Winter is a wonderful time to take a walk in the park. The air is crisp, and it’s easy to see and enjoy the wildlife that abounds.
While we can put on coats and mittens to keep cozy on our winter wonderland adventures, have you ever wondered how our feathered friends keep warm during this chilly time of year?
Birds, like us (assuming that the entity reading this is human), are warm-blooded and have an average body temperature of around 106 degrees Fahrenheit. This means that when the temperature drops, they need to fly to a warmer locale or adapt to the changing conditions.
Birds are remarkable creatures and possess a number of ways to stay toasty:
- Insulation: Like other animals, birds eat, eat, eat in preparation for the cooler months, packing on the pounds (or in this case, partial ounces) to create a layer of fat to help keep them warm. They have to be careful, though. If they get too heavy, they aren’t able to fly and can become an easy meal. Birds also insulate themselves by puffing up their feathers; it’s like they are wearing their very own down comforters!
- Lifestyle: Many birds seek shelter in nooks and crannies in trees and rocks or do their best to find a cozy spot in dense foliage. They also hang around other birds to share body heat when the temperature drops.
- Physiological changes: Some birds enter a state called torpor in which they slow down their heart, metabolic, and respiratory rates to conserve energy. However, this can make them vulnerable to predators, so most bird species do not enter torpor unless in dire circumstances. You can learn more about it here. Amazingly, some birds can even alter their blood flow so that it circulates around important organs, but doesn’t go to their extremities. How nifty is that?
While birds are pretty talented at maintaining their body temperature in the winter, they could still use a little help from their human friends. Here’s a few ways you can contribute to avian well-being and create a better winter habitat:
- Put up some roost boxes. While traditional birdhouses provide some shelter from the cold, they are not ideal for winter habitation. They do not provide perching surfaces, and are often too small to accommodate more than a couple birds. Roosting boxes are more spacious, offer wooden dowels or roughened indoor surfaces, and have lowered entrance holes to prevent heat loss. You can learn more about roost boxes and find a plan for building one here.
- Provide some nutritional supplementation. When it comes to finding sustenance, winter is a challenging time for birds. Insects are dormant, most of the vegetation is gone, and heavy snow makes life even harder. Setting up just one or two bird feeders will make their lives a lot easier, and bring a variety of wildlife to your backyard for you to watch and appreciate. It can be difficult to decide what type of feeders to install, what to serve, and where to locate them. Luckily, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has created a great guide to get you started. You can find it here.
- If you want to go the extra mile, you can also plant evergreen shrubs to help provide a little herbaceous cover for our feathered friends. I’m sure they would appreciate it!
We hope you will find a way to contribute to a positive habitat for birds this winter to help our little friends thrive, and maybe get in some exciting bird watching along the way!
- While it’s tempting to let your kids splash around or let your dogs take a drink in the stream during a hot day, the water is not safe.
Due to our region’s combined sewer system, as little as 1/10th of an inch of rain causes sewage-contained stormwater to enter Nine Mile Run, in addition to other streams and rivers. NMRWA is doing our part by installing green stormwater infrastructure around the watershed to hold back some of the stormwater and keep it from overflowing, but there is more to be done. Stay safe, and keep yourself and your pets out of the stream, especially after it rains.
- Be sure to leash your dogs.
Not only is it an Allegheny County ordinance, but it is also a great way to protect the wildlife that call the Nine Mile Run ecosystem home.
Off leash dogs attack the possums, foxes, and raccoons that live in the forest; which is unsafe for both the wildlife and your pet. Off leash dogs wandering off of the trail are also detrimental to the plant restoration that our Urban Ecostewards are working so hard to foster.
- Be mindful of harmful plants that are native to the restoration area.
Poison Ivy is prevalent throughout the restoration area. Oils from their distinctive “leaves of three” can cause an itchy rash and blisters. Pets can also carry oils from poison ivy on their fur and pass it along to unsuspecting humans, which is another reason to keep dogs leashed and be aware of the plants around them.
Cow Parsnip stems and leaves contain furocoumarins, a photosensitive chemical that causes rashes and blisters after exposure to ultraviolet light. Cow parsnip can grow up to 7 feet tall with rounded white flower clusters like an Alice in Wonderland Queen Anne’s lace.
- Watch out for ticks.
Pennsylvania has the unfortunate distinction of having the most cases of tick-borne disease of any state in the country, according to the CDC. In 2016 11,000 of the 36,500 reported Lyme disease cases nationwide were in Pennsylvania.
Here are several steps that you can take to make it less likely that you will be bitten by a tick while hiking this summer:
Stay on the trail when hiking through the park. Ticks are more prevalent off trail in Frick Park. Frick Park is vastly overpopulated with deer, and the deer tick carries Lyme disease.
To prevent ticks from attaching to you wear long sleeved shirts and log pants, tuck the bottom of your pants into your boots, and apply repellants with DEET.
Check your body and clothes for ticks after returning home from your hike. Shower promptly after being in an area where ticks are prevalent.
Be aware of the symptoms of Lyme disease, and seek medical attention if they occur. According to the CDC early signs include fever, headaches, fatigue. Muscle and joint aches. A rash occurs in 70 percent of infected persons that expands gradually to be up to 12 inches across, and sometimes resembles a bull’s eye.
- Stay safe by the stream.
Nine Mile Run stream is beautiful. If a downpour starts, you may be tempted to stay near the stream and take photos or enjoy the sights. Remember that during heavy rain events stormwater from watershed neighborhoods enters the stream.
The water rises surprisingly quickly and that flooding can be dangerous. If you get caught in a summer storm leave the stream and head to a safer part of the park.
Spring is here, and that means the return of invasive garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata).
Native to Europe, Asia, and Africa, this plant was introduced to North America in the late-1800’s as a culinary herb. An edible plant, it has a potent bitter garlic flavor and can be used in pestos and salads. Research shows that garlic mustard was one of the earliest spices used in cooking – it has been found on prehistoric pottery from approximately 4100 BC!
Garlic mustard thrives in Western Pennsylvania and quickly outpaces native plants, as it has no effective natural predators in North America and a very effective means of reproduction. When invasive plants crowd out native plants, the food supply for our native animals, birds, and insects is reduced.
This plant is biennial, meaning that it completes its life cycle in two years. In its first year, it has dark green rounded leaves forming a rosette growing close to the ground. In its second year, it grows up to three feet tall, has heart-shaped leaves, and produces clusters of white flowers. These flowers are capable of self-pollinating, allowing the spread of the species under less-than-ideal conditions.
So – how can you help? It is important to pull garlic mustard during the first year of its life cycle if you are able. Try to remove as much of the taproot as possible and when there are flowers present, bag the plants so that they are not able to seed. This is not a difficult process, but it is time consuming. Plants will be especially easy to pull if you do it right after it rains and the ground is soft. Also – don’t be discouraged! It can take 2-5 years to eradicate a patch, but a little patience and a continued commitment can make a huge difference!
Sh**t, scat, poo-poo, dookie, feces, crap, dog logs or my personal Pittsburgh favorite “Caca”,….whatever you want to call it, everyone agrees it’s disgusting and no one likes to have to handle it. But what’s even more disgusting, and I think you’ll agree, is poop in our streams, rivers, and drinking water. Consider these poop facts:
- America’s 83 million pet dogs produce 10.6 tons of poop every year. (That’s a lot of doo doo.)
- Only 60% of dog owners pick up after their pets!
- A single gram of poop contains an estimated 23 million bacteria.
Pet waste contributes to poor water quality by adding harmful bacteria and nutrients to local waters. These bacteria lead to pathogens that pose public health risks. Fecal coliform bacteria, aka poop, can spread serious diseases like Giardia, Salmonella, e coli, Campylobacteriosis. For example, a Campylobacteriosis outbreak in 17 states this year affected 113 people. The bacterial infections proved to be resistant to seven different antibiotics!
Nutrients from poo-poo, mainly nitrogen and phosphorus, contribute to excessive algae growth which in turn robs water of dissolved oxygen, creating low water quality and unhealthy habitats for wildlife. Our fish friends won’t be able to survive!
So what’s “tragic” about improperly disposed waste? In 1968, scientist Garret Hardin coined the term tragedy of the commons to determine what happens in groups when individuals act in self-interest. Here’s the scenario: There is a communal pasture shared by a number of herders. Some realized that they could add an animal to the pasture and reap great rewards for themselves. The tragedy is that the pasture is eventually ruined by overuse and the entire group and their herds are affected. Many environmental issues fit this notion because they are shared resources, provided by Earth. When one person neglects to clean up after their dog, we all suffer from poor water quality, compromised ecological systems, and public health risks. So the next time you pick up your dogs smelly dookie, remember that you are doing your part to avert the tragedy of the commons! That’s something the entire Nine Mile Run community can be thankful for.
Vegetable Gardening in a Small Space
At one point in our lives we’ve always dreamed of having our own gardens, a place we can grow beautiful flowers, and even organic fruits and vegetables. But then it is not always easy as a full-sized garden demands too much maintenance. Fear not, you can always start with just a small space, and growing early spring vegetables are a good option to jumpstart your gardening journey. Whatever time of the year it is, you can always make use of what you planted in your garden, lessening the hassle of having to go out and buy produce from the store.
Here are some gardening tips you may want to consider in setting up your mini farm:
#1. Grow what you want to eat.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but creating a list of what you plan on eating is an effective way to make the most of your small garden. Grow only what you want to eat as you do to want to use a space, tend the plant, and just end up wasting its fruits. There’s no sense of tending to a garden you do not want to eat. Make a list and identify which ones would make the cut.
#2. Leaves are always easy to tend to.
Leafy vegetables are always a good addition to your backyard, you can cut leaves off every time you’re making a salad, and after a few weeks these parts would just grow back another set of leaves. There’s little effort involved, and you’ll end up having fresh crunchy dishes in no time.
#3. Consider your location.
Vegetables need at least 6 hours of good sun exposure everyday. There are some that do well on shaded areas, but it may be too stressful for most fruits. If you’re working on a small balcony space, chances are only some parts of it is exposed to the sun. Look at which varieties would survive in your planting conditions. Find soil that is rich in organic matter to compensate for the small space, and as an addition, remember these need constant watering, so ensure there’s a steady supply of that.
#4. How much space are you working with?
Whether you’re working with individual pots or a whole strip of planting soil, being able to space your vegetables evenly to allow them room to grow is important. The space you’re working with can determine which ones you can grow- leafy, beans, peas, or bulbs. Most seeds take a lot of space to grow a full-size plant that can bear fruit, so if you’re thinking of planting tomatoes for example, then take note of that.
No dish is complete without garlic, it is a staple we add to almost everything we cook. That’s why this vegetable is first on the list. You only need one clove planted, and it will develop into a whole bulb. This is a great starter for your garden as it is easy to grow and maintain.
#3. Early potat
These grow well even in containers, and are usually expensive when bought from stores. Early potatoes grow faster, giving you more use of your small garden.
Another basic vegetable, this cut and come again plant comes in a lot of varieties. Like the kale, cutting a few leaves will not stop the plant’s growth, leaving you with fresh leafy vegetables everyday.
For such small plants, herbs are expensive in the store. This is why it’s the perfect pick to grow in your garden, they’re small, easy to maintain, and will make all your dishes tasting fresh.
Do not be afraid to try new things, gardening in a small space is still gardening. Once you got the hang of it, you’ll be surprised how easy it is and how much money you’re saving because of the simple effort you made of growing your own food. Leave a comment down below if you think you’re starting your small garden space with our tips. Also, please don’t forget to share this article so others may know the tricks of vegetable gardening in small spaces.