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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Eating Weeds: Clovers

If you ever spent time hunting for four-leaf clovers in the lawn as a kid, in all likelihood you were seeking out the leaves of Trifolium repens or one of its close relatives. Commonly known as white clover, the seeds of T. repens once came standard in turfgrass seed mixes and was a welcome component of a healthy lawn thanks to its ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen and provide free fertilizer. But around the middle of the 20th century, when synthetic fertilizers and herbicides became all the rage, clover’s reputation shifted from acceptable to disreputable. Elizabeth Kolbert, in an article in The New Yorker about American lawns, recounts the introduction of the broadleaf herbicide 2,4-D: “Regrettably, 2,4-D killed not only dandelions but also plants that were beneficial to lawns, like nitrogen-fixing clover. To cover up this loss, any plant that the chemical eradicated was redefined as an enemy.”

white clover (Trifolium repens) in turf grass

This particular enemy originated in Europe but can now be found around the globe. It has been introduced both intentionally and accidentally. Commonly cultivated as a forage crop for livestock, its seeds can be found hitchhiking to new locations in hay and manure. Clover honey is highly favored, and so clover fields are maintained for honey production as well. Its usefulness, however, doesn’t protect it from being designated as a weed. In Weeds of North America, white clover is accused of being “a serious weed in lawns, waste areas, and abandoned fields.”

White clover is a low-growing, perennial plant that spreads vegetatively as well as by seed. It sends out horizontal shoots called stolons that form roots at various points along their length, creating a dense groundcover. Its compound leaves are made up of three, oval leaflets, and its flower heads are globe-shaped and composed of up to 100 white to (sometimes) pink florets. Rich in nectar, the flowers of white clover draw in throngs of bees which assist in pollination. Closely related and similar looking strawberry clover, Trifolium fragiferum, is distinguished by its pink flowers and its fuzzy, rounded seed heads that resemble strawberries or raspberries. Red clover, T. pratense, grows more upright and taller than white and strawberry clovers and has red to purple flowers.

leaves and seed heads of strawberry clover (Trifolium fragiferum)

Clovers are tough plants, tolerating heat, cold, drought, and trampling. Lawns deprived of water go brown fairly quickly, revealing green islands of interlopers, like clover, able to hang in there throughout dry spells. These days, many of us are reconsidering our need for a lawn. Lawns are water hogs that require a fair amount of inputs to keep them green and free of weeds, pests, and diseases. The excessive amounts of fertilizers and pesticides dumped on them from year to year is particularly troubling.

Along with our reconsideration of the lawn has come clover’s return to popularity, and turfgrass seed mixes featuring clover are making a comeback. To keep clover around, herbicde use must be curbed, and so lawns may become havens for weeds once more. Luckily, many of those weeds, including clover, are edible, so urban foragers need only to step out their front door to find ingredients for their next meal.

The leaves and flowers of clover can be eaten cooked or raw. Fresh, new leaves are better raw than older leaves. That being said, clover is not likely to be anyone’s favorite green. Green Deane refers to it as a “survival or famine food” adding that “only the blossoms are truly pleasant to human tastes,” while “the leaves are an acquired or tolerated taste.” In The Book of Field and Roadside, John Eastman remarks: “As humanly edible herbs, clovers do not rank as choice. Yet they are high in protein and vitamins and can be eaten as a salad or cooked greens and in flower head teas. Flower heads and leaves are much more easily digested after boiling.”

I tried strawberry clover leaves and flower heads in a soup made from a recipe found in the The Front Yard Forager by Melany Vorass Herrara. Around two cups of clover chopped, cooked, and blended with potatoes, scallions, and garlic in vegetable or chicken broth is a fine way to enjoy this plant. I don’t anticipate eating clover with great frequency, partly because it is included in a list of wild edible plants with toxic compounds in The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms and also because I have to agree with the opinions of the authors quoted above – there are better tasting green things. Either way, it’s worth trying at least once.

clover soup

More Eating Weeds Posts on Awkward Botany:

Awkward Botanical Sketches #1

At the beginning of the year I unveiled my plan to share some of my sketches with you as I learn how to draw. This is to make up for not writing quite as many posts so that I can spend time working on some other projects. It also serves as a great motivator to actually draw, which isn’t something I do very often. Turns out that if you want to get better at something, you actually have to do it.

To help me in my quest, I collected a few books. Some are instructional and others simply feature inspirational artwork. I’ve included links to a few of these books with my drawings below. If you have any books you would like to recommend, particularly a book that has helped you learn to draw, please let me know in the comment section below.

And now on to my dumb drawings…

My first drawing in Drawing Nature by Jill Bliss

Drawing of a hibiscus flower with help from Illustration School: Let’s Draw Plants and Small Creatures by Sachiko Umoto

A sketch inspired by Carcassonne: Over Hill and Dale

Sketch of an old tree inspired by a drawing in Clare Walker Leslie’s book, Drawn to Nature

Sketch of agave in bloom inspired by an image on the back of some guy’s shirt at Treefort Music Fest

Sketch of a tiny tuft of grass I was trying to identify. It’s still a bit of a mystery.

Summer of Weeds: Stinking Lovegrass

There are so many weedy grasses that we would be remiss if we let the Summer of Weeds go by without discussing at least one of them. As obnoxious and ecologically harmful as some of these grasses can be, they are easy to ignore, simply because they are not as showy and eye-catching as other weeds. They can also be difficult to identify, particularly when they are not flowering. To the untrained and unappreciative eye, all grasses appear alike and most are fairly uninteresting.

But some of them have great common names, like Eragrostis cilianensis, commonly known as stinking lovegrass, candygrass, or stinkgrass. This plant earns the name “stink” on account of the unpleasant odor that is released through tiny glands in its foilage and flower head. Probably due to my poor sense of smell, my nose doesn’t pick it up very well, but from what I can tell it has a funky or, as Sierra put it, “musky” smell. I imagine if you were to come across a large patch of stinking lovegrass blowing in the breeze, the smell would be detectable.

stinking lovegrass (Eragrostis cilianensis)

Eragrostis cilianensis is a short (up to two feet tall) annual grass from Eurasia and Africa. It is naturalized across much of North America. It has hollow and jointed stems with flat or folded leaves. Where the leaf blade wraps around the stem (an area called the ligule) there is a tuft of fine hairs. The inflorescence is highly branched, and the branches are lined with several compact, flat florets. The appearance of the flower head is highly variable, from tight and compact to spread out and open.

Inflorescences of stinking lovegrass (Eragrostis cilianensis)

Stinking lovegrass likes sandy or gravelly, dry soils in open, regularly disturbed areas with full sun. It is very drought tolerant and thrives in hot temperatures, which is why it is unfazed growing in the cracks of sidewalks and pavement. It can grow in rich, fertile soil as well, and so it often makes an appearance in vegetable gardens, agricultural fields, and ornamental garden beds.

Stinking lovegrass growing in a crack between the pavement and the sidewalk

There are dozens of species in the genus Eragrostis, with representatives around the world. A few are native to North America, and a few others have been introduced. Provenance aside, all have the potential to be weedy. Eragrostis curvula, weeping lovegrass, is an aggresive invader in some regions. Eragrostis minor, lesser lovegrass, is similar to stinking lovegrass, not only in appearance but also in its provenance and status as a weed in North America. In Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, Peter Del Tredici mentions two North American natives that can be weedy along roadsides and in vacant lots, sidewalk cracks, garden beds, and elsewhere: E. pectinacea (Carolina lovegrass) and E. spectabilis (purple lovegrass). Last but not least, Eragrostris tef (aslo known as teff) is a commonly cultivated cereal crop in Ethiopia and surrounding countries, the seeds of which are harvested to make injera.

Additional Resources:

Video of the Week:

The Idaho Weed Awareness Campaign has some fun educational materials, including a few puppets, to help teach children about noxious weeds. Mortie Milfoil is a puppet who helps spread the word about the aquatic invasive, Eurasian watermilfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum). Hannah teaches kids about poison hemlock (Conium maculatum). See Hannah’s video below:

Wildflower Walk: June 2014

I spent last weekend in a cabin outside of Garden Valley, Idaho. I was there for a wedding and so most of my time was occupied with that. However, anxious to explore, I found a brief moment to step out and observe the surrounding plant life. The cabin and an adjacent campground were located in an area that, before the economic downturn in 2008, was to become a major housing development. Because of this (and possibly other things), the area showed lots of signs of human disturbance, particularly the large number of introduced plant species. Fortunately, despite feeling like I was walking through a weedy field, I did come across a few patches of native plants. I may have to return sometime to get a better look at things because I wasn’t able to identify everything that I saw and I’m still not exactly sure what species of lupine and buckwheat I was looking at. Either way, the plants in the following pictures are a few of the things I found.

Aristida purpurea (purple threeawn)

lupinus

Lupinus sp. (lupine)

eriogonum

Eriogonum sp. (wild buckwheat)

amelancier alnifolia

Amelanchier alnifolia (Saskatoon serviceberry)

Don’t let my walk through a weedy field dissuade you. Garden Valley is an incredibly beautiful location. It sits adjacent to the South Fork of the Payette River and near the western edge of the Boise National Forest. It is an area worthy of exploring, which is why I plan on visiting again soon. I recommend you do too.

Previous Wildflower Walks:

Spring 2013

June 2013

American Penstemon Society Field Trip

September 2013