Birds and Berries

by Pat Jaquith

Western Bluebird on ornamental Cherry

In spring and summer when birds are nesting and raising young, insects are prominent in their diets. The young fledge, and their diets tend more toward fruit, berries, and other high energy foods to fuel their needs for warmth if they’re staying here or energy for migrating.

This American Robin might have wintered here; in March, I found it on a neighborhood Malus pumila (Crabapple) tree, a garden escape that lives in a roadside tangle of both native and non-native trees and shrubs.
Today, September 23, the very Crabapple tree pictured above has a few out-of-season blossoms while it is loaded with rock-hard pomes which will not be consumed until winter freezes make them sweeter and easier to manage.
Berberis vulgaris (Common Barberry), another non-native plant that likely was “planted” here by some bird, grows adjacent to the Crabapple. Barberries are sold as ornamental shrubs; gardeners like them for the bright drupes (fruits) that last into the winter. Berberis escapes have become so invasive in some areas they are banned. They also are banned in some areas because they are carriers of Stem Rust which can infect wheat. The bright drupes have little flesh around a large seed; birds eat them, but ornithologists have found they are cathartic, do little for bird nutrition, and the seeds are dropped where they may be unwelcome.
Eleagnus commutata (Silverberry or Wolfberry), a native shrub, has waxy olive-green leaves that reflect the light and shine with a silvery look. Their small white berries are palatable to birds, and as a bonus, their small yellow flowers are very fragrant in spring! This native is so attractive it is cultivated for garden plantings.
Cornus sericea (Red-Ossier Dogwood) is another attractive native plant that is cultivated for gardens.
This Red-shafted northern flicker seemed to really relish his meal of Red-Ossier Dogwood berries today! Many mammals as well as birds favor these berries.
I came upon a family of Canada Jays last year that were dropping into undergrowth and returning to tree tops to eat their harvest of Berberis repens (Oregon Grape) berries. This is a native Berberis varity that is good for our environment and for the birds! If you’re looking for a low ground cover for your native garden, this plant is hardy, has attractive yellow flowers, and berries that feed birds!

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