The Weeds in Your Bird Seed

With February comes the return of the Great Backyard Bird Count, a weekend-long, worldwide, bird counting event that Sierra and I have enjoyed participating in for the past few years. While you can choose to count birds anywhere birds are found, part of the appeal of the event is that it can be done from the comfort of one’s own home simply by watching for birds to appear right outside the window. If there are bird feeders in your yard, your chances of seeing birds are obviously improved. Watch for at least fifteen minutes, record the number and species of birds you see, then report your sightings online. It’s for science!

Feeding and watching birds are popular activities. In the United States alone, as many as 57 million households put out food for birds, spending more than $4 billion annually to do so. While there are a variety of things one can purchase to feed birds – suet, berries, mealworms, etc. – the bulk of that money is likely spent on bags of bird seed (also referred to as bird feed). Bird seed is a relatively cheap and easy way to feed a wide variety of birds. Unfortunately, it’s also a great way to introduce new weeds to your yard.

Bird seed contaminated with noxious weed seeds is not a new problem. It has been a concern for decades, and some countries have taken regulatory steps to address the issue. In the United States, however, there are no governmental regulations that address weed seed contamination in bird seed.  With this thought in mind, researchers at the University of Missouri screened a large sampling of bird seed mixes to determine the number and species of weed seeds they harbored, as well as their viability and herbicide resistance. Their results were published last year in Invasive Plant Science and Management.

The researchers examined 98 different bird seed mixes purchased from retail locations in states across the eastern half of the U.S. The seeds of 29 weed species were recovered from the bags, including at least eight species of grasses and several annual and perennial broadleaf weeds. 96% of the mixes contained one or more species of Amaranthus, including Palmer’s amaranth (Amaranthus palmeri), which was found in 27 mixes and which the researchers refer to as “the most troublesome weed species in agroecosystems today.” About 19% of amaranth seeds recovered germinated readily, and five of the seed mixes contained A. tuberculatus and A. palmeri seeds that, once grown out, were found to be resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in a commonly used herbicide.

Redroot pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus) is one of several weedy amaranth species commonly found in bird seed mixes (illustration credit: wikimedia commons)

The seeds of grass weeds were found in 76% of the bird seed mixes and included three species of foxtail (Setaria spp.), as well as other common grasses like large crabgrass (Digitaria sanguinalis) and barnyardgrass (Echinochloa crus-galli). Bird seed ingredients that seemed to favor grass seed contamination included wheat, grain sorghum, and proso millet, three crops that are also in the grass family. No surprise, as grass weeds are difficult to control in crop fields when the crop being grown is also a grass.

After amaranths and grasses, ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) was the third most common weed found in the mixes. This was a troubling discovery since populations of this species have shown resistance to a number of different herbicides. Moving ragweed to new locations via bird seed could mean that the genes that give ragweed its herbicide resistance can also be moved to new locations. Kochia (Bassia scoparia), another weed on the Weed Science Society of America’s list of top ten most troublesome weeds, was also found in certain bird seed mixes, particularly when safflower was an ingredient in the feed.

A similar study carried out several years earlier at Oregon State University found the seeds of more than fifty different weed species in ten brands of bird feed commonly sold at retail stores. Ten of the weeds recovered from the mixes are on Oregon’s noxious weed list. Both studies demonstrate how bird seed can be a vector for spreading weed seeds – and even new weed species and herbicide-resistant genes – to new locations. Weeds found sprouting below bird feeders can then potentially be moved beyond the feeders by wind and other dispersal agents. Weed seeds might also be moved to new locations inside the stomachs of birds.

Addressing this issue can be tackled from several different angles. Growers and processors can improve their management of weed species in the fields where bird seed is grown and do a better job at removing weed seeds from the mixes after they are harvested. Government regulations can be put in place that restrict the type and quantity of weed seeds allowed in bird feed. Further processing of ingredients such as chopping or shelling seeds or baking seed mixes can help reduce the presence and viability of weed seeds.

Processed bird feed like suet is less likely to harbor viable weed seeds (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Consumers can help by choosing bird feed that is processed or seedless like sunflower hearts, dried fruit, peanuts, suet cakes, and mealworms, and can avoid seed mixes with a large percentage of filler ingredients like milo, red millet, and flax. Attaching trays below feeders can help collect fallen seeds before they reach the ground. Bird seed can also be avoided all together, and feeding birds can instead be done by intentionally growing plants in your yard that produce food for birds. By including bird-friendly plants in your yard, you will also have a better chance of seeing a wide variety of birds during the Great Backyard Bird Count.

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Winter Trees and Shrubs: Northern Catalpa

The names of plants often contain clues that can either help with identification or that tell something about the plant’s history or use. The name, catalpa, is said to be derived from the Muscogee word, katałpa, meaning “winged head,” presumably referring to the tree’s winged seeds. Or maybe, as one writer speculates, it refers to the large, heart-shaped, floppy leaves that can make it look like the tree is “ready to take flight.” Or perhaps it’s a reference to the fluted, fused petals of the tree’s large, tubular flowers. I suppose it could mean any number of things, but I’m sticking with its seeds, which are packed by the dozens in the tree’s long, slender, bean-like fruits. The seeds are flat, pale brown, and equipped with paper thin, fringed appendages on either side that assist in wind dispersal – wings, in other words.

winged seeds of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

Catalpa speciosa, or northern catalpa, is a relatively fast growing, short-lived tree native to the Midwest and one of only two species in the genus Catalpa found in the United States. Its distribution prior to the arrival of Europeans appears to have been restricted to a portion of the central Mississippi River valley, extending west into Arkansas, east into Tennessee, and north into Illinois and Indiana. It has since been widely planted outside of its native range, naturalizing in areas across the Midwest and eastern US. Early colonizers planted northern catalpa for use as fence posts, railroad ties, and firewood. Its popularity as an ornamental tree is not what it once was a century ago, but it is still occasionally planted in urban areas as a shade tree. Its messiness – littering the ground below with large leaves, flowers, and seed capsules – and its tendency to spread outside of cultivation into natural areas are reasons why it has fallen out of favor with some people.

The oval to heart-shaped, 8 to 12 inch long leaves with long petioles rotting on the ground below the tree are one sure sign that you’ve encountered a catalpa in the winter time. The leaves are some of the first to fall at the end of the growing season, briefly turning an unmemorable yellow before dropping.

leaf of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) in the winter with soft hairs on the underside still visible

The leaf arrangement on northern catalpa is whorled and sometimes opposite. The twigs are easy to identify due to several unique features. They are stout, round, and grayish brown with prominent lenticels. The leaf scars are large, rounded, and raised up on the twig, looking a bit like little suction cups. They are arranged in whorls of three, with one scar considerably smaller than the other two. A series of bundle traces inside the scar form an ellipse. The leaf buds are tiny compared to the scar and are protected by loose, pointed, brown bud scales. Northern catalpa twigs lack a terminal bud. In the winter, seed capsules or the stalk of an old inflorescence often remain attached to the terminal end of the twig. The pith inside of the twig is thick, white, and solid.

twig of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

pith inside twig of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

Another common name for Catalpa speciosa is cigar tree, a name that comes from its up to 18 inch long, cigar-like seed capsules that hang from the otherwise naked tree throughout the winter. The sturdy, cylindrical pod starts out green in the summer and turns dark brown by late fall. Seed pods that haven’t fallen or already split open will dehisce in the spring time, releasing their papery seeds to the wind.

fruits of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) hanging from the tree in the winter

The young bark of northern catalpa is thin and easily damaged. As it matures, it becomes furrowed with either scaly ridges or blocky plates. Mature trees are generally twisted at the base but otherwise grow straight, reaching 30 to 60 feet tall (sometimes taller) with an open-rounded to narrow-oval crown.

maturing bark of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

Northern catalpa is one of the last trees to leaf out in the spring. In late spring or early summer, 10 inch long clusters of white, tubular flowers are produced at the tips of stems. Before the flowers open, they look a bit like popped popcorn, reminding me of a song from my childhood (which I will reluctantly leave right here). The margins of its trumpet-shaped petals are ruffled and there is yellow, orange, and/or purple spotting or streaking on the inside of the tubes.

flower of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) just before it opens

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