This place is for the birds!

By LeAnn Luce, West Region Program Manager, Indiana State Museum and State Historic Sites 

Recently I heard a cheerful sound. A repetitive “fee-bee, fee-bee” call came from outside my office window located in the “House of the Singing Winds,” the historic home of T.C. Steele. I immediately registered it as one of the many bird sounds I hear every day … but today this call spoke to me.

Most days I have been inclined to completely ignore the bird, bat, butterfly and bullfrog sounds that are in constant symphony here. I work on the programming details of several Indiana State Historic sites; pursue grant writing and spend most of my time concentration at the computer. My mother has visited the site and says, “I don’t how you get anything done … I would spend all of my time looking out of the window.” She is right; I had to condition myself to ignore the seasonal and day-to-day splendor of the flora and fauna that is found here.

But on this particular day, that sound made work truly impossible. I was actually becoming annoyed at the frequent persistence and repetition of the call. I decided to step outside and investigate.

What caught my eye first was the flitting, manic flight of a little gray-brown bird. The bird landed on a nearby tree branch, issued several sharp chip, chip calls and began frantically pumping its tail in what I interpreted as a territorial defense. I looked around the West Porch to see what might be making the little bird so agitated. I looked up and saw the oddest sight. Right under the eave was a nest anchored with marvelously sculpted mud and covered with beautiful green moss. In it were three little heads poking up, but remaining completely still. I had never seen a bird or a nest quite like this. Now I understood what all the commotion was about.

I had just seen my first Eastern Phoebe and her unique architecturally developed nest. This little architect had built a handsome piece of art and she had chosen to do so right here under the eaves of the art-filled, enchanting home of T.C. and Selma Steele. What a smart little bird!

I researched information about the Eastern Phoebe. This bird species is quite loyal to their nests and will reuse them year after year. With a little spring cleaning an old nest can look like new. In contrast, most songbirds build completely new nests every year.

The irony of this information was not lost on me. It is exactly what the Indiana State Historic Sites do with our state’s architectural treasures that are visited each year by thousands of visitors. Preservation, conservation and interpretation efforts are made and guarded at these sites so that these places can be frequented for years and years to come by visitors in the future. The hardworking staff and their dedication can be seen at any of the 11 sites open to the public.

So take a lesson from a little bird and come and see what the State Historic Sites are all about.

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Snow on the mounds

Written by Mike Linderman, Sectional Archaeology Manager at Angel Mounds State Historic Site

Mound G covered in a light blanket of snow.

Evansville rarely gets any measurable snowfall, so when we do, we rush to get photos of the mounds being blanketed with the white precipitation. Several week ago we had a little over an inch, and it came down gradually, looking more like a fog on the site than snow.

Stillness falls over the site during a snowfall and you can forget that we are surrounded by a major city. It can give you a glimpse into what life may have been like almost 600 years ago at the time the site was abandoned.

Our wildlife becomes more apparent during times like this. Although we may not see them during the day, we see that they are actively leaving tracks all over the site after we leave at 5 p.m. Conservation Officers have counted a herd of over 80 deer in one evening on the site. Angel Mounds consists of 603 acres, over ½ in woods and therefore a great place to animal watch, especially in the winter. Jim Burton, our Site Naturalist, recently counted over 40 varieties of birds on the site, along with our year round residents the beaver, muskrat, fox and coyote.

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Inventorying the Loblolly Marsh

Loblolly Marsh Bioblitz '09

Loblolly Marsh Bioblitz '09

How do you take an inventory of a swamp? Well, it involves a lot of nets. And bug spray. Oh, and sunscreen.

On Friday, I took a road trip to the Limberlost State Historic Site in Geneva, Indiana (Adams County). My mission? To “assist” 24 scientists in taking an inventory of the flora and fauna of the Loblolly Marsh.

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Considering a Pet?

scales_tails_greyhoundsWarm weather and spring showers have crept in this year and it’s a good time to think about our pets and the other wild critters that share this great state with us. Since it’s also the time of year when we think of baby animals, we should keep in mind that pet over population can affect both pet owners and non-pet owners. Luckily, spay and neuter organizations offer low-cost procedures and trap-and-release programs offer ordinary citizens the chance to help curb feral cat populations in a humane way.

scales_tails_snakeThe sheer number of adoptable dogs and cats in Indiana has rescue groups working overtime to find them loving homes. Not only do they have so many great animals available for adoption, but they work with potential pet parents to make sure the animal and owner are well matched. If you’re looking for a mellow cat, an energetic dog, or maybe a bird to keep you company, there are groups who can give you the 411 on what you can expect from these animals and what would be expected from you.

Check with one of the many Indiana rescue groups if you’re considering a new pet or would like to help out as a foster parent. Whether you’re fond of a specific breed of animal or you’re partial to “mutts” there are groups that need your help.

scales_tails_dog_hugWant more information? Enjoy a chance to meet many of these hard-working people and some neat animals during Scales & Tails Fest – A Celebration of Pets on Saturday, June 13 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Indiana State Museum. A number of breed-specific dog rescue groups will be on-hand, as well as those specializing in exotic animals and cats. New this year is the Reptile Room which will feature a collection of reptiles from the Hoosier Herpetological Society and native species from O’Bannon State Park.  There will also be live demonstrations, educational presentations and take-home crafts! 

For a complete list of participating organizations, visit the official Indiana State Museum website’s Scales & Tails page.

Blowin’ in the wind

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

It’s finally warm enough for me to leave my windows open at night. This lets me wake to the sounds of Wild Turkeys gobbling and Phoebes scolding, rather than the ring of my alarm clock. I don’t even mind the occasional midnight interruption of sleep by barred owls, coyotes or distant trains. I welcome it after a winter closed-off from the sounds of nature.

The past two days have been the nicest yet this spring. Perfect temperatures and a steady breeze that’s been bringing in more that just optimistic thoughts. At T.C. Steele State Historic Site yesterday, I met retired I.U. biology professor Don Whitehead. He was out scouting for birds for an upcoming hike. He noted that the recent winds had brought in a lot of migrating birds overnight and he expected even more to have arrived by the next day. Perfect timing for his bird hike.

I listened to Don as he listed the birds he was hearing — Scarlet Tanager, Vireos and others. I couldn’t filter out individual calls through the noise of the wind, much less identify which bird was doing the calling. Identifying birds by their songs seems as much magic as skill to me.

I know that any skill can be developed with practice and repetition, but some people seem to have a gift for languages, including the avian ones. Spring is a season of optimism, so I’ve set an ambitious goal — to learn one new bird call this year. I’ll never match Don’s repertoire, but I hope to have another familiar sound to listen for next spring when I open up the windows again.

So, where’s the connection to the title — a line from a Bob Dylan song? These recent breezes have reminded me of our need to (re)sharpen our senses. Today’s world leaves us isolated from nature and we’ve lost skills once taken for granted. By listening to the wind through my open window, I can tell which way the wind blows. It sounds different coming through the pines to the north than it does from the west where it passes through deciduous trees.

The Steeles didn’t need the weather channel either. The House of the Singing Winds was named for the sound the breezes made blowing through the porch screens. A sleeping porch was included in the house’s original design, so they woke up knowing immediately what the weather was.

Dylan’s weatherman reference has a double meaning, which those of us who grew up during a ‘certain era’ may recognize. But the winds blowing this spring are not ones of discontent, and I hope they will return this summer to blow away the humidity Indiana is so famous for. I don’t want to be too tempted to shut the windows, turn on the air, and have to rely on the weatherman to tell me wind direction.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

Thoughts on the Food Chain

Preparing for the Spring Wildflower Foray, I did a pre-hike of the Wildflower Trail here at T.C. Steele State Historic Site. So far this year the trail hasn’t really lived up to its name. Spring has sprung cold and wet. I wasn’t finding many blooms — yet I wasn’t disappointed. As with most hikes, I came upon something unexpected, and that made up for the lack of wildflowers.

Down in a ravine, where the trail runs alongside an intermittant stream, a small animal skull was laying in the middle of the path. Bending down for a closer look, I could see that it had very recently been someone’s dinner (or breakfast). The question was, who-who-who-whos?

The skull was fresh, picked nearly clean with traces of blood still visible. That was all though — no other body parts around. Then I noticed several large white patches on the ground surrounding it. I knew these were some kind of bird droppings, so that narrowed my list of suspects. The second puzzle was the identity of the victim. My first thought was an opossum, but inspecting the teeth, I found they weren’t pointed. The two center teeth curved down and were blunt on the ends — typical of a rodent.

I stood awhile trying to imagine the scene that had taken place only hours earlier. Perhaps an owl had ‘dined’ on a chipmunk then dropped the leftovers from a branch overhead … bad manners. The skull was too large for a chipmunk though. I’ve noticed lots of squirrels this year, maybe there’s one less now. Really, all I could say for certain was, “Bird killed rodent,” but a short while later I heard another possible explanation.

I was telling a co-worker what I’d seen and was overheard by a visitor out birding. He asked what I’d found and I offered my suspicions, that an owl had killed and eaten a squirrel. He thought a squirrel was pretty big prey for an owl (unless it was a Great Horned owl), plus there was no real evidence that the diner was also the killer.

Many birds, like crows, belong to the Clean Plate Club and will finish up what some other critter has already killed and left behind. Hmmm … that could explain why only the skull was there. I was impressed by his reasoning, but frustrated, since he had just reopened the case.

Sometimes trying to figure out a puzzle is as satisfying as finding the solution. I hoped that the skull would still be there the next day for the hike I was leading. Maybe someone in the group would have yet another explanation. Still wondering about it, I went in search of lunch. Maybe I’d just have a salad.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.