Farm Progress

Grow Native: Berries provide birds with food for fall.

Scott Woodbury

September 1, 2017

3 Min Read
SNACK TIME: A robin finds a berry left behind after the leaves drop from a bush. Birds rely on berries during fall months for nutrition.Robert Weaver

In my family, which includes an active child, our most successful place to watch birds is through windows. Birds tolerate us that way, and we see amazing things while munching granola in our PJs. Through the kitchen window, we watch finches, sapsuckers and nuthatches all winter on the sunflower feeder.

In October, we see woodpeckers devouring the blue Virginia creeper berries on the porch arbor. Out the back window, we watch cardinals and sparrows eating pokeberries. I’m amazed how long the dried berries last through winter on the sturdy red stalks.

In mid- to late winter, we see bluebirds eating bright-red flowering dogwood berries through the porch windows. For some reason they save them until the end of winter. Out of the spare bedroom window is often a single mockingbird perched on top of the possumhaw (deciduous holly) all winter. This miserly bird doesn’t share the overabundance of berries it guards while sitting on top of the shrubs.

What a bird wants
We’re not just indoor birders, however. We also like to walk outside with binoculars to look in the treetops for flocks of waxwings and robins that gorge on cedar and black gum berries. Robins stuff their faces and are messy eaters, littering the ground with the fruits they knock off. That is not a problem with the juncos, which feed on the ground anyway.

Waxwings seem to take their time by comparison, feeding at the tops of trees as far away as possible from noisy human onlookers. Waxwings are known to eat their weight in berries in a single day. I love the soft sounds of waxwings calling "See-see-see." Listen for their arrival in October.

Basics of berries
In nature and in the native garden, juvenile and adult birds switch to eating berries, which are high in fat, when insects become scarce in late summer and fall. This happens to coincide with the beginning of bird migration and winter flocking.

Berries like holly, black chokeberry, spicebush, poison ivy, rough-leaved dogwood and black gum fuel long flights to overwintering grounds in central and South America. They also help the birds that remain build up a store of body fat to survive long winters.

Berry-producing plants are as crucial to birds as birds are to plants, a phenomenon of mutual benefit called coevolution. Turns out robins, bluebirds, and many other birds digest berry pulp, but not the seeds. Seeds receive a quick acid treatment while passing through the birds, and come out with a better chance of sprouting in spring — and with a wee boost of fertilizer. That is one reason why invasive bush honeysuckle and other invasive and weedy seedlings sprout prolifically beneath the branches of shrubs and small trees.

The view out our windows amazes us month after month. We see nature up close because that’s where the native plants grow. That’s where we planted them. That’s why I love the new tagline for the Grow Native! Program —“Keeping nature near.” The nearer native plants and nature are to home and in our lives, the nearer the natural world can be in our heads and hearts. It makes good sense.

Woodbury is curator of the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve and Missouri Prairie Foundation's Grow Native! Program adviser.

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