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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How to Keep Birds From Eating Grass Seeds
When starting a lawn from grass seed, birds can quickly pick away at the sowed seed and decimate the lawn before it has even had a chance to grow. Some gardeners counter this by increasing their grass seeding rate by 50 percent, which helps make up for any seeds lost to the feathered friends. If you don’t want to spend extra money on more grass seeds, several proactive repellant options can protect your future lawn from hungry birds.
Lay Down Mulch
Mulch doesn’t just help to conserve soil moisture — a key factor in optimum grass seed germination — and block the growth of weeds. Mulch can also help to prevent birds from eating scattered grass seed. Use certified weed-free straw mulch, available at many landscaping stores. Scatter a very thin layer of straw over the grass seed, using just enough straw to cover approximately 75 percent of the soil surface. That’s all that’s needed to shield and defend grass seed from birds. Once the seed has germinated, gently rake away the straw.
Cover Up With Burlap Sheets
Burlap allows water, heat and sunlight to reach the soil surface. It works as a satisfactory alternative to straw mulch in landscapes that have a lot of wind. Wind will quickly blow away straw mulch, leaving grass seed defenseless against birds. If your backyard is prone to gusts of wind, lay down a single sheet of burlap over the scattered grass seed, then anchor the edges of the burlap down with wire U-pins. Remove the burlap once the seeds have germinated.
Set Up Tape
Metallic Mylar tape moves in the wind, flashes and sparkles in the sunlight and creates a roar-like noise whenever it flutters. This potent combination frightens and scares away all birds, including large poultry such as ducks, geese and chickens. To protect a newly planted lawn from hungry birds, place 3-foot-tall posts 6 feet apart around the edges of the lawn. Tie 1/2-inch-wide metallic Mylar tape between each pole to cross or intersect over the planted area. Don’t tie the tape so tight that it’s rigid and taught between the poles. Keep each strand of tape loose so it can twist and move freely when the wind blows.
Turn to Decoys
The birds may be hungry for your grass seed, but predatory birds are just as hungry — hungry for the birds themselves. Defend newly sowed grass seed with a decoy owl or hawk set up on a post in the middle of the lawn or on the edges of the lawn. The sight of this faux predator may frighten away other birds and keep grass seed safe. For the best results, move the location of the decoy owl or hawk every day so that the other birds do no get used to its presence.
Create a Distraction
As the old saying goes, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Hang a bird feeder on the opposite side of the landscape away from newly planted grass seed. This may distract the hungry birds and draw them away from the lawn, holding their attention long enough for the grass seeds to germinate.