Thom Smith: Invasive plant is a force to be reckoned with

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Q. When I put out a basket of meal worms on a fence post, the bluebirds show up and feast on it with gusto. Without the mealworms, I rarely see a bluebird in my yard, even though we have two bluebird houses that are cleaned out and at the ready. How do they sense the presence of the mealworms? Smell, sight, memory? Garlic mustard is everywhere! Just wondering if you would show a photo of the garlic mustard plant in flower and explain the details of this invasive plant to readers and suggest that people pull it up in their yards, gardens and along roadsides. Pickers should be advised not to put those pulled up plants in the compost pile ... instead they need to be either bagged up until next winter or spring or alternatively, put them out in the sun on a slab of cement or in the road, so that they can dry out and die in the heat of the sun. I know that you have given such advice before, but this year we have second-home owners on hand and many people are still not aware of the need to pull up this plant and kill it! Thanks for your help!

— Lenore, Stockbridge

A. I believe bluebirds find the mealworms you placed mostly by sight, and if you have used the same basket and location before they also use memory.

As for the garlic mustard let me say, lest I get messages inquiring why I did not mention it: It is edible, and many Naturewatch readers, including our son-in-law make a pesto out of it and young leaves can be consumed raw or cooked as a potherb or as a flavoring in cooked foods. Search for recipes online, there are many!

On the negative side, it is not eaten by wild herbivores and so it has few "predators." It is not a good neighbor, producing a toxin that inhibits the growth of other plants, and eventually takes over large patches of ground.

It is listed as a biennial and has become a dominant understory invasive especially in the Northeast, but always extending its range. As mentioned, it is unpalatable to grazers. Mowing where accessible will eventually control it, but missed plants will quickly replace mowed ones. If mowing, that will eliminate seed production if the plants are re-mowed several times during the growing season. Hand pulling is considered most effective if pulled carefully to get most of the roots to prevent re-growing. Bag and dispose of it. It is important to pull the plants up before going to seed. And never compost, but bag and store for a year or more or dispose of where they will be burned. In soil, seeds will be viable for up to five years, so do not compost.

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This plant is native to Europe and was brought to our shores in the early 1800s for its medicinal use and as a culinary herb by European settlers. (Do not let the term herb inspire you to plant it in your garden!)

Q. I'm inquiring about a bird I saw at our local lake that was brown with a white belly and bobbed up and down as it walked. It was about the size of a robin. It looked like a bird that I've seen at the shore, but never around here. Maybe I don't get out enough.

— George

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A. This is an easy one because it was bobbing up and down. The white breast is also a good "field mark," indicating that it is a non-breeding spotty, while the breeding birds have a heavily spotted breast. They usually arrive her around the end of April and leave around October. The woodcock, snipe and spotted sandpiper are the only known breeding sandpipers in the Berkshires.


April 25 — Hummers at feeder — Timothy, town of Florida

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May 2 — Hummingbird and oriole — Michael, Williamstown; several at feeders in freezing cold — Kathy, West Stockbridge

May 6 — One seen and a few days later a hummingbird seen on snow-encrusted feeder — Liz, Pittsfield

May 7 — One hummingbird — a reader, Sandisfield; one hummingbird — a reader, Pittsfield; 10 minutes before reading your column, I watched a hummingbird at feeder — Beverly, Pittsfield

May 8 — One seen every day — Sally, Dalton

May 11 — At feeder attached to picture window — Nancy, Pittsfield

May 12 — In addition to hummingbird, saw two pair of orioles, a pair of rose-breasted grosbeaks, an indigo bunting, and red-bellied woodpecker at my feeders — Janice, West Stockbridge; one hummingbird — Randy, Pittsfield; three hummingbirds — Ginger, Pittsfield; one hummingbird — a reader, Pittsfield.


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