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Nature’s Velcro

by Beth Fetterley

This spring the multitude of golden- and ruby-crowned kinglets flitting through trees along the Milwaukee River reminds me of a lesson learned while teaching a group of Franklin Pierce Elementary students more than three years ago. Kinglets are some of the smallest birds in the park, and the tale that follows is one that serves as a reminder of an unusual danger triggered by a common, aggressive, non-native plant. “I have a bird caught in Burdock,” blared my radio. I arrived to find a male golden-crowned kinglet completely tangled in a clump of burrs. One wing, one leg and the tail were all locked in awkward angles by hundreds of barbs attached to any feather that came in contact with the seeds. It had been a very cold night and the kinglet appeared sluggish. Its feathers were so tightly tangled that two adults with nimble fingers could not pull them free. Quickly we explained to the students that the bird would need to be warmed up and the burrs would have to be cut loose. The students sent the bird off with get-well wishes. Common Burdock (Arctium minus) is a European species that has become a common weed in the United States. The plant has been successful because it can out-compete native species for resources. As one firm tug on the stalk demonstrates, burdock has a strong taproot. It has huge leaves that block the sunlight other native plants need in order to grow. As students know, the “sticky-bugs” are seeds that are very well adapted for dispersal. Students experimented to find that the seeds stick to just about anything, including bare skin! Burdock is a foe for anyone who is trying to restore native vegetation. As students discovered that fall, burdock is also a foe to small birds. Golden-crowned kinglets are approximately four inches long. They have striking yellow stripes running across the middle of their heads. The yellow crown on a male kinglet has a bright orange center, highlighting its head like a small flame. It is easiest to see these small beautiful birds when leaves are off the trees in early spring and late autumn. They also like to spend winter mingling with flocks of chickadees, brown creepers and woodpeckers. The kinglet was freed from the burdock seeds inside the Center. Once the burrs were cut into smaller pieces, they were easily pulled out of the feathers. With the wings, tail, and leg free, and after spending about half an hour in a warm building, the kinglet became active. By the time the students returned to the vans, the kinglet was safely flying from branch to branch in a nearby tree. The students, who were studying maps that day, were able to find the spot on the park map where they found the kinglet. More importantly, we all connected with the bird, showed care and responsibility for the life of another creature, and ended the day with a feeling of accomplishment.
by Beth Fetterley