Winter Bird Feeding–A Session With Randy Carone’s Camera

downy-woodpecker

carolina-wren

Hello, everyone!  This post follows up on a conversation I started with Randy Carone, who contributed one of the photographs for a previous blog post about leaving plant seedheads and fruits for winter birds to eat and when which birds eat particular fruits and seeds.

After feeding birds in his backyard for 30 years, Randy now has a seriously addictive bird feeding habit.  Randy, who is a photographer first and a birder second, doesn’t count himself a having seen a bird unless he has gotten a photograph of it.  In fact, he may end up photographing a bird and not really knowing what he has “seen” until he views the photo, since light conditions make it hard to see with the naked eye.

Randy has one pole mounted bird feeder that his daughter Kate bought him a while ago.

ruby-breasted-grosbeaks

He also has two window mounted feeders—the one in the front acts as “cat TV” for his (and his wife, Emily’s) two cats.

tufted-titmouse-as-cat-tv

red-bellied-woodpecker-as-cat-tv

He also has two “finch feeders,” round clear tubes with a roof, hanging from a line.  During warmer weather, he also has a hummingbird feeder.

His basic food of choice is Audubon Supreme Blend, which has seeds, fruit, and nuts, and which he buys a 40 pound bag of for about $40 every two weeks.

red-bellied-woodpecker-extracting-nut-1

red-bellied-woodpecker-with-nut-2

red-bellied-woodpecker-with-nut-3

He supplements this with suet on the pole feeder.

red-bellied-woodpecker-eyeing-downy-on-suet-cake

The pole feeder also has a “squirrel catcher” that prevents squirrels from getting to it, although they still get to feed since the birds slop things over the sides of the feeder onto the ground.  Squirrels –two of them—can and do get to the window feeders, but so do the birds.

cardinal-on-squirrel-catcher

He fills the two finch feeders with Nyger seeds (sometimes called thistle seed, but apparently not actually related to thistle at all).

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Randy’s feeding (to me) is that it has given him ample opportunity to intimately observe and learn some bird habits.  He has noticed that while cardinals stay around and are feeding year round, they generally like to wait until dusk to feed, and like to eat alone or in the company of other finches (since they are also a type of finch).  White throated sparrows are only around in the winter, when they migrate south from their summer range for the somewhat warmer weather New Jersey represents for them.

Red-bellied woodpeckers are aggressive, and will peck other birds; blue jays are also aggressive.

winter-bluejay

The bird feeders indirectly also feed meat eaters—hawks will sit some distance away, pretending not to notice, but waiting until an unwary smaller bird can be picked off at the feeder in a cloud of falling feathers.  Mourning doves, in particular, are “dumb,” as shown by how often they end up being someone else’s meal.

cooper-hawk

another-hawk

One of Randy’s favorite photo sequences is of a mother Red-bellied woodpecker feeding her almost same size offspring; he feels sure that the juvenile was fully able to feed itself, but the mother still wanted to do so.  She had picked out a peanut from the mix, used cracks in the roof of the feeder to smash it into smaller pieces, and then carefully picked out and fed the pieces to her child.

1-parent-preparing-peanut-for-juvenile

2-parent-feeding-nut-piece-to-juvenile

Randy’s and Emily’s yard includes various trees and shrubs that also provide cover; in particular, finches take refuge in a Blue Spruce tree, and an Azalea bush right by the back porch is also a common source of cover, especially when it leafs out.

house-finch-on-a-branch

Randy grows Tithonia, Passion flowers, Sage, Cat Mint and other flowering plants that provide nectar to hummingbirds and seeds for other birds to eat.

Advertisements

Native Plant Garden at John Witherspoon Middle School–Plant Communities and Human Communities Come Together

My school, the John Witherspoon Middle School (JW), has a Memorial Garden tucked into a wonderful small niche in the front of the school.  It is a sort of “secret garden,” bounded on one side by a school corridor with a wall of windows.  This allows humans a view inside without needing to encroach on the garden’s privacy.  This makes it a perfect place to try to create a functional—and visible–ecosystem where plants will feed insects and other animals, where insects will pollinate plants and raise young, where some insects will become food for birds, and where birds and other animals will find shelter, food and water.

We had plenty of native plants–I still had part of a donation to the Princeton Schools from Pinelands Nursery, arranged through sponsorship from the Mercer County Soil Conservation District.  Mark Eastburn, the Science Teacher from the Riverside School, had native plants through grant funding from the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB).  Mark’s plants included some carnivorous (insect eating) plants, specifically Venus fly traps, sundews, and pitcher plants.

The garden already had some traditional decorative landscape shrubs, including azaleas, crape myrtle and those green bushes that prune so well into geometric shapes but whose names I never learn.  We decided to retain the existing shrubs as a layer in a multi-layer landscape.  Under and around the shrubs we would add the herbaceous native plants including sedges, monarda, goldenrod, columbines, and many others to provide shelter to flowers and animals as well as soil health promoting ground cover.

The whole project was a team effort not only by Mark and myself, but of the whole Princeton school community.  A lot of the effort was enthusiastically provided by students from Nyrie Janho’s Food Science and Wellness Classes, and by the school’s two Robotics Club teams, the JW Hornets and the Techno Tigers.  Students helped clear the English ivy and other invasive weeds that were overrunning the garden.  Mr. Eastburn and his students sunk five tubs into the ground for the carnivorous plants; the tubs will be watered only by rain water, which will help the plants retain the moisture they require to thrive.

Both of the Robotics Club teams are preparing for a competition that requires them to not only build Lego robots but to plan and carry out a community service program.  The Techno Tigers, whose project involves encouraging birds to take up residence at JW, raised funds for a bird house and bird bath.  The JW Hornets are working on a project to help bees, which are increasingly endangered in the modern American landscape, and will be adding elements to the garden for this purpose.

Compost and mulch were supplied by Princeton Public Schools Grounds Foreman Tony Diaforl and his crew from the ecological facility that Princeton shares with Lawrence Township.  We applied the compost as an initial top dressing to supply organic matter and some nutrients from the surface down, just as it happens in natural systems.  The top dressing of compost will work with the mulch to discourage weed seeds from growing by denying them the sunlight that they require to germinate. We mixed the donated mulch with leaves collected from the school lawns for the second layer over the compost.  This combined mulch layer will provide not only protection for the soil, reducing oxidation of carbon and soil nutrients, but cover for small critters including insects.

John Witherspoon Middle School Teacher Kelly Riely has arranged for some of the members of her Do Something Club to water the new native plants once a week until it gets colder.

DO SOMETHING CLUB MEMBER WATERING PLANTS.jpg

The project could not have been done without the support of Princeton Public School District personnel, including Science Supervisor Edward Cohen and John Witherspoon Middle School Principal Jason Burr.

The garden is still very much a work in progress, as we wait to see both how well our new introduced communities of plants and the ones already there function together.  In the spring, we will add additional plants to fill any holes and to replace any plants that don’t make it.  We will continue to recruit members of the JW and the larger Princeton communities to help with maintenance as a form of stewarding some of the ground that stewards us.

ANOTHER CLUB MEMBER WATERING.jpg

Planting Signs in Your Natural Landscape Part One: National Wildlife Federation Program

Like many fairly new suburban neighborhoods, my neighborhood has broad stretches of lawns punctuated by landscape beds with shrubs (including those curlicue ones) and a few annual flowers surrounded by expanses of mulch or stones.  My beds are increasingly filled wall to wall with mingled native plants and flowers (as well as a few shrubs), leaving me with less and less open mulch every day.  And, as noted in the last post, I am leaving more and more browning stems and seedheads on my plants.

So, I have already signed up for two programs that provide explanatory signs for my native plants/wildlife habitat enhancing landscape.  I was going to write one blog post outlining some of the best of the sign-providing programs, but it immediately became clear that they offer very different things and that the signs are really just a small part of what you can get out of participation in each program.  So, this will be the first of a series of posts on sign programs, starting with the program of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), which has the sign I have seen most often designating a certified wildlife habitat.

NWF certification and a sign depend on your answers in five areas the organizations deems critical to providing wildlife habitat.  Before you launch right into the registration (and what I consider a rather expensive payment for your sign), you should read over the tutorials for each of the five areas.  Doing so can not only give you ideas on easy ideas for enhancing wildlife habitat, but will underscore what practices you are already taking to help wildlife.

FOOD SOURCES:  You need to be able to certify that you provide three types of food sources, not just three food sources.  The list of possible choices includes, first, food sources from things you are growing in your yard (which NWF prefers to be native plants):  seeds from a plant (see my last post, for ideas), berries, nectar, leaves or twigs, nuts, fruits, sap, and pollen.  Providing insects for consumption by birds or by other insects is mentioned several times, although not specifically on the tutorial’s primary list.  Other acceptable types of food sources are bird feeders, squirrel feeders, hummingbird feeders and butterfly feeders.  While the website describes the last four as “supplemental,” and indicates that such food sources can be particularly helpful in the winter, there is no apparent requirement that any of your food source types must be the plant derived ones.  See http://www.nwf.org/Garden-For-Wildlife/Food.aspx.

WATER SOURCES:  You need at least one water source on or adjacent to your property.  I was thinking of my little birdbath as I made this certification.  It is true that you can create a birdbath quickly using a shallow dish of water, but a look at the NWF page specifically on birdbaths will help you understand that you can’t just put anything out and be finished.  You need to add a layer of stones for small birds to stand on when in the bath if the birdbath is too deep.  During winter your birdbath may freeze, making it useless—see http://www.nwf.org/Garden-For-Wildlife/Water/Bird-Bath.aspx for all sorts of considerations that go with a bird bath.

WATER SOURCE AND INSECTORY FOOD GARDEN_STILL TOO MUCH MULCH.jpg

Acceptable water sources need not be right on your property—bodies of water such as rivers or bays visible from your property can be used for certification purposes.  NWF especially encourages people with larger properties to consider putting in a rain garden or backyard marsh, and provides special pages to help you with either of those.  See http://www.nwf.org/Garden-For-Wildlife/Water.aspx for more information, and links to descriptions of specific water sources.

SOURCES OF COVER:  Did you grow up with the image of birds sheltering each night in a nest, as I did?  Imagine my shock to learn—rather recently—that birds only build and use nests while they are laying eggs and raising young.  The rest of the year, many birds just hang out, day or night, in a place that provides cover.  They apparently don’t necessarily have settled “homes” like humans do, and may not even hang out with the birds that they share offspring with.

Other animals may use “homes” such as burrows or holes in trees for more of the year, but perhaps the chief sheltering need animals have, aside from raising young, is for cover–places to hide from predators, and places to shelter from weather.

SHRUBBERY FOR COVER OR NESTING (1).jpg

NWF requires a certified wildlife habitat to have at least two sources of cover, with acceptable options including wooded areas, bramble patches, ground cover, rock piles/walls, caves, roosting boxes, dense shrubs/thickets, evergreens, brush/log piles, burrow, meadows/prairies, water gardens/ponds and even dead trees with tree cavities.  Cover is an area where a little reading can go a long way in opening up your understanding of the natural world.  See http://www.nwf.org/Garden-For-Wildlife/Cover.aspx, and the several links included there.

PLACES TO RAISE YOUNG:  So now that we’ve established that birds only hang out in nests when they are laying eggs and raising young, we can consider the NWF certification category for places to raise young, which recognizes the fact that animals cannot survive long term if they cannot successfully raise a next generation of their own kind.  Raising young, as with cover, requires shelter; options you can offer to wildlife for NWF certification include mature trees, meadow or prairie, nesting box, wetlands, caves, host plant for caterpillars, dead trees or snags, dense shrubs or a thicket, water gardens/ponds, and burrows.

TREE USED FOR COVER OR NESTING.jpg

Actually, the main write up on this aspect of wildlife habitat, found at http://www.nwf.org/garden-for-wildlife/young.aspx, notes that animals may not simply have baby needs and adult needs for shelter/cover, but varying needs at different stages of their lives—think human teenage or young adulthood needs.

SUSTAINABLE PRACTICES:  The last NWF requirement is that you be using two sustainable practices.  This is the one where reading the tutorial at http://www.nwf.org/Garden-For-Wildlife/Sustainability.aspx, and clicking on links there is most useful.  The listed areas of sustainable practices are soil and water conservation, controlling exotic species, and organic practices (including eliminating chemical pesticides and composting).  Each of these areas has several sub-options.  You are probably already doing two things—however, reading the tutorial can suggest even more.

THREE CHAMBERED COMPOST BIN_NEWLY TURNED.jpg

The Commons and the Conscience

By:  Lindsay Sementelli

As you may already know, in my last two posts, I have been thinking about ways for people to change their way of thinking about our relationship to the natural world.  Once again, as Philip Loring wrote, we are not intrinsically at odds with nature even though many other great minds have paved the way for us to have this type of attitude.  In his article “It’s Time for a New Story of Humanity’s Place in the World,” Loring mentioned the late Garrett Hardin, a professor of biology at University of California, Santa Barbara who published the influential “Tragedy of the Commons” in 1968.  The tragedy of the commons is an elaborate metaphor and philosophy Hardin uses to demonstrate how we humans are exhausting the earth and to suggest how we can, either for the better or worse of our personal freedoms, make a big change.  Ultimately, this is our own choice.

So, what are these “commons” that Hardin is speaking of?  Imagine the commons as an enormous stretch of open farmland.  A farmer may start out putting a small herd of cows (their own personal resource) onto this vast pasture (a resource that must be shared).  This person will eventually come to realize that they will benefit from adding more cows to their herd.  As they add the animals one by one, they will have more meat and milk for themselves or cows to sell or trade for other resources.  How will adding just a small amount of cows, or even just one more cow to the herd make a real impact?  An impact is made because this particular farmer is not the only one expanding their herd.  If every farmer puts just one more cow out into the pasture while only thinking about how they will benefit from the animal, the pasture will inevitably become too crowded.

Many problems will come along with this overcrowding.  Since this pasture is a shared public resource, all cows and all farmers will be affected.  The pasture will become overgrazed, so all people will not have an equal chance to use the land and expand their own herds.  Such farmers will be pushed out of the land and given less opportunity to support themselves because there is simply not enough space.  Now, let’s step back and look at how this harms the natural world and not just the humans.  If the cows eat up all of the grass in the pasture, the land is destroyed and cannot replenish itself quickly enough to sustain the cows.  Our overzealous actions in this scenario cause a domino effect that will only hurt us in the end by depleting our personal property and supplies of important resources.  (This is just my own, as brief as possible interpretation of this metaphor!  Read “Tragedy of the Commons” in full at http://www.garretthardinsociety.org/articles/art_tragedy_of_the_commons.html)

This is how an important topic of debate today falls into place—the issue of how such a small percentage of people seemingly end up with a large percentage of wealth, resources and opportunities.  Hardin explains how many other currently relevant topics are affected by the idea of the commons as well.  We think that if we choose to do whatever we want with land because we own it or if we have many children because we can currently afford to support them, it is not anyone’s business to interfere.  The truth, Hardin fears, is that we do not think of the long-term consequences of our own choices or how they will impact future generations.  According to him, the solutions to human actions that deplete the earth (like pollution and overpopulation) are to either take personal accountability for our actions out of our own free will or governmental measures may have to be put into place to ensure a better future for humans and non-human living things alike.

This second option surely seems bleak to many people.  It brings to mind many questions like, who can tell us how many children we can have, how much land we can own and whether or not we destroy that land if we so choose?  Why does this matter to anyone else if these things are our own?  It matters because our choices always have consequences—if not on ourselves, then on future generations, on those less fortunate than ourselves and on all of those voiceless but nonetheless, breathing and living things in this world.  This is where the shift in thinking that Loring writes of comes into play.  Aspects of Hardin’s view seem like an ominous vision of the world to come, but things do not need to go that far.  We do not need to fear the loss of our freedoms if we can learn to adapt to living in a more sustainable way.  We need to realize that small actions do make a difference and can add up to a way of life that helps us exist more harmoniously with our world, each other and even our own consciences.

For more real world examples of the tragedy of the commons, check out http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/ten-reallife-examples-of-the-tragedy-of-the-common.html.

The Good Yet to be Done

By:  Lindsay Sementelli

Last week, I wrote a post inspired by the ideas of Philip Loring in his article “It’s Time for a New Story of Humanity’s Place in the World.” As a quick refresher, the article centers around the idea that we humans have long thought of ourselves as naturally at odds with the environment and all living non-human things. Why shouldn’t we think this way, when so many writings, teachings and experiences of the past have left us believing that we cannot thrive as a species without harming the natural world?

This is the type of thinking that this article is trying to help us to correct. Loring presents several writers, leaders and pieces of literature that have left us feeling like we are doing more harm than good in this world (see the article at http://ensia.com/voices/its-time-for-a-new-story-of-humanitys-place-in-the-world/ for specific examples). Loring points out the flaws in that logic, and so, once again, I want to present another piece of writing to support the idea that while we have done our damage, there is still so much good yet to be done.

Since we need to move ourselves away from old ideas, I think it is important to look at familiar and much-loved works from new perspectives. I wrote about “The Road Not Taken” last week as it is a poem that is a favorite of or at least familiar to so many of us. Now, I want to introduce you to a song I have loved for quite some time from a band that has been one of my favorites for the past ten years or so. The verses of “The Good Left Undone” by Rise Against immediately came to mind for this post because I have seen a lot of arguments for why the lyrics of this song, like “The Road Not Taken,” shouldn’t be taken at face value and should be instead used to think about making an important personal decision, like walking away from a loved one. I always thought of the lyrics in a more literal sense, and I think other people could learn a few things from considering them differently! I should note here too that this band is known for their commentary on political and social issues, so I think looking for a double meaning is appropriate. The lyrics are as follows:

In fields where nothing grew but weeds
I found a flower at my feet
Bending there in my direction

I wrapped a hand around its stem
And pulled until the roots gave in
Finding there what I’ve been missing
And I know

So I tell myself, tell myself, it’s wrong
There’s a point we pass
From which we can’t return
I felt the cold rain of the coming storm

All because of you, I haven’t slept in so long
When I do I dream of drowning in the ocean
Longing for the shore, where I can lay my head down
I’ll follow your voice, all you have to do is shout it out

Inside my hands these petals browned
Dried up fallen to the ground
But it was already too late now

I pushed my fingers through the earth
Returned this flower to the dirt
So it could live, I walked away now but I know

Not a day goes by when I don’t feel this burn
There’s a point we pass
From which we can’t return
I felt the cold rain of the coming storm

All because of you I haven’t slept in so long
When I do I dream of drowning in the ocean
Longing for the shore where I can lay my head down
I’ll follow your voice, all you have to do is shout it out

All because of you
All because of you

All because of you I haven’t slept in so long
When I do I dream of drowning in the ocean
Longing for the shore where I can lay my head down
Inside these arms of yours

All because of you I believe in angels
Not the kind with wings no, not the kind with halos
The kind that bring you home
When home becomes a strange place
I’ll follow your voice, all you have to do is shout it out

One of the first things that jumps out at me is the fact that the song starts with “in fields where nothing grew but weeds,” as if to say that beautiful, useful or even life-changing things like that single little flower that gets plucked are rare; everything else is unattractive, disposable or detrimental. The flower gets forcefully picked in what seems like a selfish act, because don’t we all need to collect the best and brightest things for ourselves before they catch anyone else’s eye? There is something a bit off with all of this! We need to find a way to shift our thinking to appreciate and care for everything that appears as “weeds.” We cannot covet and hoard only the best things for ourselves, leaving castoffs for everyone and everything else as well as creating a lot of waste in the process. If we continue to do so, the conditions for inequality are created, pushing us as humans to desperate measures for survival, as Loring describes. When we are pushed to our limits just to get by, the natural world suffers too.

Luckily, by the next verse, a shift in thinking occurs. The flower is returned to the soil, but the problem is that it was only replanted because it was dying. A clear mistake was made, but what is important is that this person now knows better for the next time. They realize that what they did is wrong, and I think the repetition of the lyrics “I felt the cold rain of the coming storm” symbolizes that this person has had the realization that if actions like theirs are repeated, there will be harmful consequences for both humans and nature on a larger scale. The uprooting and replanting of the single flower in this song is a seemingly simple action. It is true that we cannot undo many of our past actions this simply, if at all. However, not making a change because we think it will be too difficult will keep us at odds at nature, and it doesn’t have to be this way. Changing our ways of thinking, finding new ways to thrive and keeping the earth alive and well for all living things will not be easy, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be done and that the small actions like the metaphorical one of this song don’t add up. This action makes a powerful statement that the little things that we are all capable of do count. All the little things add up to something bigger than ourselves, and we can all be the kind of angel without wings or a halo who shouts out to the rest of the world to make a difference.

Making “All the Difference”

By:  Lindsay Sementelli

An article Priscilla gave to me recently raised a lot of questions about how portrayals of nature in literature shape our views on our relationship with the earth and all of its non-human living things. In his article “It’s Time for a New Story of Humanity’s Place in the World,” Philip Loring discusses in detail the idea that throughout time, many different narratives, literary works, writers and leaders have all told us that we are at odds with nature; yes, we need it and all of its resources, but maybe it doesn’t need us. Maybe we cannot live without the natural world, but perhaps it can flourish in an even greater way without our interference.

“Climate change, overfishing and widespread environmental contamination from chemical toxicants are all creations of our own making,” states Loring. He asks, “But are we destined to create such problems? Many people believe so, and argue that our capacity for self-interest, avarice and ecological shortsightedness make us inherently unsustainable as a species.”

In other words, in our constant quest for human advancement, will we eventually just burn out? At some point, is there the possibility that we will deplete the earth, thus depleting our own successful and healthy existence? Loring’s article suggests that this way of thinking is common, but not productive. People aren’t “inherently at odds with nature.” Factors like poverty and overpopulation put us into survival mode; we have no choice but to take all we can from the earth at this point. Does this make us selfish? Not necessarily, but we need to learn how to adapt to create a more mutually beneficial relationship between ourselves and our surroundings.

This brings me to the first piece of literature that I want to relate this article to in the next few posts to come. Since it is a perennial favorite for yearbook quotes and valedictorian speeches and it is that season again, “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost feels like a timely choice. The poem reads:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference

I think the reason this poem is so popular is because it encourages us to be a real trailblazer, which some may take quite literally. It is often used as encouragement to become a better person, a person who is making better choices and changes for others in the future. I think it is interesting, though, to think about the differences we could make if we looked at this poem as inspiration for how we can change not just ourselves but the natural world during this walk through the woods. This piece may traditionally represent an individual’s personal struggle with decision making, but the little details can help to transport you into the woods, making it easy to envision having to choose between two paths.

In this poem, both roads appear relatively equal on the surface and the speaker wishes that traveling down both were an option. As the poem progresses, they will discover that they chose the less traveled one, so this was the better choice for personal discovery and development. We are all travelers in our own lives, wishing we could venture down all of the paths we can see, but maybe we need to accept that we cannot see and do it all. Furthermore, some things need to be left untouched by humans, and all of the untaken paths do not necessarily “want wear.” At the same time, should we choose to explore new paths, we don’t have to automatically assume that we and those who follow us will just wear these paths away to nothing. I think this is that pessimistic type of thinking Loring refers to; we do not necessarily have to destroy our environment in the pursuit of human progress as many of us may assume. This is counterproductive. We can coexist. We have the power to travel down these new paths and plant new seeds along the way. We can find ways to advance that do not cause so much destruction and be a real example to future humans. This is one way to go down the road not taken without causing harm.

Instead of making a new trail that shows other people “I was here,” we can work to replenish the old, worn down ones and that in itself is an important legacy that benefits not just the individual but also the natural world. The results of these actions would trickle down to humans too, so it would be a real win-win situation! These scenarios do not necessarily reflect the ideas the author had in mind when writing the poem, but they are new roads to consider traveling down to make “all the difference” in how we relate to the earth today.

You can read Loring’s full article at: http://ensia.com/voices/its-time-for-a-new-story-of-humanitys-place-in-the-world/ . Keep these ideas in mind for my next post!

Dandelion as Rock Star–A Crusade

By:  Priscilla Hayes

I recently got to catch up with my friend Pam Lewis, who mentioned that she was trying to convince her 80+ year old, “green grass crazy” landlord that the dandelions in the backyard of the apartment shouldn’t be removed.

“They are rock stars of the plant world,” Pam told me, “not weeds.”

A dandelion-laced lawn in Pam's neighborhood
A dandelion-laced lawn in Pam’s neighborhood

Of course, like many of our weeds, dandelions were introduced by Puritan, Dutch and German settlers, who saw them as a source of both medicine and food—including dandelion wine.

So if dandelions are non-native, doesn’t that automatically make them unwelcome?

Pam’s research led her to the following website, http://www.georgiawildlife.com/node/3007, from which she learned the following about dandelions:

93 species of insects collect nectar from dandelion flowers, including bees, and butterflies such as sulphers, cabbage whites and admirals.  Ruby throated hummingbirds weave dandelion seeds into their nests.

Seeds and foliage are eaten by at least 33 species of wildlife including 4 different kinds of sparrows: chipping, field, house and song, American Goldfinch, indigo bunting, quail, turkeys, chipmunks, rabbits and white tail deer.

Leaves are eaten by caterpillar larvae of 13 species of butterflies and moths including the Frilliary butterfly, one of the 1st butterflies of spring.

Wine and beer can be created with the flowers.  Leaves are delicious and highly nutritious as they supply Vitamins A, D, and C, potassium, and magnesium.  Dandelion has been found to be helpful for arthritis, has been utilized as a laxative and as a treatment for liver disease.  The milky sap is excellent at removing warts, which Pam thought was especially great to know.

As you can see, Pam’s research seems to suggest that this non-native plant is extremely beneficial, so how should we respond to dandelions?  Should we continue on with knee-jerk removal, or should we learn to understand them as something useful to both humans and other species?

As it turns out, there is a project devoted to just such questions based at Columbia University.  Called the Introduced Species Summary Project, its goal is “to provide information that would help a natural resources manager or concerned citizen to understand the basic biology of a non-native species and whether and how to respond to its arrival.”  (http://www.columbia.edu/itc/cerc/danoff-burg/invasion_bio/inv_spp_summ/invbio_plan_report_home.html) The project grew out of a graduate level Invasion Biology course and a Certificate in Conservation ecology course.  I just love discovering things like this and the Lost Ladybug Project.

There are 95 species included in the Project so far, most of which are not actually just arriving, but have already “become common in at least some areas of the Eastern United States.”  I have noted that there is an entry on both the domestic cat and on humans, both of which I will probably report on in this blog at some future date.

A little "urban" dandelion near the sidewalk in Philadelphia
A little “urban” dandelion near the sidewalk in Philadelphia

But for dandelions, the site confirms what Pam learned—the plant has many benefits, and unlike many introduced species, actually hosts or feeds much beneficial wildlife.  The Introduced Species Summary Project found no ecological threats posed by dandelions unless you just insisted on thinking of them as weeds, like Pam’s “green grass crazy” landlord, who she hopes to convince otherwise with her new findings!