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

Red-tailed hawks on Fort Hill

The other day I saw a large bird perched in one of the maple trees near our back porch/balcony.  It’s a tree that many blue jays, mourning doves, cardinals and house sparrows use as a staging area before swooping down to the feeders and window boxes we keep filled with seed.  The light wasn’t too good and the bird didn’t look all that big.  The first day, we thought it was some kind of hawk, but couldn’t see the colors.  The second day, I could clearly see the white breast and dark back.  Eastern Kingbird?  Folks on the Great Backyard Bird Count Facebook page said too early in the season for a kingbird.  Maybe a Sharp-shinned hawk.

This afternoon, we saw the bird up close – like just on the other side of the kitchen window close.  It was clearly an immature Red Tailed Hawk.  We always leave our Christmas tree tied to the porch rail and it is still green and has most of its needles.  The sparrows use it for shelter.  And they needed it today!  When the Red-tail  flew by the first time, some of the 50-60 house sparrows flew away.  But when he landed on the porch, the tree held maybe 10 of them chirping away.  For about 2 minutes, my husband, Mr. Bunter (one of our cats), and I watched the poor red-tail trying to figure out how to catch one of the sparrows.  He flew from one window box to the other.  He tried to shimmy down one of the porch rail posts near the tree.  He landed on the table under the window so he could study us and the birds in the tree.

When he flew off for a second, probably to re-group, the sparrows made their escape.  When he came back, there was no more chirping in the tree.  No lunch today for Mr. Red-tail.  And later, my husband, watched 3 hawks circling the park and flying off in the direction of Jamaica Plain.

Juvenile Red Tailed Hawk

Juvenile Red Tailed Hawk

A number of years ago, a mature red-tail swooped on to the porch and grabbed a rock dove (pigeon) and proceeded to eat the entire bird while we watched.  I think he left a couple of feathers. We also had a young red-tail fly into a neighbor’s open window.  The Audubon and Animal Rescue people were called and he was rescued unhurt.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Red-tailed Hawks are the most common kind.  One sees them circling around when you are driving along the interstates or on back roads.  But we’ve been lucky to have see two of them close up.

Photograph from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology web site, All About Birds.