How do you know when a wild plant is safe to eat? Can you eat pythons? What about zebra mussels? How can you get involved in the fight against invasive species? Read the FAQ and send us your questions!

Can you eat city pigeons?

Pigeons have been hunted and enjoyed by people around Europe and the Old World for centuries. The French brought them to America because they were valued as food. But is pigeon meat healthy in urban areas? There is no evidence that they carry more diseases than other city birds. So can we eat them? A prudent approach would suggest avoiding wild birds and mammals in areas where toxins such as rat poison are set out. But complete disclosure: we couldn’t find any academic or medical articles to support this claim. (For more on how pigeons became “rats with wings,” see Colin Jerolmack’s paper here.) In many rural areas, pigeons are free-ranging, there’s enough space to hunt, and there are lots of Old World recipes that could be adapted to the New World. See also: Hank Shaw’s post, Playing with Pigeons and Edible Manhattan’s Tastes Like Chicken.

How do I know a wild plant is safe to eat?

1.  When you’re absolutely sure you’ve identified it botanically.

2.  When you’ve collected it at least 50 feet from heavy traffic, made sure it’s not contaminated with chemicals, and washed it in running water.

3.  When you’ve nibbled a little first, then waited 20 minutes, to make sure you don’t react to it, especially if you’re going to eat it raw.  Thorough cooking should reduce or eliminate any “cross-reactions” due to pollen allergies.

Should I worry about accidentally picking and eating a poisonous plant?

The forager Euell Gibbons said, “You don’t have to know the poisonous plants in order to gather the edible ones. Know the ones you eat, not the ones you don’t.”

In some instances, there are wild poisonous plants that resemble edible invasives. One good place to check is Wildman Steve Brill’s Wild Edibles app.

Where am I most likely to find invaders?

Gibbons said, of wild plants, “In general, you’ll find a great many more wild foods along roadsides and streams, in old fields and homesteads and around farm ponds. Burned-over and cut-over areas are excellent . . . some plants grow only in places like these that are open to light. Many edible plants are pantropic weeds . . . they’re plentiful in disturbed ground but don’t grown out in real wilderness.”

If anything, invaders like disturbed areas better than most of our native plants do, so his suggestions are a great place to start, just be careful about areas that have been sprayed or are close to road pollution.

What are the risks in the promotion of eating invasives?

Critics claim that creating a market demand for a sustainable fishery for species such as Asian carp or green crabs could promote sustainable use of these products and encourage their spread. “There is much skepticism among invasive-species biologists all over the world about prompting industries that harvest feral animals,” says Tim Low, author of Feral Future: The Untold Story of Australia’s Exotic Invaders. “Once you have set up an industry, you may find you have created a problem rather than a solution.” Fair point. Clearly, the most effective treatment is prevention and a quick response to new invasions.

For a complete review of the tradeoffs of eating invaders, see Dan Simberloff, a professor at University of Tennessee, and colleagues’ piece in Conservation Letters. They, too, worry that if a target species become an economic resource people may try to re-create that market in previously uninvited regions.

One should never move living invaders or attempt to expand their range. At best, humans may be just another form of biological control—capable of reducing the ecological impact of an invader, if not completely extirpating it. But for every invader consumed—from knotweed to feral pigs to periwinkles—that’s one more native left in the wild, one less cage in the factory farm.

Just look at our track record: Atlantic cod, bison, and Pismo clams have all but disappeared under the weight of human demand. We managed to dispatch all 5 billion passenger pigeons—many of them smoked, roasted, stewed, fried, or baked in pot pies—in fewer than 100 years. After the birds were gone, market hunters missed the pie—half a dozen pigeons with three crimson legs stuck in the crust—as much as they did the birds themselves. Why not put our destructive streak to good use for a change?

Are zebra mussels edible?

The USGS says, in short: “not recommended they be eaten by people.”

“Most clams and mussels are edible, but that does not mean they taste good! Many species and fish and ducks eat zebra mussels, so they are not harmful in that sense. Zebra mussels are so small and do not have much in the way of “meat” inside them, you would have to be pretty hungry to want to eat them.  However, because they are filter feeders, they can accumulate pollutants in their tissues that may not be healthy for people to consume. You should contact local public health officials to learn whether it is safe to eat mussels or fish from a specific waterbody.”

How about python?

The culinary world is still reeling, from someone posting the following message on Chowhound in 2009: “Trying to find recipes for cooking python meat.  Very hard to find on the internet or in cookbooks.  Any help would be appreciated.  The meat comes in a 1lb. package, very tender and pink.” Link.

Keep in mind that as the new apex predator in the Everglades, the Burmese python may have high levels of mercury. Perhaps it’s best to wear them as snakeskin boots.

Aren’t there laws to prevent new invasions and control established species?

One of the earliest laws to address invasive species was the Lacey Act, first passed in 1900. Focused on trade, the law prohibited the intentional introduction of fruit bats, mongoose, meerkats, starlings, and English sparrows. Other vertebrates, mussels, and crabs that are “injurious to human beings, to the interests of agriculture, horticulture, forestry, or to wildlife” have since been added. Last amended in 1998, the law is the main legal defense against invasive animal species, but the list remains dauntingly small (only about two dozen species). A 2007 study out of Notre Dame questioned the efficacy of the law, noting the size of the list; the delay in protecting against threats, which could take up to seven years; and the lack of an emergency provision to prohibit imports. Asian carp were added to the list in 2010. They are now found from California to Florida and throughout the Mississippi River Basin.

In 1990, the US Congress passed the Nonindigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control Act. This law focused on unintentional, but preventable, introductions. It was largely a response to the invasion of zebra mussels in the Great Lakes and focused on controlling species spread through ballast water. In 1996, the law was expanded and renamed the National Invasive Species Act. The law has been valuable, but had several shortcomings, especially in its failure to regulate other vectors such as aquaculture and the pet trade. NISA expired in 2002, but aquatic nuisance species continue to be regulated by the 1990 law.

For further information and analysis see the National Environmental Coalition on Invasive Species and the USDA’s National Invasive Species Information Center

What can I do?

. . . when I travel?

Don’t bring an invader with you!  Don’t arrive at your destination with fruit, vegetables, flowers, nuts, or plants grown wherever you departed from.  Clean your muddy boots, shoes, and clothes before you travel.

. . . when I garden?

Remove invasive species from your yard.  You’ll be surprised how many you have.  Carefully bag them for disposal.  Do not dump them in the wild.

Use only noninvasive species cuttings for mulch and compost.

Garden with plants native to your area. If you want to plant wildflower seeds, make sure the seeds in the packet are for wildflowers native to your region, not invaders from elsewhere. The best way to insure this is not to buy a packet of wildflower seed from a national chain store or from a seed catalogue with an address outside of your state unless you have read the fine print regarding the source of the seeds carefully. Some wildflower seeds in such packets even come from abroad. Many states have websites describing the wildflowers that are native to each area and when and where they should be planted.

Buy imported garden plants only from registered nurseries and only if the plants are certified.

Half of all invasive plants started as imported ornamentals; then they hopped the fence and went wild.

. . . when I outgrow my exotic pet or it outgrows me?

Do not dump it in the wild or flush it down the drain.

The Nature Conservancy recommends:

Ask if the store where you purchased the pet will take it back.

Look for a certified adopter.

Ask your vet about humane euthanasia.

Check about the availability of a pet amnesty day.

The Nonnative Pet Amnesty Days offered in Florida, for example, are free and open to the public: myfwc.com/nonnatives

. . . if I see a bug or a plant disease I’ve never seen before?

Be a Citizen Scientist and take a specimen if you can, then contact a local expert in case you’ve seen evidence of an invader: call an extension agent, a university department in the relevant field, or your local natural history museum.

Go fishing!

Check state regulations: most invasive fish have no bag limit.

If you hunt, hunt wild boar.

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