Battling Invasives at Glencarlyn Park

Text and Photos by Devin Reese, except as noted.

Arlington Regional Master Naturalists have a vendetta against invasive plants because of the damage these invaders do to ecosystems. Invasive plants outcompete native plants, disrupting age-old relationships with insect pollinators and typically reducing the biodiversity of an area.

Go on an invasives removal field trip with an ARMN volunteer and you’re guaranteed to witness moments of reckoning between human and plant. Those moments, kicked off by exclamations of dismay such as “Oh no, that’s kudzu!” often involve clipping, lopping, grappling, tugging, hurling, bagging, and otherwise taking invasive plants to the mat. 

If you want to join in the excitement of plant wrestling, there’re plenty of regular outings in Northern Virginia. One of those is the invasives removal program at the Long Branch Nature Center’s Glencarlyn Park in Arlington, monthly on Sunday afternoons. Wear long pants and bring your gloves, clippers, and enthusiasm for helping native plants. The site offers extra gloves and tools if you arrive empty-handed.

One of the people you’re bound to interact with is Long Branch Environmental Steward Steve Young, who is a font of information about the native and introduced flora. He’ll lead you through recognizing and removing invasive plants, while sharing plant-related lore. 

Photo of volunteer holding up a garlic mustard plant
Steve Young shows seed heads on garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata).

You’ll likely remove garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), a common invasive that has cropped up all over the NOVA region. Crush its leaves for a whiff of garlic, which explains its introduction from Europe as a food plant. Despite its tastiness to humans, garlic mustard is not palatable to native wildlife. Because it can self-pollinate or cross pollinate, produce lots of seeds, and grow in shade or sun, garlic mustard spreads fast. Steve will show you how to tug it gently, roots and all, out of the ground, and bag it to keep the seeds off the soil. 

Another plant Steve will point you to is the mile-a-minute vine (Persicaria perfoliata) that was introduced from Asia and first got a foothold in the U.S. at a plant nursery in Pennsylvania, from where it spread. Its delicate stems and leaves bely its hazard as an introduced species. Its other common named, “devil’s tear thumb,” comes from miniscule, curved barbs on the stems and triangular leaves. Using its barbs to cling to other vegetation, mile-a-minute vine grows up to six inches a day, spreading laterally and horizontally. Feel the sticky barbs as you extract the vine from its hold on native vegetation.

Photo of a volunteer pulling a vine
Volunteer Erin removes mile-a-minute vines (Persicaria perfoliata).

Expect Steve to show you some introduced plants that are problematic but cannot be eradicated by pulling them. For example, while small areas of Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) may be removed by hand, it can quickly grow into dense stands to create short, vertical groundcover. Creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea) makes ivy-like blankets, but pulling it out will be futile, says Steve. When he first started working at Long Branch about 25 years ago, he says he was “totally anti-chemical and didn’t believe in ever using herbicides.” But he soon realized that “if you don’t use herbicides, you’re going to lose your native plants.” Experienced contractors do regular, targeted herbicide treatments to get rid of invasives that cannot be hand managed.

While battling the invasives, you’ll find moments of gratification in coming across elusive native plants. For example, ghost pipes (Monotropa uniflora), which benefit from the ongoing restoration effort, may peek out of leaf litter with their pale white stems and papery flowers. Lacking chlorophyll, they survive as saprophytes, drawing nutrients from tree roots. Keep your eye out for the equally odd-looking Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) with its hooded flower. Fold back the hood to see its spike of tiny flowers. The plant is poisonous to humans, but some animals feed on its berries.

Steve may point out the native dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), that grows in clumps like other bunch grasses. While it is attractive to many insects, Steve notes that this milkweed relative earns its name—it is indeed toxic to mammals.

Photo of the Dogbane plant
Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum).

The taller native bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix) has feathery seed heads. Birds enjoy its grainy seeds. Another is poverty oat grass (Danthonia spicata). While deer resistant, poverty oat grass supplies forage for various insects. These are some of the plants that can transform a yard from turfgrass to habitat for native animals. As Steve says, “these grasses will be taller and won’t look like turf grass, but we have to change our thinking about what a yard can be. Many yards have empty spaces that you would not miss.” 

Photo of a tree sapling in a protective cage

At Glencarlyn Park, you may also encounter some native restoration plantings. Redbud saplings (Cercis canadensis) are enclosed in wire cages to protect them from grazing deer as they mature. 

You may be asked to wrestle the climbing porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) off the cages to make sure the redbuds get enough access to light. Be careful that you’ve got the right plants, though, because porcelain-berry is closely related to the native grapevines (Vitis spp.) that are valuable to nesting birds. 

Steve’s lively conversation is so information-packed that time passes quickly and you may find yourself looking eagerly forward to the next invasives removal opportunity. 

Learn more on Steve Young’s blog: Plant Whacker, http://www.plantwhacker.com. You can also sign up on the ARMN Volunteer webpage for Arlington County for the Long Branch Park Invasive Plant Removal and other park sessions. The Glencarlyn weed removal event is monthly on Sunday afternoons. 

Additional Wildlife Information (All forms of life that are wild, including plants, animals, and microorganism – Natural Resources Service)

Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum):

One of the more distinctive plants on VA forest floors, Jack-in-the-Pulpit is native to all of eastern North America. Each plant produces a large, fleshy flower on its own stalk, adjacent to a separate stalk with several leaves. The way the flowers’ sheath (the “spathe”) encloses and curls over the flower stalk (the “spadix”) explains its common name. The spadix (Jack), however, is actually hermaphroditic, able to produce male flowers, female flowers, or both. A plant growing just male flowers on the spadix has a hole at the base of the sheath that allows pollinators to do their job and then escape through the bottom. The plants growing just female flowers, however, lack the hole; the theory is that insects get trapped and pollinate as they writhe around.

Learn more on the USFS website about Jack in the Pulpit.

Revitalizing the Pollinator Garden at the Buddie Ford Nature Center

Text and photos by Leslie Cameron

Arlington Regional Master Naturalists joined Extension Master Gardeners and community volunteers on July 17th in an ongoing effort to revitalize the pollinator garden next to the Jerome “Buddie” Ford Nature Center in Alexandria

This hillside pollinator garden contains native plants local to the area, including Upland Ironweed (Vernonia glauca), Sundrops (Oenothera frutica), and various Milkweed species (Asclepias spp.). Many of these inhabit the nearby Dora Kelley Nature Park and the Holmes Run Gorge. The pollinator garden has for several years been an important part of the work the Nature Center to share the wonders of nature with the community, as well as to support our local pollinators.

Photo of the pollinator garden
Pollinator garden at the Buddie Ford Nature Center at the beginning of the day on July 17th.

Unfortunately, the garden has gradually accumulated many invasive species and other weeds that have been crowding out the native plants. Recognizing the need for some serious TLC, Master Naturalist Valerie LaTortue collaborated with Master Gardeners Bob Besse, Mary Lou Leary, and Scarlett Swan to begin a rejuvenation project. They met several times this spring and realized that they needed a lot more help. So, Valerie organized the July 17th volunteer garden day and reached out to other Master Naturalists, Master Gardeners, and park neighbors to pull invasive plants and other weeds from the garden, clear paths, and spread mulch. 

Photo of volunteer Valerie LaTortue weeding in the garden
Master Naturalist Valerie LaTortue, organizer of the volunteer garden day, pulling invasive plants and weeds in the pollinator garden (and too focused on the weeds to look up for a photo 😊).

Although it was a hot day, the volunteers worked tirelessly to uproot stubborn invasive plants and weeds and clear the pathways, filling many yard-waste bags.

Some roots were tough to remove, but the volunteers were tougher!

Photo of volunteer holding a weed with a long root
Nick Nichols wins the prize for longest root pulled—a nasty porcelain berry vine.

And for breaks, volunteers enjoyed snacks, cold water, and Valerie’s herb iced tea under a canopy on the deck overlooking the garden. 

Photo of two containers of iced tea
Valerie’s herb iced tea.

Best of all, the volunteers could enjoy the fruits of their labor right away! Check out Valerie’s video of accomplishments of the day:

Photo of a dirt pathway through the garden
Success! A pathway is now cleared of invasive plants and other weeds in the pollinator garden.

The ongoing work to rejuvenate the pollinator garden is part of a long-term plan to redesign and replant the garden and increase its access to and public education value for the community. In addition to supporting pollinators and improving the ecosystem, Master Naturalists, Master Gardeners, and other area volunteers are helping to reclaim this treasured public education resource for visitors to the Buddie Ford Nature Center and Dora Kelley Park.

More volunteers are needed and welcome! During the foreseeable future, volunteer days are scheduled each Saturday from 9:00-11:00 am (https://armn.org/volunter-alexandria/). Instructions, tools, and refreshments are provided. Volunteers should bring gloves, sunscreen, and insect repellent, and a favorite digging tool if they like.

Paddling for Litter on Four Mile Run Stream

by Devin Reese

Arlington Regional Master Naturalists find ways to improve their local ecosystems not only on land, but also on the water. The Four Mile Run Conservatory Foundation hosts regular stream clean-ups by kayak. All you need to bring is yourself, your enthusiasm for a cleaner stream, and a sense of humor about getting your feet wet. The program provides the boats, paddles, life jackets, gloves, and grabbers for fetching trash from the stream and tossing it into bins. 

Photo of volunteers on kayaks in four mile run creek
The June 5th flotilla of Four Mile Run cleanup volunteers included community members as well as three Arlington Regional Master Naturalists. Photo by Kurt Moser.

When you set out, it’s natural to wonder whether you’ll be able to find and retrieve trash. While it’s not a competition, something about the standardized bin strapped to each kayak ignites your ambition to fill it up fast. Some pickups are quick; your grabbers readily clasp a soda bottle perched on the grassy bank. Some of them take time; plastic bags seem to have a way of burrowing into the soil so that what you think is a quick fetch turns out to be a long tug of war. 

Litter encompasses everything from a multitude of water bottles and cans to larger items like gallon jugs and clothing. Elusive litter shows up in small scraps, such as gum wrappers or bottle labels. Occasionally, you’ll land a big, impressive piece of trash. Those mega-finds have their pros and cons. The Four Mile Run cleanup lore includes a story about the retrieval of a full-sized shopping cart, which had to be strapped on the front of a kayak.

Photo of a bin filled with trash from the creek
Litter bounty is strapped to the front of a kayak. Photo by Devin Reese.

When you’ve filled your bin or fetched an item worthy of showcasing, you paddle for the put-in, a gently sloping dirt ramp where the President of the Four Mile Run Conservatory Foundation, Kurt Moser, waits. He has big trash bags in hand to relieve you of your treasures and get you turned around and back onto the stream as efficiently as possible. Lest it sound like all work and no play however, Kurt also offers granola bars and drinks! 

Each time you launch, you have exciting choices to make—upstream or downstream, right bank or left. Whether you paddle up towards Shirlington or down towards the Potomac, you find plenty of opportunities to load the bin. And you may also find opportunities to chat with people, share what you’re doing, and learn more about how people enjoy Four Mile Run as a natural area. 

Photo of a volunteer holding a channel catfish
Liam proudly displaying the Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) he caught with his dad, Robert, by the Four Mile Run bridge.

While nestled in an urban area, Four Mile Run stream gets lots of day use by people fishing, jogging, watching birds, and even taking a dip.

After a couple of hours of paddling the stream, especially if it’s a hot day, you may drift into reflections about whether you’re really making a difference. Plucking the litter from the stream bottom or streamside vegetation can be tedious and slow-going. And, as ARMN volunteer Marilynn Lambinicio said, “You won’t necessarily see a change from one cleanup session to another, since litter continues to enter the stream from lots of upstream development.” 

Photo of a volunteer picking up litter while in a kayak
Arlington Regional Master Naturalist Marilynn Lambinicio dumps litter into a bin. Photo by Devin Reese.

Don’t lose sight of the purpose however, as the reward comes in the collective results. The session ends with the flotilla of kayaks pulling back into the put-in area, washing boats, snacking some more, stowing equipment, and amassing the litter loot. At the most recent June 5th kayak cleanup, in just a couple of hours, a group of just eight volunteers retrieved 171 pounds of litter from the Four Mile Run Stream!

Photo of bags of litter collected during the stream clean up

Don’t lose sight of the purpose however, as the reward comes in the collective results. The session ends with the flotilla of kayaks pulling back into the put-in area, washing boats, snacking some more, stowing equipment, and amassing the litter loot. At the most recent June 5th kayak cleanup, in just a couple of hours, a group of just eight volunteers retrieved 171 pounds of litter from the Four Mile Run Stream!

That’s approximately 20 pound each, a phenomenal haul that left the stream looking a lot more inviting for recreation and wildlife.

Would you like to participate in one of these kayak cleanups? If so, see Four Mile Run Conservatory Foundation, or email: info@fourmilerun.org for more information.

Wildlife
Wildlife includes all forms of life that are wild, including plants, animals, and microorganisms according to the Natural Resources Service.

The Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) is one of the most common fishes caught on Four Mile Run Stream. While native from Canada to Mexico through the central U.S., Channel Catfish were introduced to the eastern U.S. more than a century ago. First observed in Virginia water bodies in 1969, Channel Catfish became established and are now prized for aquaculture and recreational fisheries. Their success stems from opportunistic feeding habits (choosing whatever is available), prolific reproduction, disease resistance, and tolerance for a range of environmental conditions from fresh to brackish waters. While accepted as an important food fish in this region, Channel Catfish may be causing declines of native animals such as crayfishes through competition and predation.

Learn more about the Channel Catfish on the United States Geological Service website.

Two Honors! Glenn Tobin Earned the 2020 Bill Thomas Volunteer Award, and ARMN is presented the Virginia Chapter of the Wildlife Society’s 2021 A. Willis Robertson Award

Glenn Tobin is the 2020 Bill Thomas Park Volunteer Award Winner

Photo of Glenn pulling kudzu vine in front of a creek
Glenn conquering invasive kudzu from Windy Run Park. Photo courtesy of Toni Genberg.

On April 20, 2021, Glenn Tobin received Arlington County’s Bill Thomas Park Volunteer Award for the year 2020. The award recognizes an individual or group whose efforts show ongoing dedication and tangible benefit to Arlington’s natural resources, parks, and public open spaces.

Glenn has been an ARMN member since 2016 and a Trail Maintainer with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) since 2015. For years, he removed invasive plants at Windy Run Park and the adjacent Potomac River waterfront in the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Because of his work alone and with other volunteers, significant natural areas are recovering and becoming more beautiful and biodiverse. In 2020, Glenn raised money and worked with the PATC and the National Park Service (NPS) to rebuild the stone stairway that connects the Windy Run park trail to the Potomac Heritage Trail along the river, improving access for many people. Then, inspired by the reemergence of diverse native flora at Windy Run and along the Potomac, Glenn began working with experts in ecology, botany, and natural resources to create the website, Natural Ecological Communities of Northern Virginia, which provides information about the local natural plant communities to help make better plant selections for ecological restoration purposes in Northern Virginia, Washington D.C., and close-in Maryland. As a result of Glenn’s leadership, ARMN is adopting natural plant communities as a framework for park restoration, in collaboration with local jurisdictions. This work will have lasting impact on restoration planning throughout the County and on selection of plant species for the County’s native plant nursery.

Some of Glenn’s other work includes helping lead Weed Warrior Training with the NPS, assisting in leadership for Park Stewards, and mentoring others who share deep passion for helping restore natural areas in Arlington County and beyond.
(From: The Arlington, VA webpage: “Arlington Honors Park Volunteers”.) 

In a clip from the April 20, 2021 Arlington County Board Meeting, Board Member Karantonis describes Glenn’s accomplishments followed by an address from Glenn. In closing, Chair de Ferranti congratulates Glenn and 2019 Bill Thomas award winner, Elaine Mills: https://youtu.be/oPU84gCj9Lw.

ARMN is selected for the Virginia Chapter of the Wildlife Society’s 2021 A. Willis Robertson Award

On January 29, 2021, ARMN was selected as the 2021 recipient of the A. Willis Robertson Award from the Virginia Chapter of The Wildlife Society for its work on public outreach and education related to deer management. The award honors a wildlife non-professional or group that has exercised outstanding conservation practices on their own land or have made significant contributions to conservation activities in the Commonwealth.

Photo of a plaque in the shape of Virginia for the A. Willis Robertson Award
The Virginia Chapter of The Wildlife Society’s 2021 A. Willis Robertson Award for ARMN. Photo courtesy of Marion Jordan.

In the last few years, members of ARMN led by Bill Browning have spearheaded public education to alert the community to the effects of deer browsing and begin the process of addressing barriers to developing an effective and humane program to control deer population in Arlington County. (See armn.org blog piece, “White-tailed Deer and Forest Health in Northern Virginia” that addresses how deer impact our forests.) The team worked on deer browse surveys, major outreach events with the Virginia Native Plant Society, the Deer Advisory Council for Northern Virginia, Arlington’s Urban Forestry and Environmental Services departments, and in 2019, with regional experts from VA, MD, and DC to create a volunteer training and public presentation that has been delivered over 40 times in the past two years.

Photo of ARMN volunteer Bill Browning
Bill Browning. Photo courtesy of Toni Genberg.

Bill (the 2018 winner of the Bill Thomas award) and the other volunteers have also addressed Arlington County Board members, School Board members, the County Manager, the Chair of the Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Acting Chief of Police. Bill also made presentations to Park and Recreation department employees and to several Arlington County civic commissions who have supported this message with letters to the County Board.

They also talked to civic/neighborhood associations, garden clubs, Extension Master Gardener volunteers, local TV and social media, and spoke at regional parks and conservancy, and hunting club meetings. This outreach has done much to bring the issue forward, engage stakeholders, and provide county decision-makers with sound, unbiased information for their consideration of a deer management plan.

ARMN is excited for this honor and opportunity to credit members like Glenn Tobin for their instrumental work to benefit our local natural environment.

Sometimes the Small Things Tell the Real Story: Windy Run Park

Text and photos by Glenn Tobin

I was Zoom talking with a small group of ARMN Park Stewards the other day about what inspires us as we help restore ecosystems in our parks. (ARMN Park Stewards are volunteer leaders who work with local park management and staff to help preserve, enhance, restore, and potentially expand the parks’ natural areas, habitats, and ecosystems.)There were many inspirations, but everyone had one in common—seeing how nature begins to heal itself when troublesome invasive plants are removed. It does not happen immediately, but if one observes, the rewards are great. 

Several weeks ago, I was walking along a path I frequent in Windy Run Park in North Arlington. Those who have been there know that the park connects to the George Washington Memorial Parkway and from there to the Potomac River via a steep set of stairs along a beautiful waterfall. 

Photo of a waterfall

As you descend, you might use your right hand to steady yourself along a vertical rock face that extends up from the stairs to far above your head. 

In 2016, that cliff face was covered with English ivy. After getting the o.k. from the National Park Service, I began clearing invasives along the river. The problems were huge in comparison to that small spot. However, I decided to clear it to improve the overall look of the area as I would walk up the stairs. 

As I walked down the stairs several weeks ago, I looked at the cliff face more closely and noticed that a new set of beautiful plants had colonized cracks in the wall from which the ivy had been pulled earlier. Here’s a wide view: 

Photo of plants colonizing a cliff face

Then I started to look more closely. As I saw more and more detail, I also saw more and more beauty—and a great variety of living organisms. Here are two pictures: 

Photo of plants on a rock face
Several types of mosses, likely including spikemoss (Pogonatum sp.) and ferns including a Spleenwort (Asplenium sp.), Mackay’s bladder fern (Cystopteris tenuis) or Blunt woodsia (Woodsia obtusa).
Young versions of the species noted above.

Sometimes I tell people that the process of ecological restoration is like an addictive drug. You rip some ivy off a small rock wall in 30 minutes and then a few years later something like this emerges. It is magical. I dream of a day where we have restored our forests, and the true beauty of biodiverse natural systems becomes obvious to all. 

And there are more improvements to the park than just invasive plant removal. If you know the Windy Run area, you are aware that more than a decade ago, a rockslide destroyed the lower part of the stairs and getting across the boulder field was a bit tricky. Last fall, the stairs and handrail were repaired to address the safety concerns. A unique collaboration across ARMN, the National Park Service, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, and a few regular trail users funded stone masons and iron workers to make the necessary repairs. 

The photos below show the before/after stair repairs. The small blue circles provide common reference points across the two pictures. 

Before and after photo of a stair repair project in Windy Run Park.

The new stairs are much more accessible to a wider range of hikers now. Below is some detail of the improved surfaces. 

Windy Run Stair- details of surface through former boulders and uo staircase. Three photos show details of stairs repair.

And finally, this photo shows the new handrail along with the new stairs. 

(The “Warning” sign has since been removed.)

Photo of new railing along Windy Run stairs

Access to Windy Run Park is from the cul de sac at the end of North Kenmore Street, off of Lorcom Lane. The waterfall and stairs are about a half mile away, following the stream. There are four unimproved stream crossings before reaching the top of the stairs (and the stairs themselves are very steep), so the park is not for everyone. You should feel comfortable on rough terrain and crossing potentially wet rocks to make the trip. But if you can manage it, Windy Run Park and the Potomac riverfront along the Potomac Heritage Trail are among the most beautiful spots in the region. 

How Your Very Own Wildlife Habitat Can Bring Ahhhhhh to These Troubling Times

Text and photos by Toni Genberg

What a wild ride. The past eight months have been a roller coaster of unprecedented challenges—seemingly insurmountable ones at that. I think I can state with a fair amount of confidence that we’ve collectively experienced anxiety, frustration, and also heartbreak. Maybe a bit of anger too. These have been tough days.

Fortunately, there’s this wonderful thing called nature out there. Woodlands, meadows, wetlands … outdoor spaces that allow us to de-stress. There’s no doubt the pandemic has illuminated the value of such protected areas, at least for those of us lucky enough to live near them. 

Photo of tree canopy.
Trees please. This kind of habitat can naturally lift downtrodden spirits.

I’ve had the luxury of spending many hours in some of these nearby natural areas, often to help destroy invasive plants. But a large chunk of my outdoor time is spent in my own personal sanctuary. While the mass movement to visit parks and to simply get outside continues, I experience that decompressing ahhhhhh feeling just footsteps from my door. On this quarter-acre lot four miles from bustling Tysons Corner Center, essential native plants feed uncommon bumble bees, delightful monarch caterpillars, hungry migrating birds, and much, much more.

Left: Photo of a backyard with garden beds. Right: Photo of wildflowers
LEFT: Even a small backyard, when planted with locally native plants, can become a functioning wildlife habitat. RIGHT: Butterfly-weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and narrow-leaf mountain-mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium) grow along with other shorter perennials in the front garden.

This habitat did not come about by accident, however. And it wasn’t created overnight. My garden-with-native-plants-or-die journey began about seven years ago with a lecture given by renowned entomologist Dr. Doug Tallamy. His groundbreaking research showed that native plants support all life, even our own. (Yay, science!)

This past February, right before the covid-19 pandemic changed the way we lived, Tallamy’s lecture circuit brought him once again in front of a massive audience in Manassas. His rousing message urged us to repurpose turfgrass with native plants to form our very own “Homegrown National Park.” Reducing just half of all lawns across the country this way would return more than 20 million acres of America to wildlife habitat. Twenty. Million. Acres.

A pandemic prognosticator, Tallamy listed these benefits of building a park at home:

  1. You can enjoy nature on your own time at your own pace
  2. Avoid crowds
  3. It’s free 
  4. Avoid travel hassles
  5. Experience the natural world alone
  6. Hunt lizards!

And now there’s one more benefit: 

  1. Keep safe from droplets!

See what a Tallamy-inspired garden, enthusiastically documented over the past eight months of isolation, has attracted:

Photos of a bird, red bud flowers, and a squirrel.
MARCH: LEFT: This dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis), foraging through leaf litter, will eventually make its way north to colder regions. CENTER: Redbud (Cercis canadensis) blossoms are an early source of nectar. RIGHT: Essential to forest regeneration, Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) are also a constant source of entertainment.
Photos of Carolina wren birds, an eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly, and a white throated sparrow.
APRIL: LEFT: The cutest Carolina wren fledglings (Thryothorus ludovicianus) hatched in the brush pile out back and were raised on an incredible number of spiders. CENTER: A puddling eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) in an area that was once asphalt. RIGHT: White-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), here all winter, will depart soon and return again in October.
Photos of a Painted Lady butterfly, a horned passalus be
MAY: LEFT: Painted lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) lay eggs every spring on plantain-leaved pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia). CENTER: Decaying wood feeds many horned passalus beetles (Odontotaenius disjunctus). RIGHT: This monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) showed up on May 4th to lay eggs on common milkweed (Asclepius syriaca).
Photos of a house wren on a bird house, a hoverfly pollinating a sundrop flower, and a brown thrasher bird.
JUNE: LEFT: Yes, I know it’s “just” a house wren (Troglodytes aedon), but I was glad to see her using the unoccupied bird house. CENTER: Sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa) brighten the garden and feed pollinators and other flower visitors—like this margined calligrapher (Toxomerus marginatus). RIGHT: A brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) fledgling’s surprise visit. These birds are a declining species that forage in leaf litter.
Photos of a bumblebee visiting a flower, a caterpillar on a black-eyed susan, and a hummingbird drinking nectar from a flower.
JULY: LEFT: A fuzzy bumble bee (Bombus sp.) nectaring on Winged monkeyflower (Mimulus alatus). CENTER: This camouflaged looper caterpillar (Synchlora aerata) dressed up in the bright petals of black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta). RIGHT: Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) attracts ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) and are in turn pollinated by this wee bird.
Photos of a mockingbird perched on elderberry berries, a red oak leaf with holes eaten by insects, and a thistle flower with bees.
AUGUST: LEFT: Common elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) feeds northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) and many other birds and mammals. CENTER: Oaks such as this northern red oak (Quercus rubra) support the highest numbers of butterfly and moth (Lepidoptera spp.) caterpillars along with other insects. RIGHT: So many animals are attracted to field thistle (Cirsium discolor).
Photos of a male common yellowthroat bird, juvenile goldfinches reaching for food from an adult goldfinch, and a magnolia warbler perched on a twig.
SEPTEMBER: LEFT: A male common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) flits about as it forages in stands of native perennials. CENTER: Feed me! Juvenile American goldfinches mob dad for field thistle (Cirsium discolor) seeds that ripen under the cable line. RIGHT: A migrating magnolia warbler (Setophaga magnolia) whom I hope to see again in the spring.
Photos of a palm warbler, a ruby-crowned kinglet, and a downy woodpecker peeking out a
OCTOBER: LEFT: A sighting first: a pretty palm warbler (Setophaga palmarum), another migratory bird. CENTER: An adorable ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) poses on a log I placed for such occasions. RIGHT: A front garden snag-turned-art-carving invites a downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) to build a home.

If you’re curious about how best to create your own private park, here are some environmentally-sound suggestions:

  • Buy locally native plants to support our indigenous critters and to keep our wild areas ecologically intact. I like to frequent Earth Sangha’s plant list to choose my local ecotype plants. The Earth Sangha family is always happy to help you to select the right plants for your site conditions and your needs. 
  • If you have an appropriate location, plant native keystone plants such as white oak (Quercus alba) and wild black cherry (Prunus serotina). These trees are the two top supporters of Lepidoptera spp. (moth and butterfly) larvae.
  • Remove invasive plants because they can escape from your yard into natural spaces. Getting rid of invasives on your property is equally as important as planting natives. 
  • Reduce lawn. Turfgrass is considered to be ecologically devastating because of the problematic way humans maintain it (use of fertilizers and weed killers) and because of how little life it supports.
  • Forgo the pesticides. Grub controls, mosquito sprays, and rodent poisons harm more than just the targeted “pests.”
  • Leave the leaf litter to maintain plant and soil health and to harbor a variety of animals. Slugs, moths, and spiders are just as important as our enchanting fireflies and butterflies—which rely on leaf litter to survive.
  • Strive to keep discarded plant material on your property. It takes resources to haul it away and process it.
  • Use some of that unwanted plant material to build a brush pile for birds and small mammals.
  • Leave a dead tree (called a “snag”) standing when feasible. Any size snag can support wildlife but leaving at least a six-foot-tall dead or dying tree feeds innumerable insects and can provide homes for woodpeckers and other animals.
  • Allow branches and logs to rot in your garden or lug neighbors’ chain-sawed tree parts onto your property or do both! These logs make a lovely natural edging and are as enticing to insects as snags are.
  • Keep outdoor lights off to help moths, birds, and bats. Yellow light bulbs in a motion-activated fixture are also a good solution. Note that some studies show that residential exterior lights do not prevent crime.

Although the landscape I nurture is still fluid and an ongoing labor of love (yes, my garden is much more work than lawn is), it has from the get-go provided valuable eco-services. I recommend taking on small sections at a time. Begin by planting lower-maintenance trees and shrubs. Then just add water. And love.

Photo of an insect on a purple flower.
Carolina elephant’s-foot (Elephantopus carolinianus) attracts smaller insects.

There’s never been a better time or reason to create your own oasis. Even if you have only a patio or a balcony, a few native plants grown in containers can attract and support a variety of teeny animals such as our native bees and caterpillars. Let’s help the critters we are passionate about and also help ourselves. 

For more of Tallamy’s philosophy, see: April 2020 Smithsonian Magazine interview, “Meet the Ecologist Who Wants You to Unleash the Wild on Your Backyard.”

ARMN: Blog Getting to Know Beth Kiser

By Alison Sheahan

I’d be hard-pressed to think of a more terrific way to spend a wintry afternoon than my (pre-pandemic) tea (& goodies!) at Silver Diner with Beth Kiser early this year. I knew of Beth from her efforts to organize the Park Stewards program (Adopt-a-Park leaders who oversee volunteer stewardship work in Arlington, Alexandria, and Falls Church parks and engage with neighboring park communities). But I was pleased to find we had many other overlapping priorities and friendships. I enjoyed getting to know Beth and I’m sure you will too. We began by talking about the more distant past….

Photo of volunteer Kellie Kaye
Hiking at Seneca Rocks WV 2010. Photo courtesy of Kellie Kaye.

Tell us something about your life experience that has shaped your perspective on nature.

I grew up in western North Carolina and spent a ton of time outdoors. My toy Fisher Price people had campfires and root cellars and cooked roasts over a spit. I remember the thrill of uncovering toads and snakes, eating chinquapins, and finding “touch-me-nots” (Impatiens capensis) with my granddad, with the seeds exploding in all directions. I remember hiking with my dad in hemlock forests and drinking icy cold spring water and breathing in the earthy smell of the woods. 

Conservation and restoration always felt to me like a totally normal and practical thing to do. I learned how non-native invasive plants can take over when I first saw kudzu swallowing the hillsides of the Blue Ridge Parkway. When I lived in Wisconsin in the 1990s, I was able to volunteer with a prairie burn. A lightbulb moment was reading Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home, about native plants, the insects that co-evolved to eat them, and the birds that eat only insects. I now feel like anytime I plant anything in our yard, it’s a fun opportunity to build our local ecosystem while getting to watch it up close. (And I love to grow and share native plants!)

Tell us something more about your background.

I work as an economist learning how risks can move through the financial system. I think my experiences in nature and through ARMN have brought me insights in economics, and vice versa. Economics and ecology are both about complex, interconnected systems. 

What are your favorite ARMN volunteer projects? 

Oh gosh, there are so many. I’ve had the opportunity to sample several over time. I love the annual “City Nature Challenge,” the bioblitz event where people in cities around the world collect and upload nature data that can be used for scientific research. It’s a great way to discover and record the cool critters and plants in our area. I’ve also enjoyed stream monitoring, especially getting in the water and turning over rocks to see what’s there. Through the Roving Naturalist program, I was able to take a live snake to the Arlington County Fair to share with the public. It’s so nice to meet people in our wonderfully diverse area and find out what they find exciting (or even scary!) about nature. 

Photo of volunteer Beth Kiser showing a corn snake
Sharing a corn snake at Arlington County Fair in 2016. Photo courtesy of Toni Genberg.

My favorite ARMN project today is the Park Stewards Program. Phil Klingelhofer and I started setting it up in 2017 and it’s really grown, thanks to all the volunteer leaders who’ve shared their amazing skills, knowledge, and hard work, and the natural resources and park managers in our area jurisdictions who’ve offered training and coordination. This work feels really important because it’s something we can actually do locally. Protecting the natural areas in our parks helps take carbon out of the air, prevents stormwater damage, and cools the “urban heat island.” It lets us see migrating birds in the spring and fall and fireflies in the summer. And it helps people connect with nature. 

What has surprised you most about ARMN?

I’m always struck by the incredible range of expertise and leadership skills of people in this community, and the perseverance and hope that ARMN folks bring to their volunteer work.

What do you like most about ARMN? 

I love the opportunity to be outside in nature while working with such kind and thoughtful volunteers. It took me awhile to connect with people after the initial ARMN basic training classes, but once I got into some regular projects, I was all in. 

Tell us something unusual about yourself.

Hmm…Target shooting?  In my early teens I participated with my dad in target shooting competitions using reproduction muzzle-loading rifles. 

Thank you, Beth, for your passion, humor, humility, and wonderful outreach for our precious planet.

Photo of Beth Kiser sitting on a rock in water
Birding in Dyke Marsh in 2018. Photo courtesy of Paul Smith.

My Little [Carolina] Chickadees

Text and photos by Noreen Hannigan

I learned from renowned entomology professor and author, Doug Tallamy, that native host plants are critical sources of insects for birds to feed their young. One of the earliest Continuing Education events I can remember attending after I graduated ARMN training in 2015 was a talk by entomology researcher Desiree Narango. Her graduate study (with Doug Tallamy as her advisor), discussed how the availability of native plants in residential landscapes influences the nesting success of Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis). She found that if there was less than 70% native plant biomass, insect populations declined as well as the chickadee population rate.  

I walked out of the lecture hall coo-coo for Carolina chickadees and immediately decided to set up a chickadee nesting house. I live on a somewhat busy street in North Arlington in a 1947-era neighborhood. When we moved here in 1982, we took Carolina chickadees, goldfinches, and titmice for granted because they were in abundance. But my ARMN training opened my eyes to how poor the habitat had become, and how many non-native starlings, grackles, and house sparrows had taken over while I wasn’t paying attention.

I doubted my yard had anything interesting for chickadees, but I pressed ahead. Two things I did quickly were: (1) consult Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home, for a tree that would fit in my small yard and support a decent number of caterpillars, and (2) head to a bird store for a chickadee house. Within a few days of hearing Ms. Narango’s talk, I planted a river birch (Betula nigra) and installed the chickadee house. Then I waited for the avian real estate market to get active in early spring.     

Carolina chickadees are year-round residents and live in flocks for much of the year. In late winter, nesting pairs (who are thought to mate for life) break off and look for nesting sites in natural cavities such as holes in decayed trees, but they will also use man-made bird houses if they are 5-15 feet above the ground and built to the right dimensions. Houses for many kinds of birds are commonly sold in bird stores, or you can make your own. Be sure, though, that you buy or make the right house for the bird you want to attract (and watch out for pushy house sparrows). Bird houses are easy to make if you are reasonably handy and have some basic tools. If you are going to make your own house, be sure to use the suitable dimensions and untreated wood.

You can learn more about Carolina chickadees and nest boxes and from websites I consulted, such as Cornell University’s “All  About Birds,” and the Tennessee Wildlife  Resources Agency site. Because I was impatient, I bought a ready-made chickadee house from a local bird store and—because I wanted to place it where I could see it from my porch—I also bought a mounting pole to put it in view.

Photo of a wooden chicadee house on a pole.
“Store-bought” chickadee house under the crossvine arbor.

I put it up in late winter so any chickadees in the area could scout it out before breeding season. Perhaps I overthought the process, but I worried that the house was too exposed to the elements, so I bought a wrought-iron arbor kit that I assembled and placed over the pole-mounted house. Then I planted a crossvine (Bignonia capreolata), which is semi-evergreen, to provide some protection in spring. It took a couple of years for the crossvine to get established, but it is growing over the arbor now and is casting shade and protection from the rain, as intended. (Yes, I have to keep it trimmed.) The cross braces on the arbor have also provided places for the adults to perch as they go in and out with nesting materials and food for the nestlings, which affords me the ability to observe them better.

The choice of the river birch proved to be a good one. Doug Tallamy lists river birch among the top five Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth)-supporting trees. Indeed, it has proven to be a popular perching and foraging place for chickadees and other birds in my yard. It is a fast-growing species, so it only took one or two years to attain a good size and be discovered by many birds. While nesting, the chickadees fly straight to it dozens (hundreds?) of times a day to peck at the peeling bark and branches to find insect protein for their nestlings. I cannot always see what they are finding on the tree, but they never seem to come away empty-beaked. Bonus: Goldfinch couples are also attracted to it and love to eat the seeds off the catkins (drooping flower clusters produced by trees) in late spring.  

Nesting chickadee couples start looking for nest sites around early April. I see them visit the yard, call to each other, and inspect the bird house. Like any landlord, I eagerly anticipate signs that a couple wants to sign a lease. Some say it isn’t necessary, but I “prime” the inside of my chickadee house with a couple of inches of wood chips. You can use debris from a decaying tree, or even clean hamster bedding from the pet store. Just be sure the material is untreated. One sign that chickadees are seriously considering your house is when they start throwing out your wood chips. Don’t take it personally, though. Being cavity nesters, they will work on making the interior to their liking and then start bringing in moss and other materials to finish it. After this behavior has lasted a week or two, I gently raise the hinged roof panel (after giving a gentle warning knock) every two or three days to look for eggs.

The next thing I do is somewhat controversial: I put up a “wren guard” as soon as the first eggs appear to keep house wrens (Troglodytes aedon) from getting inside and throwing out the eggs. House wrens are a native species, but they are very competitive for nest sites. They use the same-sized holes and cavities that chickadees do, so they will also be interested in these houses. Some naturalists are opposed to using wren guards and recommend letting the birds work it out on their own. I understand that point of view, but confess I am so intent on boosting the chickadee population around my small suburban yard that I use them.

Once I see the eggs and attach the wren guard, I observe that the parents are momentarily puzzled, but they figure out how to fly around it and into the entrance after about five or ten minutes. Using a wren guard is not a guarantee that a wren won’t get in, but it has worked for me several years in a row. Note that it is important to take the wren guard off when the nestlings are a week or two old (too big for a house wren to pick up) because it will interfere with their fledging. If you chose to use a wren guard, keep track of the timing.

To be clear, I like house wrens and don’t wish to harm or eradicate them. This is their native breeding range, and they are valuable to the ecosystem, too. I merely want them to wait until my chickadees have launched before coming in. House wrens can also take over the nests of other birds such as bluebirds and tree swallows. As this website notes, use of a wren guard should not be your first course of action. The best way to prevent predation by house wrens is to put the nest box away from sites that would be attractive to them. But because of my small yard, I have few options for nest box placement. 

I locate my nest box a few yards from my back porch because I’m a nosy landlord and I want to know everything my tenants are doing! While they are feeding their brood of five-ten babies for 16-19 days, they work from dawn until dusk every day bringing in hundreds of caterpillars—thousands before they’re done. The adults are tireless in their parenting duties. In addition to providing those thousands of caterpillars, they also take out all of the babies’ “fecal sacks” (poop in a gelatinous membrane) in order to keep the nest clean. It’s in with food, out with poop, hundreds of times a day for as many as 10 nestlings. That’s an incredible amount of energy and dedication generated by birds that only weigh about a half an ounce.

A photo of a Carolina chickadee with a caterpillar in its mouth.
Chickadee parent with caterpillars for chicks.

Whether it would have happened without using a wren guard, I can’t say, but a lot of new chickadees have fledged from my little house. I am usually fortunate to be watching the day they fledge, and I generally count seven or eight fledglings as they emerge. Unlike robin babies that hop around on the ground until they learn to fly, chickadee young take immediately to the air and wait in nearby trees and shrubs for their family to gather. The parents then lead them to a suitable habitat and continue to feed them in the wild for another two or three weeks. Some years I don’t know where they go after they leave my nest box, but this year the fledglings hung around the vicinity for about a month. I watched as they would transit my yard, usually in the mornings, perching from the river birch, to the red maple, to the holly, etc., at first being fed by the adults, but then learning to pick at branches and twigs for their own food. I could also tell as the days and weeks went by how their calls went from squealy little “dee dee dee” noises to more dignified-sounding “chickadee-dee-dee-dee” adult calls.

Lest you feel sorry for the house wrens who had been eying my chickadee house, I came outside the morning the chickadee family had flown, and right before my eyes, a house wren couple was already carrying its own nesting materials in. I let them stay.  

Five years ago, I rarely heard a chickadee around my house, but I see and hear more and more with each passing year. Not all survive their first year, but some are thought to live two to five years. Every spring I look forward to nesting season the way some people look forward to baseball season. I get my bird house ready for them and position my porch chair for a good view. Little do they know how much joy they bring. For one thing, they are too busy raising their children and cleaning house!

The Secret Lives of Chipmunks

By Rosemary Jann

We have always lived peaceably with our backyard chipmunks. I knew that they had burrows under the cement pad for the AC and behind the garden shed.  But when I found a new burrow hole right up against the foundation of our house, I confess I had the urge to declare war.

Photo of a chipmunk with full cheeks
Copyright David Howell.

Arlington’s local chippies are Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) and members of the squirrel or Sciuridae family. Their scientific name means “striped storer,” a reference to their characteristic field marks: white stripes bordered by black on each side of their backs plus a black stripe down the centerline, as well as white stripes around their eyes. Adults weigh in at 5 oz. or less and measure about 10” long, including their bushy tails, which they hold high while running. And they’re usually on the move when you see them, since their small size makes them vulnerable to predators. According to the Mother Nature Network, these include hawks, owls, foxes, snakes, and, especially in our backyards, free-roaming cats. An article in the Journal of Mammalogy explains that chipmunks have different calls to warn about different predators: a chip for terrestrial foes and a cluck for aerial ones, plus a chip-trill when they’re being pursued. This National Geographic page on chipmunks includes a video with these three calls.

Chipmunks are also constantly on the move because they need to use every daylight hour to collect food, especially in the fall. The National Wildlife Federation describes them as omnivores who will eat fruit, nuts, grain, berries, insects, fungi, small amphibians, and even bird eggs or nestlings if they find them on the ground. According to the Mother Nature Network, their cheeks can expand to three times the size of their heads to carry food.

Photo of a chipmunk with very full cheeks
Photo by Gilles Gonthier (CC by 2.0).

Alonso Abugattas, the Capital Naturalist, notes that since they mostly consume seeds and nuts within their burrows, chipmunks are not a significant source of seed dispersal. But their appetite for mushrooms does help to distribute mycorrhizal fungi that is beneficial to trees and plants.

In their underground burrows, chipmunks create multiple food caches that will sustain them through the winter months. They are not true hibernators, but rather exist in a state of torpor, waking periodically to eat. The National Wildlife Federation mentions scientific studies suggesting that global warming may be undermining chipmunks’ survival rates by disrupting their normal hibernation cycles.

Their underground burrows can be up to 30 feet long and have at least two widely spaced openings. Nesting areas are separate from food caches. The Mother Nature Network describes chipmunks as generally solitary except for mating, which occurs in the spring and sometimes again in late summer.  The female raises 2-5 pups, who leave the nest and go off on their own within 6 weeks.

Although typically forest dwellers, chipmunks have adapted readily to suburban environments and thus can come into conflict with people by eating bulbs, raiding bird feeders, and digging too close to foundations. Although they do carry ticks,  the Humane Society notes that chipmunks themselves are not known to spread diseases to humans, and their burrows seldom cause significant structural damage. The Society advocates tolerance rather than termination and various methods to deter them: move bird feeders at least 15 feet from your house, sweep up spilled seed, avoid plantings close to your foundation, use wire mesh to protect bulbs.

I wound up following the advice of the Bi-State Wildlife Hotline and placing a rag soaked in ammonia and a cup of moth bulbs near the new foundation hole. That way I can remove both without harming the soil once the chipmunks have relocated. The Hotline also mentions various commercial and home-made remedies to discourage them from chewing on decks and fencing.

Everyone has a different level of tolerance when it comes to living with backyard wildlife. In stepping back from the brink of war, I’ve reminded myself that the rewards for learning to coexist with chipmunks are supporting a more diverse ecosystem and enjoying the continuing antics of these tiny, charismatic neighbors.

White-tailed Deer and Forest Health in Northern Virginia

by Bill Browning

Deer are a natural and beautiful part of our forest. They are Virginia’s largest herbivore, and despite their size, they are fast, agile, and graceful. They are an integral part of our ecosystem. However, their population has grown to the point where they unfortunately are overwhelming other species, degrading our forests, and harming the environment.

Photo of a herd of deer on a lawn in front of a house
Deer congregating on household steps. Photo courtesy of Donna Owen.

Population History

Deer helped fuel European settlement in the 17th-19th centuries. Our colonial ancestors hunted them for food and clothing, and even used deer skins (buckskins) as a form of money to trade for goods; the slang word for money, “buck,” comes from this era.

Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) estimates that there were somewhere between 400,000 and 800,000 deer in Virginia in the early 1600s. We nearly extirpated them from the Commonwealth by the early 20th century as hunting and economic development drove them from our landscape. Deer became so scarce in Virginia that DGIF even had to import deer from the Midwest to satisfy the local hunting community.

During the latter part of the 20th century, as hunting declined and agricultural land was transformed into suburbia, the deer population exploded in our area. Deer are an “edge species” which means they prefer territory where natural woodland habitats meet encroaching human habitats. William McShea, a wildlife biologist with the National Zoo, says that “the eastern United States was [originally] one deep, dark forest. Now it’s deer nirvana. It’s one big edge.” Today, we likely have more than a million deer in Virginia.

Graph showing estimated decline in deer population from 1600 to 1900 followed by growth in deer population from mid 1900s to the 2000s
Conservative DGIF estimate of deer population.

More Deer Mean More Deer Browse

Deer are eating machines. An adult deer eats between 5-7 pounds of vegetation per day. Wildlife biologists at the National Park Service estimate that one square mile of a healthy forest can generate enough vegetation to feed about 15-20 deer. The jurisdiction of Arlington County, for example, has slightly more than one square mile of deer habitat (natural areas), suggesting that it can support little more than 15-20 deer in total. Many of us have spotted more than a dozen deer in our own neighborhoods, much less the whole county. The results are likely similar in other parts of Northern Virginia.

Photo of ARMN volunteer Todd Miners holding vegetation
Todd Minners holding vegetation representing 8 pounds. Photo courtesy of Sandy Minners.

As a result of this overpopulation, deer are destroying the understories in our natural areas. Forest understories are vital for habitat and for ecosystem services. When the forest is degraded, there’s no place for many songbirds to build their nests and no cover for mammals and amphibians to hide from predators. Moreover, there’s less plant material to absorb rainfall, making the Chesapeake Bay more vulnerable to pollutant runoff and our urban neighborhoods more susceptible to occasional flooding.

Through selective feeding, deer affect forest plant communities by reducing tree seedling numbers, species composition, and seedling height. They also affect herbaceous plant composition as they browse on some species and ignore others. The Virginia Native Plant Society notes that deer browse removes hundreds of plants that provide food for insects, birds, and small animals that depend on them, such as orchids, trilliums, oaks, milkweeds, hickories, and blueberries.

A 2016 Penn State Extension Report notes that, when the deer population density exceeds what the land can support, forest regeneration suffers. Decades of overbrowsing by deer have so severely depleted the habitat that many residents have never seen a healthy forest understory. And it is this healthy forest understory that provides the environment from which future canopy trees can emerge. Richard Parker, regional director of the Genesee State Park Region (New York), said that “as the current forest dies, there will be nothing to replace it.” 

In the pair of photos below, the forest on the left provides food and habitat for many species of insects, birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. This well-structured forest can filter sediment and pollutants out before the rainwater reaches the Chesapeake Bay. It can also generate enough seedlings to take over from the current canopy trees in the next generation. Conversely, the forest on the right is what we frequently see in northern Virginia where intense deer browsing means that any native plant that dares to poke itself up out of the ground is nipped off almost immediately by a deer passing by.

Photo of a healthy forest with under story and a browsed forest
Healthy and deer-browsed forests. Photo courtesy of Charles Smith.
Photo of a wood thrush bird in her nest
Wood thrush nest. Photo courtesy of David Howell.

Too many deer are ruining our home gardens, defeating our park restoration efforts, and potentially endangering our health. They eat the plants we put in our yards unless we happen to have a dog patrolling the property or we spray deer repellent on our plants after every rain event. They eat the plants we install to restore our parks, unless we protect the plants with heavily fortified deer cages. And finally, as they wander through our parks and neighborhoods, they defecate where they please; deer can spread a variety of illnesses, such as giardia, in fecal matter that can end up in streams.

Photo of deer exclusion fence around a plant
Deer exclusion fence around a plant in Powhatan Park in Arlington. Photo courtesy of Bill Browning.
Photo of a deer in a playground
Deer in playground area of Boulevard Manor neighborhood in Arlington. Photo courtesy of Ron Battocchi.

Too Many Deer Equals Unhealthy Deer

Many wildlife biologists argue that the deer have so decimated our local forests that they are unable to find sufficient food to remain well nourished. And while that fact may be debated by some other biologists, there is no disputing the fact that deer density is contributing to the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) which is similar to mad cow disease. CWD is transmitted through saliva and other fluids, and as deer congregate closer to one another, they are more likely to transmit this disease. CWD is insidious. Once infected, death is certain. CWD first showed up in white-tailed deer in 2001 in South Dakota and Nebraska. It has now spread to 24 states, including Virginia, where it appears to be migrating eastward from the West Virginian border.

A map showing cases of chronic wasting disease in Virginia from 2009 to 2019
Chronic Wasting Disease positive results in Virginia, 2009-19.

Losing—and Regaining—Balance in our Deer Population

Human expansion and economic progress have driven natural predators out of Virginia, giving the deer free rein. We have not had effective predators for deer, such as wolves or mountain lions, in Virginia since the early 20th century. And other predators, such as foxes or coyotes, are ineffective. Foxes prefer smaller mammals and coyotes are unable to bring down anything but a small fawn. If you hear that a recovered fox or coyote carcass happens to have deer meat in their intestines, it most likely came from scavenging.

Given that human population and economic growth has allowed deer to expand in our area, we need human intervention to bring balance into the system. People frequently ask whether contraception or sterilization could be used as a humane way to control the deer population, but it is not humane. According to DGIF wildlife biologists, deer are susceptible to capture myopathy, also known as white muscle disease. This response to being captured, restrained, and handled causes the deer to build up lactic acid in their muscles. This lactic acid affects blood pH and can kill many of the internal organs, especially the heart. While some experts say it is possible to capture deer with low mortality rates in order to treat them with a contraceptive, it has not been shown to be effective in managing deer populations in an open environment. These methods require frequent follow up and can be quite costly. Further, DGIF only approves of medical intervention with deer for research, not for population management.

Given these limitations, local jurisdictions have adopted managed hunting as the best way to control the deer population in our area.

Fairfax County began an archery program after a librarian was killed in a car collision with a deer in 1997. The county’s managed hunting program now includes archery, shotguns, and high-powered rifles that has grown to cover about 100 of its county parks and properties (more than 80% of county parkland). The volunteer archers alone have culled about 1,000 deer per year since 2014 and the county donates venison to the Hunters for the Hungry program. Police and wildlife managers exercise strong oversight and there have been no safety incident or injuries to park patrons (or pets) since the program’s inception.

Montgomery County, MD manages archery, shotgun hunting, and sharpshooting operations in 54 parks, covering more than 50% of the county’s total park area. The county program began in the late 1990s, and hunters have removed over 19,500 deer from the parks and donated 315,000 pounds of venison to the Capital Area Food Bank. County police records document that collisions with deer have declined near the parks where culling takes place, and there have been no injuries to hunters or citizens as part of these programs.

A sign altering the public of a park closure for a deer hunt
Deer hunt sign in Montgomery County, MD. Photo courtesy of Todd Minners.

The National Park Service began its Rock Creek Park deer management program in 2012 and uses professional sharpshooters to hunt at night when the park is closed to the public. Since March 2013, almost 400 deer have been removed from the park and over 10,000 pounds of venison has been donated to D.C. Central Kitchen, a non-profit organization that distributes meals to homeless shelters in the metro area. In the decade between 2009 and 2019, NPS estimates that in Rock Creek Park seedling numbers rose from 2,240 per hectare (2006-2009) to 5,960 per hectare (2016-2019). There have been no hunting accidents in the park.

Arlington County and the City of Alexandria do not have a deer management program at this time.

Perhaps some of our analysis can be best summarized by a quote from Aldo Leopold in the 1940s. Leopold was a wildlife biologist, a professor, and an early conservation thinker, who helped change our country’s land management approach from one of conquering the land to living in harmony with it. He wrote in A Sand County Almanac:

“just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.”

By ignoring the deer overpopulation problem, we are allowing the deer to degrade the environment at the expense of many other native species and the future of our forests.