By Ulrike Axen
I heard news last week of a cougar sighting in Wisconsin; pictures from a trail camera were confirmed by the Wisconsin DNR. Out West where I lived, we were used to cougar sightings, but they are still rare here in the Midwest. These animals are probably looking for new territory, as their old one is gaining in population of large two-legged animals (that is, us).
We certainly have plenty of prey for them. On my drive down Highway 5 toward the Arboretum I encountered a much more common local wildlife occurrence: evidence of a deer/car collision. Having had a near collision myself the other evening, I was reminded once again that this season these animals seem to be almost ubiquitous along the roadside, especially at dusk. As their predators have all but disappeared, deer have taken over our backyards and roadsides; many gardeners put fences around plants that they want to protect from the marauders, particularly in winter.
Here in the suburbs, it seems we are often at odds with wildlife as we try to keep our lawns and surroundings pristine (think of rabbits chewing on your shrubs!). But as habitat disappears for our native creatures, we find them snacking on our gardens because there is nothing else available. What if we expanded our perception of our gardens as not only beautiful spaces, but also snack bars for the local wildlife? The Garden for Wildlife at the Arboretum offers ideas for plants that have year-round interest as well as food for animals. The bright-red berries on the winterberry, American chokeberry and American cranberrybush are some of my favorites, as well as the striking purple beautyberry.
My wildlife encounters at the Arboretum this day included a flock of wild turkey at the edge of the wildflower garden; these animals have also become much more prevalent in our area. Other birds I saw or heard were the chickadee (“chick-a-dee-dee-dee”), flocks of robins (probably migrating through–some stay and some go), a nuthatch, and the first juncos of the season. It was, of course, impossible to miss the honking of migrating Canadian geese overhead, and the ever-present cawing of crows.
I was lucky enough to see a downy woodpecker, and even though cardinals are here all summer, they seem to become more noticeable as we slide towards winter. Many of us already have backyard bird feeders–next time you are replanting, maybe you can come to the Arboretum for some ideas of plants that will serve as natural bird feeders!
Enjoy the season, and join us November weekends at the Arboretum for Free Family Fun at the Learning Center (noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays) to learn about something you should never plant–buckthorn:
Join the brigade to dig out villainous buckthorn. What evil crime has this invasive shrub committed, perhaps right in your neighborhood? Be part of an interactive play to find out! Celebrate your accomplishment with a steamy cup of cocoa, create a victory badge, play buckthorn card games, and decorate a piece of buckthorn to wear home.
Ulrike Axen is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.