Certainly, there are a host of wild critters out in the woods that can wreak havoc on a farm. Bears can tear into beehives. Wolves and coyotes can terrorize sheep. Weasels and raccoons can sneak into chicken coops. The list goes on and on. But there are plenty of wild creatures who are beneficial on the homestead, and it is worth noting their efforts and doing our best to be stewards of our wild friends.
The hosts of bug-eaters are certainly welcomed guests as we swat the endless swarms of mosquitoes during chores or while working in the garden. Helicopter-like dragonflies hover and dart in black swarms above the chicken tractors, waiting for any daring mosquito to show a proboscis. As twilight grows and the dragonflies hunker down for the night, little brown bats dart from the shadows. The bat house Grandpa put on the front of the barn years ago has likely never been enough habitat for the local population. Instead, they find comfortable lodgings in the wood shed, the tool shed, the machine shed, and many an odd nook and cranny hither and yon. We leave the bats alone, they leave us alone, and so far that arrangement has worked out pretty well.
On many farms, the apartment-like Martin house stood atop a high pole in the yard or edge of the field. While I’ve never kept a Martin house, others tell that it requires attention, cleaning, and the occasional gentle return of an escaped youngling. Over the years, Martins have grown accustomed to being tended by benevolent humans and actually prefer the houses to wild habitat.
On our farm, the swallows are the gliding feathered insect predators of choice, with houses dotted along the edge of the pasture for the tuxedoed iridescent blue-and-white Tree Swallows that whir and chirp to each other while perching on the electric fence. Red-breasted Barn Swallows dive-bomb us near the barn door entrance or glare downward from their mud and grass nests near the joints of rafters. Little buggy-eyed faces peer down over the lip as the juveniles contemplate the wonders of space before flight. But the greatest mud artists are the Cliff Swallows that build their gourd-like nest structures high up in the peak of the woodshed roof. The yellow masks that poke out from the hole belie the rareness of their type for this area.
And then there is the lovely plethora of pollinators—bees, butterflies, and of course hummingbirds. When designing the landscape around our home, we chose to embrace building terraced beds to support native Wisconsin wildflowers that are particularly attractive to pollinators. Light purple Bee Balm, fiery Butterfly Weed, delicate Columbine, and others have matured over the years into a layered montage of color, fragrance, and shelter. In the summertime, the beds are humming with the sound of small, busy bodies, while in the winter the rattling reeds provide shelter and seeds for songbirds.
The hummingbirds have especially enjoyed this safe and delicious nook. Every year, several pairs of Ruby Throated Hummingbirds make the wearisome trip from parts far to the south to call the farm home. Arriving as thirsty as ever, they will flit by the dining room window as if to pronounce, “We’re here! Could someone set out the feeder please?” Even with all the flowers, there still seems to never be enough nectar to go around, so out comes the red and yellow glass hummingbird feeder.
For a time, there is intense activity, until it gradually lessens as more flowers become available and the couples are busy sitting on their nests. But when those little nestlings take to the air, it becomes almost impossible to keep the feeders filled! This morning, more miniature hummingbirds than I could count danced about the garden, vying for a spot. Their dark eyes were shining with energy and life. But besides being beautiful, hummingbirds also help pollinate by carrying tiny grains of pollen on their tongues!
To help the hummingbirds and delicate butterflies, we extended our native flower gardens to include the landscaping at Farmstead Creamery as well, complete with hanging blooms and a second nectar feeder. Now we have our own pair of hummers at the Creamery! Next time you enjoy some gelato outside in the garden, they might even come and visit you, as has been happening lately.
There are, of course, terrestrial wild friends as well, including toads. Leaving little stone shelters, known as “toad houses,” in your garden or using organic material mulches is a great way to encourage toads and frogs to feel comfortable de-bugging your vegetables. Finding ways to help make it easier for nature to help us is often as much fun as it is rewarding. Making toad houses is a wonderful project for children or the creatively inclined. Be imaginative!
From leaving the old dead tree standing for woodpecker habitat to helping the baby turtle cross the road, there are many small ways to be a steward to our wild friends. It also is good to have an ample sense of humor when those same wild creatures find clever ways to utilize aspects of the farm for their own ends—such as the morning the phoebe uses the barn wall as a sounding board, the day you found the frog swimming in the water bucket, or the time the bluebird nest turned out to be almost entirely made of chicken feathers.
Living on a farm in the Northwoods means that having wildlife around is part of daily experience. And just as we offer stewardship to the sheep, pigs, and poultry, so too is it good to be mindful of our responsibility to care for all peaceful life on this precious piece of earth. There goes a hummingbird! See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com