Owl Pellet

Last weekend was a time for raptors at my suburban north Texas home. 

First of all, I unintentionally attracted a Cooper’s Hawk to my fence on Saturday.  I had refilled my bird feeder with fresh seed that morning.  Although I have my bird feeder situated in a rather protected area between my house and my neighbor’s, of course, hawks have incredible eyesight so the little sparrows, warblers and juncos fluttering about that morning definitely lured the predator in.  Fortunately, the hawk left without a meal from my feeder.

Cooper’s Hawk

Later that evening, as my husband and I returned home from a family visit, we noticed a spherical ball of fur lying on the stonework in our front yard.  Granted, we have problems with mice from time to time as do most of us in the north Texas area, so at first glance, I thought the ball of fur was a curled up, deceased mouse.  Upon closer inspection, it became apparent the egg-shaped item was an owl pellet.  I had heard of these pellets before but I had never come across one personally. **Before you read on, do not do so at the dinner table . . . save this post for a time you are not eating!

Owl Pellet

Pellets are the regurgitated, indigestible portions of a predatory bird’s diet.  Hawks, eagles, falcons, owls and some smaller birds create pellets.  The reason for this phenomenon is much more complicated than I can fully explain here, but what I understand is this: 

Raptors typically swallow their prey whole or in large pieces. Unlike most birds, these birds of prey do not have a storage place or “crop” in their digestive system that allows for the slow and complete digestion of fur, bones, feathers, shells, etc. Thus, the indigestible parts of mice, small birds, reptiles and insects must be expelled by the raptor to make room for it to comfortably eat again.  These indigestible items meld together to form what is called a pellet. Pellets are typically expelled 6 – 10 hours after a raptor has eaten prey. It’s not a pleasant thought, but I sort of envision this process as the same as a cat coughing up a hairball.

The size of the pellet I found in my yard was bigger than a large hen egg.  Because of its size, I’m quite certain it originated from an owl – probably one of the larger species found in our area such as the Great Horned Owl, Barn Owl or Barred Owl.  I’ve indeed heard the soothing sound of a Great Horned Owl once or twice in the night over the past few months, and, I’ve noticed we do not seem to have evidence of as many rodent visitors to our sun room as we’ve had in the recent past. I suspect the owl is getting its fill!

Bones Entangled in Fur of Owl Pellet
Another Close Up of the Owl Pellet

In fact, I’m sure the pellet I found last weekend was comprised of a mouse. I had posted about my find on social media and learned that oftentimes elementary school children dissect owl pellets in science class these days. As my curiosity grew, I decided to retrieve the pellet from my yard and dissect it. It had been raining when I found it so I had left it on the stone outdoors.

The pellet was much harder to dissect than I expected. The hair was tangled, matted and wrapped very tightly around some of the small bones. The hair was wound so tightly that I finally lost patience in trying to untangle it. I ended up carefully cutting the hair with scissors and slowly pulling the item apart.

I found a couple of jaw bones with teeth intact and what I believe to be a portions of a tiny skull. There were many other small bones that I couldn’t quite identify. After comparing my pellet picture with those I found online, as unbelievable as it is, I think the very curved bone in the bottom right of my pic below is an overgrown mouse incisor! The tooth is much larger than I would’ve ever thought for such a small mammal. I understand dissecting an owl pellet can be considered morbid but for me it was an extremely fascinating and educational activity.

Dissected Owl Pellet
skull portions-center; jawbone with small teeth-lower center; overgrown, curved incisor-bottom right

I’m probably a rare individual in that although I am very aware of their unsavory habits, mice and rats do not scare or disgust me. This doesn’t mean I welcome them into my home! In fact, I’m grateful for the natural predators in my suburban neighborhood that keep them in check. I suppose my statement earlier about it being fortunate the Cooper’s Hawk did not capture the warbler may be a little biased in the world of predator vs prey, especially when I am always rooting for the owl to catch the mouse.

However, rest assured, nature does not discriminate.

Until next time,

February 19, 2019

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February Observations

Robins & Such

American Robin

Like most gardeners, by February I am longing for early signs of spring. Fortunately, in north Texas, we are able to enjoy spring-like weather, and sometimes even summer-like weather, now and then throughout our winter months. While this is a blessing it can also be a curse for those of us that get adventurous and plant items that may not be able to survive an unexpected late frost. (Note: The average date of the last frost in north Texas is around March 15.)

On two consecutive sunny February mornings recently, I saw several flocks of robins in my neighborhood. While seeing a robin is often thought to be an early sign of spring, in actuality, these plump, red-breasted birds are present in north Texas year ’round. However, we may indeed see more of them around this time of year because those that migrated from Canada to the warmer climate of Texas have joined those that live permanently here. In addition, those that migrated further south into Mexico are stopping by Texas on their way back north to their preferred breeding area. (Apparently, the permanent resident-Texan robins are content to breed here!)

Robins are well-known for eating worms. They are the early bird in the adage, the early bird gets the worm. However, robins eat a variety of insects in addition to worms – as do most birds of the thrush family. Perhaps these eating habits are the reason we associate robins with impending spring. We are accustomed to seeing them search for worms & insects in the ground – worms and insects that are much more abundant as our soil begins to warm.

American Robin
American Robin

While it is true a robin’s diet is primarily made up of invertebrates, when the weather is cold and worms and insects are scarce, a robin will consume winter fruit and berries. Oftentimes, they travel in large flocks from one fruit-bearing tree to another. I have to admit, I was a little surprised to learn about this herbivorous aspect of a robin’s diet.

All along, I thought it was solely cedar waxwings that perched in our trees during the winter, consuming berries and tender buds. It wasn’t until I witnessed dozens of robins in our pear and elm trees this past week that I realized the waxwings had competitors. Most of the robins atop appeared full and satisfied with their winter vegetarian cuisine and stayed roosted. However, a few of them flew down and attempted to find an errant bug or two in the cold mulch.

American Elm Budding Out
American Elm Budding Out Against Drab February Day

As an aside, I read that having a flock of robins in your trees doesn’t mean they are only eating fruit and berries. They could be performing a bit of needed pest control on your behalf. Using their keen eyesight typically reserved for spying worms, robins are easily able to find hibernating insects in tree bark and rolled leaves.

While a robin’s diet is quite varied, they are rarely seen perched at bird feeders that are strictly filled with seed. If you’d like to attract them to a feeder you should purchase a fruit mix or add a little fruit of your own to the seed. And, in addition to planting berry-bearing shrubs, another sure way to attract robins to your yard is to install a bird bath. In my experience, robins are not shy about using a bird bath with their seed-loving cousins and, of course, fresh water is a year round requirement!

To sum up, I suppose the more accurate “spring is coming” sign for north Texans is: When you see robins transition from tree feeding to ground feeding you can reasonably expect the earth is warming and spring is approaching.

I wasn’t planning on focusing this post on robins, but as I write usually one subject comes to the forefront. I would like to conclude that while walking my dog this weekend I witnessed a couple of other signs of impending spring in my area. A bright yellow forsythia had begun to bloom and a single red flower was peeking through a heavily mulched ice plant. I also noticed the garlic chives had sprouted in my herb garden.

Forsythia Blooming in February in Texas
Garlic Chives
Early Garlic Chives

Although a bitter cold front is on its way to north Texas as I complete this post tonight, I’m still assured spring weather is indeed on its way. In the meantime, I’ll be keeping an eye on how many robins I begin to see . . . on the ground!

Until next time,


Robin Seeking Insects in Mulch

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Wild Rose Pass

A Valentine Ghost Story

This post is an excerpt of an article I wrote about nine years ago and I cannot believe I haven’t posted it at Nature is Nurture before now. I suppose the theme is a little more paranormal than horticultural, but since the story references the Super Bowl and includes roses – the flower associated with Valentine’s Day – I find the timing appropriate to share nonetheless.

In February, 2010, my husband, Mike, and I took an impromptu road trip to West Texas. We stayed at Indian Lodge in Davis Mountains State Park near the community of Fort Davis. Indian Lodge is an old (circa 1935), but nicely renovated, pueblo-style structure nestled in the Davis Mountains.

Indian Lodge – Photos compliments of Texas Parks and Wildlife

Before arriving at the state park, we had driven through a beautiful, but desolate, area called “Wild Rose Pass”.  It was mountainous and rocky, not unlike the rest of the desert terrain in the area. I mentioned something about the odd name of the pass to Mike as we drove through it, concluding that perhaps, as unlikely as it seemed, wild roses must grow around there in the spring.

The next day, we visited the McDonald Observatory telescopes located atop a couple of high peaks near the state park. On the way back down the mountains, we stopped at a picnic site that overlooked a valley. It was a stunningly clear day and the temperature was in the 60’s. While I was preparing a sandwich, Mike mentioned he saw a flower in the distance that looked like it was blooming from a shrub. Being the plant person that I am, he asked if I knew of a “bush” that would produce such a flower. I looked up and gazed intently at the white flower. It appeared to be a rose, but I could not believe it was blooming in the desert, let alone in February! My curiosity piqued, I grabbed the binoculars. Ah ha. . . the flower was not real.

I could see the long, false stem of the fake rose winding around the narrow trunk of the scrub tree. As I scanned more of the area through the binoculars, it became clear there were several other shrubs in the ravine that were also adorned with white roses. Some of the flowers had white ribbons attached that were dancing in the wind. We concluded that high school kids may have placed the single bouquets on the trees (football mums?) or perhaps bereaved families had attached them to serve as memorials to loved ones who had met their demise on the steep, winding mountain roadway.

McDonald Observatory

Late that afternoon, while back at the lodge watching the Super Bowl game, Mike and I were sitting on opposite sides of the hotel room when the newly installed TV spontaneously went off. We both quickly assumed the other had turned it off (how dare someone turn off the Super Bowl?!)   But no – the remote was located in the center of the bed and was nowhere near either of us. I reached over and successfully turned the TV back on as Mike laughed and stated the ghost of an Indian Chief had probably become tired of the rowdy noise.  After all, he said, we were staying in an Indian lodge. Ha ha . . .

That night, I left the bathroom light on and cracked the door a little so that neither of us would trip over furniture should we awake before dawn. For those of you unfamiliar with West Texas, the nights are pitch black – especially when there is no moon. (Thus, the reason the area was selected for an observatory.) As luck would have it, in the middle of the night I awoke. I could not see a thing in front of my face – not even the shadow of my hand. Panic setting in, I jumped up and moved the curtains away from the window to see if I could at least glimpse some form of light outside. Whew . . . fortunately my eyes adjusted to a faint light in the parking lot.

But . . . what had happened to the bathroom light? Heart still racing, I looked around the room again and the light was definitely off. I then recalled Mike’s comment about the Indian ghost so I decided to cover my head, close my eyes, and go back to sleep!

The next morning Mike asked me if I was aware the power had gone off in our room. I told him I knew the bathroom light had gone off, but jokingly I said I assumed it was the doings of the same ghost that had turned off the Super Bowl game the night before. He replied that the ghost had apparently turned everything off because the clock radio was flashing and our alarm hadn’t sounded. (I had forgotten about the alarm . . . we were on vacation, after all!)

Well, despite the minor electrical issues we encountered, we had an absolutely magical time in West Texas, taking in acres and acres of beautiful scenery and observing multitudes of wildlife, including javelinas, deer, auodads (ram-looking, mountain sheep), foxes and a variety of colorful birds.

Skyline Drive near Fort Davis

The day after we returned from our trip, I posted several pictures on social media. My brother, seeing the pictures, made the random comment, “You know Fort Davis is haunted, don’t you?”


He told me he had seen the town featured on one of the ghost-hunting or travel shows recently. He couldn’t remember exactly what the ghost story was about, however.

So, I looked it up.

You’ll recall I mentioned we went through an area northeast of Fort Davis called “Wild Rose Pass”? Well, it turns out back in the day (1850-1860’s) there was a rumor that wild white roses grew along Limpia Creek in the high desert area. The young wife of a lieutenant stationed at Fort Davis was homesick for the flowers of her home state, Alabama, and decided to venture out beyond the safe boundaries of the fort, looking for the fabled roses. She never returned. It was commonly known that Apaches watered their horses at Limpia Creek and the fort residents assumed the young woman had met her death at the hands of the Indians. Her name was Alice.

From there, the story goes . . .

From time to time after her disappearance, new soldiers stationed at Fort Davis would report seeing a beautiful young woman strolling along the fort grounds. When they inquired about the woman to long-time soldiers, she was always described as wearing the same clothing Alice had worn the day she disappeared. And, even more eerie, white roses would spontaneously appear throughout the fort during a sighting of Alice!

As I read the ghost story, a chill ran down my spine as I processed the connection of Alice to our experiences – the fake flowers we spotted on a nearby hillside and the multiple electrical outages at Indian Lodge that night.

However, as haunting as it sounds, I think the tale depicts the fascinating lore and lure of West Texas. Alice’s deep longing and determination to pick wild roses, despite knowing the intense danger of doing so, speaks to our human desire to seek out the beauty of nature. And – it adds even more flavor to my extraordinary February weekend in the Davis Mountains.

Some day I hope you have the opportunity to experience West Texas as I did.

Until next time,


I actually hope to visit West Texas again soon and be able to deliver additional photos and information (and maybe another ghost story!) In the meantime, I, again, highly encourage you to visit the community of Fort Davis if you ever have the opportunity. There is so much to experience in the area – far more than I can elaborate upon in this paragraph – but a few key places are: Davis Mountains State Park, Fort Davis National Historic Site, McDonald Observatory and the nearby City of Marfa.

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Call of the Crows

American Crows
American Crows

As the saying goes, one is never too old to learn something new. On this past Christmas Day, my husband and I were having a quiet, relaxed morning before we would be off to relatives’ homes in the afternoon. As I lazily went back into the spare bedroom with my coffee to snuggle with my dog and cat, my husband and I heard a ruckus outside. It was a little after dawn and, on Christmas morning, it was especially quiet in our suburban neighborhood up until this ruckus began. Looking out the window of the bedroom, I saw there were 10 – 12 crows in the large American Elm of our front yard. The birds were flapping their wings and cawing extremely loud. Some of the birds were flying from our tree to our neighbor’s and back.

Standing there at the window in awe at the sight and sounds of these large, black birds, my gaze (and that of my dog and cat) slowly lowered to the bottom of the bedroom window where we witnessed a large bobcat slowly slink by – hugging the perimeter of the house as closely as it could as it dodged the calls and swoops of the crows! It will probably be the closest view I’ll ever have of such a beautiful, wild animal (and the closest I hope my pets will ever have – more on this later.)


I quickly called out to my husband as the large cat slowly crossed in front of our glass storm door and onto the other side of our home, finally taking cover from the crows in our neighbor’s shrubs. Although the birds could no longer dive bomb the large cat, they continued to follow its path along our suburban street until their caws finally faded in the distance.

Unfortunately my husband did not catch a glimpse of the bobcat on Christmas Day, but the cat (or another) was back the following day at which time he did witness it. The second day, there were no crows around but the bobcat exhibited the same slinky behavior of hugging the side of our home – this time crossing the street and resuming its hugging behavior along the side of our across-the-street neighbor’s home.

To first address my immediate concern – the well-being of my pets – I’ll preface this next section by saying that there are many different opinions about bobcat behaviors (and coyote behaviors) in the suburbs. As for us, with a Shih Tzu and a bright, white housecat that both formerly enjoyed the freedom of an unmonitored doggie door, we’ve now become supervisors to our pets’ outings – just to be safe. I’ve read that a bobcat usually doesn’t bother with prey that is at least half its own size. I’ve read that bobcats avoid human interaction – unless rabid. I’ve been told there are plenty of squirrels, rabbits and rats to catch in our neighborhood and that my dog would be too much of a hassle for a bobcat to pursue. Yet – knowing what I know now and knowing that my domesticated dog will likely not be afraid of the bobcat nor will my domesticated cat have a chance in a catfight, I choose to err on the side of caution. I don’t begrudge the wild animals that are appearing more regularly in my neighborhood – they are indeed adjusting to the growth and development occurring in north Texas just as we humans are. As poly-anna as it may seem, I hope we all learn to co-exist peacefully.

Back to crows . . . after my husband and I settled in on a plan to safeguard our pets from the big cats, my curious mind went back to the incident involving the crows on Christmas morning. I performed a little internet research and discovered the behavior the crows were exhibiting actually has a name – mobbing. Mobbing is a loud shrieking and diving behavior that some birds exhibit when a predator is near – it serves as a distraction to the predator from finding eggs or fledglings and/or it serves to warn other birds that a predator is on the prowl. Interestingly, mobbing attracts more birds to join in as the behavior continues – even birds of different species will “mob” together. Keep in mind, hawks and owls are considered predators and are on the receiving end of mobbing. Most times, mobbing is successful at running off the predator or at least providing fair warning to susceptible prey. It certainly got my attention on Christmas morning!

Having relatives that live/lived in “the country” I was aware that guinea fowl are oftentimes kept on farms to, in-part, alert livestock of an approaching predator. I simply didn’t think the behavior was also present in crows. But – as I continued to research, I learned that blue jays are in the same bird “family” (Corvidae) as crows. Then, it all came together and made sense to me. I recalled blue jays would consistently dive-bomb my housecats when I was a kid. And, I was personally aware they would mob humans as well as pets. I once attempted to save a fledgling blue jay from being run over on a street in my neighborhood. A couple of head pecks and many pulled out hairs later, I was able to get the little one to safety inside a wrought iron fenced yard. Of course, I understood the parent birds thought I was more of a threat than the passing cars but, for the record, blue jays have incredible persistence (as I suspect do crows) in protecting their young!

Incidentally, the Corvidae family of birds (which includes ravens and magpies as well as blue jays and crows) is considered to be one of the most intelligent groups of birds, second only to parrots. I once read an article about a man who stopped at a roadside park one day to break up a very long car trip. As he sat at a picnic table, a crow flew in and perched next to him and proceeded to speak. The traveler thought he was hallucinating due to his exhausted state, but he wasn’t. Crows can indeed be taught to speak, perform tasks and they remember human faces.

And, as my story goes, they can also serve as a very accurate warning system!

Until next time,


All pictures above are licensed through Bing commons.

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Late Limes

November 9, 2018

Hopefully I am writing this post just in time (for those of you in my part of North Texas) to serve as a reminder to bring indoors, or at least heavily cover, your citrus, tropicals and other freeze-sensitive plants before the weekend.  You would think we would have done this task by mid-November, but in my part of the country temps fluctuate so drastically in the winter most of us simply wait for the night a frost is forecasted before taking such measures. Speaking for myself, this lends to me covering and uncovering and rolling in and rolling out plants sometimes on day after day basis.  However, this week’s upcoming forecast shows the temps will dip below freezing and stay there for several nights so I may as well bite the bullet and bring my sensitives into the sun room to stay for a while.

One of the plants I will be “rolling” indoors tonight is my lime tree.  I don’t look forward to this for many reasons but mostly because my Persian lime variety has quite a few thorns!

I’ve had my tree, purchased as a sapling, for about 4 years now.  It has reliably produced about two dozen limes to maturity per year.  This past year, however, we had a horrendous hail storm in the spring and I lost the pollinated limes.  However, due to an incredibly wet summer/early fall, my lime tree re surged and bloomed in full for a second time and I now have three times the bounty, albeit immature, than I usually have this time of year.  (Actually, many plants became confused by the extensive rain we had in North Texas and re-bloomed – it was as though we had two springs this year!)

Although I titled this post “late limes” and mine are indeed maturing later than usual, it truly isn’t late for limes to be hanging on the tree in November.  I discovered this many years ago when, on one rare occasion, I traveled to Florida for Christmas.  Oranges and grapefruits were still on the trees, just getting ready for picking.

Depending on your climate, limes can mature at just about any time of year, but usually they do so between August and December.  The variety of lime tree also determines maturity times.  In the US, the most common lime tree grown is the Persian – the type I have.  A Persian lime tree produces the large (2 1/2 inch), green-skinned fruit that we typically see in grocery stores.  The second most popular variety is the Mexican lime (also known as Key lime).  The fruit of the Mexican or Key lime is smaller (1 3/4 inch), rounder, and more yellow-green than the Persian and it can also be a bit more sour in flavor.  There are several other, perhaps more exotic, varieties of lime trees available, including the Kaffir which produces a bumpy-skinned green fruit.

Today, I have a lot of immature fruit still on my tree and a freeze is coming.  I am moving my tree indoors this evening, as close to a sunny window as possible, and hoping I can harvest the fruit later in the winter.    If it looks like a long warm sunny spell approaches before then, I’ll roll it back out for a while as sunshine is the best medicine for a lime tree (and any citrus tree for that matter!)

Before I go prepare my other sensitive plants for the freeze, allow me to leave you with a few tips and bits of info regarding growing lime trees:

  • Keep in mind, if you live north of Zone 9 (basically anywhere north of the subtropical zones of the US, i.e., Southern California, South Texas and Central Florida) you will need to follow the “potting” tips below.
  • Plant or pot in full sun.
  • It is best to use potting soil specific to citrus.
  • It is best to use fertilizer specific for citrus and the leaf spray and liquid forms are preferred.
  • Do not over water your tree, even during the hot summertime.
  • When you do water – every 4-5 days maximum – water abundantly.  Don’t be afraid to soak the soil/pot.
  • Plant or pot with good drainage in mind.  Using citrus soil is helpful, especially if potting.
  • Most lime trees have thorns so handle them carefully and harvest with this in mind!
  • Fully mature limes are yellow like lemons, but they are incredibly bitter at this stage and, thus, are generally harvested when light green (Persian) or just when a little yellow appears on the skin (Mexican).
  • If you don’t harvest many fruit, don’t fret as the leaves of your lime tree are just as valuable and can add delicious flavor to soups, teas and cold drinks.  If your fruit drops immature, you can also salvage it for zest.  And, as a last resort, the tree itself is simply a beautiful addition to a landscape or patio.

  • Although it is not recommended to freeze limes, I do so anyway.  They may not be as luscious as when they are fresh, but the frozen pieces become just as flavorful when added to soups, cold drinks, and beer.
  •  If you have to bring your potted tree indoors for the winter, keep watch for those pesky indoor pests such as mealy bugs and scale.  If you see them, lightly spray the trunk (and leaves if necessary) with Neem oil.
  • Lastly, lime blooms have the intoxicating aroma of gardenias! A lime tree will attract many pollinators to it (and surrounding plants) when outside and if it happens to bloom a little when you are overwintering it indoors – bonus!

I hope the above tips are handy or confirming for those of you with lime trees.  If you’ve been on the fence about obtaining a lime (lemon, orange or other citrus) tree, I hope you will consider moving forward.  The rewards are many, even if the fruit is a little late now and then!

Until next time,


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