Mourning dove

Mourning dove (Zenaida macroura).

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Mourning doves seem to live everywhere except in forests. They are the most frequently hunted bird in the country, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They often perch on overhead wires, making them ridiculously easy targets.  I’ve known some hunters to use them for target practice rather than for eating. That’s rotten. What’s wrong with tin cans on fence posts? About the same amount of skill involved. So, although they are common, I like to see them in my garden and know no one will be shooting at them here.

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On cold, sunny days, they nestle in the dried pine needles under the white pine tree. I don’t have a photo for that but hope to in the future.

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Mourning doves are ground feeders and seem to like the sunflower seeds dropped by other birds under the feeders. Here one is sharing space with a female northern cardinal and a dark-eyed junco.

Mourning doves are named for their mournful, lamenting song. Kaufman’s Field Guide to Birds of North America describes it as cooowaah, cooo, coo, coooo. You can hear the song online, of course. I’ve heard the mourning dove song in many parts of the country, but never in New Jersey.

When I first reported birds at my feeders for Project FeederWatch, I decided that two of the doves I saw were white-winged doves. They didn’t have spots that I could see, and they seemed to have more white on their wings than the mourning doves. A few days later, I got a nice note from FeederWatch asking for identifying marks and photos, if possible. It seems that white-winged doves aren’t known to be present in this part of New Jersey. Various field guides that I consulted identify white-winged doves as birds of the Southwest, although there is mention of vagrants who join flocks of mourning doves. They are the only doves to have big blotches of white on their wings, noticeable in flight. The best distinguishing feature, however, is the tail. Mourning doves have a pointed tail. White-winged doves have a more rounded tail. Well, I watched and watched for some rounded tails under the feeder, but no, all doves present have pointed tails. So did I see two vagrant white-winged doves? Or did I misidentify two mourning doves? Unfortunately, I don’t have photos of the two birds. So, I changed that particular FeederWatch count to all mourning doves, but I’m still watching. Birdwatching isn’t easy.

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Northern cardinals

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis).

Cardinalis means important. Cardinals are important to my happiness, that’s for sure.

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Cardinals coexist with other ground feeders without problem in winter. In the photos above, both a male and a female cardinal are ground feeding with a dark-eyed junco and a mourning dove. In spring they become territorial so far as other cardinals are concerned. Both males and females sing and have a territorial call in the spring. I like to think that my cardinals think that my garden is their garden.

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While males are red, females are brown with tinges of red and a large red bill. Juveniles are also brown but with a blackish gray bill.

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Cardinals aren’t exactly shy. It’s more that they look things over before they make a move. They often seem to be looking straight at me when I am looking at them. Watching them watching me.

Birds

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Above is a photo of bird feeders in my garden. As birds come to the feeders and I’m able to get decent photos of them, the photos and whatever interesting tidbits of information I have gathered will be added to daysingarden.

For vital information and background on birds in your area, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology web site is excellent. Audubon Society sources are also indispensable, of course.

Many of the bird descriptions found in daysingarden are thanks to Birds of New Jersey: Field Guide, by Stan Tekiela. My copy of this book is worn out from so much use.

I have always had some sort of bird feeders if I possibly could. I loved, and still love, the cardinals and bluejays who come to feed. Otherwise, I usually joked about all the LBJ (little brown job) birds and thought some day I would learn to distinguish them.

So, recently I joined Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch. There’s a good web site for it if you are interested. With the information they have provided to me, I am now using their online forms to report the birds who visit my feeders. There’s definitely a learning curve involved in doing this if you haven’t been a birdwatcher all your life, but the effort is worthwhile. I hope to describe my experiences of becoming a proficient birdwatcher as I add photos and information about the birds in my garden.

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Daisy and Christmas tree

Project FeederWatch sent around a great suggestion after Christmas: instead of putting your Christmas tree at the curb for recycling, prop it up in your garden for shelter for the birds. I wrapped some twine around mine to secure it to a Japanese maple tree, as you can see in photo above. You’ll also notice Daisy in the photo, a 2-year-old yellow lab who is my best buddy and constant companion in the garden. You’ll be seeing her again.

I also heard the Christmas tree idea on CBS2 News, so it’s a popular new thing, I guess. A good idea although I have to admit I haven’t seen any birds using it yet. Another larger effort at recycling Christmas trees is going on down the Jersey shore. They are using old Christmas trees to catch sand to rebuild the dunes. They put the trees between two rows of snow fence where they want the dunes to form. Wow. Lots of uses for Christmas trees. I would still like to buy a tree with a root ball for Christmas and plant it afterward. That would be a huge project.

January dreaming

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Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog arrived in December. Although many seed catalogs are still sent through the mail, and many more are available online, I tend to stick with Johnny’s for seeds, tools, and supplies.

The first part of practical January dreaming is to sort seed packets from last year, make a list of the seeds I have on hand, and mark them in the new catalog. Pelleted seeds supposedly don’t store well, so I try to use all pelleted seeds within one season. This has been mostly lettuce seed. I haven’t actually tried to use pelleted seeds for multiple years, so I don’t know but what they could be used a second year, but it’s not advised.

On the other hand, the regular non-pelleted seeds seem to stay viable for multiple years. Since my vegetable garden space is limited, I tend to use the same packet of, say, tomato seeds for maybe three or four years. But it’s easy to plant a few more seeds as they get older and thin them as necessary, thus ensuring an adequate number of plants.

When I first started gardening, I had a difficult time thinning young plants properly. Poor little things. Too nice, too perfect, to waste. Surely I can find room for them all. Then I read Earth to Table, by Jeff Crump and Bettina Schormann. In it, a farmer who raises vegetables for Crump’s restaurant explains to him that a turnip thrown onto the compost pile isn’t wasted; its nutrients are simply being recycled for another year and another crop, maybe another turnip. So now, I feel OK about thinning seedlings and throwing them into the compost pile. This just isn’t their year. Maybe next year.

Back to my seed strategies. Never plant the seed of a vegetable that you aren’t excited about. You must feel that it’s worth the effort of weeding, watering, harvesting, storing, and using in recipes. After all, that’s a whole bunch of work. If a bush bean plant produced poorly last year, or tasted inferior to the pole beans you adore, add those leftover seeds to the compost bucket with a blessing to their nutrients for another season. Limited space and time do not permit planting seeds that seem mediocre to you. Also remember that it costs money to water a vegetable garden. Don’t waste time and money by planting seeds that you aren’t excited about.

After marking all my leftover seeds in the new catalog, I now have the sheer luxury of choosing the new seeds. This task can brighten several cold and dreary January days. My garden is always at its perfection in my January dreams–only beneficial insects, weed-free, fertile soil, perfect sunshine, the exact amount of rain at exactly the right time. Kind of like Camelot. Some of the chosen seeds will be repeats from previous years when leftover seeds are used up. Fortex pole beans are an example. I can’t imagine ever finding a better pole bean. Favorite tomatoes always get reordered when leftover seeds are gone. Matt’s Wild Cherry is a good example. But Johnny’s has new varieties that are tempting. Of course this is true of all seed companies. In my early days of gardening, I would order from many different catalogs, plus picking up seeds randomly from the local nurseries. This became frustrating when it came to reordering. Where did I get those incredible habanero pepper seeds? I don’t want those awful bush beans again, but what were they called anyway? Find a seed company that pleases you and stick with it for awhile. Make that catalog your bible for growing information. My gardening life is much less frustrating now that I figured that out. On a cost-saving note, placing one big order from one seed company can save money on shipping. This year, Johnny’s offers free shipping on orders over $200. This may sound like too much money for a home gardener, but after factoring in the cost of leek and onion plants, some alfalfa and clover seed for ground cover, and one or two new tools, it’s a fairly realistic amount. Just don’t order new stuff in July unless it’s a dire necessity. Instead, start making a mental list for the next January. It’s called discipline. Good for me..

In Second Nature, Michael Pollan has an entertaining chapter on the class distinctions of seed companies. The chapter is entitled “Made Wild by Pompous Catalogs,” a quotation from Henry Ward Beecher in the nineteenth century. Although Pollan’s book has a copyright date of 1991, many of the seed companies he pokes fun at are rather amazingly still around—from the high-end White Flower Farm to “low-brow tabloids” like Gurney’s. Pollan puts Johnny’s Selected Seeds in a “counterculture” category: product of the seventies with a rural flavor stressing organic practices; environmentally scrupulous; out-of-date. But I think the twenty-first century Johnny’s has disproved Pollan’s assessment of it. Their catalog and web site are both excellent sources of gardening information. Their customer service is a joy. Their online videos and email marketing are useful. It is true that they focus on commercial customers, mostly organic truck farms and farmer’s marketers it seems, but I’ve never found the provided information to be irrelevant to a small home gardener. Well, you may not choose Johnny’s as your favorite seed company, but whichever one you choose, I hope you have as satisfying an experience as I am having with Johnny’s.

A word about tools. Each year I dream about which tool I want to order. Two years ago, I ordered the 27” wide traditional broadfork for $209. That’s big money for me. I was really afraid I had overreached on that one. Was it too heavy? Was it too much tool for my small area? Would it stand around unused as a reminder of my foolishness? But, happily, it has fit nicely into my seasonal soil preparation routines. I have raised beds in the vegetable garden, 3’ by 3’ mostly, but a few 3’ by 18”. They are all 10″ high. Between crops, as well as part of fall cleanup and spring prep work, I use the broadfork to loosen the soil in each bed without disrupting the layers of soil and bringing weed seed to the surface. I use it after scattering a layer of compost on the beds as well. Its balance is remarkable, making it easy to pick up and carry by the middle of one handle. An indispensable tool. I’m not always that lucky with my choices. An electric shredder hasn’t been out of the shed in several seasons now. This year my big tool order ($129) is a direct reading soil tester that measures pH and moisture without using a buffer solution. Sounds too good to be true. Stay tuned.

Last point about ordering big in January. Seed companies do run out of supplies. Popular seeds, exciting new seeds, leek and onion plants, all tend to go quickly. In January, seeds can get back-ordered and it doesn’t really matter. In the spring, a back-order usually means disappointment and thinking about substitutions. Not fun. Nor is that red line at the bottom of an item—Out of Stock. Not fun at all.

After marking all the chosen seeds and other items in the catalog over several January days, I go online to place my order. That gives me one more chance to look at my options and make last-minute changes. Then I muster my courage and press the Submit key.

So my January order is placed. $315. Oh, golly. Now I can start thinking about where I will plant stuff. Rotation. Companion crops. Sunny end of garden versus shady end. Enlarging the space. The January days slip by what with all the dreaming.