A suburban meadow can help free you from tiresome yard work
These days, many of us are searching for alternatives to conventional lawn and garden care, a chore that has become increasingly dependent on time and maintenance as well as pesticides and other poisons. The meadow garden can offer a solution to this problem. Continue reading →
Washington, DC’s 11th Street Bridge Park/Photo: OMA + OLIN Anacostia Crossing
There’s a movement afoot that aims to turn old infrastructure into public parks, breathing new life into spaces that have long since been forgotten. Of these, the transformation of an old rail line into a garden on Manhattan’s West Side (the High Line) is the best known. Now comes Washington, DC’s own variation, the 11th Street Bridge Park. Soon, the city’s first elevated park will be perched high atop the Anacostia River. Continue reading →
Bumblebee pollinating mustard plant/ Photo: University of Zurich (UZH)
There’s been a lot of buzz in recent years about pollinators, especially of the fuzzy yellow and black kind. Now comes news that bumblebees not only help plants propagate, but they also have a positive effect on their size, fragrance and color. It’s all part of a new experiment by researchers at the University of Zurich that proves bees do it bigger and better. Continue reading →
“Even the sharpest ear cannot hear an ant singing” -Sudanese Proverb
(Red ant on Fijian palm leaf)
Just when you thought you’d heard it all, this week comes the revelation that a certain species of Fijiian ants has been growing plants for millennia. And they’ve been doing so for far longer than humans. The ants have been growing crops and establishing their colonies within them all while tending their own teeny tiny community gardens. Continue reading →
There’s a fascinating image that has stuck with me ever since, years ago, I read the sci-fi novel Goodbye and Thanks For All the Fish (the fourth installation in the series the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) In the novel, author Douglas Adams describes a four-walled house turned inside out. If you entered the house, you found yourself ‘outside’ in a green space, complete with lawn, benches and walking paths. If you exited the house, you found yourself ‘inside’ in a far less desirable place Adams termed the Asylum. Continue reading →
Have you ever driven by a cornfield during a prolonged period of drought and asked yourself ‘How do these plants survive?’ Well it turns out scientists have uncovered a protein in plants that holds the key to why some survive and others don’t. It’s called ABA INSENSITIVE GROWTH 1 (ABIG1) and it may determine the future of plant growth in an increasingly waterless world.
As all gardeners know, working in the garden is not just about plants. Being outside with your hands in the soil makes you keenly aware of animal life, too. Over the years, I’ve gardened in tandem with a majestic blue heron, a band of three crows and a playful red fox. Now, with the arrival of warmer weather, I’m looking forward to the return of the purple martins.
Aside from being able to identify their houses (virtual mansions of the ornithological kind), I didn’t know much about these amazing birds until recently, when my garden club hosted two members of a local purple martin society. Ever since, I’ve been scanning the skies for the colorful species. That’s because, according to the experts, the first wave of arrivals are due to be hitting my area soon.
Purple martin house
PURPLE MARTINS HEAD NORTH IN THEIR WINTER
Of the eight swallow species, purple martins are the largest. The dark bluish-black birds arrive en masse to North America each spring, soaring on the jet stream from their native southern Brazil. It takes them about five weeks to fly the 10,000 miles, which is quite a feat for a bird that weighs only about 2 ½ ounces.
Female purple martin in flight
Like many neotropical birds, purple martins travel north to the United States and Canada to breed. The birds arrive at the height of the insect season, establishing themselves in colonies located close to water where there is the greatest food supply. In total, the migration can take up to 2 to 3 months to complete.
Meanwhile back in Brazil, they’re considered a public nuisance, mainly due to their large numbers and preference for roosting in trees around central plazas. As a result, some municipalities have gone so far as to install sirens and other devices to chase the birds away.
ONLY MAN-MADE HOUSING WILL DO
In the United States, on the other hand, it’s a different story. Here, the purple martin colonies return each year to establish neighborhoods in man-made housing only, usually large, multi-room houses or hollowed-out hanging gourds. In fact, they are the only bird species that is totally dependent on human-supplied housing. In other words, not only are they friendly towards people, but they actually prefer living in close proximity.
As a species, purple martins favor locations in wide-open terrain, usually pole-mounted martin houses or gourds. This keeps them out of reach of predators like owls and hawks that dwell in cavities in trees. Consequently, they’ll generally bypass congested suburban areas for broad open areas like meadows or fields located near lakes or other bodies of water.
Typically only one male and one female live together in a room or a gourd. However, the highly sociable birds house together in colonies, where they interact as a unit, sharing food and singing to each other. In fact, a group of houses or gourds can often host as many as 60 to 70 birds over a 2-month period.
Purple martin pair
THEY SEND SCOUTS
Now is the time of year when the first scouts (who are the oldest birds) begin arriving from Brazil to check out their nesting sites from the previous year. The scouts pave the way for the rest of the flock, which arrives 4 to 6 weeks later. Built like a glider, the birds can travel at speeds greater than 40 miles per hour.
THEY ONLY FEED ON THE FLY
Moreover, purple martins bring a whole new meaning to eating ‘on the fly.’ According to Mike Dickson of the Purple Martin Society of Frederick, Maryland, they only recognize food that is in flight, meaning that they primarily snatch insects in midair. Adept in performing complex aerial acrobatics, the birds even drink in the air. They accomplish this by flying low over lakes or ponds while scooping up water with their bills.
A female in flight
Indeed, you’ll never find purple martins foraging for food on the ground, or eating seed from a feeder. People who choose to feed the friendly birds will discover they’re quite open to the idea, but only if the food is flung to them. On occasion this is necessary since the birds are highly susceptible to bad weather. Prolonged periods of cold or rain can spell death to entire colonies when there are no insects available.
THEY SING REALLY WELL
One of only a few colony birds that love to sing, purple martins’ throaty chirps can be heard May through June during the breeding season. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, males make a croaking song during courtship that can last up to 4 seconds. People say that once you’ve heard it, you’ll never forget it.
Males perform the dawn song
Purple martins sing in a combination of gurgles, clicks and song. The loudest singing occurs before daylight. Males perform this dawn song, possibly to attract other birds to the nesting site. Click here to hear a few of their beautiful songs.
AN EARLY DEPARTURE
All too soon, by the end of July or first week in August, the birds prepare to leave for their migratory roost. Many purple martin lovers describe this time as a sad one, when they awake to find the birds gone and their houses empty. It’s as if suddenly, the countryside has fallen silent.
One of the many things I love about gardening is working alongside my many fuzzy, buzzing friends. Dutifully arriving on the job each morning, the bees hover beside me, yielding as one mass each time I shift position in the garden. Sometimes, I’ve been brave (or stupid) enough to touch one of the downy creatures, and they’ve allowed me to stroke them. Feeling the tiny vibrations of all that industriousness never ceases to amaze me. Continue reading →
Last week, the French did something truly revolutionary. They passed a law banning grocery stores from throwing away or destroying unsold food. The landmark legislation, which went into effect last Wednesday, February 3, makes France the world’s first country to ban food waste by supermarkets. Continue reading →
Anyone who has seen The Martian will remember the scene where astronaut Mark Watney succeeds in growing potatoes and the joy he experiences in knowing he has learned to cultivate plants to survive. Well, it turns out that crew members aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have been growing plants, too, in an actual ‘space garden’. Now, with its debut of the first-ever flower grown in space, NASA takes a giant leap forward in developing methods that will provide astronauts with a sustainable source of safe food, making the possibility of missions to Mars no longer a dream of the future. Continue reading →