Weeds -- Guardians of the Soil

by Joseph A. Cocannouer

11. Weeds and Wildlife

IGNORANCE of wildlife values on the farm is no more excusable than are our prevalent weed superstitions. Even the songbirds are resented by many, although the birds are among our best friends. Were it not for the helpful birds, insects would soon drive us poor humans off the earth completely, despite our sprays and other bug killers. Then there are the nonvenomous snakes. The childish fear perpetually manifested for these harmless creatures is hard to understand. One garter snake or one whip snake or one gopher snake will catch more mice and rats than sixteen cats. Even a small house snake will put to rout a giant rattler or copperhead -- and get a kick out of doing it. I have watched them. Venomous snakes are cowards and usually have a strange terror of their nonvenomous cousins. As long as there are a few nonpoisonous snakes around the house or barnlot, rattlesnakes are likely to make themselves scarce.

Even skunks are generally looked upon as odorous enemies of respectable folk. More need of understanding. Did you ever watch a skunk digging for insects in a pasture or meadow or orchard? The number of grubs and adult insects that skunks destroy each year is enormous. In the orchard the skunk is especially valuable, since the larvae of many injurious insects are commonly found around the base of fruit trees. Skunks, if not disturbed too often, will frequent orchards continuously and thus do a lot of good by digging up and destroying these fruit pests.

And there is no more ideal sanctuary for all such wild friends than rich coves of annual weeds growing in sheltered spots not too far from the house or barnlot. As I found in that weed cove of my boyhood, our friendly varmints prefer a weed patch to any other kind of cover, especially during the summer and autumn months.

There is an old story of a miserly farmer who possessed extensive orchards and gardens, the only orchards and vegetable gardens for miles in any direction. It was natural for the birds to move into those orchards in droves every spring -- valuable birds and orchards were made for each other. At first the miser only grumbled as the birds went about their business of nest building. But as he grew older, his grumblings became more threatening. He didn't like the noisy chatter of those birds. Still, so long as the birds didn't disturb his fruit, he'd tolerate them -- and birds were not very troublesome in apple and pear orchards.

To add to his income, the miser planted a cherry orchard. The cherry trees at last came into bearing. The miser was counting a lot on the dollars he would get from those cherries. He visited his cherry orchard daily. The trees blossomed, put on the young fruit -- and the fine cherries began to ripen.

Then the miser received his terrible shock. He went out one morning to find that the birds were pecking his cherries. They had eaten only a few of them, but the miser raged at what he saw. He swore then and there to drive every bird from his orchard. He'd destroy every nest and break every egg.

And he did. It took his laborers several days to destroy all of the birds' nests, for there were many of them. Then the miser kept one man busy for several more weeks, keeping the birds from rebuilding their nests. Finally the birds gave up; went in search of new nesting grounds.

A grim silence settled down upon the orchards and garden then. The miser gloated over his victory -- and the extra dollars he had gained by driving the birds away. He gloated over that grisly silence too. He liked the stillness. He gloated until ...

Until one day he was startled by new and different sounds coming from his orchards and gardens; sickening noises they were -- noises that kept up right through the darkness of the night. Now he was hearing the sounds of gnawing insects! The rasping, crackling sounds caused by insect mandibles! The insects stripped the miser's garden and orchards; then they began on the miser himself. The worms gnawed him; the bugs stabbed him and chewed him. They drove him mad. The miser went out screaming.

There are plenty of adults who need this lesson. Especially those adults who destroy or permit the destruction of valuable birds and their nests, who kill every harmless snake they see simply because it wriggles; or those who think that all the good that skunks do is to stir up a stink. Yes, and those folks who insist on destroying all weeds just because -- they don't happen to understand and appreciate weed values.

Once a very admirable man moved into our Kansas neighborhood. This man bought a sort of run-down farm and then proceeded to improve it not only agriculturally, but also by turning it into a haven for wildlife. And what a contrast was Uncle Les Mason, as we called him, to that miserly farmer! Uncle Les was kind to everybody and everything. He went out of his way to prove to us that wild things did appreciate human friendship. He often told us that the wild things always reciprocated human friendship by helping them at every turn. Why, Uncle Les knew a whole brigade of toads as individuals and called each toad by its name. I remember one jolly-looking toad that Uncle Les called Charley. I was certain that Charley always blinked more excitedly whenever he heard his name. Uncle Les used to say it was a lot better to have a bevy of toads around to catch the flies than to be bothered with sticky flypaper.

It was Uncle Les's flock of birds that no boy could forget. Uncle Les surely knew his birds and their value as insect catchers in his orchards and fields. But it was the homey things that he made so interesting to us when he was talking; the idiosyncrasies of birds -- or toads or harmless snakes or skunks -- as they went about their daily businesses.

It seems but yesterday when I was trotting at the side of Uncle Les Mason, listening with open ears and open mouth as he pointed out to us the thickets and weed patches that were inhabited by his happy birds; his birds, which he considered as necessary in his very successful farming as were his fat team, his farm implements, and his dog, Rover. I have since wondered why Uncle Les's appreciation of weeds didn't sink home with me at that time. It must have been that I was always too interested in the antics of the birds themselves. Weeds were ordinary, whereas Uncle Les's birds were not.

I can still hear Uncle Les talking weeds, with his fluttering and chirping birds in the dim background. "Fish anywhere you want to along my creek, boys, except at the bends where the weeds are thick," he would tell us. "Don't go into those patches for your grasshoppers -- those yellowlegs are for my birds. They need them to go along with the bugs and worms they harvest in my orchard and garden."

A fair-size creek angled across Uncle Les's farm, and the bends were numerous. In all of those bends were briar and weed patches that during the summer were alive with noisy birds. If Uncle Les ever planted weeds, I didn't know it; but I do know that he guarded his weed patches as carefully as he protected his small patches of grain planted especially for the birds.

Uncle Les Mason is an example of the value of a too-often-neglected side of most theories advanced relative to wildlife preservation: love and understanding for all wild things. The miserly farmer illustrates the value, too, in contrast.

It goes without saying that there must be scientific planning and well-directed procedure, else accomplishments may result in little more than the sentimental hysteria which a bit of superficial knowledge about Nature seems to arouse in so many people. Folks gush over the sublime beauty of redbuds, for instance, then proceed to mutilate the shrubs while gathering the blossoms. Such people haven't the least comprehension of Nature. But stern science, without a measure of sentiment -- true Nature-sentiment -- swings the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. Such naturalists know toads scientifically; they never see the jolly Charleys. They possess the letter of Nature, but too much of the soul is lacking. Anyone who thinks that he must kill a bird in order to study it thoroughly is not a naturalist. He is an anatomist who should work in a museum.

With the present interest in wildlife preservation, we need practical biologists in our schools who can interpret the biology of field and stream and forest -- who are able to read Nature's books. We need a few textbooks or guidebooks that tell the full story about wildlife habits and habitats. While I have not scrutinized all books written on wildlife preservation, I have yet to discover a book or bulletin or pamphlet that gives weeds the place they merit as wildlife feeding grounds and covers. Rabbits or quail or other birds of many kinds -- a weed jungle is an ideal hideout for them. It provides them with protection and food and, in winter, warmth. Of the covers usually found on any farm where there are timber and brushy draws, shrubbery and vine thickets rank first and heavy weed growth second. Grass makes a good cover, but more wild things prefer weed coves or weedy fields than open prairie lands, however dense the grass.

For two seasons I kept check on a covey of quail which for years have made their home near the barnlot. These quail are not often disturbed and have easy access to a dense grass area, a field of either oats or wheat, a spread of fairly thick timber, and a patch of vigorous annual ragweeds. The quail seem to know they are as safe in one place as another, but during the many months I have been watching this flock, rarely have I routed the birds out of the grass. In the hot part of the day in June, July, and August, the birds usually spend several hours in the woody thickets. They also feed part of the day in the grainfields after the grain has begun to ripen, but considerably more than half of the time is spent in the ragweed patch. This, too, when there are no ripe seeds on the weeds. I attribute this conduct of the quail to something more than a partiality for ragweed feeding.

Quail are partial to ragweed cover because of some benefit they get from the soil where ragweeds grow. Ragweeds do enliven the soil. The soil where thick prairie grass grows is also richer than that found in most cultivated fields, but in sod it is not so easy for the birds to get close to mother earth.

Which brings us to one of the most tragic causes of wildlife depletion in many parts of our country: soil sterility. The garden toad, once so familiar around the doorsteps almost everywhere, or in the kitchen garden, or milk house near a cool spring, is now rare. A short time ago I visited my early childhood home in Kansas. I went first to the now-deserted cottage; the little house that had been home to me so long ago. I remembered the toads that had lived in or near our cool cellar and around our wonderful oaken-bucket well. I searched for them, but there was not a toad to be found.

Then I went to call on a friend of those yesteryears, a friend whom I had not seen since those days of my early youth; those years when we both cut weeds for Sol Benson and others. And I mentioned not finding any toads in the spots where they had once been so numerous.

A reminiscent shadow slid across my friend's face. "Toads! I recollect how thick they used to be when we were kids. Fly-catchers, we used to call 'em! I don't remember seein' hardly any toads for thirty years or more -- "

The everyday life of the humble toad is tied in with soil fertility. The toad is more dependent on fertile soil than many other wild things familiar to us: rabbits, gophers, skunks, and snakes. Toads haven't a great many enemies among other wildlife. Even snakes don't care much for toads. But toads soon disappear from land that is weak in organic substances, though the insects on which they feed may be plentiful. Earthworms and toads -- their absence spells weak or depleted land.

Throughout the United States some species of birds have become rare for the same reason: our eroded or exhausted soils are not providing birds the nourishing foods which for many of them are essential. On eroded land even weeds do not produce high-quality seed for the seed eaters. Granted that many other factors share responsibility for the depletion of our valuable birds, low-quality grains and the persistent destruction of weeds have, either directly or indirectly, taken a heavier toll than is usually recognized.

Whenever I visit a weed cove, which is one of my chief outdoor sports, I inevitably compare it with that one particular cove of my youthful years. That cove was wildlife at its best. In summer or winter the cove was activity plus. In it, many wild things found food, either insects or seed, and protection and warmth, preferring it to the surrounding rich fields and meadows and forest in which food was abundant.

Such weed coves are not often found now. Where there is continuous erosion the water often sweeps through the coves and disturbs the soil-mellowing work of the weeds. Either poor soil is washed into the coves, or the dead plant bodies are carried away. The weeds may struggle along and make a fair growth, but they are not able most of the time to build up a rich, mellow earth.

Dense shrub thickets provide a bit better cover than weeds, since these thickets are more permanent and enemies cannot penetrate them so easily. A wise farmer, instead of destroying his thickets, will encourage them to grow in all places where land can possibly be spared. And not all of the thickets should be located in pastures. The best wildlife thickets are those completely isolated from all farm activities, located where domestic animals cannot browse in or near them. Permanent weed coves should be left as undisturbed jungles.

An ideal setup for many species of wildlife is a dense, well-shielded thicket that stands near a small field that has been released to weeds. I know an almost impenetrable plum thicket situated near such a weed patch. The weeds in the small field have been permanent fixtures for only a few years, but even when that field was under cultivation there usually was a good growth of weeds in it late in the summer after crops had been laid by. This plum thicket and field have long been a favored spot for migratory birds. Many species have for many years spent a part of each year here, some for only a few days, while others have come down from the north to remain for the winter.

During late years, though, the bird population of this thicket has shrunk to a mere fraction of what it formerly was. I am quite certain that the birds haven't shifted their course. The birdlife has vanished in direct proportion to the depletion of the farmlands.

Just lately I watched from a concealed spot the activities in and around this thicket. I had seen some migratory birds near the house, which immediately brought the thicket to mind. I found a few migrants in the thicket in addition to the two or three species of small birds that make the thicket their permanent homes. But the migratory birds were few. In an hour I saw only two species, and I could have counted all of those on the fingers of my two hands and had a finger or two left. I decided to go out into the weed patch, hoping I could in that way add more visitors to my count. But at that same moment I caught sight of something that caused me to change my mind: a wild house cat. The cat was easing its way towards the thicket, bird hunting, of course.

The prowling beast soon disappeared into the brush. Immediately birds came fluttering out. I ran to the thicket and routed the cat, after which I said a few uncomplimentary things about people who cast off their cats to hustle for themselves. One can't blame the starving cats. But why can't people put the cats out of their misery and thus save a very large number of valuable birds?

Cats may be questionable pets; they don't help to produce and conserve food -- save for an occasional worthy mouse catcher. Birds do. One spring I kept a record on a pair of friendly wrens that had built their nest in an old bucket near my garage, which stood near the garden fence. For four uninterrupted hours I checked the number of worms the birds brought from the garden to their five young: every forty-five seconds one of the birds returned from the garden with a worm! I know, because I timed them carefully with my watch. I was a wreck when I finally gave up. And that wasn't all: those faithful little laborers had been at it since daylight. I have no doubt they continued their work until dark. Where those tiny nestlings put all those worms is still a mystery to me. But I am very certain those two wrens were largely responsible for some excellent cabbage in our garden that summer.

While wrens as a rule do not frequent weed patches, many other valuable birds do: for seed or for insects -- or just for cover when they are not busy elsewhere. If two wrens in a few hours could do so much valuable work, think of the good all birds taken together must do. Then add to this the joy they bring us in friendship and song.

The 4-H club work, dealing with wildlife preservation, is a grand movement and should receive hearty support from everyone. However, there is danger of this work's becoming too mechanical. Boys and girls should be taught in school and in club meetings that the first step in learning how to preserve the wildlife is to learn to love the outdoors -- and to understand the outdoors. They should be taught how to study the wild things in the fields and forests -- and weed patches. In this way they can best learn the relationship that exists between the birds, for example, and man's well-being. In this way it will be possible to present to the boys and girls the sentiment factor more realistically, for to see wildlife in action in the field will teach more than whole libraries of books.

As the young naturalist systematically studies his wild friends -- and they should be looked upon as friends even though they do scamper away when he approaches them -- he will often find his path leading straight toward a weed patch. And he may be a bit surprised to discover that so many of the inhabitants of the big outdoors depend upon weeds for food and shelter. From then on, as a true naturalist, he will see weed coves in a new light. Weed patches, with their seeds for his valuable bird friends; weed patches for cover for other wild things -- they all belong together. And all are man's trustworthy friends.

Next: 12. Sponge Structure versus Dams

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