Enjoying the dramas of nature from home during your #QuarantineLife

April 14, 2020 9:53 PM

No matter where you’re sheltered-in-place, nature is everywhere. A front row seat to the dramas of nature can pass the time in any season, but springtime is unrivaled. As you and your loved ones pass the time at home, take this chance to take in the sights, sounds, and smells of your own outdoor amphitheater.

Red-tailed hawk pair perched on a tree
The happy red-tailed hawk couple.

Iowans and citizens of the world are today united against a common enemy in a way perhaps never seen on such a scale. Our duties are assigned and clear: if you work in an essential service industry, stay healthy and continue to safely work. If you don’t, be thankful for those that do and stay home. And for all of us, regardless of the character of our work, free time spent at home is our best way to fight this disease and help our friends and neighbors.

So it is that now, idle time away from family, friends, and hobbies has become a symptom needing a cure. For many that cure has come through the salvation of the internet. FaceTime or Skype calls with friends and family. Zoom meetings with coworkers. Endless scrolling through an entirely new genre of quarantine-memes and Facebook posts. And of course hours spent on all variety of streaming services enjoying movies and TV series. During our universal call to inaction in free time we also all share one common subscription: a front row seat to the dramas of Iowa’s outdoors in spring.

As a wildlife biologist and long-time-nature-addict, I of course have had my antennas tuned to the unfolding drama at my house. Here’s a succinct accounting of the most remarkable shows playing around my house in Ames:

  • The cedar waxwings are migrating and fueling their migration with the leftover fruit of my neighbor’s crabapple trees. Everyday dozens of waxwings are there aggressively stripping the fruits from their stems as they communicate their satisfaction with the menu through their nearly inaudible high-pitched squeals.
  • A red tail hawk pair is back for the third year to nest high in a crotch of a neighbor’s white pine. I’ve seen a member of the pair regularly flying into the nest with a stick in their mouth to build up the to be birthing suite turned nursery turned teenager’s room where they’ll raise their young until they can fly.
  • The blooms of my neighbor’s red maple were alive with pollinating insects the other day. I didn’t get close enough to see who was who, but they seemed enthusiastic to find an often hard to-find nectar resource this early. More pollinating insects will emerge soon, including queen bees of many of Iowa’s over 300 bee species, and they too will be looking for hard-to-find nectar in my yard and others.
  • The chickadees, a familiar sight throughout winter in my yard, have changed their behavior and tune too. Winter flocks have morphed to spring pairs, navigating the branches of the redbuds out my front door together looking for a few more insects that tried to endure the winter in hiding on the branch or a few seeds they hid on the branch earlier this year. Each pair is eyeing the boxes I have out in my yard, weighing their pros and-cons against natural holes in trees they’ve surely found in heights I can’t see. Soon they too, like the red tail will be carrying nesting material to the spot they choose. I am selfishly hoping it’s one I’ve offered.

Cedar waxwing eating a berry in a tree
One of dozens of cedar waxwings enjoying the fruit of a neighbor's tree during migration.

These are just a few of the hundreds of mini dramas playing out in my neighborhood every day. The cast of characters in my backyard tells the most astute readers something about its natural features, just as the drama of any other back yard, downtown stoop, or rural back forty can paint a picture of those sites. In each of those places, nature’s shows are playing and don’t require bandwidth nor subscription. In the city, the mourning doves are nesting and so too are the pigeons and European starlings. In fact, on your next run to essential work or the grocery store, look closely at the street lights and stoplight poles – if there’s a hole in one of them, you’re sure to see a European Starling carrying nesting material in to a nest, just like the chickadee does in the wooded boxes and natural holes in my neighborhood. If you welcome each new day of quarantine on a rural acreage, the cast there is different but equally compelling. Perhaps a red fox pair has welcomed a litter of kits to the world. Or, if there are trees, the male turkey greats the rising sun each morning from his branch well off the ground with a bellowing gobble that echoes through the woods declaring his intent to find the company of a hen soon.

The dramas of spring are just in their first act. Soon, there will be the songs from a whole cadre of birds that escaped Iowa’s winters in the mountains and plains of southern and central America, back to assume their nesting places in Iowa’s cities and farms. Among them, Iowa’s “other blue bird” the Indigo bunting, will add a splash of blue to many backyards, shooting between perches to project its unique song with rhythmic paired notes always coming in twos. The breeding frogs of small puddles, ditches, and wetlands have turned up the volume in many backyards: the chorus frogs go first and then the deafening shrill of spring peepers follow. The flowers will soon come on strong and with them the bees. The trees will leaf-out soon to feed the caterpillars and then the caterpillars will feed the next generation of birds. The bats have just started to resume their night-time flights for insects. Soon the chimney swifts and nighthawks – a common sight in cities of all sizes – will join them for a nightly performance that runs well into summer grilling season and steamy August nights.

All these performances play out under our noses, wherever we live, free for the taking for all of those with the time to slow down and take it all in. In these times of uncertainty and loss, the perfectly average return of spring is a welcome sense of normalcy. If you, like me, long for these spring days and the daily shifting soundtrack of the morning chorus of bird song, or the evening chorus of frogs, then this escape to nature is a reminder of how we, just like the birds and bees and bats and blooms, will endure this too. If you’re new to this show, welcome to the audience; grab a seat in your own backyard, hug your loved ones, and tune in. It’s about to get really good.


Adam Janke Associate Professor

Adam Janke is the statewide Wildlife Extension Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. Adam is a trained wildlife biologist, having received a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in wildlife conservation and ecology from three land-grant schools in the Midwest.  He is also certified ...