ONE OF THE WAYS many of us have been getting through the last seven months is by taking comfort in the outdoors, in all that nature and the garden have to offer—by slowing down, looking around, and connecting. One person I know who does that as her 24/7/365 life practice is today’s podcast guest, wildlife rehabilitator and artist and author Julie Zickefoose.
I have to admit to being a fan girl of Julie’s, and when I need a lift lately—and who doesn’t in this most challenging year of all?—I often scroll through her Instagram to follow her latest wild bird rescue adventure, or her unfolding meadow showing off yet another sequence of bloom and beauty. Or frankly, sometimes just to enjoy the antics and videos and photos of the newest member of her family, a charismatic dog named Curtis Loew (above), and their deepening bond. And I’m not even a dog person.
Julie’s here on the podcast to help us all focus, to keep an eye on the outdoors—on our trail cameras, on her population of monarchs, and more. We talked about goings-on to have your eye on this fall.
You’ll hear us get all nerdy the first few minutes and compare recent birds sightings, and then finally get down to it: how these little visitors keep us going, year after year, and especially in a year like this. And then she gives us best-practice advice for feeding birds this winter (a conversation we continued October 14, 2020 in “The New York Times,” illustrated with her charming bird paintings).
Plus: Enter to win her book “Saving Jemima: Life and Love with a Hard-Luck Jay” in the comments box at the very bottom of the page.
Read along as you listen to the October 12, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
connecting to nature, with julie zickefoose
Margaret Roach: Hi Julie, how are you?
Julie Zickefoose: Hey, Margaret, I’m fine. I’m running around like a crazy squirrel.
Margaret: Well, I’m your fan girl. I’ve just confessed.
Julie: Oh my gosh.
Margaret: But seriously, I just find sometimes, and I don’t know if this is for you as well, but I wasn’t a big social-media person really personally so much, as much as for awaytogarden.com and whatever. But I have found sometimes there’s certain people who I feel relaxed when I look through what they’re doing and where they are, and your pictures relax me. [Laughter.]
Julie: That’s the intent. And I think probably I’m posting to relax myself and I tend to do it when I have a moment to reflect and just kind of draw a little meaning out of what I’m seeing. And I’m aggressively apolitical, because I will not survive if I become political.
Margaret: Yes, yes. We’re going to stick to, to ecology and garden and plants and birds and bugs and stuff like that. So no politics. I thought I’d do a giveaway of “Saving Jemima,” which was your most recent book, and we talked about it when it came out, I believe—I believe it was your most recent, your story of this hard-luck jay, this blue jay, that you rehabbed. Anyway, I love that book. It also relaxed me and gave me escape.
Julie: Lovely. Oh, that’s great.
Margaret: So I called you up because I want your expert advice on how to slow down and look around, where to begin. Because you really seem to have a practice of connecting to nature. So tell us a little bit about you and that.
Julie: Well, it really, really helps to have a dog with a bladder that has to be let out every morning [laughter], because, and I think a lot of us know this, the dog brings out our inner child. It forces us to go, “Oh, well I’ll just take a long walk with the dog.”
And that’s a wonderful excuse to get out each and every morning without fail because this is an imperative. So I turned that into a morning meditation that can sometimes go four hours or more, and that sounds like a sort of a rich Victorian lady way to live. I assure you of anything but that. But I don’t have an office that I have to go to. My orchard and meadow is my office. And once I realized that, my life took a decided turn toward the wonderful, and I realized that that observing things and sharing what I see is really my job. I’m one of those people out there who needs to do this and share.
Margaret: So tell us where you are.
Julie: I am in Southeast Ohio, in the Appalachian foothills of Ohio, about 20 miles northeast of Marietta in the extreme southeast corner of the state. So this is a very rolling, heavily wooded, highly diverse area. It’s much more akin geographically to West Virginia than it is to what most people think of as flat plains cornfield Ohio.
Margaret: So here we are, and when this is airing, it’s October and we will have been through most of the migration. Let’s just talk about the recent migration or the ongoing migration. Who’s been visiting? What have you been able to say hello to along the way?
Julie: Oh, it’s been so incredible. It was very late. Early September came and went without a bird, and I was worried. I didn’t have my normal pulse of juvenile birds coming through in mid-July. And I thought, “Uh-oh.”
And then mid- to late September, third week of September came around, and oh my goodness, it’s like the flood gates opened. So I was vastly reassured the birds had managed, despite the incredibly cruel spring of very, very low temperatures in late May, birds had managed to pull off some young. But they did it later than they normally do. So these birds were not ready to fly until probably just about now.
So they’re pouring through, and I think the main stars this year for me have been the bay-breasted warblers, who are everywhere, Blackpoll warblers as well. I get lots of Tennessees, as many people do. I sometimes think Tennessee warbler must be one of the most abundant birds on the planet. If you go down to Costa Rica, you see them in the coffee plantations, you see them in Guatemala on the mountaintops. They’re just all over the place. Magnolia warblers, chestnut-sided warblers. It’s just been so beautiful.
I will say that vireos are diverse. We’ve had blue-headed, red-eyed, white-eyed and Philadelphia here. So that’s always a thrill. Oddly, I get Philadelphia vireos but not warbling vireos. And I only get Philadelphia vireos in the fall. I’ve had one spring record in 28 years.
The same is true of Cape May warblers, who are among our most common migrants. I get gobs of them in the fall. I never use the word trash bird, but some birders do. I’ve got gobs of Cape May warblers, but I get very few in the spring. So that tells me that migration routes differ by season and probably by sex of the bird. It’s all so complex and fascinating and keeping notes is the whole point.
Margaret: And that’s what you just said. You said “record;” you referred to a record. And my neighbor up the hill, she loves birds as well, and she texted me, I don’t know, a week or two ago, or maybe it was mid-September, let’s say and she said, “Oh, I still have a lot of having hummingbirds.” We get just the ruby-throated in the Northeast here.
And she said, “I don’t usually get them after this week. I wonder if they’ll still be here next week.” So she keeps records.
So I quickly went to my eBird.org, my Cornell Lab of Ornithology database, to my member account there, and checked. And I texted her right back and I said, “October 4th, 2016 was the latest siting of a hummingbird I ever had.”
Margaret: Do you know what I mean? Hello. It comforts me. Continuity, right?
Julie: Yes. Tying yourself into the phenology of the season, being aware of what’s normal and what’s expected in a certain week is such a beautiful thing. And it’s the old way. It’s how people lived: “Oh, well, it’s about time for the bee birds to come back in.”
But we’ve gotten away from that. But it’s right within everyone’s reach, to just write it down on your computer, on your phone, in eBird, on paper, like I do. Write it down and then have something you can comb through, and see what your records look like. It’s a great, great thing to do and it ties you right in.
And then the nice segue you get there is journaling. If you’re going to write down the dates you see something, write about them. And writing helps you process everything you see and everything you experience, and then you have a record.
Margaret: You were speaking about all the diversity of warblers that you see, and if I actually ever left the house or garden and went anywhere, I probably would see even more. So I mostly do my birding from right near the house, right in my garden.
Julie: Me, too.
Margaret: So the black-throated blue warblers, I have always had them, but I don’t normally see them in season, I only see them during the migration. And this year I saw a female, and female warblers are sometimes hard, at least for me, to tell apart from whatever. They look so different—well, they always look so different from the male.
I saw this bird feeding on some Aralia racemosa, the spikenard-
Margaret: …the native perennial spikenard. And I saw this bird in there, and I looked with my binoculars and I saw this little white spot, this little white spot on the mid-wing. And I went to my book and I was so excited about “white spot, white spot.” And sure enough. And I’d seen the male a million times.
The other thing I love is the behavior, getting to know… Not just “I saw this bird. Check!” But “this is a bird that you’ll see it gleaning along the branches in trees, in deciduous trees.” I’ll see them, they’re going quickly around the branches and looking for goodies. Other birds don’t behave exactly the same way. I love watching for the behavior, too.
Julie: And you also mentioned Aralia racemosa as a plant. When I lived in Connecticut, I used to haunt a huge Hercules club, which is really Aralia spinosa.
Margaret: Which I have a whole grove of, yes. [Laughter.]
Julie: Oh my gosh. Well, that was always where the black-throated blues came. And how cool that you’ve got a warbler that seems to specialize, at least during fall migration, on Aralia species.
Margaret: Yes, it’s interesting. And of course usually who I see in both herbaceous and woody Aralia that you just mentioned, are various thrushes, and the Swainson’s comes only at this time of year, only at this time of year, for me. Different thrashes come and enjoy those fruits.
Julie: Yeah, Aralia spinosa is a thrush-a-palooza.
Julie: We’re having that right now, I’m holding a thrush-a-palooza in my orchard. I’ve got a hermit. Hermit [thrush] has only just arrived, but Swainson’s—we’ve just been overwhelmed with them. And a wood [thrush]. And I have heard, and finally, I made the gray-cheeked thrush, my whooping crane this fall—there’s a beautiful Lyle Lovett song about his looking for a whooping crane and not being able to find one. I kept hearing the gray-cheeked thrush going [she then imitates the bird’s call]… Which is its unique little call. And I finally saw one utter the queerp, and got a definitive idea. Of course, I couldn’t get a picture. The thrushes are just about impossible.
But that same day I came in from birding and I sat down at my drawing table and a Swainson’s thrush plopped itself into my bird bath and took a soaking bath. So I got fabulous photos of that. And that was only the second Swainson’s thrush I’ve had bathe in the bath. The last one was in September 2004.
Margaret: Not that anyone keeps records of these things. [Laughter.]
Julie: Not that anyone here is keeping records or is being a nerd about it. I’m being a total nerd about it. I’ve got a bath list for my bath and I think it at somewhere around 79 species of birds have bathed in my bird bath.
Margaret: Oh! Not that we’re trying to just list birds out loud, audience listening or reading the transcript, but what we’re trying to say is: This is what keeps us going. This is our connection. Both of us, here we are two people, half a country apart from each other, and for years, and years and years, this has kept us going. So it’s a practice we both recommend, yes, as life-sustaining.
Julie: Can I also introduce another practice that I see lots of people engaging in, and that I have done over the years? Monarch caterpillars are such incredibly fascinating creatures to observe, and finally there were enough this year, such that I was able to establish a little monarch ranch in my front yard [above].
I don’t say that I raise them, that seems rather arrogant. So I like to observe them outside. I think they should grow up outside in the free air and open wind and I think it prevents a lot of disease. So I watched them on the Asclepias I was growing in pots on my front porch, and I managed to take in 10 caterpillars, caught them as they went on walkabout to do their pupation. And I got immersed in making time-lapse videos of them forming chrysalides and then emerging from the chrysalis. It is so addictive. It’s so amazing. I made videos in real time and I made most of them in time-lapse using an iPhone.
Margaret: And we’ll give links to those both on… You had some of them, I think on Instagram didn’t you, and on the website.
Julie: Yes, my Instagram feed has some. I have yet to unleash what I’ve been doing, because I’ve got a lot of editing to do. [Laughter.] It’s one of those things that I got sucked down a whirlpool and I realized I had something very, very special. So being there for their emergence has been my goal.
And again, it’s like the art of tea. You begin to notice incredibly subtle things about their behavior that tell you when they’re about to go through a life change, and you also then become… Hawk-like intent, you focus on the chrysalis and you notice the tiny changes in it that tells you the butterfly’s about to emerge. And it’s just so cool.
Yesterday I had to go out at noon. I had to leave the house, drop-dead date noon, just because I had to be an hour and a half away at 2. So I had this pair of chrysalides and they were just about to eclose, and I prayed to whatever gods I have that they eclosed in time for me to make videos. And they did. It was just way, way, way cool and I just released the last one this morning.
Margaret: I have told you in email, but I’ll say it out loud here: I also, this year, besides getting a new pair of binoculars during the beginning of the pandemic, I also got some trail cameras and got some help from a local expert in setting them up, learning and understanding how to set them up and what I was looking for and so forth.
And that’s been another way of engaging, and especially with the nightlife. Who’s out at night—hysterical pictures of not one set, but four sets of eyeballs in the dark, in infrared light glowing in the dark, and it’s like… [Many raccoon eyes at Margaret’s, below; date and time are of course wrong.]
Julie: And it literally laugh-out-loud moments where I have lots of fun with the trail cams, like coyotes approaching skunks and skunks then raising the tail and backing up at the coyote. You’re just like, “Oh, I know what’s going on in this picture.” Just laugh-out-loud moments. Or when the deer comes up to lick the camera. It’s just so fabulous.
Margaret: I feel like that’s something where it’s not a million dollars to get involved in it, and it’s something where it’s great with children, I would imagine. It would be very engaging with children, for the family to look forward once a week or whatever to the downloads and the teaching that can come with it. I feel like that’s looking ahead to the holidays, that would be an amazing family gift, is to invite a trail camera into your world. Again, it doesn’t have to be the million-dollar ones. It can start simple.
Julie: And here’s the cool thing. I fought the increasing tech on these things for a long time. And I now have one from Moultrie Mobile, which is a subscription-based thing. And this crazy thing sends me an alert when something walks by the game cam and I get it on my phone. And if you want something addictive, just have your phone say, “Oh, there’s something walking by game cam Number 1.” [Laughter.]
Julie: I know, I know. Quite often it’s a leaf falling, or something coming down like an acorn, something like that. But sometimes it’s a bobcat and then it’s like, “Oh my God, right now in my meadow is a coyote walking right there.” And isn’t that cool to know?
Margaret: So that’s just another thing. And I definitely want to take a number of minutes here, because I know what’ll happen is we’ll start talking warblers again and run out of time [laughter], but I wanted…
One of the things that’s coming up is quote bird feeder season. I can’t feed because as we’ve talked about before, because I have black bear who love to come to the house. So I don’t feed from sometime in March until Thanksgiving or around there.
But the peak feeder season, whether you have black bear or you don’t have black bear is often the winter. That’s when a lot of people are thinking about it. And I just wanted to ask you, looking ahead to that, you feed at certain times of year and what’s best practices and how do we engage more with that? Not just put the feeder out there, but make that part of our life, really.
Julie: Well, since you and I have been corresponding, I’ve been thinking a lot about the whole black bear issue, and that’s an animal that people are often surprised to hear me say, “I do not want black bears. I never want to see a black bear in my yard. Thank you very much.” I’ve got coons, that’s plenty. But yeah, I really, really empathize with you on that, that possibility of having everything destroyed in the swipe of a paw because these things live in your area.
We are not yet cursed with black bears in Southeast Ohio, but I know they’re coming.
And I have to think though, that this is better for birds, to not feed when it’s warm. From a disease standpoint, as a wildlife rehabilitator, I’ve seen so much disease in summer feeding, and I stopped feeding in mid-July this year. I took a step back and I said, “Julie, what are you doing?”
Because I had house finches coming, they came and nested in the yard and it was all adorable and wonderful and I could look into the nest and see them.
Well, then they raised nine young, and five of those came down with Mycoplasmal gallisepticum, which is the stupid house finch disease that chickens carry that got into the Eastern house finch population and proliferated because these birds are genetically inbred; they’re genetically depressed. [Above, a finch with the disease at Julie’s.] They have no resistance to it and they catch it. So then they go about and transmit it to at least 30 other species of wild birds, including my beloved blue jays.
So I looked at these sick birds, huddled on my feeder, huddled in my bird bath, pooping into the water, and I said, “Julie, what are you doing? This is the most selfish thing you could possibly do.”
I pulled down all the feeders, I bleached them, and I put them away until today. And that was really difficult for me because these are my friends, these are my neighbors, these birds—especially the blue jays. And it was so hard to have them come by the studio window and actually beg from me and say, “You haven’t put it out today. What’s going on?” And I’d have to look them in the eye and I say, “It’s for your own good. Go get a caterpillar. Goodbye.”
So I think bears are sort of forcing the pendulum, at least in the Northeast and down the Appalachian chain, to swing back toward what makes sense, which is to feed the birds when they actually might need it.
Margaret: To supplement in winter.
Julie: Exactly. To supplement in winter. That’s what feeding ought to be. And I think a lot of us have completely lost sight of that, and people are feeding their birds live mealworms all summer long. They don’t need that. It’s not good for them. It causes overproduction in bluebirds, and people get convinced that they are the center of the birds’ universe, and the birds are only too happy to reinforce that foolish notion.
Margaret: So in the last couple, two, three minutes, when do we feed?
Margaret: Yes, I know, we’re always out of time; we’re always out of time. It should be called awaytogardenoutoftime.com. [Laughter.]
But when we get to the point where we’re ready to feed, for me, that’s, again, Thanksgiving-ish, I have a thing against those mixes, the cheaper bagged mixes, they’re mostly millet, proso millet or whatever, anyway. I just like to feed something that’s super high-value. I’m going to give you the recipe for your Zick Dough, the link to your recipe, because you make this wonderful concoction also, and we talked about it the last time. [Above, a titmouse jumps for joy over Zick Dough.] But what seeds do you feed?
Julie: My favorite staple is the peanut half. And these are rejects from the candy industry. They’re pretty hard to find at an affordable price, but I buy them by the 50-pound bag at my beloved White’s Mill in Athens, Ohio. So I just brought 50 pounds home yesterday. I roast them myself because I think it’s probably more digestible and I like the smell of roasting peanuts, and it gives me something nerdy to do. The other staple is the sunflower chip, the little heart.
Margaret: That’s what I use, yeah.
Julie: There’s no waste. You aren’t poisoning your lawn with holes. You aren’t going to get the flour moths in them quite as badly without knowing they’re in… You know what I mean? You have a whole thing of black oil sunflower and they all have holes drilled in them, so they aren’t even edible, but you can’t even tell.
So those are my two staples. And then I do put out black oil sunflower with shells and I put out nyjer for the goldfinches and the siskins. But the two are the sunflower chips and the peanuts because there’s no waste and they don’t wreck my lawn under… Not that I have a beautiful lawn, but they don’t wreck it.
Margaret: And water year round do you have?
Julie: Yes, I have water year-round. I take the bird spa down, the bubbling bird spa, and then I put out a heated pet dish, which is very cheap—and I put a couple of bricks in it and a nice flat rock so the birds can’t bathe in it, they can only drink from it. And the big rock also keeps them from pooping in it quite so much. So I have that going all winter, and that’s been wonderful. You’ll get flickers and thrushes and tanagers and stuff like that. It’s very cool.
Margaret: Well, Julie, we are going to have to have another date to do this because I can just tell there’s a million other things we need to talk about, but I’m so happy to hear your voice and it’s cheered me up, so thank you, thank you, thank you for your time.
Julie: Oh Margaret anytime, anytime. And your voice cheers me, too. Thank you for doing what you do.
Margaret: All right, and we’ll people through a link to your Instagram to meet Curtis, Mr. Curtis.
Julie: Curtis Loew.
Margaret: All right. Talk to you soon.
(All photos courtesy of Julie Zickefoose or her Instagram.)
more from julie
- On Instagram (also starring Curtis Loew)
- Our “New York Times” interview about best practices for birdfeeding
- Her blog
- Her books on Amazon (affiliate link)
enter to win a copy of ‘saving jemima’
I’LL BUY A COPY OF ‘Saving Jemima: Life and Love with a Hard-Luck Jay’ by Julie Zickefoose (affiliate link) for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page:
What’s you favorite garden visitor this time or year and into winter (and tell us where you garden)?
No answer, of feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will,but a reply is even better. I’ll select a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, October 20, 2020. Good luck to all.
(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the October 12, 2020 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).