Thursday, June 25, 2015

American Pokeweed: Deadly and Delicious

"What is that?"
"I just pulled a bunch of that stuff out of my yard, what is it?" 

A friend and fellow bird nerd was over at my house last weekend and asked me about this massive plant growing out of my flower bed. She told me that she had done some gardening to try to make room for plants that would benefit her backyard grey catbird pair. I laughed and gestured toward the plant; "this is what your catbirds eat!" American pokeweed is often vilified for its toxicity and large size, but it is of great value to wildlife, especially birds. 

This is like fugu in a can. Would you trust it
was prepared properly?
Talk to most anyone who was listening to music in the 70s and the first thing they'll talk about when you mention pokeweed is "that poke salad song." The song "Poke Salad Annie" was released in 1969 and was thereafter covered by a host of artists, including Elvis himself. The song talks about a southern dish called "poke salad" in which the leaves of pokeweed is eaten. What the song doesn't mention is that if you don't cook the leaves right, they could kill you. If you eat the stem, it could kill you. If you eat the berries, they could kill you. And if you eat the root, that's right, it'll give your hair vibrant, full, body. Of course it doesn't give your hair vibrant, full, body! It can kill you even more! Pokeweed is full of a host of different toxins that most often cause severe vomiting and diarrhea, but can cause death due to paralysis of the respiratory organs. These toxins are present throughout the plant, but are most concentrated in the root and seeds.  

If you are unfamiliar with pokeweed, at this point you may be thinking, "ok, so don't eat it, what's the big deal?" Well, the problem comes when pokeweed matures in late summer and goes from being a nondescript, albeit large (up to 10' tall!), plant to this stunning beauty:
Those magenta stems and dark purple berries draw a lot of attention, especially from children. When children eat the berries, they ingest those toxic seeds, and there are cases in just a few berries were enough to cause the death of infants. Also, according to the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, the toxins in pokeweed are capable of being absorbed through the skin, so even contact with the plant may pose some risk, something I never knew about until doing research for this blog.
 Making natural dyes from pokeweed may give you very colorful results, but the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center advises that you wear gloves just to be safe. 

So although I am not a fan of removing native plants, if you live in a household with small children, you may want to cut this plant back before it produces its summer berries. 

Why not get rid of pokeweed altogether? It dominates the area where it grows with its large leaves and tall, branching stems, and has the ability to sicken if not kill both humans and livestock. 

I love pokeweed because birds love pokeweed! Bluebirds, American robins, grey catbirds, northern mockingbirds, bobwhite quail, northern cardinals, and cedar waxings all love poke berries. I always know when my neigborhood birds have been eating my poke berries because I find purple bird poop in my backyard. Other animals like pokeweed too, including foxes, opossums, raccoons, white-footed mice, and the giant leopard moth. In my own backyard, I find a tiny cricket on my pokeweed at night that I don't see anywhere else in my yard. And remember, insects are bird food too!

If keeping pokeweed around as a species for birds isn't a good enough reason for you, consider this: research using a protein found in pokeweed has been found to reduce HIV in mice, and is being studied as a treatment for T-cell leukemia, lymphoma, hepatitis-C, and the common cold, and Hodgkin disease. This pesky poisonous plant just may help to save lives someday.

My friend may have taken out the pokeweed in her backyard this year, but she doesn't have to worry. If she wants it back for her catbirds next year, the plant will regenerate next spring from its large (and very toxic) root. Not to mention pokeweed seeds can remain viable in the ground for over 40 years! Pokeweed may be toxic if eaten, but its value to wildlife and human medicine makes it worth keeping around for far more than 40 years. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Try It! Micro Hike

In just over a week, I will be leading a week long camp for 10-12 year olds at Briar Bush called "Micro Camp." During the camp, the kids will be examining the life of various ecosystems underneath a microscope, learning that there are far more habitats than the large forests, oceans, and deserts that we usually think of first. One activity we educators and interpreters love to share with kids and adults alike is called a Micro Hike. Instead of going on a long hike through the woods, this hike can be done right in your front yard, just as I did!

First, pick a small area on the ground to study. You can either just arbitrarily pick a rough area, or if you want to turn it into a more scientific experience and do a comparison between 2 or more different areas, you can use a set size for replication. One of my favorite ways to do this is to get a cereal box or paper plate out of the recycling bin, and turn it into a frame by cutting out the middle. Then place your frame on the ground and examine the area in the middle. For my front yard study, I studied this patch of grass:

Study what you can first see. How many different plants do you see? You don't have to be a plant expert, all you have to do is look for different leaf shapes and colors. I saw 3 species of plants here, if you don't count the oak represented by the dead leaf. This is what we see every day when we see our "boring" lawns. But here's where it gets really fun and interesting! Start gently parting the vegetation and looking down low for different plants and all the animals that dwell on this miniature forest floor. When I peeled back the blades, this was my first discovery:
A click beetle! When these guys are on their backs, they can snap their thorax with that pinch you see in their bodies and send themselves flying into the air with an audible *click!*, hence their name. If you ever come across a click beetle, gently flip them over onto their back on your palm and watch them flip back over.

I parted the grass a little bit more and found a woodlouse, aka roly-poly or pill bug. Then I found its home! Watch the video I took of the woodlouse burrow below. In just 30 seconds, how many different kinds of animals do you see in an area only 2 inches wide? (You may want to make the video full screen...some of the critters are very small!)
I count at least 6 different animals crawling in and out of the blades of grass in this video! By this point I've been on my micro hike for less than 5 minutes. 

Just to the left of this area, I come across this rain-speckled spiderweb and its creator, out for an evening meal.

And then I find another gem, a snail!
You can see from my finger in the frame just how tiny this little gastropod was.

All in all, in less than 10 minutes, my micro hike yielded at least 3 species of plants, several species of insects, at least three different arachnids, a gastropod, and even a crustacean (yup, roly-polys are related to crabs and shrimp!). 

Going on a micro hike teaches us all to slow down and to think in a different way. We so often think of the big world around us, dominated by trees, birds, shrubs, squirrels, and humans. But there are tiny worlds of startling diversity right under our feet! I think what I love the most about this activity is just how much you can find in such a small area. Even I was amazed at how much I found when I set out to snap a couple of quick shots for this blog. I think I just may have to go out and go on another hike tomorrow!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Day in the Life: Bathing Beauty

At Briar Bush Nature Center, I care for a 2 year old male turkey vulture named Ralph. If you're a regular blog reader, (first of all, thank you) you may remember Ralph from a post I did last March on animal enrichment. Ralph still gets his enrichment in a variety of ways, and on this hot and humid day his enrichment didn't come in the form of food, but water. You think you get hot when it's 93 degrees and humid? Try being a dark brown bird with lots of insulating feathers! 

So today I got out the hose, set it to "gentle shower" (after all, no one likes a vulture with all its feathers blasted off) and sprayed it right on him. Most of the time when I try this, Ralph goes skittering to the nearest form of shelter. But today, I got this:
He was loving it! When he stretches his wings out, he's trying to get as much of his wings wet as possible. And that rowing action  you see him do with his wings is what he would do in a pool of water to throw it all over his body. Essentially you're seeing Ralph say "More! More! More!" with his body language.

Now that I got Ralph soaking wet, he did what vultures enjoy almost as much as roadkill; it was time to bask in the sun. The only problem is that there was no sunlight hitting his cage at the time. That's where I came in! I got him up onto my glove and took him out of his cage into the brightest, sunniest spot I could find.
Those wings immediately spread wide and Ralph got into the sunning zone. You know that look a dog gives you when you scratch their butt? That totally blissed out, half drooling look and they smack their lips just a little? That's the same reaction you get when you put a vulture in the sun. Ralph gets this far off look in his eyes and he smacks his beak just a little, like he's stopping himself from drooling. Vultures live for the sun. It not only feels good, but it kills bacteria on their feathers. Today it felt goooooood.

After a while, I decided to try something new for Ralph, letting him off my glove and onto the railing you see in the background of the above photo. I figured this would be more comfortable than sitting on my small and squishy arm and would give him more freedom to pivot his body for optimal sun absorption. I thought the railing would be a safe place to put him, where he was high enough off the ground that he wouldn't be tempted to try and jump down. I was right! He stepped onto the railing and basked in the sun, all the while taking in the sights of birds flying overhead.
If you have a dog or cat, you likely know its body language fairly well. You know that squinting eyes for a cat or a wagging tail for a dog mean that the animal is content and calm. Birds have body language too that you can read to know they are content and calm. One of those signs is called the rouse, in which a bird vigorously ruffles all their feathers. If a bird has been through something stressful and you see them rouse, you know they have calmed down and are ok. It's always a great sign to see when you work with a bird. After his sunning session, Ralph let out a great big rouse.
That is one giant puffball.

When my cockatiels rouse, often times it's very sudden. But with Ralph, he always works up to it, like a satisfying sneeze: he raises his back feathers ever so slowly...then the rest of his body puffs up...and then like he's rocking out to Taylor Swift, he throws his head back and shakes it off.

Today was a good day to be a vulture.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Try It! Mulberries

Last weekend, Mr. Nature Geek and I decided to take a long walk at one of our favorite birding spots in the Philadelphia area, John Heniz National Wildlife Refuge. This is a great spot for birding all year, as the different seasons bring completely different birds to the refuge. In the summer, nesting warblers, wrens, and orioles abound, along with tree and barn swallows. In the winter, the refuge becomes a hot spot for migrating waterfowl, including northern shovelers, ruddy ducks, scaups, northern pintails, and teals. In late spring, however, there is another thing that draws us to hike the trails at John Heinz: the mulberry trees are in season!

For the most part, you'll find 3 species of mulberries in the United States: red, black, and white. The black mulberry, an import from West Asia, is mostly found in gardens and cultivated areas. In wild places, you'll typically find the native (yeay!) red mulberry and the exotic (boo!) white mulberry. The photo at the left features the native red mulberry, which hails from right here in the eastern United States. And if you ask Mr. Nature Geek and I, this native has fruit far superior than that old Chinese white mulberry anyway! The fruit of the white mulberry is very sweet, but bland, while the red mulberry has a delicious tartness to it, especially if you eat the berries that are a little less ripe (the ones that are more red). 

If there are mulberry trees around and they are ready for the picking, it's easy to know because the ground looks like this:
When mulberries are ripe, all you pretty much have to do is just look at them and they fall off the tree. The slightest touch will send them tumbling to the ground. 

Upon coming across a ripe red mulberry tree, Mr. Nature Geek and I will eat every ripe berry we can get our hands on. (There was plenty left to be shared with the wildlife too if you are worried, as mulberry trees can reach 40' tall and your average Nature Geek is a mere 5'3".)  This weekend as we gorged ourselves, many other visitors passed us by, but not a single one asked what we were doing or asked to sample the delicious fruit! I found this fact quite troubling. Today you hear so much hype about "natural", "preservative free", and "no GMO" when it comes to our foods and here was the most natural food you could get, lining the miles of trails! In my opinion there is not much of a better way to reconnect with our roots of living off the land than eating the sun-ripened fruits of a wild tree. Mr. Nature Geek and I love our tradition of visiting our favorite mulberry spots at this time of year and filling up on delicious wild fruit. 

This weekend as you are hopefully hiking the trails of your favorite park, be on the lookout for a red mulberry tree. If you find one, chow down! And if you do a good job, by the end of the day, you'll literally be caught red-handed after having a great and delicious experience.