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Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013 06:41 am

Going slow on sweet gums

Gumball defender says birds will pay the price

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Sweet gum trees may be the bane of Springfieldians, but redpolls fly from afar to feast on the seeds.
PHOTO BY CEPHAS VIA WIKIPEDIA.COM

There was much excitement at the Rushton household last year when the prospect of getting something for nothing – well, almost nothing – arrived courtesy of the city of Springfield.

For the low, low price of $250, the city offered to take out one of the two sweet gum trees that arch over our front yard and the better part of the street. It is, really, the city’s tree, being on the right-of-way between the sidewalk and street, but each year those pesky seed pods become ours as they plummet earthward to become a near-intractable feature of our lawn.

My wife, who is too lazy to go out and pick up the prickly so-called gumballs, seized on the chance to have the city eliminate the nuisance and so sent in a check for $250. As the seed pods again loom above our abode, she was getting worried about yet another winter with a gumball-festooned lawn. So, I did my part and asked the city just how far the public works department has gotten in getting rid of the cursed trees.

It turns out not that far.

Just 22 of the more than 300 trees slated for removal had been converted to chips as of last week, according to the city public works department. Public works director Mark Mahoney says crews are doing their best, but they are not full-time Paul Bunyans. Rather, workers are cutting trees as time allows, and there having been more storms this year than the public works department, if not Mother Nature, had planned. Storm debris comes first.

About half the trees on the not-long-for-this-world list were slated to come down this year, but the public works department might not get through this year’s crop, as it were, until next March, Mahoney said, which would leave another 150 or so trees still to cut that the city had hoped to eliminate in 2014.

“We’ve had a few people who’ve called,” Mahoney said. “We will get to them. You just have to be patient.”

On the other hand, there are folks like H. David Bohlen, who likes sweet gum trees – and lives in an apartment.

The lack of sweet gum trees and spiky balls looming over his head notwithstanding, Bohlen, an ornithologist who works for the state, likes sweet gum trees because birds like sweet gum trees. Not anything so ugly as a pigeon or starling, but rather creatures with bills small enough to penetrate tiny holes in the gumballs to extract seeds without, sadly, damaging the outer shell.

“I like them because they always have a lot of birds around them,” Bohlen says. “Plus, they have really nice colors in the fall.”

For Bohlen, a town without sweet gum trees would be a town with a lot fewer goldfinches and chickadees and nuthatches. Just last year, he recalls, Springfield saw an unexpected influx of redpolls, a perfectly lovely bird native to Boreal forests of northern Canada. The snow gets deep up there, covers up food supplies, and guess what the redpolls eat when they venture down here?

It is a good thing, after all, that there were plenty of gumballs on our lawn last winter.

Cutting down 300 sweet gum trees, or nearly one-third of the estimated 2,000 sweet gums in the city, would be worse, Bohlen says, than clear-cutting the so-called Griffin Woods to make way for a grocery store, an idea that has gotten quite a few folks worked up.

“If you cut down 300 mature sweet gum trees, that’s a whole forest,” Bohlen says.

Perhaps, then, sweet gum haters are missing the forest for the trees. Birds. Brilliant fall colors. A shady respite from summer heat.

Thanks, but no thanks: Take us off your tree-cutting list, Mr. Mahoney.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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