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.