Posts by Jane Miller

Jane Miller

got water?

WinterSceneBlogBirdbaths are big draws for feathered visitors in every season. Set out a saucer of fresh water and you’ll soon have an avian party in your backyard. Birds need water not only for hydration, but also to clean their feathers for optimal insulation and flight. I used to store my birdbaths in the garage in winter. Now I know that providing birds with fresh water can be even more important than food handouts during cold months. Around my home in central Iowa, most natural drinking sources for wildlife—puddles, creeks, and pond edges—have been frozen solid for weeks. Birds will resort to eating bits of snow when they’re thirsty, but they prefer to wash down their meals of seeds with water. Wouldn’t you rather drink a glass of cool water than chomp on ice cubes?

To keep water in a birdbath ice-free, purchase one of the many heated birdbaths available. I use one that I found at my local Wild Birds Unlimited store. Mounted to my deck railing, the 20-inch-diameter plastic bowl features a built-in, 150-watt grounded heater that keeps water at 40-50 degrees F. The bowl tilts for easy dumping and cleaning. In warm months, the chord coils out of sight inside the base. If you already have a birdbath, you can augment it in winter months with a commercial water heater, available at many garden centers and wild bird supply shops. Use a heavy-gauge outdoor power cord plugged into an outdoor power source. Because water heaters increase the rate of evaporation, check your birdbath daily and add fresh water as necessary.

Birds will flock to your yard in winter if you serve both food and beverages. Before we know it, nature will release its icy grip, making life easier for all of us. I’ll drink to that!

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Jane Miller

beak counters

W101366238Counting is one of my quirky character traits. As a young girl, I would silently count my footsteps on a mountain path, the number of petals on a flower, the stars as they first appeared at dusk. It was only natural when, as a 10-year-old novice naturalist, I put this skill to good purpose by making tally marks with dates in the page margins of my first field guide to birds.

With the self-designated title “Counter of All Things” on my resume, I feel more than qualified to join fellow bird enthusiasts in the Great Backyard Bird Count, an annual four-day event in which folks from every region of the United States and Canada record the number of birds spotted in backyards, in city parks, in woodlands or fields…anywhere we choose to look. This year, the event takes place on February 12-15, just before spring migration. Data is compiled online by the project’s co-sponsors, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society.

A lot of environmentally important information is gleaned from this grassroots effort, such as how winter’s cold and snow influence bird populations; how the timing of migrations compares to previous years; how bird populations differ among suburban, rural, and natural areas; and which bird species are declining because of disease or habitat loss.

You don’t have to be an expert to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count. You need only to be able to identify the common birds of your region. An excellent online resource is The Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds. One of my favorite take-along reference books is Field Guide to Birds of North America, by Kenn Kaufman. For iPhone and iTouch users, a great new interactive resource is Audubon Birds, A Field Guide App to North American Birds, created in alliance with the National Audubon Society.

To help you keep a tally of the birds in your area, fill out a printable bird checklist for your state or province. Online data entry for 2010 will be available beginning February 12. It’s that simple. Start counting!

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Jane Miller

The Creatures Were Stirring

Winter Scenes 008Winter Scenes 002All was quiet inside the McKeon house as we slumbered through the predawn hours of Christmas day. While reindeer danced through our dreams, white-tail deer partied the night away in our backyard. We awoke to, not the sound of hooves on the roof, but to the sight of tracks in freshly fallen snow. And to our wondering surprise, four does were lingering in the garden—a flower border planted last summer for birds and butterflies, not grazers.

We had no eyewitness accounts of rabbits, but dozens of telltale hopper trails were all the evidence we needed to prove that a family of cottontails was spending the holiday sleeping off their midnight meal in the cozy warren of our brush pile.

In the wild, deer and rabbits survive cold winters by nibbling on the tender branches from the previous year’s growing season. Called browsing, this method of search-and-devour is Mother Nature’s way of providing food for her flock and pruning crowded vegetation. For gardeners, however, losing plants to hungry critters can be a lot harder on the pocketbook than window shopping, the more common definition of browsing. If left unprotected, young trees and shrubs can be nibbled to nubbins in no time.

I’m all for creating backyard wildlife habitats. Selfishly, though, I like to protect my landscaping investments. The secret to a landscape that caters to both people and wildlife is to reach a respectful balance. I figure if I can successfully keep deer and rabbits from dining on new plantings for the first few years, the trees and shrubs will grow big and strong enough to tolerate a chewed-off branch here and there.

Many gardeners use barriers, such as cages made of stakes and chicken wire, to keep winter browsers at bay. This method is very effective, especially if you have just a few specimens to protect. For large numbers of trees and shrubs, a good alternative is one of the natural wildlife deterrents, such as Liquid Fence and Messina Wildlife Products. These manufacturers offer formulations for just about every critter. The trick is to apply them regularly (every 30 days) when temperatures are above the freezing mark.

What Earth-kind methods do you use to protect your plants from wildlife damage? We would love to hear from you!


Jane Miller

for the birds

I have a strong nesting instinct. As a mother of four, the need to feed is a full-time occupation. When the Blizzard of the Decade was predicted to hit the Midwest this week, I stocked up on necessities.  Milk, chocolate chips, flour, sugar, butter, vanilla…sunflower seeds, Nyjer, suet. The first six items are the basic ingredients for survival food in my house. (After all, my kids have come to expect Mom to bake cookies on snow days.) The last three are for my extended family, the birds that seek out my backyard feeders when snowdrifts cover autumn’s leftovers of seeds and berries produced by native species, such as coneflower, switchgrass, viburnum, dogwood, serviceberry, and beautyberry.

Apparently, my backyard isn’t the only restaurant in town. At last count, more than 54 million people in the U.S. feed wild birds. Birds have a much higher chance of surviving winter when supplemental food sources are available. According to the Audubon Society, human handouts are bringing about northward range expansions of many seed-eating birds, including the Northern Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse, Mourning Dove, and Red-Bellied woodpecker. A few scientists even believe that bird feeders are causing evolutionary changes in some bird species.

Quality counts when it comes to bird seed. I’ve learned that the inexpensive brands sold at many grocery stores aren’t really saving me money in the long run. They often contain cheap fillers, such as milo, that get rejected in favor of high-energy grains: sunflower seeds, millet, and cracked corn. I stick with reputable brands of bird-feeding products, such as Cole’s, Wild Birds Unlimited, Droll-Yankee, and Duncraft.

Seed mixes are great for attracting a variety of birds, but less goes to waste when each type of food is served in a separate feeder. I’ve watched many a cardinal scatter seeds hither and yon to get to the sunflower hearts—equivalent, I suppose, to one of my kids picking out all of the M&Ms from the trailmix. Presentation is everything in my avian restaurant. I offer a variety of feeders to accommodate different dining preferences. For the Mourning Doves, I scatter cracked corn on the ground. Cardinals favor sunflower seeds served in hopper or platform feeders. Finches flock to tube-style thistle feeders. And chickadees and woodpeckers are drawn to hanging suet.

As we watched dozens of birds enjoying breakfast in the blizzard, Grace (my 11-year-old daughter) said, “I wish we could let them come inside for awhile to warm up.” Yes, I thought to myself. A warm chocolate chip cookie may be just what they need.


Jane Miller

a dog’s life

Sometimes it takes a bird dog to sniff out nature’s undercover secrets. Nothing–not even mucky creek beds, sticky cobwebs, and prickly burs and brambles–can deter Lily, my Golden Retriever, when she’s on the scent trail of a critter. Autumn is her season to shine. With unleashed joy, she noses her way through fields of grass the same golden hue of her hair, as if playing a perpetual game of hide-and-seek in which she’s always the seeker. Yet, Lily’s a team player and pauses frequently to make sure I’m close behind and included in the fun. Had I waded through the frost-covered grasses alone last weekend, I might have focused solely on keeping my footing and uneventfully passed by the flock of pheasants safely slumbering in a thicket of wild plum. But with Lily tagging along, the roosters startled and took flight for fields afar in a spectacular flurry of red heads and multi-colored tail feathers. This weekend, Lily and I will be joined on our walks by Buddy, my good friend’s spirited Golden. Who knows what their Lilytwo noses will turn up?

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Jane Miller

nature’s underdogs

Dogwoods are nature’s underdogs. So are the many other understory trees native to our woodlands, including serviceberry, wild plum, redbud, hawthorn, wahoo, and sassafras. The sheer size of cottonwood, sycamore, hickory, oak, and maple helps the towering giants win The Most Colorful contest in October. But shorter species offer big blessings, too. In the wild, their individual beauty often is disguised by the hovering limbs of tall neighbors, like schoolyard bullies showing little respect for personal space. By now, though, the big boys have reached their peak and bared their branches, allowing the small-fries of the forest and fencerows to show what they’re made of. They win me over, not just for the cute factor, but for their value in home landscaping. After all, smaller trees are a better fit for most backyards. Plus, many of these space-saving natives offer sweet spring blossoms, glorious fall foliage, and colorful fruits that wildlife can’t resist. The underdogs, in this case, have the last “bark.”

Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)

Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)

Serviceberry (Amelanchier)

Serviceberry (Amelanchier)

Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Redbud (Cercis canadensis)