It's berry time! No, not strawberries, blueberries, or blackberries. Instead, I'm talking wintertime berries for birds.
Birds that nab bugs in summer obviously can't continue that diet after the Tri-State plunges into the deep freeze. They must either migrate or switch diets. But switching isn't simple. Most bug eaters lack the bill structure necessary to crack seeds like black-oil sunflower or safflower seeds.
Instead, non-migratory summertime bug eaters typically switch to wintertime berries. Switch-over birds include bluebirds, robins, mockingbirds, and waxwings. A good many other birds also enjoy nutritionally rich berries to supplement feeder seeds, like woodpeckers, some sparrows, cardinals, and jays.
Unfortunately, though, berries like dogwood, beautyberry, and native bittersweet that hang on into autumn have disappeared by now, eaten, dropped, or rotted. So what's a poor bug-eater-turned-berry-eater to do?
The result shows in the form of backyard bird watchers' lament: All my bluebirds, robins, mockingbirds, and waxwings have gone.
Not really. They've only wandered off to find wintertime berries.
To keep hungry switch-over birds in your yard, consider adding native wintertime berry producers. These five earn high marks:
American holly (Ilex opaca). Our only native holly with spiny evergreen leaves and bright red berries, it's the number-one choice for birds. For berry production, you'll need both male and female plants. Don't worry, however, if birds ignore berries until mid-winter. Rock-hard holly berries require multiple freeze-thaw cycles before birds understandably find them soft enough to eat.
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata). Unlike American holly, winterberry is a deciduous holly. But plants hold their berries throughout the season--at least until birds gobble them down. Like most other hollies, winterberry needs both male and female plants for berry production. So, plant at least two, but a cluster of one male and four females provides better landscaping interest. Be aware, however, that while some cultivars produce lovely yellow berries, birds typically fail to recognize non-native colors as food. Choose red for birds.
Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhena). A hardy native, staghorn sumac often grows along roadsides, brightening winter drab with deep red upright, pyramidal berry clusters. The fuzzy berries are not winter birds' first love. Because the berries last and last, however, they are often the sole means of survival by late winter. They've kept many bluebirds from perishing in March, the hardest month of all for overwintering birds.
So, if you'd like to help non-migratory summertime bug eaters survive the winter, provide them year-round food--food in the form of native berries. Verify that plants are native to your location by checking online at the USDA Plant Database. Plan now; plant in spring. Soon you'll enjoy switch-over birds full time.