Chinese Privet (Ligustrum sinense) is Beneficial for Birds

During the 1927 college football season the Georgia Bulldogs won 9 consecutive games before playing their hated rival, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. The Bulldogs always played the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta during this era because their own home games were played at rocky Herty Field–a poor quality gridiron. The Bulldogs were a fast team that year, so some Yellow Jacket officials watered down the field before the game, turning it into a muddy quagmire that negated Georgia’s speed advantage, and the Yellow Jackets upset the Bulldogs 12-0, ruining their unbeaten season. Georgia officials were furious and vowed to build their own stadium where they could play Tech at home every other year. Sanford Stadium was completed in 1929. Hedges of Chinese privet were planted near the sidelines, and Georgia home games are referred to as being played “between the hedges.” I’m a big Georgia Bulldog fan, and I was excited to discover 1 specimen of Chinese privet that recently popped up on its own near my back door.

Gardeners planted Chinese privet in Sanford Stadium during 1929. Traditionally, college football games played in Athens, Georgia are said to be played “between the hedges.” Photo from Gun and Garden Magazine.
I’m a big Georgia Bulldog fan, so I was excited to discover this Chinese privet that popped up near my back door.
Cardinal eating a privet berry. At least 16 species of birds use privet thickets for food and/or cover. Photo ripped off from google images.

Chinese privet, as the name would suggest, is native to China, and it was introduced to North America during 1852 as an ornamental plant. Privet is a tough species and thrives in both wet and dry locations on just about any kind of soil. In the wild privet grows on disturbed sites and originally depended upon elephant foraging, human activity, fires, or wind storms to open up the forest canopy, so it could take over a location. Privet can survive fire and will come back from the roots. In addition to spreading through sucker roots, privet is spread by birds eating its fruit and defecating the still viable seeds throughout the environment. It grows fast. The 1996 Olympic soccer matches were played at Sanford Stadium, and the privet hedges were temporarily removed and transplanted. Upon their return to Sanford Stadium they grew enough in 1 week that one couldn’t tell they’d ever been moved.

Chinese privet flowers are very fragrant. This is what attracted my attention to the bush, but I did not recognize it. I posted a photo on a Facebook page known as Weakley’s Flora of Southeastern North America. I learned plant conservationists revile Chinese privet because it crowds out native plants. The man who identified it for me told me to destroy it. I told him I liked it and was not destroying it. Numerous other shmucks called me a troll, and one suggested I was a fake account who signed up for this group just to troll about Chinese privet. (Facebook suggested the group based on my interests. That’s why I joined.) Another person suggested I use an app for plant identification because I must not be interested in ecology and didn’t belong in the group. (I’ve been writing this blog about Pleistocene ecology for over 10 years.) Yet another putz encouraged me to breath the flowers in deeply in the hopes I would suffer an uncomfortable allergic response. The internet makes it easy to expose people for their mean spirited attitudes.

Now, I am trolling them. I found a scientific study that determined Chinese privet benefits birds. Thickets of Chinese privet host the same abundance and species diversity of birds as other more natural areas during spring, summer, and fall; but during winter bird species diversity and abundance is even higher than in the surrounding landscape. Privet berries ripen in late fall/early winter when most native berries are gone. Birds that benefit from food and/or cover provided by privet include cedar waxwings, cardinals, bluebirds, robins, Carolina wrens, chickadees, brown thrashers, flickers, mockingbirds, purple finches, blackbirds, blue jays, crows, doves, sparrows, bobwhite quail, turkey, and feral chickens. Mockingbirds are the most common songbird in my neighborhood, and I suspect this was the species that inadvertently planted the bush in my backyard when it defecated the seed. The berries are toxic to humans. Deer and cotton rats eat privet foliage and also benefit from the presence of the plant. This same study did find privet does crowd out native plants.

Another study determined privet thickets host fewer bees and butterflies than privet-free zones, but this study is misleading and seriously flawed. Privet was mechanically removed from locations in a botanical garden and a nature reserve in Athens, Georgia. Forest service scientists trapped bees and butterflies 5 years after the removal and counted species abundance and diversity. The title of the article is misleading–“Removing Chinese Privet from a Riparian Corridor Benefits Pollinators 5 years later.” From the title one would assume they counted bees and butterflies at the same location before the privet was removed, but this is not what they did. Instead, they compared bee and butterfly composition from this location to different locations within the Oconee National Forest including 2 sites with privet and 2 sites without. This is quite flawed because some sites might be better for pollinators based on factors unrelated to privet. (And see below…an obvious factor.) Moreover, the sites where privet was removed were embedded within a botanical garden and a nature reserve where humans deliberately plant flowers that attract bees and butterflies. Populations of pollinators in these areas are artificially boosted due to anthropogenic activities. They are even higher than in the natural privet-free zones used as control groups in the study. A better study would take inventory of pollinators before and after privet removal in the same location.

Even without human interference nature would eventually control privet populations. During the 1996 transplanting of the Sanford Stadium privet, horticulturalists discovered the privet was slowly dying of a nematode infestation. They treated it, but many wild stands of privet may be dying from nematode infestations. Left alone, after centuries, native plants could retake space where privet previously took over.

References:

Hudson, J.; J. Handa, and S. Kim

“Removing Chinese Privet from Riparian Forest Still Benefits Pollinators 5 Years Later”

Biological Conservation 167 November 2017

Wilcox, J; and C. Beck

“Effects of Ligustrum sinense (Chinese privet) on Abundance and Diversity of Songbirds and Native Plants in a Southeastern Nature Preserve”

Southeastern Naturalist 6 (3) 2007

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One Response to “Chinese Privet (Ligustrum sinense) is Beneficial for Birds”

  1. Michelle Smith Says:

    For almost 30 years, we’ve enjoyed the fragrance and appearance of the blooms on our Chinese privet. After spending the past 8 months or so identifying the flora on our property and finding them growing everywhere, I’m pulling for the nematodes!

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