Wildlife: Grapevines are aggressive, but not deadly

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Recently my wife, Linda, made a special request: "Buy me a chainsaw."

When I asked why, Linda said she had to cut down grapevines.

"They're killing the trees in the woods," she said.

I argued that grapevines do not kill trees. They use trees as a support structure to climb to patches of life-giving sunlight. Furthermore, in the summer months, grapes are an important wildlife food. In fact, after acorns and other nuts, grapes can be argued to be the most important wildlife food in deciduous woods.

Bears, raccoons and opossums relish grapes. Game birds such as turkeys, ruffed grouse, bobwhite and ring-necked pheasants frequent grape tangles when fruits are ripe. And virtually all fruit-eating songbirds love grapes.

Grapevine tangles also offer dense nesting and escape cover. Catbirds and brown thrashers often nest in thickets overgrown by grapevines, and at least 16 species of songbirds use grapevine bark as nesting material.

I rested my case, and Linda agreed to put off the purchase of a chainsaw "for now," she said.

A few days later we spent Mother's Day weekend along the Allegheny River in Foxburg, Pa. We were there for the annual Nature Fest, and on Saturday morning we scattered on field trips with other naturalists. One in my group was Bill Paxton, a forester from Latrobe. At one point, he pointed to a tall tree.

"See how that tree provides access to the canopy for the grapevines?" he said. "They need the sunlight."

After the morning field trips, I introduced Paxton to my wife. She spent the next 10 minutes learning about grapevines from an expert.

"They're just too valuable," Paxton said, adding that if the grapes invaded the yard and aggressively climbed some favorite trees, it would be OK to remove them selectively for aesthetic reasons.

That final concession did the trick. Linda agreed that the ecological value of grapes outweighed their aggressive nature.

"Cancel the chainsaw order," she said.

Biologist, author, and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 8-10 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 WVLY-AM (Wheeling) and online at www.wvly.net. He can be reached at www.drshalaway.com, sshalaway@aol.com and 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, W.Va., 26033.

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