Don’t be a “weedist”…
What a beautiful spring we have had….not too hot….and abundant precipitation, possibly a little too much but can’t complain about that after not-too-distant drought years. The abundant moisture has led to good growth of grasses, weeds and wildflowers already and promises of more vegetation growth to come. There was a word in my last sentence that may have made some of you go “ugh…no kidding” – weeds.
So, what is a weed?
Technically speaking a “weed” is any plant growing in a place where it should not be growing, or “isn’t welcome” to grow. To a homeowner taking care of a lawn, weeds include dandelions, sandburs, crab grass and other plants that aren’t welcome. To a farmer or gardener, a weed is any plant that you did not plant growing where you did not plant it. In my own job weeds include non-welcome invasive grasses and trees growing in grasslands or wetlands, invasive trees growing in the understory of woodlands and any noxious weed that grows where we work that results in need for control that impacts the other plants that we WANT to grow there. Notice that my “weeds” did not include sunflower, ragweed, Russian thistle, foxtail, giant ragweed, pigweed or any other plants that are typically called “weeds”. My challenge for each of you is to not be a “weedist” this summer.
Weeds and Seeds
Broad-leafed plants are incredibly important to many species of wildlife. Those that produce flowers with nectar and pollen are incredibly important to pollinators like bees, moths, butterflies and other insects. Those that produce seeds are important for pheasants, bobwhites, prairie grouse, doves and many, many non-game species of birds and mammals as a fall through spring food source. And nearly all of them produce “bugs” – and insects are the primary food for young game birds (up to 95% or more of their diet while growing) and countless wildlife species including birds from warblers to our smaller raptors, most of our reptiles and amphibians, and even many of our mammals as well.
As an example, and something you can watch for yourself, Dickcissels have a very obvious response to the presence of broad-leafed plants including many of those we call weeds. In a dry year, with few “weeds” growing in our grasslands in the western parts of the state, we have very few Dickcissels around, and they are typically found only in or near alfalfa fields. In wetter years, with abundant “weeds”, Dickcissels are common to abundant in our grasslands and even just along our roadsides. Good Dickcissel years correspond nicely to good gamebird production years, so high numbers of Dickcissels on your land probably mean that you will be producing good numbers of gamebirds this summer.
Weeds and Monarchs
Back to pollinators – did you know (or notice) that monarch butterfly populations have declined by 80% or more in just the last 20 years? That still leaves an estimated 56 million of them, but is a disturbing trend. If something so abundant is declining so rapidly – something is going on. One thing is apparently use of a certain type of pesticides known as “neonictinoids”. But also contributing is a loss of the host plants for this species which are milkweeds (of which we have a few species in the Chicken Dance Trail area). Allowing milkweeds to grow in places where they won’t hurt anything will help monarch butterflies.
And if you like to see birds around in winter (fall to spring), a good weed patch (sunflowers for example) will attract lots of different kinds of sparrows and finches, and will also provide food and “winter cover” for pheasants and quail. We had a small (10 feet by 5 feet) portion of our garden that we did not plant one year and I let it grow to weeds – I was amazed how many sparrows and finches used that little patch of weeds that winter, now if I could just convince my wife to not be a weedist I could have that happen again….
Get outside (with insect repellant – a good wet spring also means lots of mosquitoes and ticks) and enjoy the beauty of a wet spring. Go for a drive through a grassland looking for monarchs, Dickcissels and other wildlife. Notice all of the different kinds of wildflowers in bloom and all the different kinds of insects feeding upon them. Enjoy it while you can – surely another drought year is ahead of us some time soon. No matter where you go or whether you drive or hike, enjoying the beauty of the green grass, wildflowers, trees and weeds will be time well spent.
T. J. Walker
Nebraska Game and Parks Commission