Saturday, October 26, 2013

Crows Flocking in the City

Yesterday evening was the first time this year that I witnessed one of my favorite bird events - the daily flocking of crows during the cold months of the year.  Crows roost together in large groups for the night during the winter.  They are very noticeable converging on their roosting location every evening, and dispersing in the morning.  I'm sure there isn't one day when all the crows decide that it's time to start the winter roosting behavior; it must be a gradual process of more and more crows joining the roost as the days get shorter and colder.  But yesterday was the day I first noticed the behavior; I'm sort of an observant person, so I'm guessing the flocking has just recently started in earnest.

I think one of the reasons that I enjoy watching the crows streaming into and out of the city is it's such a lively activity during an otherwise mostly quiet time of the year.  I find it a welcoming and warming commotion on a frigid winter morning, and in the evening it's something to look forward to, instead of just grudgingly accepting the fact that the sun really is just making a brief appearance, again, for the day.

Minneapolis is home to a few winter crow roosts every year.  My understanding is that the location of these roosts isn't always the same from year to year.  A website called has maps of reported crow roosts from around the country.  I think there's usually a roost somewhere along the river in my neighborhood of NE Minneapolis, but it doesn't seem to be reported; I'm not sure where it is exactly - I might have to look for it this year.  For some information on why crows roost in large winter flocks, and why they might do it in the city, visit the Frequently Asked Questions About Crows page from the Cornell Bird of Ornithology.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Are Mushrooms Poisonous to Touch

No, mushrooms are not poisonous to the touch.  Even the most poisonous species can be handled with no ill effects.  However, use some common sense.  A couple of cases come to mind:

  • Small children.  Since mushrooms are ok to touch, you don't have to freak out if you see your toddler handling an unknown mushroom.  But of course little kids like to put things in their mouths.  So like any outdoor exploration, supervision is highly recommended.  In my own case as a father, my kids are supposed to ask before handling any mushroom (they are always very excited to share their finds with me).
  • Mixing species in your collection basket (or hat, donut bag, guitar case, whatever you might happen to have).  If you have collected a bunch delicious edible species, don't mix in unknown species.  Why take the chance of overlooking it or a piece of it later in the kitchen and accidentally cooking up something poisonous, deadly or otherwise.
  • Tasting for identification. A lot of field guides often list taste as a feature to consider for identifying a mushroom.  I taste unknown mushrooms occasionally, but never did when I first started learning about them.  But for me, a taste test comes with some already good ideas as to the mushroom's identity.  And it's taste only, not ingestion too.
 So if mushroom study is something you're interested in, handling should be fine for closer study.  Or if you just enjoy mushrooms for their aesthetic value, you can expand your appreciation tactically.  And while you're at it, don't forget aromas, many mushrooms have distinctive smells.

And don't forget to wash your wands.  But you should be anyway, right!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Backyard Native Weeds: Three-seeded Mercury

Three-seeded Mercury, Acalypha rhomboidea is a relatively common plant generally found where soil has been disturbed.  I have it growing in my yard in some of the less tended corners.  It's generally considered a weed, which are typically undesirable, but it is also a native plant, and native plants are usually considered desirable.  So which is it?
I look at it this way - weed status is a state of mind, there's no hard and fast definition of what makes a plant a weed; a weed is a plant growing someplace where someone doesn't want it.  When a plant is called "native" it's a bit more objective, based on historical records of one sort or another, that the plant has been present in the area for quite some time (usually if the plant was here when Europeans arrived and described it, it's considered native).

So it's not a weed in our yard, it's part of the garden.  It does require some, um, weeding, since it does produce quite a few seeds and spreads, but what else would I do with myself if all the plants in our garden grew where we thought they should?

Since it is a native, it's probably used by some wildlife.  There are some references to the seeds being eaten by certain birds, and more than likely insects of some sort or another use it, though the plants growing in our yard appear mostly untouched.
In my opinion, the plant doesn't really live up to its name.  The name Three-seeded Mercury has a dramatic or mysterious sound to it, one that seems indicate some sort of place in human history, but it seems to be, well, just a weed.  The term "mercury" has numerous associations, but none seem to quite match the plant.  There is a related genus of plants, Mercurialis, that has some relevance to people, with one species being poisonous, and another with homeopathic properties.  But I still have to wonder about the overall relationship of this plant to any of the many meanings, associations and uses of the word "mercury".  Lost in time perhaps