Birds and seeds: change and diversity

Maybe it is just what seems to be a very long, cold winter (As I start writing this it is snowing again, but I hope not for long.) that is getting to me but I’m thinking this morning about natural ebbs and flows of plants and animals and the influence of man for both good and bad.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

We participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count every year and they are reporting some preliminary findings from February’s count.

Although much more data have yet to be recorded, here are some of the trends noted so far.

  • Fewer Finches After last year’s “superflight,” this year’s GBBC reports for 10 irruptive species (mostly finches) are down considerably. This includes reports for the White-winged and Red crossbills, Common and Hoary redpolls, Pine and Evening grosbeaks, Pine Siskin, Purple Finch, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Bohemian Waxwings. These are believed to be natural fluctuations in numbers because of variation in seed crops.
  •  Snowy Owl Invasion Continues A massive irruption of Snowy Owls into the northeastern, mid-Atlantic, and Great Lakes States of the U.S., as well as southeastern Canada, is easily seen in GBBC numbers. Preliminary results show participants reported more than 2,500 Snowy Owls in 25 states and 7 provinces of the U.S. and Canada!
  • The Polar Vortex Effect The frigid cold in many parts of North America has resulted in unusual movements of waterfowl and grebes. With the Great Lakes almost completely frozen, some species, such as the White-winged Scoter and the Long-tailed Duck, have fled the frozen lakes and stopped at inland locations where they are not usually found at this time of year.

The trends just naturally change from year to year.  But the mention of seed crops brings me to this story that caught my eye.  Seed Libraries.  I’ve heard of some companies starting to grow more variety of plants for seed and of the seed vault where seeds are being kept in case one day we need to start over, but not of seed libraries.  The Boston Globe reported

A basic principle of any library is that you return what you take out. By that standard, the new scheme at Hampshire College’s library is a roll of the dice. Since last November, librarians have been lending out packets of seeds, allowing people to plant them, and checking them back in if—and only if—the borrower manages to grow thriving plants in the meantime.

The Hampshire College project is part of a small but growing group of “seed libraries” across the country, local centers that aim to promote heirloom gardening and revive a more grass-roots approach to seed breeding.

A seed library

A seed library

The concept is pretty simple:  You check out some seeds, plant them, let some of them go to seed and then return the seeds.  But there is always the chance that you won’t get back the same variety.

“Self-pollinating” plants like beans, peas, tomatoes, and lettuce have both male and female parts in the same flower, so they tend to predictably produce seeds that grow the exact same kind of plant. But “open-pollinating” plants like squashes and corn require pollen to travel from one plant to another—and there’s a significant chance that pollen from some other variety of plant, borne by wind or insect, will get in and create an unwanted hybrid. Katie Campbell-Nelson, vegetable extension educator at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says that one year she planted kale too close to collard greens. She saved seeds from that year’s harvest, and, “The kale I got next year was just this bitter horrible cross.”

Why is plant diversity important?  Think about the Irish Potato Famine.

The agribusiness model has given the world cheap, abundant food, but it has also reduced the variety of crops we eat to a handful of massively grow-able varieties. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost over the last century as farmers have moved to high-yielding, genetically modified seeds. This dependence on a few kinds of plants leaves our food supply not only genetically impoverished, but also more vulnerable to blight. (Peru, which grew many varieties of potatoes, survived the potato blight much better than Ireland, which grew only one.)

One of the many reasons I’m looking forward to summer is the re-opening of local farmer’s markets and the opportunity to try new varieties.  Plant diversity is another reason to grow and buy locally.

The Polar Vortex (and who had ever heard of it before this winter) has changed the migration and winter nesting of some birds, but man also changes patterns with building, clearing for agriculture, dams, and other structures.  Factory farms lead to less diversity in what we can purchase and eat and can lead to blight requiring more pesticides and fertilizer.  This impacts every thing that eats whatever is grown this way.  I know we will never go back to the era when everything was grown on the family farm – there are just too many of us and more and more of us are living in urban areas – but being aware never hurts.

Photograph:  Northern Cardinal Ella Clem

Photograph:  Seed Library: Lesley Becker/Globe staff

Globe Story:  Kevin Hartnett

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2 thoughts on “Birds and seeds: change and diversity

  1. Ireland learned its lesson, in any case – there are so many varieties on offer here now, I don’t even know where to start! I wonder if there is any interest in a seed library here – it is such a long term investment, isn’t it? Two years to find out if the seed was both viable and true.

    • We are beginning to have a lot of varieties here in the States also. I only do herbs and flowers, but I love the farmer’s markets. My favorite opens in a week.

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