Fried-earth policy is zapping plants, mosquitoes, butterflies and birds

07/16/2011 12:00 AM

07/19/2011 2:32 PM

I got caught in the rainstorm Tuesday evening while at the new Downing Children's Garden at Botanica. I dashed for shelters from barn to cave to treehouse to enchanted glen, shrugging off the raindrops, giddy as a kid.

As I frolicked, Wichita to the east of Botanica reveled in an inch or two of rain. But to the west, only a few drops fell. It points to the importance of having a rain gauge, so you know what fell at home while you were gone, or asleep.

Apart from the partial respite some of us enjoyed this week, the summer's heat and the lack of rainfall have been a plague on people and plants and also insects and birds in the Wichita area.

Plants

"Going from the coldest winter temperature in 29 years to the hottest day in 30 years — that's just not good to have in the same year," extension agent Bob Neier pointed out this week. "It makes people not happy, and plants — you lose some."

Plants that weren't cold hardy enough got hit when the temperature plummeted to 17 below in February. Then the high hit 111 last Sunday, the hottest high for any day since 1980.

Half of Wichita's Blue Atlas cedars, for just one example, died in the cold, Bob said. And after the past week's extreme heat, expect to see damage to blue spruces for the next couple of years, he said. "Just compare (the heat) to the Colorado weather" where the spruces are native, he said.

Bugs

There is a good side. Have you noticed that you haven't been bitten up by mosquitoes this summer?

"Normally by this time of year we can't picnic because they chase us out. That's the upside to the drought," said Jim Mason, naturalist for the city of Wichita.

But then there's another bad side. The thing that leads to fewer mosquitoes does the same to butterflies.

"It's the hot dry weather," Jim said. "The lack of pools of water means no skeeters. The lack of ground moisture is hard on the native plants, and that's what's holding back the butterfly caterpillars that depend on the robust growth to feed. The drought and the heat — the bugs are suffering from it just like we are."

Birds

And, by extension, insect-eating birds such as purple martins and barn swallows are going hungry, Jim said. And seed- and berry-eating birds are finding fewer pickings on plants, Nick Clausen of the Backyard Nature Center store said.

Nick said he'd gotten a dozen calls from customers concerned about purple martin youngsters falling out of their houses. What's happening, Nick said, is that the babies haven't received enough food to be strong enough to fly. But it's time for them to fledge, so their parents have left them alone. The babies then take off looking for food but end up falling instead of flying.

In that case, Nick said, it's almost impossible for concerned people get their mouths open to feed them, and impossible anyway to get the baby birds to eat enough to survive. The only hope is if a person can get them back onto the house and if the parents are still in the process of feeding them.

"Nature can be very cruel at times," Nick said.

You can help the overall bird population, though, by feeding the birds. Bird activity at feeders has been heavier than normal this summer, Nick said.

"I've had more goldfinch activity than I've ever had, and I think it's the result of the drought causing plants to produce less than they normally would."

It's also essential to provide water for the birds, whether in official birdbaths or plant saucers or other shallow dishes. And one of the best bird magnets, Nick said: Run a sprinkler on gentle spray along the edge of shrubs. They love to chill in the cool shade.

Butterflies

I remembered this spring — too late — that I'd vowed last year to plant flowers for the butterflies and bees this year. As usual I went for the newest-prettiest, which is good — until a bee turns up his nose and flits away.

The number of butterflies is down across the board except for regal fritillaries, which have been spotted in abundance in some unburned parts of the Flint Hills and at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge near McPherson, Jim said.

Numbers of monarchs are down, too, "especially in this part of the world, because of the preponderance of Roundup Ready crops that lost millions of acres of what used to be monarch habitat," Jim said.

Roundup Ready crops refer to genetically modified plants that aren't harmed by the herbicide Roundup. Farmers can spray the crops for weeds without hurting the food, but milkweed is one of the casualties. The New York Times reported this week, in a story about monarchs, that according to the Department of Agriculture 94 percent of the soybeans and 72 percent of the corn being grown in the United States this year are herbicide-tolerant.

There has been a decline in the number of monarchs showing up in Mexico over the past 15 years, he said, "and they're probably not going to come back." In Mexico, the butterflies have been hurt by illegal logging and exposure to extreme cold, he said.

Back here at home, "if people keep gardens well watered where there's plenty of nectar flowers for them, that will help" butterflies, Jim said. The next step in building up butterflies is to add plants that serve as host plants, he said.

"And to the extent people can garden without chemicals, that's going to be a help."

About Annie Calovich

Annie writes about home and garden, including her Bit of Earth column on Saturdays. She has been at The Eagle since 1985, working as a copy editor, a nation/world editor and a reporter. She’s a KU graduate who started out at The Coffeyville Journal.

Contact Annie at 316-268-6596 or acalovich@wichitaeagle.com

Follow Annie on Twitter: @AnnieCalovich

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