In the meadows surrounding the stately, historic buildings at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill (Shakervillageky.org), there is change in the air.
Property manager Don Pelly says stewardship of the land is a Shaker tradition. Honoring that ideal, and looking toward the future, Pelly is working with Kentucky Fish and Wildlife staffers and University of Kentucky researchers to develop and improve wildlife habitat in pastures at Pleasant Hill, which lies just north of Harrodsburg in Mercer County, atop the Kentucky River Palisades.
Shaker Village offers 40 miles of walking and horse-riding trails through the property's nature preserve, where 1,000 acres of former agricultural fields have been planted with native grasses, including little bluestem, sideoats grama and dropseed.
"They form clumps, making it easy for animals to pass between easily, as well as providing protection," Pelly says. Wildflowers including native echinacea and coneflowers attract insects, expanding food sources and providing a sanctuary for more than 125 species of birds.
"We're becoming a model for what private landowners can do on their own property," Pelly says.
During the summer, two bird surveys are conducted at Pleasant Hill. A Partners in Flight (Partnersinflight.org) count involves a specially trained observer recording bird sightings after listening for the bird's calls for 10 minutes.
I tagged along with Pelly one morning just after sunrise in early June. A northern bobwhite quail was flushed from underfoot as we passed by. We heard the songs of 14 other species, including American goldfinch, red-wing blackbird and red-bellied woodpecker.
A second survey was going on that morning: monitoring of avian breeding and migration success. Birds are captured in nets and examined; then after a metal band is placed on their leg, they're released. It was amazing to have an up-close look at an indigo bunting, a yellow-billed cuckoo, a cardinal and even a willow flycatcher as they rested on my hand for a split second, then flew away.
Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources biologist Kate Heyden, who directs this survey, part of the Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship program, or MAPS (Birdpop.org/programs.htm), said some of the birds studied in the 12-acre field area have returned to the same spot after migrating to and from the tropics for the winter.
The team members, under a federal permit that lets them work with migratory birds, examines characteristics including body fat, breeding condition and weight. Within about an hour of when they're caught, the birds are set free, unharmed.
The data helps in conservation efforts and wildlife population studies. You can help, too. If you ever find a banded bird, report it at Reportband.gov. You'll find information about the bird's history as you add to the data already recorded there.
Weeds or flowers
Sweet violets, those common, indigenous weeds that we've been trying to pry out of our grassy landscapes for decades, are making a comeback with gardeners.
Just this week, I was surprised to find them for sale at Home Depot, prominently displayed with a fancy "Kentucky natives" label.
My first thought: Who would buy something they already own? A quick survey of my neighborhood confirmed that violets dot every lawn. I suspect that some folks might even pay to get rid of them. After all, native or not, violets are pretty aggressive growers.
Yet, native plants, which provide wildlife habitat support and easy-care beauty, are valuable alternatives when you're rooting out exotic invasive species. Carolina spicebush and Indian pink bush, for instance, can replace bush honeysuckle and garlic mustard. So, perhaps violets deserve a little respect. Their delicate flowers are edible, if they're washed well and herbicide-free. Candied with an old-fashioned sugar dusting, they're delicate ornaments atop cakes and cookies.
Violets also are host plants for Fritillary butterflies, which lay eggs on the leaves to overwinter. The greenery provides food for hungry caterpillars that hatch in the spring. Beyond the common variety, there are more than 20 species of violets growing wild in Kentucky. Many are scented, flowering in shades of white, yellow, pink, blue and purple.
Learn to love your weeds
While you're mulling over weeds, here are a couple of weed-related suggestions:
■ Attend "A Weed by Any Other Name," a show-and-tell program with Lexington native Nancy Gift, assistant professor of Environmental Studies at Chatham University and author of the new weed-identification guide Good Weed, Bad Weed: Who's Who, What to Do and Why Some Deserve a Second Chance (St. Lynn's Press, 104 pp., $17.95.) The program is 7 p.m. June 28 at The Arboretum, 500 Alumni Drive. Gift's photo gallery of weeds will be on display until June 30. The lecture is $5, $4 for Friends of The Arboretum. Weeds will be admitted for free.
■ Read British nature writer Richard Mabey's new book, Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants (Ecco, 336 pp., $25.99.) It is scheduled to be released June 28.
Mabey's thoughts run rampant, trailing through history, literature and cultural phenomena while adding insightful stories, interesting trivia and scientific facts that will enrich your weed awareness and your vocabulary.
Mabey shows how the image of weeds has been used in literature, from the fanciful — fairy queen Titania's fragrant bed in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream — to sci-fi — John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids.
Find out about kudzu conspiracies, poppies fertilized by bomb residues in Flanders fields, and St. Johns wort, a sun-like blooming herb named for its bright blooms and use in traditional midsummer overnight bonfires set across Europe on June 24, St. John's Day. It was the day of the solstice in Roman times and was later associated with the birth of John the Baptist.