Monday, October 21, 2013

Blame it on the birds...

I’ve always considered the birds on our property to be good neighbors. The bare land we purchased in 1991 is now lush with plants, thanks in no small part to the unintended aid of avian seed dispersers.

A seed-eating male cardinal

While my husband Ralph and I use shovels to plant trees, vines, flowers and shrubs, seed-eating birds spread botanic wealth by dropping pre-fertilized nuggets onto the ground.  Sometimes those seed-containing pellets take root and grow, diversifying the landscape.  Because of the birds and squirrels, I never know what I’ll find until I walk through the many paths we maintain.

Recently, I came upon a flowering plant that made me rethink my “good neighbor” relationship with birds.

“I wonder what plant this is,” I said to Ralph and we approached a new vine with familiar leaves entwining a pine tree.  “It must be some sort of legume.  And look!  It’s flowering.”

A new plant with legume flowers, pods and leaves

Beneath a cover of compound leaves, a cluster of lavender blooms shielded several newly-formed flat, green, pea-shaped pods.  A little lower, I noticed two more pods in a different stage of development. Instead of being small and green, they were large, brown, brittle and open. Inside each dried up pod were four bright red and black “peas.”

Dried pod exposing distinctive red and black seeds

Since I had no idea what the plant was, I snapped a couple pictures to help me find out exactly what new botanical wonder was growing on our property.  As it turned out, discovering the plant’s identity was the easy part.  Figuring out what to do next proved more trying.
The vine thriving at the edge of our pinewoods is Abrus precatorius, commonly known as rosary pea because the seeds are used to make rosary beads.

Although a member of the legume family, rosary pea is not edible.  The seeds — those attractive bright red and black orbs within the dried pod — contain a poison called abrin, one of the most toxic in the plant kingdom.  One pea contains enough abrin to kill any horse, cow or person who unwittingly consumes it.

Birds, however, are unharmed by the plant’s potent poison.

Yes, I fear my feathered friends are responsible for the introduction into our landscape of an invasive species listed as a “Category 1” plant — the worst — by the Florida Exotic PestPlant Council.  While I may not agree with every council listing, there’s no doubt rosary pea is one plant I definitely don’t want on our property.

The more I researched Abrus precatorius, the more determined I became to eradicate this invasive exotic before it establishes an even stronger foothold.

Image courtesy of

However, rosary pea, in addition to being toxic, is extremely difficult to get rid of.  The root delves deep into the ground while the vine climbs high over trees, shrubs and anything else it can grab.  In addition to being spread by birds dropping seeds, it also spreads by sending out new shoots.

I’m not a proponent of herbicides, but this plant’s toxic nature offers few other options.  Although the organic gardener part of me wants to chop down, uproot and bag the few vines we currently have, my more cautious self says, ‘Spray them with Roundup and be done with it.’

Unfortunately, while I’m deciding what to do, cheery little songbirds are probably consuming more seeds and thus spreading additional rosary pea plants across our property and beyond.

Western palm warbler

I’d like to think the birds and I work together to make the land we share a more beneficial habitat for all creatures, but I’ve come to realize our agendas differ.  I want a land filled with harmless botanical beauties.  Birds?  Well, they’re just after a safe place to live and good food to eat.

Rosary peas might provide birds with nourishment.  To me, they are just another problem to solve.

According to the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council, category 1 plants are “invasives when they are altering native plant communities by displacing native species, changing community structures or ecological functions, or hybridizing with natives. This definition does not rely on the economic severity or geographic range of the problem, but on the documented ecological damage caused.”

To learn more, visit the council’s webpage:

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