Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Chilly Phenology Post

(Status update: I just used the rest of yesterday's $8 to buy lunch and coffee. If your income for the past year was over US$12,000, you need to contribute your fair share to this web site:

Don't like transferring money online? Neither do I. U.S. readers may send U.S. postal money orders to Boxholder, P.O. Box 322, Gate City, Virginia, 24251-0322.)

Warning: this is not a feel-good phenology post.

I've not done a #Phenology post for a while, beyond noting that it's been a cool damp spring, but today we have real phenology news. On this twenty-eighth day of June, when heat and humidity are normally rising beyond anybody's comfort levels, the temperature this morning dipped down to 46 degrees...Fahrenheit. That's 7.78 degrees Celsius.

(I don't think the Blue Ridge Mountains have seen temperatures reach 46 degrees Celsius, not in my lifetime anyway. 40 degrees Celsius is possible, though, in July, and if we've not had that much of a heat wave in June we've certainly come close...In downtown Washington, D.C., 40 degrees Celsius is normal in July, that's 104 degrees Fahrenheit, with the sun greenhouse-effecting down on the partly-melted pavement through a pearly-grey, 90%-humidity sky. Washingtonians traditionally consider it sort of a duty to take road trips "outside the Beltway" on holiday weekends all year, thus allowing some of the taxpayers' money to trickle back into our favorite small towns, but everybody in their right mind gets out of the city during the July and August heat waves. Brain-melting weather is traditionally cited as an excuse for all kinds of craziness among those who were already stupid enough to stay in the city. That's why I'm not signing those petitions to deny Congress its traditional recess in high summer. Rural Virginians deserve their fair chance to talk to their men in Washington, and Congressman Griffith, Senator Warner, and Senator Kaine need their fair chance to maintain their brains in working condition...There! Politics! Yarrr!)

But today, in Gate City...I put a hand-knitted blanket over my feet last night, and I woke up at 4 a.m., feeling cold. In June. I kept saying to myself, "No, it is not cold enough to dig out the heater! It's June! What's going on? Do I have a fever?" I went out and checked the thermometer, and it really was showing 46 degrees. (I did not dig out the electric heater. I did dig out cold-weather gear; wore sweatpants until it was time to change to a long-sleeved, heavy cotton dress.)

This is not supposed to happen.

I walked out to work, and on the road I passed three dead songbirds, one only a baby with only the tips of wing feathers showing. The baby was too young to be identified, and one I think was some sort of native sparrow had been too badly mangled, but the one without a mark on it was a male robin. "Who killed Cock Robin?"

Cool though the weather has been, those cute little birds did not die from any shortage of insects, on which the parents normally spend every daylight hour stuffing their young at this time of year. Granted the weather has affected the insect population. I've seen more fungus gnats (and woodlice!) along paved roads, where those species normally don't survive, and more dog ticks than in a normal spring. Moths and butterflies seem to be rebounding from the baculovirus war that's been launched against the dreaded Gypsy Moths; I've seen all the usual butterflies that visit the Cat Sanctuary, two big Manduca and a few of the more attractive Sphingid moths, more inchworms including one unmistakable (1-1/2 inches long) baby Tulip Tree Beauty. Hot-weather species like the tiger moths, which normally fly in June, have not been flying yet this year, which is fortunate because the milkweed they pollinate hasn't bloomed. I found one stingingworm in the orchard, at an earlier stage than they usually stray into orchards, dying...baculovirus is a gruesome disease, but anything that kills stingingworms can't be all bad. Still, songbirds eat a lot of grasshoppers, leafhoppers, and mosquitoes, and there've been plenty of those. Mosquitoes are almost the only insects that fly when temperatures are around 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Songbirds also like plant seeds, and they had plenty of those, too; lots of long unmown grass, ripe mulberries below mulberry trees, and burr-weeds have been going to seed where those birds had fallen. Chicory, a hardy weed that started early this year, is already blooming, as are Queen Anne's Lace, queen-of-the-meadow, and even a few morning-glories. Wild roses have mostly gone to seed, although garden roses are still in full bloom. Dandelions are past their peak but still blooming. Crown vetch, native vetch, and clover are blooming well. Non-native honeysuckle, which usually blooms in June, has hardly started blooming in Gate City this year, although it's blooming in Kingsport. Fleabane daisies, which usually bloom in May, are still in full bloom; oxeye daisies, which usually bloom in June, are starting slowly. The songbirds haven't had native plant seeds in their usual proportions, but they've had lots of native plant seeds to choose from.

Large predators didn't kill the little tweetybirds, either. Aspergillosis is always a possibility, but it usually occurs in warm weather, shows up on the surface of the dead bird...and doesn't give me the mild hayfever I had on the road this morning.

No points for guessing...bushes growing near the railroad clearly show the effects of the "herbicide" that killed those birds. Glyphosate, "Roundup," is not the most efficient insecticide. It kills plants much faster than it kills insects. It does, however, kill insects--slowly--and when those insects are eaten by the birds that are doing humans the most good, then glyphosate kills birds. Not the same day, but within a few days, after glyphosate is sprayed, you can find dead songbirds.

Each mosquito those songbirds can't eat now means, remember, a thousand more to bite you in September, Gentle Readers. And despite the invasive species called "tiger mosquitoes" balancing things out, most of the local mosquitoes will bite any other warm-blooded creature at all before they'll bite me.

The railroad company has every right to keep grass that could foul train wheels from sprouting within several yards of the railroad track, of course. The railroad company could and should be paying teenagers to dig up grass and weeds by the roots, rather than killing songbirds.

According to the (less than reliable) manufacturers, glyphosate is "only mildly" toxic to wild birds, but it is selectively toxic to the wild birds that are most valuable to humans. It kills birds third-hand--after the birds eat the insects that live on the "weeds" on which the poison is sprayed.

Robins don't live near the Cat Sanctuary. They seldom visit woodlands. They like grassy meadows; they are especially partial to small-town and suburban residential neighborhoods with lawns. They will eat larger, more useful cold-blooded animals, like earthworms, if they can, but a large portion of their diet is annoying gnats and disease-carrying mosquitoes. In places where robins live, people hardly ever notice a mosquito in early summer; that's not because mosquitoes don't start flying during the February thaw--often they do--but because robins eat them. Robins are bold, as songbirds go; they usually nest in the same trees every summer, often nest right outside a window where they can catch mosquitoes more efficiently, and can become part of the human family. Male robins have blacker heads than females, and sing long elaborate songs that seem to be challenges to any mockingbirds in the vicinity. That's why robins are often the first (sometimes the only) songbird American children learn to recognize. They can become all but pets for children who can't keep a dog or cat. They are also the species I most often find dead on the ground near where some fool has sprayed glyphosate.

When will people wake up and realize...the more you poison unwanted species, outdoors, the more of those unwanted species you have! Prey species usually reproduce faster than their natural predators, so if you poison the prey, and thereby poison the predators, you're guaranteeing yourself more of the prey species you didn't want. There is not, never was, and never will be a truly effective "pesticide" for any outdoor plant or insect species.

Glyphosate is harmful to humans as well as birds. It serves no good purpose whatsoever. It should be banned from the market in all countries now. It should not be replaced with any other poison spray, but with an ecologically feasible approach to nuisance species that includes encouraging natural predator species, especially weed and insect eaters as adorable as a robin.