By Kay Whatley
In the Spring of 2020, little plants began popping up in the gardens and flower beds around my home. I expected this. Fruits and vegetables dropped last year rot, as do kitchen scraps containing seeds, releasing seeds into the soil. As soon as the ground is warm enough in the Spring, these seeds “volunteer” and sprout. Most of the time, the resulting plants are expected — tomatoes, peppers, and squash from what we’ve thrown out. Sometimes, though, plants come up that are not from my garden or kitchen leavings, but from strange sources. While all types of wildlife can spread seed, and wind can blow seeds far, in some cases I believe I can thank the birds.
Birds often swallow seeds along with their food. Later, the bird droppings are let go with intact seeds — which may sprout far from the plants from which they came. Miles away, even. I “blame” the birds for a few of the wild plants that have come up in the grass, hundreds of feet from the wild plants. I’m most intrigued by the Brussels sprout plant — never planted nor discarded here — which grew in the flower bed of its own accord beneath the bird feeder. (I doubt such seeds were included in the birdseed used to fill the feeder.)
Right now, as gardens wane and winter crops are installed at area farms, I wonder what will be coming up in my garden next year. Soybean, from the farm fields of eastern Wake County? A stray cotton plant from a Nash County farm? (Probably not, as most cotton grown in NC is GMO.) What about a stray hemp plant from the Franklin County fields?
For that matter, a flower may sprout that had not been planted here in the yard. Perhaps a neighbor’s gone-to-seed marigold might drop unexpectedly from the sky and appear next year in a potted plant. Or, a native wildflower I’ve never seen might crop up under a tree branch, right where a bird left it, in a small pile of bird droppings.
Various types of birds visit the yard throughout the year. Each bird eats a different diet, is attracted to different plants, and can carry different types of seeds into its gut as it feasts on wild and cultivated plants. Maybe it will gobble the bugs from precious garden plants, and leave behind the gift of a new plant — one whose seeds it ate in a neighbor’s garden or a mile down the road. If lucky, the droppings will land in a pad of soil, not on a car’s roof.
So, the next time a bird excretes its tiny pile of fertilizer and goodness-knows-what somewhere in the yard, next growing season an unexpected plant may spring to life, rising from a seed “planted” by the bird’s droppings.
Audubon offers many bird-related resources, including this 2015 article on how bird droppings (poop) provides seed dispersal, and their droppings may provide fertilizer for distributed seeds.
Check out researcher Evan Fricke, who has researched seed dispersal by birds and more — evanfricke.org/research, including a 2013 study, based on a pepper seeds + birds, on how a bird’s digestive system may make seeds more likely to survive and germinate after the bird excretes the seeds. (See Ecology Letters article.)