Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Those Dead Birds

The sight of a bird corpse brought fear to many Fairfield County dwellers a couple of years ago. Health departments were inundated with calls about dead birds, presumably the victims of the once dreaded West Nile Virus.

The callers themselves, it turns out, may have killed most of those birds.

A Cornell University study has found that the majority of birds tested for West Nile Virus in Connecticut and New York in 2002 died not from a disease, but from lawn-care pesticides. Nationwide, Cornell said, deadly lawn chemicals like diazinon and chlorphrifos kill millions of birds a year.

If they kill birds, what might they be doing to you, your family, and your pets?

And what would happen if you didn’t poison your lawn? Wildflowers – some call them weeds – would move in with the grass, adding some color to that bland carpet of green. But what’s better, chickweed, dandelions, clover, speedwell, buttercups, and a host of other lawn flowers produce seeds that will feed instead of kill the birds.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Nachtmusik

It is the middle of the night. Off in the distance, a Northern Mockingbird is singing, belting out his repertoire of dozens of songs as if it were broad daylight. But no, it’s 2 a.m., and there’s no sign of his stopping.

Some mockingbirds have been known to sing all night long. The same incredible album of tunes that is such cheerful music during the day seems almost haunting at night.

Why the nachtmusik from a day-loving creature? Ornithologists have found that the midnight mockers are unmated males, apparently desperate to attract a female. Simply speaking, they are lonely and singing a birdworld version of the blues.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Floral Greetings

Walking or riding along our roads in spring is always a treat, made more enjoyable by the floral thoughtfulness of neighborly people.

Nature gives us an eyeful as the trees, shrubs and wildflowers come into leaf and bloom. But good neighbors add to nature’s performance by planting flowers along their roadsides for passersby to enjoy. From tulips and daffodils at the beginning of the season and marigolds and asters at the end, flowers soften their fences, line their lawns, and encircle their mailboxes.

Often these roadside or walkside flowers can’t even be seen from the house of the person who planted them and were put there for others to enjoy. They brighten the day for mail carriers, delivery drivers, and others who serve us. They say “Hello!” to both stranger and friend. And they offer a “welcome” that no mat ever could.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Roadside Rogue

Bright colors and sweet scents appear in late May with the blooming of Dame’s Rocket, a roadside rogue enjoyable around the clock.

By day, the pink, violet and white flowers light up shady woodsides and by evening, their sweet scent spreads across the landscape. It is, in fact, an evening flower, with scent and colors designed to attract night-flying moths rather than day-flying bees – hence its name, Hesperis matronalis, which can be translated matrons of the evening.

And it may have been matrons who brought this mustard from Europe to America to fill their gardens in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Some, especially Germans, even added its sharp-tasting leaves to their salads.

Dame’s Rocket found the New World to its liking and, like many another weed, has been spreading along roadsides. But unlike most weeds, it offers beauty to the eye, sweetness to the nose, and tastiness to the tongue.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Nature's Way

Overpopulation can be a problem in nature. And while humans often cause the problem, only nature seems capable of solving it.

Take the Gypsy Moth caterpillar. Imported because they spin silk-like threads that man hoped to exploit, the caterpillars eventually exploded in population to the point where they were defoliating vast forests. However, in the late 1980s, a virus, a fungus and predatory insects combined to kill millions of caterpillars and halt the plague in our area.

Back in the early 1990s, raccoons were overpopulating – they were almost as common as squirrels. Suburban man had eliminated their enemies and created a comfortable habitat. Then a southern strain of rabies appeared and almost annihilated the raccoons.

Nature took charge. It might do the same with deer, also overpopulating thanks to us. However, it’s one thing to have a lot of dead insects hanging from trees or raccoon corpses off in the woods. It might be quite another to have hundreds of 150-pound deer carcasses dotting the landscape.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Barberry Dilemma

For some years environmental groups have been attacking the Japanese barberry, scheduling “pull ’em up” parties and conducting anti-barberry education programs. The prickly import that has been spreading through woodlands can push out native species.

However, the folks at the Highstead Arboretum in Redding, Connecticut, have been noticing an unusual phenomenon: Barberry bushes are sheltering native wildflowers.

Probably because the shrub is covered with thorns, deer that have been decimating many woodland plants do not eat barberry. In fact, they tend to keep away from it. As a result, arboretum staff have been finding native wildflowers that the deer normally consume, including Trout Lilies and Bloodroot, blooming away under and around barberries while the plants out in the open have been mostly eaten.

It presents a dilemma. Should we spare some of these alien invaders to protect the native flowers from the native deer?

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Scourge of Spring

Before modern paving, spring thaws and rains turned roads to thick soup. Mud caused far more transportation problems than snow, swallowing the narrow wheels of carts and carriages and slowing journeys to a crawl. It still does in rural Vermont and New Hampshire.

Our forefathers tried various ways to cope with these quagmires. Logs were buried in the mud; in many places, plank-topped highways were built. For a while, charcoal roads were popular – logs were laid along the surface, set afire, and covered with dirt so they burned slowly and turned into charcoal that lasted longer than wood. The surface dirt was removed, and the charcoal packed into place. In some towns quarried stone was laid, long side down, to create durable and dry Telford roads.

The simplest way to handle particularly muddy spots was to fill them with boulders. While years of reworking and repaving have removed most of these old mud rocks, you will still run across old roads in New England towns with boulders protruding through the pavement, pushed up by decades of frost. Odds are, these are not rocks left long ago by lazy road builders, but ones once hauled there to deal with the scourge of spring.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Desire of Pleasing

Next to a Bible, an almanac was the most important publication in most households in 19th Century rural America. It was a guide to farming life, and offered all sorts of practical advice and information, much of it timeless and all of it short and to the point.

For instance, the now musty and stained pages of an 1855 Old Farmer’s Almanac offer this simple suggestion about “Help and Hired People”: “These are more likely to be praised into good conduct than scolded out of bad. Always commend them when they do right. To cherish the desire of pleasing in them, you must show them that you are pleased. This applies equally well to children.”

In the 20th Century, scores of books were written on corporate management and child rearing that say little more than those 44 words in a 146-year-old farmers’ handbook.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The Hidden World

Campephilus principalis has shocked Homo sapiens. We think we are, well, so sapiens about this Earth we have conquered, and yet a flashy bird bigger than a crow has managed to elude us for more than 60 years in our own back yard.

It’s a tribute to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and it’s also a tribute to the conservationists who saved the vast cypress swamps in Arkansas where the bird has hidden all these years.

Yet so much in nature is hidden. Countless creatures are still to be discovered, not just rediscovered. In the last decade more than 360 new species have been identified on the island of Borneo alone. The Vietnamese recently found a “new” tree and a “new” butterfly, and an unusual tweezer-beaked rodent was just uncovered in the Philippines. Last year, a new species of monkey was found in Bolivia and this year, a new brine fly was identified in Utah.

And that’s just on land. Scientists estimate anywhere from 500,000 to 10-million species live in the deep sea, most of them still undiscovered.

The trouble is, through uncontrolled development, pollution and simple carelessness, we may be killing off species faster than they can be found.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Roadside vitamins

“What are all those white flowers along the road – every road?!” someone asked.

Twenty-five years ago, Garlic Mustard was an occasionally seen import that few knew. Today, the weed has spread to the point where plant conservationists are alarmed. These alien invaders are overcoming native species, and efforts have been organized to do them in. The most basic technique is to pull them up -- they have a tiny root system and are easy to yank.

But we have another suggestion: Eat them! In its native England, Garlic Mustard has long been a food. In fact, that's how it probably got here; Virginia settlers were using it by 1700. The garlicky leaves are used as vegetables and salad greens. Old World farmers found them so flavorful, they filled sandwiches with them.

What’s more, this tasty pest is good for you. Garlic Mustard leaves have more than twice the vitamin A of spinach and 20 times more than tomatoes. They also have nearly four times the vitamin C of oranges and nine times that of tomatoes.

So why waste a good weed?

Peeper keeper

Peep. Peep. Peep.

Choruses of spring peepers rise from the woods in April. But how did those inch-long amphibians deal with the vagaries of New England weather that can swing temperatures from the 70s to the 20s?

To peepers, a sudden freeze or even a spring snowstorm is no sweat. Cold air triggers the frog's liver to create glucose. Blood brings this antifreeze to the vital organs like the brain and heart, keeping them from freezing. But the rest of its body -- more than 60% of it – can freeze for weeks without harming the frog.

So on a walk in a wood on a cold spring day, you may find a small, frozen frog. If you put it in your warm hand, the iced peeper will simply melt and hop away, no doubt with a song in its heart.