Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Intro to New Blog

Note: The following post is also the first post of a new blog called:
WOODS AND PRAIRIE - strategies for stewards
It's more technical (and less fun?) than Vestal Grove.

Please check it out and comment at: http://woodsandprairie.blogspot.com

What Trees Should We Cut?

First, some rules of thumb:

Easy decision: In a real prairie, cut all trees. Prairie can’t grow under trees. No real tree is truly happy degrading a prairie.

Medium decision: In an overgrown but original savanna, cut enough trees of all kinds to get enough sun for enough grass for regular grassland burns. Probably best to cut some of all tree species, but try to save many young examples of the oak species best represented among the site’s oldest trees. In the long run, the fires will decide which trees will survive.

Hard decision: In an oak woodland, our burns will probably not be severe enough, under today’s controlled conditions, to kill mature invading trees. Thus we have to make God’s or evolution's choices ourselves. However unqualified and humble we are, there’s no alternative. If we want to conserve the vanishing oak woods biodiversity, we have to pick and choose.

Consider the degraded oak woodland shown below. Judging from the oldest trees (some of which predate Euro-american settlement by more than a century) the “original” dominant trees here were bur and white oak.  Thus probably most biota that needs conserving here (e.g. invertebrates, fungi, bacteria) is part of an ecosystem sunny enough for reproduction of bur and white oaks.

What goes? First, of course, all the buckthorn (still green in this photo). Second, we’d cut at least 90% of the shadiest invaders including maple and basswood (yellowish wide leaves on the right).

We spare some elm in the wettest areas, where all the big ones seem to be. We cut most of the cherry (which one study found to be the most invasive canopy tree of the region’s oak woodlands). Box elder mostly goes. We stopped cutting large ash years ago, because they’ll all die soon of the emerald borer. But little ash won’t succumb to the borer for many years, and they make as much shade as buckthorn – so we cut the little and pole ash.

Some people are surprised by the oaks we cut. See that pole tree on the left – the dark-barked, branchless, youngster with its top already in the canopy? That’s a red oak. They’re fast growing and survive a lot of shade. Yes, they’re oaks, which some people assume makes them holy. But after cherry, they’re often the major pest in a long-unburned bur or white oak woods. Neither bur nor white can grow under the dense shade of red oaks. We usually don’t cut the big ones (good idea? bad idea?), but the pole reds go into the bonfire with the buckthorn.

In this second photo, we’re looking at a bur and scarlet oak woodland that’s been burned for 28 years. The buckthorn was everywhere as dense as it still is along the edge (the dark green slash across the middle of the photo). We left all the “native” trees when we burned (top-killed) the buckthorn and herbicided its re-sprouts.

Is what we have here now healthy enough? The three big trees are bur oaks. But there are no sapling bur oaks in the grove (although there are hundreds where sunlight is ample, around the edges). The pole trees in the grove are red oak, cherry, hickory, and basswood. Should we have cut some of them earlier? Probably. Should we cut some now, so we don’t end up with a bizarre forest of shade survivors? Yes, it seems about time.

Your comments are very welcome.


But one little added note on the herbs, for those interested. The main species we see here are elm-leaved and blue-stemmed goldenrod, wild coffee, purple Joe-pye-weed, and a little bit of rue anemone. This 5-acre prairie grove has more than 25 species of sedges and grasses and more than 100 species of woodland wildflowers. Many rare butterflies and mushrooms have been found. It’s off to a good start, I mean recovery.  

Also, the photos in larger format, if you want to study them more closely:

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Help design (and choose a new title for) an additional blog?

To the generous people who have asked, I have fallen behind on new blog posts because I’m trying something new.

Last fall I was about to “launch” a new blog that was more “technical” and “specialized” than the Vestal Grove blog. (I’ve tried to keep Vestal Grove accessible to any person who might be interested in ecosystems.) Then, in quick succession, I had to bury myself in preparations to do presentations for three major conferences, and then I started messing with drafts for the new blog. Now I'm about ready to resume both Vestal Grove and the “new blog.”

Would you be willing to help me think about possible titles (and goals) for a blog about getting better at ecosystem conservation through stewardship and restoration?

(Perhaps you can improve or have a better one? Or tell me which ones you like best?)

Prairie Doc

Strategies for Stewardship

Trying to be a Good Steward

Healing Stewards

Better Living for Nature

Biodiversity Builders

Handcrafted Ecosystems

Birth of a Healing Discipline: learning to restore ecosystems

Battlefield Medicine for the Ecosystem

Restore and Restock: by and for ecosystem stewards

A Time to Heal: idea exchanges of, by, and for ecosystem stewards

Cut, Sow, Reap, and Burn

Cut, Plant, and Burn

Slash, Seed, Burn, and Ponder


Rebirth of Ecosystems

States of the Art: Eco-restoration

State of the Ark

Eco-Upgrade: better skills for stewards

Eco-Upgrade: evolving insights in ecological restoration

Blundering Toward Bethlehem

Better Stewards


Better Eco-medicine

Improving Stewards

Eco-Restoration Practice

Perhaps the brief description could be something like:
“This blog starts with ongoing eco-restoration experiments in northeastern Illinois and invites participation by everyone interested – especially people participating in this very new healing profession or discipline.”

Or might you suggest something better?

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Accepting Defeat - as a strategy toward victory

The battle against invasive species is a new phase in ecosystem conservation. The depth of our strategy and analysis is still shallow. We have done a better job at raising the war cry than at planning the campaigns.

“Obscene, in fetid patches clustered,
Defiant stood the garlic mustard …”

Thus began a poem by then North Branch poet laureate Jim Cutler. In the early days, garlic mustard and wild parsnip seemed daunting. At one point chest-high sweet clover filled all the major openings of Somme Prairie Grove. Today it’s largely gone, as are the evil clover and parsnip.

Back in the daunting days, we wondered at times whether to fight or give up on various species. Kentucky bluegrass was everywhere, but its actual impact seemed modest. We ignored it. It’s fading out.

For a while we pulled wild carrot. But it wasn’t our top priority, and we noticed that it went away on its own within a few years wherever we didn’t have time for it, so we stopped wasting troops on carrot.

When we started, this was all buckthorn. We pulled the alien Japanese hedge parsley here – to make sure
that the native species could find spaces to thrive. Was that work necessary? Or were we wasting our time?
Some of us waged campaigns against thistle. But restored plant diversity defeated it too without our help. We now ignore it. Yes, I cringe when there’s a flair-up in a newly brush-cleared area. But I know it will be mostly gone in two years or four.  We devote our thistle time to more important things – like gathering seed.

But what do we do when unfamiliar new “invasives” show up? Potential invaders present a different sort of challenge. When Japanese hedge parsley appeared, we worried. We studied in in the scientific literature without learning much. We looked nearby and found areas where it seemed to have taken over completely. We thought: perhaps the best solution is to eliminate it quick, while there are just a few plants. To ignore a new, possibly scary species – which may or may not turn out to be harmless – is a gamble.

We had made that gamble wrong – with white sweet clover. Just a few plants at first, we ignored them. Soon the dastardly stuff was waist-high over many acres. Grrrr.

Then sweet clover became a nightmare. We scythed, pulled, and taxed people’s backs. It challenged our energy and resolve at the hottest time of the year. I remember episodes of heat stroke and chiropractor bills. But we beat it, and it’s mostly gone.

I now wonder if we perhaps made the wrong choice with Japanese thicket parsley (Torilis japonica). In that case, we made the opposite gamble. We tried to wipe it out. It even had its own poem:


That’s the whole poem, a sub-haiku by North Branch steward Laurel Ross. We hated the nasty little parsley for many years. Worse than sweet clover, it hides in the shrubby edges where the mosquitoes are the thickest. Even worse, unlike sweet clover and garlic mustard, which we could just dump in out-of-the-way piles, this menace clings to animals, which then bring it everywhere. I stuffed it into bags, saved them in the garage, 
Japanese parsley, the white stuff here, seemed ready to totally invade.

and burned the evil mess in bonfires when summer weed-pulling season gave way to fall and winter brush-cutting.

After two decades of annual mid-summer hard work, in 2012 we gave up on Torilis. Was that decision a wise strategic retreat? I shudder a bit as we face our eco-reality check over the next few years.

This year I find it luxuriant in many places. Much thicker than ever. Next year I anticipate it will be worse still. And yet I have some confidence it will fade away to very little over time. Yes, it will fester for a while where new brush has been cut and the ecosystem is an open wound for a few years – while diversity builds from our planted seeds.

But over the years, Torilis seems to have revealed itself as a Georgy-Porgy that only does its mischief against weaklings. “When the big boys come out to play” – if it could – it would run away. Instead it strangles, starves and dies against the better-adapted competition.

I found the battle hard to give up. We had put so many years of agony into combating it, just in case. We were successfully holding the worst populations at bay. But we weren’t coming even close to wiping it out from the site. And it was occupying our time.

A strategic retreat seemed best. We accepted defeat in a battle – with some confidence that the larger war would go better if we focused our forces more wisely.

Teasel, crown vetch, purple loosestrife, reed canary grass – these are serious killers of rare ecosystems. We now battle the last of them at Somme with all our might – unencumbered by trivial visions of victory over Torilis.

As with human medicine, the diagnoses and prescriptions we use in restoration are partly art and judgment. Priorities and assessments change. We learn, and many of our ecosystem patients get healthier, richer, and more beautiful by the year.    

Monday, July 29, 2013

Planning Notes for 2014

This post is intended for people who are interested in the details of ecological restoration. It consists of five “cases” – with photos that exhibit problems or opportunities accompanied by comments on possible solutions.

First, a definition of a word used often below:
conservative – a species that is most common under natural conditions – and rarely is found away from them. In ancient prairies, the conservatives are among the most common plants. In most “restored” or degraded prairies, they are rare or non-existent. There’s a longer note on conservative plants at the end of this post.

Case 1

Diagnosis: Weeds under control. Yet few conservative species are established. Most of what we’re seeing here are short termers – species that will give way to others, for better or ill, before long. The early goldenrod, for example will likely be replaced excessively by big bluestem (present now in small numbers) if nothing is done but burn.

Prescription: Broadcast seed of conservative species. Especially important are little bluestem and prairie dropseed – to head off the big bluestem. Sow seed of most difficult to establish species in the early goldenrod areas for best results.

Case 1A: close-up area 1

Patches like this strike me as the very most receptive to our most prized conservative seed. There is currently little aggressive tall grass here. The commonest plants shown (early goldenrod, black-eyed Susan, fleabane) are among the quickest to move out of the way for quality species. Sow such classy species as cream false indigo, Leiberg’s panic grass, white and purple prairie clovers, prairie dropseed, alumroot, shooting star, prairie gentian, yellow stargrass, prairie cinquefoil, etc.

Case 1B: close-up area 2

This patch shows quite a bit of young big bluestem along with many young ash trees and dogwood shrubs. A patch like this may be somewhat less prime for new seed. Given how little seed we have of the high conservatives, we should seed this area sparingly. Perhaps it’s a place to add somewhat aggressive species like rattlesnake master, prairie dock, compass plant – to increase the diversity of niches that the high conservatives will use to gradually become established from nearby over the decades.

Case 2

Here two high conservatives dominate (purple prairie clover and prairie dropseed).  Early goldenrod (which was dominant here years ago) has retreated to the frequency you might expect in stable, high-quality grassland. Although we see a little rattlesnake master, compass plant and rough blazing star, the
overall diversity seems low. It might not work so well to sow the high conservatives of mid-summer; the competition could be tough to overcome. Perhaps this is a place to sow spring species such as prairie betony, shooting star, and cream false indigo, which might then open up more niches.

On the other hand, this area is currently a great seed source for dropseed and prairie clover, so perhaps there’s no need to do much here in the short term. The best next step could be a variety of little inter-seeding experiments. First, find out which species will compete against these conservatives – before investing a lot of seed in an area, which might be slow to accept it.

Case 3
Two big questions here:
A. This is a new planting with good wildflower diversity but weak on grass (and thus, unstable). It’s hard to know whether it wants to be more mesic or wet-mesic overall. I’m thinking that we should focus on sowing dropseed and little bluestem in the drier parts – and switch grass and Dudley’s rush in the wetter parts.  
B. But the biggest question here is what to do with all those trash trees in the background. Both parts of this area were so dense with buckthorn that essentially no grasses or wildflowers survived. But the foreground area had few big trees, and we managed to clear them. In the background, large numbers of ash, cherry, elm, and box elder trees hold sway. It would take a big chunk of our volunteer time to cut and burn them. But there’s no sensible community to try and restore on the former prairie land underneath them. So our short-term strategy has been to plant natural species that may keep out the invasives and then wait until we have a better answer. If you look closely you may be able to see brown leaves on some of the trees to the right. That’s where fire singed some of the branches. Maybe fire will do most of our work for us here, while we invest our resources on other areas where the prescriptions are clearer.

Case 4 
            In this patch of scarlet oak savanna, we seemed to be getting increasing diversity and quality – until recently.
            Around the tree on the right, notice wild quinine, butterfly weed, ox-eye sunflower, big bluestem, wild bergamot, rattlesnake master, and others.
            Then woodland sunflower (Helianthus strumosus) started wiping much of it out. Perhaps this is a temporary stage, and diversity will come back? Or perhaps this sunflower is helpfully erasing species that aren’t so well adapted here, which would then be replaced by better-adapted species, if we broadcast their seed. We should experiment by inter-seeding such species, if we can identify good candidates.
Case 5 
Diagnosis: About half the trees in the center grove are dead. Some died from fire and others from Dutch elm or Emerald ash borer disease. The few oaks are fine. (In contrast, the grove on the left is mostly oaks and doing great.) Because we hadn’t had time to focus on it, we’ve left the dying grove to “nature.”  Of course, “nature” isn’t happening here, and the result is an increasingly unsustainable weedy and brushy mess. It will soon be another buckthorn monstrosity if we let current processes continue.
            We could plant two of our precious mixes of rare grasses and wildflowers of the species (first the one of species that would survive in the semi-shade of the edge – and second, further in, the mix of species for the shade of the grove interior). That could help keep the buckthorn at bay, but it could also be a waste of seed and effort, since the species that would grow there in the short term would not be adapted to the less shady conditions that are coming – as these mostly non-oak trees continue to die.
            Perhaps we could broadcast the seed of some of the easier to get semi-shade herb species in the hopes that they will seal the wound and ward off the brush. Or we could plant natural shrub-copse species in hopes of another native shrub island that we could experiment with (much appreciated by the significant bird species that nest at Somme).
            Or we could short-circuit the misery and cut the out-of-place trees this winter. That would seem easiest. We could then just plant the open savanna/prairie mix (as in the foreground here), which would then be easily sustainable with little added effort beyond regular burns. But we’re trying to restore the natural savanna here, and we already have more than enough of the “prairie” component.
            I’m inclined to recommend planting hazelnuts and bur oak acorns and protecting them from voles, rabbits, deer and fire in the early years. Perhaps some of the box elders and basswoods can for the next 15 or 20 years provide the amount of shade that oak and hazel will someday provide, and the community can transition gradually from non-oak to oak. This challenging area still needs a lot of observation, experimentation, and thought.

-            -            -            -            -            -            -            -            -            -            -  

... and, as promised at the end ...

a longer note on ecological conservatives

In many ways, the main and most challenging goal of ecosystem restoration is to establish plentiful conservatives. If such plants and animals are diverse and common, all the others will be intermixed with them, and we will have achieved the fundamental goal of conservation.

The quality of conservativeness is in the early stages of study, but good initial assessments for all plant species are available in the Floristic Quality Assessments that are now available for most Midwestern states and a few other regions.

Conservativeness is ranked on a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 being the highest. Examples of plants in the 0 range include ragweed, annual fleabane, and common milkweed. Typical alien weeds like dandelion would also be given a zero rating if these ratings weren’t reserved for native species.

Examples in the 9 and 10 range include prairie dropseed, white prairie clover, fringed gentian, prairie gentian, cream false indigo, prairie lily, Leiberg’s panic grass, prairie cinquefoil, prairie sundrops, heart-leaved Alexanders, and the prairie white-fringed orchid.

Conservative animals may or may not require conservative plants. But the ecosystem is less without them. Examples of conservative butterflies found by Ron Panzer to require conservative vegetation include the regal fritillary, Aphrodite, and the Edwards hairstreak. Birds of conservation concern may live for a time in some large pastures of alien grasses. But they’ll live sustainably in large high-quality prairies. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

A Cool Hike on a Hot Day

This blog tells
what a steward notices
in the balmy cool of 6:00 AM to 8:00 AM
on a later-to-be 95-degree day.

My basic mission is to look for purple loosestrife and white sweet clover, malignant invasives that, thanks to hard work, are now almost gone from Somme.

But in the first wetland, 
rather than any loosestrife, 
I find the very rare American slough grass. 

(There’s extra info on this endangered-in-Illinois plant at the end of this blog.) 

Here I’ll merely cite the thrilling fact that you can recognize it 
by its unusual seeds, flat and round, and arranged on the stalk like stacks of coins.

I found this handsome grass 
in six spots, 
but the counts per patch were low: 1, 1, 4, 1, 3, 1. 
Some years we find hundreds. Other years we find none. 
It was good to see some. 
The classy scientific name of American slough grass is Beckmannia syzigachne.

As I head up a wet swale, I find no evil invasives but do see signs of restoring biodiversity.

Where an ash died from the emerald ash borer, the flush of light enables a riot of now-uncommon plants. Starry campion, Joe-Pye-weed, tall coreopsis, ox-eye sunflower.

Another good sign 
is many "new" populations 
of Michigan lily – 
a species that didn't bloom 
at Somme 
for many years 
when the deer population 
was disastrously high.

Right by the lily, 
what to my wondering eyes should appear, 
but three blooming plants of the rare 
glade mallow, 
Napaea dioica
The ones at Somme 
may be the only glade mallows in Cook County. 

We’ve never found 
even one large, healthy, 
blooming plant at Somme before now. 
But more and more 
in recent years 
we’ve found bigger and bigger specimens. 
The problem for many years is that overpopulated deer 
had been too hard on them. 
This morning I find two patches – the first with three plants and the second with two. 

Five happiness.

Of course, 
if I look down 
below the flowers, 
I find that many 
of the leaves 
have been grazed off. 
But just finding 
five glade mallows 
big enough to bloom 
is a great step 
in the right direction. 

And it’s a beautiful day.

As I walk, 
I’m conflicted 
about my 
big human feet 
treading on 
the richness. 

Always I keep 
to the trails 
in the growing season, except when 
I’m stalking weeds 
or doing seeds. 
Being empowered 
as a steward 
gives me an odd privilege. 
When hunting 
sweet clover, 
I see beauty 
and surprises 
I wouldn’t otherwise allow myself.

Plants here:
Culver's root.
Early goldenrod. 
Mountain mint.
Dropseed grass. 

What are these golden threads 
creeping through the vegetation? 
Numerous times we’ve gotten warnings 
from well-meaning people that a sinister demon plant 
was devastating the vegetation. 
But it’s just our friend dodder, Cuscuta glomerata
a weird but natural parasitic morning glory. 

Strange plant: it has no leaves or roots. 
When the seeds germinate, the shoot immediately attaches to nearby vegetation and sucks out nutrients. 
Soon its waxy white flowers 
will bedeck the graceful flaxen stems. 
For a while the whole plant will be just stems 
and flowers. Later it will be stems and seed.

Does it do harm? No.  It creates a disturbance. 
A beautiful disturbance, if you look close. 
The ecosystem is adapted to it. 
Other plants will take the places of the ones 
it sets back, and a diverse cycle will proceed.

Next I do 
finally find 
the evil sweet clover. 

See the white sprays 
of pea flowers? 
Does it look threatening here? 

If not, know that 
twenty years ago, 
acres here were blighted and degraded 
by solid waist or chest-high stands of it.

Now I pull out 
the 48 plants 
in this first patch. 
A large plant can make 60,000 seeds. 

Good riddance.

The soil is damp, 
and the roots 
come out easily. 

Seeds haven’t formed yet, 
so I don’t need to haul plants 
out of the preserve.  

I toss piles 
where they'll do the least harm - 
in this case 
into a patch of 
the somewhat aggressive 
saw-tooth sunflower. 

I come across a pile we made
a few days ago, drying on a log. 

The Somme Team rousted them 
one cool morning. 
I love to do this work with friends, trading thoughts. I also love to follow up for later bloomers, alone in wilderness reverie. It’s all good.

This dead pile, near the trail, 
could be ugly to passers-by. I hope many will see it as an indication of the commitment that results in the whole being so increasingly beautiful, year after year.

In fact, 
I find five 
clover patches.

I map them 
and file it, 
so we can 
remember to 
check these spots 
on some beautiful 
July morning 
next year.

This one is 
great St. John’s wort, taller than I. 

Fat ovaries 
with five sticky stigmas on top of each... 
hiding under 
a tangle 
of pollen-y stamens.

I find bugs too. 
But I don’t try 
to photograph them 
with my little cell phone. 

To represent them, 
this is one of Lisa Culp’s 
recent daily masterpieces. 

What kind of strange flies 
are these? 
What’s their role in the ecosystem? 

I pass a skunk, 
a crayfish, 
a plains garter snake, 
and countless 
engaging bugs. 

But now it’s getting hot, 
so off I go to other work.

But hey! If you get cabin fever from air-conditioning, try mornings in nature. They’re pretty nice.
Post Script
Here are promised tidbits 
on American slough grass, Beckmannia syzigachne.  
The light-shaded counties show where it’s known from. 
Not many places in Illinois. 
Most populations are now gone. 
The grass is an annual. 
It’s adapted to something. Fire? 
Most marshes don’t get burned much. These at Somme do. 
We’ll see if it can survive here.

Illinois is far from the main populations of this grass. Our plants may have genetic adaptations that don’t exist elsewhere. At some point in history, human culture may need something from this plant that could save some other grass (for example corn, wheat, rice, or oats) from a devastating disease or pest. Or these plants may have some nutrient that could be bred into grains to help our food make us healthier – or smarter for that matter. 

So we’d be smart 
not to just let it 
go extinct.

The thoughts of a steward on a cool walk at the start of a hot day. Peace. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Why is this bird following me?

When you're
working in
an ecosystem
day after day,
many animals
get kind of used to you.

They treat you
as they would a deer.

In other words,
they don't pay
much attention.

But Lisa Culp
found this yellowthroat
to be following her around.

Was it trying
to be friendly?

Lisa is a steward
to Somme's 
important population 
of the federal endangered
prairie white-fringed orchid.

You can see the orchid 
in bloom 
inside the cage here. 

(For more on our efforts 
to conserve this plant, 
check out our blog 
"Leave Nature Alone?" 
from September 2012.)

For weeks, 
the intrepid Lisa 
has spent long hours 
of slow, detailed work 
in many of Somme's 
yellowthroat territories, 
caging, pollinating, 
and monitoring 
this extremely rare plant. 

In all this time, 
no yellowthroat 
has talked to her, 
followed her, 
and stuck with her 
as did the little character 
shown in these photos. 
What's with this bird? 

The yellowthroat 
is a warbler that is 
seen and heard daily 
in all three 
of the Somme preserves. 

It's easiest to find 
by listening for its song "Witchity Witchity Witchity Witchity Witch!" 

It sings off and on 
all day long, 
most often in the early morning. 

When you hear that song, 
watch for movement 
in the vegetation 
and train your binoculars 
on the first thing that moves. 

Look for the 
bright yellow throat, 
of course, 
topped off by a black mask 
with a gray highlight above it. Note the thin, pointed bill.

It's busy and curious, 
though normally 
a bit nervous and shy. 

One rewarding angle 
of yellowthroat watching 
is that it forages 
among the rare prairie 
and savanna wildflowers 
that we have come 
to learn and love. 

As it hops and flits 
from plant to plant, 
once you've learned to 
recognize them at a glance, 
the bird puts its little spotlight 
on species after species. 

Here it's on 
a bud-covered stem 
of "gayfeather" 
or "marsh blazing star." 
In a couple of weeks 
this stalk will be a magic wand 
of brilliant pink-purple.

The yellowthroat treats it 
as just a landing pad 
and opportunity to find 
bugs to eat. 

Here's "the  bandit" 
(a pet name for the 
masked yellowthroat) 
in the middle of 
a wild quinine plant. 

Like the blazing star, 
wild quinine was absent 
from most of Somme 
before we started gathering 
and broadcasting 
its seed. 

One time we found a big and beautiful moth that hung out on this flower. We wondered 
if it was specially adapted to it. We never saw it again.

It is fun and a challenge 
to learn to recognize 
all these rare flowers and seeds, and their animals 
and to be good stewards of them - to restore their diversity 
and health. 

We are inspired 
to think about the discoveries we haven't made yet - 
to imagine we'll find 
that moth again some time, 
and photograph it, and study -  
and who knows what surprises we'll uncover? 

Here the bandit perches 
on a dried stalk 
of saw-toothed sunflower.
The dead stalk reminds us 
of last year.
Ripening seeds 
remind us of next year. 

Each element 
that the yellowthroat spotlights 
reminds us of another facet 
of the complexity that we find 
so compelling 
about this intimacy 
with our ecosystem.

In many of Lisa's photos, 
the bandit is balling her out. 
Does this guy follow Lisa 
because his babies are nearby? 
It's likely. 
Many birds chirp 
for all they're worth 
when a big mammal 
comes near nest or babies. 
This time of year, 
the chicks may be scattered 
over quite a distance.
But each one deserves 
to be protected. 
He is bold in defense
of his babies.

Here he balls out Lisa 
from the stalk 
of the rough blazing star. 
This species blooms much later 
than "gayfeather."

By then 
the un-masked 
and subtly-colored 
female yellowthroat 
and her masked male partner 
will likely be working 
on their second 
nest and family. 

feed the chicks 
for a longer time 
than most warblers. 
They'll likely 
still be feeding 
and protecting 
the next generation 
when they start 
to migrate toward 
the Caribbean islands 
or Central America in fall. 

Here's a clue.

When they ball you out 
with a bill full of food, 
they're definitely wanting 
to feed their babies.

"Get out of here," he chirps. 
"I want to feed the kids, 
but I sure don't want 
to show you where they are. 
Go! Scat!" he says, 
as best he can. 

When he comes this close, 
it feels like he's being friendly. But it may be 
the opposite.

In her note that accompanied these great photos, Lisa wrote, "I didn't follow him ... he followed me." I know the feeling. We enjoy their presence so much that it's hard to say good-bye, though both the bird and I are relieved when an encounter like this ends. 

Lisa's work 
moved her away, 
and the bandit 
stayed behind.

What a pleasure, 
to be able to share 
these sweet intimacies 
with the blogosphere. 

Thank you, 
computer geniuses.
Thank you, America.
Thank you, 
Forest Preserve District 
of Cook County. 
Thank you, Lisa, 
for capturing 
all this richness.

Thank you, little bandit.

And thanks 
to everyone who 
comments on this blog, 
or passes it along to others, 
or just appreciates it.

It's nice to share with you.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Evil of Cowbirds

A big parasite that persecutes a beautiful rare songbird is hard to take. Why torture delicate rare birds? For that matter, why burden people’s sensibilities by writing it up in a blog? And yet, sometimes by facing wickedness, we can understand it, and disarm it. 

Yesterday I saw something wonderful and (to me) scary. The inspirational part was the first orchard oriole nest I ever found. It was high in an isolated elm, surrounded by a meadow of rare flowers and grasses. The scary part was that the orioles seemed to be defending their nest from a female cowbird, even though there were babies crying from the nest.

The big fat, ugly baby on the right has likely killed two or three young orchard oriole 
siblings like the one on the left. Be still, my heart!

A while back I had arguments on this subject with a wise and wonderful bird conservationist, the late Jerry Sullivan. It was Jerry who developed the monitoring protocols now used by the Bird Conservation Network. Indeed, he developed them at Somme Prairie Grove, where in his years of work, while the restoration was in its early decades, he never saw a single orchard oriole. He would have loved to see them and their babies. He might not have liked this write-up.

I told Jerry that when I happened across a birds’ nest with a cowbird egg in it, I took out the cowbird egg. To me, it was like weeding a garden. Cowbirds are nest parasites that under modern conditions are pushing some bird species toward extinction – and vastly reducing the numbers of many others. “Why shouldn’t I help the species that need it?” I asked. As best I remember, Jerry felt strongly but was uncharacteristically inarticulate about why not. “They’re nature,” he said. “How do you know the result? Leave them alone.”

The nesting orchard orioles at Somme are a confirmation of a precious hope – that if you successfully restore a natural ecosystem, the now-rare animals of quality ecosystems will come back. (Well, perhaps I should write, “at least it may attract the rare animals that can fly and that still survive somewhere within flying distance.”) In other words, the orchard orioles that annually breed here confirm the quality and meaning of Somme Prairie Grove. In doing so, they affirm what some of us have been devoting much of our lives to for three plus decades. 

Unlike the much commoner Baltimore oriole, the orchard oriole breeds in savannas, not suburban neighborhoods or forests or prairies or anywhere else. (Actually, before the days of pesticides, they regularly bred in orchards, which are savanna-like in that they consist of scattered trees in grassland.) Since this species evolved to breed in a specialized habitat, without a place like the savanna at Somme, there would be no young orioles to carry on the species.

And it’s not just this species. Many shrubland and savanna birds (and butterflies, snakes, wildflowers, grasses, etc.) now breed merrily at Somme: among the birds - Woodcock. Black-billed cuckoo. Ruby-throated hummingbird. Eastern kingbird. Great crested flycatcher. Wood pewee. Northern flicker. Yellowthroat. Warbling vireo. Eastern bluebird. Rose-breasted grosbeak. Indigo bunting and many others. Some of these now or in the past have adapted to our culture’s farms, neighborhoods, or roadsides. But then come changes (mowing, pesticides, etc.), and the birds need to fall back on the nature they evolved in. Conservation land is increasingly critical to many of the species that now have babies or set seed each summer in Somme Prairie Grove.

When I texted Lisa with my discovery, she raced there with her camera. Most of the rest of this story is well illustrated by the photos that she took yesterday. 

This baby oriole 
on the branch 
hatched from an egg 
in the nest above. 
The hanging structure is beautifully woven of strong fresh grass and lined with fine grasses and plant down. The oriole mom lays four to six eggs and incubates them to keep them warm. Unfortunately, in this case, and many cases, the female cowbird sneaks in unnoticed and lays one big egg of its own. The female cowbird is too busy to help incubate or feed, because she on average lays 40 eggs per year in nests of other birds and races around protecting her eggs and young and chasing other female cowbirds 
from her territory. 
She's busy.

The female oriole has arrived
with a fat grasshopper. 

Who’ll get it? 

The cowbird is the one 
with the big mouth. 
Can you see the baby oriole? 
(Hint: the cowbird 
is standing on it.)

Now the mom is ready with the food. Babies need a lot to grow feathers and strength enough to fly and avoid predators. Guess which chick is going to get this meal. Hint: cowbirds are evolved to win this contest. Once “cow” birds followed herds of bison, which is why they couldn’t hang around to take care of junior. They are evolved to find their food in the short grass where the bison have been grazing. These days they find it in lawns, so they can stay put and defend territories.

Let’s see here. One of 
the best techniques is just to step on the head of the competition. 
The baby orchard oriole gets fed only when the parents bring food so fast that the cowbrat is too stuffed to choke down any more. 
Earlier, the cowbird parasite may use its big butt to push baby orioles to the side of the nest, and then up, and out, so that they fall to their death. Later some babies will just starve because Mr. or Miss Greedy-kins pigs up all the food.

Here’s the male 
bringing a juicy worm. 
When the orioles are successfully raising four or five (to as many as eight) of their own real chicks, sometimes the male and female each tend a sub-family of two to four chicks. When fledged, the chicks and their chosen parent can then wander to a part of the preserve where food is more plentiful.

Ahhhh! Finally, 
the baby oriole 
gets some grub. 
One surviving chick 
is better than none.

We wish this little one good luck. 
In time, the orchard orioles may evolve their own defenses against cowbird parasitism as some other species have done. Some species have learned to throw the intruder’s egg out of the nest. Some species recognize that the parasite’s egg is evil (from their perspective) and build a new bottom to the next on top of that egg, so that it doesn’t get incubated and never hatches. But evolution takes a long time. The orioles might need a bit of help (like habitat restoration to increase their numbers) if they are to accomplish such an evolution.   

Good luck, little oriole!


But below are a few more tidbits about orchard orioles and cowbirds, if you'd like.


I have to admit that Jerry Sullivan’s concern about removing eggs did trouble me. Am I wrong to “play God” with this egg removal? Am I counterproductively slowing the evolutionary process? Or perhaps am I causing some other kind of unexpected harm? How could I know? So I kept confiscating cowbirds eggs on the occasions when I found them – somewhat confident that I was on the side of the good.

One day, walking through Vestal Grove at Somme I noticed a female indigo bunting building a nest beside the footpath. “Nice,” I thought. “I can keep an eye on this one. Perhaps get some good photos.”

Next day on my way into the preserve, I noticed a pale and pretty little bunting egg in the nest. On my way out of the preserve two hours later I checked again, and the little egg had been joined by a big speckled cowbird egg. I removed the later.

Following morning I checked again, and the bunting’s egg was lying on the ground under the nest, punctured by a peck of some evil bill. Hmmmm. I suppose this is one option Jerry was thinking about. Cowbirds do guard nests where they’ve laid eggs and sometimes throw out the original egg if something happens to their own. Purpose? To get to owner to start laying a second time. The cowbird doesn’t want the other bird’s eggs to get ahead. If the parasite’s egg is laid at the same time as the host’s, then the fat cowbird egg (which hatches a bit quicker than other birds’ eggs) will be assured the head start that will make its chick big enough to be the bully.

I wondered what would happen next. I considered another approach. I could let the next cowbird egg stay in the nest until all are about ready to hatch (12-13 days for bunting eggs) and take out the cowbird egg at the last minute. Perhaps the cowthug wouldn’t still be watching?

But next day the whole nest had been torn and ravaged as if by a raccoon and both new eggs were gone. So I couldn’t find out.

Wikipedia says: “Cowbirds periodically check on their eggs and young after they have deposited them. Removal of the parasitic egg may trigger a retaliatory reaction termed "mafia behavior". According to a study by the Florida Museum of Natural History published in 1983, the cowbird returned to ransack the nests of a range of host species 56% of the time when their egg was removed. In addition, the cowbird also destroyed nests in a type of "farming behavior" to force the hosts to build new ones. The cowbirds then laid their eggs in the new nests 85% of the time.

But what if the egg is removed toward the end of incubation? And was that female cowbird I saw at the nest really interfering with the nestlings, as the commotion suggested when I first saw this nest? According to some studies and anecdotal observations, cowbirds do sometimes attack the nestlings that are competing with their own little freeloaders.


If you look up “orchard oriole” in the average bird guide, the male will be a handsome combination of black and deep brick red – not the mix of yellow and reddish that the male bringing food yesterday displayed. What gives? Atypically, in this species first year males have a distinctive coloration, much like the female, but with black markings on the head. Why would that be?

Here’s a theory: maybe females want a good way to distinguish older males, possibly because they’re better at the challenges of raising babies. Last year we had one mature male at Somme. This year we’ve just got two first year guys. That probably means that Somme is still somewhat of a marginal habitat. When I check out the orchard orioles and the impressive big habitat in the forest preserves along the DesPlaines River near the junction of Willow and Sanders Roads, I see more mature males. It would be good to compare reproduction rates there with those at Somme. Anybody up for some research?

All photos by Lisa Culp … except for the mature male oriole from ms.audubon.org by Bill Stripling.

Note on the language:
It has not escaped my attention that this blog uses emotional and slangy language. It seemed like a good idea in this case.