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The Value of Cattails

If you have ever lived or traveled in the Midwest, you have probably seen those fluffy corndog-looking plants called cattails. Cattails provide valuable food resources for wildlife. Muskrats and geese feed on the starchy roots and muskrats use the leaves and seed spikes to build their lodges and feeding platforms. Many wetland birds, such as red-winged blackbirds and marsh wrens, build their nests in dense cattail stands.

Besides the use of habitat for birds and other species, cattails offer so much more to an ecosystem. Like many other wetland plants, cattails bio-accumulate toxins. This means that Cattail roots intake many unwanted nutrients and toxins in the water such as nitrate, phosphate, and even arsenic and lead. These extensive root systems prevent erosion and remove sediment from water, offering a very beneficial ecosystem service.

One local cattail story of success takes place at Nahant Marsh in Davenport, IA. Prior to the establishment of a Nature Preserve in 2000, the 305 acres were used as a dump, and sportsman club. The sportsman club was active from the 1960s, all the way up to the early 1990s. During this time, an estimated 240 tons of lead shot pellets settled in the Marsh bottom mud.

This caused detrimental environmental impacts, causing sick and dying waterfowl to appear. In 1994 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began to investigate and noticed lead pellets in the gizzards of birds. Waterfowl swallow lead shot pellets while feeding, and are poisoned by the lead as it enters their bloodstream during digestion. A single pellet can cause lead poisoning and may be enough to kill a bird. In some areas of the marsh, a handful of the bottom mud would yield over one hundred lead shot pellets.

So how was the issue resolved? In 2000, with River Action’s sponsoring, the EPA declared the marsh a Superfund Site and began an extensive cleanup of the lead. The marsh was drained, and the contaminated soil was removed. After this, grasses and cattails were planted to re-establish vegetation and filter out remaining contaminants in the water while also reducing soil erosion. Now a plethora of wildlife can be seen at Nahant with migratory birds ever present.

The Nahant Marsh Preserve, with 382 acres, is the largest urban wetland on the Upper Mississippi River. It is comprised of marshy areas, wetlands, bottomland forests, and of course cattails. The advantages of cattails and their ability to bio-accumulate toxins should not be overlooked and instead recognized as a way to fight against polluted water. So next time you see a fluffy corndog, think about what it is doing for the environment!