The sleek swallows that dart and swoop for insects over our meadows and waterways move so swiftly that it is usually hard to see details on them. The cliff swallows and the tree swallows are both eye-catching if you get a good look at them, but to me the most attractive swallow around here is the deep blue and orange, fork-tailed barn swallow.

The barn swallows do, indeed, utilize barns but bridges and eaves of other human constructions also will do for building the cup-like nests of mud and straw. During the summer, though, barn swallows can be seen just about anyplace where the bugs are concentrating.

Last week I visited one of my daughter Sarah’s favorite places to work, a recently opened animal rescue shelter near Madison called Heartland Farm Sanctuary. She has always shared my love of animals and now she is helping troubled farm animals in a pleasant rural setting. I enjoyed the opportunity to watch her working with the roosters, turkeys, chickens, goats, sheep, llamas and various other critters that had been abandoned or given to the shelter.

As always though, I was also watching for wild critters, and I didn’t have to look far. In the barn where the turkeys and roosters were all competing to make the loudest racket, numerous barn swallows were feeding their nearly grown chicks. The youngsters were sitting nearby or still in the nests. They all seemed oblivious to the activity and noise below them as they swooped down the aisles seeking their own nest.

The chicks were nearly adult size but they still opened their mouths wide when food arrived. Inside their mouths was a bright, yellow lining that made them better targets for the parents. The chicks were fed one at a time, at least while I was there. I wondered if the parents ever got out of sequence like a female redwing blackbird occasionally did as I watched her feeding her chicks.

Last weekend I also saw a number of cliff swallows attending their chicks under a bridge over the north fork of the Bad Axe River. They, too, must have been nearly grown since one of them attracted a lot of attention by flying from the nest and crash landing on a boulder. Both parents flew around the youngster, apparently encouraging it to scramble to the top of the big rock along the bank of the river.

Fledgling birds, as I have seen many times, learn how to fly a little quicker than they learn how to land with dignity. They seem prone to flying into objects or bushes, where they flounder and squawk to the grief of their parents.

If you find a fledgling bird in an awkward situation it’s best to let them find their own way. The parents are usually nearby, and most of time they will them will let you know it.

We have cactus

Ask anyone to imagine a rural scene in Minnesota or Wisconsin and they probably have images of dairy cows, crystal lakes, and deep pine forests. Many of us living here would also put those things pretty high on the list as well. But if I told you that both states are home to more than one native species of cactus, most of you would be a little surprised. We do have near near desert-like conditions in some places.

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In the past month, believe it or not, I have found two cactus species here in Wisconsin within 80 miles or so of my home in La Crosse. Both species are native to this part of the country, and populations suffer mainly by over-collecting and by the loss of their habitat to human development.

The brittle prickly pear, (Opuntia fragilis), was growing in sandy, rocky soil in Trempealeau County. Because of its relative rarity, I have been asked not to reveal where I found them to protect the small colony.

It is a surprisingly small cactus. I walked right past them the first time I looked for them since I was expecting something like the much larger eastern prickly pear. The pads of the brittle variety are not as flat as those of their cousins and they grow in low, ground covering mats. They produce attractive yellow blossoms around this time of year.

The larger eastern prickly pear, Opuntia humifusa, I found growing in numbers where I have found them many times before: in the sandy soil along Highway 14 between Lone Rock and Spring Green. They grow among the grasses and other plants that thrive there, making them hard to see at first.

This is one of the many species of prickly pear that have the flat oval pads that grow from other pads in a branching fashion. In fact, the succulent pads are stems that store a lot of water, allowing the plants to survive dry conditions. In the winter, they lose the water and wilt to the ground, looking very much like they have died. In the spring, though, they absorb water again and continue to grow.

When I saw them last week, some were in blossom, producing a sulfur yellow flower with a rose tinge, similar to those of the brittle prickly pear. Both species have defensive spines that cling and sting at the slightest touch. The larger prickly pear also has tiny bristles that attach to the skin and might take days or weeks to wear out. I once tried to bend an eastern prickly pear to get a better picture and I paid for that idea a long time afterwards.

Of course, I like the pine forests and lakes as well as anyone else, but it’s kind of fun once in a while to tell someone that you were recently walking around a patch of native cactus — in Minnesota or Wisconsin.


False. Cacti reproduce by seeds that form after the flowers are pollinated.

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