We’ve seen it all this year: excessive cold, heat, rain, and more than a few violent storms with record breaking hail, straight-line winds, and tornadoes. It might seem that nature, itself, has somehow been knocked out of whack by all the extremes. Accurate weather records for our area go back for less than 150 years, though, and nature here in the midlands has seen it all before. It is marching on as it always has.
The bluebirds in our yard fledged three young from their second nest of the season. The first clutch of five eggs was destroyed by wrens and one egg in the second clutch failed to hatch. I haven’t seen the young ones since they left the nest, but their dad is still hunting bugs and occasionally singing around our yard. A few speckle-breasted young robins are around and their parents still visit the feeder area. They no longer struggle to get at the suet cake in the feeder as they did during April’s unusual cold. They check out the area under it for crumbs the woodpeckers knock loose. A fat baby cowbird finally showed up with its tiny stepparent chipping sparrows, dutifully stuffing its mouth full of whatever they could find. I had expected many more and was thankful to see only one. Cowbirds are nest parasites. Each baby cowbird represents a failure of some other bird’s attempt to reproduce because baby cowbirds instinctively push other eggs or hatchlings from the nests in order to get the full attention of their stepparents. Goldfinches have started nesting now that there’s plenty of thistle down available to line their nests, and wrens continue to raise more little ones as they will well into August. Most swallows have finished nesting and have begun to gather into larger flocks prior to their migration flights. I’ll miss the flocks of purple martins and their happy chatter around the few nesting colonies that still exist in our area.
Ground-nesting birds like pheasants, quail, turkeys, and partridge probably lost some of their early nest attempts to flooding and storms in June, but at least a few somehow managed to hatch a brood of young. Pheasant hens will keep trying to hatch a clutch of eggs well into August if earlier nests are lost to weather, predators or mowers. The later nest attempts have fewer eggs as the hens just plain run out of energy to produce more. Young that hatch in late summer often don’t grow strong enough to survive the first winter storms. Even ducks and geese lost some nests to flooding this year. Ponds were low to nearly dry in the spring when they initiate nests, but rose rapidly when heavy rains began. Lakes rose high enough to flood some nests after heavy storms, too, and even a few hours under water is enough to kill unhatched young.
People have been affected by this year’s extremes, as well. Catastrophic damage across central Iowa from flooding and the recent outbreak of tornadoes served as a stark reminder that nature is still a force that’s beyond our control. That’s easy to forget in our air-conditioned, strongly built homes. We’ve largely lost the weather awareness out ancestors had. They had to be constantly aware of weather conditions and the warnings nature provided prior to the days of radio, TV, nationwide weather radar and satellite imagery. They watched the sky, the wind, their animals and even the trees for signs of what was coming. A few might also have checked their copy of “The Farmer’s Almanac” in order learn what the weather had in store, too. Their own “weather eye” was all they had to tell them when it was time to plant, hunt, harvest hay or “head for the cellar.” Most of us now leave the weather forecasting to experts, and can thank modern developments in weather forecasting and multiple technologies to warn us when dangerous weather is approaching. There’s no doubt that despite the “sharp weather eyes” of times past, more injuries and deaths would have been likely in weather like we’ve seen this year.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.