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The Humble Gardener

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Wildlife in the Winter Garden

Mother Nature has sent a new blast of subzero weather to western Illinois. Our corn stove is blasting out heat, the LP tank is newly filled, and my geriatric cat, Tink, firmly entrenched on my lap as I type, radiates heat. Let Mother Nature do her thing.

The view from the window is typical of most winter gardens. The orangey-gold foliage at the top of the asparagus whips around in the wind (yes, we should have cut it down last fall but we didn't). The red stems of the red twig dogwood provides a dramatic focal point against the snow sprinkled on the black soil of the vegetable garden. This is the dogwood that Chip hopefully suggests cutting down every spring as it partially shades the vegetable garden. It provides shelter for the birds in summer and it is my favorite view in winter so he expects my annual "No way!" But the inquiry is a rite of spring. At the bottom of the garden is a huge pile of plants from the summer's garden, drying over the winter to kill any weed seeds. I suspect it is being used for shelter by two feral neighborhood cats and/or the odd rabbit. The songbirds also use it for a perch. The fall tilled garden soil waits patiently for spring planting.

Sprinkled among the garden are bird feeders. We are ardent feeders of birds. Pampas grasses, evergreens, and other bushes and shrubs provide shelter. On the second floor deck lives fifteen to twenty pigeons in a coop; the numbers shift as the resident pigeons bring new friends home from their daily flights. All are welcome; we want them to survive the winter blasts. Sparrows like the space under the coop where the pigeons drop uneaten cracked corn. They congregate on the railing of the deck and then make a mad dash for the corn. Some unspoken signal causes them to fly frantically back to the pampas grasses. I look into the pear tree and spot the problem. A hawk sits patiently waiting for an unwary bird. This trip, all have arrived safely at their retreat and wait noiselessly for the hawk to leave. The hawk comes to the railing, looking to see if the coop is open. It isn't, which foils its plan for a meal. I move Tink from my lap and stand by the deck door; the hawk takes off, I return to my chair, and Tink resumes her position. Eventually, the sparrows appear under the pigeon coop. I regret that I have foiled the hawk; after all, it too, needs to make a living. But I am tired of finding pigeon remains so it will have to look elsewhere for lunch.

I get up to refill my tea. This is the deal breaker for the cat. She huffily moves to the window sill, making sure her back is completely towards me so I will feel remorse for disturbing her. I peer through the window and see birds at the six feeders, each filled with only one kind of seed. By providing individual feeders, the competition is lessened among the different kinds of birds. Milo, millet, safflower, sunflower, and thistle offer an avian smorgasbord that attracts finches, blue jays, sparrows, juncos, and nuthatches. The sixth feeder has suet for woodpeckers. Having feeders with individual seeds also keeps the bullies, starlings and blue jays, from chasing the other birds away. Tink and I sit and watch the chattering birds, flitting between feeders and shelter.

I see an asparagus plant start to shake. I blink and note there is not one bird to be seen. At the same time, Tink starts to hiss. From underneath the asparagus, the orange feral cat appears. He walks down the garden path as though he owns the place. He steps into the garden and stops to sniff at the straw bales that sit atop a buried tote. The tote holds carrots; he can't dislodge the straw and quickly loses interest. He gazes up into the shrubs and bushes, but his lunch has flown high up to safety. He gives up and leaves the yard. A few birds return to the feeder. I redirect my attention to my computer.

Again, Tink begins her hissing. I look for the orange cat to no avail. Tink is approaching hysteria. Finally, against the black, snow-sprinkled garden soil, I spot the second feral cat, following her brother's path. The birds have left the feeders, her black and white stripes poor camouflage.

Finally, she leaves. The birds cautiously grab a final meal. Tink forgives me and returns to my lap. In the garden, the snow falls silently in the absence of hawks and feral cats. And from under the weed stack hops a rabbit, headed for the buried carrot filled tote.

Today's post was written by Sandra DePalma-Odell. Sandra is a Certified Master Gardener serving Henderson, Knox, McDonough & Warren Counties. A former English Teacher of 27 years, she writes about everyday life as a gardener learning as she grows. In addition to gardening, she loves to read, cook, and hang out with her two grandkids.

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