Monday, May 29, 2023

Bleeding Heart

As a little girl I was fascinated by a plant that grew in my grandmothers garden, each spring it would be covered in perfect, delicate pink hearts. I could not fathom how such a plant could grow hearts. My grandmother explained to me it was called the Bleeding Heart, and that particular plant came from her own mothers garden, and before that from her grandmothers garden. I could tell this plant was extra special in my grandmother, and her love of what it represented to her was displayed for all to see in those perfect hearts. Nearly thirty years ago, after moving to the farm, my grandmother gifted me a start off of the bleeding heart her family had so lovingly passed from one generation to the next. It is still my absolute favorite plant growing in my gardens. I lost my grandmother a few years ago, but a part of her lives on through those enchanting blooms.

There are several species of bleeding hearts, one variety is native to the United States, but the variety mentioned here is native to China, Korea and Siberia and was later well established in Japan. As early as 1810 this unique plant made its way into Europe, by the then famous Scottish botanist Robert Fortune. It was subsequently lost, until it was brought back in 1846 by the Royal Horticulture Society on exploratory trips East. The unique shape, color and foliage of the plant earned it favor among royalty and commoners alike and was soon planted all over Europe. As more and more people immigrated from Europe and Asia into the newly developing colony states and later the United States, they brought with them many of the plants they so loved in their home countries. Bleeding hearts among them.

The bleeding heart goes by many names, including lyre flower, lady-in-a-bath, and locks & keys. Each name in some way reflects the unique shape of the bloom. They were once included in the same genus as our native Dutchman’s breeches, and it is easy to see why. Both plants have blossoms that grow like pendants hanging in rows under delicate stems. However, scientists now classify them in another family of plants, that includes the poppies. The delicate flower is shaped like our most famous symbol of love, hearts, and varies in color from pink to deep fuchsia. These slightly puffy blooms resemble tiny lanterns with two white inner petals and a stamen peeking out underneath. These inner petals appear to be dripping from the lantern. They have a delicate sweet scent and are showy in any spring garden. They prefer shade to partial shade but will tolerate sun in cooler climates. 

Homeopathic healers recognize the medicinal value of the bleeding heart and often create remedies to treat coughing, dizziness, and skin disorders. May also be used as stimulants or diuretics. However, this plant is considered toxic to humans as well as pets, like dogs and should not be consumed in any way, as it contains isoquinoline alkaloids and may cause trembling, convulsions, diarrhea, and vomiting as well as breathing issues. Even handling the plant should only be done while wearing gloves as the secretions of the plant may cause skin irritations. Leave the home remedies up to the experts.

Several legends surround this spectacular plant, one of which originates in China where it is said a Jade maiden named Si Jun, who was originally a minor deity and considered virtuous as well as beautiful. Si Jun lived in ancient times, in a beautiful valley between the mountains. She was kind, faithful, wise, and had numerous suitors. However, the loyal Si Jun – her name translates as ‘the one thinking of her lord’ – refused all of them. She had her secret love, a beautiful and handsome young man. Her beloved was a soldier, encamped far from her and forbidden to communicate with his love and send her answers in letters. The faithful and patient Si Jun waited for his return. While waiting, she would dedicate herself to embroidery. Once a month, she would embroider a purse she dedicated to her lover. The embroidered purse would hang on the branch of a peony tree by her window. Her embroidery was so beautiful and real, that it tricked bees and butterflies. The bees and butterflies would try to pollinate the artificial motifs on the purse, and it continued for so long that the peony tree gave new, heart-shaped flowers. The gods made it into a new plant, the one Chinese legend refers to as the ’purse peony’. The story of Si Jun inspired a custom of giving this plant as a precious love promise or even a proposal of marriage since the flower has a shape like a bridal purse. The symbolism of the ’purse peony’ in China is similar to that of red roses in European culture. 

Another legend begins in Japan where it is said a noble prince was smitten with a selfish, but beautiful princess. He tried in vain to win her love, he frequently brought her extravagant gifts from his worldly travels. Yet she took no notice of him. Returning from a long journey, bearing with him special gifts, he felt sure would win her heart. First, he gave her two magical pink bunnies (peel off the outer two petals and set them on their side to reveal little bunnies). The princess only sighed, not impressed. The prince did not lose hope and presented her with a beautiful pair of enchanted earrings (remove the two long white petals and hold them to your ear). She happily accepted the gift, but declared she could not love him. Still unable to give up hope he made her a gift of slippers from delicate silk (inner two petals). The princess barely took notice and again declared she could never love him. Defeated and forlorn, the prince had no choice but to give up. He rose up and pulled a dagger from his sheath and stabbed himself in the heart (remaining in the flower is a heart shape with a stamen that appears as a dark green line down the center, hold the heart up and carefully remove the dagger-like line and plunge it though the heart). The princess was overcome by the devotion of the young prince and his unending love for her. She then realized too late that she loved him too. “Alas” she cried out “I have done a wrong, my own heart is broken also, I shall bleed for my prince ever more. Her heart bleeds to this day.
It is said that the bleeding heart plant appeared for the first time at the place where this love smitten man died of a broken heart and self-inflicted wounds.


Try pressing the heart-shaped blossoms between the pages of a book to dry. They will become perfectly shaped paper-thin hearts, any valentine or loved one would cherish in a message of love. The bleeding heart, favored by royalty, steeped in legend both beautiful and tragic is a beautiful addition to any shade garden.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Horse Chestnut

Receiving phone calls or emails from readers with questions or suggestions for topics to write about is one of my favorite aspects of writing. It encourages me to learn new things, and as my grandfather used to say to me “no day is complete unless you have learned something new.” Recently I heard from Don W. in Fillmore, MO. He wanted to know if I was familiar with the Horse-chestnut tree. I told him I was not, and after visiting with him I knew I needed to learn more about this tree. I was able to photograph the tree on his sons property and came to the conclusion it is a beautiful landscape tree.

Horse-chestnuts, also called the Conker tree or buckeye are native to the Balkans, including Greece, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Albania. Because of their beauty they quickly became popular worldwide and can now be found in all reaches of the globe. Typically, they grace parks, and tree-lined avenues, or botanical gardens. They are rarely found in the forests within their homeland. These are large trees that may reach heights up to 130 feet and produce beautiful panicles of white flowers tipped in yellow or pink that bloom in May. These panicles may be four to twelve inches tall and contain up to fifty flowers. From the panicle fruit develops, in the form of a fleshy, bumpy husk, with a warty appearance. 


"When the leaves fall in autumn, a perfect horseshoe shape, complete with seven "nail holes" is visible at the end of each stem."

Within each capsule a nut-like seed develops called a Conker. The common name of horse chestnut comes from the observation that these nuts may cure coughs or panting in horses. Which I find ironic for reasons I will mention later. It is also believed the name comes from their similarity in appearance to the sweet chestnut trees, like the American chestnut, Japanese chestnut, Chinese chestnut, and European chestnut. The Horse chestnut shares the same family of trees as the soapberry and maple trees. Whereas the sweet chestnuts are in the same family of trees as oaks and beech.

These trees are related to the buckeye tree, that we are all familiar with, which produces the attractive nut, said to bring good luck to anyone who carries one on their person. (I remember as a young girl being so excited when a fellow student would bring a handful of buckeyes into school to share. I still love finding or receiving buckeyes.) The nut of the horse chestnut is said to resemble the eyes of a deer; thus, the name buckeye became a colloquial name to describe the tree. 

The infamous American chestnut tree, native to the United States is now considered functionally extinct, meaning that while there are some estimated 430 million stems growing in forests throughout the Eastern United States, none of these stems are growing into the adult tree as they should. They are all less than one inch in diameter. Because they cannot reproduce or produce seeds, they are not contributing to the forest ecosystem in beneficial ways. The American chestnut is highly susceptible to chestnut blight, which creates a canker around the tree effectively girdling and strangling the tree. Older, larger trees will succumb to the blight in two to five years, whereas young, immature trees may die in a single season. Scientist are working on a biologically engineered variety of the American chestnut that is resistant to the blight. The end goal is to repopulate our forests with this iconic tree. American chestnut trees traditionally were prized for their timber and for the benefits to wildlife in the form of a food source in the consumption of the nuts. Even humans enjoy eating chestnuts, after all who hasn’t heard the popular Christmas song “Chestnuts roasting on an Open Fire?” They are not called sweet chestnuts for nothing. These tasty nuts are often baked or roasted after a curing period that turns the starches in the nut to sugars. Chestnuts are higher in vitamin C than most other nuts, lower in fat and contain more starch than a potato, which earned them the nick-name Potato Tree. Horse chestnuts on the other hand are considered toxic and non-edible. So how do we tell the difference between a sweet chestnut and the poisonous horse chestnut? The sweet varieties have a sharp spiny bur covering the nuts, and each nut will have a tassel or point at one end of the nut. Horse chestnuts lack this tassel or point, instead they are flattened in shape.


Horse chestnut seeds are reported to cause tremors and lack of coordination in horses. Remember I said I would explain how ironic it was that people fed the seeds to horses to cure coughing and panting. This might be a case of “the cure being worse than the cause.” The FDA has classified this tree as unsafe for consumption. We may not be able to eat these nuts, but we can benefit from them in other ways.

A suitable, inexpensive laundry soap can be made for those of us looking for less chemically ladened products. Simply peel, then grate or chop conkers and soak in warm water for a couple of hours. For a bar of soap put the conkers in a cheese cloth or piece of muslin then squeeze out the excess moisture before pressing into a mold. Use the soaking water as a laundry liquid. For liquid soap blend around 20 soaked conkers in 6 liters of water. If you wanted you could add some essential oils.The resulting laundry or bath soap is reported to be gentle on your skin and even better its free!

Or perhaps, you could play a game of “conkers” named after the seed. This game is played by drilling a hole in one end of your nut (conker) and threading a string through it. Tie a knot and take turns swinging and striking the conker of your opponent. The first person whose conker breaks loses. This game was first recorded on the Isle of Wright in 1821 and grew in popularity throughout Europe and Ireland. By the 1940’s it was played on the street of New York and quickly became popular throughout the Eastern United States where it is still played in some areas today. The name conker translates to “knock-out” which would explain other variations of the game. Each player stands on one side of a wall and chucks conkers at his opponent trying to make bodily contact. This slightly more aggressive form of the game may have come from the word onomatopoeia. This long, complicated word, comes from the two Greek words onoma, meaning "name" and poiein “to make". So, in a literal sense, onomatopoeia means "to make a sound. Such as the sound of the conker seed striking something hard, like a skull! 

  If you don't mind being called a cheater, try aging your conker into something called a laggis. Conkers are left for a year to harden, and the result is the laggis, This almost always guarantees you will have the advantage needed to usurp your opponent. Want to speed up the hardening process? Soak or boil your conker in vinegar or try baking it in the oven. 


Some people claim the saponins within the seeds, can repel spiders. There does not seem to be any scientific proof this works, but saponins are toxic enough to most likely repel insects in areas where seeds fall and these toxins have permeated the ground. Just not sure how effective it would be to keep spiders at bay.

During WWI conker seeds were collected by many people , including children, and turned over to our government. These seeds were valued for their starch content which through a fermenting process could be used to produce acetone, which was then used to create cordate, that was used in the manufacturing of armaments. The conker seed was selected by the US government as a viable starch source. This choice was made to avoid starvation in an already struggling population, which they felt would happen if they used already low supplies of high starch food sources, such as potatoes. However, this particular nut proved to be a poor alternative to other starch rich foods and was abandoned after three months.That did not stop people from reprising this idea during WWII, when once again seeds were collected, and fermented, and cordite was created, and the whole thing was abandoned in short order. Some lessons are never learned, or perhaps these enterprising individuals thought they could succeed where their predecessors did not.

Fan of beer? Before the time of refrigeration, creative individuals in Bulgaria planted the horse chestnut tree near the cellars used for lagering beer. The trees shaded the cellars, and because of their shallow root system they did not damage the caverns within. Because beer was often served near the cellars, the term beer garden was coined and still used today. Although you probably will be enjoying said garden at the top of a high rise patio rather than an outdoor cellar. 

In Amsterdam a horse chestnut, which grew in the center of town was referred to as the Anne Frank tree. In her diaries she mentioned the tree which gave it historical value to the area. In 2010 the tree was blown down in storms, but from the loss came eleven saplings that made their way to the United States. After a lengthy quarantine period, those saplings were later planted in historically significant places, including the 9/11 memorial park and two holocaust centers, which is very fitting for these historically important trees.


Horse chestnuts may not have the culinary value of sweet chestnuts, but they certainly have a rich history and value all their own. They are beautiful landscape trees, and if you are feeling particularly adventuresome you could try your hand at a game of conkers. 


Monday, May 8, 2023


Trunks aren’t just for elephants, there is a unique insect in Missouri called a scorpionfly that has a schnoz any elephant would envy. This appendage contains the chewing mouthparts at the end of it, but why do they need such an exaggerated beak? Maybe it is a thing of beauty in the world of scorpionflies. These insects are not related to scorpions or flies at all, so their name is a bit of a misnomer, as they are in a family of insects all  their own. I personally think “elephantfly” would have been a more fitting name. Their name comes from the scorpion-like appendage at the tip of the male’s abdomen. Females lack this appendage, so the appendage is an accurate way to tell males from females. They cannot sting with their scorpion-like tail, nor do they bite, in fact they are completely harmless.

Maple callous borer
 Another insect encountered in the same area as the scorpionfly is the maple callous borer. It looks so similar to the scorpionfly, mistaken identity is common. 


There are fifty-five species of scorpionflies throughout the Eastern United States and Canada. Most have black patterned wings that are held back over their body. They have a short fluttery flight that rarely takes them more than a few feet away at a time, However, they are wary of disturbances, making them incredibly difficult to approach. 


The species pictured here is Panorpa nuptialis, they may reach lengths up to one inch or a little more. This particular species is found in South Central United States. They are found from central Missouri southward, and I photographed this one at Truman Lake State Park near the lake on some flowers.

They are omnivores and feed predominantly on insects, which makes them beneficial to humans. They will sometimes feed on pollen or nectar. There has been some indication that they will appear on human carcasses. While this is a deviation from their normal diet, if this option is available to them, they will take advantage of it. These insects may be useful for forensic scientists who investigate murders. As they are only known to appear during the first stages of decomposition. Therefore, the appearance of multiple scorpionflies feeding on a carcass, would indicate the body has not been deceased for very long. Forensic scientists have long used insects to help determine the closest approximate date of death to help investigators in solving crimes.

 Scorpionflies have an interesting mating ritual. 


Males will typically offer females a nuptial gift in the form of a juicy insect morsel. Males also emit a pheromone from their abdomen. Females are often drawn to the male by the powerful chemical cocktail that he produces or perhaps his gift is what entices her. Most human females appreciate a good smelling man bearing gifts, seems these female scorpionflies do as well. The scorpion-like tail of the male is used as a clasper for mating with females. In some instances, the males are living life on the edge in the mating game. If a female is not receptive to his advances, she may well make a meal of him. Hence the offering of an insect gift, keep her occupied with eating the “chocolates” he so lovingly brought her, and lessen his chances of losing his head in the process. Mating will occur as the female feeds on her tasty gift. Males will sometimes pose as females in order to "steal" the potential nuptial gift meant for an intended mate. This gives the male a leg up in the mating game. After all, stealing a gift meant for a potential mate, means the rival male has to work harder to replace his gift. 

Females lay their eggs in cracks or crevices in the soil. The larvae feed on dead soft-bodied insects. They will emerge as adults sometime in the fall and will be found from September through November. Look for them on low shrubs and ground cover in densely vegetated woodlands, often near water; grasslands; cultivated fields and forest borders. The adults are usually seen resting on leaves in shaded areas less than three feet from the ground. Adults may emit an offensive odor if disturbed. I personally have never smelled this obnoxious odor, but then again, I’ve never grabbed one. 

Spring is here, and along with the return of warm weather, will also be the return of all those insects. Many people groan at the thought, but I for one am excited at the new discoveries that await me. The diversity in the insect world is as limitless as your imagination.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

Barred Owl

"Who cooks for you….who cooks for you all?” rings out in the dusky horizon as the barred owl makes his presence known to anyone who is listening. These large owls are the most vocal of all the owls living in North America. At least eight known songs, calls and vocalizations are attributed to this owl, earning it the nickname of Old-eight hooter. Like all animals there are many colloquial names attributed to them depending upon the region in which they are found. In the far north they are referred to as Le Chat-huant Du Nord or the hooting cat of the north. They may also be called the Northern barred owl, striped owl, hoot owl, or my personal favorite the rain owl, because of their love of rainy weather and their tendency to call loudly after a recent rainstorm. Over the past week I have spotted a barred owl leaving a hollow tree directly in front of our house. We have heard this same owl and her mate many nights over the past month calling, often so loudly we are awoken out of deep sleep. I am hopeful that she has chosen this particular tree to nest and we will soon see a new owl family in our backyard. Because of these close encounters with the female each time she flees the tree, I was prompted to write about them this week.

Easily recognized, the barred owl is slightly smaller than the great horned owl, and weighs approximately three pounds, with a wingspan up to thirty nine inches. They are mottled brown or gray and cream with brown vertical bars on the underparts and down the back and horizontal bars on the breast. The wings and tail are barred with white and brown. It is this pattern that earned them the common name of barred owl. They are the only “typical” owl with dark brown eyes, all other typical owls have yellow eyes. The only other owl in Missouri with dark eyes is the barn owl and they are classified in a group all to themselves. Unlike many owls, the barred owl does not have ear tufts. Instead, their head is smooth and rounded, giving them a rather chubby appearance. Ear tufts serve no function in hearing, but instead may be used to give the illusion of a larger silhouette , or in communicating distress, fear or alertness. There is also some who believe the ear tufts break up their shapes in a form of camouflage. Like most owls they are nocturnal but are also known to be active during daylight hours and may be spotted flying or heard calling at any time during the day.

These owls rely heavily on old growth forests

Barred owl eating a rodent
with deciduous hardwood trees, evergreens and in some area’s conifers. Increasingly they have become more synanthropic, adapting well to life near humans. In urban settings where large trees are available these owls have done well and are frequently seen roosting in backyards, and parks. They require hollow trees, broken snags and occasionally the abandoned nests of other animals to create their own nesting site. From one to three eggs will be laid and incubated by the female. The male will keep watch over his family and bring food to the female that she will feed to their offspring. Both parents play an active role in rearing their young. Like many bird species the parents can be particularly territorial and protective of their offspring and will vocalize their displeasure at your presence, or even attack when sufficiently provoked. One such barred owl lived in Salem, OR. This owl frequently attacked joggers at a local park when they would jog near the nest site. The attacks often left talon marks or gashes in people’s heads. This earned the owl a nickname of Owlcapone. Best to give nesting birds their space…especially birds large enough to hurt us. At approximately six weeks the young will begin taking short flights from the nest to nearby branches where they will call incessantly begging for food from the parents in an activity called branching. The parents are kept busy playing hunt and seek as they locate each begging baby to feed it. At ten to twelve weeks of age the owlets will graduate to fledglings and begin flying and are capable of hunting and caring for themselves. They usually stay close to their siblings for many months before finally finding mates for themselves and raising their own families.

Barred owls are found throughout most of North America, with three subspecies. The Northern barred owl is located in the Eastern United States, and the pacific Northwest, the Texas barred owl, is found in Texas and the Florida, or Southern barred owl is found the Southern United States. Historically the barred owl was absent from the Pacific Northwest, but with the expansion of forests throughout the Great Plains along the Missouri River and its tributaries it has allowed the barred owl to expand its range. Finding sufficient foraging habitat, protection from weather and concealment from predators gave them all the advantages they need to head westward into new territories. The increase in forested areas is due to the suppression of wildfires by the European-American settlers and the ceasing of controlled fires traditionally set by Native Americans, plus an increase in the planting of trees. The barred owl’s expansion into Oregon and Washington has created a direct threat to the threatened spotted owl. Barred owls are larger, more gregarious by comparison and compete for food, nesting locations and territories. The smaller spotted owl cannot compete with this new interloper. Many biologists are beginning to recommend culling the barred owl to allow for the spotted owl population to rebound. Another threat facing the spotted owl due to the barred owl is their ability to hybridize. Both owls are closely related and can crossbreed, thus creating a whole new set of issues for the spotted owl population.

The diet of the barred owl is highly variable with rodents such as voles and mice making up the majority of what it eats. They may also eat reptiles, amphibians, insects, birds, and even fish. Many fishermen have reported seeing barred owls roosting and hunting from docks. At least five species of fish have been found in dissected owl pellets including bullhead and bass. They will wade into the shallows of a stream, creek, small river or lake and capture fish and even crayfish. The crayfish eating barred owls often have pink-tinged feathers under their wings. This is caused by the keratin in the crayfishes exoskeleton, much like the flamingo turns pink because of the shrimp it consumes.

We are all familiar with the story of Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad, but what many may not know is she was an avid naturalist and had a deep connection to the natural world. She was known to have used the call of the barred owl to communicate to individuals seeking freedom on the railroad when it was safe to come out of hiding. 

 Several years ago I received a call from a lady I know who said she had an owl stuck in her chimney. It had been there for many hours and did not seem to know how to climb back out and sitting just above the damper clinging to the bricks. At the time I was working at the Conservation Department as a naturalist and after checking with the agents they said it was fine for me to go try and help. I showed up with my daughter to help me and we set to work to try and free this very scared owl from his current predicament. After opening the damper and looking up into the shaft I could see the owl holding on for what appeared dear life. When he spotted a face looking up at him, he was even less encouraged to come down. We debated as to the best way to proceed and finally it was decided to use a telescoping rod to dislodge his feet and hopefully get him to drop onto the soft pads we had put down in the bottom of the fireplace. After several attempts we were successful and he landed with an undignified plop. Free of the chimney we now had to get him out of the house without causing injury to him or destruction to the house. Suddenly he came to his senses and took off flying right for my friends head and she hit the floor with a scream. It was total chaos for several minutes before he spotted the light coming in through the front door. He flew to the door, but was hesitant to fly outside. After some gentle coaxing he finally realized he was free to fly and with those large wings he lifted off and flew out the front door as if he always did these sort of things. Parked in front of the house were two men working on their car. The look on their faces as they witnessed this large raptor fly out of my friends house was priceless. It was an unforgettable experience to say the least. 

Babies have been fledgings in recent weeks to start their own lives in new territories and the song of the barred owl will continue to ring out “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?”

Sunday, April 23, 2023

Dickcissel---the poster bird of the prairie

Several years ago, I was invited to attend a bioblitz in southern Missouri on one of the few prairies remaining in our state. For those that do not know what a bio blitz is; it is an annual event usually hosted by environmental-minded groups to inventory the plant and animal life found on a prairie or other natural area. For this particular blitz I was there as the “expert” entomologist. I am far from an expert, but I am not one to turn down an opportunity to hang out with a group of like-minded people with something to teach me. The prairie is a wonderous place with so much diversity in plant, bird, and insect life. One of first things I began to notice were these beautiful birds perched on fence posts in various spots around the prairie. They resembled meadowlarks but were much smaller. They were too colorful and big to be sparrows and since I had never seen one before I wasn’t sure what they were. Soon I had an ID from one of the bird experts in attendance.

This beautiful little bird was a Dickcissel, originally, they were referred to as black throated buntings. Scientists have had an exceedingly difficult time classifying these birds and they have undergone several classifications over the years before finally landing in their current group classification of Cardenolide. Males are very colorful and somewhat resemble meadowlarks with their black collar and yellow breast. Females on the other hand are muted in coloration by comparison and look more like sparrows. Both sexes have a yellow line above their eye, a rusty patch on their wings and a light-colored conical bill that very much resembles the bill on a cardinal. Which is one of the reasons they are currently classified in the same family group as cardinals. Although as more information is learned about them, this could likely change. The dickcissel gets its name from the call they make while in flight. It can vary some in the syllables as well as the intensity, but it usually goes something like this “dick-dick-dickcissel-cissel.” This unmistakable call helps ornithologist identify them during nighttime migration events and allows for monitoring of population densities.


They are a common sight throughout the Midwest during the late spring and summer months. These birds migrate back into the United States late in May or early June, which is much later than most birds returning to their breeding grounds. Dickcissels nest near the ground and typically build their nests in grassy meadows, prairies, or other tall grass areas. Males may have as many as six mates, although two or three is typical. Males will vigorously guard their territory from rival males. While the males are busy puffing out their chest and chasing off the competition, the females are looking for suitable sites to build their nest and lay their eggs. Once the eggs hatch the female will rear them to full fledglings on her own. After the young leave the nest, they go their separate ways. Unlike many bird species that mate for life, the dickcissel is a polygamist and will have multiple mates and a whole new set of mates the following year. Young bachelor males often do not get the chance to mate, but they will have the opportunity next season.

In their winter range they may be a pest to grain farmers because of their habit of forming large flocks and feeding on the grain seeds. Early in fall these birds begin forming loose flocks that gradually grow in number by mid to late fall. It is common for a flock heading south to contain millions of birds. It is this tendency to congregate in such large flocks that causes so much trouble for grain farmers in their overwintering sites. They head south to Southern Mexico, Central America and Northern South America where Venezuela is especially plagued with these birds and have traditionally used poisons and other methods of ridding themselves of these birds. Fortunately, various bird groups and other environmental groups have done an excellent job of educating farmers in these areas on other methods to scare of a hungry flock of these birds. In the Midwest breeding grounds, dickcissels face several additional threats: cowbird parasitism, the destruction of nests and nestlings by mowing machines, and loss of habitat due to changing agricultural practices and succession. Additionally, the use of pesticides kills off the insect population they depend on while rearing young. With the increase in wind turbines, we are also seeing an increase in deaths during migration events when birds fly too close to the spinning blades. The wintering population of these birds can become highly concentrated at certain favored roosting sites. A single "successful" poisoning event of a large flock of roosting birds could significantly reduce the world population of dickcissel. Currently the estimated population is at twenty-seven million, which sounds like a lot of dickcissels, but we all known how quickly that can change…. just think about the Carolina parakeet or the passenger pigeon that historically numbered in the millions and are now extinct.

Formerly common in farming regions of the eastern states, especially on the Atlantic coastal plain, the dickcissel disappeared from that region by the middle of the last century and is now most numerous in the Midwest. It appears in small numbers on the East Coast during the fall migration and on occasion will visit winter feeding stations, often with house sparrows. 

Since my initial introduction to the dickcissel on the prairie that weekend in southern Missouri, I have become more cognizant of the species around me and frequently notice the dickcissel on our farm. They are always a welcome sight in the summer as they sit on the fence posts singing “dick-dick-dickcissel-cissel.”

Monday, April 17, 2023

NoMO Trash April

Very few things will get an outdoor enthusiast as angry as being faced with someone’s litter, or trash if you will. We have all experienced it, walking our favorite trails, visiting our favorite parks or other natural areas, and coming face-to-face with garbage. This can be anything from soda cans and beer bottles to dirty diapers and old tires. It makes no difference what the trash is, the results are the same, unsightly litter that harms the environment and the animals that live there. It has now become the responsibility of conscientious, civic minded individuals to clean up after those who won’t clean up after themselves. Countless tons of trash are picked up each year in Missouri alone, by organizations that recognize the importance of removing this potentially harmful litter before it causes untold amounts of damage to our soil, water, and wildlife.

This is frustrating to say the least, after all why should we have to be the ones to pick up after those irresponsible individuals who made the mess? We do it because we know it is the right thing to do. Working as a naturalist gives me the opportunity to educate the youth of our state about the importance of cleaning up after ourselves. The Missouri Conservation Department designates April as NoMO Trash Month and launches a campaign each year to educate Missourians about the cause-and-effect issues of litter. We encourage the philosophy “If you pack it in, pack it out!” Don’t rely on other people to pick up after you.

I came face-to-face with one such cause and effect of littering. One evening several years ago, I was out walking around the backyard when I heard my daughter yelling. I could only make out “Mom, hurry, SNAKE!” I ran to see what the commotion was about and discovered a Western (black) rat snake near the backdoor. It was about two feet long and had most likely just come out of hibernation. This in and of itself is not unusual, we see a lot of black snakes in our yard. However, this was the first time I’ve encountered one with a plastic band around its midsection. I soon realized this snake was in trouble and would not survive another season with this bracelet of trash around its middle. It would not be able to eat properly and who knows what other internal damage the snake would end up suffering. I quickly grabbed the snake before it could disappear and earned a bite for my trouble. How could I blame the snake? It had just woken up from 5 months of winter and was most likely hungry, it had a restrictive band around it that probably made mobility uncomfortable and was now being snatched up off the ground by a giant potential predator. I’d bite me too!

I found my husband and showed him the snake and asked him to help me help the snake. We debated for a few minutes on the best way to proceed, and ultimately decided that sawing the plastic ring off was the safest and best way to remove it. I held the snake, under strict instructions from my husband to not let the snake bite him! This was no easy feat, I had to maintain a firm grip on the snake without squeezing too hard, I had to hold onto the piece of plastic to keep it from moving so that my husband could saw it, and I had to make sure the snake was not coming into contact with the saw blade…..I only have two hands! After 20 or 30 minutes we finally had the band sawed but we could not get it off the snake! The snake was still too fat to slide it off and I was about ready to cry. All that work in vain? Then my husband got an idea, he retrieved a handy-dandy tool that spread the plastic apart. He held the plastic open, so I could “feed” the snake through it and finally free it. I looked at the snakes wounds and fortunately they did not look severe. There was no blood, and nothing was festering. This snake was lucky and will recover from his experience. I released him to a safe place in the yard to regain his strength and to hide and lick his wounds so to speak.

Many would say….”so what, that is just one snake, and I don’t like them anyway!” No animal deserves to suffer a slow agonizing death that was preventable in the first place. This piece of plastic originated in the crawl space under our master bathroom. We hired a plumber several years ago to do some work in the bathroom; he had to cut various pieces of PVC pipe and left behind his litter. If this person had taken a few minutes and picked up after himself this snake would have never ended up in such a predicament.

UPDATE: I saw this particular snake several years later in my front yard, and he was doing well, although he was still showing the scars from his experience.

I for one appreciate the snakes that live in my yard and on the eighty-six acres we own. They provide rodent control, and I can honestly say they do a superb job of it to. I have not found a sign of a mouse in our house in many years!

Would left behind by the PVC
Many animals are not so lucky and never get rescued from the litter they find themselves entrapped in. They suffocate, strangle, and die slow agonizing deaths. The Conservation Department has a turtle by the name of Peanut. Peanut is a red ear slider that found itself stuck in the plastic rings that soda pop is carried in. He could not remove the plastic himself and the plastic did not dissolve. Year after year Peanut carried his plastic ring everywhere he went. He grew, but the plastic ring did not expand with his growth, consequently he became malformed. He was eventually found by some fishermen who took him to a veterinarian. They were able to remove the plastic ring and after x-rays determined he was one lucky turtle and suffered no internal injuries. He will forever be misshapen and resemble the peanut after which he is named. Peanut is an ambassador for the “no more littering campaign” and travels the state sharing his story with the public. If you want a chance to see Peanut in person, he makes a guest appearance each year to the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia. A quick search on the internet will reveal many such stories about animals suffering unnecessarily due to the litter left behind by irresponsible humans. 

 With the return of spring and outdoor activities we will all be spending more time outside, remember to pack it out, if you pack it in, it only takes a few minutes to do the right thing……. all the wild animals will thank you.

Monday, April 10, 2023

Witches Fingers

One of the most unique, if not downright unusual fungi to be found in our backyard gardens is one called the dog stinkhorn, or witches fingers. These oddities in the fungi world are related to the puff ball mushrooms, but have a feature that puff balls lack. They stink! The common name of stinkhorn is not by accident, when scientists first encountered them I am sure the conversations were straight up as strange as the mushroom itself. The scientific name is mutinus caninus, which literally translates to "dog-like penis.".  This phallic-shaped mushroom reminded early mushroom fans of certain body parts of their canine friends and thus earned the mushroom a moniker that is as off putting as the smell associated with it.

These mushrooms start life buried in loose soil, mulch and other loose organic matter as an egg-shaped bulb. During rainy, cooler seasons, like autumn and late spring the “egg” will crack open and the stem of the stinkhorn will emerge and grow at a rapid pace. It is reported to grow six inches in less than six hours!  The orange-pink mushroom has a slime called gleba covering the top portion of the stalk.

This is the goo that produces the smell associated with the stinkhorn. It is said to smell like a cat litter box to some, and to others like rotting meat, only stronger in its intensity. Because of this odor gardeners around the globe are on a mission to eradicate it from their beautiful flower beds. After all we cannot have anything that smells like cat feces interfering with the delightful smell of our roses. It is an absolute assault to the olfactory system. How did the stinkhorn find its way into the gardens of amateur and professional horticulturists, botanists and other gardening aficionados? By way of the mulch and soil they use of course. The spores of this fungus live in mulch and soil and when those substances are purchased and placed in our gardens and yards, we transport the spores and viola, we have a smorgasbord of stinky fungi seemingly overnight.

Not all is bad however, these mushrooms are very competent at breaking down organic matter and making your soil richer and healthier. With a more nutrient rich soil, your flowers and other plants will benefit. The stinkhorn itself cannot harm you or your plants. However, the hot boiling water and bleach solution many use to rid themselves of this uninvited, stinky garden intruder may. The gleba covering the tip of the horn, because of its very stinky compounds, attracts flies, ants and other insects who find themselves slogging around in a gooey substance that would be much like us mucking around in thick mud. They take spores of the stinkhorn with them when they finally divest themselves from what they assumed would be tasty meal. Each time the fly or ant stops in a new location, spores are left behind, just like bees transporting pollen. Thus allowing the stinkhorn to conquer gardens one mulchy path at a time. Once the rain washes the stinky goo from the stalk of the mushroom, creatures like carrion beetles, burying beetles and even snails or slugs may find them a tasty addition to their diet. It is not uncommon to find stinkhorns with holes eaten from them hinting at a dinner time visit from one of our other garden visitors. The one above was feasted on by an American carrion beetle ( he is visible on the side of the stalk).

There are twenty-two species of stinkhorns within this family of mushrooms. Each one has a unique and interesting shape, and most have some sort of stinky attractant to get insects to aid them in spreading their spores to new areas. It is reported they are edible, but how a person could get past the smell and convince themselves to try it is beyond me to understand. The edibility is debatable among mycologists and depending upon who you ask you may be told DO NOT eat or go ahead, they are delicious. I guess it is up to each person to decide. In Ireland and England their popularity is much more readily accepted, and some chefs equate their taste and texture to a radish that tastes like a water chestnut. It is the egg-like structure, in its earliest stages that is edible, once it is a fruiting body above the ground it is best to avoid it entirely. These witches eggs, as they are sometimes called should be peeled and cooked well before consuming. As with all mushrooms always make sure you have a correct identification, if in doubt DO NOT EAT!  The early egg stage of this mushroom is similar in appearance and texture to the early stage of another mushroom we absolutely want to avoid and that is the deaths cap mushroom. Supposedly the stinkhorn egg will have a gooey green center…sounds appetizing, doesn’t it?

As you work in your gardens this spring, sprucing them up with fresh mulch and soil keep an eye open for the witches eggs. You can remove them and with any luck you will succeed in keeping these stinky little fungi from sprouting their witches fingers. Or if you are like me, let them stay and watch as nature does its thing, and your soil becomes richer for it. 


Monday, April 3, 2023

Red Milk Snake

Red touches black, friend to Jack; red touches yellow you're a dead fellow! How many of us have heard this little rhyme or one similar to it to help us distinguish the harmless milk snake from the potentially dangerous coral snake? I think most of us have. It reminds us that animals often use mimicry to help them survive in their day-to-day lives. Mimicry is used by many animals to avoid predation. The viceroy mimics the monarch, which contains a toxic poison gleaned from milkweed plants they feed on as caterpillars. Potential predators know this and avoid anything colored like a monarch. The viceroy through adaptation has cashed in on this by adopting the same coloring and markings. So much so they often fool humans into a wrong identification.


Milk snakes are just one example in a long line of mimics that have benefited from looking like their potentially dangerous counterparts. The premise is "if you look dangerous, you must BE dangerous." However, the reality is this may not always work in nature, just like with the monarch and the viceroy, milk snakes are often subjected to mistaken identity. There are many instances of milk snakes being born with aberrant (odd) markings, colorations, or patterns that do not follow what we consider the norm. For example, there are milk snakes that exhibit all black coloration with yellow striping or marks. Or some that have a red and black checkered-like pattern with orange markings on their head. One thing that is apparent-----Mother Nature does not always follow the rules. There are actually more harmless species in the United States that fit the “kill a fellow” part of the rhyme than there are coral snakes that the rhyme is designed for. Did you know there are four species of non-venomous snakes in the United States that feature coloration like the coral snakes, even going so far as to have the red touching yellow? So how is a person to know what snake they are looking at? The best thing to do is research.
Learn to identify snakes by other key characteristics, and not rely solely on color and pattern. While it is true that this rhyme started somewhere and probably has at least some basis in fact, and in most cases may guide you to a correct assumption in your ability to identify the snake you are faced with. In Missouri red milk snakes are the typical red, black and white, although some may be muddy looking and be more grayish in color than white and the red may be shades of orange-red, copper, or a dull red. Some are vibrant fire engine red and stark white with black stripes. So even among Missouri’s population there is high variability in the coloration. However, the pattern is nearly always the same with red, touching black.


Red milk snakes are related to the family of snakes that include king snakes, and like king snakes are fond of a serpent diet. They frequently feed on other snakes, including venomous snakes. Anytime I have ever encountered red milk snakes it has been in the same habitat as copperheads or rattlesnakes. This may elude to their preference for or certainly their ability to eat vipers. Their diet will also consist of small lizards, and various rodents. Reaching lengths of approximately three to four feet they are medium-sized snakes with a somewhat docile nature. They will bite or musk to defend themselves like any snake may, but they are not as feisty about confrontation as other snake species can be, say for instance a water snake!

Perhaps no other snake in our country has as much myth surrounding it as the milk snake. When Europeans were settling into their new home in a new country and were faced with the milk snake, it reminded them of the dangerous species they were familiar with in their home country. Adders are a European snake that somewhat resembles a milk snake, enough so that these early settlers often referred to the harmless milk snake as the checkered adder or spotted adder. Consequently, many milk snakes were needlessly killed from a gross lack of understanding about the strange fauna of this unfamiliar territory they were living in. This mistaken identity and misinformation persists today in much of the milk snakes range and they are still persecuted. It seems old habits and wives tales do not disappear overnight. On top of that, many who recognize the milk snake have been informed at some point in their lives that they got their name from their habit of stealing milk straight from the udders of livestock in the barns they frequent. While this sounds ridiculous to our ears today, in those days people were often more naïve and knowledge was not at their fingertips as it is today. We can laugh at this seemingly ignorant belief, but to those early settlers having spotted a snake slithering out of their milk barn---- that snake could have only been there for one reason----to help itself to a tasty milk treat straight from the source. Not once giving thought to the amount of rodents also attracted to that barn and the feed within. Little did they realize that snake was removing potentially dangerous and damaging vermin.

Thankfully, there is a shift taking place in our country and people are beginning to understand the importance snakes play in a healthy ecosystem. While it is true that snakes generate fear in people and many are still needlessly killed, fortunately this is not as prevalent as it once was. Younger generations are adopting more positive attitudes about snakes and are playing an active role in educating older generations about the importance of snakes. Even those who loath or fear snakes often admit they understand that snakes play an important role in rodent control and balancing the environments where they live. Next time you reach for the hoe to eradicate your yard of an unwelcome slithery visitor, consider taking a step back and appreciate the role this guest is playing in keeping rodents away from your home.