This is the time of year when you can easily visually see the effect that slavery has had on the species composition of our local forests. Flowering dogwood is in bloom. This understory tree, which is very common in most parts of its range, is few and far between in this part of upstate SC (Greenwood). As you go north of Greenville or south into the coastal plain, it becomes common again, but around here you can only spot an occasional solitary specimen or a small group of 2 to 4 and you can drive for miles through the woods without spotting one. By far, most of the flowering dogwoods around here are found growing in people’s yards.
When I first moved down here, noticed that the local forests were highly deficient in trees bearing fleshy fruit that are primarily distributed by birds (dogwood, magnolia, holly, black gum, black cherry, mistletoe). Most of the trees had either wind distributed seeds (maple, elm, tulip poplar, sweetgum, ash, redbud, pine), large seeds distributed by squirrels, (beech, oak, hickory, walnut), fleshy fruit that are eaten by birds, but is often distributed by wild mammals or livestock (persimmon, plum, honey locust, grape, blackberry, elderberry, red cedar).
The reasons behind this goes back to the history of this region. The virgin forests were clear cut to create cotton fields, then after 5 to 10 years when the soils had been depleted, the eroded land was abandoned to grow back up into forest. So the plants had to go through this bottleneck of getting their seeds from existing virgin forests across acres of cotton fields to the abandoned fields to start anew. Wind, squirrel, and mammal distributed seed had no problem doing this, but bird distributed seed had great difficulty making the jump.
In the plantations on the coastal plains, rivers, ponds, swamps, and marshes were common and most plantations were located along navigable rivers for ease in shipping their product. So the slaves could easily use their free time to find a body of water and go fishing to add high protein food to their diet to augment the bland grain diet provided by the slave owner. But when they were relocated to a plantation in the upstate where no ponds, swamps, or marshes existed and with the only a few rivers spaced far apart, a slave would be lucky to find a small creek to try to fish, so for most slaves, fish was unavailable. So they turned to another form of high protein food that could be easily caught using low tech methods, namely small birds using birdlime to trap them. Birdlime is a sticky substance that can be easily made using local materials that has been traditionally used by primitive societies throughout the world to catch small birds. The sticky birdlime is smeared on branches where small birds would alight, trapping them until they could be collected for the pot. Squirrels are hard to catch without shooting them and slaves wouldn’t be allowed to have a gun. The slave owners would be more likely to hunt larger game such as deer and turkey rather than the lowly squirrel, so squirrel populations would have remained healthy. So as the small bird population got thinned out by trapping, bird distributed seed wasn’t able to make the leap and get established in the newly established forests.
Today, small birds have made their comeback and are busily distributing seeds, but it will take some time for bird distributed plants to regain their normal populations in our local forests.