Chickadees have been entertaining and consistent companions since we built our home here 24 years ago. Watching their energetic and enthusiastic-appearing lifestyle is an uplifting experience, never mind that their lives can be as fraught as our own with unforeseen problems and accidents.
That was the case this morning as Gretchen and I were sipping morning coffee and watching one of them bob up and down on a white snakeroot flower at the edge of the woods. I picked up the binoculars to see what it was feeding on and as I focused on it, the chickadee’s bobbing momentum carried it into a still-green stick tight plant. The chickadee continued to flutter, but it was soon apparent that it was hopelessly stuck in the grasp of the stick tights.
Stick tights belong to a family of plants that spread their seeds using a hook-like appendage to the seed covering to hitchhike on fur or fabric that brushes against them in the fall. Bird feathers, too, by the look of things.
We speculated that the bird would soon break free and fly away, but that wasn’t the case. So I hurried out to set it free. It was hanging upside down with one wing spread and pinned by the time I got to it, but it had enough energy to struggle in my grasp and escape before I could finish removing the last stick tight. Into the woods it flew with no apparent difficulty.
The culprit that the chickadee encountered is virginia stickseed (Hackelia virginiana), according to the Minnesota Wild Flower field guide. And it is the fruits that have the dense Velcro-like prickles covering the round surfaces holding the seeds. As much as I dislike this plant, which I encounter frequently while wood cutting, I was pleased to learn that it has had beneficial uses. According to one post, it was important in Cherokee herbal medicine. “The crushed roots were mixed with bear oil and used to treat skin cancers, a tea of the plant was used to treat kidney conditions and improve memory, and the plant was used in love charms.”
So it is the stick tight season in Wisconsin and any of us who have been in the woods recently know that we will likely come home with the chickadee’s nemesis clinging to our pants and shoe strings. I remember the tedious job of cleaning stick tights from the floppy ears of our springer spaniel; Ole hated the grooming and so did we.
Hunters share their stick tight removal techniques on websites, suggesting scraping them off clothes with a knife, soaking clothes and scraping them while they are still wet, and, of course, using the sticky side of duct tape. It usually requires picking at least some of them off one at a time.
The worst outcome is to miss some that wind up in the laundry where they can migrate into socks or, heaven forbid, undershorts.
The nastiest of the thorny, barbed threats we have is the sandbur, a grass that produces seeds in spiny burs. They are usually found in sandy soils where the plants produce a bur with spines that have curved barbs, according to a UW Extension publication about threats to our well-being in the great outdoors. The spines can work into the flesh of humans and animals if they are not removed.
With the exception of the sandbur, the state’s stick tights and burs are mainly an inconvenience for those of us who enjoy wood cutting, hunting, birding and other autumn pursuits outdoors. Inconvenience, that is, as long as we don’t get burs in our shorts. But for chickadees, I’ve learned, stick tights can be a life-threatening trap. No love charms there.