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The small Crabapple tree was alive with birds. Dozens of Robins and Cedar Waxwings, along with a few Bluebirds and even Starlings were gorging themselves on the small, round fruit like it was the last call at an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord. The recent frost had made the crabapples soft, making them easier for the birds to dine on. At this time of year, many birds, along with some species of mammals depend on these fruits, nuts and berries as a major source of their daily food. These herbaceous seeds come in all sizes and colors, they grow high up on mountainsides, and low in cool, dark swamps, but the one thing they have in common is that they are important food source for many species of wildlife.
There are almost as many species of berry-producing plants as there are birds that eat them. Some of these include trees such as: Dogwood, Crabapple, Sumac, Mountain Ash, Hawthorne, Eastern Red Cedar, American Holly and Hackberry. Shrubs are another good source of late fall fruit. Some of my favorites are Chokeberry, American Cranberry Viburnum, Red-Osier Dogwood, Winterberry and Bayberry. Even vines offer berries for nature’s critters, including American Bittersweet, Virginia Creeper, Wild Grape and yes, even the itchy Poison Ivy vine. If you’re looking to attract birds to your backyard, planting a few of the species listed above is an excellent way to start.
Although many of these plants produce fruit in late summer or early fall, I’ve noticed over the years that many of the birds that drop in to our backyard for a quick meal do not feed on the berries until they’ve been softened by at least one, hard frost. I’m not a scientist, but my guess is that the berries simply become easier to eat and/or digest. As the snow begins to cover the landscape, these berries may be the only food certain bird species will find, and survive on for several months. Robins are a good example. Scattered flocks of Robins will stick around in the winter months if they can find enough fruit to eat. These birds become very nomadic during winter, traveling from area to area in search of berries. Many times they “zero-in” on one single crabapple, dogwood or holly tree and will strip it clean in just a few minutes.
One of the added bonuses of planting some of these fruit-bearing plants on your property is that some of the bird species that fed on them during the harsh, winter months may choose to stick around and nest in these same plants when spring rolls around. We have a few Eastern Red Cedars in our backyard, and the small, blue berries they produce are fed on by a couple local Mockingbirds, usually in late winter. So, it’s no coincidence that a pair of Mockingbirds have chosen these same trees to nest and raise young in each spring/summer.
If you would like to enjoy seeing some of your “summer birds” during the cold, winter months, and help them survive the snow and harsh temperatures, try planting a few berry-producing plants on your property next spring. Make sure you choose native plants that will grow well in the areas you plan on planting them in. Your efforts will pay off next fall as many birds will enjoy a Merry Berry Winter!