March 31, 2014
WELCOME! It's great to see you! How are things in your corner of the world? Just ducky, we hope :) Any flowers in your yard yet, or are you still feeling like Mother Nature's playing some sort of April Fool's joke on your neck of the woods?
Here, we're finishing up the move to home, puttering around the garden and wandering the woods in between snow storms, and keeping our fingers crossed that snowmelt will be slow and steady instead of all in a rush, which could wash out the canyon road again. And thinking about monarchs....
As soon as the first report of the alarming drop in everybody's favorite butterfly came out, I started researching. And kept researching.
A dramatic decline in milkweed is the reason for the dramatic decline in monarchs, every expert was saying.
In just a few short years, both have dropped by as much as 95%, depending on which research paper you read.
Roundup Ready crops, flatly declared everything I’d read.
The extra doses of herbicide killed off all the milkweed. The milkweed that monarchs need, to lay their eggs on.
March 25, 2014
7 But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee:
8 Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee... —Job 12:7-8
I love good stories, and I love birds. This book makes the connection between the two. What's the natural behavior behind the Scriptural references? Why did the quail rain from the sky onto the sleeping Israelites? What species was Noah's dove? Would ravens really feed Elijah?
It's a bird book, not a religious book. A fun read!
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Naturalist. Horticulturist. Field botanist. Ornithologist. Which is just a fancy way of saying I'm a plant nut, a gardening nut, a bird nut, a bug nut, a nature nut. Oh, and I'm also a writer, editor, consultant, public speaker, music lover, and vicious Scrabble player ;)
PHOTO BY HANNAH LAREE BURROWS
November 25 & November 18. Turkey trot, a room of one's own, vegetable gems, and mysterious crop circles; Sally goes all Martha Stewart on us, paying last respects, Joe the cat, and brain balls.
November 11 & November 4. Toaster of the Month Club, attracting birds to concrete and other big ideas, and shirtless Santa Claus; City mouse/Country mouse, where's my rake, feeder pests, and petting a lamb.
October 28 & October 20. Disney trees, autumn whine, a "starving" Princess, punctuation butterflies, and rotten bananas; An inspiring wasp, a big digger, ravens & Ravens, and the latest in fashionable hats.
October 12. A gang of dogs, fixing the facilities, and maybe, just maybe, a columbine plantation.
October 4. Home is where the heart is, the glory of aspens, new 32-sq-ft birdfeeder, and gooey love stuff.
September 26. Time to go, bidding "fare well," what's next, and a huge THANK YOU.
September 20. Get out NOW, gifts from the sky, yay for Jeeps: the whole Big Flood story.
September 11. Most beautiful butterfly ever.
September 9. Packrats good & bad, molting birds, green is the color of my true love's Volvo, & more.
September 1. Fresh as a daisy, white as snow, silly as Sally, & lots more.
AUGUST. Hummingbirds like neon, wildflowers galore, gardening stuff, all the glories of summer.
March 11. Yep, there's a gap here—we were on the road, giving talks to bolster our "fix the driveway" fund and meeting lots of friends, old and new. Here's where we went and what we saw.
January 31 & January 17. Getting ready for the road trip. And Matt explains football.
January 10. A "zipper" of animal tracks, an oriole nest of a different color, and misnomers that drive me nuts.
January 4. Exploring the field, pine nuts and butterflies, and our friend Clark.
December 30. Family ties, art appreciation, prairie dogs, and the sweet smell of hyacinths.
December 23 & December 16. Star-bellied Sneetches, squirrel capades, a towhee arrives, and battle of the Alpha bitches (female dogs ;) ); Mexican wedding cookies, a houseplant you've never seen, home on the range, and Little Yarn Shops.
December 9. Charlie Brown Christmas trees, killer Christmas trees, one bad robin, garden glories.
December 2. Knitting Club & football, mouse massacre, metal in the mashed potatoes, Geeks 'R Us.
Some of Sally's books
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WELCOME! It's great to see you! How are things in your corner of the world? Just ducky, we hope :) Spring sprung yet? Or starting to spring? Feeder scene changing as migrants move through? Mornings sounding a little different these days? Yay, don't you love it?!
Here? Well, we're thrilled to say we've moved back home!!!! Had to evacuate & spend six months in town because of the big floods back in September, but enough is enough— we wanted to get home, even though our driveway is still too damaged to use, and we're still saving up to fix it. Me to Matt: "I'm pretty good with a pick and shovel..."
So we came home, sledded our belongings down the back driveway (oh man, did we laugh), and started work to reclaim the house from the plague of packrats and mice that had moved in while we were gone. Feels WONDERFUL!!!! And just in time to enjoy Spring :)
After half a year without a handout, you'd think it would take a long time to bring our mountain birds back to the feeder.
Nope. Half an hour, and the gang of Steller's jays were back :) Within a couple of days, all the rest (except those stubborn gray jays) came, too.
And their activity caught the eye of migrants, who stopped off to rest and refuel, too.
Hard to take our eyes off the feeders, there's so much going on. Twenty, 30 times a day, it's Matt & me saying to each other, "You see (that thing they're doing now)?"
Here, meet some of our friends, in order of appearance at the feeder. And yes, it's still snowing here—hey, this is Spring in the Rockies! :)
Steller's jay. Six came in the first day; now about 20 are back :)
Gray-headed junco (Rocky Mountain race). These are our summer nesters; all of the winter-resident types had already left by the time we got home. And they're already feeling their oats: Fights are frequent. Usually the standoff starts with two birds stretching their kecks high, to make themselves look taller than the opponent. Then it's attack—a faceoff with battling wings, straight up into the air.
Mr. Hairy, the woodpecker, was so happy to see the peanut butter restaurant is back in business.
LEFT, ABOVE: First night, it was hundreds of ravens and crows flying over the house towards a roost, doing acrobatics in the air. Turns out that's an every-evening show, which we just love. But a mated pair of ravens came in, too—that's "Ravenzilla" on the right, biggest raven we've ever seen.
RIGHT, ABOVE: No cardinals in these parts :(, but our male Cassin's finch is looking pretty spectacular in his spring duds.
LEFT: Another dose of snow brought a lone migrating red-winged blackbird to seek sanctuary way up here in the mountains for a couple of days.
BELOW: Hot dogs were laid by the chimney with care, er, feeder, but STILL the gray jays didn't come back. "Won't feel right until they do," we agreed, checking the feeder every five minutes, day after day.
First, one... Then, two... Then, all three, including the youngster from last year. YAY! They're alive and well! And just as fond of hot dogs as ever.
BELOW: And today, amidst the bustle of fighting juncos, squawking Steller's jays, giant ravens, tiny siskins and chickadees, hot-dog-snatching gray jays, pretty finches, good old Mr. Hairy, and two kinds of nuthatches (red-breasted & white-breasted), we saw a flash of yellow. Quick, more sunflower seeds— evening grosbeaks are back! Six so far, and all males. A week or so, and the females will arrive, just in time for nesting season to commence.
Mountain life is tough for a cat, what with blizzards, 30-below cold, bears, mountain lions, coyotes, moose, and forest fires.
That's why our cat is named "02." It's a serial number, since he wasn't expected to last much longer than Cat 01.
Turns out, though, that 02 is a Genuine Buckhorn Supercat, the last surviving spawn of a legendary mother.
First of the Supercats, Katy Mae lived to the ripe old age of 17, a miracle among cats here in the Buckhorn Canyon. Her son 02, only survivor of the litter, is now 6 1/2 years old, a record in itself.
We knew 02 was something special, since he'd already survived (1) electrocution from biting into an electrical cord as a kitten; (2) a dog attack that sent him into convulsions; (3) many encounters with bears and coyotes, which he singlehandedly drives away; (4) being bitten by some critter who left a quarter-inch-wide, third-inch-deep fang hole in his head (a bottle of peroxide and a tube of triple-strength antibiotic cream are always on hand here); (5) the huge High Park Fire of 2012, when the forest all around burned to black matchsticks; (6) who knows what else.
But we still thought we might be seeing the last of him when we bade him goodbye when we evacuated for the flood back in September.
As usual, he declined to come along. Which means he clawed and bit Matt fiercely—and you don't know fierce until you've heard 02 launch into his war cry while attacking with claws and fangs—and then ran and hid under the house. So we set out 250 lbs of kibble and wished him luck.
The morning after we came home, Matt went upstairs and found 02 on the bed, looking at him as if to say, "Yeah? What?"
SIX MONTHS of being completely on his own. Yeah, I'd call that a Supercat. Good job, 02! Welcome home!
ABOVE: First things first: After all that dry kibble, 02 demanded something good for breakfast. Canned salmon, which we'd lugged on foot to the house (along with 150 lbs of birdseed, 12 lbs of hotdogs, and other necessities) did the trick nicely. Yay, happy kitty! And possibly more fierce than ever.
You've heard, I'm sure, because it's been all over the news for months. Monarch butterflies are in trouble. BIG trouble.
In case you haven't heard the news, here's the World Wildlife Fund's scary graphic.
"Number of acres" refers to the amount of land occupied by monarchs wintering in their traditional spot in central Mexico.
It's a pine and fir forest, high in the mountains at nearly 9,000 ft elevation, where the butterflies hang like drapes from the trees, clinging to each other in long, dangling bunches.
That Mexican spot in Michoaca is where monarchs from east of the Rockies, all the way up into Canada, gather from fall through spring. There are a few other spots, too, elsewhere in Mexico and in Texas, possibly Oklahoma, and possibly New Mexico as well.
But the vast majority head for Michoaca.
Monarchs from West of the Rockies winter in California, near Monterey. I've visited that spot, and it's an incredible sight. First thing that hits you is the smell of Vick's Vaporub—the monarchs there winter in a eucalyptus grove, and eucalyptus smells just like Vicks (which my mom used to smear on my chest when I had a cold, to open my congested nose).
You don't even realize you're seeing butterflies at first— the hanging congregations of monarchs look like thick brown drapes, because their wings are closed, hiding the orange.
Believe it or not, that Mexican wintering spot was only "discovered" in 1975. I'm sure local Mexicans knew all about it. But American scientists had no clue it existed.
Ever hear of "Monarch Watch," the program that tags and tracks monarch butterflies? Maybe your kids were involved with it as school, as my son was in the little town of New Harmony, Indiana.
Monarch Watch was started by zoologist Frederick Urquhart and his wife Norah, who lived in Canada.
Fred was already obsessed with monarchs when he married Norah in 1945.
He'd started studying the butterflies in 1937, wondering why all traces of them disappeared in winter—no eggs, no chrysalises, no overwintering butterflies. Where did they disappear to? And where did they come back from the next spring?
They must be migratory, he realized. But where? And how?
Norah took up the quest with just as much passion as her husband. And they're the folks who figured out ALL the big stuff about monarchs:
And they found the wintering grounds. Well, actually it was Ken Brugger, an American living in Mexico, who told them he'd seen the butterflies they were looking for while on a drive in the mountains, after Norah wrote an article for a Mexican newspaper, begging for information.
At Fred and Norah's urging, Ken explored further, until he came across the staggering sight of millions of buterflies cloaking the trees. So many of them, they actually bent the branches.
It had taken Fred and Norah 38 years to get all the pieces of the puzzle. And in January, 1976, they finally got to see the sight for themselves.
The scary and sudden decline in monarchs was something we talked about during our speaking tour last month.
And while husband Matt drove us home across Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa a few weeks ago, after those speeches, I looked for milkweed and thought about monarchs.
No way to tell how much milkweed had been in the farm fields, which were bare and sleeping after last year’s harvest.
Yet I saw plenty of milkweed along the roadsides, almost every mile of the trip. Those tall bare stems topped with clusters of the distinctive pods stood out like a sore thumb against the tawny grasses along the roads.
Sure, in some places, road crews had mowed the vegetation right up to the edges of the fields (southeastern Illinois, I’m talking to you).
On the whole, though, the roadside milkweed population looked good along the nearly thousand miles we traveled through the farm belt.
Could the cause of the monarch decline be something else?
Or a natural dip in the always-cyclic rise and fall of insect populations?
Or an as yet undiscovered malady that was killing caterpillars?
Or a shift in predatory insects? Maybe a new monarch-eater had moved in because of climate change, as happened with certain butterflies in Britain?
My suspicions even fell on the World Wildlife Fund, which released the graphic at the top of this page. Had they overstated the decline?
“Wish I could find that research paper. The Iowa study that every other article mentions. I want to read it for myself.”
Googling is my favorite thing, yet that original study had been elusive. Over and over, I searched for “monarch decline Iowa” and got page after page of Google hits. Yet none of them were the original research journal article.
Settling into our motel room in Iowa, I opened the laptop and tried again.
Oh my gosh. There it was, right near the top of the Google results list. Had Google adjusted the results because my laptop told it we were in Iowa? Didn't matter—I was just thrilled that it had finally turned up.
And, after digesting the scientific paper with its careful numbers, I lost all my skepticism.
Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops are the reason our monarchs are vanishing before our eyes.
Q. Why such a big effect?
A. Monarchs lay eggs only on milkweeds, and common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is by far their most-used host plant. Get rid of common milkweed, and bam!, there go the monarchs.
Q. But don’t monarchs migrate from Mexico and back again? Why would they need milkweed along the way?
A. The monarchs that arrive in Indiana (or Canada, or anywhere else) aren’t the same individuals that left Mexico in spring.
The adults lay eggs along the way, then die, and some of the new brood takes up the next leg of the journey. Others that hatch stay near that area, eventually filling the country with those beautiful orange wings.
It takes three generations to reach the northern parts of the monarchs’ range.
That means three generations of adults looking for milkweed to lay eggs upon, plus all of those homebodies that didn’t continue northward.
Q. What about during the summer? I see caterpillars on milkweed when the monarchs aren’t migrating.
A. Monarchs continue breeding all the time they spend with us. Each butterfly lives only 2 to 6 weeks, so the adults are continually laying eggs. On milkweed.
"Aren't They Poisonous?"
Monarch butterflies and caterpillars are full of toxic alkaloids, thanks to that milkweed they eat.
Which is why critters don't usually bother with them.
Two birds, though, are immune to the effects of that poison: The black-headed grosbeak (that orange and black guy at LEFT, at our feeder) and the hooded oriole.
Guess where those birds winter?
Right smack dab in the monarch wintering grounds in Mexico, where they feast for months on monarchs.
Not a problem, when there were millions of monarchs. But making a way bigger dent, proportionately, now that the butterflies have dwindled.
Say a Prayer, Monarchs
Predatory insects leave monarchs alone, too... usually.
Meet the Chinese praying mantis, a species we brought to America ourselves.
How? By buying egg cases to protect our gardens from "bad" bugs.
The mantises happily took to life in America, reproducing fast.
Nowadays, they're the most common mantis you'll see just about anywhere east of the Rockies.
And they learned to eat monarch caterpillars—and adult butterflies. They rip open the body, letting the toxic gut fall out, then munch on the rest.
As with the monarch-eating birds, that habit hardly made a blip when monarchs were innumerable.
Nowadays, though, every caterpillar counts.
So what do we do? Kill the mantises? Kill the grosbeaks?
Nope. Change our own habits, is the only answer.
I'm seeing lots of "save the monarchs, plant milkweed" memes on Facebook these days, and the same advice on many gardening websites.
Too little, too late.
Sure, it's a good idea to plant milkweed in our own yards. Get together to plant milkweed in wild places and along every road. And stop mowing along roadsides.
But here's the reality, not the feel-good response:
All those efforts are minuscule—0.01% to 0.1% of land, compared to farming, by some estimates I've seen.
It's Roundup Ready farming that's killing the monarchs. That's what we need to fix.
Monarchs need milkweed dotted across those millions of acres of farm fields to lay their eggs.
And we need farms.
Besides, farmers have a tough row to hoe. No one’s getting rich from farming, and it’s hard work and lots of anxiety.
Roundup Ready crops promised higher yields, and that's the bottom line in agriculture.
So let's figure out how we can get away from Monsanto's promise—the promise that, oops, ended up killing off most of our monarchs IN JUST TEN YEARS—without hurting farmers.
If we stop planting Roundup Ready crops, milkweed seeds will blow in again. And can be planted to hurry that up.
Another possibility? Take five minutes, and phone or email your Congresspeople (click here to find yours). Ask them to make changes to the federal crop set-aside program (CRP), which pays farmers not to farm some land—and plant milkweed in strips through the fields.
I feel for the farmers. But I’ll sure miss the monarchs.
Q. What about the southward migration at the end of summer into early fall?
A. This time, it’s those butterflies that hatched during the summer that make the entire trip. No stops for laying eggs along the way. Butterflies hatched in that last brood in Canada fly the entire way, two thousand miles and change. So do monarchs from everywhere else.
Q. How do they know where to go if they’ve never been there before?
A. That remains one of the wonderful mysteries of Nature.
If you’ve ever used Roundup on dandelions in your yard, you know that, as the label says, “Repeated applications may be necessary.”
Milkweed is a perennial plant that spreads by roots. And those roots go deep.
Before Roundup Ready crops, farmers couldn’t apply weedkillers once their corn or soybeans or other crops were up and growing because the herbicide would kill them, too.
Genetic engineering—shooting genes from a bacterium, a virus, a petunia, and others into the seeds with a “gene gun”—allowed its proprietary plants to ignore the effects of Roundup (glyphosate).
With Roundup Ready crops, farmers could spray their fields over and over throughout the growing season to kill that pesky milkweed that reduced the yield of their crops by as much as 10 to 20%.
It seemed a godsend.
Turns out, it’s the devil in disguise. And monarchs are paying the price.
A female monarch lays only one egg on each milkweed, then flits to another patch to lay an egg, and on and on.
Roadside milkweed—or backyard plantings—can’t take up the slack from millions of acres of farm fields that are now completely bereft of milkweed.
Photo courtesy of Prairie Moon Nursery
Photo courtesy of Rick Mark