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‘When the frost is on the pumpkin’

In honor of the season, I had placed a good-sized pumpkin on each side of the driveway next to the garage.

Saturday morning as I raised the garage door, the pumpkins had a sort of white glaze of snow on their tops. I could hear my mother’s voice exclaim from 70 plus years ago: “When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock, And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin’ turkey-cock.”

I can’t remember if my mother continued to quote further from James Whitcomb Riley’s poem, “When the Frost is on the Punkin.” For a little more continuity, the rest of the first of four stanzas goes as follows:

“And the clackin’ of the guineys, and the cluckin’ of the hens,

And the rooster’s hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;

O, it’s then’s the times a feller is a-feelin’ at his best,

With the risin’ sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,

As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.”

The poem is no longer a description of a rural scene today, but it still elicits a relaxed feeling and brings forth for some a desire for a closer communion with nature. The other three stanzas are also in a country dialect of times past.

Riley (1849-1916) was a contemporary of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) (1835-1910) and they were acquainted, but not necessarily congenial as they sometimes competed in readings and lectures on the same stage.

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Regarding the nature scene: There have been a number of reports recently about huge changes in the bird populations of North America. The flurry of stories seems to have started because of a research project conducted by Dr. John W. Fitzpatrick of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., and Dr. Peter P. Marra of Georgetown Environment Initiative, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. In Late September results were published in the journal Science.

Basically the bad news was that from 1970 to 2019, North America has lost upward of 2.9 billion (that’s BILLION, not million) primarily migrating birds. In the last two Sunday editions of the StarTribune there have been several articles about such losses. The New York Times in late September published an article written by the above-named two men giving more in depth information. I was intrigued. I also consulted the Cornell Research report, some 60 pages or so available on the internet.

Coincidentally, in a casual conversation on Tuesday of a week ago, I had a friend ask if I had noticed the lack of song birds in the area. I had not prompted the discussion. I asked if he had read the newspaper articles. He had not, but it had become obvious to him and possibly to other readers of this column that there are fewer birds around with the exception of some ducks and also Canada geese that seem to be thriving.

The duck and geese population is likely thriving partially because of Ducks Unlimited workers who have secured various habitats that are conducive to supporting those wetland birds.

However, even some birds often found in wetland areas have drastically declined. The red-winged blackbird population, a bird most people of this area probably know, has declined by 92 million in the 1970-2019 era. A slightly different measure for the eastern meadowlark is that roughly 70% of its population in 1970 is no longer present in 2019. The western meadowlark has had similar losses.

The studies grouped migrating birds from different biomes meaning a particular type of area such as grassland, Arctic tundra, Coastal areas, boreal forest (e.g. northenMinnesota with fir, pine, aspen, etc.), and so on.

The hardest hit biome for bird loss is the grassland with roughly a loss of 53% of the birds who live in that zone. Compare that loss to the only biome that had a gain which is the wetlands that gained 13%. A few more specific data items: The wood thrush has lost 60% of its population; the grackle lost 50%; the Baltimore oriole is down 40%; the barn swallow is also down 40%; even the blue jay is down 25%.

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Note that the studies referred to here are not about extinction, but about the abundance of many species studied. However, extinction can happen even if a species has a current high number. The well known example of this is the passenger pigeon which once was the most numerous bird. It has been estimated that in the 1500s there were between 3 billion and 5 billion passenger pigeons. From the period of time of the U.S. Civil war to September of 1914 the population dropped from billions to ZERO: Just 50 years from billions to extinction.

It was a case of relentless killing and large-scale habitat destruction. The last passenger pigeon had been named “Martha” and lived for 29 years at the Cincinnati Zoological Society, but never produced an egg.

Some may ask whether birds serve any useful purpose. It probably would take an entire essay to answer the question, but briefly remember that birds are important in seed dispersal, in pollination not unlike various insects, and in pest control – notably eating many insects. I often enjoy watching the barn swallows flitting and dipping in their flight as they catch those insects. There is also an economic purpose. About 47 million people help support birds for various reasons to the tune of $9.3 billion spent on birds per year in the U.S.

Two other articles from the StarTribune might be worth your time to read – from Dec. 6 there is an article about lead sinkers swallowed by loons that have drastically affected the loon population in Minnesota. Lead shot is also a problem. In the Dec. 13 edition there is an article beginning on the front page about habitat loss and its relevance to the Conservation Reserve Program. Time for a little library work for those who might have an interest in helping preserve our abundance of birds or helping to restore that aboundance.

Until next time: Oh, Fiddlesticks!

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