On Earth Day in Ogden, a lesson on the birds, the beavers and other pieces of the ecosystem

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Ricardo Paez, holding his son Izan, 2, watches a burrowing owl flap its wings as the two learn all about owls including barn, screeh, great horned owls during Earth Day celebration at the Ogden Nature Center, Saturday, April 20, 2019.

Ogden • Of all the animals kids like to draw, Joey Ross is really good at birds.

As proof, his portrait of a hummingbird, titled “The Pollinator,” won top honors at an art contest hosted Saturday at Ogden Nature Center as part of its Earth Day festival. For inspiration, he just had to look into his own yard.

“We put out feeders and there’s a horn and they suck out the liquid,” said Joey, a sixth-grader at Lomond View Elementary School. His picture showed a red-and-green bodied hummingbird pulling nectar from orange flowers, demonstrating how these tiny birds help sustain life by moving pollen from one flower to another in exchange for a sweet meal.

In front of Monday’s 49th anniversary of Earth Day, the Ogden event connected hundreds of families with the natural world through story-telling, tours, demonstrations, crafts and art. Want to learn how to make compost to nourish the garden, start seeds without plastic containers or make puppets? There were workshops for all those.

Part of another juried exhibit were dozens of birdhouses lining the path entering the nature center in the northwest part of Ogden. Its grounds spread along the Plain City Canal on former croplands that were abandoned for agriculture in the 1940s and are now reverting to wetlands that harbor migratory birds and diverse ecosystems.

Many of the birdhouses at the entrance were made from found objects and salvaged wood, like Jeff Bennett’s “Rustic Bluebird,” more of a multi-unit bird condo that looked like a slice of medieval hilltop town. Beehives, birdhouses and bat boxes are just a few ways people can make human landscapes more critter-friendly by providing habitat in the middle of urban places where natural protection is scarce.

Another birdhouse, which was available for sale, was made from a discarded plastic bear toy, that may once been a gumball machine. The bird occupant would enter through the ferocious animal’s mouth and nest in its transparent belly.

Advocates for actual predators were among the many presenters, including representatives of HawkWatch International and the Mountain Lion Foundation who came to talk about the importance of preserving the often persecuted creatures at the top of the food chain.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Tinlee Grice, 7, holds a bag of nearly three dozen ladybugs she was given for free to populate her yard during Earth Day celebration at the Ogden Nature Center, Saturday, April 20, 2019.

Cougars are often mischaracterized as vicious hunters, threatening to humans and livestock, and are unfairly blamed for declining deer numbers, but nothing could be further from the truth, according to the Mountain Lion Foundation’s Denise Peterson.

“Having a well-balanced, well-established population of mountain lions actually protects prey species, improves habitat quality and biodiversity," Peterson said. “Having a lower [hunting] quota improves safety for people. Conversely having higher quota increases risks to people, pets and livestock. The management practices we have employed in the past aren’t necessarily ideal.”

A few feet away from Peterson’s table, children gathered around a trailer rigged with a demonstration that replicated how watersheds work and listened to Mark Muir, a hydrologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

The display was filled with multi-colored plastic granules, representing the soil, with a stream flowing from the top to a lake at the bottom, through a “landscape" filled with houses, trees and animals. Muir removes the vegetation from the bank of his stream and turns up the flow to show what can go wrong when a watershed is compromised.

Without the buffer of vegetation, the stream bank quickly eroded and pulled a house into the water.

“Everything is connected in a watershed,” Muir said. “Something we do up here can have impacts way down here.”

The star of Muir’s show was a tiny beaver, another wild animal that gets an underserved reputation as a trouble maker when the flooding they cause is really a blessing — unless it’s your home being flooded.

Muir demonstrates how the beaver’s log dam across the stream dampens the erosive power of moving water. These dams, which property owners often remove, actually help the soils retain moisture and keep water on the landscape where it can support heathy habitat and protect water quality, especially during runoff periods when they block sediments entrained in the water.

“All this sediment is stopped right here and you know were it didn’t go,” Muir tells the children, pointing downstream. “If I rip out the dam, where does that sediment go? In that lake, where we get our drinking water. Bummer.”