Birds and Buckthorn

by Carl Strang

Birds eat bugs. That’s a 3-word description of the main action going on these days as migrant songbirds drop into our woodlands, refueling during the day before they continue on their way north at night.

Buckthorn provides no bugs, nor does honeysuckle. These Eurasian shrubs might as well be made of plastic, as far as our native insects are concerned, and so support none of the fuel needed by those feathered foragers.

So, why does it so often seem that more migrants can be found in woodlands with buckthorn and honeysuckle understories rather than restored woodlands with a diversity of herbaceous native plants beneath the trees?

This has been the hottest part of Mayslake Forest Preserve in recent days for diverse migrant songbirds. Its dominant understory plant is buckthorn. The nearby restored savanna, rich in native herbs, has some migrants, but not nearly so many species or individuals.

Some people who are excellent birders (but uninterested in ecology or any other aspect of natural history) have made similar observations, and so have a negative view of restoration.  It’s hard to blame them, given their data and focus.

So, what’s going on here? I have a hypothesis, but it needs testing (unless someone already has done so and I haven’t encountered the paper). I think the issue is security.

Here a Wilson’s warbler rests in the dense foliage of a buckthorn bush in the same area at Mayslake.

Both the savanna and the buckthorn-infested woodland have plenty of trees, and most of the insects these birds are after are feeding on the trees’ flowers and tender new leaves. The herbaceous plants in the savanna will provide abundant insects later in the season, but not much to speak of, this early. In other words, food availability probably is similar between the two kinds of places during this peak migration time (a test of my hypothesis would require measurements to confirm that statement, however).

I suspect that the buckthorn’s appeal is that it provides a ready hiding place for the migrants. They want a secure retreat if a hawk comes along, and the blanket of dense shrubbery beneath them has that quality. As dawn breaks, birds that have been flying all night are looking for a place to spend the day. Trees provide the food, and the dense patches of understory shrubs complete a clear target for weary, hungry, safety conscious birds.

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3 Comments

  1. May 25, 2011 at 6:23 am

    […] Last week I described the preference migrating songbirds were showing for an inferior woodland, rather than the high quality savannas at Mayslake Forest Preserve. I thought the security provided by the woodland’s buckthorn understory might be the significant factor. This week I found some support for that idea. The oaks have expanded their leaves. Bur oak is the dominant tree in Mayslake’s savannas, followed by white oak, shagbark hickory, and Hill’s oak. […]

  2. May 10, 2012 at 6:00 am

    […] year ago I posted a hypothesis that this most unusual of seasons will allow me to test. To recap: When restored savannas are […]

  3. May 22, 2012 at 6:03 am

    […] that the early part of the migration season is past, I can do a preliminary test of the Birds-Buckthorn-Oaks hypothesis. The idea is that migrating birds seem to prefer buckthorn infested woodlands early in the […]


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