Nov 15, 2008

Mourning Doves Saved From Hurricane Ike

We’ll all remember Hurricane Ike for all of its damage in Northern Kentucky; trees uprooted, split and cracked in half, huge limbs broken, and roofs blown completely off.  But Bob and Mary Terrell of Cold Springs will remember Ike for the lives they saved.


“About 15 to 20 of us were sitting on the porch when the storm hit,” said Mary (Highland Cemetery’s longtime office manager).  “The winds blew a neighbor’s trampoline into a tree and plastic chairs were flying through the air.  Then we saw a dove’s nest we’ve been observing get blown out of our Maple tree.  The nest had three babies only a few days old.  Two babies dropped just below to the ground, while the nest and another baby blew up the street.”


Things did not look good and Bob and Mary were at a loss for what to do.  “The one baby was blown up the sidewalk about 150-feet from the tree and was lying on its side,” said Mary.  “So we just got all three babies and laid them in the yard together.  It was amazing.  The mother stayed with those babies all night long on the ground, keeping them warm and protected.  She never left them.”


By the next morning the baby blown the farthest was already dead and the Terrells wanted to help the two surviving chicks.  “What are we going to do with these babies,” said Bob.  Like any good mother, Mary creatively improvised.  She went inside and got an Easter basket (decorations included) and lined it with leaves.  They put the babies in the Easter basket and securely hung it just below where the nest was. 


Life was good again.  “After they were in the Easter basket both parents continued to feed the babies,” said Mary.  “It was so neat and we had such a good time watching them.  All of the neighbors watched too.  We would always see one of the parents in the basket with the babies.”


Twelve days after the storm the baby doves fledged and left their decorative homestead, though Bob and Mary still see their adopted babies regularly.  “Every night just before dark the whole family flies into the Maple tree to roost,” said Mary.  “We love seeing them again.”


It’s no wonder that the Terrell’s doves lost their nest to the storm, as Mourning Doves make very flimsy nests that frequently succumb to severe weather.  The male chooses the nest site while the female builds the nest.  He gathers twigs, lands on her back and gives her the nest material while she takes it and weaves it into the nest.


Mourning Doves almost always lay just two eggs.  The Terrell’s nest of three was most probably the result of another female laying an extra egg in the nest.  They rarely leave the nest unattended and are very prolific, with up to six clutches per year.  As Bob and Mary can attest, Mourning Doves are very devoted parents.

Incubation lasts about two weeks. The helpless young are called squabs and are fed crop milk for the first few days, which is gradually augmented by seeds.  Two weeks after hatching, the squabs will fledge and be cared for by the father for another two weeks.  By the time the young are only 85 days old, they too will be able to mate and have young of their own.


Mourning Doves eat seeds almost exclusively and are a common sight at our feeders, with a preference for corn, millet, safflower and sunflower.  They are one of the most abundant birds in the U.S., and have the longest breeding season.  They form strong pair bonds and mate for life, though they will find new partners if something happens to a mate. 


They are called Mourning Doves because of their sad and “mournful” call.    Their call, which is often mistaken for an owl’s, sounds like coah cooo cooo coo.  Nineteenth century naturalist John James Audubon saw Mourning Doves as harbingers of spring…”The Dove announces the approach of spring.  Nay, she does more: --she forces us to forget the chilling blasts of winter, by the soft and melancholy sound of her cooing.”


It’s hard telling the effects of Hurricane Ike on wildlife in our area alone.  Fortunately though for the Terrells, they didn’t have to mourn the fate of their doves.  When Mary told 17-year old granddaughter Rachel about rescuing the doves, Rachel replied,

“Mo Maw that’s the neatest story.”


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Northern Cardinals.Up Close and Personal with the Bird Lady of Ft. Wright

“If you’d have told me I would be watching birds six months ago, I would have told you that’s crazy,” said Shelly Sandfoss of Sentinel Point in Ft. Wright.  Now husband Jeff refers to Shelly as the “Bird Lady.”  It all came about because of an artificial Christmas tree.


“I’ve always had a wreath on the front door,” said Shelly.  “I did not put a wreath up this year because finches always built a nest in the wreath and would then fly into the house when the door was opened.  This year I just left my artificial evergreen on the front porch for decoration.”


To Shelly’s great surprise, a different bird nested on her front porch.  “I noticed this bird and thought Oh My Gosh, there’s no wreath on the door so they decided to use the Christmas tree,” said Shelly.  It turns out that Shelly dissuaded finches from nesting on her porch wreath, and in turn persuaded Northern Cardinals to nest in her imitation Christmas tree.


Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are named for the Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church who wear distinctive red robes and caps.  With its striking good looks it maintains the record for popularity as a state bird, holding that title in seven states (including Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana).  


Originally birds of the southeast, cardinals have expanded their range over the past 100 years.  In 1886 cardinals were found only occasionally north of the Ohio River.  Now they can be found as far north as Maine and Southern Canada.  Habitat changes and our joy of bird feeding have served the cardinal well.  Interestingly, males with a brighter red color feed at higher rates and have greater reproductive success than duller colored males.  Cardinals are non-migratory and usually live within a mile of where they were born.


The female builds a cup nest in a well-concealed shrub or low tree; made of thin twigs, bark strips and grasses.  “She built the nest in less than 36 hours, a beautiful constructed nest,” said Shelly.  “She started by making a top ring, laying that out first, and then constructed the inside.  She built it totally backyards of how I think a nest should be built.”  Mama cardinal knew what she was doing though.  Two days after the nest was built she laid 4 blue-green eggs with brown speckles.


An avid photographer, Shelly was able to capture it all on camera out her front window.  “They were textbook cardinals, right on schedule,” said Shelly.  “Only three of the four eggs hatched.  They incubated their eggs for 12 days, and the young were in the nest another 12 days before fledging.  Newborns sleep a lot.  That first week they’re not eating as much, they’re sleeping a lot and Mom is keeping them warm.  On day four they opened their eyes.”



“After about a week she’s constantly feeding them,” continued Shelly.  “She’s feeding them at least every half-hour.  Mom eats lots of seed from the feeder, especially sunflower.  But she does not feed the babies seed, only insects and caterpillars.  When she’s coming in to feed, she lands in a tree about 15-feet away.  She checks her surroundings first to make sure the coast is clear.  She cheeps to them, they recognize her call and cheep back and get ready to be fed.” 


“One morning I went out to get the paper at 8:00 am and one was missing,” said Shelly.  “I immediately thought the cat up the street got one.  Then I realized it was day-12, the day to fledge.”  Shelly watched the events unfold for the next 4 hours.  “The two remaining chicks would practice lifting their wings while the mother called to them.  By 9:30 am, after getting up the nerve and practicing its takeoff, the next one flew from a branch on the Christmas tree to a Japanese maple.  Two hours later, while also taking care of the two other babies on the ground, the mother finally coaxed the third baby into flying. By nighttime they had all moved to the back of the house to an evergreen.”


One would think that’s the end of a very happy story.  However, to Shelly’s great delight, less than a month later mama cardinal again built a nest in Shelly’s artificial Christmas tree.  With the babies due to fledge around July 10th, Shelly’s watching and photographing as events unfold.  “She built the second nest exactly horizontal to the first nest,” said Shelly.  “Once I laid eyes on her, I knew it was the same female.  When you take hundreds of pictures of a bird, you not only recognize her calls and her stares, but also her markings.”


When asked if she was going to keep the artificial Christmas tree on the porch, Shelly replied, “Heck yeah, I’m going to keep that tree out there.  Next to giving birth, this is the coolest thing I’ve ever watched.  I never really had an appreciation for birds because I never saw the circle of life like I have with this mother bird.  It was so cool to watch how the birds communicated, how the mother spent every minute of every day taking care of her babies.” 


Shelly, with her excellent photography skills, has further intentions.  “My fourth-grade teacher at St. Agnes, Pam Summe, is now back teaching fourth-grade at St. Agnes again,” said Shelly.  “Sometime this summer we’ll write a children’s story book using these pictures that we’d like to have published.”


Contact Gayle at her website for nest boxes at or


Kentucky Bananas - They're Ripe for Picking

Kentucky Bananas are the largest edible native tree fruit in the U.S., sometimes weighing more than a pound each.  They were first documented in a 1541 report of the Spanish

de Soto Expedition of the Southeastern U.S., making mention that Native Americans cultivated them east of the Mississippi.  Kentucky Bananas were a favorite chilled dessert of George Washington, and planted by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.  The Lewis and Clark Expedition depended and sometimes subsisted on them during their travels.  Modern naturalists frequently take to the woods in search of this delectable and nutritious fruit, seeking them out from early September until first frost.


Kentucky Banana, or Pawpaw trees (Asimina triloba), are understory trees found in fertile bottomland and upland habitat.  Large patches of these tropical looking trees can be found along our many streams, where they can grow up to 20-feet tall.  A member of the Annonaceae family, it is the only member not confined to the tropics.   Pawpaw trees probably derive their name from the Spanish papaya, whose fruit they resemble.  Pawpaws grow wild in hardwood forests of 26 states, from Florida to southern Canada and as far west as Nebraska.  Native Americans are most likely responsible for extending pawpaws far beyond their original growing range. 


It is hard to describe the taste of a pawpaw.  The flavor is truly tropical, resembling a blend of banana, pineapple and mango with a custard-like texture.  They are a good substitute for bananas freshly picked or in any recipe.  Pawpaws are loaded with vitamins, minerals and amino acids, and are most similar to banana in overall nutritional content.  Ripened pawpaws with skin and seeds removed can be pureed and frozen for later use.  They make excellent smoothies.


Individual Pawpaw trees do not generally produce large quantities of fruit.  The maroon, upside-down flowers produce a weak fetid or putrid odor, which attracts few pollinators, limiting fruit production.  The insects they do attract are flesh-eating insects, as carrion flies, blow flies, flesh flies and carrion beetles.  These insects are so vital for pollination that many a pawpaw grower places road kill in the pawpaw patch each April when they flower to attract these pollinators to their trees.  They have even been known to hang chicken necks from the trees to get the pollinators closer to the flowers.  Little wonder that pawpaws growing near roadways (with frequent road kill) often times produce more fruit than those in interior woodlands.


Pawpaw trees may be the perfect trees for residents of suburban communities, as deer will not eat them.  It’s thought that the stem emits an unpleasant smell when the tree is damaged, causing it to be unpalatable to deer, goats and rabbits.  The fruit though is relished by a wide variety of wildlife, including raccoons, opossum, mice, fox, squirrels, deer and humans.  In 2000, the Pawpaw tree was voted Better Homes and Gardens landscape tree of the year.

In recent years the Pawpaw tree has attracted much interest, especially with organic growers, as this native tree has few pests and is relatively disease free.  And though it has a delicious and nutritious fruit, it has not been cultivated on a large scale, as it does not store well.  Shelf life of tree-ripened fruit stored at room temperature is only a few of days.  With refrigeration, the fruit can be stored for about 3 weeks and can then be allowed to finish ripening at room temperature.  The fruit can frequently be found at local farmer’s markets where they can sell for up to $1.00 each.


Nothing though beats the taste of a ripe pawpaw freshly picked off the tree, and they are just now beginning to ripen.  The ripe fruits are easily picked (if you can reach them) by a gentle tug.  Shaking the tree will cause multiple clusters to fall off, but you may want to take cover or wear a helmet.  Nothing like having several one-pound Kentucky Bananas knock you in the noggin’.


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Talkin' Turkey

It’s true.  Turkey was probably served at the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621 (along with goose, duck, grouse, eagle, venison and seal). 


And yes, Benjamin Franklin thought the Wild Turkey would be a much better national emblem than the Bald Eagle.  In a letter to his daughter Franklin said, “For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country.  He is a Bird of bad moral Character.  He does not get his Living honestly…For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America.  He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”


Famed 19th century naturalist John James Audubon agreed.  Said Audubon, “Sufffer me kind reader, to say how much I grieve that it (Bald Eagle) should have been selected as the Emblem of my Country.  The opinion of our great Franklin on this subject, as it perfectly coincides with my own...”


Wild Turkey’s were abundant when Audubon was exploring our woodlands and painting birds.  Audubon stated, “The unsettled parts of the States of Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, and Indiana…are the most abundantly supplied with this magnificent bird.”  Unfortunately, by the early 1900’s turkeys were nearly driven to extinction in North America due to over hunting and habitat loss.  And because of hunters, turkeys are the common sight they are today.


Kentucky Fish and Wildlife biologist George Wright is the hero of today’s turkey hunters.  His foresight, wisdom and salesmanship brought Wild Turkeys back to Kentucky.  In the mid-1970’s Wright traded deer, especially our big bucks, for turkeys from Mississippi.  And when Missouri wanted river otters, Wright bought otters from Louisiana and traded them for Missouri turkeys.  The rest is history.  More than 230,000 Wild Turkeys now call Kentucky home, and every county in Kentucky allows turkey hunting.


If you want to know about Wild Turkeys ask a turkey hunter.  “It’s a blast,” said Mike Hollan of Highland Heights (who is also a manager at Party Town in Florence, for those looking for some Turkey-day spirits).  “Everyone thinks it’s about killing, but it’s about being in nature and seeing what’s going on in nature.”  Mike has hunted turkeys for 15 years, 13 with a gun and 2 with a camera.  The camera adds a new dimension.  “It’s all about witnessing the beauty of nature,” he said.  “I just love doing this, being there, and sharing the wildlife with people who never see this in the wild.”


A person can’t just go out and bag a turkey.  “They are the most difficult things I’ve ever hunted,” said Mike.  “They have eyesight like a pair of 10-power binoculars and unbelievable hearing that allows them to accurately pinpoint noises.”  It takes patience and you have to think like a turkey.  “You can’t just sit anywhere and call turkeys,” he continued.  “You have to know where they’re roosting, where their strutting ground is, and get between them and the strut ground.  You have to get out one-hour before daylight and set up decoys to attract them.  It is so much fun to see them interact with the decoys.  Mature male birds will try to run the immature male decoy off.  Hens will go right up to the female decoys and try to interact.”   


“Dominant males use young males as sentries,” said Mike.  “After the young males run the gauntlet and the dominant male knows it’s safe, he runs the young males off so he can mate with the females.  He displays and calls a hen to an open sunny area, and then they go to the woods to mate.  After mating, he goes back to the open area, displays and calls again.  He’ll mate with several females.”  The male’s distinctive gobble can be heard up to a mile away.


The nest is shallow depression in the ground, surrounded by dense brush, vines, tall grass, or fallen trees.  “They’ll lay one egg per day, and will normally lay 10 to 20 eggs,” said Mike.  The chicks, or poults, are born precocial, and are able to walk and feed themselves within 24 hours of hatching.


“Nest robbers are their biggest predators,” said Mike.  “They include skunks, raccoons, foxes, and snakes.  Coyotes can get young birds, but after a few weeks when they can fly, they really have few predators.  When a coyote or something hunts them, they naturally just bust up and spread apart.  When it’s safe, the mother will call them all back.”


“You can determine age by the length of their spurs,” Mike said.  “As they get older the spurs get longer and sharper, up to 1 ¾-inches.  The spurs are used to protect their females.  Yearling males, or jakes, have no spurs and only a 2 to 4-inch beard.  Within a year males will get a 9-inch beard and spurs about ½-inch.  Average weight is about 19 to 22 pounds.”


Are they good eating?  “You can only eat the breast,” said Mike.  “The legs and wings are too tough from running and flying.  Young birds are best, and if cooked right they are pretty good.  The meat is drier, leaner and tougher than the domestic bird.  Most folks will deep fry or smoke them.  I like them best when deep-fried in peanut oil.”


Much of the wildlife we see today is here not because of tree-huggers, but because of hunters.  “Hunters are the big reason we have reintroduced turkeys and other critters like river otters and elk to the state,” said Mike.  “So as a non-hunter, if you want to help wildlife, make a donation to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.”


Gobble gobble.



Jun 9, 2008

Warblers.They're Coming Through

Warblers…They’re Coming Through




He was born to be a “birder.”  He got his first field guide when he was in 3rd grade.  By the time he was nine he wrote his fist book, “Greg Cunningham’s First Book of Birds.”  It was destiny.  Greg continues to be an active bird watcher and all-around naturalist.


Greg grew up in Villa Hills and until recently lived in Ft. Mitchell.  Now living in Columbus, he’s on the advisory board of Audubon Ohio, a state organization of the National Audubon Society.  “Our mission is connecting people with nature,” said Greg.  “The Audubon Society is all about nature and wildlife with an emphasis on birds.”


Greg recently took a trip to Lake Erie’s Black Swamp area to do a little birding.  “The whole northwest corner of Ohio was at one time a huge swamp called the Great Black Swamp,” said Greg.  “Only remnants remain and they’re critical stopovers for migrating birds to rest and refuel before crossing Lake Erie to Canada.”  The Black Swamp area is also one of the best spots in North America to see the ultimate prize of spring birding…our wood warblers.


Many folks go a lifetime without know that warblers even exist.  These small neo-tropical migrants are little more than 5-inches long.  They are extremely colorful and persistent songsters, but you’d be hard pressed to even see one without a good pair of binoculars.  They are THE bird that birders take to the trail for every spring, bragging about their sightings and every bit as enthusiastic as the most fervent fly-fishermen.


“The wood warblers are in breeding plumage now with very bright colorations,” said Greg.  In fact, 25 of the 38 eastern warblers have yellow as the dominant color.  They look like flashy winged jewels.


Warblers are highly varied with 116 species living in the New World.  The greatest diversity occurs in Central and North America.  Warblers are truly tropical birds that evolved in the lush forests of Central America where the greatest diversity of species are still found.  Fortunately for us, many have developed highly migratory life cycles, nesting across much of the United States and Canada.


“It is interesting to note that they only spend a few months in North America to coincide with our long days and plentiful supply of insects,” said Greg.  “Major threats are deforestation of wintering and nesting grounds, excessive use of pesticides, and lack of suitable stop over points along migration routes.” 


One warbler seriously impacted by deforestation is the Cerulean warbler.  Their numbers have plummeted by 70% over the last several decades.  “Ceruleans need large, mature, intact woods,” said Greg.  “Fragmentation, strip-mining and logging have really taken a toll on them.”

“The bird that everyone wants to see at Black Swamp is the Kirtland’s warbler because it is so rare,” Greg continued.  “They nest in young jack pines in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  Habitat management has really helped increase the numbers of this federally endangered species.”  Kirtland warblers were at an all-time low in 1987 when only 167 birds could be found.  By 2007, with proper habitat management, almost 1,500 males were found singing on their breeding grounds. 


First arrivals to Northern Kentucky include Louisiana Waterthrush, Yellow-throated and Yellow-rumped warblers.  Occasionally Yellow-rumped warblers can even be spotted in the dead of winter. 


Our smallest warbler is the Northern Parula at 4.5-inches, while the largest is the Yellow-breasted Chat at 7.5-inches.


“Only one of our eastern warblers is a cavity nester, the Prothonotary warbler,” said Greg.  “Prothonotaries nest along streams and wetlands and will often use nest boxes.”

Gorgeous birds, males are brilliant yellow-orange with blue-gray wings.


One of Greg’s favorite warblers is the American Redstart, a showy and hyperactive bird.  Males are black with striking orange flashes.  In their native Central America they are frequently referred to as “latrine birds” because of their habit of hanging around and eating the many flies attracted to local outhouses.


No warbler travels further than does the Blackpoll warbler.  In spring some Blackpolls migrate nearly 8,000 miles one way from as far south as Argentina to Canada and Alaska.  In fall many fly nonstop, over 2,000 miles in 3 days over the open waters of the Atlantic, from New England to South America.


True to their name, Prairie warblers can be found in open areas, while Pine warblers are usually found amongst pine trees.  Not so true to their name, Tennessee and Nashville warblers were named for the locations they were originally found and identified during migration, not necessarily where they nest or spend time otherwise.


The most widely distributed warbler is the Yellow warbler, with the Common Yellowthroat running a close second.  Both are spectacular looking birds and occur nearly over the entire continent.


Unfortunately, since Europeans have colonized the continent, seven North American birds have gone extinct.  One victim is the Bachman’s warbler, a beautiful black and yellow bird.  Like the Ivory-billed woodpecker, Bachman’s bred in the old-growth swamp forests of the southeastern U.S.  Forest and bird are now gone.






Some warblers are even hybrids.  The Brewster’s warbler is a cross between the Blue-winged and Golden-winged warbler.  While the Lawrence’s warbler is a cross between a
Brewster’s and Golden-winged or Blue-winged warbler.  And believe it or not, Cincinnati has its own warbler, the Cincinnati warbler.  Only two specimens have ever been collected of this rare hybrid of a Kentucky warbler and Blue-winged warbler, once in 1880 and again in 1948. 


Is there a consistent favorite warbler?  “If there’s a favorite for most it’s probably the Blackburnian warbler,” said Greg.  “It is magnificent with its flame-orange throat and black and orange head.”


During the month of May warblers can be seen just about anywhere.  It’s just a matter of grabbing the binoculars and looking up to see these tropical visitors.  They are well worth the view.


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Mar 30, 2008

Our Stinking Polecats

Many people fear skunks.  The mere thought of getting hit with their malodorous spray is more than most can handle.  Imagine…smelling like a skunk for weeks on end.  By golly, will it ever wash off?


In reality, it’s hard to even get a skunk to spray its musky concoction.  These timid creatures would much rather run and hide than face confrontation.  Spraying is done only as a desperate last resort. 


Skunks will give multiple warning signals before releasing their powerful cologne.

The first signal a skunk will give is a handstand with its tail erect.  Next it will hiss or growl and stomp its feet very loudly.  If you’re still not intimidated, it will scratch the ground and shuffle backwards.  The “bluff” follows, with the skunk charging only to stop 5 to 6 feet away from any intruder and then stomp and scratch again.


You’re running out of options though.  When you see a skunk twist its body into a U-shape so its anus is pointed right at you, it’s time to get out of Dodge, and fast.  That’s when a skunk releases its musky perfume that no amount of tomato juice will neutralize.  But, you can’t say you weren’t warned.


Getting sprayed by a skunk isn’t just a stink-fest.  At close range the yellow, oily, acidic musk causes severe burning of the eyes and even nausea.  Recovery is quick, as nasal passages quickly become desensitized to the odor.   Who knows, you may even learn to like “eau de skunk.” 


Striped Skunks, aka stinking polecats, are members of the weasel family and found only in North America.  In late February and early March they start emerging from their dens to mate.  By mid-May, 4 to 6 young are born in underground dens, each with its own unique set of stripes.  When the young are about 7 weeks old the female takes them out to search for food, an extraordinary sight as the young follow mom about.  At about two months the young are weaned, though they remain with their mother until autumn and may even join her in the winter den.


Mostly nocturnal, skunks can be found in a variety of habitats, including farmlands, grasslands, and forests.  They have adapted well to humans and are relatively common in our neighborhoods.  These beneficial animals are true omnivores, eating a wide variety of foods including insects, worms, grubs, rodents, young rabbits, bird eggs and a smorgasbord of plants.  With more than half of their diet consisting of insects and rodents, skunks are as important to us as the Terminix man (and a lot cheaper). 


Skunks have few natural enemies, as most predators are repulsed by the odor of their musk.  Birds of prey, with their keen eyesight and poor sense of smell, will frequently dine on skunks.  In fact, skunks are the principal prey of Great Horned Owls.  Unfortunately, many skunks also meet their fate at the expense of that ultimate predator, the automobile.  Skunks in the wild are short-lived and usually don’t make it past 2 or 3 years.


So what to do in the unlikely event that a skunk sprays you or your pet?  Tomato juice won’t do anything, except make a mess.  Skunk experts recommend a recipe of one quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide, a half-cup of baking soda, and a tablespoon of liquid dish soap.  This mixture changes the chemistry of skunk spray, rendering it odorless.   It’s a lot easier though to just leave skunks alone.  As long as you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you; and these amazing creatures can continue on with their inestimable pest-control measures.


Contact Gayle at her website for nest boxes at or


Lizards Rule

If there is one thing we don’t have enough of in Northern Kentucky… it’s lizards.  To see lizards it to love them, they are totally cool.  But lizards are a hard find in our neighborhoods and woodlands.  Surprisingly though, Northern Kentucky is home to four lizard species, 3 native and one interloper.  The Eastern Fence Lizard, Broad-headed Skink and Five-lined Skink are our native species.  The European Wall Lizard is a non-native species introduced to the Cincinnati area almost 60 years ago.


All of the lizards that make Northern Kentucky home have some similar characteristics.   They are reptiles with dry, scaly skin and, like teenage bathing beauties, enjoy basking in the sun.  They lay eggs and young are on their own just as soon as they hatch.  They are insectivores, though lizards also make a good meal for a variety of wildlife including snakes, birds, raccoons and cats.  Often time predators are rewarded with only a writhing tail.  When a predator grabs a lizard by the tail, it breaks off and continues to wiggle after being disconnected, distracting the predator while the lizard escapes.  The lizard then regenerates a new tail, though not quite as long and attractive as the original.


Our largest lizard is the Broad-headed Skink.  Broad-headed Skinks are named for their wide jaws, giving the head a triangular appearance.  They average 9 to 10-inches from head to tail and can get as large as 13-inches.  Adults are a muted greenish color with the males having red heads that get even redder during mating season.  Females are normally larger than males.  “Broad-headed Skinks are a woodland species,” said Dr. John Ferner, Professor of Biology at Thomas More College and Adjunct Curator of Herpetology at the Cincinnati Museum Center.  “They like large dead trees and logs with loose bark for them to hide under.  They are our most arboreal lizards, often found high in trees.”  Broad-headed skinks have been seen on the nature trails at Highland Cemetery, though the best place to see them locally is Dinsmore Woods or Middle Creek Park in Boone County.


Another skink likely found in Northern Kentucky is the Five-lined Skink.  “These guys are more associated with wetlands, they’re swamp lovers,” said Dr. Ferner.  “You’ll find pockets of Five-lined Skinks with Kirtland Snakes, most likely under a rock or log.  They are very shy and move quickly.  Locally you’re likely to find them in riparian woodlands, along streams with sandy habitat.”   With a total body length of 5 to 8-inches, Five-lined Skinks look almost identical to immature Broad-headed Skinks. Both are black or brown with five light stripes and a striking blue tail.  The bright blue tail in juveniles of both species is an anti-predator device.  Predators are attracted to the blue tail which breaks off easily, allowing the skink to escape.  “When they reach 7 to 8-inches, you can pretty well assume it’s a Five-lined and not an immature Broad-headed,” added Dr. Ferner. 


Dr. Ferner’s favorite local lizard is the Eastern Fence Lizard.  They are “the cutest lizard” and very rare in Northern Kentucky, as this is the most northern extent of their range.  Severe winters are very hard on them.  Being members of the Iguanidae family, they are our very own iguanas, reaching about 6 to 7-inches in length as adults.  “Fence Lizards do well in dry conditions and are found on stumps, logs, wood fences and cedar glades,” said Dr. Ferner.  “Males are colorful with blue lateral patches on the abdomen and chin.  They are very territorial and will do push-ups with their front legs and bob their heads.  This makes them visible to advertise territory to other males and to attract females.”  Fence Lizards also have a different feeding strategy from skinks, which hunt insects down.  “Fence Lizards sit and wait for food to come to them,” Dr. Ferner said.  “They’ll sit on a rock or log near a flowering shrub, tree or herb which attracts insects and wait. When an insect lands, they nab it.”  Fence Lizards are seldom found far from trees.  When pursued they stay on the opposite side of the tree from the predator, in the same fashion as a squirrel.


The most easily seen lizards in Northern Kentucky are European Wall Lizards.  A member of the Lazarus family originally brought them to Cincinnati’s Columbia-Tusculum area from Northern Italy (near Milan) in the early 1950’s.  Wall lizards made their way across the mighty Ohio from Cincinnati in the early 1990’s, with a little help from their human friends.    They have since thrived and spread throughout areas of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.  Populations exist in Ft. Thomas, Ft. Mitchell, Park Hills and West Covington.  “They are an invasive species and do best in areas with human modification,” said Dr. Ferner.  “They are very adaptive, with a high reproductive potential, and easily disperse along railroad beds and rock walls.”  European Wall Lizards top out at about 9 to 10-inches.  They often move off of rock walls into grassy areas to hunt, where the hunter often turns out to be the hunted.  “We’ve found that wall lizards lose lots of tails to feral cats,” said Dr. Ferner.


Our Indian summer affords the perfect opportunity to go in search of lizards before winter settles in.  “Lizards in our area are dormant in the winter,” said Dr. Ferner.  “They need to have retreats that provide protection from freezing temperatures with some moisture.  Crevices, burrows and rich loam under big logs may serve this purpose.  In spite of this behavior, if temperatures remain warm we sometimes see wall lizards and skinks out on sunny days well into November.”


 Sounds like a darn good excuse to get out there and do some exploring.



Contact Gayle at her website for nest boxes at or at


Pigeon Heroes

No bird has been credited with saving as many human lives as has the pigeon (Columba livia), or rock dove.  With their homing ability, speed and altitude, they were often used as military messengers.


G.I. JOE was one such pigeon.  On October 18, 1943, the British 56th Brigade was scheduled to attack the Italian city of Colvi Vecchia.  The U.S. Air Support Command was to bomb the city to soften the entrance for the British Brigade.  The Germans retreated however, leaving only a small rear guard.  As a result, the British troops entered the city with little resistance and occupied it ahead of schedule.  All attempts to cancel the bombings of the city had failed.  In a last ditch effort, G.I. JOE was released with the important message to cancel the bombing.  He flew 20 miles back to the U.S. Air Support Command base in 20 minutes and arrived just as the planes were warming up to take off.  Had he arrived a few minutes later, it would have been a tragic story.  General Mark Clark, commanding the U.S. Fifth Army, estimated that G.I. JOE saved the lives of at least 1,000 of our British allies. 


CAESAR was another hero pigeon of World War II.  He is credited with 44 combat missions in North Africa.  In addition, he completed a 300-mile flight crossing the Mediterranean to deliver an important message to American troops in Tunisia.  He is among the top six pigeon heroes, having more than 40 wartime missions to his credit.


None may have had the “heart” though as did CHER AMI.  He was awarded the French “Croix de Guerre with Palm” for heroic service, delivering 12 important messages in Verdun during World War I.  On his final mission during battle in October 1918, he delivered a message to U.S. Headquarters despite having been shot multiple times.  His eye and part of his cranium were blown away and his breast was ripped open.  The crucial message, found in a silver canister dangling from only a few ligaments left of his severed leg, saved 200 U.S. soldiers of the 77th Infantry Division’s “Lost Battalion.”  Amazingly, CHER AMI lived almost another year before finally succumbing to his war wounds.


A pigeon delivered the results of the first Olympics in 776 B.C.  A pigeon also delivered the news of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo more than 2,500 years later.  They have been used as critical communicators in war by every major historical superpower from ancient Egypt to the United States.  They achieved a 98% success rate in missions flown in WWII.  During the mid-1800’s the Reuters News Agency operated a live telex service using pigeons.  They have been worshipped as fertility goddesses and used as symbols of peace.  Pigeons have been domesticated a good 10,000 years; since about the time we domesticated our best friend, the dog.


Pigeons have the athletic prowess of a racehorse.  They’re built for speed and endurance.  Their hollow bones contain reservoirs of oxygen and their large breast muscles account for one-third their body mass.  Weighing a mere pound, flight speeds can exceed 60 mph.  In flight, pigeons beat their wings up to ten times per second, while maintaining a heart rate of 600 beats per minute for up to 16 hours without rest.  They can seemingly function indefinitely without sleep.


Originally from southern Asia, western and southern Europe, and North Africa, pigeons now live on every continent except Antarctica.  Their natural habitat is coastal cliffs.  Pigeons were introduced to North America in 1606 at Port Royal, Acadia (now Nova Scotia).  Pigeons are cautious, though inherently unafraid of humans.  They flourish in our cities, with large buildings mimicking the cliffs and ledges of their original rocky coastline habitats.


Many famous people have been pigeon fanciers.  Some notable famous pigeon personalities are Roy Rogers, Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando, Yul Bryner, Walt Disney, Michael Landon, Mike Tyson, Jimmy Smits, Pablo Picasso, and Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.  Picasso loved pigeons so much he named his daughter “Paloma,” which means pigeon in Spanish.


So how did these “thoroughbreds of the sky” come to be so hated and reviled?  Only 50 years ago, the pigeons in London’s Trafalgar Square were considered a tourist attraction with vendors selling packets of seeds for visitors to feed the birds.  Pest control companies though, saw big bucks in pigeon eradication.  After decades of bad press, the public’s perception of the pigeon has gone from reverence for its unique history to disgust and disdain.


Pigeons are an adaptable species that thrives in close proximity to humans.  They have very strong homing instincts and do not migrate as other bird species often do.  Though often seen as dirty, they are only dirty because humans are dirty.  They readily congregate and eat food trash discarded by people in city streets and parks.  When they overpopulate, the most effective way to decrease their numbers is to discourage feeding.  Cities around the world have found that not feeding their local birds results in a safe population decrease in only a few years.


Scientists predict that as many as 1,200 bird species may become extinct in the next 50 years due to climate change.  It is a safe bet that the adaptable pigeon will not be one of them.




Contact Gayle at her website for nest boxes at or at


Bluebirds of Happiness

Local naturalist Linda Altevers of Erlanger is no stranger to the great outdoors.  An avid birdwatcher and wildflower enthusiast, she can frequently be found exploring the grounds at Marydale; hiking the nature trails at Doe Run, Highland Cemetery, or a variety of Boone County parks; or taking day trips to Red River Gorge or Clifty Falls.  She has hiked all four corners of the U.S. and points in between, from Maine to Alaska, from Florida to southern California.  “People who don’t have a passion for the natural world are really missing out,” said Linda.


It hasn’t been all play either.  Linda has installed hiking trails, cleared away brush, hung nest boxes, conducted outdoor educational programs, monitored trails, and participated in bird counts.  When asked if she’d be willing to monitor the bluebird nest boxes at Highland Cemetery, Linda replied “yes” without a moment’s hesitation.


Northern Kentucky’s neighborhoods as a rule are not suitable bluebird habitat.  Cemeteries though provide the wide-open space that bluebird’s desire.  Highland Cemetery, with its 150 acres of gravesites, is perfect habitat for nesting bluebirds; and the cemetery’s 150 acres of woodlands provides food and shelter for bluebirds during winter months.


Bluebirds have been nesting at Highland since the first bluebird boxes were installed 17 years ago.  “I’ve been monitoring the bluebird boxes for the past 10 years now,” said Linda.  “It has been a battle to compete with the house sparrows, but with diligent monitoring I have somewhat eradicated the competition.  Each year we get not just bluebirds, but also house wrens, tree swallows, chickadees and tufted titmice.”


It’s easy to understand one’s attraction to bluebirds.  “They are extraordinarily beautiful birds,” said Linda.  “Especially the male, with his rusty chest and brilliant blue coloring.”  The female too is attractive, though her coloring is more muted.  Members of the thrush family, our Eastern bluebirds have two western cousins, the Mountain and Western bluebird species.  Most will agree though that our Eastern bluebird is the prettiest of the three species.  As birds go, bluebirds are “eye-candy,” a feast for the visual senses.


Mostly insectivores, bluebirds sit on low perches scouting prey.  With their excellent eyesight they can locate food items more than 100 feet away.  They sit low on perches (or tombstones), wait for bugs to wander by, and will suddenly swoop down on an unsuspecting insect.  During winter when insects become scarce, bluebirds feed on berries and fruit. 


Bluebirds will readily use nest boxes.  In fact, nest boxes have become critical for their survival.  Over the years land has been cleared for development, and trees with natural nest cavities have been cut down for firewood.  Wooden fence posts that previously provided nesting cavities have now been replaced with metal posts.  With the supply of natural nesting cavities greatly reduced, the single most important thing landowners can do to help increase populations of bluebirds is to hang nest boxes.  It’s not unusual for nest boxes to be used by bluebirds almost immediately after hanging.  Bluebirds will also roost together in nest boxes during winter months.


Our bluebirds are now beginning their nesting season.  They’ll lay 4 to 5 light blue eggs (occasionally white) in a cup-shaped nest made of woven grass or pine needles.  Incubation lasts approximately 2 weeks. The nestlings will remain in the nest 18 to 21 more days before fledging.  They normally have two broods per season. 


Bluebirds do not have it easy.  As cavity nesters, they must constantly compete with aggressive non-native species for suitable nest sites.  English house sparrows and European starlings are their biggest competition.  House sparrows are especially brutal, as they will frequently kill bluebirds, destroy their eggs, or drive them from their nests.  Predators, as black rat snakes and raccoons, will frequently raid nest boxes and eat eggs, nestlings and adults.


Severe winters too can take a toll and this past winter was especially tough.  By February bluebirds have lost much of their fat reserves and food is scarce.  Unfortunately that’s when our worst weather of the season hit this past year.  Bluebird landlords across the area were reporting significant losses when checking their boxes in March.  Monitors in Kenton and Boone County parks found dead bluebirds in several boxes, Bill Remke found as many as 7 dead per box on his Petersburg farm, and Linda found dead bluebirds in several cemetery boxes.  “It was devastating,” said Linda.  “I haven’t seen a bluebird yet this season at the cemetery.  I’m afraid we lost all of our resident bluebirds.”


Linda won’t give up though.  She’ll continue to monitor the bluebird nest boxes as other “good” birds are using the boxes as well.  Chickadees, nuthatches, wrens, tree swallows and titmice can be equally rewarding.  Hopefully though, bluebirds will find their way to the cemetery and again nest this season.  “What a great feeling when you check your nest box and see the success of the nesting bluebirds,” said Linda.





If you would like to know more about bluebirds, check out the North American Bluebird Society’s website at  If you would like free plans to make a bluebird nest box, contact Gayle at or at


Our Cane-tuck-ee

Have you ever wondered how the state of Kentucky got its name, and what it means? 


Kentucky’s origin has been variously spelled Cane-tuck-ee, Cantucky, Kain-tuck-ee and Kentuckee before its modern spelling was accepted.  The name Kentucky originally referred to the Kentucky River, where from came the name of the region.  Its etymology is from Native American languages (kenhata’ke, kehta’keh) with several possible meanings from “meadow lands” to “river of blood” or “cane lands.” 


“Cane lands” would have been an apt description of Kentucky when the early settlers arrived. Though now seldom seen, native “river cane” was a defining species in the landscape.  While traveling the state, Simon Kenton frequently referred to Kentucky’s huge stands of river cane, or canebrakes, and the outstanding hunting they afforded.  Early naturalist William Bartram reported seeing river cane as far as he could see.  Individual canebrakes were hundreds of acres, stretching uninterrupted for miles.  Now cane is seldom seen and very sparsely scattered along creeks, rivers, and fringes of fields.  It occupies no more than 2% of its original range.


River cane (Arundinaria gigantea) is our native bamboo.  Belonging to the grass family, this bamboo grows to gigantic heights, up to 30-feet tall in very fertile soils.  In fact, early Kentucky settlers coveted ground where cane grew for farmland.  Farmers knew that a stand of 10-foot cane grew in good soil; 30-foot cane grew in the very best soil. 


Cane grows the same as other grasses.  It spreads via underground stems, or rhizomes.  As rhizomes spread through the ground, they sends up shoots that produce individual reeds, as many as 65,000 reeds per acre, resulting in impenetrable canebrakes. 


River cane is extremely hardy.  It grows well in high and low elevations, and in extreme heat and sub-zero temperatures.  Most frequently found along rivers and streams, it can withstand long periods under water during floods.  Surprising though, it can also survive long periods of drought.


To see a particular canebrake bloom is literally a once in a lifetime event. Individual canebrakes will exist for about 50 years before blooming.  Botanists don’t know what triggers cane to bloom, but when the time is right it blooms in grand fashion, producing an astonishing number of seeds.  Mysteriously, after blooming a canebrake then suddenly dies.  The canebrake quickly reestablishes itself though with the many seeds it has produced, not to bloom again for another 50 years.  


Unfortunately, the loss of our native river cane has also led to the extinction of several wildlife species.   The Bachman’s warbler depended on large canebrakes for nesting and is now extinct.  The Carolina parakeet, the only native parrot of eastern North America, was also closely tied to cane and it too is gone from our world.  Extinct since 1904, the beautiful and colorful Carolina parakeet was common in Northern Kentucky, especially around Big Bone Lick where it was attracted to the area’s natural salt deposits and river cane.


Native Americans were also very dependent upon cane. Southeastern tribes used river cane for a variety of weaponry.  Because it is strong and light, the best arrow shafts were made of river cane.  Atlatl darts, an ancient spear-like weapon, were also made of cane because of its strength and flexibility.  Blowguns from cane are still effective for hunting small game, as rabbits and squirrels.  Cane was a component in knives, arrows, fish spears, minnow traps and torches. 


Cane was also used for Native American household goods.  Flutes and pipe stems were made from cane; in fact river cane flutes are still common today.  Reeds were an essential building material for posts, roofing, rudimental furniture and mats.  The ancient art of basket making, dating back some 6,000 years, is one of the hardest indigenous skills to learn.  Even now the tightly woven river cane basket is one of the most valued Native American artifacts, sometimes demanding prices of several thousand dollars. 


The evergreen canebrakes attracted a wide variety of game for Native Americans to hunt.  Deer, bears and rabbits used canebrakes as food and cover. The Indians themselves ate cane, finding the young shoots tender and nutritious.  River cane may well have been the single most important resource for southeastern tribes. 


River cane, though now uncommon, is easy to propagate.  It’s just a matter of letting it spread, though it is not invasive like non-native bamboos.  Native cane can be purchased at many nurseries specializing in native plants and is an attractive addition to any landscape.


River cane belongs here.  It is very much a part of our Cane-tuck-ee heritage. 



Contact Gayle at her website for nest boxes at or



Big Bone Lick State Park: The Birthplace of American Vertebrate Paleontology

It’s almost impossible to talk about the Ice Age without including Big Bone Lick in Boone County.  Large Ice Age animals frequented the Lick, which had vegetation and salty soil around the springs that the animals used to supplement their diet.  The land was soft and marshy and some of the animals may have become mired in the bogs and died.  Mammoths and mastodons, as well as ancestors of the sloth, bison and horse frequented Big Bone Lick. 


The first European to discover the many bones of Ice Age animals at Big Bone Lick was French Canadian commander Baron de Longueil in 1739 while on a military expedition against the Chickasaw Indians in Louisiana.  On route the Baron and his troops camped near a swampy area close to the Ohio River.  It is hard now to even imagine what these men saw.  Lying about everywhere were huge bones and teeth, some even sticking out of the ground.  The teeth were over 6-inches long and weighed 4½-pounds each.  Some of the bones were a full 3-feet long.  Baron de Longueil had his men gather these curiosities and carried them south to Louisiana.  By 1740 the Baron had taken his treasures back to France.  These bones and teeth were the first vertebrate fossils to be received in Europe from North America.  The very best scientists in France, including world-famous scientist Georges Cuvier, the founder of vertebrate paleontology, studied the bones extensively. 


From that point on explorers made mention of and collected bones from Big Bone Lick.  In 1776 explorer Colonel George Croghan sent some bones to Benjamin Franklin, who was then in LondonFranklin’s response, “I return you many thanks for the box of elephants’ tusks and grinders.  They are extremely curious on many accounts; no living elephants having been seen in any part of America by any of the Europeans settled there, or remembered in any tradition of the Indians.” 


A survey party in 1773 reported using huge rib bones of the mammoth and mastodon for tent poles.  Vertebrae were used as stools or seats.  The first map of Kentucky, prepared by John Filson in 1784, made mention, “Big Bone Lick.  Large bones are found there.”  In 1804 Dr. William Goforth of Cincinnati made a large collection of bones at Big Bone Lick.  Unfortunately, the bulk of Goforth’s collection of bones, 5 tons, went to Great Britain.


President Thomas Jefferson though was probably the most instrumental American in the development of the science of vertebrate paleontology.  In 1807 Jefferson sent an expedition led by William Clark (of Lewis and Clark) to Big Bone Lick to collect bones, this being the first organized vertebra paleontology expedition in the U.S.  Clark acquired three huge boxes of more than 300 bones for the president, which were studied by Jefferson and famed anatomist Dr. Caspar Wistar.  Jefferson had a special room in the White House to display the Big Bone Lick collection.  Eventually the collection was divided between the Museum of Natural History in Paris, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and to Jefferson’s Monticello where much of the collection was ground into fertilizer, though some of the Big Bone collection still remains there.

Big Bone Lick State Park was created to memorialize the Lick and its fossil-treasure.  The newly renovated museum has an interesting collection of Ice Age bones and Indian relics.  The Diorama Interpretive Trail has a life-like display of Ice Age animals in their natural setting.  A couple of the salt/sulphur springs still flow today.  Big Bone Lick is both a national and local treasure, as it is recognized as the key to understanding the lives of many Ice Age animals and should be on everyone’s list of  “places to visit.”  The park is open daily.  Museum hours are 9 to 4, Monday through Friday.  Visit at or call 859-384-3522.


“Friends of Big Bone” is a group of concerned citizens who are dedicated to education, research and preservation at Big Bone Lick.  They offer programs in partnership with the Boone County Library, Big Bone Lick State Park, and the Boone County Historic Preservation Review Board.  Programs can be tailored to the needs of individual groups or school classes.  Membership is a mere $10.00.  Contact them at



Special thanks to Todd Young of Big Bone Lick State Park for his help with this article.