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Friday, November 27, 2009

Here Comes Winter Bird Feeding

by Joe Wilkinson

Our balmy-at-times November so far may have misled you. Things are cooling down now, though. All that's missing is the snow and wind for Iowa's winter bird feeding season to settle down around us.

Actually, most of those
winter birds are here. That's why it's a good idea to get those cold weather feeding stations up and running. "It will help establish their feeding patterns. You'll be on the 'circuit,' so to speak, for those migratory birds that are moving around right now," explains Pat Schlarbaum, nongame wildlife technician with the Department of Natural Resources.

And there are a lot of us out there. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says one-third of Iowans watch wildlife. And more than 400,000 of us take our wildlife viewing on the road. Between serious birders traveling to hard-to-reach viewing areas and families with a pair of binoculars in the park, birds and birding make up a big share of that demand.

It all starts in your backyard. "We've definitely seen an increase in traffic; people coming in buying feeders and stuff," notes Ronda Wilson, who runs Birds Eye View in Coralville. "They're buying black oil sunflower seeds...that interests most of the native songbirds. Some of them are getting specific seed to attract specific species, though."

If you stock just one feeder, or just one type of feed, black oil sunflower seed is the standard. "It's the most widely appreciated feed for the 'more desirable' species; the cardinals, nuthatches, chickadees, the tufted titmice," said Schlarbaum.

Though you can take home seed in 25 or 50 pound bags, to get a break in the price, the spike in the seed oil market has rounded off in the past year. The continent-wide ethanol boom over the last couple years didn't just create a demand for more corn. It also hiked interest in peanuts, safflower and sunflower seeds. That sent prices higher, particularly in 2008, with flood related losses and higher transportation costs. "Prices are down significantly this fall," relays Wilson. "They had gone through the roof; sunflower seeds, nyjer and peanuts, a year or so ago."

Depending on your interest...and the size of your feeding area, you can
branch out from there. Nyjer thistle seed keeps goldfinches coming back. Peanuts attract the stately gray on white titmice, perhaps even more than sunflower seeds. It took less than a day for a big sapsucker to zero in on my wire peanut feeder. Hairy and downy woodpeckers climb all over it, too. I take down my nectar feeders about mid-October after the hummingbirds clear out and pull out the wire suet feeders; which are woodpecker favorites, too. I filled one, but it's neglected until we get snow on the ground, apparently.

Overall, the message is simple. If you fill it, they will come. Still, serious backyard bird barons work a couple more 'feather factors' into their feeding regime. A water source; say a bird bath with a heating element, can multiply the bird population. A quick splash lets birds clean themselves and better regulate body heat; critical for those tiny bodies in bitter cold weather.

On the other hand, you may have too many birds. "House sparrows, grackles...some of the more undesirable species; you have some luck luring them away if you scatter some cracked corn or the cheaper feed mixes in a back corner of your property," suggests Schlarbaum.

If you're a 'no-squirrel advocate,' like me, safflower seeds do not appeal to them...but are favorites of cardinals. Most full service wildlife stores have squirrel-proof feeders...and others that discourage sparrows. Wilson says there is a big move toward 'green feeders;' those made from recycled plastic, rather than wood.

The view from your window is hard to beat, on a subzero day with the flitting reds, whites and blues...and ten shades of gray. And the time spent filling those feeders and maybe even looking a little beyond your back yard, gets you and your family outdoors, too...even it if is just watching from the window.

Getting Started? Stepping it Up?

Any full service bird supply store or counter can answer your 'getting started' questions, if you want to feed the birds or otherwise enjoy winter wildlife. It might take just an $8 dollar feeder and a small bag of sunflower seed. Most veteran feeders discourage setting out the cheap mixes which are heavy on millet. From there, though, the sky's the limit, for feeder choices and the various seeds, suet and side treats.

A variety of websites and blogs are out there, too. Hopefully, you'll remember your goal is to enjoy the outdoors...not stare at a computer screen. A few good sites to get you rolling include:,, and the DNR's website; (click on nongame wildlife, left column).

Check out this great video from Iowa DNR

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Call for Nominations: Iowa's Most Endangered Properties 2010

Iowa Historic Preservation Alliance's Most Endangered List Due November 23

Is a historic property near you threatened with demolition, or is it abandoned and slowly deteriorating? If so, nominate it to the 2010 list of Iowa's Most Endangered Properties.

Iowa's Most Endangered Properties is a program begun in 1995 to show Iowans the special buildings and historic sites that are slowly and gradually slipping away from us. Each year a call is placed for nominations through the IHPA membership, Main Street communities, and historic preservation commissions across the state.

A panel of judges considers four criteria in choosing the final list: geographic distribution, historic significance, nature of the threat, and variety of building type. The program provides an excellent resource for media coverage and introduces endangered property owners to preservation advocates and resources that can help preserve their historic property

IHPA's Most Endangered program showcases Iowa's historic resources that need our help the most. Find out more and download the nomination form and entry guidelines on the Most Endangered Properties page.

Iowa Preservationists: please don't let this opportunity pass to call attention to an endangered historic property in your community. The Iowa Historic Preservation Alliance (IHPA) has just extended the deadline for Iowa's Most Endangered Properties List submissions to November 23. For more information, visit

If you have questions, please contact George Wakeman at 712.251.7732 or or Sheriffa Jones at 712.262.2083 or

IHPA Annual Meeting December 7, 2009
Join the IHPA Board of Directors for our annual meeting on Monday, December 7 in Valley Junction at the West Des Moines Community Center (217 5th Street, 2nd Floor, Veterans Memorial Room). Come meet the IHPA Board, learn about IHPA's activities over the last year, and learn about the exciting changes we have in store for 2010!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Green Valley State Park to Close during Special Deer Hunt

Green Valley State Park will be closed to the general public November 21, 22 and 23, in order to hold a special park deer hunt. The sixth annual hunt is designed to allow 30 hunters to harvest up to 60 does, using only muzzleloaders.

All hunters have registered and will receive two antlerless tags each, redeemable only during the special hunt at the designated areas and specified dates.

To ensure a safe event, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources will have extra staff on hand to patrol the park boundaries. For safety reasons, the park will close on Nov. 21 and reopen on Nov. 24.

“The hunt helps to keep the park’s deer population under control. We have had five successful hunts and we are hoping this year’s hunt will be just as good,” said Park Ranger Alan Carr. “All hunters have attended a special safety meeting for this hunt and we are expecting it to go just as well as in the past. We hope to harvest as close to 60 female deer as we can and do it in a safe and efficient manner.

“This has shown to be a great management tool for state parks to maintain a balance in the deer herd. People want to see deer when they come to park, but we can’t have so many deer that they destroy their habitat and create a lot of crop damage for neighboring landowners,” Carr said.
The hunt will likely remain an annual event. Research shows that if these hunts stop, the deer population tends to increase rather quickly. The number of deer that are targeted for removal may change depending on the research. The final decision is made by the depredation biologist.

For questions, contact the park office at (641) 782-5131.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Mountain bikers build their own paths


A small group of mountain bikers didn't sit around and whine after they were booted out of Browns Woods south of Des Moines in 1996.

They meticulously built a network of dirt trails in central Iowa.

"Our state doesn't have a lot of public land so the battle for everybody to get their own is a lose-lose. The answer is in how to improve and share these trails," said Ryan Hanser, president of the Central Iowa Trails Association.

The trail work continues Saturday with volunteer trail building. The benefits will be on display Sunday, Nov. 15, during the Des Moines Dirty Duathlon race.

"People don't understand that dirt trails don't just happen if a lot of us walk in the same place," Hanser said. "Good trails don't build themselves. When built right, they last for generations and don't require a lot of maintenance. But the construction is pretty demanding."

With 50 members, CITA helped build:
- A dirt trail system in Des Moines' Greenwood and Ashworth Parks that links to adjacent Water Works Park. (Seven miles).

- Sycamore Trail on the west side of the Des Moines River north of Euclid Avenue. (7.5 miles).
- Summerset State Park off Highway 69 between Indianola and Des Moines. (Four miles).

City officials estimate the volunteers worked 350 hours in Greenwood Park alone, estimated at $70,000 of labor.

It took a lot of toil through the woods and up and down hills with fire-fighting equipment such as hoses, axes, fire rakes and tampers.

And it took expertise.

After mountain biking popularity spread from the coasts to the Midwest in the mid-1990s, Hanser said, conflict between users developed.

But proper trail design, aided by advice from the International Mountain Biking Association, helped calm the tensions.

Well-designed trails alleviate erosion and collisions with slower-moving walkers by being tight and technical, Hanser said.

City officials say the volunteers have been vital.
"These trails not only benefit mountain bikers but also anyone who wants to get up close to nature," said Mindy Moore, city park planner.

A parks department survey of Des Moines residents found that 80 percent of households rank walking and biking trails as their greatest recreation need.

Moore said plans for more unpaved trails are in the works following a study last summer on appropriate locations. A skill-building, BMX-like dirt track is in development in Bates Park.
Area mountain bikers gather for weekly rides and competitions, linked at

Hanser said other dirt trail networks have formed across the state, including in the Quad Cities, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Cedar Falls, Council Bluffs and Decorah, with a showcase system in Whiterock Conservancy near Coon Rapids under consideration.

"It's really about Iowans volunteering," he said.

Race Event on Nov. 15
Des Moines Dirty Duathlon. Greenwood Park, Des Moines. Sunday, Nov. 15. Registration, 10 a.m.; Beginner race, 11 a.m.; Free kids race, 12:30 p.m.; Open/relay race, 1 p.m. $25.
Additional Facts
How to volunteer
Volunteers are needed for trail work. No experience required; wear sturdy shoes, eye protection and bring water.

- Saturday, Nov. 7, 1-5 p.m., Greenwood Park, 4500 Grand Ave., Des Moines. (Meet at Ashworth Pool.) Rerouting trail.

- Saturday, Nov. 14. 8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Summerset State Park, east of Highway 69 between Des Moines and Indianola. Building trail.