Plants Poisonous to Animals
Nature Bulletin No. 689 October 13, 1962
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
PLANTS POISONOUS TO ANIMALS
Originally, the title of this bulletin was intended to be "Poisonous Plants
Eaten by Wildlife", but in all the available literature we found no
information and few comments on that subject. One authority, admitting
that not much is known about wildlife preferences and aversions for
food, correctly states that browsing animals prefer soft succulent leaves
to leathery ones, and often pass by plants with bitter or sticky milky
juices; but then he adds: "Some poisonous plants seem to be avoided
instinctively. " We question that.
In 1946 the University of Illinois published Circular No. 599 about
"Illinois Plants Poisonous to Livestock", but it contains no information
about their toxic effects upon wildlife. Most cases of livestock
poisoning by plants occur in early spring before grasses have become
plentiful, or in summer and fall when pastures are dry and brown.
A classic example is the white snakeroot responsible for the death of
Abraham Lincoln's mother. It is a leafy waist-high plant that grows in
woodlands and bears numerous heads of little white fuzzy flowers in
late summer. It is extremely poisonous. If eaten in large quantities the
animals die. When browsed continuously in small amounts, they
develop "trembles" and their milk may cause death to nursing calves
and lambs, or the fatal milk sickness to humans.
is another example. This tall fern with large coarse fronds is
found in open woods and abandoned fields, especially upon sandy and
gravelly soils. It is poisonous to cattle and horses that browse it when
pastures are poor. Deer nibble on other ferns, and bracken is abundant
in northern woods, but apparently no one knows whether they eat
bracken, white snakeroot, mushrooms and other poisonous plants, nor
what happens if they do.
On the Great Plains and in the Southwest, locoweeds -- several kinds of
poisonous vetches -- cause serious losses among horses, cattle and
sheep in dry seasons when good forage plants are scarce where
locoweeds are abundant. Being legumes, they produce pods of seeds
but those are harmless and provide food for quail, turkeys and rodents.
Antelope and big game animals feed on the foliage to a limited extent
and the authorities say, "Whether or not locoweeds are poisonous to
such wildlife is not known. .
The large, glossy brown seeds of the buckeye and horse chestnut trees
have been known to poison cattle and hogs but are relished by squirrels.
They have poisoned children that ate them but, after roasting, were used
as food by Indians.
have a digestive mechanism including enzymes that apparently
render certain poisons harmless. They are fond of berries such as those
on poison ivy, the little blue ones on English ivy, and the white ones on
mistletoe, that are poisonous to people; as well as the crimson berries
on Japanese honeysuckle and bittersweet nightshade, that are nauseous
to us. It takes a lot of strychnine to kill a bird. However, wild ducks and
turkeys are killed sometimes by eating the blue-green algae that form a
thick scum or bloom ' on the surface of stagnant ponds.
Most deadly of all native plants are Jimson weed and water hemlock.
In the latter its poison is concentrated in the tuberous roots. The foliage
is harmless but when cattle browse it in spring they sometimes pull up
and eat the tubers -- with fatal results..
Only a hungry hog will eat Jimson weeds.
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Update: June 2012