red Bellied glides more than swoops, and has a softer “chuck”; whereas, the two black and white critters almost caw, they’re so loud.

Attitudes toward birds vary so much, from almost complete inattention, to dislike–“they poop on my deck, etc” to my kind of fascination–I like them around, feed and water them, mourn those who die, enjoy using the binoculars to sight a bird in the trees, and on vacation like to identify different birds from those at home–like storks in South Carolina. But I don’t want to go on birding trips with “life birders,” those people who start life lists and make it a point to check off finding the truly rare ones.

“My” birds are a part of my home, which I’ve extended into front and back yards with trees and bushes, and bird baths and a growing love of what are disreputably called weeds. To me they are among the most fascinating plants. In fact, this year we’ve had an array not found before because Fran has stopped mowing. We’ve let creeping Charlie become our grass, and now, lo and behold, all kinds of plants I’ve never seen before are cropping up.

Here’s one to help me identify–it’s low but not too low, maybe grows a foot off the ground. It’s leaves are startlingly lobed–not sharp like a maple leave, but long and smooth-edged lobed (like a glove for ten lizard-appendages); the stalks are very prickly, and the flowers are soft yellow and open like small poppies. When they die, the seed pods that replace them are very prickly. What could this be?

A friend who has kept a beautiful, though very tidy garden for years recently admitted that she’s stopped cutting down her dried stalks. “I’ve heard leaving them is better,” she says. She means, I think, that we now understand the crucial interrelation between insects, native plants, birds, and probably native mammals (NOT GOD FORBID, ROAMING CATS!). A friendly family down the street, with a tiny house and two adorable tiny children, recently asked if they could harvest some of my milkweed seeds. Since I planted the boulevard years ago with native plants dug out of an abandoned ox-cart route, I have an ever increasing garden of milkweed, golden-rod, and maybe other plants native to this region. The Wild Golden Glow (in the Rudbekia family) I transplanted to a sunny spot beside the house bloom profusely, and then die back to clacking sticks topped with seed clusters.

Yesterday I watched two chickadees eating the seeds from these spiky clusters. It is a confirmation so moving I had to stop. Slowly, I and others are learning how much better our environment is if we allow as much that is native to the area to remain. Yet I too love the neighbor’s monkshood, with its brilliant stalks of deep blue, purse-like flowers. Maybe monkshood is native to Minnesota. I’ll have to look it up.

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