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The perch effect

March 30th, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

The perch effect refers to the process in which trees are used as perches by frugivorous birds, and because these birds defecate and/or regurgitate seeds while perching, they generate an increased recruitment of fleshy-fruited plants below the trees [1]. Thus, seed rain, and the resulting seedling recruitment and sapling spatial pattern of bird-dispersed (fleshy-fruited) plants is highly patchy and largely restricted to microhabitats beneath trees, in contrast to the pattern of other plants (e.g., wind-dispersed plants [1]). This effect is commonly observed in abandoned fruit orchards in the Mediterranean region, such as those oldfieds of carob trees [1], and thus is an example of how some of the species traditionally considered “late-successional species” occur at early stages of the oldfield succession.

In a recent visit to the Doñana Natural Park (southern Spain) I saw some of the most impressive cases of perch effect (photos below). Pines (Pinus pinea) were widely planted in the region during the 20th C and are currently the dominant tree of the area. However, little by little, junipers (Juniperus phoenicea) are naturally colonizing the area. They have fleshy fruits dispersed by birds, and thus they recruit below the pines where the bird perched. Some of the junipers has grown enough that the effect cannot be unnoticed at all. There are places where most pines have a juniper growing below. It is nice to feel the dynamic of this ecosystem, and the recolonization of the natural habitat.

The importance of bird perching for the dispersal of many plants is one of the reasons why dead trees after a fire should not be cut down, as too often is done in Spain (example1, example2). They help the colonization of bird-dispersed plants (as well as they are habitat for many animals, they reduce the water impact on the soil, retain fog, maintain certain humidity, etc.).


Juniperus phoenicea colonizing Pinus pinea (stone pine) plantations



[1] Pausas J.G., Bonet A., Maestre F.T., Climent A. 2006. The role of the perch effect on the nucleation process in Mediterranean semi-arid oldfields. Acta Oecologica 29: 346-352. [doi | pdf]

More on: Pines | Doñana postfire | Juniperus

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