Nature and Environment

News about the health and beauty of the natural world that sustains us.

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Illustration “Murmuration” by artist Glenn Wolff 

Illustration “Murmuration” by artist Glenn Wolff

If you’ve ever watched flocks of starlings (or have seen them on YouTube), you’ve probably been enchanted by those swirling, switching clouds of birds. Have you ever wondered what causes them? Or why they’re called “murmurations”?

Starlings are a scourge. They crowd out native birds, spread disease, and steal mountains of grain. It was a thick-headed decision for a chemical-company executive named Eugene Schieffelin to carry them across the Atlantic in the 1890s and release them into Central Park because he thought it’d be cool if all the birds mentioned by Shakespeare were in America.

We know now what a bad idea that was. But starlings are here to stay, so we might as well accept them. And the fact is, they’re interesting — and beautiful. Examine one up close and you’ll see plumage stippled with stars strewn across a background of black and iridescent purple.

A few years ago, I was driving on a highway in the agricultural flatlands of Michigan. Across a field, at a distance of perhaps a mile, I saw what I thought was a plume of smoke hanging low in the sky. Then I realized it was a flock of thousands or tens of thousands of birds. In North America, such flocks often include red-winged blackbirds, cowbirds, grackles, sparrows, and others, but almost certainly they are comprised mostly of starlings.

This flock was extraordinary. First, it was vast: a stadium’s worth of birds. It was too far away to pick out individuals, which made the aggregate smokelike, a thick cloud of bird-smoke. It drifted in whorls above the field, curving and swirling as if stirred by a mixing spoon. The scene was so striking that I pulled onto the shoulder and got out of my car for a better look. The flock paused for a moment, as if suspended, then swept downward, paused again, and suddenly reversed direction and climbed higher than before. At moments there were cross-swirls and vortexes, like dust-devils following a car on a dirt road. It was mesmerizing.

Then I noticed a larger object plummeting through the starlings: a hawk. It attacked like a barracuda in a school of minnows. To avoid the hawk the flock morphed into a shape like a donut, with the predator passing through the hole. The hawk turned and climbed, dived again, and the flock turned to avoid it, forming other graceful, spiral-like shapes.

What makes congregations of this sort stay together? How can birds in a flock or fish in a school make what appear to be simultaneous turns, dives, and swoops without the individuals crashing into one another?

A theory popular a century ago, that a leader signals orders to the flock like a drum major to a marching band, was disproved when high-speed photography revealed that flocks constantly change leaders. More recent studies have focused on mathematical chaos theory, an approach pioneered by zoologist Frank Heppner. Heppner’s computer programs animated figures on a screen to represent birds, their motion duplicating the actual flight behavior of flocking birds.

Software engineer Craig Reynolds designed a more complex computer model using what he called "Boids" to simulate flocking synchronism. Reynolds’ “Boids” exhibited such lifelike behavior that they’ve been put to use in Hollywood movies — to duplicate a swarm of bats, for instance, in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns.

Of course there's another side to all of this. We can consider the scientific explanations — position and velocity, stimuli and responses, binary codes of behavior, the need for individuals in a flock to remain close enough together to be safe from predators but far enough apart to avoid injury — and it helps us to understand the world, in the sense that it’s probably biology we’re seeing, not bewitchment or the gods idly stirring swizzle sticks.

We're reminded that the world is an unfolding story and that now and then we can pull off the highway and take a minute to watch.


European Starling Photo Alden Chadwick 

Photo of starling by Alden Chadwick 

Most people know that “murmuration” is a collective noun designating a group of animals. What is less known is that it goes back centuries, to an era when European aristocrats used language to distance themselves from the common herd.

Some collective nouns came into use in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as “terms of venery” used by hunters. Rattling them off was a mark of erudition. The Book of Saint Albans, first published in 1486, included such terms a “gaggle” of geese, a “mob” of deer, a “covey” of grouse, a “bevy” of quail, a “fall” of woodcock, and a “sounder” of wild boar.

People other than hunters were likely to mention a “pride” of lions, a “cowardice” of curs, an “exultation” of larks, and a “murder” of crows. Other terms were meant to be humorous: a “blush” of boys, a “hastiness” of cooks, a “pity” of prisoners, a “drunkship” of cobblers, and a “melody” of harpists.

For starlings there were two terms: a “chattering” and a “murmuration.” If you’ve ever been near a flock of starlings roosting in a tree or strung along a telephone line, you know they’re vocal. They squeal. They grunt. Sometimes they chuckle. But mostly they murmur.


In nature, sometimes, everything fits. But seen another way it’s pure chaos. In our search for synthesis in the world we notice patterns that when seen from a distance appear orderly. Photograph a leaf in extreme close-up and it passes for abstract art. Zoom out far enough and our sun is one star in a vast, swirling galaxy of stars.

Stars are stipples. Starlings in a flock are stipples. The guy who released the first starlings into Central Park was a stipple. So are you and I.

That day, standing on the side of the highway watching that flock of starlings make fluid swoops in the distance, I glimpsed the face of a young woman as she drove past, heard the blare of a horn, noticed that trucks as they passed created flurries of wind that rocked my car on its suspension. It occurred to me that our lives are made of moments that cluster together, like flocks. If we step back far enough we can sometimes see a pattern, and sometimes it’s beautiful.

This post is adapted from A Walk in the Animal Kingdom: Essays on Animals Wild and Tame, by Jerry Dennis, with illustrations by Glenn Wolff. Jerry Dennis is the author of The Living Great Lakes, It’s Raining Frogs and Fishes, The Bird in the Waterfall, and many other books. Visit him at


Sludge delivered to the farmland, next to it - the cattle is graizing.

A mother of a 7-year old boy suffering from asthma followed the rules and filled out the forms for the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Virginia Department of Health (VDH), requesting that due to her child’s health issues the setback for the upcoming application of biosolids next to her house will be extended. Three attending physicians attached letters requesting that at least a one mile setback is observed.

A new biosolids permit was just issued by the DEQ to the sludge distributor and in that new permit three new sites were proposed within a stone throw of the house where the sick boy lived.

The VDH – Biosolids Medical Review Committee rubber-stamped the denial, only to allow 400ft setback instead of the requested one mile from all three application sites. The members of that committee didn’t bother talking to the mother, evaluating the child, consulting with the physicians, or visiting the site. They didn’t give a moment of consideration to the child’s health, safety or welfare, all of which was done well within the parameters of current state regulations.

This story was told to me by C.W, a resident of the same community. He too is one of the many victims of biosolids invasion into the rural Virginia. C.W. is a resident of a small community in Louisa County. His next door neighbors, landowners, sold a portion of their land. On the part of the property that remained in their possession they allowed the sludge distributor to spread biosolids and industrial residuals.

C.W. lowers his voice and leans forward, it sounds almost like a scary nighttime story you tell your grandkids – they always come at night, 3:30 am is their favorite time. First, you wake up to the noise of big, heavy dump trucks lifting their loading beds. Then – the smell comes…… and it doesn’t leave you. Ever! It permeates your skin, your hair, it’s stuck in your clothes, it gets into your nostrils and stays there. You can’t open the windows to air your home - the source of that horrid, indescribable smell is just outside your window! You get in your car and it takes a ride with you, there is no escape from it. And it makes you sick. Headache, upset stomach, nausea – those symptoms come first. Then you notice tightness in your chest, you develop a chronic cough, migraines, rashes, watery itchy eyes. There is a long list of symptoms.

Faces of Sludge Victims

C.W. became an avid opponent of sludge; he served on county and state biosolids committees, voicing his opposition since 2000. He is the chair of a regional group of activists who oppose the land application of biosolids. In 2009, when his health began to fail, he moved to Richmond, now his house in the country is up for sale. He hands me a DVD – Please, bring it back after you’re done. It took a lot of my time to talk to all those folks. That’s my way of keeping track of what is happening in my county.

I plug the DVD in to my laptop. It’s a long recording. Faces of “sludge victims”. Young and old, men and women, African-American and white. Some look visibly sick; an elderly lady struggles to get her words out, after each sentence she needs a break to catch her breath. I listen to her labored wheezing. Her whole family has upper respiratory infections. Just when everybody gets a little better – a new application of sludge comes and whole household is coughing again. Another woman, surrounded by her kids, her voice full of exasperation – all those kids got bronchitis, all of them! They missed school, they had to stay home, but home is where the source of the problem is, so they never got really better.

Three girls sit with her on the sofa, they are a little camera-shy so they just nod in agreement. More and more faces. Everybody has similar stories. House belonged to family for generations, this is where they grew up, they know everyone in town. Now they want to move away, sell the house. But how? The stench will scare any potential buyers. And if you are lucky to sell it during the time between the sludge applications, when the odor subsides – is that the moral thing to do? Hide the real reason why you are getting rid of the house so somebody else can move in and get sick?

Sludge Applications Effects on Real Estate

Current Virginia law doesn’t require disclosing the proximity of sludge applications on the real estate documents. You can trick somebody to buy a house build on a toxic land and it’s legal. There was a bill introduced last year to the Virginia General Assembly to require the disclosure of land applications of biosolids and industrial residuals in the real estate transactions – sale or lease.

That bill did not pass the House Agriculture Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee. Virginia Association of Realtors is happy; they don’t want regulations to hinder the sales.

I recently heard a story about a subdivision in rural central Virginia, a maze of cul-de-sacs with building lots, some of them with houses and families living there, others – still for sale. Then the market crash of 2008 came and nobody was buying anything. A wealthy county resident purchased several lots for a fraction of the true value, but he didn’t have plans to build a house there. He wanted to put a sludge holding reservoir in that residential neighborhood.

Local residents are fighting the project to this day, but they are quickly running out of options. The toxic sludge storage right in the middle of a residential community could become a reality as soon as all legal avenues to prevent it from happening will be exhausted.

Lasting Community Effects

There is another, social aspect to the sludge stories. Community ties are destroyed. Neighbors turn against neighbors. Sludgers versus anti-sludgers. The social fabric of those small, rural communities is torn. The community falls apart, people move out and the land became worthless. Not just worthless – dangerous to the wellbeing of its owners. It takes about two thousand years for the Earth to produce an agricultural soil. It takes just a few applications of human and industrial waste to destroy it.

But maybe I got it all wrong; the world’s largest sludge distributor – Synagro Technologies, Inc. sports a green turf logo on its home page and a reassuring promise: Your partner for a cleaner, greener world – transforming waste challenges into sustainable planet-friendly solutions.

Land application of biosolids in progress

Photos courtesy of Craig Monk

Lidia Epp is active with a local group of residents concerned about the agricultural application of biosolids, a dangerous practice that devastates farmland. She corroborates with local activists, politicians and scientists to bring public awareness to this issue and advocates for changes in state and federal regulations of biosolids land use. Read all of Lidia’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.



Eastern Coyote by Jacques Tournel 

The importance of the actions and perspectives of those who came before us cannot be overstated. We live in, and view the world with a perspective that was created by them. Then again, our actions and perspectives are creating a world for those who come after us.

In my previous blogs I wrote about these historical perspectives, and how deeply they have influenced our farming. But we are in our own time now, and we are creating the future as we speak. We are re-creating farming from the ground up, as we leave behind old perspectives regarding our relationship with the land, and the intelligent species we share it with.

As a member of my community, I support sustainable farming in all its many facets — from enriching our soils and pastures, protecting clean water sources, supporting healthy forests, impacting global warming, and keeping successful and happy farming families on the land, and much, much more.

As a biologist, I support these farmers who are seeking to create a farming for the future; one that we are creating today. And that is why I have collaborated with leading farmers, experts on guardian animals and fencing, and fellow biologists to create the new educational and supportive website, Farming With Carnivores Network.

I encourage all farmers and community members to visit this site. Its purpose is to create a central meeting place where farmers who wish to protect their farm animals from predation by the use of non-lethal means, can learn and share with others. Included in this educational site are a number of ever growing farmers who share about their farm, and how they successfully live with carnivores. These farmers welcome your questions, and are happy to share their own learning experiences.

After much research and collaboration with a number of very knowledgeable experts on guardian animals, this site shares many opportunities for you to learn about animal husbandry practices that include the use of guardian dogs, Llamas and donkeys. We want you to be successful, and so there is much available guidance for those who are new to the concept of guardian animals.

But there is much more, for there are numerous animal husbandry practices that can keep you animals safe. They are all discussed there for you. Oftentimes just understanding the uniqueness of your farm, and simple changes you make, are what is needed.

However, as one of our fencing experts has stated, fencing is the first line of defense. Whether your fencing is moving wherever your animals go, or it stays in place, appropriate, well-maintained fencing that is electrified is a powerful deterrent to predation by wild carnivores. So take a look at what we have shared with you regarding fencing, and expect to see more and more new information regarding it as time goes by.


Avian Predator, Great Horned Owl photo by David Illig 

Unique to this site is information on carnivores who share your farm with you, whether they are flying overhead or on the land. The successful farmer knows the carnivores on his/her farm. And by the word “know” is meant understanding of who they are, and their needs.

The carnivores of our country are returning after several centuries of relentless slaughter. We are beginning to understand their invaluable role in keeping our landscapes healthy and balanced by hunting their wild prey — not our farm animals. Our goal is to welcome them back and know how to live with them!


Avian Predator, Red Tail Hawk photo by David Illig 

Finally, a most important part of this site is the Sharing Forum. It is here that we all share our questions, experiences, photos, and receive valuable guidance from very knowledgeable and experienced persons. So come join us. All are Welcome!

Geri Vistein is a conservation biologist whose work focuses on carnivores and our human relationships with them. In addition to research and collaboration with fellow biologists in Maine, she educates communities about carnivores and how we can coexist with them. You can find her at Coyote Lives in Maine, and read all of Geri's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Deer in snow

Hunting. It's such a charged word in this day and age, that it's hard to explain to people who have been told what hunting means by people who have an agenda of some sort. If you hunt, chances are you know what I'm talking about. But if you don't hunt, you may have gotten your information from sources that are emotionally charged and not necessarily informed.

So if you're interested in actually learning what hunting is about by someone who actually loves nature, loves animals, but also loves to hunt ethically, you're in for a frank discussion of what hunting is, and more importantly, what hunting isn't.

What Hunting Actually Is

It's hard to discuss hunting without understanding what exactly is hunting. You may have been told that hunting is full of redneck, fat, middle-aged men who drink beer and shoot up signs. Or maybe you've been told that hunting is done to simple get some antlers or a mount for one's living room. Those statements are about as cliché as they come, and I won't lie to you and tell you that they don't happen. But more often than not, hunting is about a connection with the nature and the past.

When I say that hunting is about a connection to nature and the past, I'm talking about traditions. Chances are those who hunt were taught by their parents or an older relative. They in turn, were probably taught by their parents, and so on. It's a connection to our past in a personal way. Yes, there is the thrill of the chase and looking for critters, but given that hunting isn't easy, there certainly more and easier ways to get your adrenaline fix. Being out in nature is a huge part of hunting. And while anyone can go for a walk in the wilderness and appreciate wildlife, it takes a certain amount of skill to search for and stalk a deer or elk.

It is also about food. There are a fair number of hunters who do get the majority of their meat from hunting still. Rather than be on food stamps or show up at food banks, they hunt to provide nutrition to their families. There are other hunters who prefer the taste of game meat over beef, chicken, pork, or any other domesticated food. Then there are those who have figured out that hunting when done properly is sustainable, and choose that lifestyle over going to the grocery store and picking out a package of meat.

Ethical Hunters Are Conservationists

Many hunters are conservationists. They want enough wildlife and enough wild areas to exist so that there is a healthy population to hunt. They want to see deer and elk and moose and whatever else because they respect the animals. And they understand that in order to keep hunting, the animal must be around in healthy numbers. What's more, hunting tags pay for conservation. The studies on elk, deer, wolves, and even non-game animals get their money from hunting licenses and hunting fees.

Trophy Hunting in the United States

Before I go into what hunting is any further, I need to address the aspect trophy hunting. You may think you know what trophy hunting is, but what it actually is, if it's done legally, isn't as bad as you think it is. In most states, and I would guess that in all of the United States, it's illegal to waste game meat. That means that there are some pretty hefty fines associated with killing an animal for its horns or antlers, or whatever, and leaving the carcass to rot. That is not hunting. Let me repeat: that is not hunting.

That is what we call poaching. It is the illegal take of game or leaving the animal to rot. Those people who are trophy hunters in the United States must take the meat or donate it to a food bank or other charity where people can enjoy the meat. So, if someone is going after a big buck or a big bull, they have to use the meat somehow. It's not enough for them to have a head or antlers stuck on a wall somewhere. These people generally look for big animals — usually male — and yeah, there's a certain amount of bragging rights that goes along with that. For one thing, those older male deer or elk are cagey. They don't get the big set of antlers because they were foolish and visited people. They get it by being wily and sneaky. Which means as a hunter, if the take is legal, they have to call the animal in or sneak up on it, or sit for however many hours or days in a cold tree stand and wait for the critter to show up, assuming it does.

If someone is hunting for a trophy animal legally, I don't have a problem with it provided that the animal is legal and they eat the meat or donate to the food bank. Those so-called trophy hunters pass on the deer and elk I'm willing to shoot because it is my food. Would I purposely look for a deer or elk with a big rack? No. I'll shoot whatever is legal. Would I turn down a trophy buck or bull if it showed up? Of course not, but that isn't my criteria for hunting. The rack is only a bonus, and not my goal.

Hunting is Not Easy

One of the myths that non-hunters seem to have is the overall ease hunters have when it comes to locating game and shooting it. Unless you're going for a game damage hunt, finding the critters can be problematic. I can't tell you how many times back when I didn't hunt but I mushed sled dogs that I saw hunters who were constantly looking for animals and declared that there were none in the area. But the next day, there were tracks all over the place, and in some instances, my sled team and I ran into herds of elk and even antelope.

We even helped a lost hunter find his buddies. He was exhausted from walking around and looking for animals he couldn't find. These animals play a constant game of hide and seek. Even if you know the area, even if you've tracked the animals in the off season, even if you think you know what you're doing, there's no guarantee. If you want a guarantee on getting supper, go to the grocery store.

My husband and I have spent literally weeks looking for animals without success in the same areas where we know there are animals. Sometimes they're regular, such as the deer in one area, but given that we only hold certain tags, we can't just shoot anything that shows up. There are regulations for what kinds of deer you can take, length of antler, how many brow tines, etc.

And even if you get that dialed in, there's no guarantee that you will shoot the animal. Most deer and certainly no elk I know of, (with the exception of habituated wildlife), want humans nearby or even within several hundred yards. The last deer I shot was about 200 yards away. That's two football stadiums in distance. And I got a heart shot, luckily. I missed the first shot but managed to get a deer on the second shot.

Shooting at distance isn't easy. Your target looks less like a deer through the scope and more like a marble-sized version of the critter. And then, there's things like bullet drop (ballistics), wind (OMG), and other variables.

Now, when you consider that either you have to sneak up on the critter to get a 50 to 100 yard shot or face the daunting prospect of shooting 200, 300, 400, or more yards, it gives you an appreciation just how tough it is. The Montana FWP has check stations and the average success rate of hunters is about 7 to 8 percent through those stations. Probably when all is said and done maybe 15 percent of the tags are filled, would be my guess. That includes tags that we fill every year.

In Colorado, hunting was a nightmare. You literally had a week to fill your tag. That meant you spent a boatload of money for the privilege of maybe bringing back a deer or elk. If you were lucky. The times I went with my husband, we came home without meat. Yep, sucked.

Montana gives you about five weeks to find your animals and hopefully get your tags filled during general rifle season. It's better, but it's no guarantee.

The Short Life of a Game Animal

Deer live an average of two to three years in the wild. Maybe if they're lucky and get really good avoiding predators, cars, starvation, diseases, and hunters, they're looking at maybe eight to ten. Elk probably go 10 to 13 in the wild tops. Antelope are lucky to see their eighth year.

These are natural prey animals. That means that someone has to eat them or they die from environmental stresses such as disease and starvation. In order to provide enough food for predators, including humans, they have to produce enough offspring to keep their species alive, which they do, admirably. Their lives are filled with uncertainty due to the vagaries of the environment and pressure from predators.


Speaking of predators, we found a deer that had been killed by coyotes on our properties. She had been taken down and had been partially eaten from the rear first, starting at her anus. The coyotes had left the poor girl to struggle and eventually die with her intestines hanging out while they merrily ate her alive. Now, tell me that a bullet isn't more humane?

This is not uncommon. Predators don't kill cleanly and they aren't particularly humane when it comes to killing their food. Humans seem to have that sensibility.

Disease and Starvation

It's not unusual to see herds stricken with disease. When there are too many prey animals for the carrying capacity or when the environment hands them a drought and poor forage, it wears on the critters and inevitably disease takes hold. Or if there is a drought like the one we're going through, it's common for herds to starve in the winter.

Both my husband and I obtained game damaged licenses through FWP to hunt some of the deer that were destroying the alfalfa fields where the rancher's cattle were wintering. We counted some 50+ deer in the one field. If they had food outside of the rancher's fields, they probably would've gone there. The deer I shot had no winter fat to speak of and the sheer numbers meant that she and perhaps other deer would starve because of the scarcity of food.

Maggie Bonham is a multiple award-winning author, editor, and publisher who is a canine and feline behavioral expert and science fiction/fantasy writer living in the wilds of Montana. She raises horses, Alaskan Malamutes, cats, chickens, geese, ducks, turkeys, a llama and 14 ornery and loveable goats. Maggie is the publisher of both Sky Warrior Books and Garnet Mountain Press, which publish science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and nonfiction. Find her on Facebook and Twitter, and read all of Maggie’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


branch litter

The greenery is finally springing back to life around our house. This means that many of my chores will begin their shift outdoors. One such task is picking up all the branches and ephemera that our river birch has shed over the winter. Other trees have also dropped appendages, but anyone having intimate knowledge of the river birch will understand how it can resemble a long-haired animal come warmer weather in its shedding practices.

Interesting side note: One of my best friends, who is well-versed in her knowledge of all things landscaped and gardened, told me that the reason my river birch sheds so much during the winter months is due to the brittleness of the branches. While the ends are always thin and wispy, once the sap retreats during the cold they become drier and more brittle so that even the lightest winds can break them.

Anyway, along with the above mentioned litter, many of my pruned bits and other garden clippings end up in my brush pile. Generally, anything that is on the larger side or that I feel will take too long to break down in the compost goes on top of our brushy wildlife domicile.

Creating Wildlife Habitat in Your Yard

Brush piles can become home for many critters — make it large enough and it will provide natural cover for a variety of them to nestle in. They can attract birds, especially juncos, wrens, and cardinals. Our numbers of these birds have definitely grown since we reestablished our mound a few years ago. Toads and tree frogs also take refuge in brush piles since there is an area sheltered from the drying summer sun underneath that densely layered litter. Each of these species is not only attracted to the shelter provided but also to the insects who appear to break down the woody material.

Bunnies, chipmunks, mice, and cats will also help keep the balance of your wildlife common dominion. Whether they use your brush as temporary resting place or longer term home, they can help with upkeep and stave off any over-population of those smaller than themselves.

Another animal that helps keep the numbers in check is the snake. While I’m not a keen supporter of sharing land with poisonous snakes, I adore finding others who slither around the garden. The discovery of baby ringneck snakes while I was digging my potatoes a couple of years ago delighted me to no end. That discovery also perhaps explains why my slug population has diminished. While I love most animals, I’m not very fond of those who are more pest-like in their attributes—slugs are one such animal for me.

I have heard that butterflies will over-winter in brush piles. While mine is not within sight of my usual observation spots, I will be looking more carefully as we move through the season hoping to catch sight of butterflies emerging. Whenever I notice a praying mantis egg sack while pruning the forsythia, I make sure to carefully tuck the clipping into the pile in a way that it will be well-sheltered. Finding these creatures tending around my garden always brings a smile to my face.

brush pile inhabitants

Siting a Brush Pile

It’s important to put your pile somewhere that’s good for both the pile and for you (with your neighbors in mind). A successful pile will be at least 6 feet across and 4 feet in height—larger than this is better but not always possible. The larger the pile, the more diversely populated it will be. A pile that has both sun and shade is desirable in order to keep your animals happy. Some love to sun themselves for a part of the day, while others prefer the dark safety of the dense shade. Placing your brush along a fence can add to the shelter from wind and other weather elements. Make sure your choice is not in a low spot where water will pool or in a place that the rain naturally washes through.

I tend to make my piles as material presents itself, in other words building slowly and by simply adding my litter and clippings as nature or pruning provides. Some folks enjoy constructing a more orderly structure with the added strength and predictability of purposeful layering. Start with large stones, tile, or logs at the base, then add layers in a criss cross manner, getting lighter and smaller as you mound upward.

One way you can help camouflage your brush pile is to plant something to vine around it. This will help with the aesthetic appeal and can also add strength to it by weaving the pile together. The leaves and flowers of most vines will also add another layer of protection from the elements and possible predators.

As long as your mound stays stable, you can keep adding to it. Though those built more strongly can last over a decade, when they become too decayed their ground layer is not as inviting. Simply begin another pile nearby for the animals to move into and plant some lovelies to grow into the deep compost you’ve helped nature to create in the old one.

Consider Your Neighborhood

I understand that many folks don’t have space in their yard or have neighbors or communities who don’t understand the long-term benefits of brush piles. Some see an unsightly mess where I see an invitation for a variety of birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles to gather and survive. It also makes me happy that the slow release of carbon into the atmosphere is lowering my own carbon footprint.

If you’re truly interested in adding one of these nature condominiums to your place, do some research and present the naysayers with the positive information that you’ve collected. Check your local codes — if they aren’t brush pile-friendly, work to change them if you can. If you live in a densely populated area, undesirables (skunks, possums, raccoons) could be attracted to your pile. This can be managed with vigilance and swift appropriate action.

brush pile condominium

Photos by Blythe Pelham

Blythe Pelham is an artist that aims to enable others to find their grounding through energy work. She is in the midst of writing a cookbook and will occasionally share bits in her blogging here. She writes, gardens and cooks in Ohio. Find her online at Humings and Being Blythe, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


bird house.jpg

One of the pleasures we derive from living at high altitude and remotely are the birds that surround us all year long. While we enjoy an occasional visit from bear, mountain lion, bobcat, coyote, elk, deer, and sometimes a grey wolf, we enjoy the birds the most. They are entertaining and educational, as well as some of the most devoted creatures on raising a family. They search for a good nest site and then lay their eggs and keep them warm until they hatch. Then they are  constantly in search of food for the babies until they are developed and old enough to fly away on their own. Once they are out of the nest and have been shown how to provide for themselves, they are on their way in life. Pretty effective and simple.

Providing Nesting Boxes

One way we keep them coming back year after year to nest and raise their families is to provide nesting houses for them. We have had generation after generation of various bird species nest around our house in those bird houses. They benefit us by keeping our insect population to a manageable level and we provide them a safe environment to raise their families.

My personal preference is the wren, which is a tiny bird that hops around on our firewood pile to find food that other species can not get to because of those tight spaces. The weather can be harsh and difficult in the mountains on both people and our feathered friends. The winds are sometimes strong and hail, snow and heavy rains make it tough on the birds but they are very resilient.

Birdhouse Design

Making bird houses is pretty simple and youngsters often start learning their woodworking skills making bird houses. They can be made from material on hand which can be scrap lumber to  hollowed out logs. They need to have ventilation and have a safe dry area. The opening should be big enough for the species that you hope to attract to nest there.

I have found that a 1¼-inch hole will accommodate most small birds. I prefer to use galvanized tin roofs painted with an exterior paint that contains no hazardous toxins. They also need to be hung high enough where predators can’t reach them so I usually use a ladder to hang them from a suitable limb.

I am told that the female selects the nesting site and then both male and female gather the material to build the nest. With four German Shepherd Dogs (also known as German Shedders) there is usually a lot of undercoat available to be used for the nests to make them more comfortable for the tiny baby birds.

Lumber from Trees

Like just about everything made or manufactured bird houses do not last more than a few years. Recently as I was cleaning out under our house I found some pre-cut birdhouse pieces that I had cut many years ago and totally forgotten about. As soon as I saw them in the box where they had been stored I recalled the pieces and where they came from.

We lived in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1985 when hurricane Kate passed over the city. It was only a category one storm but it generated considerable damage. We were without power for a week or more and ended up with 5 large pine and oak trees blown over and laying on our house. When the workers cut the trees off the house, I had them save the base sections so I could mill out lumber from them. That lumber is where the birdhouse pieces came from that are in the above photo.

Those trees provided lumber for many projects over the years and now they are providing dry, comfortable housing for birds here in Colorado. Making the two houses in the photo brought back memories of building bird houses over the years plus all the damage those trees did when they ended up on our home.

These pieces had been cut for decorative indoor houses and not functional houses. They are too large for wrens, so I subdivided them into a duplex for two family occupancy. One has an entrance on one side and the other family will have an entrance on the opposite side. I have no idea if two wren families will share the accommodations or not, but it allowed me to put these spare pieces to use constructively.

Helpful Hints

Some helpful hints would be to put the bottom on with screws so when the birds are through with the house the bottom can be removed and the old nest can be cleaned out for the next tenant. Also it is advisable to use an exterior glue to hold the pieces together. I use a powdered exterior glue that is designed for whirly jigs that have moving parts and bond well for outdoor use.

I use pegs on the front under the entrance since we do not have a problem with snakes at this altitude. Snakes can wrap around the pegs and stick their head inside to eat eggs and baby chicks. If we were at a lower altitude I would use a little piece of wood that the birds can grab onto and snakes can’t use for leverage.

I also like using a tin roof for its durability and it doesn’t allow water to enter. Two or three small ⅛-inch vent holes in the back of each house are enough for ventilation since it never gets very hot at this altitude. I also make sure that nails don’t come through to the interior for the safety of the birds. Almost any creative design will work as long as it is dry and ventilated.

Because birdhouses are simple to make, this really isn’t a DIY blog but one that points out how providing birds a nice dry nesting area is beneficial to both the birds and us humans.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and living with animals and birds go to McElmurray's Mountain Retreat. Read all of Bruce's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Industrial residuals application in King William Co. Virginia
“You all are just a bunch of a tree-hugging, Bambie-eyed, bleeding heart liberal professors! You all sit in those ivy-league colleges of yours, sipping frappuccino and writing gobbly-gook articles about how bad biosolids are, but you don’t know first thing about the hardships of a farmer! Guys from the state office told me this is a natural fertilizer and it’s treated and monitored for any bad stuff! And it’s free!“

A football player sized farmer in a tattered Carhartt jacket and work boots caked with dirt (or biosolids?), his face flushed with frustration, was waving his finger in my face after the DEQ subcommittee wrapped up its public hearing and granted yet another 10 year permit to Synagro Technologies Inc. to spread industrial residuals in my neck of the woods. I got my allotted three minutes to tell the apathetic looking committee members why agricultural application of biosolids is a very bad idea, but it didn’t look like even one of the seven of them cared. They glanced at their smartphones, picked fingernails and drank cold coffee, looking quite ready to vote and call it a day.

I got in my car, parked near the General Assembly building in downtown Richmond, VA and hit the road. I took a day off from work to attend the hearing, whatever was left of the day I figured I will use to take care of some house chores. It’s almost an hour drive back home, we live deep in the countryside of central-eastern Virginia, on a picturesque 6 acre “hobby farm." Tree-hugging… I said to myself. How did he know that? I do sometimes fight the urge to hug my crabapple tree, especially in the late fall when I’m done picking all the fruit to make crabapple butter. The tree is producing tons of small, sweetly tart fruit. Then I slave for days at the stove to process endless jars of the crabapple butter, a staple for breakfast in our kitchen. As far as the hardwood beyond our property - there is definitely less to hug these days.

Last crabapple's harvest 

New Kent County where we live is being aggressively deforested by a motivated army of loggers and developers. Jarring, devastated landscape they leave behind is either developed for one more cookie-cutter subdivision that nobody wants or needs, or it’s turned into a farming field where the “genetically enhanced” corn, soybeans or cotton are grown. The best option for those barren places is to be reseeded with the loblolly pine for a quick growing, harvestable timber. I don’t somehow feel like hugging loblolly pines. Bambi-eyed… Not a chance! A quick check in a rear view mirror- naaah, he definitely is wrong on that one. What was the other thing? Bleeding heart… Yes, my heart bleeds often lately when I see what is happening to our beautiful countryside. The irresponsible, greed-motivated practices of loggers, the cash strapped farmers inviting biosolids distributors to spread toxins on their farmland under the pretense of a “free natural fertilizer”. He is right, my heart bleeds a lot these days.

Liberal. No - I’m most definitely not a liberal, but that’s probably a subject for another discussion.

Frappuccino? Didn’t try that one yet. Once a week or so, when I have a moment, I treat myself to a tall latte at the coffee shop on the campus. I work at a state college, so the Ivy League we are not. And, I’m not a professor. Never found the time in my busy life nor the conviction and determination to pursue a doctorate. I don’t regret it any bit, I love working in the lab, hands-on daily experience of transforming theoretical ideas into concise scientific protocols and implementing them into a tangible results. I guess I’m more of a doer than a thinker. As far as writing goobly-gook articles, I suppose I’m partially guilty on that charge, although my articles are about molecular biology and genetics; sludge — not so much.

My involvement in the anti-sludge activism is not a part of my job. I do that in my spare time and it’s the result of my deep concern about what this disastrous practice is doing to our countryside.

How can I tell this farmer that I’m not his enemy? Come to think of it, anti-sludge folks are just as close to his allies as it gets. We are perhaps a different breed, but we surely share love and reverence for the land and do our best to truly be its stewards. How can I tell him that in my humble opinion, who he really needs to be furious at is the Big Sludge industry? And the people that approach farmers about the “nutrient-rich natural fertilizer” they will deliver for free to his farm.

And the industry paid for and bought so-called “scientists” that receive “research grants” from the Big Sludge to write enthusiastic publications on benefits of the sludge. They assure farmers with all the authority and seriousness of an accomplished professional that biosolids are a wonderful option for the natural composting. It’s such a wholesome practice, they say - just like grandpa used to do when he butchered some chicken and buried guts and feathers by the vegetable garden. I don’t know the exact numbers, but chicken guts and feathers (laden with arsenic) are a rather small percentage of the sludge coming from CAFO animal processing plants… Just because the corn grows tall, it doesn’t mean the sludge applied to your land is good for you and your family’s health.

I know of a farmer that has been using biosolids on his land for some 20 years and is an outspoken advocate for this “natural fertilizer”. Yet he simply refuses to consider the possibility that his young son’s untimely death due to cancer could be related to what he puts in his soil and what is in the dust the wind carries from his fields…. I met a couple with two teenage sons, both boys suffer from asthma and allergies. The neighbor, the father’s brother, uses biosolids on his farm and will tell you that this is one crazy idea that his two nephews’ health issues are in any way related to the sludge. Those farmers and their families are the first line of victims this environmental disaster claims.

How can I tell them to step away for a moment from a dollar and cents point of view and look around; is there maybe an autistic child in your family that was born since you’ve been using biosolids on your farm? Did your mom come down with Alzheimer’s even though there is no family history of that disease? Or maybe your older brother developed Parkinson’s at the age of 50? Is your wife perhaps suffering from constant rashes and eczema? Do you happen to have COPD or chronic cough? Are your grandkids allergic to just about every food item, cats, dogs, pollen, dust and things you didn’t know anybody can be allergic to?
It’s time to wake up and smell the biosolids. And when you do, please join us — we will fight this battle together.

Photos by Thomas Miller and Lidia Epp

Lidia Epp is active with a local group of residents concerned about the agricultural application of biosolids, a dangerous practice that devastates farmland. She corroborates with local activists, politicians and scientists to bring public awareness to this issue and advocates for changes in state and federal regulations of biosolids land use. Read all of Lidia’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

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