Berry Good Birding

Bluebird on staghorn sumac


Wild Winter Fruits Attract Many Birds

Birds eat wild fruits by the basketful. If you want to find birds, just find some wild berries. In winter, persistent berries such as staghorn sumac, poison ivy, juniper and winterberry are magnets for wandering flocks of waxwings, bluebirds, robins and many other species. Resident mockingbirds feistily stake their claim to berry patches, protecting them from other birds. Even pileated woodpeckers, wild turkeys, and ruffed grouse are attracted to wild fruits and forage on them during cold, snowy months.

Winter-Persistent Fruits             

Warbler feeding on poison ivy berries

Wild fruits and berries are a critical food source for many birds, especially those that are migrating or experiencing cold winter months when they are in need of quick energy. Many kinds of trees and shrubs produce fruits; only a few of those keep through the cold wintery months. Winter-persistent fruits include rose hips, fruits of hollies, common winterberries, sumac and poison ivy. Usually bright red, these winter-persistent wild fruits often add color to the landscape. The bright colors act as a beacon to birds that forage on them through hard times. The white berries of poison ivy vines attract many birds including yellow-rumped (myrtle) warblers that seek out this food in cool weather. Even downy and pileated woodpeckers will commonly feast on poison ivy berries.

Long List of Fruit-Eating Birds

Black-capped chickadee in a crabapple tree

There is a long list of birds that take advantage of colorful winter fruits. The fruit-eating birds run the gamut of size and color in the state, from tiny chickadees to ruffed grouse and turkeys, and from the subdued colors of sparrows to the bright reds and blues of cardinals and blue jays. Many eastern bluebirds make it through the winter by subsisting on sumac and poison ivy berries. American robins and hermit thrushes will stop along their migration route or stay a bit longer in winter to forage on abundant wild food such as dried grapes, sumac, poison ivy and holly berries. Anyone who participates in a Christmas Bird Count knows that winterberries are a real attractant for many bird species and a lovely spray of red on the gray, wintery landscape.

Even dried grapes in arbors, both natural and man-made, can attract a hungry cardinal or chickadee. If you listen in a riparian woods, you might hear songbirds snapping up the fruits of hackberry—a stealthy way to find wintering grosbeaks and purple finches. The corky bark of hackberry is a clue for the identification of this unappreciated wildlife food source.

Red Cedar: The All-In-One Wildlife Tree

Red cedar is another attraction for birds. Actually, “red cedar” is a juniper and produces blue cone-like “berries” that many birds eat. This is where cedar waxwing got its name. Robins, chickadees, bluebirds, mockingbirds and many other birds gobble up juniper berries and then hide in its dense foliage at night for protection from cold temperatures and winds. When it is windy or especially cold, many birds can be found in a red cedar tree eating the blue berries. Red cedars attract many “semi-hardy” birds that are not well-equipped to fight the cold weather Birders can find species that normally are not winter-persistent, like hermit thrush, in red cedar stands.

Plan Ahead

For wildlife lovers, planting some of these wild shrubs and trees on their property is a great way to provide leafy “bird feeders” year-round. Take note of what the birds are eating now in the hardest weather to make plans for future wildlife plantings. Many fruit-bearing shrubs and trees can be acquired through natural plant nurseries and the Game Commission’s Howard Nursery.

Article: Doug Gross, Pennsylvania Game Commission wildlife diversity biologist

Photos: Jacob Dingel

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