Fernmire: Farming with Squirrels

I’m afraid June will be postponed indefinitely this year as we continue our third month of April weather.  I’m not one to complain about it though, especially when so many people are currently tormented by drought, heat, and wildfires. Some people stubbornly try to grow tomatoes outdoors around here, but I would say their success rate is less than fifty percent. I’m grateful this is berry climate! Huckleberries, raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries all have varieties native to this region. Yum! In Eastern Washington, where I grew up, it normally gets hotter and drier. You can find commercial orchards of apples and cherries in abundance. Tomato growers have a much higher chance of success.

Last year around this time was an anomaly. We were roasting in record-breaking 115°F degree (46°C) heat for a particularly bad stretch of three days. Several people died here and in British Columbia. It was hard on crops and native plants alike. I feel like many people have already forgotten that when they complain about the overcast skies. The plants seem content to focus on their recovery by delaying their blooms and fruit by a couple of weeks this year.

Douglas Squirrel litter pile

One thing I have in abundance is Douglas Fir trees and their pinecones. The one beside the driveway is a robust producer of pinecones. It’s always had a Douglas Squirrel living in or near it since we move in about eight years ago.

Doug the First was a jerk. He’d throw pinecones at us and chitter anytime we were around. Doug the Second kept to himself and we had no interactions to speak of for two years. Doug the third was bold. He’d test me to see if I ate squirrel or not. Concluding that I/we were not squirrel eaters, he once decided to explore our garage while I was in it. Then he’d start leaving me piles of pinecone remnants. Doug the 4th did not live very long. I don’t know what got it. We’re now with Doug the fifth and Sixth. Doug the 5th is male and Doug the 6th is female. At this point the name “Doug” is now gender neutral as far as I’m concerned. I’m hoping for a batch of “Douglets” this year. That would be fun. I might have to set up one of my wildlife cameras just for squirrel pictures!

Pinecone litter closeup
Gathering duff aka forest litter

These two leave me nice big piles of “duff” (defined as leaf litter, small sticks, and pinecone remnants) off to the side of the driveway. I consider this our mother tree of the Fernmire ecosystem. It is one of the oldest judging from the circumference of the trunk. The Douglas squirrels eat all day at the base of the tree or at the separate “pinecone buffet” I made them so that I can clear weeds without disturbing their feeding. In exchange, they leave me generous piles of duff that I can re-distribute to other areas in need of the material for plant restorations. Hence, “farming with squirrels.”

American Robin – Bath time

The other day while carrying the duff two Robins got into a dispute. The one being chased flew all up around my head and so did the pursuing robin. I’m not sure why they thought to involve me. It’s not like I’m going to bite the pursuer! So that was my Tippi Hendron moment, a brief unexpected performance of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” as I shooed them away.

Young bunny

I’m practically tripping over wild rabbits that have no sense to get out of the way. I know that the Bobcat mother is busy working to wean her kits and soon the rabbits will become the feast! Do the rabbits know their fate? This is how the rabbit population stabilizes into a semblance of balance. Normally, our neighbor coyote would be in on this feast, but this one is near death as it loses the battle with mange. So skinny and haggard looking. He walks slowly as if constantly walking into a room and forgetting why he’s there. It’s a terrible thing to watch him waste away. I wish I could administer some kind of hands-free treatment via bait traps or blow darts. I accept that death is part of life, but I don’t accept that undue suffering is necessary. None of the Wildlife Rehabilitators work with coyotes or larger animals in my area. More research is needed to see if there is anything I can do. So far, my deer friends have been spared from chronic wasting disease and for that I am grateful.


Additional Information:

Some nice pictures, info and recipes of native edible berry plants: Natives bearing Edible Fruits | Portland Nursery -missing Mountain or Trailing blackberries (Rubus ursinus), Blackcap Raspberries (Rubus leucodermis) and Gooseberries: Coastal Black Gooseberry (Ribes divaricatum), Sticky Gooseberry (Ribes lobbii), White-stemmed Gooseberry (Ribes inerme) and Northern Gooseberry (Ribes oxyacanthoides). Gooseberries should be fully ripe and eaten in small to moderate amounts to avoid upset stomach. My Great Uncle loved Gooseberry pie.

Douglas Squirrels and other Squirrels of Washington State – https://wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/living/species-facts/tree-squirrels#

Rabbits in Washington State – https://wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/living/species-facts/rabbits#

A brief overview of Mange – https://www.in.gov/dnr/fish-and-wildlife/wildlife-resources/wildlife-diseases-in-indiana/mange/

Chronic Wasting Disease in Deer – https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/what-chronic-wasting-disease

Fernmire: Shadow of the Hawk

Fernmire Field 2021 – The hawks lived in the fir trees to the left. Neighbor’s field is on the other side.

For five year the Red-Tailed Hawk couple guarded mine and my neighbor’s fields. They kept my cherries and the baby birds of Robins, Junco, Towhees and Chickadees safe from the crows. They also kept the cherry tree safe from a traveling group of rock doves every year too. Occasionally the crows that lived at the end of the street would try to come down and mess with the hawks, only to be chased off. The hawk couple feasted on the field mice, the occasional adult robin, and the occasional small rabbit. Mostly though, the rabbits were left for the bobcats and coyote.

In the Spring of year six an eagle came through. I was in my home office enjoying the partly sunny day when I heard the hawks raise the alarm. Then I heard the bald eagle. I think at first the eagle was trying to go for the hawk chicks or eggs. The nest was near the top of a 150ft high Douglas fir tree. In the time it took me to run down the stairs slip on my shoes and run out the door the eagle had taken female hawk and carried her off.

I’m the kind of person who is careful not to anthropomorphize wild animals with human emotions. How they move about the world doesn’t have to relate to how humans do, they are unto themselves. I can tell you that the male hawk grieved in his own way.  He stayed close to me for weeks every time I was outside going so far as to awkwardly hop along the low branches as I took my dog for walks up and down the street.

It didn’t feel right to take a picture of a grieving friend. That this image came out low-quality seems appropriate. Taken June 2018 when he was still a Juvenile.

At the start of year seven and he found a new mate. She surveyed the land and decided that this was not where she wanted to build their nest. They moved over to a stand of Douglas firs over to the open meadow one street over on the far side of that cul de sac. The male hawk would still come to visit sometimes spanning the out perimeter of his territory to swoop by and let me know he was still around. They were infrequent but appreciated.

Then an official looking letter arrived in the mail announcing a new development coming to the neighbor, nine new luxury homes on the nine-acre plot over on the far side of the cul de sac behind me. There would be a retention pond to satisfy the requirements of an environmental impact assessment. On paper it didn’t sound so bad. One fancy house per roughly one acre, minus a few feet each for the retention pond. I didn’t fight it. I didn’t want to be a NIMBY (Not In My Backyard.) Having worked for local government I know they’re required by the state to provide a percentage of new housing each year. The reasoning behind the mandate sounded fair enough; no one city should be forced to provide all the new housing in the state. It’s calculated by some formula based on the percentage of existing city population, jobs, and other data. There is no deny that my city 15 miles outside of Seattle is growing as people flee the inner city.

I know there are better ways, but politicians don’t like complicated muti-level strategies for complicated multi-level problems. It’s hard to win an election with a five-paragraph vision statement. It’s hard to boil down the essence of it into a catchy five words or less campaign slogan.

They started cutting down all the trees in October 2021. Not just all the trees on the nine-acre lot but all the along the road leading to it. A hundred-yard scar. It took those trees 80 to 150 years to get as big as they were, and I know they will be replaced with grass and generic landscaping plants purchased by the dozens. The endless rows of arbor vitae around here make my right eye twitch with rage.

Red-Tailed Hawk Couple, 2021 – Hawk friend on the left as a full adult male, 2nd mate on the right.

The hawks came back here for awhile and feasted on the field mice once again. The constant drone of the earth movers permeated the air and ground as they rumbled to flatten the land. After several days of feasting the hawks left to find a quieter place and I don’t know if I’ll ever see my friend again.

This is the first Spring without their watchful eyes. The crows have come, one in particular, the one I’ve never liked. It likes to torture things. It’s one thing to kill to live, but some animals like to play with their food before they kill it. It’s a facet of nature struggle to tolerate. My attitude towards crows, domestic house cats, Killer Whales (aka Orcas) and hyenas is muted because of it. I’m human, I have opinions.

So this crow was watching and then one day it went around and ate all of the baby birds and eggs of all the nests I knew to be around me. At first, I tried to scare it off, then I put the dog outside to do it for me, but the crow is smart. It knew there was nothing me or the dog could do about it’s raid. One by one each nest was destroyed. I’ve watched this crow scare rabbits into the path of oncoming cars. Just this Wednesday my spouse and I watched as the coyote was about to miss the opportunity for a rabbit, but then the crow swooped down and kept swooping at the rabbit. The coyote stopped to watch. It was clear to us that the crow was trying to scare the rabbit in the direction of the coyote. This isn’t because the crow is concerned about how skinny the mange-infested coyote is, it only wants to use the coyote as a tool to get the rabbit. Sometimes, certain animals can be “stressed to death” rabbits and chickens in particular. I’ve seen a crow do this to a baby bunny before.

The commotion caught the attention of our dog who started barking. The coyote decided not to participate in the crow’s scheme. This is what it means to be a keystone species for an ecosystem. The hawks only take the mice and the occasional adult bird or a rabbit. The crow kills the eggs and baby birds before they can mate, denying any potential for replacement value. During the heyday of the hawks there was one morning I counted nineteen Robins in the field! Now the Robin count averages around five or six. The nest raids started last year when my hawk friend could only occasionally fly by. Now the crow has no true competitor except other crows wanting a piece of the action.

I can’t completely restore the balance that the hawks once provided, but I can do something. I am not just a passive observer of this micro-ecosystem; I’m integral part of it. Humans influence everything around them even when they try not to. Think about your own sphere of influence within own micro-ecosystem(s).

It’s time to build some birdhouse to counterbalance. Give the eggs and baby birds a fighting chance. It might be their fate in life to be food for something, but it doesn’t have to be today. I’ve been trying to build a better nesting layer into my landscape for years, but it takes so long for these shrubs to grow bushy enough to offer the protection the smaller birds need. Maybe by the time the nesting boxes are rotted away the bushes will be ready.

Thank you for reading, Nature-Led Friends!

If this post had a soundtrack: Fleetwood Mac – Landslide

Links:

Red-tailed Hawk Overview, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Bald Eagle Overview, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

American Crow Overview, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

(The Cornell Lab is one of my favorite organizations that I try to donate to annually. Their website is a valuable resource, and they don’t spam my email with donation requests.)

Fernmire: The Birth of Fernmire

Western Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum) new growth and Wood Sorrel (Oxalis oregana)

I’ve decided to call this homestead “Fernmire.” The quintessential Western Sword fern (Polystichum munitum) grows in abundance here and the old horse pasture is best described as a mire of mud and weeds. While standing in the middle of the field I can see what was, what is and what will be. There are many possibilities of “what will be.” Trying to grasp a thread of future time is like trying to hold a hagfish, slippery and unpredictable. This land was once a thicket of dogwood, salmonberries, Indian plums, alders and cottonwood trees. I dial in on what it was just before the thicket phase, when it was a wet meadow. That’s what I want to recreate. Before the alders and cottonwood trees could gain a perch there was fescues, sedges, camas and columbines to name a few. We moved here in 2013. It was barely within our range of affordability. There were several months of strict spending limits and modest meals.

Western Columbine (Aquilegia Formosa)

The Seller’s had two offers. They could choose the all-cash offer from a development company that would knock down the house and put in a couple of MacMansions, or they could choose the quiet couple with one child, and a dog who dreamed of restoring the habitat and maintaining the home as it is. Our offer also had a contingency clause because we couldn’t buy it until we had sold our existing home at the time. Some Sellers won’t consider offers with contingencies because it means they have to be patient and wait.

The Seller’s chose us. It just so happens they live five houses down the street! We’ve became great friends since we met. They’d bought this place as a rental property and considered building a dream house on it, but then decided they were happy where they were. As Grandparents, they decided they cared more about spending time with their children and grandchildren than navigating the construction of a new house.

Their house and all the others on the street are part of a Homeowner’s Association (HOA) because all of their houses were built by the same develop back in 2006. Our house was built in 1967 and is not part of the HOA. We pay into the HOA voluntarily though as a gesture of good faith and to help supplement the cost of maintaining common areas like the front entrance of our neighborhood with plants and shrubs. There is one other property on the street as old as ours and with a bigger plot of land. Our next door neighbor whose three-and-a-half-acre field abuts ours. There is only a narrow tree line separating his field from ours. It makes the developers salivate.

Around the corner – Nine acres razed to build nine new McMansions
The Earth movers rumble from first light to late afternoon

Sometimes we get letters from developers wanting to buy us out, but not nearly as many as our neighbor Ray does. If they thought they could get his property, they would put a lot more pressure on us to sell at the same time. Flat land close to a main street and close to downtown is a hot commodity. Ray is 86 and about as healthy as one can be at that age. I remember his wife. I remember when she passed. I check on him after storms, when I haven’t seen him outside for more than a week or if his garbage can isn’t on the curb the night before garbage day. Some of the other neighbors consider him a curmudgeon, but I don’t see him that way.

We both love nature. We love sharing the land with our wild neighbors and we’re not interested in buying the latest knew thing. We greet the deer, bear, coyotes and bobcats. The hawks in the trees, the hummingbirds and the pileated woodpeckers. Development encroaches all around us and we can’t hold it off forever. We do what we can, but it’s not enough. How long have I lived here? To see nine generations of coyotes born. Nine seasons under the watchful eyes of the Red-tailed Hawk.

Western Starflowers (Trientalis borealis Raf.) re-emerges after years of dormancy and two years after the invasive Himalayan blackberry was cleared.


Definition:

McMansion (American Slang) – Large houses made of low-quality materials because the price is based on square footage and lot size. Meets basic building codes. Built to a generic standard frequently replicated as if they came off of a conveyor belt. Only paint color makes one look different from the other.

I love this video for the imagery. Sung by Pete Seeger, but the original lyrics were written by Malvina Reynolds (no relation.)