Thursday, August 1, 2013

On Catbirds and Berries

                Up until yesterday, I had a completely different topic which I intended to write about this week. But yesterday afternoon, as I was seeding carrots in Field 8, I saw something that I have suspected for many, many years but have not actually seen… until yesterday that is. Anyway, this particular topic, that of catbirds and berries, first came to mind in the late weeks of May, and until yesterday was not readily in mind. I will get back to what happened yesterday a little later in the entry. (And there are pictures, too!!!)
                In a typical year, June-bearing strawberries start to ripen in the final weeks of May. Since I have even contemplated growing strawberries, I have been aware of the conventional wisdom to cover the strawberry plants with bird netting in order to keep the birds from eating the ripe strawberries. Apparently, as I have heard about a number of other topics, birds can be quite annoying pests.
                My approach to farming has always been a little out of line of the conventional thought. For some reason, I have to question the reasoning behind just about every aspect of farming. There is a cliché, “If it ain’t broke, don’t break it.” The problem for me is that almost every aspect I see in regards to farming is broken! As a result, “conventional wisdom” is seldom approached as though “wise”. My approach is more to witness how nature works and allow it to decide how to proceed.
                So, as for the “conventional wisdom” to cover the strawberry plants with bird netting, I ignored it. I have used it in the past, I guess with some success, but I just was not sure how badly that netting was needed. Just how many strawberries are eaten by birds? And on top of that, how many bugs that might eat the strawberries are protected from the birds who love to eat them? I was by no means certain, so for 2013, I eschewed using the bird netting in order to witness the difference.
                Throughout a given day, birds could be seen diving into and darting out of the strawberry rows. However, once we harvested the strawberries, there was not a lot of damage, that is, eaten strawberries. There was a lot more bird activity then damage. That was for sure. In general, as with most of the “conventional wisdom” on how birds can be quite annoying pests, I found that sage wisdom to be suspect at best. From now on, I will not use the bird netting and suffer through the handful or so of berries that the birds do actually eat.
                HOWEVER, there was one row that did open my eyes toward at least one type of bird. In Field 9, Row 1 is bordered by a deer fence, and directly on the other side of that fence is HEAVY overgrowth. Birds love to make nests in such terrain. As I was working in that field one day, I noticed a cat bird continually perch on the deer fence, then dive down into the strawberry row, which is Row 1 by the way, and then fly back over the fence into the overgrowth. When we eventually went to harvest that row of strawberries, there were almost none there to harvest. Could it be that the catbird ate all the strawberries?
                It is possible, but I have left out a little bit of information about that particular row. Weeds have been the most prominent plant in the row by far, and only just before the strawberries flowered, we weeded what plants we could find. In other words, there were not a whole lot of strawberry potential to begin. So, it was possible that the catbird/s did do significant damage to that crop of strawberries, but it is impossible to determine how much. What I do know is that other rows bordered HEAVY overgrowth and they showed very little damage. At that point in the season, the catbirds were not labeled with a negative stamp…
                Then, a few weeks later, as I was on the front lawn of the farm house, a catbird landed on the sidewalk with a mulberry in its mouth. The mulberries had ripened, and I highly doubt that that catbird had a mulberry in its beak because of a bug inside! Aha! Catbirds DO eat berries! Perhaps my synopsis on their strawberry eating has been in error. And yet, only in that one strawberry row was there significant damage… Later that day, another catbird reassured me that they do indeed love mulberries, but since I do not harvest the mulberries, they can eat all they want.
                Personally, I like having catbirds around the farm. Unlike the f*&^ing groundhogs, if they do damage some crop, they only damage a little and not the entire thing. Plus, they eat a lot of bugs. I have witnessed that on countless occasions. When a new area is mowed and weeded, thus revealing all the previously hidden bugs, catbirds are usually the first to enter the new dining area. Plus, once they have laid their eggs, they sing some rather beautiful songs, which is a far cry more soothing than the “Hey!” they normally, and repeatedly, shout out from some perch nearby. Anyway, so the catbirds were not labeled with a negative stamp…
                And THEN… there was the fennel incident… For sure, if this was brought up in a court of law, the verdict would be not guilty due to lack of evidence… Perhaps the reader is not aware of the fennel incident. If such is the case, I refer you to an entry titled “Fennel” two entries ago. But to sum it up, I suspect that catbirds ate fennel transplanted out into a row in Field 4. Again, I cannot prove this definitively, but that is where my suspicions lie. And this is leading toward catbirds being labeled with a negative stamp…
                Nonetheless, the issue of catbirds seems to me to be a good reflection on the complexity of farming, or more largely, life in general. None of the aspects of farming tend to fall into neat little categories and such. There is so much more to all that transpires than our limited minds can really begin to grasp. Catbirds are complex creatures. They eat a myriad of differing food, depending on season, locale, etc. To think that they can be labeled in a particular manner, is to be quite naïve. And yet, that is precisely what I intend to do!
                Yesterday, I was seeding carrots in Field 8. It is a transition time, where most of the spring crops get turned over into fall crops. As a result, there are multiple freshly tilled rows in between established rows such as peppers, cantaloupe… and San Marzano tomatoes. In between me and the San Marzano tomato row was a freshly tilled row just seeded with Sugar Snap peas. At one point I glanced over in the direction of the San Marzano tomatoes… I do so LOVE those tomatoes… and I saw a catbird fly down from the trellis and land in the new sugar snap pea row. This is what I saw…

It’s hard to make out, I know. I didn’t have my glasses on. Anyway, the dark spot in the middle is a catbird, and it had something somewhat large that is was nibbling on. Here let’s try this picture…

At this point, the catbird was eying me as I tried to get nearer for a better picture. The longish blob at the catbird’s feet was green in color! There is only one thing I could think of that is long and green and can be found in a San Marzano tomato row… a tomato hornworm!!! Oh how I hate tomato hornworms!!! And that catbird had taken one for lunch, er, dinner… it was in the evening.
                I have long suspected birds of consuming tomato hornworms, but I had never witnessed it until yesterday. Occasionally I would see damage as a result of a tomato hornworm, but no culprit. There was only one more thing to investigate. After the catbird flew off with its meal, I inspected the San Marzano tomato plants where the bird had just been…

…and there it was, leafless stems on the tomato plant that the hornworm had consumed.
                Yes, indeed, CATBIRDS ARE MY FRIENDS! After all this labeling talk, I need to come up with a proper label for such a benevolent neighbor as the catbird. I don’t have one at the moment other than something stupid like, “Knight of the Organic Farm”. Nonetheless, catbirds have earned their label… that of a VERY POSITIVE STAMP!!!

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