Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Cherry Tree Snack Bar

            For the last couple of springs now, part of my seasonal ritual is sitting at my desk and watching birds tear off the white blossoms on the weeping cherry tree in the back garden. In a few days the birds virtually denude the tree of blossoms.
             Are they eating them? If so, why discard them so quickly? As I watch, the white blossoms litter the ground beneath the tree.
            My first hunch was that they were pulling the blossoms off to expose what they're really after. An early season infestation of caterpillars? The twig ends where the cherries will grow? -- if there were cherries. Since this is an ornamental I've never seen more than two or three small hard berries on the tree that a hungry animal might mistake for a cherry. I've seen bluejays apparently try to eat them in late summer; peck them at least. They don't pull off the tree easily. And surely there are no berries in spring.
            In other years, during the period of short warm winters (we had the last, I believe, only two years ago), the caterpillars were thick on our trees. I saw them drop from the big overhanging oak tree (if the cherry tree is a pleasant little Quincy hill, the oak is Mount Rushmore) onto the wands of the cherry tree. The holes appeared in the leaves almost immediately. But even in the warmest spring the caterpillars don't invade until May.
            When their numbers started to bother me, I sprayed them with a biological agent. Some years the tree's leaves were eaten so significantly in early spring the tree grew new leaves. But you'd be hard put to find a caterpillar anywhere in New England this week. It's too cold. If they survived the winter in any form -- eggs? -- they'd likely know enough to wait longer to increase the chance of surviving to adult stage -- gypsy moth, tent caterpillar or December moth -- before taking on the world.
            Birds however, at least many of them, are all-weather creatures. I hear them singing if I open the kitchen door long enough to take in the newspaper. When i go outdoors to rake in the cold, their spring song, or mating call, fills the airwaves. I stop and stare up into the bare trees, but they're hiding on me this year. They own the heavens; my eyes are just a visitor. I think the low temperatures are dulling my vision. It's definitely too gray to feel the urge to take pictures.
            Back to the case of the beak-ravished cherry blossoms.
            After talking to Anne -- "You're right," she said, after staring out the window, "all these birds are on the tree and they're pulling off the blossoms"; like, was I making it up? -- I gave in to my curiosity and Googled the subject.
            I wrote something like "Why are the birds eating my cherry blossoms?" and got pages of  responses.  
            The internet of course is always enthusiastic, even when not particularly informative.
            As I clicked through these, almost none of the responses came from scientific organizations -- nothing the professional bird people, or plant people. However I was offered a feast of opinionating from the sort of blog that invites you to ask a question and then wait for the commentary, useful or not, to roll in. Lots of folks, it turns out, want to share their cherry tree stories. (So here I am adding another one.)
            The most authoritative sounding of these came from a blogger who sourced her info to the the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. It turns out, this site reported, that blossoms are "highly nutritious. According to the Georgia DNR some experts believe that the flowers have even more food value than buds."
            Another plant query "chat" site reported the same problem, a witness testifying that "house finches were eating the newly opened flowers" on his cherry tree. "They were just nipping out the sweet nectary part of the flower and dropping the rest of it on the ground. The ground under the cherry tree was covered with blossoms when the finches were around."
            This nipping and dropping sounds like an accurate portrayal of the phenomenon I've been watching.
            The solution came, this source noted, when the crows began replacing the finches on his property.
            Crows? No thanks. That sounds to me like the solution was worse than the problem.
            Finches are small, colorful birds that hang around your bird feeder all winter and sing in their seasons. A small platoon of them recently hung out on our front porch on the rainy day (photo at left) -- a sort of company on a gloomy Saturday afternoon.
            While a bright spot in early spring, cherry blossoms don't last very long even if the birds leave them alone. I'm glad the blossoms' nectar is going to feed another life form. 
            I am, however,hoping some other plant or colony of flowering groundcover steps up to provide some color. If the sun ever dopes come out again, I need something to take a picture of.