A roadside daisy displays a fasciated center. (Photo by Deana Barajas)

A roadside daisy displays a fasciated center. (Photo by Deana Barajas)

On the Trails: An odd plant malady, a clever duck, and more

I recently learned about a mysterious, relatively rare affliction of plants called “fasciation.” A fireweed plant at the Point Bridget trailhead had not developed the usual towering spire of buds with the youngest at the top. Instead, the whole inflorescence was compacted into a bundle, such that the flowers would not open normally. That report was a new thing for me, so I kept my eyes open and found my own fasciated fireweed specimen along the dike trail.

Fasciation is known from quite a variety of plant species. Something happens to an active growth point and development goes awry. In the fireweed examples, it happened to the growth point at the tip of the inflorescence. It can also happen to stems, roots, and fruits, as well as within a developing inflorescence, causing part of it to become unusually large, as in the photo of the roadside daisy.

The word “fasciation” may refer to bands or stripes, but it’s not clear to me how that applies to these flowers. Nor is it understood what causes it. It seems likely that hormonal changes are involved in the abnormal growth, but what triggers that response? Many things may act as triggers, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, insects, exposure to chemicals, and frost damage. If caused by infection, the condition can spread by contact or in water drops. Fasciation can be genetic, transmissible from one generation to the next, if a trigger induces a suitable mutation.

Fasciated fireweed did not develop its inflorescence normally. (Photo by Deana Barajas)

Fasciated fireweed did not develop its inflorescence normally. (Photo by Deana Barajas)

For the past week or so, my home pond area has been rather busy. A female mallard has three large youngsters, as big as she is, but with their flight feathers not quite fully elongated. This family usually sticks rather close together. The female is always watchful, never very far from the brood. If they are nibbling bugs and things from the pond-side vegetation, she is just a few feet away, moving along in parallel with them. If they venture down over the little dam, she stands on the dam to watch. And she does not like to share the pond with other mama mallards; if they come to the pond at the same time as she does, she makes aggressive moves that force the other broods away. One of those has three small, fuzzy chicks and the other one has four slightly larger fuzzy chicks; these broods don’t stick together as tightly as the big ones, but often scatter to different parts of the pond. The brood of four has a place on the near side of the pond where they like to cuddle up together in a brown, fuzzy heap almost covered with buttercups, while mama sits on the water just offshore and guards them.

A female wood duck came almost every day for a while. She usually cruised around for a few minutes and eventually did her amazing stunt. I have to assume it was the same bird every time; there are not many wood ducks around here and she had this special trick. She would cock her head to look up at the seed feeder hanging from a pulley line and then take off almost vertically, flying up to hit the feeder. She tried several different attack methods, including landing on top of the feeder and flapping madly, but she settled on briefly hitting the top of the feeder, making it tip and spill seeds down onto the pond (video by KM Hocker at this link).

A family of chickadees comes every day, taking peanut butter, suet, and seeds. I was interested to note that four juvenile chickadees could forage peaceably together on the suet block. What a contrast to the hummingbirds, who can’t stand to share the nectar feeder with each other, even though it has four nectar ports. Young juncos from several families have been all over the feeders, eating suet, peanut butter, and seeds. Some of the youngsters are new, streak-chested fledglings, while others are old enough to be showing some adult plumage patterns. The kids quickly learn how to reach the peanut butter. All the young ones continue to beg from their parents, who sometimes oblige, especially for the fledglings. Varied thrushes come every day, gobbling the suet and occasionally the peanut butter. One day, I saw a male robin(!) sampling the peanut butter. There are yellow-rumped warblers too: males, females, and juveniles come to the peanut butter feeders several times every day, avidly grabbing nice gobbets. That seems to me to be a strange food for a warbler. Why don’t they try a sip of nectar too? Orange-crowned warblers are known to do so, and even a female hairy woodpecker figured out how to do it.

Occasionally, there is a big surprise over the pond. One day an adult eagle came, presumably thinking about duck for lunch, but all the ducks took cover. The eagle perched on an overhanging branch for a while but left, still hungry. It is very unusual to see an eagle here; the width of the pond is little more than about two of an eagle’s wingspan. A kingfisher perched on the pulley line with a little fish struggling in its bill. The fish flapped and the bird flapped as the line swung back and forth, and ultimately, the fish escaped.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology. “On The Trails” appears every Wednesday in the Juneau Empire.

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