Through my camera’s lens, I thought this sweet little Song Sparrow was hopping around with a breakfast of leaves until downloading the photos. Rather, his mouth is stuffed with what appears to be the larvae of the Winter Moth, those annoying little green caterpillars that dangle from trees, which pupate into the dreaded adult Winter Moths, which are destroying trees and shrubs throughout the region. So, thank you Song Sparrow!
The Song Sparrow was most likely bringing the caterpillars to its nestlings. Although adult Song Sparrows prefer seeds, to a newly hatched bird a plump juicy green caterpillar is easy to digest and rich in nutrients. As a matter of fact, most songbirds rear their young on insects. The Song Sparrow photo illustrates yet another reason why it is so important not to spray trees with pesticides and herbicides. When a landscape is pesticide free, a natural balance returns. Insects are bird food!
From Blossom to Fruit ~ With all the delicious smells associated, from the heavenly sweet scent of apple blossoms wafting on the breeze of a bright spring day to the fresh aroma of fruit ripening in the warm September sun, not to mention pies and tarts baking in the oven!
Have you noticed that the foliage of pear, cherry, and apple trees looks exceptional this year? This is a far cry from the past several years when the winter moth took a tremendous toll on the trees. The very cold winter of last has put a damper on the moths devastating effects. A repeat of cold temperatures will give the trees and shrubs, such as maple, blueberry, and apple, which are most heavily afflicted by the moths, a second season to recover and grow in strength.
Last May my husband and I were delighted to discover a large flock of White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicolli)rumpusing about our garden. A chorus of choristers chortling My Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada or alternatively Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody, their clear, elegant notes were heard for several days and they were easily spotted rustling about in the hedge, dining on safflower seeds scattered on the ground below the bird feeder, and feasting on Winter Moth (Operophtera brumata) caterpillars in the trees. I believe it to be a fairly rare occurrence to observe a flock migrating this far east through Cape Ann. My East Gloucester neighbor Jen, who has a lovely garden even closer to the easternmost edges of the peninsula, reported same. Her flock also stayed for several days enjoying the winter moth caterpillar banquet found in her yard. Rather than walk or run, White-throated Sparrows hop, and we delighted in our all too brief encounter with this beautiful and entertaining “Whistler of the North.”
White-throated Sparrow Eating Winter Moth Larvae
Kingdom: Animalia (Animal)
Phylum: Chordata (Vertebrates)
Class: Aves (Birds)
Order: Passeriformes (Perching birds)
Suborder: Passeri (Songbird)
Family: Emberizidae (Seed-eating birds with a distinctively shaped bill)
Species: Z. albicollis
White-throated Sparrows breed from Mackenzie, central Quebec, and Newfoundland south to North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. They spend winters in much of the southeastern U.S. and in small numbers in southwestern states. Frequent visitors to back yard feeders, White-throated Sparrows build their nests toward the ground in shrubby thickets or semi-open mixed woods, wood lots, scrub lands, gardens, and backyards. Of note, the sparrow comes in two distinct color forms: white-crowned and tan-crowned. The two color morphs are unique among birds. Individuals almost always mate with a bird of the opposite morph. “Normally, a single brood is raised each season, with the female remaining with the fledged young even after they have left the nesting territory” (Mass Audubon Breeding Bird Atlas). After the breeding season ends, the adults molt and attain their winter plumage.
White-throated Sparrow Tan-crowned Morph
Last year I wrote an article, “Looking to the Future,” which was about Alain Baraton, the charismatic head gardener of the Palace of Versailles. Mr. Baraton has made it his mission to transform the 2,000-acre traditional landscape into a model of sustainable gardening, and in prohibiting the use of pesticides at the Palace of Versailles, the songbirds have returned in prodigious numbers. I thought of Monsieur Baraton in relation to our visiting White-throated Sparrows. From sunrise to sunset the sparrows could be found in our garden devouring the one-inch green winter moth larvae that were devastating our fruit trees. In hopes of mitigating the damage done by Winter Moths, several times throughout the winter we spray our trees with dormant oil. However, our neighbor does not tend to her dying tree. When the caterpillars grow to about one inch, they descend from her long suffering cherry tree and begin to devour our pear trees. The dilemma is that I do not want to spray with anything stronger than dormant oil and the reasons are manifold. Nuthatches store nuts and seeds in the chinks of bark of our pear trees, myriad species of bees are on the wing and in close proximity, and countless Lepidoptera larvae would also most certainly be adversely affected. As the winter moth expands its territory, logical too would be the assumption that migrating species of birds would find fortification in a diet of winter moth larvae and perhaps their range and population will also increase.
Be Kind to your House and Garden: Homemade Furniture Polish and More Beneficent Ideas
I must admit I am not the world’s greatest housekeeper. During the warmer months, we manage to keep our home tidy-enough by vacuuming, dusting, and mopping. Very time consuming household chores like washing and ironing curtains and slipcovers, scrubbing walls and woodwork, and polishing floor and furniture are relegated to the furthest corners of my mind. With gardens tucked-in for their winter respite, my thoughts turn to the holiday season and those cozy, nesting passions are reawakened. Cooking for family and friends is my favorite holiday activity, although prior to becoming immersed in the cooking life, I go on a cleaning tear.
Our wooden furniture was looking increasingly neglected, made worse by my mindset that I must go to a store and purchase furniture polish. Shopping for polish at the local grocery and hardware stores only proved frustrating because I could not find a single polish that provided the consumer with a list of ingredients. Furthermore, I had to ask myself why is it that I felt compelled to purchase furniture polish, especially since we already make so many of our own cleaning products from ingredients readily available from the pantry?
After only a very little experimenting the following is a recipe with which I am quite satisfied:
4 parts canola oil (or olive oil)
2 parts fresh lemon juice
2 parts white distilled vinegar
Optional: a few drops of almond and/or lemon extract
Combine all ingredients and pour into a recycled squeeze-bottle container (a plastic mustard squirt bottle, for example). The almond and lemon oil extracts are optional and only added because they smell super delicious. Shake vigorously before each use. Pour a small amount onto a clean, soft cloth (thinly-worn pure cotton t-shirt). Apply in the direction of the wood grain. Let the mixture soak in for a few minutes, then wipe and polish with a dry, soft cloth. I have satisfactorily used this recipe on everything from hundred year-old burled walnut veneers to contemporary pieces of fruitwood and cherry wood. Make the polish in small batches and store any remaining for up to two weeks in the refrigerator. Cautiously, first try this formula in an inconspicuous area. I once stupidly poured commercial polish on a lovely nineteenth century writing desk that I had meticulously restored. The end result was a terrible grayish-white hazing in the shellac.
There are myriad commercial cleaning products that can be easily replaced with common-to- every kitchen ingredients. I love to use household ingredients for cleaning because you never come away gagging from the droplets that you invariably inhale as you do with the great majority of toxic and overly perfumed commercial cleaners. For many, I don’t need to extol the virtues of plain white distilled cider vinegar. But, just in case you don’t know of the power of white vinegar for home and garden, the following are just a few of the hundreds of different uses for distilled white vinegar.
We purchase vinegar inexpensively by the gallon and use it in varying strengths to clean various surfaces. A mild ratio of water to vinegar (10 parts water to 1 part vinegar) is ideal for wooden floors (and is also the choice cleaning agent that all floor refinishers I have worked with recommend), and a slightly stronger ratio of vinegar to water makes a fantastic glass cleaner. White vinegar added to the wash is a wonderful whitening agent and deodorizer. I find wonderful vintage linens and tablecloths at flea markets, where they may have been stored in a smoky environment. The smell of embedded cigarette and cigar smoke is easily removed with an overnight soaking of mild detergent and white vinegar. Vinegar also makes a great kitchen deodorizer after cooking a curry dish or sautéing fish. Place a half-cup of vinegar in a shallow bowl or saucer on the stovetop after cooking. You’ll be surprised when you wake up—the vinegar will have absorbed that next-morning-fish-fry or curry odor.
White vinegar has many uses in the garden. We regularly soak all bird feeders in a white vinegar and water solution, with a few drops of dish detergent added. White vinegar is also useful for removing the residue inside flower vases. For vases with very narrow necks, stuff the vase with a vinegar-soaked paper towel. For unwanted weeds growing in the cracks and crevices and between the stone and brick of your terrace, walkway, patio, or sidewalk, fill a recycled spray bottle with undiluted vinegar. Thoroughly wet the weed’s foliage, and also direct the spray toward the base of, with the vinegar and it will typically shrivel and die. Be mindful not to spray on any surrounding foliage, as it too will die.
I recently read that a mixture of two parts white vinegar and one part molasses placed in a tin can and hung from a tree is an effective method of capturing moths. I am planning to experiment with this formula in hopes of capturing a few of the dreadful winter moths (Operophtera brumata) and will let you know whether or not successful. Perhaps with the vinegar/molasses mixture, along with dormant oil sprayed after the moth’s egg-laying cycle is complete, we can at least mitigate some of the damage created, without harming the tree and other wildlife that is supported by the tree.