Corn Defends Itself, Peacocks for Insect Control and Mining Mess

Corn emits a chemical to attack predators, using peacocks as pets and pest control, and the problem with mining in residential areas.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
February/March 1993
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Peacocks on parade: They may be pretty, but cover your crops- and your ears!
PHOTOS: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF


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Corn Wages Chemical Warfare

When caterpillars attack corn leaves, corn fights back. First a signal is emitted; then the corn kernels call in a troop of parasitic wasps to surprise attack the caterpillars. Female rescue wasps lay their eggs directly into the enemy caterpillars, and when they hatch, the larvae feast on the caterpillar's insides. As the larvae mature, they crawl out of the caterpillars as wasps and fly away. Mission accomplished.

All right, you buy the part about the wasps, but what is this corn-signaling-for-help nonsense?

According to researchers Ted Turlings, Ph.D., and James Tumlinson, Ph.D., of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Gainesville, Florida, corn emits a distress chemical, or turpenoid, when it senses caterpillar saliva. (Call it the "spit factor.") Wasps then pick up the turpenoid's scent and fly over to save the day.

The two researchers are currently trying to figure out why the corn reacts to the caterpillar's saliva. They are also rearing wasps in the laboratory and "teaching" them to read the corn's distress signal. Turlings and Tumlinson have developed a synthetic blend (similar to the turpenoid) that not only attracts wasps, but also poisons caterpillars and acts as an antibiotic against fungus and bacteria.

Turlings and Tulinson hope that one day farmers will sic 'em on cornfields by the swarm.

Bug-Eatin' Lawn Ornaments

Peacocks aren't just proud, they can be downright arrogant. Perhaps they have the regal appearance to pull it off, but nice garb shouldn't grant the right to cast looks.

So who'd want one for a pet?

According to farmers Debra Buck and Dennis Fett, you might.

The married couple operates the largest peacock farm in the nation, selling over 1,000 peafowl-hatching eggs a year. They believe the peacock is the organic bug control of the '90s. Peafowl will eat the bugs eating your vegetables and the worms eating your apples. They're also easy to care for since they eat the same foods as most poultry (although they should also be given a game-bird food containing 30 percent protein).

If you can see it all now-beautiful lawn ornaments dining on unwanted pests hold up; there are still a few considerations you should mull over. For one thing, peafowl frequently snack on flowers and garden vegetables. Broccoli and cabbage seem to top their list. In fact, Buck and Fett suggest gardeners grow extra vegetables to compensate for the inevitable loss. Peafowl also have a rather strange cry that resembles the sound of someone screaming "help!" : This maybe somewhat disconcerting for you and your family, and down right traumatic for your neighbors.

Let's take Rolling Hills Estates, California, for instance. Last year, when bands of wild India blue peafowl suddenly began roaming around community neighborhoods, residents nearly went berserk. The ingrate peafowl took it upon themselves to feast lavishly on vegetable gardens, relieve themselves on residential properties, and scream wildly at indecent hours of the night. Eventually community members became so fed up with the birds that city officials phoned Dennis Fett and offered him $200 plus expenses to figure out a solution. Fett agreed, and spent several sleepless nights determining ways to help out. He then flew to California and spent four days outlining alternatives and offering his suggestions to the town.

One of Fett's ideas was to develop a foundation that would organize the care and nurturing of the peafowl, using homeowners' associations to handle the peafowl problems and protect community plants from hungry birds. He also threw in some survival tips to make life more tolerable, such as: 1) avoid planting plants that peafowl like or put up a soft mesh screen around those garden vegetables, 2) avoid chemical pesticides, since peafowl also feed on bugs-the more they eat bugs, the less they'll eat gardens, and 3) hide your kitty's food bowl. Peafowl adore cat food.

As for the raucous noises, Fett told residents that they'd better get used to it. There's just no way to keep a peacock from screaming. (Well, no humane way).

So, weigh all of your pros and cons, and if you decide to buy one (females are peahens; males are peacocks; babies are peachicks), check with your city or county codes to ensure poultry may be kept, and then look for a good breeder.

Some Cyanide in Your Soil?

Bad news for country dwellers. Big mining corporations are blowing the tops off mountains from Iowa to Washington, and it's not coal they're after. It's gold. When they're going for coal, they at least have to clean up their mess-not so with gold.

Here's the real kicker: most companies use cyanide to separate the gold from the ore it's found in. Then, when they're finished mining they just, well ...leave it there. Unsuspecting animals fall victim to its nasty effects when they drink from cyanide pools. It also seeps into the ground, where sunlight can't break it down, and then enters the aquifer (underground water source). When ingested in large amounts, cyanide can be fatal.

You can blame this fiasco on the mining law that Congress passed in 1872-the same law that coaxed starry-eyed gold diggers to stampede California, dynamite in hand. The law basically says anyone can mine anywhere, anytime, for anything, and never mind the mess. So mining companies are buying up hundreds of acres of National Forest land.

And don't think private land is exempt. Mining companies make offers that many can't refuse. They'll pay Mr. Jones for permission to search his land. So you'll never know when Mr. Jones' tomato patch will be blown to bits. And this could depreciate your property's value.

Take for instance the small town of Chesaw, Washington, where Battlemountain Gold is all set to blast nearby Buckhorn Mountain. We're talking about a 100-acre open pit and 500 acres of dumped waste rock and tailings, soggy with aresenic. Locals are scared silly. Not to mention the fact that mines endanger bears, wolves, and lynx by poisoning their drinking water.

Knowing full-well that they pose these threats, mining companies sweet-talk opposition with the promise of new jobs.

Over-zealous community residents often catch building-fever, in anticipation of the mines bringing in new business. "People start building with visions of a huge windfall," says Jim Goettler, member of the Washington Commision for Responsible Mining.

Problem is, once all of the gold's gone, the companies then clear out, taking all the hands-on mining jobs and revenue with them. All they leave behind are a bunch of tacky mini-malls. Of course, these companies don't contribute one red cent towards the communities landfills, schools, or fire departments.

All these negative side effects have rural residents down in the mouth-but they are not powerless, Goettler says. You can gather together, do some foot stomping, and attack the 1872 Mining Act. Then badger Congress to amend mining legislation at the state level. After ripping up your land and dousing it with cyanide, the very least miners can do is clean up their mess.


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