My hardware store, the one I’ve adopted as mine, is part of a chain but behaves like one of those old neighborhood places with bins and nooks and crannies to explore, something to meet almost any task, and folks who’ve been at it so long they know what they’re talking about.
Most of the times I visit, about a half-dozen people are working, and some or all greet me with hellos or offers to help. One old boy is seven feet tall or close to it, and always wearing bib overalls. Someday I’ll ask where he finds them in his size. Another guy, who I gather is the boss, has a bit of Wilford Brimley in his looks, complete with roundish wire rims, but his ’stache is not the full Brimley.
This is where I buy bales of straw for the chickens, bird netting for our fruit trees, nails sold by weight, the occasional drill bit, sometimes ammo to keep the squirrels at bay, fencing wire, and pretty much whatever I need. The Lowe’s 10 miles away is a little cheaper, but I never learn anything when I go there.
A couple of days ago I walked in, we said hi, and I headed back into the bowels of the place to poke around and find something that I don’t recall just now. There had been six of them standing or sitting behind the counter when I entered. When I returned to the front, only Wilford was there.
“Where’d everybody go?”
“Time for lunch,” he said. “Funny how they scattered. Sort of like how quail used to do in the fields.”
“Used to do?”
“Don’t see ’em much anymore,” he said. This was bad news, certainly on an eco level, and because I love eating them now and then – peppered and gently roasted in a bacon jacket, their bones so small you can eat them if you like the crunch – though I’ve never hunted. Their eggs, when you can find them, are another special treat.
“It’s the fescue grass. Doesn’t leave enough room for them to nest.”
Fescue? I knew the name, maybe – I thought – from ads for grass seed. Before moving south, I’d had no particular need in the city to know anything else about it. But this now hit close to home. Later that day I did some research.
Quail Unlimited magazine calls fescue “the single biggest problem facing bobwhite quail and other grassland birds throughout a major portion of their range.” This includes most of the South, parts of Missouri, Illinois, and Ohio. And “Kentucky and Tennessee lie in the heart of the problem area.”
Tall Fescue, the type identified by scientists as KY 31, is tall, hardy, invasive, and kind of a super grass providing perennial forage for farm animals. It’s also a beautiful bright green ornamental often planted in gardens. The South Lawn of the White House is all mown fescue.
But there’s a hook. It’s so hardy that it easily and entirely takes over pastures and hayfields, squeezing out virtually all other plants. It produces thickly matted undergrowth, leaving almost no room for ground-nesting birds such as quail, or for free movement of rabbits and other ground-dwelling creatures. In winter, ice and snow flatten the tall grass, making it almost useless as ground cover.
It also has one of those wondrous symbiotic relationships with another organism that in many ways defeats its usefulness as a food grass for livestock.
Just as the so-called toothpick bird – a small black plover – is permitted to feed unharmed in the gaping mouth of the African crocodile, cleaning up food bits stuck between those fearsome teeth; just as the remora eats parasites from the underbelly of a shark while enjoying the protection of its powerful host; a type of fungus – an endophyte – thrives among the cells and on the surface of fescue. Without other types of grass to dampen its effects, the fungus can be toxic to the animals that eat fescue. Horses are especially vulnerable to the poison, which can kill both the broodmare and its foal. In cattle, it can cause gangrene in the feet, interfere with milk production, and damage the coat in a way that cuts the animals’ tolerance to summer heat.
Some states have fescue eradication programs in place to help farmers interested in returning wildlife to their land. I don’t need to go into that here. Suffice it to say they involve plowing, controlled burning and – least desirable from my humble perspective – the use of chemical herbicides.
But as a novice homesteader who is fascinated by and values the many types of wildlife we enjoy on Shuddering Squirrel Acres, I was glad to pick up the knowledge sparked by a simple comment at my hardware store, one that led me off to a treatise on tall grass and tiny birds.
It’s not the only thing I’ve learned jawing at the hardware. Another is much less pastoral, far more alarming, and the subject of my next post.
It explains why I can’t go there to buy lye.
(Reader, please note, I also keep a personal blog, "I'm mildly concerned that one of my hens is a rooster." Have a look if you get a chance. You'll find some duplicate content, but dig back, there's more.)
Photo credits: Bobwhite Quail - National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, Knoxville, TN; Tall Fescue, U.S. National Park Service.