“Stalking” into our Critter Cards: Poison Ivy

There’s no getting around it: Poison Ivy season is here to stay. As its leaves come out this spring, utilize our Critter Card to help you identify Poison Ivy so you can react to it appropriately and prevent it from hurting you. While Poison Ivy isn’t anyone’s favorite plant, it is a common one that you should feel confident identifying. Being able to do so will help lower your risk of a negative encounter.

Identification

There are two species of Poison Ivy native to the eastern United States: Eastern Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) which climbs like a vine, and Western Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron rydbergii) which grows like a bush. Because they are able to cross breed, there is a variety of structures among individual plants: they may take form as a bush, a vine, or anything in between. Vines often overtake trees, killing them and providing foliage when they no longer can.

Despite the varying growth patterns, there are common characteristics that will give this plant away. You will always see one leaf made up of three leaflets, all connecting to a reddish colored stem. The middle leaflet will have a longer stem than the ones on the sides. Leaflets may appear shiny with soft edges, and some or all of them may have a glove-like shape. Vines will appear hairy with roots sprouting all along them.

How it Works and What to Do

Poison Ivy is not technically a poisonous plant. But it contains a sticky oil called urushiol, which is very potent: one quarter of an ounce could produce a rash on every person on the earth. The oil adheres very quickly to anything touching it, including skin, and can be long-lasting if not promptly washed off. If you come in contact with the oil, your rash may not show up for a few days, but it will last roughly two weeks.

Urushiol exposure causes urushiol-induced contact dermatitis, where skin becomes itchy and develops blisters. The dermatitis is the body’s way of fighting off the irritating oil. This allergic reaction primes the body to defend itself, and that means that subsequent exposures you may have will result in more vigorous and efficient reactions; in other words, each time you get a rash, it is likely to be worse than the last.

If you’ve been in contact with Poison Ivy, you will first want to flush your skin with cold water for a couple of minutes. This will help to remove and dilute any oil that’s stayed on your skin. After flushing, wash the area with soap (dish detergent is great at cutting the oils) and water. Other options include using products such as Tecnu, which is made to wash the oils off our skin and clothes.

Dealing with a reaction? Don’t cover it with a bandage! Do let the infected area breath and dry out. Use anti-itch lotions such as calamine lotion to keep the itchy feeling at bay. Running hot water over your skin can also alleviate the itching sensation for some time.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is Poison Ivy active all year long?
    Yes! In the late autumn and throughout the winter, when the leaves have fallen off, the stems, roots, and vines will all still contain urushiol.
  • Can my dog or cat give me Poison Ivy?
    The short answer: yes. Dogs, cats, and other pets that come in contact with Poison Ivy can carry the oil on their fur, so when you touch Spot you can get it from her. Simply wash your pet with pet-safe shampoo, or use baby wipes to clean off their fur if you know they’ve touched Poison Ivy. Most animals with fur won’t get a reaction to the urushiol, but bare spots such as noses, bellies, and ears can be susceptible to irritation.
  • Is Poison Ivy Dangerous?
    Usually a reaction to Poison Ivy isn’t dangerous, but it can be obnoxious or uncomfortable. In extreme cases, people can experience a full body rash, rash around the eyes, extreme blisters, or other reactions consistent with anaphylaxis. Severe reactions should be referred to your doctor or emergency services.
  • Does scratching spread a Poison Ivy rash?
    Once the oil has been washed off the skin, contact with the rash, including scratching, does not cause the itch-inducing oils to spread. However, scratching could lead to a secondary infection that’s equally unpleasant, so it’s best to resist the temptation. Additionally, Poison Ivy oil can get under your fingernails, which you will then spread to other parts of your body if you scratch them. Don’t forget to scrub under your nails!
  • Does Poison Ivy stay on my clothes?
    Yes! And it can be spread to your skin from your clothes, even many months after exposure. If you’ve been in contact with Poison Ivy, promptly wash your clothes in hot water with detergent. You may have to wash your clothes more than once or add Tecnu to your wash.
  • Can I be immune to Poison Ivy?
    Yes you can. Many people have an immunity to the oils from Poison Ivy. That doesn’t mean that you should touch it whenever you like! Most people who have had immunity will become allergic after many encounters with the oil, or after an especially involved exposure to it. Best to steer clear regardless.

Dealing with Poison Ivy on your Property

TThe best way to remove Poison Ivy is head on. Completely cover yourself up in clothing, including long sleeves, pants, gloves, and even a hat if you’re dealing with vines. Dig the plant up, getting as much of the root as you can. Bag it up in a garbage bag and then put it out with the trash. Getting as much of the root as possible is essential to ensure the plant doesn’t re-sprout. To do this, dig at least six inches into the ground when removing roots.

Another great option is to rent goats! Some goat farmers will loan out goats to clear vegetation. Goats and beef cattle are great at processing difficult plants and weeds and will readily eat Poison Ivy when it’s available.

Lastly, manage the plant. If you enjoy the color and look of Poison Ivy, or want to keep it around for birds and herbivores who aren’t affected by the oils, consider keeping the population in check. But, Poison Ivy is a productive and successful plant, and letting it grow will allow it to overtake trees and plots of land on the forest edge. If you decide to keep it around, it’s best to manage it – carefully – by removing new seedlings and cutting down plants before they become too large.

The two most important things are not to use herbicides or fire! Herbicides can kill surrounding plants and animals. Fire may kill the plant, but the urushiol can remain in the smoke and air during burning and can cause very unpleasant irritation to your eyes, throat, respiratory system, and skin.

It’s not all Scary!

Poison Ivy isn’t a bad plant! It has natural beauty, it’s native to the eastern United States, and it plays an important role in the ecosystem, acting as a natural food source for many wild animals. A variety of birds are drawn to its berries, especially in the winter when food is scarce. Pollinators buzz to its flowers, and deer, along with other herbivores, eat its leaves and woody stems.

Ripe Poison Ivy berries – Chaffee Monell

In the autumn, leaf peepers, homeowners, and others venturing outside can enjoy the bright colors of Poison Ivy. The leaves turn red, orange, or yellow, and the berries will ripen from pale green to white.

Did you know? Poison Ivy is related to mangoes! Whether this helps your appreciation for Poison Ivy, or ends your love for mangoes, it’s a fun fact. Both plants produce urushiol, which is why humans can have reactions to mango skin.

A special shout out to Joppa Flats Teacher Naturalist, Phil Smith, for the great suggestion of covering Poison Ivy in our Critter Cards.

Learning Tools from Mass Audubon

Read about the Many Faces of Poison Ivy.

Learn about these tips for managing Poison Ivy.

Looking for More Resources and Activities?

Research Poison Ivy on Go Botony.

Watch this kid-friendly video about Poison Ivy precautions on Botony for Kids.

Watch this video about how to treat and avoid Poison Ivy for adults from the Mayo Clinic.

Read these six facts about Poison Ivy that you may not have known.

Increase your knowledge with this list of fascinating facts about Poison Ivy.

Submissions

“I make a tea with Sweet Fern. It’s only good for external use, but works very well! Keep it in the fridge so it’s nice and cool when you put it on the rash. Works for Poison Ivy and bug bites” – Facebook User

Poison Ivy reminders and art – Hadley, age 8

“I think Poison Ivy is very pretty when the small bronze-leaved plants just emerge, forming a little forest with the Star Flower and other small early wild flowers and leaves. Photo attached.  I once had a couple of sheep who liked to eat Poison Ivy!” – Heather Miller

“When I started at the banding station back in September 2002, I cam armed with some advice from a friend. Wash with dish soap since it’s formulated to remove grease and oil. The oil will be gone, and you’ll be smelling lemony fresh!” – Ben Flemer, Joppa Flats Bird Banding Manager

What’s Next?

What would you like to learn about from your backyard? Let us know in the comments.

Stay tuned for the next Critter Card coming out on Monday, by email and Facebook.

Connect With Us

Would you like to be added to Lisa Hutchings’ VIP email list? Receive special resources such as nature slideshows and educational tools for at-home learning. Send an email to lhutchings@massaudubon.org requesting to be added to the VIP list.

Bird-a-thon 2020 – Let’s BIP!

Bird-a-thon 2020 was, without a doubt, one for the records. Thanks to the endless planning, dedication, and problem solving from our staff, coupled with the patience, passion, and support of our constituents, Mass Audubon’s very first Bird-at-home-a-thon was a success!

Birds watching birds with Bill Gette

A grand total of about 100 BIPpers (the folks who Birded In Place) joined the Joppa Flats team this year! With so many eyes on the sky, Massachusetts BIPpers reported to Captain Bill Gette a total of 174 species out of the 287 on the checklist, which is exactly how many species we saw in last year’s traditional Bird-a-thon. One birder, Julia Yoshida, counted an incredible 135 species, an impressive 77% of all birds reported by the Joppa Flats team. Thank you to all our BIPpers for staying safe and smart, and for making this wonderful 24 hours a day to remember.

As many of you know, Bird-a-thon is not only fun, but it serves as our largest fundraiser of the year. With an ambitious goal of raising $40,000, our current total of $36,429 is rapidly closing in on that figure, and we want to say THANK YOU. Haven’t donated yet, but still want to? It’s not too late! Help us reach our goal and donate here.

Common Terns on the Log – Vic Cole

Notes from our Staff: How we spent our Bird-a-thon

David Moon has been dealing with a strong need to reconnect with nature and the outdoor world, often looking forward to the day he would take a long walk and be immersed again in birdsong. May 16th was just that day. David walked out his door and logged 11 miles around Amesbury, recording 85 species. He traveled to all the local green spaces, including Batchelder Park, Battis Farm, the local nature center, and Woodsom Farm. He noted that his last bird of the day was a highlight: the Eastern Meadowlark. In David’s words, “I’m very glad that we were able to have Bird-a-thon despite everything else going on, and I’m so thankful for all the people who participated. Your support for Joppa Flats and Mass Audubon is awesome!”

Dave Larson takes the cake when it comes to distance logged. In the course of 24 hours, he walked 16.1 miles in order to count 95 species with his wife, Susan Carlson. But that’s not all he did.  Dave’s call to his birding friends to BIP for us went far and wide. Gathering reports from birders in Massachusetts, six additional states, and two additional countries brought our overall, yet unofficial, total to 300 species! From a Black-bellied Whistling Duck to a Buff-throated Saltator, the long list of birds, and where they were counted, can be found at the bottom of this blog.

Lisa Hutchings and Shelby Vance teamed up for a total of 13 miles over the course of both days. Wearing masks and following a similar route to David Moon’s, Lisa and Shelby hiked around the green spaces of Amesbury, counting 67 species and enjoying the sunrises and sunsets each day. Lisa’s 14-year-old son Danny came along to keep the older folks focused as seeing one life bird after the other turned them giddy. Thankfully, youthful eyes come in very handy! Joining in remotely were a few of Joppa’s Young Naturalists who were also BIPping on their own. Throughout the day they shared their questions and findings with Miss Lisa via text. They all said they had a great time birding from home!

Melissa Vokey did not officially BIP for Bird-a-thon, but on May 16 she did go birding by foot on the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. She was very proud of herself for making it to Hellcat and back in her six hours out, seeing the birds she usually sees with you all, and with your help to see them, at this time of year. Being there made her feel connected to absent friends and wonderful memories in a way that nothing else could. She is very grateful to everyone for the generous support!

In conclusion, what does this all amount to? Well, a safety-first, virus-free, zero-emission, exercise-inducing Bird-a-thon is not only possible, but fun. The joys of celebrating the natural world is our greatest bond. We are so happy to share this bond with you, even from afar. Let’s keep in touch.

Baltimore Orioles burst into Critter Cards!

The Baltimore Oriole, a common backyard bird in Massachusetts, adds dazzling color to its environment. These birds thrive well anywhere there are tall trees and open spaces meet; small deciduous stands, open woodlands, farms, and our backyards make great homes for these colorful migrants. There are nine oriole species in the United States, and Baltimore Orioles are the most common oriole east of the Great Plains. Their range extends from southern Canada during the breeding season, south to northern South America for the winter.

Baltimore Oriole and Bullock’s Oriole used to be considered the same species, under the name Northern Oriole, due to interspecies breeding. Genetic testing, and a close attention to detail,showed that these two orioles were indeed separate species. They do hybridize where their ranges overlap in the Great Plains.

Male Baltimore Oriole singing – David Moon

As omnivores, orioles can be observed eating insects, fruits, berries, and nectar. That may sound like a lot, but they can be rather picky eaters. When it comes to fruits, orioles will eat only the ripest, darkest fruits. They pick the deepest colored cherries, richest raspberries, and darkest mulberries they can find. Fruits that are naturally lighter colored, such as green grapes or yellow-colored cherries, will be ignored by orioles, even when fully ripe. Nothing, however, seems to rival orioles’ attraction to the color orange. Oranges themselves are a sure-fire way to lure Baltimore Orioles to your backyard. Don’t wait though – you want these naturally sugary options out before May 1st to entice orioles to stay! If you put out your feeders later, they may have found other places to reside.

Male Baltimore Oriole in habitat – Dave Larson

In the summer it’s common to find orioles at the oranges and berries we provide in our backyards, but they really focus their attention on insects. This high protein food is exactly what they need during the nesting season when they have extra mouths to feed. Orioles eat a great variety of insects, but what’s unusual is their taste for hairy caterpillars that most other birds avoid. Gypsy moths, tent caterpillars, and webworms are all considered pests to us, which makes orioles a great bird to have around! Fruits and nectars still supplement their diet, and in spring and fall become extremely important. The sugar in these foods is converted to fat, which in turn is used as fuel for orioles’ lengthy migration. Feeding orioles does bring up a concern about jellies as a feeding option. Orioles eat fruits that range from about 12% to 30% sugar. Jellies, on the other hand, are often over 50% sugar. Hence, we don’t recommend putting a lot of jelly out. It likely won’t hurt the birds if they dip their beaks in for some dessert but try fresh fruits first!

Male Baltimore Oriole at orange feeding station – Dave Larson

Female Baltimore Orioles are not usually as brightly colored as the males, although they do have a range of color variation. With each molt, however, their feathers come back even brighter; the oldest females may look almost like males, bright orange and black. Males, on the other hand, will consistently have orange undersides and rumps, with a black hood and back. 

When the female is ready to build her nest, she does it alone. The male may provide her with nesting material, but she weaves the nest. From start to finish, this will take her only a week (up to two if the weather is bad). She then lays a clutch of 3-7 eggs and incubates them for about 14 days. Once they hatch, both parents take part in feeding the nestlings over the next 14 days, at which point the fledglings will leave the nest. The parents will continue to care for the fledglings as they learn to hunt and feed on their own.

Baltimore Oriole with its nest – Dave Larson
Baltimore Oriole Male with Immature – Susan Balser

What can you do for orioles? Plant native fruiting and nectar-rich plants! Plants such as crabapple trees, cherry trees, mulberry bushes, and raspberry bushes will keep orioles coming back to your yard year after year. Need some extra color? Go for orange to help draw the orioles into your yard. Once they realize there’s food, they’ll likely stick around. If you want to use a feeder, try suet, mealworms, and nectar feeders to help supplement orioles’ diverse diet. Lastly, don’t use insecticides on your outdoor plants! Insecticides kill off the insects that orioles prey on, and in worst case scenarios could kill the birds if they consume contaminated insects or berries! Save yourself the work: let the orioles take care of pests for you!

A note on hygiene: Sugary foods, such as fruits and jellies, are a prime place for mold to grow. Make sure to only put out what can be consumed in a couple of days by your backyard birds and be sure to take down old fruit. Orioles, just like people, can become sick from ingesting certain kinds of mold.

Learning Tools from Mass Audubon

Learn all about Baltimore Orioles from Mass Audubon.

Study data about the Baltimore Oriole population with the Breeding Bird Atlas.

Looking for More Resources and Activities?

Learn more about identification and behavior with the All About Birds website.

Observe Baltimore Orioles at a live feeder cam.

Observe a Baltimore Oriole at its nest, feeding its young. Listen carefully for the birdsong in the video.

Build a DIY bird feeder for orioles.

Sketch an oriole and learn about their coloration.

Create this Baltimore Oriole craft with paper!

Admire and read about the beautiful artwork of Baltimore Orioles by John J. Audubon.

View this slow motion video showing the release of a Baltimore Oriole at Joppa Flats Bird Banding Station.

Submissions

“One landed on my balcony for a little break the other day. I didn’t have my phone handy for a photo which was nice because I just enjoyed the visit. They’re so exotic.”

Baltimore Oriole at feeder – Jennie Hogan

“I’ve seen lots of them at my house this year – going in 4 weeks and I’m still seeing them. They love their oranges.”

Baltimore Oriole through the Window – Megan Staples
Baltimore Oriole on orange feeder – Dave Gale

What’s Next?

What would you like to learn about from your backyard? Let us know in the comments.

Stay tuned for the next Critter Card coming out on Monday, by email and Facebook.

Connect With Us

Would you like to be added to Lisa Hutchings’ VIP email list? Receive special resources such as nature slideshows and educational tools for at-home learning. Send an email to lhutchings@massaudubon.org requesting to be added to the VIP list.