Special Presentation: Hobblebush – The Vanishing Species

Allegheny National Forest Visitors BureauBRADFORD, PA – June 12, 2019 – Hobblebush, the understory shrub that was so important as a food source for birds, small mammals, and deer up until the early twentieth century, has almost vanished from the landscape here in northern Pennsylvania.  The once plentiful shrub with the beautiful white flowers and high-energy berries disappeared once the deer herd exploded and overwhelmed their habitat.  Deer like to eat hobblebush and will search widely to nip off the twigs and flowers.  For the last 80 years, hobblebush has been found only on the tops of large rocks that deer cannot reach to browse upon the plants.

Just how plentiful was hobblebush?  Hobblebush got its name because it was so common and thick in the understory (below the tree tops) that early settlers called the shrub hobblebush because they didn’t even have to hobble their horses.  Hobblebush grew well under a forest canopy (under the tree tops) or in young forests with abundant sun.

Like all of nature, if you take out or remove one piece you have the capacity to create unplanned havoc elsewhere.  Hobblebush is a perfect example of the unraveling of an entire ecosystem across northern Pennsylvania.  With the loss of the hobblebush, nesting birds that use low-level shrubs (versus the tree-tops) nose-dived in populations across Pennsylvania.  The loss of the hobblebush fruit impacted migratory birds, particularly songbirds, on their migration routes because of the loss of berries as food.

Once you lose that shrub layer that also serves as hiding cover for ground-nesting birds, then small mammals such as chipmunks, opossums, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, etc., can find and devour eggs and nestlings in ground nests.  So, the loss of the hobblebush impacted critters whether they lived on the ground or in the shrubs, and affected migratory birds because they lost a food source.  And once the deer decimated the hobblebush across Pennsylvania, the hungry animals wiped out other beneficial understory shrubs such as dogwoods, viburnums, grapes, berries, and turned the once-thriving forest into a biological desert.  Small wildlife had no place left to hide.

Enter some enlightened biologists and conservationists that discovered the beneficial aspects of deer fencing to protect habitat for other wildlife.  Despite the high cost at almost $3 a linear foot to buy and install, some forward-thinking organizations and agencies are using this conservation technique to shelter these rare hobblebush plants as they find them in today’s forests.    

The Allegheny Chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society (RGS) has a fencing project planned for this summer in McKean County to exclude deer from eating hobblebush plants.  Almost an acre of hobblebush seedlings have sprouted in and adjacent to a small, but steep, ravine.  Although now several years old, the deer are keeping the hobblebush browsed down to just under a foot in height – too small to produce berries for wildlife.  The RGS plans to fence this site to keep the deer out and allow the hobblebush to grow and produce flowers and berries for future wildlife.  Birds can then eat the hobblebush berries and, hopefully, re-establish hobblebush seedlings across the landscape.  

Come learn about this fascinating shrub, and their planned rescue and recovery by attending the RGS presentation on Saturday, August 3, at 1:00 p.m. at the Mt. Jewett Sportsmen’s Club.  Contact Bonnie Orr at 814-778-5610 or johnorr4@verizon.net to attend this presentation.

The Ruffed Grouse Society was founded in 1961 to promote and increase awareness of young forest management and to maintain suitable habitat that supports healthy populations of ruffed grouse, woodcock, deer and many songbird species that depend on forest diversity to survive and prosper.