A Pittance of Pigeons

Originally, a pittance was a gift or bequest to a religious community, or a small charitable gift. The word has transformed into meaning a very poor wage or allowance.

Pigeons, if completely white and released at an event, are often considered a gift of heavenly persuasions. If bland-grey and commonly encountered in our cities, however, the Pigeon usually is viewed by people with cheap annoyance.

Are they skyward-flying heavenly Rock Doves, or evil rats with wings? It depends on your experience with these ‘Old World Birds.’ If you’re leaning towards the ‘rats with wings’ side of things, here are a few facts and stories about Columba livia, the Pigeon, that may sway you even to the point of pure love for the common Rock Dove.

Bens Pigeon Shot from Italy

Contemplating her species long co-existence and love with humans, a Pigeon reflects on a marble carving in Florence, Italy.

Pigeons, like most of  N.A.’s human population, are non-indigenous ‘settlers’ first introduced to the continent in Nova Scotia in 1606. Originally found in the wild on the cliffs near oceans in Asia, Europe and North Africa, they now populate cities the world over, by the millions.

Human’s Best Friend?

Pigeon from the Vatican

An statue of a Pigeon in the Vatican, Vatican City, Italy.

Move over Rover? Not quite; dogs are still king, but Pigeons are close. For more than 5,000, Pigeons have lived hand in hand with people, servicing our many needs, creating many leisure opportunities. These birds have saved lives in war, delivered messages, filled hungry bellies, acted as live targets for shooting practice, provided fodder for falconry, and entertained us with their unusual shape, colour, and size, in addition to wowing us with remarkable aerial acrobatics.

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Homing Pigeon.

Speed. As humans, we are fascinated with speed.  Fastest land mammal? Cheetah – 120 km/h. Fastest bird (and overall animal for that matter)? Peregrine Falcon – 220 km/h in a hunting dive. And…the Pigeon? Guesses? In a straight line flight, it is one of the fastest birds in the world, attaining speeds clocked over 140 km/h, easily out-flying the Peregrine Falcon’s straight line best of 96 km/h.

Inventors of Airmail. Ok, it was slave labour really, as we forced them into the postal service. By capitalizing on their ability to return home, and manipulating where we placed their food, Pigeons carried messages, often traveling several hundred kilometers to do so. This started over 2,000 years ago in Persia, Rome, Greece, and many places in between. Hand written messages of topics ranging from love (letters to far off lovers) to hate (war reconnaissance updates) were attached to the legs of pigeons and, without judgement, dutifully delivered on time and at a low cost. It would be several hundred years before Pigeons organized the first known Airmail Pigeon Workers Union – Local 001. This was a major cooo!

Heroism. Across thousands of years of shared history, countless Pigeons, such as one named ‘Cher Ami’ in WWI, were war heroes, responsible for saving the lives of thousands of soldiers trapped incommunicado, in dire situations. Cher Ami was one in a series of several pigeons released from a desperate battalion caught in a depression, completely surrounded by opposing forces. Equipped with a message written on an onion skin, Cher Ami rose through the bushes only to get shot down instantly. Mustering enough energy and determination, she took off again, in spite of having been hit in her breast, having lost sight in one eye, as well as having a leg dangling from a narrow tendon. In 25 minutes, traveling in this injured state at over 80 km/hr, she returned to division headquarters with a key message. All remaining 194 allied soldiers were safely rescued. Medics saved her life, performing surgery and giving her a wooden leg. She died a decorated hero a year later at age nine.

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Cher Ami was a Homing Pigeon in Service in WWI, credited with saving thousands of lives.  This photo is not Cher Ami, but you can Google her to see a photo of her stuffed body in an American Museum.

Squab (what we call pigeon meat). Of course, for all they’ve done for us, we have to eat Pigeons too. Being a Pigeon fancier and vegetarian, I’ve never done this. But I’m not bitter.

Fantail Pigeon

Indian Fantail Pigeon.

Diversity. Similar to the manner we ‘turned’ the wolf into poodles, terriers, Great Danes and oodles of others through captive breeding and artificial selection over thousands of years, hundreds of varying breeds of Pigeon have been created by humans. The photos attest to the incredible array of weird and wonderful.  The Saxon Fairy Swallow Pigeon; the Indian Fantail. Others feature remarkable behaviour such as laser-like guided Homing Pigeons, some breeds that tumble and roll in the air, to others that look like they are going to explode. Professional Pigeon shows are common and taken seriously (by Pigeon People only, of course).

Frillback Pigeon

The Frillback Pigeon.

Milk. Aside from mammals, Pigeons are the only other animals to feed their young milk from specialized cells that line their crop (food storage area).

Monogamy.  For the most part, Pigeons mate for life. In cases where partners have died, or birds are forced away from their mates, they will re-couple.

Pigeons and Me. Growing up on a horse farm, I developed the uncanny ability of being thrown off just about every horse I climbed on. Dragged to horse shows by my parents and sisters, one year when I was 9 years old, I stumbled into the small animal section. There, I came across a Pigeon show. I was dazzling. I was captivated. It featured dozens of birds of various breeds. Several ‘Pigeon Fanciers’, usually older men with accents from one European country or another, noticed my curiosity. Within no time, a few of these men had convinced my parents; a few pairs came home with me, effectively drawing me into the passion of the Pigeon. Within a couple of years, I had close to a hundred Pigeons of several breeds. This included Homers, Rollers, Modenas, Pouters, African Owls, Fantails, and many others. Pigeons became my functional ‘video games.’  Almost akin to the modern day kid’s smart phone, I spent hours and hours in the coop and outside in sheer wonder, watching the them fly by and strut their stuff. I paired birds. I helped raise their young. I raced Homers. I lay in the long summer barnyard grass with my friends, watching the Rollers climb high in the sky before going into aerial stalls and the ensuing somersaults, spins and tight rolls. One year, I lost dozens of Pigeons to a hungry, stealthy Mink. I cried and cried some more.

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Feeding a young Pigeon out of hand. 

Most kids these days are adept in the urban jungle. We now know this can be stale for some aspects of their development, providing not nearly enough stimulation, holding back creativity and confidence. Animal husbandry, similar to getting outside in nature, fills some of these gaps. While we can’t keep chickens in London, ON, a home owner is permitted to have a coop of Pigeons. Hmmm…given my experience raising and learning about Pigeons, I can assure you this would be a gift to many kids; an experience of wonder, responsibility and pure joy.

 

 

Notes from Camping with 13 Year Old Girls

Age 13 is often a challenging time for a kid. It’s the transition time. Biologically, humans turn adult during this year, give or take a couple. While cell differentiation in certain body system’s are blasting away a million times a second, differentiation from one’s care givers, like a rocket separating from the mother ship in orbit, also approaches the sound barrier.

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“Wow, this field is like the Sound of Music.”

A 13 year old can also be tough on guardians involved.  In other words, it’s an age when kids sometimes drift away into scary teenage-hood, and some grownups (parents – possibly not fully adults themselves?) can make it worse. Sound mildly familiar? It wasn’t the full intention, but bringing my daughter and her two 13 year old friends almost felt like a lunar landing of sorts, bridging a bit of the disconnect that can crack its way into adolescent-adult relationships. What a treat. Me and three wonderful adolescent girls on the brink of leaving childhood.

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“Ok, we really need to get some pictures here. Like – a lot of pictures.”

Let’s get right to it; by the numbers, here are some of the awarenesses:

  1. They still care a lot about sounding older. Busted. Two of the three are actually still 12, but all three unanimously voted to have 13 represented as the number in the title.
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    “So can we actually walk the entire 900 km trail, from Niagara Falls to Tobermory?” Yes, but not today.

    2. Man, 3 is a tough number. It is a triad of possible breakdowns, and ephemeral imbalanced alliance formations. It’s actually a great opportunity to sit back and watch the dynamics, and insert oneself in service to what the Universe may be asking of any given kid in any given situation. This is where adulthood and a shake of wisdom can shine in on conflicts. It’s also good practice for not favouring one’s own kid, while also not consistently giving them the short end of the stick.

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    “Can I walk over there in that golden pool?” Sure. Take it one step at a time.

3. They like having their pictures taken. Dah!!! You’re thinking, they are 13. Sarcasm: that’s really insightful, isn’t it. Not exactly? It actually is. You know where we had to go to get some great shots for Instagram or SnapChat? Forests, meadows, rock piles, hill peaks, waterfalls, rapids, streams, etc…. once there, the allure of nature’s charm takes over. In theory, that is. Sans insects, that is. Or at least, a manageable number of insects.

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It’s not very often you get goats coming by looking for love and any handouts. They actually wagged their tails when you pet them. It turns out, many 13 year old girls like goats.

4. They love sports when introduced and facilitated the right way. This can be said of all kids, but I think it might be fair to say girls still feel isolated, uncoordinated and less likely to engage. I thought this would change a lot since I was a kid, but I’ve recently watched many schoolyard interactions and it hasn’t. To get girls or any non-athletically bent kid to engage in sports for fun activity and community building: 1. Make it easy. e.g. Move closer to the basket and/or lower it; 2. Counter any peer shaming taunts with really positive infused alternative comments invoking different points of view and teamwork vs. individual achievements. 3. Change up the teams frequently to avoid us vs. them mentality. In no time, these kids were dying to play the three semi-competitive games that I built into a scavenger hunt.

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Wow. Eating food cooked by burning logs. “How do you turn it down or up according to the cooking instructions?” Goooooood question.

5. Camping affords the development of refined rabbit ears. Being paper thin, one can hear anything between tents. I found the superpower developed here is the fairness, and safety ears. Privacy is still fully afforded. Mostly. These ears filter out the private, regular and fun drama that’s shared between friends. But when the imbalance, teasing, or even worse bullying erupts, this superpower triggers the alarms and the dudes in tights inside slide down the grey matter poles, perking up for interception.

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With the vast majority of us now living in cities, slowing up to watch the sun go down on the cows isn’t an every day occurrence. “Are these, like, the kind that we eat?” Gooood question.

6. Showers are not necessary every day. These girls just proved it. Feel free to use this for any such young teens you may have. At home, the contrary is true. Showers are lived in. Sometimes needed twice a day. Camping, well, it doesn’t matter so much.

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“Oh my god, you forgot the ketchup? Like, what will we do?” Goooood question. I don’t eat them without ketchup either…the Unitarian Camp up the lane way pulled through and squirted us ample ‘loaner’ ketchup.

7. We all tell lies on occasion. Some of us more than others. Watching directly 13 year olds around food, chores, and friendships is fertile grounds to call subtle ‘inaccuracies’ with humour and without shaming. I found these past few days really questioning how I tell certain truths and avoid others.

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Running water, dappled sunlight, Ebony Jewelwing Damselflies gracing our spirits. “You know, this place is so calm and peaceful.” Yah. It really is.

8. A scavenger hunt can really blur lines. For one, the cell phone or ipod is a great tool. They had 35 things to ‘find.’ A few items on the list included, photos of a horse (or 3), a bird’s nest, twelve different flowers, a baby bird, a selfie of the three of them on the highest nearby peak….

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A horse farm was on the edge of the forest of our camp site. They slept near the fence, snoring at night, keeping me awake at my computer, helping me consider 13 year old logic and wisdom.

How did they do? What was great is that they set up to explore a largely unknown landscape on their own. This built up their confidence. I think it also developed some leadership skills. They got most things on the list.  A few I assisted, others were helped by neighbouring campers. I did include a big incentive; a little gift back of age appropriate goodies for young people/girls (my wife did this). Included within was a journal.

Planned the day after the scavenger hunt was some reflective time after hiking 1.5 hours on the Bruce Trail towards Collingwood. Not knowing this section of this wonderful 885 km trail, it was a mystery to me what it might look like and where we might stop. Luckily, we stumbled on God’s country. After an hour’s hike climbing up rocks, descending down across meadows, and traversing a few short edges of fields of cattle and horses, we settled creek side in awe. Rapids split around rocks the shallow and narrow stream. With great care taken, we waded in, finding our ‘summer feet’ and easily withstanding the cool summer stream for the golden experience. To boot, the banks of the glistening stream were covered with trees pumping out pure magic into the air; Phytoncides – essential wood oils, that were thick in the air, thanks to the Hemlocks, Eastern Cedars, and Red Oak trees.

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They walk in the present, staring down a how to be for many moments in the future.

After a solid 15 minutes of photography, they sat for a while just with their feet in the rushing water. This activity is known to provide a plethora of health benefits from removing positive ions, to eliciting sensations and stimulation in all parts of the body thanks to the feet being in touch with most major systems found within us. Feet also work hard and repeatedly. Taking the load off and with a water massage is a another sign, ‘it’s time to just ‘be’, relax, and soak in the moment.’

One by one, each of them in their own way came to me with glowing eyes and said something to the effect of, “It’s just so peaceful and relaxing here.”

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Thinking we might stay in the stream for a few minutes, the journals came out. I thought maybe another 15 minutes. About an hour and a half later, the first child started to stir.

I didn’t plan it perfectly. The experience didn’t go just as planned….but in the end I feel as though I was the lucky one getting to spend time with three amazing young women. I also feel that it’s so important to be generous with time with kids and the rewards are profound.

It’s not hard to enjoy being outside. For me, a trip with these kids was a bonus, a balance and a lesson in life; plan and be spontaneous, expect much fun, many challenges and and just roll and role with it!

 

 

Embracing the Urban Coyote

A few years ago, while traveling back to London, Ontario, I stopped in Cambridge to give my Red and White Husky a little exercise reprieve. In an isolated part of a heavily vegetated park, I briefly let her off leash. I paused a moment, then gave a peering, baffled look; we were seemingly staring into a mirror. A wild dog-like being of the near exact colour markings of my dog stared back at us from a really close distance just ahead on the pathway. Some might say, “Was it rabid? Did you report it? How did you save your dog and self from the terror before you?” In fact, I reveled in the experience and wished it would have lasted longer. I felt no fear. Was I just lucky?

coyote-in-snow

Not long after this chance encounter, some people started really talking up fear about these animals moving into urban areas. “They’ll attack you and your pets. They’ll pass along disease. They’re so destructive.” No, I’m not talking about humans. I’m talking about Canis latrans; the relatively ‘new species on the block’, the Eastern Coyote.

Known in some indigenous cultures as the trickster or joker, the coyote also symbolizes the deep magic of life. They are also known to be the revealers of truth behind illusion. I feel in this day and age we could use all the magic and truth we can get.

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My late dog Faith – a Siberian Husky and E. Coyote look-a-like, perched up on a log, off leash in a dog park.

Coyotes are a heck of a lot like humans. Intelligent, they are opportunists. They learn quickly and adapt. They love their families (even more so than many human families!). Also remarkably similar, E. Coyotes, like European settlers and recent immigrants, aren’t technically native to S. Ontario. Paradoxically, the inception of these animals was borne out of the early and short-term successful efforts to blast away all predators from the province. Our misguided settler-ancestors killed off the Eastern Wolf – nearly – except for a small population in the Algonquin Park area. A common saying in ecology is ‘nature abhors a vacuum.’ With the near destruction of the wolf population, few medium sized predators remained and there was a huge void. The much smaller Western Coyote moved into Eastern North America’s newly destroyed landscape. In an extremely rare case, a speciation event occurred before our very eyes. Western Coyote hybridized with the few remaining Eastern Wolves. The hybrid created was a slightly larger animal, the Eastern Coyote. Western Coyotes were pushed back to the south, and west. This all occurred between the late 1800s until the 1930s or so. Since then, E. Coyotes have spread across Eastern North America, not just in rural landscapes, but taking up residence in cities, now fully a part the urban ecosystem.

For the record, E. Coyotes have, on rare occasions in the past, interbred with dogs gone feral. This virtually never happens today. The terms ‘Brush Wolf’, ‘Coywolf’ and ‘Coydog’ and general descriptive terms that refer to E. Coyote and not some other hybrid animal that’s ‘out there.’ And what is out there? You can be sure that E. Coyotes are. Like magic, they are often present but almost never seen. If they do appear, it’s in a flash and are gone just as fast.

Ecologically, Coyotes might just be a key savior in the recovery of our loss of biodiversity (the number of species of plants, animals, and other life forms in a given area). It’s like the story on how the return of the wolves completely transformed Yellowstone. Our natural areas are besieged with plants from other parts of the world (non-native species). You would think adding plants from other parts of the world increases diversity. The opposite is true. We lose species, primarily because non-native plants displace our native plants. Rich diverse soils are best created by a wide range of native plants that in turn provide food for insects. Insects convert plants to protein, providing the building blocks  (food) for birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibian diversity.

One non-native grass you might be familiar with is Poa pratensis – Kentucky Bluegrass or the common lawn grass. It’s not from Kentucky…it’s form Europe and Asia. Forming thick mats of dried dead grass, this species proves a tough place through which recently germinated oak acorns try to emerge. If the oaks can survive the allelopathic effects of the grass (another story completely), they have another major barrier; voles, mice, shrews and other rodents. This non-native grass has allowed for the proliferation of explosive numbers of rodents. Young oak seedlings are delicious to rodents and so, the smorgasbord of Quercus is chewed up liberally and biodiversity gets socked solidly in the mid-section. Oaks have been steadily disappearing from our landscape.

Quercus, the genus of oaks comprised of dozens of species in N.A., is the top supporter and producer of many insects (see Douglas Tallamy’s tally of this ‘Best Bets: What to Plant‘ to Bringing Nature Home)

Here’s where Coyotes in healthy numbers in our urban and rural landscape can build biodiversity back; a major food source is rodents. Ever see your dog do this jump up and pounce thing (see photo of Coyote below)? My young Siberian Husky is currently the average weight and size of an Coyote (40 lbs). She sniffs out and pounces on Short-tailed Shrews in our backyard. She can catch at least 3 or 4 a day, in a tiny area in an urban setting. While more research needs to be done, Coyotes must be having an impact in the similar manners as the wolves in Yellowstone.

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E. Coyote feeding on top prey item – small rodents. If you’re a dog owner, you’ll be familiar with this ‘pouncing posture.’ Rodent numbers are up and in some cases, are impacting ecosystem recovery.

But everyone (ok, many people) wants to talk about the (perceived) negative impacts of Coyotes.

What is the ‘risk of Coyote’ in perspective with other wildlife? Let’s take the White-tailed Deer. An average of 200 people each year die from collisions with deer on highways in North America. Thousands more contract Lyme’s disease from rising population of deer and thus deer ticks.

And family dogs? About 40 people each year in N.A. are killed from the results of domesticated dog attacks. How about dogs killing other dogs or killing cats? The numbers are through the roof. How about Coyotes? The average human deaths per year caused by Coyotes – zero.

Yes, E. Coyotes can attack, injure, and, in extremely rare cases, even kill your dog or cat. If you’re really concerned, keep an eye on your pets and keep them on leash, avoid dusk and dawn walks if that will make you feel safer. Don’t leave garbage accessible; this only draws in urban wildlife. As for deer on the highway, similar precautionary approaches apply; wear your seat belt, don’t speed (especially at night), and be vigilant about scanning the road as your drive.

Again, the important point is perspective; the stereotype of Coyote as ‘big bad wolf’ just does not hold water. Remember, without even knowing it, every day, millions of people and or their pets are within a few feet of where a Coyote had been a few seconds earlier.

A few days ago I saw a Coyote down in a 175-acre urban natural area (The Coves) a stone’s throw from my house. It was just a glimpse, as I had really startled this animal and she ran away quickly. It got me thinking about this recent spate of fear-based rhetoric about these animals and this is why I have written this article. The facts speak for themselves; the risks are small, and the incidents are isolated. Coyotes are scapegoats in a world in which we continually overplay risks using fear-based statements that morph into ‘facts’, while ignoring larger and real looming issues, easily traced to truths. Fittingly, this is what the indigenous traditional knowledge tells us about what Coyotes represent; revealers of truth behind illusion.

It’s clear that Coyotes have great voices of their own, revealing truth and the magic of life in many ways. Most of us refuse to listen; about 400,000 Coyotes are deliberately killed each year in North America. Changing their pack structure and breeding strategies when targeted, Coyotes rebound to recover their population losses by the very next year.

We can’t out-smart the Coyote. We don’t even need to. As a part of planet in dire need of ecological recovery, our efforts can shift to gratitude and appreciation of Coyotes – they are so much like us – while focusing on the science-based solutions to issues that we know truly matter.

 

 

Fall in Love for Nature this Autumn

Here are some tips to grow a great relationship with your yard and local ecosystem, now that summer has finally flipped off the calendar. While you and I are just proverbial drops, our landscape actions accumulate, and then fill the bucket (our local ecology) with a certain flavour – pollution or purity, resilience or climate change fragility, sharing with other species or taking away from them. Let’s be clear; this is a choice.

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Walking into the sunset in one of the final days of summer.

Leaves. Leave them. Ok, not all of them, because you probably want some lawn and thick leaves on grass will kill it or set it back some in spring. You can shred the leaves. Then add them back to your lawn. It’s free fertilizer and more. Leaves represent many nutrients and minerals that trees have ‘mined’ from the Earth. When trees release leaves back to the Earth’s surface, they are like gold to the topsoil layer. Imagine spending all that energy to rake up, bag, and then ship away the free ‘gold’ that rains down on your yard (then we go and buy fertilizer to replace this loss)?!

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Let it go. Enjoy the leaves. You don’t have to go to all the effort to get rid of them!

Ok, I recognize that while a few like to go lawn-less, most want some green grass. However, without a few yards with leaves on the ground over winter, we would not have many species we enjoy and even revere, like Fire Flies (which are actually beetles) and many others.  Indeed, many others. The Red-backed Salamander is a lung-less amphibian that lives in a few ‘more natural’ yards in Wortley Village. Like the Firefly, it needs this golden, life-giving leaf cover. Another species, which used to live here when we had more floor leaf cover and natural forests, is the Wood Frog. It actually hibernates in the leaf litter. Over 50% of its body mass freezes solid like an ice-cube. Come the warm rains of early spring, this small brown frog with a black mask then thaws and hops into active life again. And leaves, twigs, old seed heads and other organic offerings from the active season are the chief ingredients to grow healthy diverse soils. Soils are the foundation for healthy trees, shrubs, next year’s garden, and more.  A healthy teaspoon of forest soil alone contains millions of important life forms.

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Yes, leaves can be a (golden) mess, but then again, how clean is the rest of life? Messes sometimes are for good reasons!

Another loving thing to do is leave another type of mess – or at least, a perceived mess to some. Dead and dried flowers and seed heads are highly valuable to local wildlife. Yes, sometimes this doesn’t jive with the nice English Garden or Wortley Village Victorian motif some of us have going on. But again, you don’t have to leave all, but leave some. In winter, many birds, like the American Goldfinch, feed on plant seeds from Woodland Sunflower, Pale Purple Coneflower, and others. I recently learned that the juicy, dark purple berries from Pokeweed, or Purple Dangleberry are favoured by Mourning Doves and others. (Homing Pigeons, temporarily blown off course , have been known to show up at yards to feast on Pokeweed berries for hours at a time!). One of the main reasons we spend millions of dollars in the bird seed industry is because we’ve removed natural seed sources from native plants and cut away the few that remain at the end of summer to ‘clean up’ our yards!

If you live in Southern Ontario, you are blessed to live in the region in Canada that has the most number of species of plants, animals, and fungi; this is to say that Carolinian Canada has the highest species diversity. In some of my previous blogs, you may have noticed that I’m really pulling for people to join our http://www.inthezonegardens.ca program. This isn’t a frivolous new trend or the latest gig of some out of touch non-profit.  Returning to our roots with native plant gardening is a whole movement. It’s based on solid science. With due respect, the ‘ground zero,’ the common troubled ground we share, is one that has been assaulted by climate change, heavily impacted by introduced species, and has experienced the complete disregard for the protection of our ancient natural areas that used to ‘have our backs.’ While these big issues need care, attention, and local heroes, the choice before us to make change on our private landscapes is always our own.

Growing Some Weed(s) in My Village

It’s not officially illegal, but some question whether it should be. It can grow in between you and your partner, splitting you into camps, for it or against it. It can ruin a life or more; it can nearly take down an entire ecosystem.

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Strangely, after cutting a ‘Mother Tree’ of European Buckthorn, a Great Blue Heron appeared in the forest to inspect our work. Near Wortley Village, Old South, London, Canada.

I’m talking about weed(s). The weed in question is European Buckthorn. A beautiful shrub in its own right and in its homeland in England, this plant that grows to the size of a small tree. It becomes loaded with dark blue berries that are favoured by many of our birds. E. Buckthorn has wreaked havoc on our natural areas and has quietly infiltrated Wortley Village (London, ON) via bird droppings. It often goes unnoticed and unidentified by homeowners. Before you know it, you’ve received a complimentary bird-planted Buckthorn for ‘free.’ The cost, however, of keeping this plant around in this neck of the woods or neighbourhood, is exorbitant. The City of London (Canada) alone has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to remove it from our sensitive natural areas. From one little 2.5 acre plot at the corner of Rachel and Phyllis Streets, just south of Emery, the city and the Friends of the Coves Subwatershed removed several dozen tons (see pile in photo below) of this plant from the forest understory.

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E. Buckthorn seedling I found in my garden this morning (5:30am) when I thought about this article. I pull them often and can almost always find one ‘one demand.’

By definition, E. Buckthorn is an invasive, non-native species It outs competes our native plants for space. So you might be wondering, are our native plants just wimpy and unable to hold their ground? No, this isn’t the case. What happened in this case is that E. Buckthorn was commonly planted in fencerows when it was first introduced in our area in the late 1800s to keep cattle in specified fields. While some large native trees were left, there were next to no natural areas kept fully intact. When grazing pastures and orchards were abandoned, E. Buckthorn were among the most common plants remaining, enabling birds to seed them across our landscape. As such, this plant has taken our over natural areas.

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Note the large pile of cut European Buckthorn and the dark understory in the background – that’s all E. Buckthorn as well! The white ground herb in the foreground is Goutweed, resulting from an adjacent landowner dumping garden clippings on the edge of this natural area.

Other detrimental non native species that we have commonly growing in Wortley Village and S. Ontario that majorly impact our natural areas include Japanese Honeysuckle, Burning Bush, Goutweed (white plant in above photo), and Periwinkle. I jog a 5km route around Wortley Village with my wife. Today I paid attention, noticing from the sidewalk, about fifty E. Buckthorns either growing ‘rogue’ along the edges of various houses, or stealthily in peoples hedges, or overtly as manicured lawn trees. See this great guide (http://www.ontarioinvasiveplants.ca/resources/grow-me-instead/) put out by the Ontario Invasive Species Council called, “Grow Me Instead” to give you ideas for replacement native species. For starters, I’ve highlighted a native shrub that will nicely replace your E. Buckthorn, should you chose to move towards native plants; Pagoda Dogwood Cornus alternifolia. Its form is a beautiful multi-tiered stacked ‘pagoda’, while the flowers are whitish-green in spring and the berries are blue.

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Alternative-leaved or Pagoda Dogwood. Wortley Village, Canada. Plant it instead of E. Buckthorn.

Glenn, a friend and neighbour on my street inspired this article. He reminded me that a weed is really an unwanted plant, or one for which we haven’t yet found or identified a use. I find this wholeheartedly true. While I have reverence for E. Buckthorn, there is a proper place for it. It turns out it is sorely needed in England, where a species of butterfly (Brimestone Butterfly – below) is in decline, astonishingly and ironically because E. Buckthorn is vanishing from their countryside! Yes human induced landscape changes everywhere are having large ripple effects causing extinctions and inducing climate change. One sure fire way to mitigate these trends are to get ‘In the Zone’ (www.inthezonegardens.ca) and plant one or more native plants on your private landscape.

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The Brimestone Butterfly; it’s desperately in need of Buckthorn (in England). Photo Copyright Matt Berry.

A slightly modified version of this appears in the Wortley Villager Magazine, September Issue.

London, Canada (Day); 150 and 300 Years Ago

This article was recently published in Wortley Villager and also on my LinkedIn (apologies if this is a triple repeat):

Surprisingly, in 1867 in the area now called Wortley Village (London, Ontario, Canada), we didn’t have the virgin old growth forests transected by pristine freshwater streams and rich pockets of tallgrass prairie that we might imagine. In fact, 150 years ago was about a decade after the vast majority of the systematic removal of the deciduous forests of eastern North America, including most of the natural cover found in Wortley Village. At this monumental time in our history, many farms were well established. London was a barren place. Remaining woodlands and other natural wonders were few and far between.

Between the 1820 and the late 1860s many settlers suffered through the removal of our forests, felling trees many of which were over 35m (120 feet) tall and over a thousand years old. While some of this wood was sent to a few saw mills to build the early houses of our region, the vast majority of these ancient, giant trees was stacked and burned, since the necessary infrastructure wasn’t in place to saw, transport, store and sell the wood. Hundreds of piles of trees were stacked and burnt in what today is Wortley Village.  Species in the pile would have included American Chestnut, several species of oak, cherry, maple, beech and elm to name a few. Burning, going up in smoke, each pile would have been worth tens of thousands of dollars in today’s market.

Forest clearing was tough and dangerous endeavour. Many early settlers were maimed or killed in the 30 to 40 years of the process of removing nature for farmland and industry. New town and city streets and the edges of farms were void of ground cover, shrubs and trees. The thinking was, “Why plant a tree after the decades-long misery and struggle in the bush with the saw, horses and overworked men?” Also at this time, many streams and wetlands in the village were sent underground by infilling by these early settlers.

How about a glimpse of what Wortley Village looked like 300 years ago? The Iroquois lived in the area in Long Houses and certainly had some influence on the appearance of what is now called Wortley Village. The Village Green may have been one of a few small fields cleared for cultivating corn. Vast tracks of old growth forest (see photo above; courtesy Appalachian Forest Museum) would have grown across most of the current neighbourhood, providing this culture a huge array of wild plant edibles and medicines, like Paw Paw (Fruit) Trees, Wild Ginseng, Mayapples and literally hundreds of others. These woodlands were also natural depots for home construction materials. Streams leading to Antler River (now called Thames by many) would have been crystal clear, healthy enough from which to drink and rich enough to catch fish literally by wading into the water. Black Bears, Eastern Wolves, Eastern Cougars, Timber Rattlesnakes, Wood Bison, and Woodland Elk, kept the Iroquois on their toes; both for safety and for hunting opportunities. Transportation happened either by water (canoe) or by foot on trails that, in some cases, were hundreds of years old and stretched hundreds of kilometres, with a number of trees tethered and pruned when young, to point in certain directions and called, ‘marker trees.’

Nature was indeed a respected repository for sustenance and quality of life; the more intimate one was with nature, the smoother and more enjoyable life was. Considering climate change, erosion, issues with invasive species and other environmental challenges and crises, our community and greater society are well served to look to cultures that exhibit strong stewardship values and practice conservation. This way of life is a daily commitment to a solid legacy for seven generations of people to follow.

Climbing Up 25′ Where I Dropped An Acorn 25 Years Ago

In terms of hope, there’s much to be felt from the simple task of clutching an acorn in one’s hand.

A saying I recently read on the trailer used by ReForest London to transport trees, popped into my mind: “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The next best time is today.”

A few weeks ago I went back to visit the trees from the acorns that I dropped in an open farm field close to a quarter of a century ago. It was exhilarating. I found it hard to stop smiling. I was literally filled with wonder from the cause and effect of a few simple actions. Get some land. Collect some seeds. Plant them in the right place. Then, patiently wait….

Of the 12,000 tree seeds dropped in 1994, it looks like about a thousand took hold. They include many types of Oaks, Hickories, Walnuts, Hawthorns, Cedars, Maples, Sycamores and more. Squirrels, Blue Jays, the wind, and other vectors planted additional trees and other plants. The vision was clear; plant the land with trees and watch the birds (…snakes, salamanders and toads) return.

“The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago.
The next best time is today.”

Ben at Wilds of Pelee 2017.jpg

I might be wrong, but it’s hard to fully understand the impact you can have on a landscape until you see it in person more than a couple of decades later. Here I rest against a Red Oak wider than my waist. Not long ago, the seed of this very tree snugly fit into the palm of my hand. Photo by Jarmo Jalava

After a few months of working with the amazing people at Carolinian Canada, I’m passing over the reigns of the program Landowner Leaders to it’s returning champion. There’s much opportunity to get support to plant trees, build wetland or prairies, or help out specific Species at Risk. Maybe you have some land? Maybe you’re thinking of getting some? Even if this is not the case, take a simple nature-supporting action and watch the fruits of your labours over time. I assure you that much joy and many rewards will be yours.