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Birds & Burdock

2-15-16 bird caught on burdock by Holly BroughIMG_5814The phenomenon of North American birds being killed by becoming entangled in Common Burdock (Arctium minus) has been documented since at least 1909, when one observer (in A.C. Bent’s compilation) described finding a multitude of Golden-crowned Kinglets in Common Burdock’s grasp:

They were visible in all directions, scores of them sticking to the tops of the clumps on the most exposed clusters of heads. The struggle had ended fatally for all that I saw, and its severity was evidenced by the attitudes of their bodies and the disheveled condition of their plumage. I examined a number of the burdock heads to determine that attraction had brought the kinglets within range of the hooks, and found insect larvae of two species present in considerable abundance.

Typically this phenomenon involves birds that are seeking either insects that are inhabiting the seed heads, or burdock seeds. The birds’ feathers get caught by the hooked bracts (modified leaves) that surround both the flower heads and seed heads of burdock. Small birds such as kinglets, gnatcatchers, goldfinches, nuthatches, hummingbirds, chickadees, warblers and siskins are the usual victims, but larger birds, including a Blue-headed Vireo and a Barn Swallow, have been caught as well. Most of these birds were found with their wings and tail spread, and caught by many parts of their bodies. The more they struggled, the more their feathers became entangled. Victims are not limited to birds — in 1925, a dead bat was discovered caught in a patch of burdock. (Photo by and thanks to Holly Brough)

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13 responses

  1. Joan

    Oh, what a heartbreaking picture.

    February 15, 2016 at 8:19 am

  2. Diane

    Same as Joan.

    February 15, 2016 at 8:27 am

  3. Wow. What a stark illustration of the idea that Mother Nature has no mercy… (not in a cruel way, I must remind myself – just reality…)

    February 15, 2016 at 8:44 am

  4. judilindsey

    Wow! Who would have thought that could happen! Thanks, Judi 🙂

    February 15, 2016 at 8:59 am

  5. k

    Oh no! It seems so unfair that an animal must die for no reason. It’s not like the burdock was going to use it. So sad. Sometimes nature seems so cruel.

    February 15, 2016 at 10:57 am

  6. Wow, I had no idea that this could happen! Very sad, yes, but living in the wildness of nature is tough. There are so many challenges that birds must put up with in order to survive and yet they persist like flying rainbows of happiness and delight!

    February 15, 2016 at 12:14 pm

  7. Susan Holland

    It never even occurred to me that birds could get caught by burdocks. Always just thought they were a pain to pick off the dogs. Once again I have learned something new from you. Thank you.

    February 15, 2016 at 1:30 pm

  8. That’s a sad photo. Too bad for the birds and the burdock – I am sure the burdock might benefit if birds were not enduring deadly danger to pick the insects off it. I guess that’s an example where a helpful adaptation meant for seed dispersal (and defense?) can also cost.

    February 15, 2016 at 1:52 pm

  9. myra ferguson

    Every autumn I walk along one of our hay field edges and either dig up, or cut the burdock at the base. Then I burn it in my brush pile of buckthorn, honeysuckle, barberry, russian olive, etc. My reason is to protect the deer from the irritation (and sometimes death in an extreme case) tangled fur and burdock can cause an innocent deer. Now I have another reason. During fifteen years of doing this chore, I have been able to control the spread of burdock from this one area. I have not obliterated it. I thought control rather than obliteration was wiser because it must serve a beneficial purpose. I’ll have to research its benefit because I only see the cruelty and unfairness.

    February 15, 2016 at 2:04 pm

    • Mary Metzger

      This plant is not native, so has no role in North American wilderness.

      February 15, 2016 at 3:56 pm

  10. Patsy Fortney

    Amazing! Never saw this before. Who knew?

    Sent from my iPhone


    February 15, 2016 at 2:05 pm

  11. What a cruel end – poor thing. I’ll never see burdock the same way again.

    February 15, 2016 at 2:56 pm

  12. Mary Metzger

    All the more reason to get rid of this non-native plant in yards and gardens.

    February 15, 2016 at 3:54 pm

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