Q: While walking in the woods, I notice different ferns and cannot help wondering how many different kinds there are in Berkshire County alone.
— J.R.J., Pittsfield
A: There are a lot more than either of us knows. I was once able to identify around two dozen with certainty and maybe a half-dozen more with a confused look on my face. Today, I am happy to still be on a first-name basis with a dozen or so. My heyday was as a teenager, when I spent time with S. Waldo Bailey, botanical warden at Bartholomew's Cobble in Sheffield. There, he attempted to teach me the 43 ferns, one of which was so rare that when he finally trusted me enough, he showed the Scott's spleenwort, with the only one example on the Cobble that he could find.
The answer to J.R.J., there are (about) 66 different ferns in Berkshire County, according to "Flora of Berkshire County Massachusetts" by Pamela B. Weatherbee (a local lifesaver whenever I am stumped with a botanical identification)
Q: Why is milkweed necessary to monarch butterflies? I have a flower garden each summer and see them regularly flying about and landing to eat from different flowers there, and I don’t have a single milkweed!.
— Loraine, Stockbridge
A: Milkweed for Monarchs: In essence, they cannot live without milkweed, it is the sole host of the species, and there are several species you can plant in your flower garden. The monarchs lay their eggs on the underside of the milkweed leaves. When they hatch into tiny caterpillars, they eat and grow, and eat and grow some more, until they enter the chrysalis stage, after which the miracle of a fully grown monarch will shortly emerge.
It is a sight to see the caterpillar grow in size until they disappear into their not-so-secret chambers, where they may be observed changing from a caterpillar to a compressed butterfly after a fashion until their time comes. The case splits, and the adult wiggles out to find a nearby safe perch to grab onto as it pumps fluid into its wings, flaps a few times and lets the wings dry and strengthen.
A couple of summers ago, when I began raising them to ensure nothing would endanger them, I had one carefully walk onto my finger after emerging and proceed to ready itself for its first flight, which happened to be a zinnia in a flower box on our deck.
The benefit of milkweed? The caterpillars feed on these leaves for their nutrition and especially for their glycosides, compounds that affect heart function make them toxic to a wide variety of birds and mammals. So, by feeding on the milkweed leaves, monarchs become poisonous, and predators leave them alone!
Close to 10 species of milkweeds are native to The Berkshires and Vermont, with only common milkweed, swamp milkweed and polk milkweed are found here regularly.
It was four years ago I began planting seeds from native common milkweed and seedlings from native swamp milkweed. It took a couple of years for the common to take a liking to our garden, but now it is a weed popping up here and there among the other plants in the garden, with the common entering the lawn. The swamp milkweed is scattering itself throughout the garden, but is easily kept under control. For instance, after removing most of the unneeded seedlings, it occurred to me to mention the excess might be made available to Naturewatch readers. So, if you are interested, there is a limited number available, free for the asking.
I have not tried poke milkweed that grows in open rocky woods and the borders of woods but was able to get a lovely butterfly-weed milkweed from the next county over, and it is thriving, although nothing attracts caterpillars like the swamp milkweed. The three species in our yard have delightful flowers that rival most of the flowers I grow and are a pollinator's delight, along with the goldenrod I added last summer.
Q: We live in Clarksburg and this spring, many mornings; sometimes, before getting out of bed, we hear a bluebird or two "whacking" against the outside window.
We have three bluebird houses. A couple of years ago a pair adopted one, but we didn't see any new baby birds. Our question is, why do they fly against the windows? We would really like a pair to stay, but it hasn't happened yet this year. My husband has made houses, given them to our adult kids, and they have bluebirds nesting in Williamstown and near Washington, DC.
Thanks for any information you can share!
— Diana B. Clarksburg
A: My only guess is that the bluebird house is too close to your home. The root of this behavior is territorial and the bird, in this case, a male bluebird, thinks that its reflection is competition and is attempting to chase it away. And most will not give up.
Covering up the window with an inexpensive painter’s plastic drop cloth taped to the outside window should work. And you can cut it up into many covers if need be. I have also been told that window screening on the outside works, and for years I have been telling readers that Glass Wax applied inside stops reflection. Fake owls and snakes will not deter them.
The more common persistent birds are robins and cardinals. Others may be goldfinches and song sparrows, although many other species are known. I must admit that I have never heard of a bluebird attacking its phantom self.