January 2022 Birds Need Plants Contest

Brazilian Pepper Thrives, but fewer of our Native Birds do

Northern Mockingbird Amongst the Brazilian Pepper Berries © John Wolaver  12/9/21 08:32 Indian River County west of I-95, south of SR-60.
Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm @ 500 mm, manual, ISO 500 1/640, f/7.1

by Juanita N. Baker, Ph.D.

Brazilian pepper is spreading across Florida after being imported into Florida for its beauty.  Beauty it is, in this photo by John Wolaver of a serene and well-fed resident Northern Mockingbird surrounded by the pepper’s stunning red berries.  Prior to 1990, central Florida routinely had hard freezes that would dramatically kill any Brazilian Pepper Schinus terebinthifolius (Not a true pepper), belongs to the cashew family, Anacardiaceae, (which includes poison ivy and mangos) that attempted to disperse northwards.  Although native to subtropical and tropical South America, with global warming, Brazilian pepper, continues to take over acres and acres of our Florida landscapes, replacing native species.  Biodiversity is essential for a healthy ecosystem by serving to provide diverse food sources for many species (from bacteria to mammals) that clean our air, maintain our soil, recycle food nutrients, inspire biomimicry, give us medicines, and regulate the climate.  Having a variety of species helps us and all species cope better with threats to the environment like pollution, fire, diseases and climate change. 

Many birds in addition to mockingbirds, especially American Robins in huge flocks, feed on these prolific berries during winter and spread them across the lands by their droppings.  New Brazilian pepper plants are often found beneath perching sites of fruit-eating birds. Like many foreign invasive species, this plant has no natural Florida herbivores to keep it in check as its leaves are poisonous, and its roots produce a chemical to keep other plants at bay. Invasive introduced plants such as Brazilian pepper, like other development activities of humans, are hastening extinction of our unique Florida species diversity (e.g., numerous insects, the Florida Scrub-Jay and endemic plants isolated on this peninsula) that took millions of years to evolve. 

Yet the Northern Mockingbird has thrived on our recent human presence here as it is an omnivorous generalist. It eats insects during breeding January-August even on our prolific lawns and feeds juicy caterpillars (none thrive on Brazilian pepper) to their often multiple (3-4) broods per year enabled by our warm climes, but then switch to these berries and other luscious fruits of our own native plants during the fall.  With diversity of diet, they thrive in our human environment.  Removing the invasive Brazilian pepper will not harm the birds that eat its fruits but will aid all our native birds. So, make all efforts to identify the young pepper shoots in your yards and farms and remove this invasive before it makes an impenetrable thicket that takes over your land.

Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos

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