Berries birds like in winter

Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen—


Start with some wind, add a little rain and then cool down the temperature a bit. Mix all this up in November and what do you get? Canopies that were once robustly covered with green leaves start to peel apart. Leaves suddenly (or not so suddenly) drop from their perches, falling and dancing their way to cover lawns and inspire raking sessions. Obstructed views open almost overnight, and in some places worlds of nutrition and sustenance, previously sheltered, are exposed as fruits, seeds, and nuts are in clear view for wildlife of all kinds. Yes, this is a wonderful time of the year.

Cruising the roads of St. George these days it’s hard not to notice leafless shrubs covered in red berries. And while there are several species of shrubs with red berries, the luscious fruits of the deciduous winterberry (Ilex verticillate) seem to dominate the roadsides. A member of the holly family (Aquifoliaceae), winterberry branches can be covered with berries which will remain on plants well into winter. This trait gives the species its common name.

Cedar Waxwing

Medium to large sized song birds such as waxwings and thrushes (Hermit, Swainsons and American Robin predominantly) can converge on a winterberry thicket and pick it as clean as their gizzards will let them. Mimic thrushes (Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Grey Catbird) defend individual shrubs from other birds and mammals, claiming the fruit to be for their bills only. In fact, just the other day I was accosted by a Grey Catbird who didn’t like strangers getting too close to its claimed winterberry shrub. I bet that catbird stays north until those berries run out. It didn’t seem like it was going to give up that tasty food anytime soon.

Another berry some birds like is the good ole bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica) from the wax myrtle family (Myricaeae). A small shrub with waxy leaves, bayberry grows groups of black berries in globular clusters. The berries have a white wax covering that results in a grayish appearance for the berries.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

The wax covering of bayberries prevents most songbirds from accessing the fruit or obtaining any nutrition from eating them, but  bayberries are highly attractive to one of my favorite songbirds—the Yellow-rumped Warbler (aka Myrtle Warbler or also lovingly known as “butterbutts”).  Yellow-rumpeds are unique in the warbler world for producing an enzyme that allows them to digest wax and thus as a species they view bayberry as an extremely valuable food source. With limited competition for the berries, butterbutts are known to overwinter along the coast of Maine years when bayberry fruits are bountiful. They regularly overwinter further north than other warblers in North America largely because of their connection to bayberry.

Both bayberry and winterberry are native to Maine and are recommended for yard landscaping to encourage observable wildlife by providing animals with food and habitat. Regardless of whether it’s in your yard, along a road, or in the woods—late fall is an exciting time to keep your eyes on those winterberry and bayberry shrubs, and on what songbirds and animals might be eating them! Enjoy!

PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *