This Winter, Give a Bird a Berry

Berries from native plants help birds weather the long, cold winter

  • NWF staff
  • Feb 02, 2010

Getting birds through winter takes more than bird feeders and brush piles. When the coldest days of the year set in, and most food sources are exhausted, berries can truly be a lifesaver.

Fruits are very important for overwintering birds," says Christopher Whelan, an avian biologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey. According to Whelan, many insectivorous birds change their diet in fall and winter. Woodpeckers, thrashers, quail, robins, waxwings, mockingbirds, bluebirds, grouse, catbirds, thrushes and even chickadees and titmice turn to berries when the weather turns cold.

The best winter-fruiting plants for wildlife are native trees and shrubs. "Many of them produce prodigious fruit," says Whelan. Natives are also easy to care for once they are established. Dozens--even hundreds--of varieties are available. Try cultivating some of the following plants in your garden. Nurseries and native plant societies can help you select the species best suited to your part of the country.

Sumac: For years sumacs were considered trash trees by gardeners. But now these widespread natives are cultivated for their fiery autumn foliage and showy seed heads. They are also without equal as a winter emergency food for a wide range of birds and mammals. Some 15 species occur in North America. Poison sumac is not really sumac and should be avoided as it's more closely related to poison ivy.

Holly: Hollies are among the best winter berry plants. Possum haw, a deciduous holly with abundant fruit, is found throughout the southeastern states. Winterberry, the hardiest of the hollies, flourishes in New England and eastern Canada. Three other native hollies--American, yaupon and inkberry--are evergreen, providing protection from snow, rain and wind. Cluster female holly bushes with a male to ensure a good crop of fruit.

Saltbush: Several species of this desert shrub are native to the Southwest and California. Wynn Anderson of the Chihuahuan Desert Gardens at the Universtiy of Texas-El Paso recommends four-winged saltbush. "It's excellent for quail as well as for a number of other critters," he says. All of the saltbushes are drought tolerant and prefer well-drained soils and full sun.

Hackberry: Nearly 50 species of birds--ranging from roadrunners to titmice--eat the pea-sized fruit of the common hackberry. Related to the elm, this species is one of the few trees that thrives from the edge of the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic seaboard. Eventually reaching 40 to 60 feet tall in ideal situations, the common hackberry is durable and can be planted in urban areas and in poor soils.

American Beautyberry: This hardy four- to six-foot shrub has purple or magenta fruit, which can last until mid-winter. Native in much of the eastern United States, beautyberry is a favorite of mockingbirds and several other species of birds.

Viburnum: Several native viburnums have berries that persist long into the winter. The fruit of possumhaw viburnum starts out chartreuse in the summer then gradually changes color, first to white, then pink, and finally to navy blue. It is native to the eastern coastal plain from Connecticut south to Florida and west to Texas. Highbush cranberry and nannyberry are two viburnums that grow across the northern United States.

Mountain Ash: As the name suggests, mountain ash prefers cool, moist habitats. American mountain ash, usually a large shrub or small tree, ranges from eastern Canada south into the Appalachian Mountains. Sitka mountain ash is a western species. Both have showy white blossoms in the spring. After a few freeze-and-thaw cycles, the orange-red fruit attracts grosbeaks, grouse and waxwings.

Hawthorn: Dozens of species of hawthorns are found in the United States and Canada. With thorns and a tendency to clump into thickets, these small trees do double duty, providing secure nesting sites in summer and plentiful berries in winter. Cedar waxwings, ruffed grouse and fox sparrows all devour the plants' scarlet berries.

Bayberry: Most species of bayberry, including northern bayberry and Pacific wax myrtle, are vital to winter wildlife. In the Southeast, tree swallows and other birds swarm to southern wax myrtle if a late cold front strikes in spring. Wax myrtle is easy to grow, tolerating a wide range of conditions.

Adapted from "Tis the Season for Birds and Berries" by Doreen Cubie, National Wildlife, December/January 2004.

Learn more about planting native plants for birds and other wildlife--and how to turn your garden into a Certified Wildlife Habitat.

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