A Gift from the Birds

A volunteer sunflower.
A volunteer sunflower.

Several days ago I noticed that we have two small sunflower plants growing among our lilies of the valley. I did not plant them, but it’s no mystery how they got planted. As Jody says, they are a gift from the birds.

Every year–fall, winter, and spring–we hang several bird feeders on a pole near the lilies of the valley. The largest of them we fill with black oil sunflower seeds. Sunflower seeds attract most of the birds that we see at our feeders. Just about every bird that visits, from English sparrows to chickadees to finches to cardinals and even woodpeckers go for the sunflower seeds. This past season I think I poured about seventy-five pounds of seeds into this feeder.

Most of the seeds get broken open and eaten while the bird is perched on the feeder. A few might be carried a distance away and eaten. Chickadees and woodpeckers carry the seeds away and break them open on tree branches or other hard surfaces. A post from earlier this year describes that behavior.

It’s not surprising that a few seeds fall to the ground intact and remain there, undiscovered by birds or squirrels, until they sprout in the spring. Usually I discover the seedlings and pull them out because, in a patch of the lilies of the valley, the sunflowers are weeds. These two plants escaped my notice, however, until they had flower buds on them. Now they have flowered.

The concept of these plants being a gift from the birds made me think of what wild birds do to benefit humanity. The sprouting of these sunflower seeds could be an example of seed dispersal. Many small birds will eat seeds or seed-bearing fruit at some point during the year. Some seeds get dropped without getting eaten. Some seeds, such as strawberry seeds, pass through the bird first before they are dropped. I think that method of dispersal accounts for many of the mulberry trees around our neighborhood, too. I find them in the strangest places.

Since humans sometimes eat the same kinds of seeds or seed-bearing fruit that birds eat, it is not difficult to surmise that birds helped spread valuable human food crops in ages past. Some of these crops, such as strawberries, have since been cultivated by humans but they could still be spread by birds.

Birds also create a pleasant soundtrack and pleasant scenery for our daily lives. I’ve written often about birds that I have heard or seen and their presence is cheering. The Bird Watching column in the North Jersey Herald News and Record recently featured stories by local residents about their experiences observing birds. (http://www.northjersey.com/community-news/recreation/readers-share-their-birding-simple-pleasures-1.1052891) (http://www.northjersey.com/community-news/recreation/more-on-the-simple-pleasures-of-birding-1.1060287)

Birds can provide natural pest control. Barn swallows dart, wheel, and swoop throughout the neighborhood and especially throughout Third Ward Park. Their quest is to find and devour flying bugs, including mosquitoes. Birds of prey, such as hawks, falcons, and owls can help keep the local rodent population in check. Inasmuch as some people consider pigeons to be rats with wings, hawks provide a benefit by helping keep the local pigeon population in check as well.

Crows, turkey vultures, and some birds of prey dispose of carrion. Birds contribute to soil building by turning complex animal and vegetable matter into simpler forms of organic material. Birds can also help aerate the soil in a garden by hunting for food in the form of bugs or seeds.

Birds give us these gifts, or provide us with these benefits, expecting nothing in return from us.

In a future post we will explore how other wild creatures provide us with benefits, and what we can do to benefit them in return. For now, thanks as always for stopping by.

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