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The Wren and The Hornets

Illustration of a hornets nest with a Carolina WrenA Variation on the Birds and the Bees

We’ve always been fascinated by those large, gray bald-faced hornets’ nests. If we can find one within reach, we’ll wait until after a few hard freezes, then cut the branch with the nest and put it in the rafters of our open porch. At that time of year there never are any live hornets left in the nest. At the end of the season they all die except for the mated females who will be next year’s queens. They fly off and hibernate in cracks or crevices. In Spring each female starts from scratch building a new nest. To build their paper nests they collect grayish-colored, weathered wood particles from dead trees and fences. They chew it up and add a waterproof glue from their saliva.Photo of a hornets nest

The nest is small at first and the new queen lays just a few eggs. When they hatch and develop, these will become the first workers. They start bringing in more paper pulp and enlarging the nest. The queen keeps laying more eggs and the colony keeps growing until it is as big (or bigger) than a basketball and can house a few hundred hornets. Stay away from those nests in summer and fall; hornets are very defensive of their home–they have powerful stings and no sense of humor!

After we put the nest up in the porch rafters, we noticed pieces of the nest paper on the floor underneath it. Something had torn a large hole in the side of the nest. There was also a neat little pile of bird droppings underneath the nest. In the evening, about twilight, we noticed there was wren activity around the nest. We realized that it was the wren that had torn the hole in the side of the nest and it was roosting in there. This has occurred every year for more than a decade. We realized that the Carolina wren is the only eastern North American wren that does not migrate. The northern range of the Carolina wren is determined by the severity of the winter. At the northern edge of its range a severe winter can decimate local wren populations.

A Carolina wren nesting in a hornets nest during winter
Sleeping wren nestled in a hornet’s nest on a cold winter night

Wrens that can find a hornets’ nest (especially one in a sheltered, dry location) have a winter survival advantage. Those many layers of hornet-made paper with dead air space in between provide great insulation and an ideal, cozy roosting site protected from the frigid winter winds. (photo caption: Sleeping wren nestled in a hornet’s nest on a cold winter night)

Todd Elliott did a search of the ornithological literature and found this phenomenon was reported almost 100 years ago. We published our findings in The Chat which is the official publication of the Carolina Bird Club. You can read the article here.

Many thanks to Todd Elliott for the photos, and to Emily Lutken for the illustration of the wren and the hornets’ nest.

For more literature, lore, stories, and songs celebrating the natural world check out my website here.

My 2020 calendar of performances, classes, and other events is coming together and can be seen here.

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Tropical Perennials as Temperate Annuals

When I wrote a book about roots 40-some years ago I never dreamed that I would be living with a woman who would fill our house with them!

All summer when people asked Yanna how her garden was producing she would say, “I don’t know; most of the produce is in the ground.” Nevertheless, we marveled at the above ground parts of the garden which were looking beautifully exotic with huge leaves and foot-long blossoms of the taro, fragrant imbricated turmeric flowers, yam vines leaping out of the garden and climbing high into the trees. We wondered what this strange collection of vegetation was producing underground.

The theme around here has been, ”tropical perennials as temperate annuals”.

After all those years of growing sweet potatoes. It dawned on her that sweet potatoes are a tropical vegetable. In the tropics if you want to plant a sweet potato all you do is clip a piece of the vine and stick it in the ground.  Here in temperate regions we dig the sweet potatoes in the Fall, put them to sleep for a couple of months, then warm them up in early Spring, and they produce shoots (called slips). When the soil warms up we stick the slips in the ground and that’s how we grow sweet potatoes.

Well, what about other tropical roots? After talking with Hmong gardeners (folks from Southeast Asia) we realized that we could really stretch the growing season and adapt other tropical vegetables to grow in our climate, especially those with edible underground parts (roots, rhizomes, corms, bulbs, and tubers)

There’s been a lot of unearthing around here this Fall, and what an amazing array of tropical vegetables have come out of the ground.

Here’s a display of samples from the harvest.

Clockwise from top root cluster with green stem: Taro Colocasia esculenta (2 types), Arrowroot Maranta arundinacea, Malanga  Xanthosoma sagittifolium, Yellow yam Dioscorea alata, Purple ube yam Dioscorea alata, Jicama Pachyrhizus erosus, Yuca/cassava Manihot esculenta, Groundnut Apios Americana, Ginger Zingiber officinale, Yacon Smallanthus sonchifolius, Achira Canna edulis, Center:Water chestnut Eleocharis dulcis, Turmeric Curcuma longa (3 types) 

We look forward to a winter of radical, rhizomatous, cormal, tuberous, and bulbiferous culinary adventures. Come on over and chew a root with us!

That Roots book mentioned earlier was revised, given a new cover, and re- issued by Healing Arts Press as Wild Roots in 1995. It is still in print today more than 40 years after it was first released. It is considered an “underground” classic and it is available along with other books and award winning recordings of stories, songs and lore, here.

My 2020 calendar of performances, classes, and other events is coming together and can be seen here.

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Australian Adventure

We spent the holidays in the land of bouncing kangaroos, screaming cockatoos, crimson parrots and eucalyptus trees (600+ species of eucs)! Our son Todd and his wife Kelsey were wonderful tour guides, treating us like royalty. Todd’s in grad school studying dispersal of fungi by vertebrates. We met various friends and mentors and checked out various national parks in temperate areas of New South Wales (called the New England high country)—even some rainforests.

Folks in Australia drive on the left side of the road, and many are hesitant about driving after dark because of the risk of a kangaroo bouncing through your windshield. Many cars have rugged metal bumpers called “roo guards.” Towns have very few stop signs—at crossroads they generally have a triangular yield sign that says “give way,” meaning you don’t have the right of way but you don’t have to come to a full stop. (I think about all the traffic tickets I wouldn’t have had to pay.)

It does seem strange to have Christmas around the summer solstice. Todd was pointing out a June bug to one of his friends and they replied, “That’s not a June bug; that’s a Christmas beetle!” They speak English, but there are a lot of terms that are different. Elevators are called “lifts”. Chickens are called “chooks.” In the city, ibises are called “bin-chooks” because they’re often seen rummaging around in trash bins. (Maybe they would be a good totem animal for dumpster divers!) Hiking is called “bush- walking.” Trails are “tracks.” Crawfish are called “yabbies.” Pickup trucks are called “utes.” Pastures are “paddocks.” Our favorite expression so far: Someone was talking about a rare animal; she said, “They are rarer than rocking horse shit.”

My favorite critter so far has been the foot long, half pound+ lizard called the blue tongue skink. It’s thick- bodied and rather sluggish and defends itself by opening its large mouth and sticking out its blue tongue and waving it at you.

I’m dreaming of a surreal Christmas…
We became aware of another interesting critter when Yanna noticed a big, oozing bloodstain on her pants leg. She had just had a visitation by a terrestrial leech. When a leech bites, it injects an anti-coagulant so the tiny wound keeps bleeding. The leeches are almost 2 inches long when stretched out. In one forest we explored, if you stopped for a little while you could see the leeches humping along toward you like a horde of thin, slimy inchworms. One of our friends saw one on my arm. She just rolled it up and flicked it away, “like a ball of snot,” she said. Any way you look at it, leeches really suck!

I’m dreaming of a surreal Christmas…

At least the parrots are red
and green!

The carpet python is the most dramatic snake we’ve seen. There were several of them hanging around one of the places we visited for a New Year’s gathering. One of them was 7 feet long, and it created quite a scene when it was discovered hanging out in the outhouse. It’s non-venomous and was delightfully easy to handle. Australia has a lot of snakes and many of them are venomous. We’ve seen a red- bellied black snake and a tiger snake—both venomous. We didn’t mess with them!

We’ve seen a couple of bowers made by bowerbirds. When mating season approaches, the male bird builds a “bower” (a runway/platform with two sides made of vertical grasses and thin twigs). Then he collects various objects to decorate his bower. When he gets his decorations in order and attracts the attention of the female, he does a little dance and shows off his treasures.

In the case of the satin bowerbird, he really prefers blue objects—one of the bowers we saw had blue flowers, blue parrot feathers, bottle caps, and lots of blue plastic clothespins. Todd had been watching this particular bower for several years. When he first saw it in 2010, the bower was just beginning to be constructed and all that was there was a blue sheep ear tag and a few blue-colored blewit mushrooms. That was when he realized that even birds collecting ornamentation for their bowers can in fact affect the distribution of mushrooms. He wrote a scientific paper about this and it got published in the journal, Australasian Zoologist. ( Look for it at your favorite news stand 🙂

Shortly after midnight on New Years Eve, a brushtail possum came to visit. What a nice way to start the new year!

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Red Hot Horny Heads


A small school of yellowfin shiners with their horny head host–Todd Elliott photo

A swarm of bright red fish! That’s what I was seeing in this clear piedmont creek one sunny April afternoon. (I know I should call them a school since they were fish, but these were so tightly congregated–thirty-some, two-inch fish swimming madly in a cluster about a foot in diameter–they seemed more like a swarm.) They had yellow heads and fins,but their bodies were a brilliant red. These were male yellowfin shiners in a mating aggregation. Rather than a swarm or a school, this aggregation might properly be called a “lek”. A lek is a biological term for an assemblage of males congregating to attract females for mating. (The closest human equivalent we might have is a fraternity party or dudes on the street corner.)

These beautiful fish were hovering over a neat pile of small (1-inch) rocks. The rock pile was about a foot in diameter at the tail end of the pool.

I sat down on the creek bank and watched with binoculars, and before long, as they got used to my presence, I began to see different fish in the pool. There were several species engaged in a constant flurry of activity–chasing, feeding, and courtship. It seemed like there were fish with at least four different color patterns present. It was hard to know how many species because in some species of fish, including these yellowfin shiners, males and females have different patterns. The male yellowfins are bright red for only a few weeks during the spawning season.

Then two slightly larger (4 inch) fish moved into the center of the aggregation of yellow fins. At first I thought they might be feeding on the eggs that had been deposited by the yellowfins until I saw one of the fish swim to the edge of the rock pile, pick up a stone in its mouth, carry it to the center of the pile, and drop it. A four-inch fish carrying a rock that was practically an inch in diameter! It seemed like only one of the pair was the rock carrier. (It’s a guy thing.) I saw it transport at least a dozen rocks. This fish was tan-colored with a blue-grayish head with lumps on it. This was most likely a bluehead chub, one of the creek chubs locally known as “knotty-heads” or “horny-heads.” In spring the males develop these “nuptial tubercles” on the head. I had thought that these hardened growths were used to root or move stones around in the stream bed to create these stone nests. But my observations showed me that they simply pick the stones up with their mouths. Apparently, the male’s nuptial tubercles are used in courtship and mating. (The better to nuzzle you with, my dear!) So horny-heads is a perfect name for them. So once again we learn the appropriateness and wisdom of folk names. Nuptial tubercles–what a concept! I might be able to use a few of them sometime myself…

My later reading indicates that as many as 30 species of fish use these rock piles constructed by the chubs for laying their eggs. Apparently, this pile of similar sized rocks offers good aerated water circulation for the developing eggs as well as protection from silt and predators. A large male chub may carry over 7,000 stones, each as large as his head, as far as 25 yards to his nest site.It’s interesting to think of the lowly chub as an “ecosystem engineer” or a “keystone” species with a number of other species depending on the chubs to create optimal breeding sites. There are several species of chubs in different parts of the country that build these nests. So, keep your eyes on the creeks this spring. You might find yourself engaged in some very fishy, sexy, aggregations!

For more information: Brandon Peoples and William Roston have excellent videos of the activity around a bluehead chub’s nest. Check out their site Within Our Waters!

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Colorado Characters: Cannon, Katrina, and the Aspen Powder Sunscreen

We spent some time this Fall with our friend Cannon who was staying in a cabin in the edge of the Rockies outside of Durango. For a number of years Cannon was a nomadic goat herder. He roamed the wilds with a herd of goats living off wild greens and fruits, goat’s milk, and occasionally goat meat. They also hunted, fished, and did crafts. He makes fine willow baskets, and other crafts, studies African drumming, and has some great stories, like the night he jumped out of bed naked to deal with a mountain lion that was dragging off one of their prize mother goats. (They saved the goat!) Then there was the wolves…but that’s another story. He hosts some amazing primal skills gatherings and wilderness immersion experiences. Check ‘em out! http://www.wintermoontribe.org/programs/ : http://www.wintermoontribe.org/beatsbaskets/

He set up a workshop with Katrina Blair who is a local wild food woman. The cabin was at 9000 feet .The aspen trees were bare and the temperatures were in the 20s at night. image1(Though it warmed up nicely during the days.) I was thinking, “How is this weed woman going to do a plant workshop?” It seemed like most of plants had died off for the winter! She arrived wearing a big smile and a broad-brimmed straw hat. She took us around and we picked little handfuls of various greens– a few dandelion leaves here, little bit of dock there, some native chickweed, a rocky mountain water leaf Hydrophylum fendler?, heartleaf bittercress Cardamine cordifolia, a few nettles and pine needles. We came back up to the cabin where she had a bicycle powered blender set up. She poured water into the blender with the greens and started peddling away, then she strained out the pulp and poured it into glasses. We all savored a delicious green drink. I was impressed.

Katrina is well known for her beautiful book entitled, The Wild Wisdom of Weeds (2014 Chelsey Green) that focuses on thirteen edible and medicinal plants, like clover, image3dandelion, knotweed, mallow, purslane thistle, amaranth and lambsquarter, that can be found pretty much all over the world. It’s chock full of recipes, stories, and a sweet earthy philosophy.
She is locally famous for her annual solo walkabout where she hikes through the high mountain back country, some 80 miles, from Durango to Telluride. She carries little or no food. She drinks “wild water” from creeks, and lives off of wild greens, berries, mushrooms, and alpine bistort seeds. She usually strides into Telluride in time for their famous mushroom festival with a backpack full of wild foods for the classes that she teaches at the event.

Katrina told us that the powdery substance on the south side of an aspen tree trunk, when applied to the skin, can serve as a sunscreen. Apparently that’s what it does for the tree.