In Defense of Weeds

Where farmers see weeds, wildlife sees habitat.

By Cristina Santiestevan

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Meadowlark
 
Bobwhite quail
 
Field sparrow
 
Loggerhead shrike

A 2007 National Audubon Society report highlighted the worrisome decline of many common birds, and bobwhite quail topped the list. The report tracked an 80 percent decrease in the species' population during the 40-year span from 1967 to 2007. Also on the list were meadowlarks, field sparrows, and loggerhead shrikes. These species share a common vulnerability: disappearing habitat.

Of the 20 most at-risk birds in Audubon's report, at least half rely in some part on the weedy fields and fencerows that were once the norm across America's agricultural landscape. Farmers practiced crop rotation, allowing fields to occasionally lie fallow. Even planted fields offered some shelter to wildlife because horse-drawn plows could not reach the very margins of fields. The result was a patchwork of habitat that offered abundant food and shelter for bobwhite quail, cottontail rabbits, and other scrub-loving species.

Known as early successional habitat, this ecosystem is neither forest nor meadow; it is something in between, with aspects of both. A person surveying a stretch of early successional habitat would see an overgrown field with scattered stands of shrubs and small trees, interspersed with thistle, big bluestem, partridge pea, and other native flowers and grasses.

In short, a field of early successional habitat looks to the casual observer exactly like a field of weeds. Don't be fooled. "These weedy areas have a high volume of plants that flower and fruit throughout spring, summer, and fall," says Marc Puckett, wildlife biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Puckett explains that many creatures, from pollinators to predators, rely on these unkempt patches of habitat. "It's not just weeds. It's an ecosystem like any other," he says.

The arrival of modern agriculture, coupled with the relentless march of suburban and urban development, has largely erased this habitat from our farms. Tractors plow where horses could not, and herbicide sprays wipe fencerows clean of weeds. Today's intensively planted farms—those that routinely employ synthetic chemicals as well as those following organic practices—are simultaneously more productive and less sustaining than farms of days past. This does not bode well for the ground-nesting birds and other wildlife that once thrived along the margins of American agriculture.

"Some of these species could be extirpated in 5 or 10 years," warns Puckett, who works with Virginia landowners and farmers to reintroduce early successional plant species and coax the return of native wildlife. The response is positive, and similar programs are finding success in other states, as well. Even suburban and urban gardeners can make a difference by choosing native plants over nonnatives and by planting dense, diverse gardens to re-create the nurturing habitat that pollinators and many birds and other animals prefer. "A lot of people want to do something for conservation," Puckett says. "This is their chance. Anybody can grow weeds."

Originally published in Organic Gardening Magazine, Oct/Nov 2013

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