Life and Death on the Lawn

By Anita Sanchez

Dandelion seeds

It’s a beau­ti­ful sum­mer day. You’ve fin­ished your stack of books from the Lan­dis Book Barn and need some­thing else for sum­mer read­ing — maybe a thriller or a mur­der mys­tery. How about a best sell­er that involves poi­sons and dead­ly potions and is full of dan­ger? If you want to read some­thing that will real­ly make your hair stand on end, try read­ing the label of a con­tain­er of chem­i­cal herbicide.

It’s short­er than Har­ry Pot­ter and the Death­ly Hal­lows, but it’s cer­tain­ly not dull read­ing. All sorts of words found in thrillers and hor­ror sto­ries leap out at you: beware…killer… toxic…poison…danger…” Any­one, of any age, can buy lawn and gar­den pes­ti­cides off the shelf and use them at home with­out any sort of license, and there­fore we tend to assume that these handy squirt bot­tles are triv­ial every­day stuff. As harm­less as, say, dish deter­gent. Just to clean up those dan­de­lions a trifle. 

Lawn chemicals

On every pack­age, there is the num­ber of a poi­son con­trol cen­ter, or instruc­tions to physi­cians, in case of acci­den­tal over­ex­po­sure. Obvi­ous­ly, this is stuff you want to keep far away from a curi­ous tod­dler. But what if you fol­low the direc­tions and apply the pes­ti­cide pre­cise­ly as instruct­ed by the man­u­fac­tur­er? Pes­ti­cides are poi­sons. Pes­ti­cides kill things.

When lawn care com­pa­nies put her­bi­cide on a lawn, they are required by law to put up mark­ers that warn of pes­ti­cide appli­ca­tion, telling you to keep off the grass for twen­ty-four hours. But there are quite a few lawn users who can’t read those lit­tle signs.

We enjoy see­ing chick­adees hop­ping around on the grass, car­di­nals enjoy­ing seeds at the feed­er, robins pulling worms out of the earth. But we don’t see what hap­pens after the birds fly away. Nev­er noticed any dead birds on your lawn? Our knowl­edge of pes­ti­cides’ effects on birds is like a pyra­mid-shaped ice­berg, of which the widest por­tion by far remains unseen. Only a few dead birds are noticed and col­lect­ed; it’s prob­a­ble that the vast major­i­ty of bird deaths caused by pes­ti­cides go undetected. 

The sad irony is that dan­de­lions — the main tar­get of most her­bi­cides — are absolute­ly great for birds. Dan­de­lion flow­ers are of course an excel­lent source of nec­tar for hon­ey­bees, but­ter­flies, and oth­er pol­li­na­tors, but birds? Dan­de­lion seeds are full of nutri­tion, and small song­birds love them. It may sound weird, but those round gray seed-heads bob­bing on the lawn are a lot of mini-bird­feed­ers. Goldfinch­es love dan­de­lion seeds. I once watched a flock of goldfinch­es flit­ting from dan­de­lion to dan­de­lion, peck­ing out the seeds that thick­ly clus­tered on the end of the stem, leav­ing a trail of float­ing bits of fluff. Espe­cial­ly as sum­mer is end­ing and the cold of autumn is draw­ing on, birds need the fats and pro­tein found in seeds.

Dan­de­lions are a non-native species, it’s true. But they’re not a major threat to wood­land habi­tats because they’re not inva­sive. You may shake your head in dis­be­lief at this state­ment, see­ing how those deter­mined yel­low flow­ers invade lawns with the ruth­less effi­cien­cy of tank bat­tal­ions. But they don’t invade wilderness.

Dan­de­lions flour­ish in sun­ny areas of dis­turbed soil and so stick to the areas dom­i­nat­ed by humans: con­struc­tion sites, park­ing lot edges, and their favorite habi­tat, lawns. They don’t head into the for­est or ven­ture onto the back-coun­try trails. Dan­de­lion seeds aren’t adapt­ed to hitch­hike on the fur of a pass­ing squir­rel or rac­coon — they need wind. On the for­est floor, there’s lit­tle wind to dis­perse the seeds. And the sun-lov­ing dan­de­lion always per­ish­es in the shade. So they’re no threat to Lan­dis wood­lands and for­est wildflowers.

Refram­ing dan­de­lions as bird feed­ers gives us one more rea­son to wel­come them instead of exter­mi­nate them — and one more rea­son to avoid poi­son­ing the lawn.

Summer 2022

Volume 40 , Number 2

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