Friday, January 27, 2012

Living in a Bird House

A common wintertime sight from my office window.
Relocating to Atlanta, Georgia, I never imagined that I was moving to a place where I would routinely be awakened by birdsongs and calls.  While Atlanta is certainly urban it is also filled with mature trees, especially in old neighborhoods like mine.  My bedroom and office are on the second floor, which brings me closer to the tree canopy and to the birds and their many activities.

In fall and winter, I enjoy the luxury of leaving the door to the sleeping porch open at night.  My ideal sleeping conditions are fresh air, a cool head, and nest of warmth beneath a thick down comforter.  From this pinnacle of coziness, I have woken in the night to sounds of barred owls calling to one another.  Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all?  And then the female’s response ending with an extended, gurgling vibrato you-allllllllll.  There is at least one very active pair in my neighborhood, and I have heard them during evening walks calling to one another as they move from tree to tree.  I’ve even seen them in flight, one following closely behind the other.  Sometimes I don’t even need an open window to hear the owls call, but when I do, I generally stop what I am doing and step outside to listen and maybe catch a glimpse of this affectionate pair.

In the springtime, there is no sleeping in.  One morning I woke up laughing because of the sheer cacophony of bird noises.  Here’s a list of the birds I am pretty sure I heard:
Cardinals: Very insistent, somewhat mechanical and certainly repetitive tik.  They have other songs, but they love this one.
Robins have a rich, fruity voice to my ear.  Very dignified.  But in the mornings they seem moved to a truly hilarious chortle. 
Phoebes position themselves on the peaks of our roof and call out their own names, FEE-bee, FEE-b-be-be.  Just beneath them, under the eaves, are the beams on which they build their nests.  In fact, although it’s winter I can see a mud and stick nest above my office window.  Phoebe’s reuse their nests, and come spring there will be a tail of the nesting mother sticking out from the nest, followed by the rasping noises of the babies when the harried parents approach with that moment’s meal.
Carolina Wrens:  Fussy, territorial and exceptionally LOUD.  That such decibels come out of this tiny bird is truly miraculous.  If you were trapped in a room with a Carolina wren, I imagine you would emerge with a severe headache and measurable hearing loss.  The wren’s songs are ubiquitous in my neighborhood: TEA-KETTLE! TEA-KETTLE! TEA-KETTLE!  And CHO-WE! CHO-WE CHO-WE!  Or, when feeling especially extravagant, the three syllable LIB-ER-TY! LIB-ER-TY! LIB-ER-TY!  Always in all-caps with exclamation points. 
More birds than this were surely involved in that morning’s riot, and I look forward to identifying more of my early-morning songsters this coming spring.
For now, I am enjoying the enormous flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds that visit the neighborhood.  Agelaius phoeniceus is the species' scientific name, Aeglaius being a Greek word meaning "flocking." They swoop in, black as holes torn in the sky, and bring with them their screechy chatter.  Suddenly its as if I live beneath an enormous swing set, making the sound of a thousand rusty swings. Sometimes I can catch a glimpse of a male's red and gold shoulder patch. 
Lots of birds around here flock in the winter, for the safety of a crowd and improved chances of finding food.  Robins do the same thing, and songbirds make up mixed flocks of chickadees, kinglets, nuthatches and titmice.[i]  They forage together and look out for predators, the latter being of no small consideration.  I’ve already mentioned owls, but lots other raptors live in the neighborhood: I have seen sharp shined hawks and red-tailed hawks, often with fresh-caught meals in their talons.  Jays and crows are also dangerous to small birds.  Peregrine falcons are said to nest in downtown Atlanta.  Really, it’s no surprise that the local sports teams are named after birds: the Hawks, the Falcons, and (until last year) the Thrashers are all hometown teams. 
The one birdsong I cannot abide is that of the Mourning Dove.  And lately a dove has been sitting in a tree near the house cooing its mournful oh-woe-woe-woe.  This doleful repetition depresses and enrages me.  I want to throw a boot at the bird and shout, For God’s sake, go away! Or I WILL GIVE YOU SOMETHING TO CRY ABOUT!  And should the day come that I unleash this outburst, the Carolina Wren will have nothing on me.

Kroodsma, Donald.  The Backyard Birdsong Guide (Eastern and Central North America).  Bellevue, Washington: Becker&mayer, 2008.

Parrish, John, et al.  Birds of Georgia. Auburn, Washington: Lone Pine Publishing, 2006.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Death of Big Gulp

Sarracenia leucophylla blooming in the Conservation Gardens at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.
Sometimes as a volunteer at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, you’re given jobs to more or less get you out of the way.  I don’t begrudge this, especially on such a beautiful morning.  The potting benches inside were full, so my sister volunteers and I were assigned to work on the Sarracenia growing behind the greenhouses.  They had accumulated more than their portion of weeds and spent growth. Johnette, Jo Ann and I were on the job!  David Ruland also instructed us to be especially pitiless with pitcherplants showing signs of Exyra moth infestation.      
Jo Ann Bertrand and Johnette Brosewood at work behind the main greenhouses at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.
Pitcherplant Moths    Pitcherplant moths can do what no other insect can:  Walk both down and up the slippery walls inside the pitchers.[i]  Young moth caterpillars feed around the pitcher, girdling it so that it topples over. Older Exyra caterpillars weave a silk roof at the mouth of the pitcher.  Almost all the plants we worked on were white-top pitcherplants (Sarracenia leucophylla), so I believe we were encountering the effects of Exyra semicrocea. We saw doubled-over pitchers and also the drainage holes that the more mature caterpillars make to prevent flooding while they pupate.   Exyra ridingsii are only found in the yellow pitcherplant (Sarracenia flava), and Exyra fax colonizes just purple pitcherplants (Sarracenia purpurea).[ii]
Drainage hole likely made by Exyra catepillar.
Order from Chaos
There is something so satisfying about taking a pot that is full of weeds and spent growth and cleaning in up so that it contains only the desired plant species looking its best.  Here are some of the botanical makeovers we performed.
[If I could figure out how to put these before/after pics side-by-side I would.]
Johnette Brosewood is the most experienced volunteer when it comes to working with pitcherplants.  She shepherds them through every stage of life, and I am learning how to care for pitcherplants by working alongside Johnette and Jo Ann. And we have our work cut out for us with a greenhouse full of Sarracenia.  Sometimes I feel like a member of the paint crew on the Golden Gate Bridge:  Once we’ve dragged our brushes over the entire bridge, we cross and start all over again, only in our cases, repotting, weeding, top-dressing and pruning.
Conservation Greenhouse
Why does ABG have so many Sarracenia?   Pitcherplant habitat is some of the most endangered habit in Georgia (and elsewhere).  Pitcherplants grew throughout the Southeast, but land conversion into agricultural fields and residential and commercial developments, fire suppression, and invasive species have drastically cut their numbers.  In fact, in Georgia, pitcherplant bogs have been eradicated from the Piedmont and nearly eradicated from the Blue Ridge Mountains.[iii]
The Sarracenia in the Conservation Greenhouse are a living gene bank of plants grown from seed collected from pitcherplants in all the remaining mountain bogs.  Should something happen to the plants in the wild we have back up plants.  Meanwhile, ABG and its conservation partners (government agencies, academic and botanical institutions, and landowners) work to restore and maintain their natural habitat. 
The Death of Big Gulp One of the white-top pitcherplants stood out among the rest.  It was considerably larger and whiter than its peers, and the mouth of its pitcher formed a yawning maw.  Many of us had stepped out behind the greenhouse just to marvel at this specimen.  I named it Big Gulp.  At a certain point in our labors I looked for Big Gulp and didn’t see him (if I can give it a name, I can give it a gender).  
Big gulp, before the tragic event.
Alarmed, Johnette fished through the bin where we tossed our cuttings and found the decapitated Big Gulp.  She had seen the drainage hole and simply snipped not realizing she had cut down our mascot.  As a joke, I put a stick into the bottom half of the cut pitcher so that we could stake Big Gulp back on.  And I teased Johnette, calling her Black Thumbs.
Big Gulp had his revenge though.  His oversized-gullet was so full of decaying insect carcasses that once opened, he released a terrific smell. And a mass of red-eyed flesh flies descended on his remains.  
A chagrined Johnette

[i] Folkerts, Debbie.  “EPSN Science Fact: Insect and Pitcherplant Interactions.  Insect Profiles by Dr. Debbie Folkerts, Auburn University.”
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Chafin, Linda G. Field Guide to the Rare Plants of Georgia. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007. P. 444.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Power of the Shrinking Viola

Surely the most lugubrious time of year is the end of the growing season.  In Atlanta, this is when pansies overtake every garden center and nursery.  Row after row of little Victorian faces peer up at me, like too many orphans.  Until recently I made it my policy to stride past them to where the mulch is kept.
But pansies do have qualities to be admired, one of which was demonstrated to me in the latest cold snap.  While other plants blacken and die during a freeze (my long-lived begonias positively melted), pansies only experience a temporary wilt.  At dawn they may look like they’ve succumbed to the cold, but by noon they are once again lifting their faces to the sun.  
9 am after a night of temperatures in the 20s.
 The secret to the pansy’s resilience is that as the temperature drops, water leaves the plant’s cells and occupies the space between (osmosis).  The moisture left in the cells has a higher concentration of sugars and other molecules, raising the freezing point.  What kills plants in a freeze is ice forming in the cells and rupturing the cell wall, whereas ice between the walls is safe.  With little water in its cells, the pansy goes limp but lives to grow another day.
12 pm and perking up nicely.  I'll water later to aid their rehydration.
It’s not surprising that pansies are so hardy considering that they were bred from wild violets, like the ones that pop up in yards every spring. The lawn maintenance freaks may rain down poisonous showers, but those Johnnies jump up year after year. 
The Development of the Pansy
The modern pansy is a member of the viola family and began life as a pretty little weed known as heartsease (Viola tricolor) found in the fields and hedgerows of England.  Two wealthy plant enthusiast and their gardeners are credited for bringing heartsease into cultivation.  Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennet, with the help of gardener William Richard, began collecting and crossing heartsease.  By 1813 she had a wide variety of plants to introduce to the horticultural world.  At about the same time, Lord Gambier and his gardener William Thompson crossed a yellow viola (Viola lutea) and a wide-petalled pale yellow species, probably of Russian origin (Viola altaica).  Soon florists and nurseries began producing hybrids so that by 1833 gardeners could choose from more than 400 named pansies. Thompson made a career of hybridizing pansies and was known in his day as “The Father of Heartsease.”
Hearstease (Viola tricolor)Photo by
Jörg Hempel (2007)
Early pansy breeders were trying for increased sized and a round shape with overlapping petals.  Wild violas like Viola tricolor have dark streaks for nectar guides.  Florists developed the Show Pansy following strict guidelines as to shape, size, and color. The Fancy Pansy amateur gardeners could find easily for sale and required less rigorous tending. That dark blotch at the center of many pansies first appeared as a sport, which was cultivated in Gambier’s garden.  The first pansy with a dark face was released in 1839 with the name of “Medora.”  
The Development Of The Pansy
Flowers (left-top to bottom-right):
Wild 1830, Cultivated 1830
Show Pansy of 1870, Fancy of 1910

“And there is pansies. That's for thoughts.” -- Ophelia
Even before the central dark blotch was a common feature, pansies were thought of as having a face—a pensive one. The name “pansy” is derived from the French word pensée, meaning "thought." For this reason, the pansy was adopted symbol of Freethought, so that members might recognize one another by wearing the flower in their lapels.  And so many nineteenth-century greeting cards feature pansies because they are shorthand for “thinking of you.”

The pansies say, "Thinking of you." The angel implies, "Even after you or I die." 
Love and its Disappointments
Pansies are also associated with love.  Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennet’s collection of heartsease grew in a heart-shaped bed. Another English name for the pansy is “love in idleness,” which suggests the face of a lover whose thoughts have turned to the absent beloved. 

Interestingly, Medora, the name given to the first pansy cultivar with the dark center, is also the name of Byron’s tragic heroine of The Corsair, published with great sensation in 1814.  In the poem, the pirate captain Conrad departs his island hideout to do battle, leaving behind his true love, Medora.  Conrad becomes entangled in saving a harem slave and dithers over murdering his enemy the Pasha.  Gone so long, Medora believes Conrad dead and expires of grief. (Incidentally, Medora is also the middle name of the daughter of Byron’s lover and half sister.)
Long before the Medoras, Ophelia, in her addled state, speaks of pansies: “And there is pansies. That's for thoughts.”  Her own flower she cannot give away, at least not to Hamlet, and the disappointment has unstrung her mind.  Flowers have long been associated with women, with their tenderness and supposed fragility.  Wounded in love they wither and die.  But perhaps the pansies response to cold is the most apt comparison: a temporary wilt.
Pansies are a kind of floral Rorschach.  I used to see their little parti-colored faces as a display of forced gaiety in the face of oncoming winter.  But now I take a few home and plant them in a handful of pots and baskets and am grateful for their cheerful color.