Conquer invasive species, help birds return, thrive

Conquer invasive species, help birds return, thrive

Cardinals are a thriving native species of songbird, but other birds have become more rare as habitat loss becomes a bigger problem. Photo by Melody Narr.


If you feel like you’ve heard less birdsong than when you were a kid, there’s a reason: The North American bird population has declined 30% since 1970, according to reports published last fall. At the same time, invasive plant species like buckthorn and garlic mustard have elbowed out myriad native plant species in our forests.

We may think these are two separate conversations, but they are directly related. Birds – and other wildlife – suffer when native understory shrubs are lost to buckthorn’s bullying ways. There are several reasons for this:

  • Buckthorn – and other species like honeysuckle – replace native understory shrubs that provide our native birds with healthful food.
  • Buckthorn’s berries, while prolific and eaten by birds, provide no nutrition, cause harmful digestion issues, and damage a bird’s health.
  • Buckthorn increases nest predation because it is less protective to birds sheltering in its branches versus native species.
Buckthorn is an understory plant that elbows out native species. It’s easy to spot before and after other trees have their leaves. It also creates an impenetrable thicket, creating problems with all kinds of wildlife. Photo credit: Stephen Katovich,

The good news: We can beat buckthorn and help birds thrive. By embarking on a program of buckthorn eradication and planting native shrubs in its space, you can help re-create the forest our North American bird species need to thrive.

Winter is prime time to work on large stands of buckthorn. While it can be a labor-intensive job, effective management can mean less work in years to come. LandWorks crews brush cut through stands of buckthorn relatively quickly, then we treat the stumps with an appropriate herbicide. This two-step process means we get at the roots efficiently and avoid broadcast spraying of chemicals.

The prolific berry production of buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) help the plants spread wildly. Birds drop these seeds as they fly, and the seeds within sprout in any environment. The berries are unhealthy and even harmful to the birds who eat them. Photo credit: Jan Semanek, Phytosanitary Administration,

Thanks to the plants’ prolific seed production, this isn’t a one-time process, but tackling the plants you have in winter makes follow-up treatments of new seedlings easier. It also means fewer buckthorn berries for the birds to eat – and get sick from – this summer.

Distinctive bark makes winter identification easy. Photo credit: Leslie Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut,

Planting bird-welcoming trees and shrubs. Once we have a handle on the buckthorn population in the area, we can plant inexpensive native trees and shrubs that will quickly fill the area with beauty – and the kinds of food and shelter that will welcome and nurture the birds we love.

There are countless other reasons to make the effort to eradicate buckthorn, including erosion control, healthier soil, biodiversity, and even property values.

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