Category Archives: Backyard Wildlife College

Two sunflowers close up

Backyard Wildlife College closes its doors!

But Collegium “Vanachter in den Hof” receives a boost with additional human caretaker!

The wildflower strip at Backyard Wildlife College; our bees and other creepy crawlies enjoyed this a lot.

On June 30 Backyard Wildlife College in Allentown, PA, closed its doors forever — we’re unsure if any new tenants at the human dwelling have moved in and kept up with the wildlife improvements, or if the wildflower strip (aka the salad and protein bar) disappeared when management prepared the property for a new caretaker human. In any case, some of the infrastructure went to neighbouring backyards. You can now find Café Colibri at the human dwelling to the left, and the heated birdbath, squirrel picnic table, and feeding tube right next door to the original location. You don’t have to travel far, and we carefully checked that the humans are wildlife-friendly.

The human caretaker has permanently relocated to Belgium, and has taken up the position of assistant caretaker at Collegium Vanachter in den hof (VIDH) in Flanders, with a side-gig as Orchid Whisperer (more about this in a separate post).

Some portraits from the star performers in summer 2023 at Collegium Vanachter in den hof.

We look forward to learning how European wildlife delights the humans near their dwellings in the Old World. We already received reports of sightings of Erik Brown (Squirrel), and of Freddy Fox barking deep into the night. Owl hoot-offs are a nightly occurrence. Over the summer the mosquito aerial combat team prevented most outdoor human activity and we are curious to hear how both parties will negotiate a truce next summer.

At the moment, the caretakers are spoiling the Feathered Division rotten with this fab new addition to the infrastructure, and bespoke mixes of fat, insects, and nuts and seeds. They are setting themselves up for a real challenging Big Garden Birdwatch (Flemish edition) to count all the feathered visitors in late January.

Bird tube feeder mounted on a tray, and covered with a big L-shaped roof, sits on a small round table on a patio. Four birds are on the structure.
New infrastructure at Collegium VIDH is a hit with the Feathered faculty, staff and students!

PSA: For continuity we will continue using the category BackyardWildlifeCollege for all garden-related wildlife adventures even after this relocation.

Crickets 🦗

I know it's been awfully quiet on the blog but could Backyard Wildlife College PLEASE STOP SENDING literal crickets into my flat on a near-daily basis? Thank you!

Also, if you could not send singing crickets that chirp in the middle of the night, that would be grand.

I'd like to use the Westmalle beer glass for its intended purpose, not as a rescue dome for crickets and their massive antennae (not fully visible on this image). Maybe when I get a chance to finally have that beer, it will indicate I have time, and inspiration to write something here. I've been busy with work, putting a tenure file together, and just hiding from the world for a bit. No need to send in the crickets!

Mrs. Cricket waiting to be released outside. You can tell it's a Mrs. because of the ovipositor, the long end that sticks out at the back.

Press release: Dining Facilities reopen at Backyard Wildlife College

Backyard Wildlife College catering and housing services is pleased to announce we have the green light from the state Game Commission to reopen our all our dining and bathing facilities for feathered creatures! On Friday, August 13, restrictions on bird feeders and bird baths were lifted in Pennsylvania, where our small but cute campus is located.

We are excited to bring all feathered creatures our usual weekend spread of Supreme seeds, in the tube feeder by the backdoor and at the window feeders, as of this morning.

male House Finch and female American Goldfinch at a tube feeder
Mr. House Finch and Lady Goldfinch at the feeder, in the Birds' before Times (April 2021), sharing sunflower hearts and saffron seeds.

We are trying out a new location for the bird bath, closer to the human property but more sheltered from view than the parking lot. We know they will visit when the humans are not present. It will also prepare them for the winter set-up, when the heating goes on and the bath needs to be near an electric outlet.

We congratulate all birds on successfully navigating through these difficult weeks, a big feather in their cap! In early July, health and safety concerns for feathered faculty and students at the college forced our hand, with compulsory social distancing measures leading to the closure of the dining and bathing facilities for all feathered friends in multiple states. Although the exact cause of the mystery disease has not yet been identified, the R-number has decreased sufficiently, and it appears that feeders and baths play no role in transmission. We are grateful to all affected birds for their patience and cooperation during this unprecedented health emergency. We remain, of course, saddened by the loss of so many birds, and hope that scientists may soon find an answer to the questions that remain.

We also note that the press release from the Game Commission points to the good work done by the local communities of humans in responding to emergency and health situations among wildlife, and we couldn’t agree more. From contributing to pollinator pathways and providing service stops for migrating hummingbirds, to being peanut purveyors for squirrels and now responding to the mystery disease, many humans help the wildlife in their immediate environment. Now make sure to tell the humans to get their feeders and birdbath up and running again, because the birds are back!

For the eagle-eyed among you (though no eagles attend our college at the moment), we reassure you we are observing the recommended hygiene rules and cleaning tips for our facilities.

Stay alert, save lives:

All feathered creatures should remain on guard for the feral cat prowling the campus grounds, because it is a known bird hunter. Our groundskeeper/campus safety officer tries to keep it off campus, but unfortunately the open nature of our grounds makes that very difficult. Please use your alert calls to attract attention; campus safety will respond if on the premises. (Look, it’s a one-human part-time job, we do the best we can with the funds we have!)

News update: Backyard Wildlife College Responds to Mysterious Bird Disease

(Backyard Wildlife College, Allentown PA, est. 2017)

“More than just fluffy bunnies”

Male Gold Finch at a bird feeder, looking over his shoulder
Rocco the Gold Finch in happier times at his local: the tube feeder was the hub of social life for the Feathered Creatures Division.

A mysterious and fatal bird disease is spreading among song birds in the eastern US, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission has recommended all feathered creatures observe social distancing and extra hygiene measures.

Backyard Wildlife College in response ceased dining operations for our feathered faculty, staff and students at all feeders, with exception of Cafe Colibri. (Only Mrs. Ruby-Throated uses this facility and so far, no reports have shown her species to be affected.)

At this moment, there are no known cases or fatalities on Backyard Wildlife College’s grounds of this mysterious disease, but we are treating this situation with the utmost seriousness. Birds afflicted by this disease often have “eye swelling and crusty discharge”; other symptoms can include breathing trouble, blood from the mouth, and weakness and neurological issues. Most birds sadly die. Please report any cases (dead or alive) on this form from UPenn, as the human scientists are trying to get to the root of this.

The groundskeeper has immediately taken the following actions: the window feeders and the squirrel-proof tube by the backdoor of the human dwelling have been taken down and washed in a 10% bleach solution (as recommended). The bird bath has been removed, and similarly sanitized before storage. The Organic Protein Bar on the west side of the human dwelling, also known as the expanded wildflower strip, remains open for foraging to all creatures. No agreement has been reached with the Creepy Crawly Division now housed there, but they have been made aware of the situation and reminded of their position in the feeding chain. Our groundskeeper follows the situation carefully and will reopen the dining facilities as soon as the situation is deemed safe again.

Grass remains available at will for rabbits and groundhog, and peanuts can be requested by squirrels.

We realize this is a big blow to the community, as our dining facilities were the hub of the local social wildlife, where House and Gold Finches, Chickadees, Juncos, Sparrows, Cardinals, Mourning Doves, Robins, and the odd Grackle, Catbird, and Cowbird and many more congregated. We hope together (though not physically together) we can stop the spread of this pernicious disease.

However, we have only in the past 16 months seen how a deadly virus ravaged through the human community, and we must try to learn some lessons from that event. We hope that by acting before it’s too late, using a data-driven approach, and erring on the side of caution, we can soon resume our previous convivial chats over sunflower hearts in safety.

Whatever you do as a feathered creature, don’t make our editor create the bird-version of this meme. Remember, we’re better than humans. And usually cuter too.

three cats look out of window, first cat says: "so if everyone isolates and keeps clean and follows instructions everything will be ok?" Wise-looking cat in the middle says "Yes, the future of the planet depends on the intelligence of the human race" Small tuxedo cat on the right with worried expression thinks "We're fucked"
Our groundskeeper was rather fond of this meme...

Be safe, be well, keep your distance. (And if you're human: get vaccinated when you can & wash your hands!)

Backyard Wildlife College Newsletter 3/4:1 (2020-2021)*

“More than just fluffy bunnies”

(Backyard Wildlife College, Allentown PA, est. 2017)

* If you think this is a weird way of dealing with volume/year, wait till you see European sinology journals. Just sayin’.

Greetings, friends and sympathizers of the coolest little unofficial nature corner on the interwebs! It’s been a while, but we won’t even apologize for the silence last year in publishing our newsletter. This is what happens when a pandemic knocks sixteen months out of the collective memory of the the human world (including for our editor and groundskeeper).

Feathered and Furry Division infrastructure improvements:

Jumping right in with the state of affairs in summer 2021, we are pleased to announce massive improvements in our infrastructure since we last wrote, and in particular dining facilities, courtesy of some investment accounts coming to fruition, and one donation from admirers of the college. Thank you, Mr. & Dr. A!

squirrel-sized picnic bench with a jar of peanuts on top, placed indoor on a brown carpet.
Handcrafted and donated by Mr. A & Dr. A.

The squirrels have enjoyed the extra winter provisions, and went straight into training for the Tokyo Olympics.

They are very disappointed to hear they were not allowed to compete in the gymnastics because it’s for humans only. Nonsense, as you can tell from the following photo: our athletes are extremely talented and dedicated, even combining mealtimes with training sessions!

Squirrel hangs upside down from a metal ring shaped like a spiral, which contains peanuts. The squirrel is eating a peanut. There is snow on the ground, but the sun shines.
Training continues during mealtimes.

The heated birdbath was a hit with small furry and feathered creatures alike during the snowy month of February. Said one faculty member of the feathered division: “Yes, there was snow, but really: my stomach isn’t a micro-wave! This water at drinking temperature is much, much better.” The groundskeeper decided to keep the birdbath in summer at ground level, to provide access for the smaller furry creatures, who make great use of the extra hydration station. Two nearby birdbaths at height continue to provide comfortable bathing facilities for the feathered faculty during the summer months.

Heated bird bath: yes, it works!

Creepy Crawly Division infrastructure improvements:

We have expanded our wildflower strip at the back of the human dwelling from 2020, and this season it includes a few feet along the side of the dwelling. As some of you may know, we have a public-private partnership (PPP) with a mowing crew for the lawn, and we do not have the power to change this. After an unfortunate weed-wacker incident, which set back the start of the growing season by a few weeks, our groundskeeper has successfully clarified the boundaries with the crew, and the wildflowers are bursting into bloom! We are very excited to welcome our usual array of bumblebees, honeybees, various solo bees, hover-flies and many, many small but fine Creepy Crawly faculty and students to explore the area with abandon.

Special Summer Guest!

No summer newsletter would be complete without an update of our special summer guest: Mrs. Ruby-Throated Hummingbird (Hummie for the friends), our annual visitor who teaches the Colibri Course.

And why would she go elsewhere? We have everything a hummingbird could desire: world-class nectar, made from the purest sugar and distilled water in perfect proportions, served in glass feeders, replaced at regular intervals and now also kept ant-free; and clothes line to perch on for preening sessions, or when taking a break from hunting flies over the compost bin. As Hummie put in her review: “Four stars, would recommend to a friend if I weren’t so territorial.”

The only thing we’d like to add but don’t know how, is teeny-tiny humming-bird-sized towels for when the rain pours down. But she knows where to take shelter:

Somebody give Hummie a towel! If you look very carefully, you can occasionally see her long tongue in this video.

We hope you enjoyed this update, and aim to bring you more news soon of our summer residents here at Backyard Wildlife College!

Don't forget to subscribe to get email alerts for new posts (incl. of all the things are human groundskeeper gets up to), and share in the comments how your Backyard Wildlife College is doing!

Ant Moat: Activated

Last year I got an extra feeder for Hummie the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. I hoped to attract more of these flying miracles, but it turns out I am blessed with just the one, who became a fast friend during the summer of 2020, when I tried to keep my distance from humans. (She's back this summer. More in future posts.)

A female Ruby-Throated Hummingbird perches on the feeder, against a blue sky. Sunlight filters through the tips of her folded wings, and through the glass of the feeder.
Hummie resting at the feeder, summer 2020.

But not only Hummie likes my high quality nectar: the local ants and the odd wasp are also big fans of it. What can I say? Only the finest ingredients for my special summer guest! 4 parts distilled water to 1 part superfine crystalized white sugar, and making sure the feeder nor the sauce pan I use have any trace of soap on them make for highly desirable nectar.

The ants have no sense of self-preservation, and intoxicated by the sugar they’d climb inside the feeder, and died a sugary death. I can only hope that they were high and happy as they transpired. Not only is it sad for the ants, but it’s also a problem for the hummingbird: the dead ants carry fungi on them, which then breed in the nectar because it hangs in the sun, and it’s not sugary enough to be a preservative. If you don’t clean the feeder quickly enough, the hummingbirds can catch diseases and die.1 <-- New! "Footnotes", click to reveal!

I tried very briefly with a strip of tape, sticky side out, around the posts that the ants use to climb to the feeders. That would work: they were smart enough not to tread on it. But Hummie is about as tall as the strip of tape (2 inches) and I was worried she might accidentally get stuck. I quickly removed the tape.

Fortunately there is an “ant moat” built into the feeder, that with a little bit of attention from me will stop them from getting to the port holes. The basic idea is that the ants march along the hook down to center at the top of the feeder, but then encounter the water that surrounds the hook. They can’t make it to the rim, and because they don’t swim they have to turn back. 

Last year, the location of my feeders meant the ants could by-pass the moat, and once one found the way in, they all followed suit.

close-up of a hummingbird feeder hanging on a hook, but with part of the feeder touching on an ornament that allows the ants to bypass the hook from which the feeder hangs
The ant by-pass for the hummingbird feeder (red arrow)

This year, I’ve been a bit more organized and have activated the ant-moats. All it took was a piece of string, and tying a knot or two. I’m no sailor so my knots leave a bit to be desired, but as long as I keep the water levels topped up at the crown of the feeder, ants will be saved from drowning, the feeder will be cleaner for longer, and Hummie will enjoy ant-free nectar. I imagine the ants stomping their little feet in frustration as they march back to the ant colony, possibly throwing in a choice swear word here or there now they’re deprived of an easy source of food.

Now I just have to add “monitor the moats” to my daily morning routine.

More news from the adventures at Backyard Wildlife College coming soon!

  1. You need to clean feeders regularly anyway: hummingbirds also introduce micro-organisms in the feeders, but dead ants make it go off faster. And it’s not appetizing to look at.

Urgent message to all members of Backyard Wildlife College!

BWC Campus Safety urges all members of the college to stay well away from the human dwelling #1. In particular members of InInEx (Intrepid Indoor Explorer Club) should evacuate immediately and cancel all plans for new indoor expeditions. (Please note, InInEx is not endorsed by the College because it would hike up our health and life insurance group rates beyond belief, but we still care about your safety.)

All signs of activity point to a late but viciously deep spring clean happening this weekend. Based on previous years' patterns, we thought we had escaped lightly from this year's Great Indoor Destruction season, but based on ongoing observations, it appears to have been simply delayed for no apparent reason. (We do not think there is any connection with the Great Sickness, but our scientists are still working on understanding what it does to humans in-home behaviour. Apparently it's complicated.)

We are also still working through the latest intelligence to set up the habitual summer time-share we have with the human in #1, but there is currently no evidence we'll get the place to ourselves anytime soon: no suitcases have been brought out of storage, and there are periodic mumblings about delayed visa paperwork. We will keep you up to date.

Until then, please practice caution when approaching #1 dwelling, and stay away from The Thing!!

Hoover/vacuum cleaner, Dyson ball - bottom part with carpet-brush.
The Thing, cause of many an arachnid's untimely end, and feared by all Creepy Crawlies.
Close up shot of young leaves of tea plant

Backyard Wildlife College Newsletter 2:1 (2019)

"More than just fluffy bunnies"

(Backyard Wildlife College, Allentown PA, est. 2017)

Infrastructure improvements at Backyard Wildlife College

On Friday evening, we arranged for some improvements to the infrastructure of the College.

With the fear of frosty mornings a few weeks behind us, the little patio was repopulated with its usual sojourners: a small selection of herbs, a couple of succulents, and a growing collection of carnivorous plants.

We opted for an experiment in full soil growth, with a random mix of herbs and flowers, including some rescues.

1. Petunia. A freebie that was table decoration during an open house at Muhlenberg College, rescued from oblivion at the end of the session.

Small petunia in full soil


2. Lemon Bee Balm: useful for all sorts of things apparently, but let's first see if it grows and provides some flowers for the bees and bumbles on the BWC campus. Continue reading

Creepy Crawlies: Survival tips if you’re caught indoors

To: Creepy Crawlies

From: InInEx Club (Intrepid Indoor Explorers)  (motto: "Because it's there!")

Safety tips for indoor explorers

A small team of our intrepid insect and arachnid explorers has been exploring the indoors area of the human dwelling. They have, at risk of life and limb (mainly life), assessed the dangers and possibilities for successfully surviving an indoor encounter in flat Nr. 1. Thanks to the courageous behaviour of these heroic crawlies, we now have a much better understanding of the situation indoors and can offer some advice on how you stand a chance to get out of there alive. We await further news on the other flats in the dwelling and will update you as soon as we can.

What we know: Continue reading

Newsletter 2 from Backyard Wildlife College

"More than just fluffy bunnies"

(Backyard Wildlife College, Allentown PA, est. 2017)

Newsletter 2 (July 2018)

Hello all, and welcome to newsletter 2!

The College has lots of exciting news about new arrivals spotted on campus!


Ms. (or Mr.?) Fox was seen walking through the back alley about a week ago, and again a week later running across campus pursued by the Crow Airforce Acrobatic Team. The College has not received further news about Fox's intention to join the Division of Furry Creatures, but we are open for negotiation. We realize that increasing species diversity may bring tensions, in particular when carnivores join the faculty or will serve in functions already occupied by current members, but as our motto makes abundantly clear, we are not in the business of enhancing the "fluffy bunny view" of nature.

Speaking of fluffy bunnies, a Visiting Assistant Rabbit has been appointed! Following several early morning campus visits, Continue reading