Author Archives: Ellen Sousa

House Sparrows – Bird Feeder Thugs

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A male House Sparrow

If you hang bird feeders, have you figured out which birds are visiting? If you buy your birdseed mix from the grocery or dollar store, have you ever noticed that only a few types of bird visit and hog all the food? If so, it’s very likely that you’re hosting House Sparrows (pictured right), whose presence in New England and the Northeast is being blamed for declines in some native songbird species. If you are concerned about the welfare of our bird populations, you do not want to feed, house or otherwise encourage House Sparrows!

It may seem cruel to single out certain types of birds to discourage, but House Sparrows (also called English Sparrows) are an invasive species in the US. Brought to this country from Europe in the 20th century, they quickly established large populations that have spiralled out of control, outcompeting native songbirds for food, shelter and space. Along with European Starlings (another invasive bird in the US), House Sparrows are considered a threat to many bird species already at risk due to habitat loss and pollution. In fact, these birds are among the very few species in the US not protected under Federal species protection laws.

Since the  mid-1990s, populations of invasive birds have increased significantly. House Sparrows thrive around human habitation, and you can often see them picking at food scraps in parking lots of fast-food joints or big-box stores (where they also find safe housing inside). They are quick to find a residential bird feeder, and will gobble up large amounts of birdseed, leaving little to the less aggressive birds indigenous to New England.

It’s easy to see why House Sparrows are considered destructive to other birds. They will attack nesting fledglings of other species, throwing the babies out of their nests which they then use for themselves. This nest predation is especially detrimental to birds such as Bluebirds who nest in the cavities in old or rotting trees,  and who already struggle to find suitable nesting sites in our increasingly suburbanized landscape.

This weekend, we witnessed a dramatic attempt by a pair of House Sparrows to evict some Tree Swallow fledglings out of a nesting box on our pasture fence. The parent Swallows put up a good fight and we saw and heard a tremendous scuffle at the box. We tried to help out by chasing the House Sparrows away, but they returned several times as the nervous parents tried to keep guard. In the end, Rob sat down in the grass near the box so he could ward off any continued assault, and the House Sparrows finally gave up and left.

We just had to help – our Tree Sparrows migrate from the tropics every year to nest in this box (see below), and they are like old friends to us!



So how do you tell a “bad sparrow” from a “good sparrow”? It can be hard to tell one sparrow from the next, but House Sparrows tend to congregate in large flocks, and the males have a large dark blob right under their beaks (see top photo). Once you learn to identify them, they are easy to pick out of a crowd. See the National Zoo‘s photo gallery to learn how to distinguish them from other sparrows.

Some ways that I have found to discourage House Sparrows from taking over feeders and nest boxes:

  • Use non-perching birdfeeders
  • Feed Safflower seed instead of Sunflower seed. House Sparrows and Squirrels do not like Safflower seed, but many colorful songbirds such as Cardinals, Chickadees, Nuthatches, Tufted Titmouse and non-invasive sparrows love it.
  • Do not feed seed mixes containing millet (House Sparrows are particularly partial to millet seed, often found in inexpensive seed mixes)
  • If House Sparrows take over existing songbird nests, immediately remove their nests and monitor the area, because they may try several times to use the nesting box before giving up. You may need to be persistent, but removing their nests will eventually persuade these birds to give up and move on.

Luckily, our Tree Swallow babies survived their traumatic House Sparrow onslaught. Today, they’re back to peering out of their box, waiting for their exhausted parents to provide the next fly-by feedings of mosquitoes and other tasty bugs…and all is peaceful again at Turkey Hill Brook Farm.

When Life Gives You Rocks, Make Terraces!

If life presents you with a sticky situation, such as emergency excavation work, why not turn it into a gardening opportunity?!


When we recently arrived home from a much-needed break, to our horror we found a flooded lawn from a burst well pipe that necessitated excavation work to repair (see above). We watched, cringing, as a backhoe removed half our lawn, patio and stone wall to uncover the burst pipe.  However, much of what the backhoe removed was enormous rocks. A plan started to form….instead of paying the contractor to remove the rocks to “somewhere else”, why not use them to create new gardens?

I talked the contractor into dumping a truckload of the excess rocks at the top of an unused hill on our property, which he was happy to do. The area is rough and steep, and covered in  Asiatic Bittersweet (an exotic invasive that is choking out native plants all across New England).  Why not terrace this steep hill, smother the weeds with cardboard, fill the terraces with compost, and use it to grow vegetables? The area is nicely sheltered and receives full sun in summer. Perfect for vegetables!

Fast forward a few weeks. After carefully rolling some of the rocks down the hill into position, we were able to fill each level with a foot of good compost using our tractor, and plant immediately. As we have time, we’ll continue to build more terraces into this section of hill and refine their appearance, but in the meantime, potatoes are already thriving on the top terrace and I have just planted squash and beans in the lower levels. Marigolds and Sweet Peas will brighten the beds and attract beneficial insects and help repel pests.


When life gives you rocks, make gardens!

Our Apothecary Shop was the Woods and Fields

Samuel Thomson wrote in 1835 that his “apothecary’s shop was the woods and the fields.”(1)  He was promoting the health benefits of plants and herbs, something that is perhaps even more relevant  today with our increased life spans. We’re probably not even close to discovering all the curative powers that exist in nature, but one thing IS clear, time spent outdoors in nature has many benefits to adults and, especially, children.

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Nature doesn’t have been somewhere you go, or something you see on TV. Natural habitat gardens, and the life they encourage, invite the beauty and daily miracles of nature right into your backyard, allowing you to “share the magic” with the kids in your life.
Children are usually fascinated with the complexities of nature, and a backyard habitat is a great way to give them a lifelong connection to the outdoors.

‘A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is
our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true
instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring is dimmed and even
lost before we reach adulthood.

But alarming increases in childhood obesity reflect that children are spending much more time indoors than they ever have, leading to poor health as well as social, mental and learning disorders.

The National Wildlife Federation is leading initiatives to try to reconnect our kids with nature and get them outdoors. Their Reversing Nature Deficit program encourages kids to play outdoors for at least an hour a day. According to studies, unstructured activities in natural environments (“free play”) helps kids develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills, stimulates their creativity, and even dramatically improves test scores and grades. Other studies show that children who spend time in nature show reductions in hyperactivity and attention-deficit disorder.

Kids do benefit enormously from time visiting natural areas such as beaches and
mountains, and exposure to outdoor education programs can increase their
self-esteem, confidence, cooperation and improves grades. However, landscaping your yard as a haven for friendly wildlife such as birds and pollinators lets you AND your kids have those beneficial interactions with nature everyday.

DCF 1.0A habitat garden’s not just good for kids, though. If you’re a gardener, you already know how good it feels to get your “hands in the dirt”, and a stroll through a summer garden with a glass of wine and weed fork can be a great after-work stress reliever. Gardening is a highly therapeutic process, teaching us patience, acceptance of those things out of our control, and a sense of rootedness to nature and its cycles. Horticultural therapy is becoming a widely accepted means for addressing physical and mental illnesses and disabilities, and “healing gardens” are often used as a therapeutic tool for the critically ill. The process of gardening is holistic, combining cognitive, creative and physical activities, and can be a valuable tool for helping people improve the quality of their lives.

‘Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of  nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.‘  (MAY SARTON)

So start looking at your backyard as more than just a place to put a pool, a BBQ and a lawn. Consider it a prescription for better health, for you, your kids, and the planet. Even if all you do is give up the chemical lawn treatment and add some bird and pollinator-friendly plants, tending them will keep you healthy in more ways than one. Gardening is a great form of exercise – 45 minutes of gardening burns can burn as many calories as 30 minutes of aerobics! And, gardening can help relieve stress and anxiety, and their related diseases, by providing a creative outlet and a place to relax and escape from our frenzied lives. Plus, you
can garden in your own back yard, without using fossil fuels to drive to a heated gym.

So what’s stopping you? Start planning your backyard habitat and grow your own “apothecary of woods and fields”!

Footnote 1:
New Guide to Health: or Botanic Family Physician
(Boston: Adams, 1835 p. 9)


Red Buckeye

Last week I did a talk on pollinator-friendly landscaping at the annual conference of the Ecological Landscaping Association. It was a great place to spend a Friday, because the conference and marketplace was something of a meeting of the minds of every 21st century plant geek on the right coast. Case in point: After I finished my talk, a woman approached me and told me that she grows Red Buckeye, (which I had mentioned in my talk as a good tree for pollinators), and that when it blooms, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are ALL OVER the flowers. She lives in central New Hampshire, which is a similar climate to our cold Worcester Hills river valley.

Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is an understory tree native to the woods from North Carolina southwards, so it’s not a tree you’d see in the wild here in Massachusetts. I’ve seen it growing at Garden in the Woods (the botanic garden of New England Wild Flower Society in Framingham, MA) where it blooms in early June:


When you look at the flowers (below) you can immediately see why this tree is so popular with hummingbirds. The red tubular flowers are perfectly adapted for them to drink nectar from the base of the flower, using their extra-long tongues (pollinating the flowers in the process).

Red-Buckeye-closeupWhen choosing native plants for my own garden, I tend to look for plants that are native to the ecosystems of central Massachusetts. Plants that originate locally are best for a wildlife garden because they are adapted to meet the needs of the local wildlife who co-evolved alongside them.

But, when somebody tells me about a non-native Hummingbird magnet plant that is not invasive here, I simply MUST grow it!  The presence of feisty Hummingbirds in our garden is something that inspired my interest in gardening for habitat, so I’ll plant anything that brings ’em in. The Red Buckeye shown above is growing in the moist meadow-edge garden at Garden in the Woods….just the habitat that we have in abundance here!

Now, where can I find a Red Buckeye, either plants or seeds? It’s now on my Plant List for 2009 ….

Seeds of Content!

It’s a Sunday in mid February and we are having yet more snow! This has been the longest and toughest winter I remember in 9 years of being back in New England. We groaned when we heard the weather forecast (another “biggie”), but I don’t mind too much because today I put in my annual seed order from Johnny’s Selected Seeds! I always order from Johnny’s – they are based in Maine so not only am I supporting our regional New England economy, but I know that anything that’s hardy enough to grow in Albion, Maine will probably survive our cold valley winters in central MA.

Johnny’s is a very wise company, sending their catalogues out in early January to tempt us flower-starved northern gardeners with lush photos (I call them “eye candy”)! I usually spend a month looking through the catalogue and making my list. It’s fun to dream about summer flowers in the dead of winter when the world outdoors is covered with the white stuff….

So, here’s what I ordered. I grew “Purple Majesty” Ornamental Millet (Pennisetum glaucum) (below, the tall plant with dark foliage) a few years ago and really liked the vertical structure and contrast it brought to my “butterfly garden”. Not to mention, later that fall, I saw American Goldfinches picking at the seeds from the tall waving stems. Anything that feeds the Goldfinches is always welcome here!  The birds did beat me to all the seeds, eating them before I had a chance to collect a few for myself! So I’ve shelled out for a new packet of 10 seeds. I have a new bed next to the barn paddock where I plan to grow it this year. I just need to plant them far enough from the fence that the horses can’t munch the seed heads, which is what they did to my tall Sunflowers last year…


I also ordered seeds for American Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum pilosum), an eastern native plant which is excellent for natural-style gardens, offering white flowers that attract hordes of enthusiastic pollinators. I first fell for this plant when I saw it growing in a moist meadow garden at Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary (below) happily mingling with native Sedge (Carex), Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) and Goldenrod. Choosing plants that grow naturally in those kinds of conditions means that this established meadow area requires no irrigation or fertilization. I plan to try Mountain Mint in my dry, upland meadow garden as well as right next to our farm pond, to figure out where it will best thrive.


The foliage has a minty taste, so Mountain Mint is worth investigating as a deer-resistant plant. Many of my clients have a problem with deer devouring their prize plantings, so I’m always looking for plant suggestions that might be less likely to become deer forage.

I also picked up seeds for pink and white cultivars of Hummingbird Sage (Salvia coccinea). I love the “Lady in Red” cultivar of Salvia coccinea because of its vigorous growth and  drawing power for hummingbirds and other long-tongued pollinators, so this year I’m adding some more varieties to add to some garden areas that need a little pizzazz from mid to late summer. Below is “Lady in Red” growing in a pot hidden in a Cotoneaster bed, bringing those Hummingbirds right up close to our porch!


Another new plant I’m trying this year is Flax (Linum usitatissimum). In winter, I feed my horses ground-up Flax seed to add some valuable Omega-3s to their hay-based winter diet. So this year I’ll try growing a small patch of Flax, and if it does well without too much
fussing, I’ll set aside a larger area for it in future years. I try to make the most of our small but fertile patch of earth, and if I can save money on my equine costs and reduce our carbon footprint by “growing it ourselves”, all the better.
The tiny flowers of Flax look as though they are insect-pollinated, so hopefully they will provide good yields in our “pollinator-friendly” landscape here at Turkey Hill Brook Farm.

So….what’s stopping you? Start dreaming of spring and order some seeds of wildlife-friendly plants.The days are getting longer and it won’t be long til the lush greenery of summer returns to our frozen landscape! Promise!

Action at the Winter Feeders

It may be deepest winter, but there is still lots of bird activity on THB Farm.

Chickadee with its feathers fluffed up from the cold and wet

Chickadee with its feathers fluffed up from the cold and wet

Generally (except for nectar feeders for the hummingbirds) we don’t keep many birdfeeders here. Most of the year, there are plenty of natural food sources for them (seeds, berries, insects, worms, etc). But in winter, we always hang a few feeders just outside our windows so we can watch the bird action from our hibernatory state indoors! And judging by the number of visitors, the birds really do appreciate an easy snack at a time when insect populations are at their lowest and many seed plants are deep under snow.

Chickadees are probably our most common feeder visitors, and we love watching them develop “superhighway” flight paths to and from the feeders. Those visiting the feeder always fly the low route, while those returning to nearby tree perches always take the high road out. Amazing how well organized they are, and we never see collisions…

We always keep a winter feeder filled with Thistle seed. Tiny seed-eating birds such as American Goldfinches, Chickadees and Tufted Titmice all feed from it, and the small holes of the feeder prevent squirrels from ravaging the seed supply…

We also fill a tray feeder with Safflower seed, which attracts many of our feathered friends but not squirrels or House Sparrows (the “thugs” of the local bird world). And, a couple of Suet feeders at the front window attract insectivorous Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, as well as a Song Sparrow who is a year-round resident and a highly talented songster:

songsparrow_closer If you look carefully at the picture below, you’ll see a bright red Northern CardinalCardinal Richelieu (as Rob has named him…) spends a lot of time here during bad weather. He sits at the edge of a grove of Rhododendron shrubs, scoping out the scene near the feeder, and making an occasional flying visit for some Safflower seed. Birds won’t visit a feeder unless they feel safe, so dense evergreen shrubs planted nearby gives them a safe place to dive if predators such as Hawks pay a visit.


A few weeks ago, I was surprised to see a Carolina Wren (below) at our feeding station. They are not usually resident in New England, but their populations do drift northwards during milder years. When really bad weather hits, though, they often seek food and shelter at residential bird feeders. We had a string of several snow storms over the past few weeks, which is probably why he was here.  The last time I saw one of these birds was in the very bad winter of 2003, when one took shelter from the wind inside our patio chiminea. They are shy and never stay for long, and they have such a beautiful song, so I always feel lucky to have them visit…


This plump little Carolina Wren had to squeeze hard to get through holes designed to keep larger birds from hogging the suet.

And finally, on the subject of winter bird feeding, check out this winter scene from our brook. The seed heads on the right are Bee Balm (Monarda didyma), and birds are still foraging from them! If you can stand it, leave some of your garden plant stems standing into the winter. Not only are the seeds a source of winter food for birds, but many important pollinators and other beneficial insects overwinter (or lay their eggs) inside hollow plant stems. It’s always tempting to clean up your perennial beds in the fall, but even leaving a few patches of plant stems and seed heads standing will help sustain bird populations through our tough New England winters…


Stay warm and don’t forget the wildlife outside your door!

Garden Genius

I’ve always heard that a messy desk is the sign of a genius. I am not sure if the inverse is necessarily true, but my husband has a meticulously tidy desk at work and he’s not that dumb!

As somebody who has always – at work and at home – had a desk overflowing with piles of papers, books, things to read, etc, I naturally would like to agree with the mantra. But does the same hold true in the garden?

As I’ve mentioned before, a natural habitat garden can be, by nature, a little disheveled. Packing in a diversity of plants and plant types not only provides shelter and housing for many tiny critters, it also means that the garden, when viewed from a distance, literally brims with colors, textures and shapes of all sizes. Some might even call it – gasp – untidy?!

Lilly F garden 2But I’d like to argue that both a messy desk and a messy garden is the sign of an effective mind. My piles of papers and books contain information that I know I’ll need again sometime soon for my work (although I admit I could do with a good filing system!). My habitat gardens reflect a gardening style that aims to create natural balance on my little patch of earth, that supplies all the essential ingredients for a healthy “bio-stew” of micro-organisms, insects, animals, plants that together create a healthy, functioning ecosystem that requires no toxic chemical input from me.

Genius? You don’t have to be, as long as you follow my golden rules of natural landscaping:

  • Choosing plants suited for your particular site conditions, rather than trying to change your
    conditions to suit certain plants.
  • Replacing all or part of your lawn with areas of plants, shrubs and trees that provide benefits for birds, pollinators and beneficial insects, and reducing your need to mow
  • Reducing or eliminating the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in favor of organic techniques and products such as companion planting and compost
  • Identifying and removing ecologically invasive plants from your landscape to prevent them from forming monocultures, which reduce the overall biodiversity of the area
  • Using native plants wherever possible to reduce the need for fertilizing, spraying and watering, as well as provide essential resources for the native wildlife who have evolved to depend on them
  • Recognizing that most bugs are “good bugs”, most bees are gentle and do not sting, and that insects in general are essential to healthy ecosystems.
  • Letting go of the idea that we need fussy, high-maintenance exotic plants in order to have a beautiful garden.

You’ll notice that most of these tenets require you to observe and respect the rules of nature. In other words, letting nature take care of itself. Now that‘s genius.

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Snowbirds heading South

While I was out doing barn chores this morning, I heard the familiar honking of a huge flock of Canadian Geese flying overhead, heading for warmer climes. They were flying north to south, probably following the path of Turkey Hill Brook, and really struggling to fly against a strong southwesterly wind. I stopped my work for a minute to listen. For a few moments, their honking masked all other noise, and I felt enveloped by the sound, as though I was suddenly thrust into the middle of somebody else’s conversation.

I always find it amazing how Canadian Geese fly in their V formation, in which the flapping of each bird’s wings creates an uplift that reduces air resistance for the bird flying behind. The V constantly forms and reforms as each bird does its share of flying in front, allowing the former lead birds to rest behind. They have an instinctive spirit of cooperation that ensures the survival of most of the flock. As a species, we could do well to learn from nature, because like the Canadian Geese, we are all in this together, and flying against the wind is a lot easier when everybody pitches in and does their share…

Blue-eyed Grass

In another example of the “it’s amazing what will grow if you let it” category, today’s blog entry is devoted to Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium), shown below at Garden in the Woods:

Blue eyed Grass Sisyrinchium reducedNot actually a grass but a member of the Iris (Iridacaea) family, this cute little New England native plant blooms in early summer with small blue flowers with yellow eyes. This spring, I happened to notice a small population of Blue-eyed Grass growing in a small grassy clearing next to our barn, where Rob’s mower hadn’t yet reached. I would never have noticed it except for its blooms! Otherwise it just looked like a few blades of grass. I dug them up and transplanted them into another bed, where they appear to be thriving.

Blue-eyed Grass does well in moist areas with some sun, and if happy in its spot, will spread to form stands. Its diminutive size is perfect for adding a grasslike effect to a small garden area where an ornamental grass would be too overwhelming.

The Leaves They Are A’Changin’

It’s that time of year..the leaves are falling fast and furious now and my thoughts are turning towards the annual hibernation that gardeners are forced to take in New England. I have to say, after a summer full of garden tours, classes, stone path building and other hard work in the garden, I am ready to call it quits for another year.

As a habitat gardener, I don’t feel at all guilty about putting my feet up, either. While some gardeners do a thorough cleaning of their perennial beds each fall, scalping them and raking them clean of every bit of plant debris, one of the tenets of habitat gardening is to leave your gardens a little messy at the end of the year.  Allowing the flower heads to stand supplies a valuable seed source for foraging birds right into winter. As I write, my dying flower gardens are still buzzing with life, with American Goldfinches and Chickadees feasting from the smorgasbord of Coneflower, Rudbeckia, Ironweed, Verbena, Zinnia, Cosmos and Cleome seed heads. Of course, when I brought my camera outdoors, they all dove into the safety of the woods…:


Conventional gardening wisdom states that you should clean up your gardens at the end of the season to destroy the eggs of plant pests, but I take the opposite approach. Most of the tiny creatures that overwinter in my gardens are probably beneficial in some way…they are the “good guys”. Butterflies and other pollinators, predatory bugs, dragonflies, ladybird beetles, most of them spend the winter here in some form, as an egg, chrysalis or adult. They need those fallen leaves, plant stems, old stumps, loose bark and piles of brush to survive through the winter. A few of the “bad guys” don’t worry me – they are usually eaten by something else before they can cause much damage. (the exception to this rule is vegetable gardens, which harbor many pests and should be cleaned up each fall!)

DCF 1.0The falling leaves don’t bother me either. Why go to all the trouble of raking, bagging and disposing of leaves, when they are one of nature’s best soil improvers? Leaves are a great source of nutrients to feed your soil and help it retain moisture. Don’t trash your fall leaves…they are one of your yard’s most valuable resources! Here are some ways we have learned  to deal with all our leaves:

  • rake them into piles and let them rot for 6 months or a year. The result is called “leaf mold” which is an excellent FREE alternative to buying bark mulch or cocoa mulch for your garden beds!
  • add them to our compost pile which, being heavy on the nitrogen (horse manure), really benefits from the influx of a carbon source. We have friends and family who also happily bring us their bags of leaves!!
  • mow them into shreds! Rob mows right over the leaves in our lawn with a mulching mower, shredding them into tiny pieces that blow into the grass and into my garden beds.  The shreddings in the grass quickly disappear, as soil micro-organisms decompose them into a valuable soil amendment to the lawn.

We have an area next to our driveway which has always frustrated me because it looks so awful. It is a cold north-facing slope under the dense shade of Hemlock trees, with cement-like soil compacted from driveway construction. For years, I have lamented because little would grow there except invasive weeds such as Asiatic Bittersweet and Glossy Buckthorn.  In the past few years, however,  I have noticed an exciting transformation. The process of mower-mulching the leaves from our driveway onto the drivewayside is creating an amazingly rich woodland soil, and native woodland wild flowers such as Trillium, Solomon’s Seal, (below) White Wood Aster and False Solomon’s Seal have all appeared there, all on their own! Presto – a woodland garden! It is amazing what will grow, when you work with nature instead of trying to control it…

IMG_5353 solomons sealSo anyway, gardeners, don’t waste your time stripping your gardens this fall. Use the beautiful weather to go for a hike or take the kids apple picking. I, for one, won’t be gardening much any more. It’s time for me to devote some much-needed attention to my young pony Sneaks, who I started “under saddle” this summer…