The Other Geranium

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annual geranium
The annual geranium is a nursery favorite, but you can find the perennial geraniums in your nursery as well.

If you’ve walked along a wooded trail in the last week or so, chances are you saw some delicate  lavender flowers swaying on a long stem poking through the brush. This is the perennial wild geranium.

The five petals range in color from deep purple in the beginning to pale pink as the blossom fades. A prominent network of veins in the petals direct pollinators to the nectar in the blossom’s center. The stems and buds are covered in peach fuzz hairs.

You are probably familiar with the annual geraniums peppering our local nurseries in festival shades of fuchsia, red and white. The wild geranium is also widely available at nurseries.

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The telltale identification for the wild geranium is its unusual snowflake-shaped leaves.

It grows from a rhizome that spreads slowly to make loose colonies and makes a terrific ground cover. Unlike its annual cousin, the wild geranium is a valuable food source for wildlife. A wide variety of bees come for the geranium’s pollen and nectar. Flies and butterflies are attracted to the flowers.  Beetles, bugs and caterpillars feed on the leaves. Chipmunks eat the seeds and deer forage on the foliage. Used by the Egyptians for promoting beautiful and radiant skin, geranium oil is still a popular natural remedy for acne, sore throats, anxiety, depression and insomnia. That’s a lot of fodder for a 2’ plant!

The geranium’s Greek name, geranós, means crane and refers to the shape of the fruit before it releases its seed. The fruit contains five spring-loaded sections forming a long pointy projectile which resembles a crane’s bill. When ripe, the projectile draws back and then catapults the seeds away, much like a baseball player would release a ball.

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The geranium fruit resembles a crane’s bill.

The wild geranium is in prolific bloom this week along the Leatherstocking trail and throughout our woodlands. Please send along your pictures and impressions of any you find. Enjoy!

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Back from the Brink

Two large rounded lumps ambled onto the edge of my yard. I squinted to make out what they were.

“Turkeys!” my daughter squealed, as three, and then five more joined the first two. Like miniature dinosaurs with all the time in the world, they meandered, pecking here and there, and scratched at the ground. I grabbed some sunflower seeds, my daughter,  and my camera, and walked into their midst. Clearly used to being the big kids on the block, these birds showed no concern over having a human in their crowd.

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Perhaps it was this trust that nearly led to their extinction by the early twentieth century. Turkeys are native to the U.S. and were Benjamin Franklin’s choice to be our national bird. They were so plentiful in the days of colonial history that, like the carrier pigeon, people thought they could never run out. Their carefree and slow movement, coupled with their meatiness made them a favorite food source.  

Throughout the 19th century turkeys were hunted relentlessly year-round. No seasonal restrictions or limits existed on how many could be taken. Together with the loss of their woodland habitat as forests were cleared for human habitation, turkeys hovered on the brink of extinction by the early 20th century. From a pre-colonial population estimated at ten million, by 1910-1920, there were only about 200,000 remaining.

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This tom is strutting his stuff to impress the ladies. He blows up his iridescent feathers, fans his orange barred tail, and lifts his head high to show off the bright blues and reds on his head and neck. I’m impressed!

So what saved the turkey from following the route of the carrier pigeon to the annals of extinction?

Serendipity and human effort. The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl forced many farmers to abandon their farms and move to urban areas in search of work. As they retreated, the lands they left reverted to native habitat. Yet, there were so few turkeys left that they could not repopulate these growing woodlands. At least 16 states had completely lost their native turkey population. (Source: “Americans Once Almost Ate Wild Turkeys Into Extinction,” The Dodo, November 25, 2014) Efforts to catch and release turkeys, or to incubate eggs in the 1940s were a failure. What finally turned things around for the wild turkeys was the invention of the net cannon, which made capturing them much easier.

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Net cannons like this enable conservationists to capture a large number of birds at once.

Large numbers of turkeys could be easily captured with these nets and transported as a herd to states with low or no turkey populations. Their recovery is one of American conservation’s greatest success stories. The organization behind this success is the National Wild Turkey Federation, a nonprofit representing hunters, and dedicated to protecting habitat for that purpose. A half century after their near-extinction, there are now over 7 million wild turkeys roaming America. It is remarkable how much can be done to save endangered species when there is a will to do it.

Unlike vultures, turkeys don’t eat carrion. The absence of feathers on their head is related to courting. When turkeys are trying to attract a mate, the exposed skin flushes with blood and its bright blues and reds advertise their interest.
Unlike vultures, turkeys don’t eat carrion. The absence of feathers on their head is related to courting. When turkeys are trying to attract a mate, the exposed skin flushes with blood and its bright blues and reds advertise their interest.
When disturbed, turkeys are more likely to run than to fly. They can run up to 25 m.p.h. Maybe that’s why Mamaroneck calls its race the Turkey Trot! At night turkeys fly up to roost in trees, and if you are lucky you can spot an entire crop of turkeys in one tree.
When disturbed, turkeys are more likely to run than to fly. They can run up to 25 m.p.h. Maybe that’s why Mamaroneck calls its race the Turkey Trot! At night turkeys fly up to roost in trees, and if you are lucky you can spot an entire crop of turkeys in one tree.

Baby, it’s cold outside

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Last week the winds howled and temperatures fell below freezing. Trees and branches cracked and sprawled across the ground. Leaving my house, I pulled my coat tight, drew my hat over my face, and in my fuzzy boots scuttled the 15 feet to my car. I blew a gust of frozen breath in the safety of the front seat. Then I looked out and saw a dark eyed junco, a tiny songbird pictured above, sitting on a branch, calm as can be.

How can a wee bird weighing no more than three pennies spend 24/7 in such cold temperatures without freezing to death?

Down, down, down

That jacket or blanket that you may have for extra cold days is stuffed with down for a reason. Unlike the long flight feathers on a bird’s wings and tail, the down feathers are short and can be fluffed up. This fluff creates air pockets that trap the warmth escaping from the bird’s body. The specialized down feathers can keep a bird’s body temperature at 104 degrees even in freezing weather!

Birds also undergo a fall molt in which they grow up to fifty percent the number of feathers on their body for greater insulation. That fluff is what makes these tiny birds look round as tennis balls in winter.

Have you ever seen birds poking their beak into the base of their tail, then rubbing their beak all over their bodies? They are collecting oil from the uropygial gland and spreading the oil over their feathers. Not only does the oil keep feathers preened and clean, but it also adds a weatherproofing layer that keeps them from getting wet. Can you even imagine the misery of having wet feathers in winter?

Wait, what about my feet?

No matter how warmly I dress, my feet and hands are usually the first thing to freeze in winter. So how do those featherless, little reptilian bird feet stay warm in winter?

For one thing, those sinewy feet have very few nerves, which reduces the cold that the birds feel through their feet. The scales are specialized to minimize heat loss. Birds also take turns lifting one foot and tucking it into their feathers to warm it up, or crouching down over their feet to warm them. 

But they have another brilliant adaptation as well: rete mirabile, which is Latin for “wonderful net.” In the rete mirabile, arteries that carry warm blood away from the heart intersect with veins that carry cold blood from the feet. A heat exchange occurs, and the blood from the feet warms before reaching the bird’s heart.

rete mirabile
This drawing illustrates the process of rete mirabile, whereby vessels carrying cold blood from the feet intersect with vessels carrying warm blood from the heart.

And then there is shivering

Birds are warm blooded creatures and, through a high metabolism, maintain a body temperature at about 105 degrees Fahrenheit. How challenging it must be to keep such a high body temperature in extremely cold weather! When all else fails, birds will start shivering their powerful chest muscles. The pumping of their strong flight muscles sends blood and heat surging through the body. But this relief comes at a cost. Half the calories that a bird needs to survive a wintry day could be depleted in the act of shivering. A chickadee, for example, requires the equivalent of 65 sunflower seeds to survive a cold winter day. Food to replace those lost calories is scarce in winter. Most insects and trees are dormant.

Birds are highly resourceful creatures, and they have adapted to find sustenance in seemingly barren environments. They have exceptional eyesight, and can tease out tiny cracks in tree bark serving as insect hideaways. As gardeners, we can help them by not removing our dead plantings in the fall. Those browned flower heads can contain seeds and insects that sustain birds through the winter (see Hidden Provisions blog entry). And if you are feeling extra generous, you can fill a feeder with sunflower seeds or suet, and enjoy the feeding frenzy that ensues.

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Cardinal waiting for his turn at bird feeder

 

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“What are you waiting for?,” this female cardinal must be thinking.

 

 

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Joining the junco and sparrow for a sunflower seed snack.
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Red-bellied woodpecker snags a seed