Foxtails and Chickens

MARCH, AT HOME, PiTTSBURGH, AND A CHILDHOOD AUGUST, CEDAR MOUNTAIN, NORTH CAROLINA

Spring is the ideal time to teach about weeds, because so many of them are just emerging. Also, because spring features the long-missed sight of early blooming flowers, students seem particularly interested in plants. Although my grandmother taught me to be interested in flowers from a young age, I, like most children, was more interested in animate life forms. Sometimes a plant interested me because it resembled an animal, as with the open jaws of a pinched snapdragon, the furry velvet of lamb's ear, the closing teeth of a provoked Venus flytrap. Thanks to my grandmother, though, the wonder of plants now seems to me to be a natural subject for the classroom.

I didn't realize until well into my career that botany class doesn't make most students fondly remember walking with their grandmothers. I find that most students take plants for granted. Plants are garnish for the roast, a sign of love from a romantic interest, the background of the painting, part of the scenery—the yard, the campus—but are not of inherent interest. Bugs and snakes repel students; cats, dogs, and horses attract them; but plants, at least when first introduced to the class, incite blank stares of boredom.

So when I teach about plants in a classroom setting, I often find myself trying to sell their wonders to the students. Many students have told me they don't really care about plants, and I try hard not to hold this against them, but instead to teach them. Perhaps humans have a natural affinity for animals and a natural inclination to take plants for granted. Or perhaps the disdain for plants derives from a cultural hierarchy of food: historically, meat was more of a treat than were vegetables and was an occasion for festivities. Maybe animals symbolize wildness and movement, traits that college students aspire to, or perhaps it is simply, as students sometimes tell me, that animals have eyes and look more like us.

One of the first plants I remember having any interest in was a giant foxtail (Setaria faberi), growing just off a gravel road near my grandparents' home in Cedar Mountain, North Carolina. Giant foxtail is a grass, and its flower and seed heads look furry, exactly like a squirrel's or fox's tail about three or four inches long. I saw it on a hillside one day and immediately wanted to pet it. My grandmother told me it was called foxtail. She was kind enough not to insult my new love by calling it a weed. The name stuck with me because it fit so well. I find it interesting that our common names for plants so often reflect either a human or animal quality about them. Though I've since seen corn crops infested beyond reason with foxtail, and I don't allow it among my vegetables, I still think fondly of my grandmother when I see it, in field or on roadside.

Much of my relationship with plants is affected by how these plants relate to animals, either by their names, physical resemblance, or food properties. Although I suspect that crocuses, with their purple, white, or yellow cupped faces blooming even through the last snows, are not native, I have always thought of them as a harmless garden species — excellent as a food source for early bees, beautiful, and unlikely to invade or to crowd out any native plants. I never doubted their harmless nature until early this spring, when we found a very small rabbit lying dead, uninjured but apparently poisoned, right outside our front door; the culprit seemed to be the neatly trimmed crocus leaves next to the rabbit's still body. I fence our vegetable garden from bunnies and swear under my breath when they eat my young sunflowers—I have tried for two years to grow sunflowers, without a single flower to show for it. At the same time, though, I am also always glad to see rabbits hopping through.

I knew the girls would love to see a bunny up close, and since the cause of death was so clear I wasn't particularly fearful of disease. However, I wasn't sure I wanted to supervise them petting a dead bunny, so I quietly told my husband, who I knew used to dissect road kill. He would undoubtedly be more enthusiastic. He brought the girls over and made burial arrangements. This rabbit was, in all likelihood, one of those who lived under our shed last year, and one whose parents we had watched happily many evenings at silflay, a word the girls learned when I read Watership Down aloud during a long car trip. Rabbits are most active in early morning and just before sunset, and much of their grazing, called silflay, happens at these times of day. In Watership Down, silflay is when most of the action and rabbit conversation happens. When we watched our rabbits in the evening, it was easy to imagine the possible lapin dramas unfolding, seemingly mute, before us.

When I was growing up, we had cats, the first of which my parents consented to grudgingly when my summer tennis teacher brought a box of kittens to the last class. Perhaps twice I actually hit the tennis ball over the net, but the kitten I begged for was the enduring legacy of those tennis lessons. That cat, Tiger, was a menace to both humans and animals, and his arrival ended, for a few years, my dad's fascination with our yard's birdfeeders. My grandfather was a bird watcher, and I know that those feeders were one of my dad's links to his own family history. One day the birds nearly got their revenge on Tiger when an owl bit a chunk of flesh from his side, and he came close to death with the ensuing infection. So when our daughters have asked me for a pet, my answer is, in part, that if we got a cat or dog, we would lose much of the wildlife we now enjoy. In addition to the bunny, we have a rich population of chipmunks, one of which gave its life in our driveway and permitted the girls another chance to touch the soft fur of a wild creature before its burial. This fall we had a four-inch toad living near our house for several weeks, and though I assume he retired somewhere more sheltered (under the shed?) for the winter, I looked for him in his favorite places even after the frost made his appearance quite unlikely.

And birds—we watch gray crested titmice, suited black-and-white chickadees, somber gray mourning doves, bright yellow goldfinches, striped brown song sparrows, red cardinals, personable robins, and aggressive and beautiful blue jays at our feeders, trees, and flowers throughout the year. For a week one summer, I got the occasional glimpse of the yellow, orange, and black of a Baltimore oriole. We also have witnessed red-tailed hawks chased by crows, a northern harrier (a light gray cousin of hawks) catching a mouse next door, a wild turkey perched on our girls' swing set, a Virginia rail — like a duck with a slender, pointed beak—bursting out of our woods, and a number of woodpeckers; the latter range from the red-capped, black-and-white little downy woodpecker to the occasional majestic, crow-sized pileated woodpecker on both our feeders and trees. The first time Emily saw the pileated woodpecker, we had just heard the news about the ivory-billed woodpecker, and I was thrilled to explain to her that it was a cousin of this amazing creature on our porch feeder.

In some cases, I know the birds are making use of particular plants. The goldfinches come when the pink-flowered cosmos go to seed, their yellow flashes making the cosmos' pink all the more vivid. The song sparrows nested in a juniper bush next to our front door, and for weeks we avoided using the door excessively. Their tenure in our shrub enabled us to finally learn to distinguish their nondescript brown markings from those of the more common house sparrow. Our desire to have the girls witness the bird nest was a constant conflict with our desire not to disturb them. A flashy iridescent-green hummingbird visits a lovely tubular red flower, Crocosmia, in our front garden in August. The woodpeckers enjoy our suet and then foray into nearby woods to hammer insects from dying ash trees.

The weeds, too, are part of the diversity of food for wildlife. Many of the grasses — foxtails, crabgrasses — provide seeds eaten by a number of birds and small mammals, as do the smaller knotweed cousins (Pennsylvania smartweed and lady's thumb); lamb's-quarters with squarish, silvery green leaves (Chenopodium); pigweed, with its prickly seed head and juicy leaves (Amaranthus); purple-tinged pokeweed (Phytolacca americana); the clover look-alike wood sorrel (Oxalis); chickweed (Stellaria media, to be discussed at length later); various wild mustards; and my beloved hawkweeds, dandelion, and clover. Many of these common weeds are introduced, non-native species, but the animals who eat them are often natives and generally don't discriminate.

This list doesn't even touch the weeds used by various insects beneficial to the garden. Jessica Walliser, an organic gardener known in Pittsburgh for her Sunday morning radio show with Doug Oster, explains in her book Good Bug, Bad Bug: Who's Who, What They Do, and How to Manage Them Organically, that many of these beneficial insects in our gardens rely on small weedy flowers as a food source for their nectar and pollen. One of the reasons that garlic mustard can legitimately be viewed as an inferior weed—worth pulling—is that the garlic flavor makes it unpalatable to the cabbage white caterpillars that feast on all other members of the mustard clan. For weedy mustards, these caterpillars do us the favor of helping control them; for crops such as broccoli and kale, they are a pest. The fact that neither these caterpillars nor any others will eat garlic mustard simply demonstrates that this is a plant that does not belong in this place.

Goldenrods are home to fascinating insects who pierce the stalks with their needlelike egg-laying apparatus, inducing growth of a gall — it looks like the plant stem swallowed a golf ball — which shelters and feeds the infant insect laid there. (In addition, my husband got great entertainment from this plant when one of his students wrote a paper about this phenomenon, but instead of writing about "gall balls," she wrote her entire paper instead about "gull balls." Quite a different image.) Some of the most striking insects consume milkweeds (Asclepias) or their cousins the dogbanes and Indian hemp (Apocynum): red milkweed beetles, orange milkweed bugs, monarch butterflies, and the striking iridescent green dogbane leaf beetle.

We can plant gardens with hundreds of species in them, and we can buy bat houses, toad houses, birdhouses and bird feeders, and even butterfly food. But it is our tolerance for the unexpected plant species that may end up making our yards truly hospitable for wildlife and insects. Yes, I swear at the deer when they eat leaves off our young trees, and especially when they inexplicably ate our young mountain laurel last winter—a species I had thought to be too toxic for them. (Fortunately, however, I did not find the offending deer lying dead next to the clipped shrub.) And yes, when the rabbits munch my sunflower seedlings again and again, I wish briefly I could enjoy a rabbit on my plate for dinner. Ultimately, though, I'm glad to see them, fellow critters all.

Animals, then, become one of my considerations in my tolerance or intolerance of various weeds. Nothing wild eats garlic mustard, so I pull it. Pokeweed is native and a good food source for birds, so I let it thrive in our shallow woods despite its being relatively lanky and despite my fearing that a child might find its berries appealing. The rabbits are among the many reasons I love clover, and my tolerance for thistle is based almost exclusively on its food value for insects and birds. I'm not absolutely consistent in this—were wildlife the only consideration, the poison ivy would still be thriving—but the decision about each weed still counts wildlife palatability either in the plus or minus column.

My daughters, though, repeatedly asked for a pet, and even the fluffiest foxtail wouldn't suffice. Having ruled out dogs and cats, we set our sights on chickens. So at the Kentucky State Fair in the summer, we got three chicks—two speckled hen chicks and a larger black rooster. These birds were loved well in their short stay with us. We turned over rocks and fed them bugs; we fed them chick starter. Hazel carried hers, Sparkle, around like a stuffed animal, and Emily got mad because she knew that kind of carrying wasn't good for her chick, Josephina, but she was jealous that Hazel got so much contact with her chick as a result. The rooster was considered my pet and a backup in case of loss. Though I knew his tenure with us in the suburbs could not last into crowing adulthood, we loved watching him climb proudly on top of rocks and open his mouth—mutely crowing, it seemed. I called him Gonzalo, as he reminded me of the Muppet Gonzo. (The nearly elderly among us may remember that Gonzo had a harem of chickens as girlfriends, so the analogy seemed apt on many levels.) The experience of feeding them bugs gave me a whole new appreciation for insects in our yard, even ones I didn't consider fascinating or beautiful.

I'd love to tell now about their first eggs, and about weeds and bugs they preferred, and about how we dealt with Gonzalo's first proud cock-a-doodle-doo. Those stories will have to wait. Instead, I'll have to reveal our weaknesses as chicken farmers.

We had a cage for them but tried to let them out to forage as much as we could. My philosophy about chickens is much like my philosophy about children—both need free time outside to be healthy. First, one evening, I let them into the fenced tomato garden while we went to the pool, and when we came back at dusk they were all gone. The next day, Gonzalo and Josephina returned without Sparkle, Hazel's chick. Fortunately, Hazel believed in miracles, so by the time she gave up hope that her chick would return, she'd mostly forgotten what she loved so much about her. I don't believe Hazel ever shed a tear.

After this, the two remaining chicks were more restricted in their yard freedom. (My husband commented that he was glad he wasn't the one to let them out that time, because he didn't think the girls would have forgiven him so easily.) But the morning before we left for a weekend away, I found Emily's chick, Josephina, lying prostrate and breathing shallowly on the cage floor. I wrapped her in a soft shirt and took her inside for Emily to say goodbye, and Josephina never opened her eyes before breathing her last. Josephina had always been the smallest of the chicks, but more troubling was that she hadn't grown in her time with us (two weeks), so I'm assuming she had some health problem we couldn't have helped. Many tears were shed, and a week later (Josephina spent the interim in our freezer) we held a funeral, complete with black dresses, a reading, and taps played on the harmonica by my husband. Oddly enough, the music inspired the children to dance on the grave, and the solemnity of the occasion dissolved.

Finally, all we had was the rooster chick, my Gonzalo. He seemed to be growing well but was getting a bit wilder—perhaps more aggressive. I began wondering what we would do with him when he first crowed aloud. But one evening, after seeing him foraging happily, we went in for dinner, and he disappeared while we were inside. I assume a neighborhood dog got him, though I never found any feathers. In any case, he didn't return. We entered mid-September, once again chickenless.

This spring we tried again, with a better coop and fencing. Oddly enough, the experience made me think a dog might be a good idea with the chickens, because the dog could, theoretically, protect them. But one thing I'll say for the chickens is that they were highly vulnerable physically, but emotionally, they would have been much better off without us. A dog would need us to love him, whereas chickens just tolerate our love. I have always been a fan of low-maintenance pets.

Perhaps I am a fan of yard weeds because, like independent-minded pets, they grow themselves. I love watching birds at our feeders and seeing the toad by our back door, because I love feeling like our yard is hospitable to other creatures. The weeds contribute to this hospitality, not only because of their possible food value, but because they are an indication that I don't have too short a checklist of acceptable species at the property line. Not that moles and starlings would check the list anyway, but I like having open possibilities.

I am not an expert on insects, but because my field is so broadly titled — environmental studies — I get a lot of questions about them anyway. People ask about praying mantises, and some even misunderstand them as pests, like grasshoppers, instead of as predators that eat the pests. I often am asked about grubs, which can be found in many yards, feeding on dead roots. Consistently, people assume the grubs are the reason for the dead grass, but I see grubs as opportunists who feed on lawns weakened by overfertilizing. Gardeners don't like moles, but moles eat grubs, primarily, so we really have no reason to curse them unless we trip over their tunnels. The list most people have of acceptable species is so short that we tend to assume that anything unknown is a pest, and certainly the pesticide companies are happy for us to keep that mind-set.

Animal pests and weeds are not too far apart. Whether we keep birdfeeders, dogs, cats, wild rabbits, tame rabbits, or chickens, our yards are probably as healthy for the animals as they are for us. We may not want to find an insect in our apple, but we want to eat apples that aren't too poisoned for insects to eat. We may not want every weed in our yard, or every critter, but we want to keep a yard that weeds and critters can live in, because that means the yard isn't too poisonous for us, either.

The crocus-eating bunny wasn't our rabbit in any sense of ownership, but it lived with us and we watched it and learned from it. In contrast, the chickens are ours, bred and hatched to live with humans, and we know all too well that they can't live without our protection. I like the idea that, whether we have pets or not, we are the caretakers for a variety of living beings. The furry ones may attract our attention first, but some of the creatures in our care are the spring weeds, too.

The foxtail emerges as the weather warms, while the rabbit kittens are still learning clover from crocus. In April, that wild foxy seed head is still just a promise, like the sun shining on the cold mud of an early spring lawn.

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