Berries for the Birds

american-robin-in-russian-hawthorn_xg_20091215_lah_5562xHow would you like to have a flock of robins outside your window? How about other thrushes, waxwings, sparrows, towhees, or vireos? Want to add Western Tanager to your yard list?

Along with finches, grosbeaks, thrushes, some warblers, Northern Mockingbird, Townsend’s Solitaire, chickadees, nuthatches, swallows, woodpeckers, pigeons/doves, jays, and even hummingbirds (who drink the juice), all these birds eat berries at some point.*

Planting shrubs and trees that produce berries is a great way to attract more species of birds. Even better, plant several kinds of berries, since each bird species has its favorites.

The best place to start is with a list of locally-growing native plants. The birds are already familiar with these food sources and will readily accept them. If a species migrates, look for berries they might encounter along the way. Just make sure these plants will grow under your conditions.

pyracantha-berriescolospgsco-2oct07-lah-005Most birds are amazingly adaptable, and seem to enjoy “eating ethnic” as much as we do. Examples of introduced species eaten by local birds include European Viburnum  and Firethorn (Pyracantha) (left). The latter produces huge quantities of bright red-orange berries that brighten our landscapes as much as they feed the birds.

Sometimes, the berries sit on the plant long enough to ferment in the sun. That doesn’t deter the birds at all! I’ve watched flocks of birds slurp down alcohol-laden Firethorn berries until they were too high to fly, and too drunk to care. (Yet another reason to keep cats indoors!)

When buying berry-producing plants, keep in mind that many species are dioecious, meaning they have separate male and female plants. Only the females make berries, but a male is often needed to provide pollen, or there won’t be a berry crop. A good garden center should have their stock labeled. Junipers and holly are just two examples of dioecious plants.

dbg_lah_6417nefCarefully consider where the fruiting shrub or tree will be planted. Branches laden with glistening red crabapples are stunning in a drab January landscape (left), but then they tend to fall and rot, sticking to shoes and staining pavement. Now add in berry-tainted bird droppings. Ewww. It’s better to choose a site where falling fruit (not to mention droppings—and fall leaves!) will simply disappear into a shrubby groundcover.

Which plants you choose depends on many factors: soils, climate, rainfall (or irrigation), pests, and the microclimate in your own yard. Good choices for the Pikes Peak area include (but are certainly not limited to) firethorn and crabapples (look for varieties resistant to fireblight), along with junipers, honeysuckle, Oregon grape (Mahonia), currants and gooseberries, chokecherries, mountain ash, hawthorn (what the robin was eating in the first photo), and hackberry. For more suggestions, check out the lists offered by Colorado State University Extension.


* List of Bird Species that Eat Berries and Seeds

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