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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Start collecting natural nest material NOW

Spring is when most birds build nests and lay eggs. Be ready! If given a choice, birds choose to build nests with naturally found materials. They love tall, native grasses. Some good ones for here are Bluestem, Indiangrass, Muhly and Gramma. 

The materials that birds use for nest-building can be almost anything that’s somewhat small, stringy and lightweight. Also, many nests are cemented together with mud, so it’s good to have water and/or mud nearby. (It doesn’t have to be very conspicuous, or even in your own yard – birds will find it!)  A bird might make over a thousand trips with beaks-full of mud, twigs, grasses, leaves or whatever, at the start of nesting season.
       Drier lint looks great for nesting material, but don't use it. Due to the ingredients in almost all detergents and fabric softeners, it irritates newborn birds greatly.

One of the most used natural materials is cotton. We use balls of natural cotton strands and yarn tails; even bits of thread. What could be more natural in former cotton country than cotton?!
    Another natural material birds love is fur. In nature, tufts of it are found all over! When we comb our dogs we’ll save the fur. Then we put it in something like an old wire suet basket, hanging it from a branch. We’ll see all kinds of birds pull out strands of fur to take to their nearby nests. Later, if we’re lucky enough spot a nest, we’ll carefully inspect it and find several tiny eggs nestled in our pets’ fur. Neat!



There’s actually no such thing as a seagull     The general public often refers to any and every white bird in a flock as a “seagull”, whether on the beach, near a landfill, in a parking lot or wherever. Actually, gulls are in the Laridae family, and there are 102 different kinds of them. Not a single one is named a “seagull”. The proximity of seas is actually irrelevant to most of them. However, the word “seagull” will never disappear since it’s a culturally embedded label.



Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Buying landscape plants that keep maintenance low

You probably want to put plants in your yard that keep down the need for a lot of maintenance. So go armed with knowledge when you shop!  Here are a few tips on buying north Texas plants that I’ve learned (often the hard way) in my 25+ years as a licensed Landscape Architect; now a Landscape Architect Emeritus.

 Stick to plants native to north Texas. If it’s native, it’s used to our poor soil and our hot, dry weather. It doesn’t need soil additives, much extra water etc.  I‘d also recommend asking about a specific plant’s heritage before you buy. Was it grown around here, or in a greenhouse in some other state? Selecting native plants will assure you the chances are good they’ll survive our summer without a lot of extra maintenance, and still look good.

Avoid plants already in bloom. A common, very costly mistake is to be enticed by pretty flowers in bloom at the nursery. What you really want is not the plants that are blooming at the store, but plants that will bloom in your yard in a day or two. A plant that’s flowering is at its peak, and is beginning its descent. So look for buds that are about to unfurl, instead of open flowers that will probably wither in a few days.
Know the plant’s needs. This relates to my recommendation to buy native plants. Steer clear of showy, exotic plants that’ll need a lot of water and a lot of fertilizer and special soil additives. That stuff isn’t cheap!  Landscape plants that’ll make it through a year in Texas won’t demand a lot of water, and don’t need much soil “improvement” such as fertilizer and topsoil. 
Of course, no plant needs absolutely zero maintenance, but we all should try to keep it to a minimum.
Look for plentiful buds. Buds are flowers-to-be, so look for lots of  them; as well as the overall vigor of a plant - a sign it'll produce even more buds. Plants are not “impulse items” like candy bars near the checkout at grocery stores. Since those showy flowers on plants being sold may be gone by planting time, it’s abundant buds that you really want. Lots of buds will mean lots of flowers in the future.

Don’t be lured by invasive plants. Some plants sound perfect - until you plant them. Invasives are the exact opposite of plants that die easily – they grow and reproduce everywhere, in another flower bed and even in your neighbor’s yard. They’ll quickly engulf, rob nutrients from, and kill other plants. (Think kudzu vine!). In the Denton area, some invasive plants I’d stay far away from are Japanese honeysuckle, ligustrum, English ivy, trumpet vine and bamboo.
Invasive plants like these usually crowd out, and will steal nutrients from, your other plants.
Check out the roots. If you can, check out the plant’s roots. That’s how the plant obtains nutrients for blooming and good, continuing health. Roots should be fibrous and white, and not “rootbound”. That’s when the roots nearly fill up the pot, perhaps circling it – and the soil (along with its nutrients) is almost nonexistent. (If you're buying mail-order, all you can depend on is the seller's reputation)

Keep these guidelines in mind, and your yard will be a place you can look at and enjoy. Not a place where you spray, cultivate, water and laboriously baby your plants throughout a typical north Texas summer.




Sunday, February 10, 2013

Seeing things through birds' eyes is very different

 It certainly looks a lot different. Besides seeing all the colors of the rainbow, scientists tell us that many birds can see into the ultra-violet spectrum, too. (as a kid I learned that the rainbow is “Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet”.  So birds can see what’s beyond violet.)
That's lots more than colors of a rainbow.
Painted Bunting (female)
Birdwatchers of all abilities often have difficulty telling male birds apart from females of the same species. However, research using ultraviolet light shows that males and females frequently have radically different markings that we can’t see. An example from north Texas is the Painted Bunting. The female Painted Bunting is very drab-looking to most mammals (potential predators);  unlike the bright red, blue and green male. (In many bird species females are similarly drab).  This drabness helps them stay hidden while on the nest - important to survival of the species.

Additionally, ultraviolet vision can also help birds in finding food. Research with Kestrels has shown that they can see trails of rodent urine; known to reflect ultraviolet light.

For years, many birdwatchers have put various objects including decals and feathers on windows to help prevent bird collisions. Now that we know about birds’ ability to see ultraviolet light, removable stickers have been created that are almost invisible to humans, but reflect ultraviolet light that birds can see, warning them.

 The Migratory Tourist   The Barn Swallow is on its way back to north Texas – a few may even be here as you read this!  It’s the only bird found here that’s been seen in every single South American country. The bulk of them spend the winter in an area centered roughly on Bolivia and Paraguay.  But this cousin of the Purple Martin (also a species of swallow) has spent winters as far north as Costa Rica, and as far south as Tierra del Fuego.