It’s been a while since my last post. We’ve made the move to North Carolina and are adjusting to a new climate, longer growing season and a whole assortment of new ideas/concepts/issues that go along with such a long-distance transplant. So far, I’ve already been making an effort to walk often all the while observing the diversity of plants, trees, insects, birds and the not-so-diverse layer of red earth beneath my feet. And my latest observation has already lead to an article submission for the local news paper. I thought I’d share it since I mention the farm project (though temporarily suspended).
The Cankerbird: an alternative to pesticides
When I arrived in Charlotte two weeks ago, one of the first things I noticed were the sticky bands surrounding the beautiful older trees around Uptown. It was soon revealed to me that Charlotte has been recently plagued by cankerworm, predecessor to the flying moth and the bands were put in place to try to stop the wingless females from laying their eggs in the upper branches of the trees where their hatchlings could later feast on the plentiful foliage.
I should mention I come from a farming background. Having lived on a conventional farm as a young person, I later researched the probable correlation between the increased incidence of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (a cancer affecting white blood cells) and agricultural practices in Northern Michigan. One year later, I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lymphoma. Having survived cancer, I began to examine methods of growing fruit without the use of harmful pesticides. I established a small farm project called Healing Tree Farm, employing permaculture practices as a alternative to conventional pest-control and reliance on chemical fertilizers.
Permaculture, meaning permanent agriculture, is a “do no harm” approach to farming. The concept is relatively simple: Replicate a mature forest ecosystem by planting as diverse a population of trees, shrubs and perennials to maintain a healthy, vital and non-human-dependent orchard as possible.
Since the majority of insects (about 90%) are either benign or beneficial, the permaculture orchard welcomes them by planting shrub layers that provide adequate habitat. The other 10% (those we consider pests) are easily defeated/discouraged by predatory insects and birds. And the one thing I’ve noticed about this beautiful city is the diversity of your bird population. Even at the heart of Uptown, you can’t walk a step without hearing a clutter of chirping and melodic song hidden in the shrubs or trees planted along the bustling streets.
This brings me back to those banded trees. The city is now planning to blanket Uptown in a fairly benign organic pesticide. This may help control the problem temporarily, but what I’ve learned working in gardens and orchards is controlling pests with chemicals, while having an immediate and apparent effect, does little to discourage future outbreaks. And while the pesticide is fairly harmless, no pesticide is completely harmless. We’ll be breathing this in or drinking it down in our water at some point, bare in mind.
A pest outbreak usually indicates a major gap in an ecosystem. You rarely see an outbreak of harmful insects in a mature forest; where biodiversity has implemented its own form of checks and balances. And so I propose we look ahead to a method of protecting our trees in the future without the use of pesticides, but by encouraging predatory insects as well as, and especially, birds.
There are there several birds who enjoy a feast of cankerworm: The red-winged blackbird, rose-breasted grosbeak, and sparrows; originally introduced in the United States to battle spring cankerworm. Among these only one bird, the cedar waxwing, often referred to as “Cankerbird,” not only enjoys a feat of cankerworm, but is second to none, according to the Birdzilla.com website, in the area of cleaning up urban pests like cankerworm and tentworm. All but cherry farmers welcome them for their ability to clear out pests in relatively short order.
The cedar waxwing enjoys a habitat that is open, with shrubs and flowering trees (similar to our urban setting). They are commonly found in parks, on farmland or in open woodland. Its primary diet consists of fleshy fruit and insects. In addition to their obvious benefit to the community, the cedar waxwing is a beautiful bird, with distinguishing markings and a unique call.
Each of us in Charlotte can contribute to a solution to our cankerworm problem. We, too, are part of a large system that mimics the natural world. And we too have all experienced the stress a breakdown in one area of this unique system causes on the larger system; whether it be a delay on the light rail, an elevator or escalator malfunctioning, traffic congestion or a simple late lunch. These holes in the complex web of our society have as much impact on us as do similar gaps in the fragile ecosystem trying to find balance among a sea of concrete and steel barriers.
The NC Department of Enviornment and Natural Resources (dfr.state.nc.us) recommends planting Red Cedar Juniper, Black Cherry, and Mountain Ash to attract the cedar waxwing, but adding dried fruit to your feeder will also aid in attracting these beautiful, beneficial wild birds. Let us not take two steps back in attempting to manage future outbreaks of cankerworm by repeated chemical applications, but instead use the method nature intended and has provided for us.
-Samantha Tengelitsch (2-26-08)