There are almost daily reports of the bad tick year that is upon us. There are cautions to take if you’re birding almost anywhere vegetation exceeds the height of your ankles.
Most concern is directed at deer ticks, also known as blacklegged ticks. They are one of 13 known tick species in Minnesota, according to the Department of Natural Resources. All tick species are unpleasant hitchhhikers, however. One tick found on my neck can make me uncomfortable for hours.
Deer ticks are most common in the east and central areas of the state. They are found in hardwood forests, wooded and brushy areas, and in long grass. Deer ticks are potential carriers of Lyme disease.
Lyme disease is the best-known threat a tick bite poses. Ticks carry other diseases as well. The tick I never saw, the bite I never felt left me with something called ehrlichiosis. It’s a bacterial illness transmitted by ticks that causes flu-like symptoms ranging from mild body aches to severe fever. I had the fever, a terrible headache, and the sweats.
The doctor I saw at a Wisconsin hospital tested my blood on the scene. With results in hand she had me immediately tucked in bed and hooked to an IV dripping a strong anti-biotic (doxycycline I think) into a vein. I received treatment for 24 hours. Lyme can give you life-long discomfort. Erlichiosis can destroy your kidneys and heart in about two weeks, the doctor told me.
I try hard to avoid vegetation that brushes against me as I walk. I can’t think of a bird worth another go-round with a possibly fatal disease. I bird these days in areas of short grass, paved paths, and gravel roads. Parks and maintained wildlife areas are good for me.
Ticks are programmed to crawl upwards, which is why you find them in your hairline. They climb to the top of stems of grass or branches, waiting to grab you as you walk by. I once birded in an old cranberry bog, dry and overgrown, where you could see ticks on the ends of grass stems, twoor three at a time, like decoration.
Ticks are becoming more common because of our ever warmer winters. Very cold weather kills them. We are losing very cold weather. Ticks survive. Mice survive. Mice are a vector for Lyme. Good acorn crops can mean big-time winter survival for mice. We’ve had two good crops in a row. Mice are everywhere. Deer also are part of the tick delivery chain. Deer are too common around here.
(Aside: some years ago the City of Minnetonka was engaged in a deer removal program — sharpshooters and live-traps. I was curious about the growing numbers of suburban deer. I asked the Minnetonka city manager if he could tell me when this began. He said he could give me year, month, and day. It was the date the city’s dog-control ordinance went into affect.)
The cautions you should take, to repeat what you’ve read before, are pants tucked into socks, insecticide on your skin, and treatment of outdoor clothing, particularly shoes and socks, with the insecticide permithrin. The latter comes in a spray can. Best preventative for bites and consequences is a thorough check of your naked body when you get home. Turn your pants legs and shirt sleeves inside out to check there. Remove ticks with a tweezers, leaving no part behind.
Oh, check your dog if it runs in long grass or brush. And your cat. Outdoor cats will get ticked. (If you’re ever going to have an indoor cat, tick season is the time.) Dogs and cats, by the way, not only bring ticks into the house, they also can become ill from tick bites, same as you.
The deer tick, the tiny tick, is the dangerous one. But, I don’t care about size. All ticks are creepy.
The deer tick illustration is from a web page of Iowa State University. The partial coin image is a dime. Larger tick photo comes from University of Minnesota Extension.