birds and burs (by Becky Carlberg)

hummingbird 103   hummingbird 106 hummingbird 108 hummingbird 109 hummingbird 115 hummingbird 116 hummingbird 1110September 22nd, 2014

Cockleburs and the Carolina Parakeet?

Becky Emerson Carlberg

Photos by Steve Trammell

Do you still have hummingbirds?

Speaking of existence, my hummingbirds are no longer here. The little guys hit the feeders hard the past two weeks in preparation for hummingbird 105their flights to south Texas and Louisiana, Mexico and possibly as far as Central America. They are heading to their winter grounds. Was it the change in daylight or flowers or insects? Might it have been the cold fronts that surged through? What is known is that hummingbirds will gain 25% to 40% of their body weight in preparation for the long trip. The Ruby-throated males leave a few days before the females.

Hummers in migration tend to fly solo, often on the same paths they took coming into Oklahoma in the spring. They maintain flight patterns right above tree level in search of flowers, bugs and other food sources. The kids somehow know to fly south since they are no longer with their mommies and daddies. Hummers can travel up to 25 miles/day.

Now other migrating hummingbirds from further north may pass through, so the feeders are still up. The honey bees are happy with this arrangement.


I can’t end this without a word or two about the burs now strong and robust and ready for dispersal. My neighbor’s yard is a mixture of Bermuda grass and sandburs. The burs tend to migrate across the road, and I have been somewhat lucky in keeping them at bay. Cenchrus incertus (such an appropriate name) also known as Coastal sandbur, Field sandspur, Spiny burrgrass or Southern sandbur, is quite adaptable and totally loves dry, sandy soils. If you Google sandburs, you will be treated to a list of herbicides and horror stories. The IPM recommendation is to keep a healthy dense lawn and that will discourage the sandburs from colonizing the area. Maintain the grass at about 4 inches and water deeply once or twice a week if needed. Annual ryegrass (Lollium multiflorum) can crowd out sandburs.

Keep in mind sandburs are masters of disguise, hiding in the grass until—boom—they strike and spike in late summer. Don’t hold your breath for any of our native birds to eat and thoroughly digest the seeds. There is one bird species that does like to eat sandbur seeds. It is the desert cardinal Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus), a bird found in the American southwest (way western TX and points to the west) and Mexico. Our climate is beginning to resemble that of western Texas, with its extensive periods of heat and drought. It won’t be long before the desert cardinals find their way here. Our sandbur problems will be solved (of course, we will have many more problems to deal with by that point).

If there is nothing else to do, I walk around with a sharp trowel in my hand and dig out any offending rosettes of sand bur plants I now see. The leaves are festively decorated with sand burs at the ends of many interspersed spikes. A single spike may support thousands of burs (alright, more likely up to 20 or so). There’s power in numbers.

Do not let your guard down. Remember the cockleburs (Xanthium strumarium)? Unless you have somehow managed to keep a flock of Carolina parakeets alive (they are now extinct), the cockleburs are now also ready to hook onto fur, clothing, shoes, socks, etc. and take a ride to points unknown….until you get ready for bed or remove your layers. Ouch. Double ouch if you walked through a sandbur patch with cockleburs growing along the edges.

The Carolina Parakeet?

The Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) was a beautiful parrot with yellow head, orangish face and green body. It was native in an area from the Atlantic seaboard as far west as Colorado. They ate cocklebur seeds (toxic) and cats that ate the parakeets died (served them right). The birds lived in flocks of 200 to 300 individuals, but hunting, deforestation and disease destroyed every single bird. The last bird in the wild died in 1910. The one remaining bird in captivity died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918.

Thank you American people. You did it. It can happen to any species. The special issue of the Audubon magazine, Sept-Oct 2014 , Volume 116, Number 5, has a report on 314 bird species on the brink and under threat, including the Golden Eagle.

Whatever the reason, the climate is definitely changing as any gardener or farmer will acknowledge. Give all species a chance for survival. Do what you can to limit your impact on the Earth. She will thank you.

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