Gardening with Bears

I envisioned that one morning I would be standing at the large living room window, cup of coffee in hand watching the field when a bear would stroll by. Blissfully safe in my house I would say, “Good morning, bear.” All cheery-like, of course.

Reality likes to kick sand everywhere though. I found myself instead at the far end of the field, on my hands and knees, pulling dirt and rocks away from a diseased Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta) stump infected with Eastern hazelnut blight. A diseased acorn can further the blight by birds and squirrels that forget a cache, allowing a diseased tree to become rooted. It can decimate an agricultural hazelnut grove. A cash crop in the nearby state of Oregon.

So, there I was being a good citizen for both humans and trees alike when a big black bear (Ursus americanus) decided to walk by. I knew he was in the ‘hood. I’d often seen fresh bear patties along the street. Bobcats, Coyotes, and the like drop “scat”, but bears make patties, large dark piles of bear poop. Around here it usually has cherry pits in it, even the coyotes will help themselves to the native Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana L.), the ornamentals that line the road at our street entrance, or the ones planted for backyard fruit. Washington state is the apple state, but we grow a lot of cherries too.

So it was, that the bear finally came before the patty. My dog was sleeping on the porch attached to a 15ft tether. We do this because she’s got a strong prey drive. All it would take is an errant squirrel or rabbit and she would chase it to no end until a vehicle stopped her. She’s got no sense when she spots a living squeaky toy. On this morning, her sleep was disturbed by something much larger. She started barking like crazy. I understand all of her barks, but this one was new. I stood up quickly with my hands on my hips wondering, “What does this bark mean?”

I turned around and there he was, less than ten feet from me! I could make out the individual hairs on his nose. He stopped abruptly and so did I. I’ve seen wild black bears before in the woods at a distance, equivalent to the size of a fat Golden retriever, but this suburban bear was huge. At least 800 hundred pounds. What the hell are people putting in their trash around here? Raw steaks and donuts?

All I could hear was my dogs frantic barking and the sound of my own heart beating. The bear sized me up and I did the same without making eye contact or any posturing that might be taken as a threat. We need some space. Yes, we definitely need some space between us. I’ve got a sharp axe and a sledgehammer within reach, but no desire to fight. He seems to agree. So I say in a carefully measured voice, “Why don’t I just back up towards the noisemaker on the porch, yeah?”

I back up slowly putting distance between us, glancing at the bear, not staring, not challenging. Once I’ve doubled the space between us the bear felts safe to proceed with his morning constitutional. He continues walking down the field toward the street. He was so quiet for such a big beast! I always thought they would be huffier and gruntier to give me some warning, like in the movies. It’s surreal to watch those massive paws walk so quietly. My mind wants to give it a soundtrack like a T. Rex is walking by. Pound, pound, pound with each step, but they don’t. They don’t make a sound and the birds have betrayed me. Just like a deer, when I hear the chorus of birds suddenly stop, I’m alerted that somethings wrong. I’ll pop my head up and look just as surely as if the dog has barked. Now I have learned another new thing. In the opinion of small birds, a bear is no threat.

Why do I pay attention to birds? Because cougars will hid expertly in the bushes, but they can’t hide from the birds, nor can the coyote, but mostly I listen to the birds, because they feel the vibrations in the air before I can. They were my first clue, just before the Nisqually quake hit our area on Feb 28th, 2001. So I listen to the birds as we perpetually wait for “the big one”, the day the Cascadian subduction zone give a great heave and snaps out the surface like we’re particles on a dirty rug.

But wait, there’s more to this bear story! When Mister Big Bear reached the road my neighbor from three doors down was there walking his puny little Shitzu. They all stopped unsure what to do. Poor Mister Bear has a new dance partner. The little dog was too scared to bark. Another neighbor rode to the rescue in his mid-life crisis, a metallic blue corvette. He stopped so the other neighbor and his little dog could hop in. They waited until Mr. Big Bear felt comfortable enough to pass. People who don’t live around here consider my City a “suburb” of Seattle, but we’re not. We have pastures and fields. The tallest building in our downtown city core doesn’t exceed seven floors. We live in what researchers and biologists call the urban-wildlife interface. I call it sub-rural as an antonym to sub-urban (suburban).  

Recommendation:

What Happens When You Plant a Pile of Bear Scat? – Cool Green Science

Bear Behaviour – Understanding black and grizzly bears – BearSmart.com

The Life of a Dead Tree

One of my favorite trees is dead. It hasn’t sprouted a new leaf in over four years and yet, it’s the most active tree in the yard. From my dining room window I watch Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus), Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus), Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) and other smaller birds stop by for a perch or a peck.

This Alder (Alnus rubra) likely died by a fungal disease spread from the aphid infestation that plague it. There’s also an ant colony. While they don’t use little whips to herd the aphids about in their duties, I do suspect that symbiotic relationship of overseer and worker. (Herding Aphids: How ‘Farmer’ Ants Keep Control Of Their Food — ScienceDaily)

Alder trees are short lived in comparison to other trees with an average age of around 40 years. They are fast growers and prolific seed spreaders, much to the frustration of my neighbors with more manicured yard. The nature of a tree’s genome delegates whether it will be fast and widespread or slow and methodical. A mixed forest provides many benefits to the trees themselves and not just the habitats they create. Here in the Pacific Northwest, Alders help fix the nitrogen in the soil aiding the growth of Douglas firs. (The effects of red alder on growth of Douglas-fir (fs.fed.us))

As far as dangerous trees goes, alders are least likely to kill you. It’s common for alders to lose their heads in sections of 4-8ft over time. Easier to avoid than a 80-100ft Cottonwood (Populus balsamifera L. ssp.) coming down like a giant’s toothpick. When alders are allowed to lay where they fall they break down releasing nitrogen in the soil for other flora and nesting burrows for insects. These insects in turn become nummy snacks for other invertebrates, herps*, and mammals and occasionally homes for them as well. Ah, the simple life of a garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis), to have your home warmed by the southern sun with your meals walking ripe for the taking.

If you’ve got a dead or dying tree on your property I would like to encourage you to consider alternatives to complete removal. If the tree is a low activity area away from harming people and building consider leaving it be. If it does pose a threat, have it taken down only so far as to reduce the threat it poses without removing it completely. You should be reward by the visit of birds. In my area, people are excessive land groomers. They dispatch tree companies post haste towards trees considered unattractive and then wonder why the woodpeckers pound on their houses. I’m not encouraging you to have an entire graveyard of trees, just one or two. Do it for the birds!

Book Recommendations:

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World By Peter Wohlleben

Bugs Rule! : An Introduction to the World of Insects by Richard Redak and Whitney Cranshaw

Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival by Bernd Heinrich

Feeding the Birds Naturally

Shortly after buying our first house we treated ourselves to dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Heading back to our car afterwards we noticed a small store selling a variety of enticements for backyard birds. Fifty-four dollars later my spouse is hauling out a 19lb bag of birdseed and I’m balancing a hanging pole and a shopping bag. We eagerly set it up outside our living room window and waited like expectant parents for the first flock to arrive. A few days later we were rewarded by the visit of chickadees, juncos, and house finches. Then came Gus. Gus was an average Eastern Gray squirrel. I had no idea he was to quickly become my arch-nemesis. I thought he would get full and leave, but he parked there and ate his weight in birdseed several times over. A vision of gluttony if I ever saw one!

So, I became his personal trainer. Chasing him off every five minutes or so became a job when I wasn’t at my job. I started taking the feeder in for a day or two then putting it out again hoping to confuse Gus, but it only confused the birds. Wah! Then I decided to just leave it out again, not as phase of serene acceptance, but more with the thought that he could become something else’s delicious meal. A sacrifice to an owl or the neighbor’s cat.

One night I came home after dark to find an large Norway rat sitting in the feeder. From invasive squirrels to invasive rats. I was doing a terrible job at supporting my native habitat. A couple more weeks went by and I pulled the feeder in before nightfall to discourage the rat. I read endless reviews of things that were supposed to keep squirrels away, but after a lot of research, nothing is ever truly squirrel-proof when they’re motivated by food. Gus polished off the last of the birdseed and I ended my tenure as squirrel attendant. Would you like a moist towelettes with that sir?

Fast forward to today. A different house and a whole new game plan for being an ally with nature. I only maintain a birdbath. No one gets gluttonous on water, but we sure do have a lot of dirty birds! It’s nothing fancy, just a large deep pottery dish, 1-2 inches deep with water. I keep the windows dirty and the blinds down, but open to prevent the glass from reflecting a mirror image of the world outside. I figured this out after losing a varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius) and a young robin (Turdus migratorius) to hard impacts. Unfortunately, it’s normal for people to spend over a thousand dollars having their windows professionally cleaned only to wonder why birds keep flying into them. Males will also attack their own reflection particularly during mating season. Every year social media posts pop up from aggravated homeowners wondering what’s up with a particular bird and their window.

One year I left a mole hill alone on a patch of dirt in the backyard. I had no immediate plans to work with that spot, so I left it alone. The mole had brought up fine silt and sand from below. It became a natural dustbath for the birds. They use dustbath to take care of mites and dry spots or itches. Since this particularly dustbath was on a slight hill, the birds turned it into their own amusement park slide. They lined up at the top and roll down by ones and twos. It was a joy to watch.

In the spring I hang baskets of begonias for the Anna’s hummingbird (Calypte anna), Dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) and Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus). The hummingbird uses the plants as a food source, the juncos and chickadees use them for nesting sites. My oldest hummingbird friend is affectionately named “snowbutt.” Not a very attractive name I know, but one winter I thought he had a small blob of snow stuck to his butt, but it’s just that his little tush feathers happen to be bright white. Sometimes he hovers at eye level like he wants to have a word with me. He eagerly awaits my returns from the garden nursery. Dashing about like a tiny puppy with wings, all up in the plants I hold between my arms. In the winter when we get a snow for a week my plastic hummingbird feeder blooms just for him. One-part white sugar to four-parts water boiled for five minutes and cooled completely before pouring into the feeder. If the temperature is well below freezing, I use handwarmers held with tape and an old sock to keep the nectar from freezing. I bring it in at night to keep it from freezing and also from bears. Bears in the Pacific Northwest don’t experience true hibernation, they go through torpor instead. Basically, they dream walk through winter…more or less. This is about the only time I get a really good look at Missus Snowbutt, she’s much more elusive than her mate. Ironic, because her favorite plant in the yard is the hardy hibiscus ‘Aphrodite’ (Hibiscus syriacus ‘Aphrodite’). Another great hummingbird plant is Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ with its dark orange-red flowers in the summer.

To help other birds year-round I have rotting stumps and a dead tree for the larvae eaters in undisturbed areas of the yard. I leave the seed heads on perennial plants and sun-dried Oregon grapes left where they fell.

So, what did I learn? I learned that nature doesn’t like micromanagers and that doing less is how you do more for the habitat around you.

Resourceful links:

Common bird parasites and tips for feeder maintenance

Birds, Bees, and Wildlife (wnps.org)

Search, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Funny YouTube video:

Mark Rober demonstrates the athleticism of Squirrels.