Resolving to become a better naturalist

Bluebell wood image courtesy of Shutterstock
Bluebell wood image courtesy of Shutterstock

They knew where to go for the first of everything: the first snowdrops, the first catkin, primroses, violets, forget-me-nots, wild roses, honeysuckle. These flowers appeared in turn on the nursery sills almost as soon as they appeared in the woods and fields.
The Priory, Dorothy Whipple

 “I should fall back on Nature, hard, if I were you.
Ordinary Families, E. Arnot Robertson

As a lifelong reader of novels written in Britain before and between the two world wars—and there is a very large group of these, many under the Persephone and Virago imprints—I am always amazed by the familiarity with which every possible bird, tree, and wild plant is mentioned. One of the reasons I love these books is that the characters are generally nature lovers and often gardeners. Of course, in England, the land surrounding a house is always a garden, never a yard, so the word garden is used much more often than it would be in an American book.

From toddler-age on up, the people in these novels can identify almost everything they see outdoors, and they’re outdoors a lot. Even the city dwellers have country retreats that they visit often. From the first snowdrop to the last Michaelmas daisy, plants and their seasons are as much a part of the narrative as births, marriages, and deaths.

I didn’t have quite this intimacy with nature growing up, though I was certainly outside a lot. We liked plants and animals, but we didn’t really know too much about them. It was only when I started gardening that I learned all the names, and I’m still clueless about a lot of what I see on walks.

There is hope, however. Our local preserves are excellent and well-equipped with helpful signage. I have books, which still work the best for plant identification; I’ve given up on the apps.

We did have high expectations of our feeder (with its expensive gourmet seed), but it seems to attract very uninteresting species: mainly house sparrows, house finches, and a few chickadees. For better birds, you have to head to the parks and preserves.

So that’s my plan this year. I’ll visit the Audubon preserves—especially the bog that has the wild orchids—and the many other wildflower and bird spotting sites and sharpen my knowledge. 2016 will be a good year to fall back on nature—hard. Gardening won’t be enough.

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Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. “We did have high expectations of our feeder…”

    First of all, you will notice fewer birds in a warm winter. Yet to attract a greater variety, one needs many feeders with different footholds, evergreen protection, and most of all, a “forested” area next door, preferably with a creek or water feature.

    Of course, to get the attraction going even today, make your own suet. This morning the yellow-bellied sapsucker wouldn’t wait for me to smear it on the tree. He had to eat it out of my hand. When I walk out back with the suet, four species of woodpecker fly to greet me and the nuthatches wha-wha-wha away. And, I’m in the ‘burbs. Smear it, throw it, add it to a feeder. (There is a good feeder to discourage the starlings.)

    You can find recipes on the internet. I can share mine, if interested.

    Just as we love nature, as you so beautifully write, the birds can grow to love us.

  2. Thanks, Marcia! I have been using suet, though I buy a high-quality cake form. (I love nature, but I don’t love making suet, nor do I have much time for DIY.) We actually gave the starling/squirrel-proof suet feeders as holiday gifts this year. I suspect there are more types of birds in the burbs than where I am in the middle of the city. The city parks do better.

    • I can understand not enjoying the DIY all the time.

      However, just a note to your readers…. the suet cakes one buys just don’t attract the birds like homemade soft suet. The fat (often beef) in suet is really just used to hold the seeds and nuts which is what the birds really want. And, it’s often hard, especially when cold out.

      But, what if you offered them soft peanut butter, corn meal, and vegetable shortening as the base itself? Birds love soft foods (insects, fruit) and to offer them a soft, easily digested, nourishing option, even when it’s 10 degrees outside – they’ll be all over you.

      I buy the few ingredients that go into the suet when on sale or at clubs, and it takes 5 minutes to make the equivalent of 3 cakes for less $$.

      So, if you live near an area where you might find a variety of birds, they’ll be in your yard if you add this offering.

    • I hang suet cakes in the winter, too. They attract the bug eating birds. I want them to know where I live. Suet is also less messy than seed.

  3. Nice thoughts, Elizabeth! No matter how avid we are about gardening, and whether we are urban or suburban or rural, we cannot grow every plant or provide habitat for every animal on our own properties. The more we appreciate nearby public wild areas, the better chance they’ll remain for future generations (of people and plants and wildlife) to appreciate.

  4. Nice post Elizabeth. We could all use a reminder to seek the natural spaces in our environment.
    We are in our second year of leaving our hummingbird feeder out over winter, and I have mixed feelings. Everywhere I’ve looked, people say that doing this doesn’t keep them from migrating and set them up for death by freezing, and last year the hummers that overwintered did great, and stayed with us all year. But this year, we found a dead hummer under the feeder after a bad weather stretch, and I am rethinking it. There are 2 more birds still feeding off the feeder, so I will leave it up, but I don’t know if I will continue next winter.

  5. It has been my goal for a number of years now to be able to identify every plant that I see around me. I live in a rural area on 10 acres which backs up to state land so I am always finding plants that are new to me. I also go on botany hikes with a group to learn more. It is just a joy to really SEE what is around me and for me, that involves learning the names.

  6. Great post! Marcia, I would love your home-made suet recipe! Could you post it here? We have several feeders and store-bought suet and get a nice variety of birds but I’d love to make my own suet. Happy New Year to all.

  7. I used to believe that knowing the name of a wildflower or plant in the fields or woods was unnecessary. Even more than that, I used to think that knowing the name removed some of the joy. It’s only when I started gardening that I began to learn plant names and to realize how much greater my pleasure was when I knew something about the plant, its needs and habits. I love identifying new discoveries and then reading up on them. Like Susan, above, my goal is to be able to identify all the plants around me. I doubt I’ll ever succeed, and that’s ok, it simply keeps me going.

  8. Thanks, Marte.

    One of the reasons I attract a variety of birds to my yard is because of the varied diet I offer them. I do this because the tool they use, the beak, can be so different from one species to the next. Finches, including the house sparrow, a.k.a. weaver finch, have a short, strong beak for cracking seeds. Woodpeckers have a strong beak, but it’s shaped to hammer away at trees for the “soft middle” or insect. That’s one reason woodpeckers love soft suet smeared on trees. Bluebird beaks are for catching insects and they will come for mealworms.

    So, don’t limit yourself. Also, many birds do not like to eat at the feeder. It’s like here at my work. Some like to eat in the cafeteria, some like to take lunch back to the desk. Goldfinches like the cafeteria. Titmice and chickadees prefer to “eat at their desks.” So I put my feeders right near trees that offer cover (hollies) and horizontal branches (oaks and sweet gums) so they can put the seed between their toes and bang away in safety and comfort. By not having to fly far between bites, they use less energy, feel secure, and hang out for my enjoyment. And, many can avoid the often present sharp-shinned hawk.

    But, I tell you….they all love the suet.

    8 oz. peanut butter
    8 oz. Crisco or off brand vegetable shortening
    24 oz. corn meal (not corn muffin mix)
    8 oz. unbleached wheat flour

    Microwave peanut butter and shortening for 30 sec. to a minute, then mix.
    Add corn meal and flour. Mix thoroughly. You can store in the refrigerator.

    Additionally, you can add 1/4 c. of oatmeal after you chop it up for 10 sec in a food processor. (I always add this.)

    You may add chopped raisins (make sure you chop them so the small birds don’t choke. Remember, they can’t see it well once mixed in) or currants.

    That’s the recipe. There are other recipes and tips. Check out this great page:

    You can smear on trees, stuff into suet logs and suet feeders, throw on the ground (the cardinals love it on the ground), even hold out your hand.

    You’re offering them something fresh, which has not potentially gone rancid, as one might see with cakes, it stays soft, and it’s loved so much, many will choose it every time over seeds.

    I buy at Costco and Aldi’s, Wegman’s and other stores. If it’s on sale, I buy lots of it. (Costco just had a big sale on Crunchy Jif. I loaded up. They also sell large boxes of organic raisins.)

    I have a recommendation for a particular feeder if the starlings and grackles invade. They will devour it in seconds. Right now, these birds are scarce in my area so I’m saving $$.

    Finally, if you have 15 minutes, check out this video. You will see why bird beaks and plants are so fascinating:

    Have fun with birds!

    • Thank you so much Marcia for the recipe and the additional great info. ( I am going to go watch the video right now.) I am anxious to mix up your suet and I really appreciate your time and effort to answer! Happy New Year to you and to all the birds everywhere.

    • Marcia, thanks so much for the great info!

      I have often thought of that too, that even if I am just planting this one native tree or shrub or perennial, it is also a source of potential future plants (that can be dispersed by wind or floods or animals or even by me).

  9. You’re welcome, Marte.

    My ventures into gardening and birding have shown me that my time spent in my small yard is not just for my pleasure or for the benefit of those creatures that come to my yard. I see my yard as an engine for the dispersal of seeds that will fuel the growth of beneficial plants outside of my yard. By caring for the right plants, those beneficial to wildlife, and by attracting foxes, turkeys, raccoons, opossums, big and small birds, by tempting them with added food, they eat the berries and seeds of my shrubs and trees and “plant” them somewhere else. Then, it happens again at the site of the new plants, and on, and on.

    I don’t tire of spending time in my garden because I know my small plot can have profound effects that can last long after I’m gone.

    Interesting study:

    So, bring on the birds… and I have one small tip for you. (BTW, I use unbleached white flour. It’s a small amount and it makes for a better consistency than whole wheat.)


    Get a 16 oz. glass measuring cup and metal spoon Get your peanut butter and shortening ready. Run hot water in the cup and over the spoon for 5-10 seconds. Shake the water off. Immediately, add the 8oz. of peanut butter to the cup, then spoon into bowl. Add the shortening and spoon into bowl. You will see that they slide right off into the bowl with lees oily clean up for the cup ( and less oil potentially clogging your pipes).

    Happy New Year!

    • Great tip! I will do it that way. I am heading to Costco on Monday and will make my suet next week! I have a wildlife certified garden so am always eager to add more critters and plants. Thanks again!

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