Dressed in long sleeves, gloves and boots, five intrepid Audubon volunteers armed with weed whackers and clippers waded into burdock patches at a Helena-area wetlands last week and chopped away.
It wasn’t a vent-your-anger therapy session.
Known for their bristly burs that readily attach to both pets and humans, burdock can be more than annoying.
For bats and birds, the prickly-studded plants can be lethal.
“The burdock seed head is a lot like Velcro and has hooks on it,” said Janice Miller, president of Last Chance Audubon Society. For anyone who has had it stuck all over their pet, it’s quite a time-consuming process removing the burs.
“For a little songbird to get stuck in it, they can’t get loose and die a long, slow and painful death.”
While she’s personally never found a bird clutched it its grasp, a local LCAS board member has found bats that have died tangled in burdock.
Miller became aware of the problem by reading about it on the Bozeman area Sacajawea Audubon Society’s website, she said. Members there go out several mornings in August and September to cut burdock because it’s a recognized threat to migrating birds.
This year, the local Audubon chapter focused on cutting burdock off at ground level at the Kmart Detention Ponds.
“Our goal was twofold,” Miller said, “so songbirds and other birds don’t get stuck in it when migrating through and to remove the seed heads so they don’t propagate more for next year.”
She admits that ideally pulling out the roots would be the best approach, but just cutting them back was a huge effort.
Miller was particularly glowing about working with Helena city employees.
“Working with the city has been a huge, positive experience,” she said of the cooperation of Phil Hauck, Kevin Hart and Bill Horner, who helped Audubon volunteers get access to the stormwater ponds, lowered water levels for them to get at the burdock and even walked through the site checking for transients.
“They have done almost backflips,” said Miller. “And we can’t say enough about how great that relationship is.”
“He has the Audubon heart -- if you will. He has the vision,” Miller said of Horner, who is the supervisor of wastewater and stormwater utility maintenance.
Another happy discovery was some of the birds they spotted using the ponds last week -- mallards, snipe, a ruddy duck with eight newly hatched young, sandpipers and killdeer.
A not-so-happy discovery was just how much trash is being left by humans.
The five volunteers filled six to seven industrial-strength garbage bags with burdock, two with garbage and one with aluminum camps, she said.
City employees hauled the bags away to the Helena Transfer Station.
“The city has been working with us in fantastic ways,” said Miller, who is looking forward to future cooperative projects.
And it just may be a fresh start for the local Audubon chapter for other reasons, as well.
Miller is the first person in recent history to step up to be president. During the past decade, president duties have been split between several members.
“I’m jumping in with two feet,” she said. “It’s a new day for Last Chance Audubon. We’re all about building community and connections.”
Horner looks forward to working with them again.
“They’re really good people,” he said. “They clean up around the existing ponds. They keep us informed of transients building temporary homes out there. They’re another set of eyes for us. They’re over there quite a bit.”
The ponds are a popular place for dog walkers and birdwatchers, he said. Horner has seen a variety of wildlife there, including fox and sandhill cranes with their young, as well as ducks and geese.
The public can walk into the site through a walk-in gate off Harris Street.
“I mentioned that we were thinking of adding more biohaven islands,” Horner said of the plans he shared with Miller. The floating islands, covered with shrubbery, are anchored in the ponds and remove nitrates as well as provide bird habitat.
Miller would like Audubon volunteers to help Horner with the islands and also with future tree planting at both the Kmart ponds and two detention ponds north of Comfort Suites and east of Interstate 15.
“There’s not much vegetation out there,” he said. “I’m going to keep it in mind to have them get involved with any of our projects.”
For more information about the local Audubon chapter, visit www.lastchanceaudubon.org/.