September 23, 2010
It's called "beggar's tick," among the more charitable names. What you call it when your long-haired setter comes back covered with the sticky little seeds can't be reproduced in anything remotely approaching a family magazine.
Others group the seeds with anything that clings to fur and brush chaps as "sticktights." Desmodium is a legume and one of its species, tick trefoil, has few parallels as a quail food. There are 19 species of desmodium in the Midwest. The kidney-shaped seeds are prized by bobwhites in the fall when they're getting ready for a long winter.
Each seedpod is covered with fine hairs that, like Velcro, stick to almost everything ' the plant's mechanism for spreading its seeds. Fortunately, unlike cockleburs, desmodium is relatively easy to comb out or scrape off.
So prevalent is it that a quail-hunting friend once complained that he'd broken open a brand-new package of underwear shorts ' and found sticktights on them. Another friend sprang for a set of hunting chaps although he doesn't hunt just because their slick surface retained fewer beggar ticks when he was birdwatching.
Desmodium is but one of the vegetative pests that upland hunters are plagued by, a bird hunter's version of the Book of Job. Spanish needle is an invasive critter, no doubt one that the Spaniards were glad to get rid of. The most familiar seed is a two-pronged affair that attacks your clothing in clusters and, if the clothing happens to be a T-shirt, the little prongs go right through to the skin beneath.
They aren't as painful as cactus or other stiletto-imitating plants, but they're irritating and usually manage to lodge somewhere you can't reach, like between your shoulder blades or, if you happen to be in the supermarket chatting with the local minister, your crotch.
Spanish needle also is grouped with the "sticktight" crowd and I grew up calling it beggar's lice (as opposed to the desmodium "ticks").
While briars don't seem to be much of a problem for dogs, they certainly are for dog owners. A friend once chased an errant dog through a multiflora rose hedge, intent on administering a religious experience to the dog, forgetting that he was wearing a down vest. "Looked like a snowstorm," he said of the resulting cloud of feathers.
Of all the sticky pests in the field, the cocklebur is the arch villain. It's said that the cocklebur was the inspiration for Velcro ' its hooked spikes grab anything soft and won't let go. While Velcro is ubiquitous today as a fastener and is beloved by all sportsmen, the cocklebur tangled in a setter's belly fur teaches new variations on old swear words.
Some dogs submit to de-burring with minimum complaint, but then many will run through brick walls, bound over broken glass and burning coals and never whimper while they're hunting. A bird dog's mind, once locked on hunt, knows no other stimulus. But flop that same dog on his side and begin untangling cockleburs and you'd think you were performing open heart surgery on him with a can opener.
The screams of anguish alert the neighbors to Vance mistreating his dogs again ' and the nearest neighbors live a half-mile away. I figure the ASPCA will be camped in my driveway any day now and I'm prepared. I'll hand the guy in the uniform my metal-toothed comb and show him my bleeding fingers and say, "You think you can do it better? Have at it!"
Meanwhile, the smirking dog will be trying to sneak away and hide.
No matter how many bur patches Streak has encountered before, he never learns to avoid them. I think all gamebirds slip into cocklebur patches when they sense bird dogs in the neighborhood. Call it avian revenge. And then there is the well-known bird dog obsession with intolerable juxtapositions: juicy cowpies, irate bovines who take out their ire on the dog's owner, porcupines and skunks.
Compared to those fond memories, cockleburs are a minor irritation, but a persistent one.
It's said that you can remove cockleburs by coating the dog with Vaseline and then combing it and I have no doubt this works because who would do such a thing if it didn't? Which is worse ' the dog with burs or an oiled dog?
One authority says to hold the bur in one hand and separate hairs four or five at a time with a steel toothed comb until the bur comes free. That's fine if you happen to have a few years to spare. I've deburred mostly white dogs that were completely brown with burs. A few hairs at a time would have taken me well into the next millennium.
Some opt to cut the burs out with scissors and that works if you're careful and don't mind the dog looking like a badly-maintained punk rocker. I once sliced my cherished Chubby trying to cut a bur out and my hunting buddy, a Vietnam medic, sewed him back together. Better to stick with pulling the offending burs.
I've had to stop in mid-hunt to relieve the dogs of the worst of the cockleburs, especially those in their armpits and crotch -- no fun for dog or hunter alike. Once Pepper went through a cocklebur patch at full tilt and her ears flapped up and stuck together over her head. She came out of the burs looking like a Russian peasant lady in her babushka.
Cockleburs are so endemic where I hunt that it's rare when a hunt doesn't result in a post-hunt bur-picking session. The hunt is fun; the next hour or so involves a squirming, complaining dog and a fuming hunter, frostbitten fingers throbbing, a growing pile of hairy burs nearby.
Dog vests keep the majority of burs off, but some dogs have zero tolerance for clothing.
Meg, our Lab, has a nice Neoprene vest to keep her bosom warm in icy water, but she hates the thing ' maybe it isn't her fashion. She goes on sulk-strike, glaring moodily into the distance and ignoring ducks falling like snowflakes all around her.
Likewise, some dogs will pout when you strap boots on them. In many parts of the far Midwest the sandbur creates a vicious obstacle course, along with another bad vegetative citizen, the goathead bur.
Either one can turn a dog's feet into chopped beef. I've kenneled the dogs in Nebraska and the Dakotas when the hunting terrain was littered with those nasty little burs. The dogs literally could not take a step without picking one up.
I once sequeste
red my dog in a stranger's pickup which lacked a portable kennel. The dog could see us hunting and before we returned it had ripped the pickup topper screens to shreds. A confined dog is a ticking time bomb (as was the owner of the truck). Perhaps the most dangerous vegetative ambush is a stiff awn from foxtail. One of our dogs came up lame and it took an intuitive vet to realize a shard of foxtail had penetrated between the dog's toes and was working its way under the skin, up his leg. It took surgery to remove the nasty thing.
The vegetative world truly is a minefield for the working bird dog, but there are side benefits. As I relieve the dog of his burs I fling them disgustedly into the yard and the next spring my lawn is tastefully decorated with jaunty cocklebur plants to go with the crabgrass, knotweed and chickweed that warms the heart of this old green thumb landscaper.
Joel Vance is the author of Grandma and the Buck Deer (softcover $15); Bobs, Brush and Brittanies (hardcover $25); Down Home Missouri (hardcover $25); and Autumn Shadows limited edition, signed $45). Available from Cedar Glade Press, Box 1664, Jefferson City MO 65102. Add $2/book for S/H.