Going to the Birds

Gorgeous in spring, crabapples are one of many trees and bushes that bear winter fruit perfect for birds.

As I write this morning, an entire host of robins – and I do mean a host, as I’ve counted over 20 – has settled into the Japanese crabapples outside my study window. (Didn’t robins used to fly south? No matter.) Occasionally a cardinal joins them, or a blue jay, all intent on stripping the trees of the red crabapples that still persist on the branches. It will take the birds at least two weeks, even at these numbers, to denude the trees, but until then they’ll spend many sated, contented hours. And the birds aren’t the only happy ones. What could be more pleasant than helping out our feathered friends at no cost? The secret of course is this: rather than planting your landscape entirely with sterile species or exotic plants – which often bear fruit and berries unpalatable to American birds – include some fruiting species that supply shelter and food to birds throughout summer, fall, and winter, naturally, without any effort from you. Not only will you be giving your feathered friends a break, but you’ll also be making an attractive addition to your garden. Here are six excellent candidates for the home landscape, hardy throughout most of the country:

Amelanchier (Amelanchier spp z 4) Found from Maine to the Carolinas, the amelanchier, is also known by the romantic name of shadblow because of its habit of blooming just about the time shad run in New England rivers. One of my favorite small trees, (growing to about 25 feet) the various amelanchier species produce masses of white flowers in the early spring, followed by red berries in July that birds quickly consume. (The berries are also prized by humans; they were an important food source to the Native Americans and early European settlers, who used them in jellies, jams, and pies. If you want to harvest the fruit for yourself however, you’ll have to secrete an extra tree or two under orchard netting – the berries last only a matter of hours once the birds discover they are ripe.) Amelanchiers have the added advantage of brilliant red/orange fall color and interesting gray bark in the winter, making them an attractive year round addition to the landscape. Several varieties are commonly available: A. canadenis and A. laevis, (both often confused in the trade) are equally commendable, as are a number of named cultivars.

Ilex verticillata (z 4) Winterberry is a deciduous holly that produces those masses of red-berried branches you often see in expensive florist shops just before Christmas. Birds adore these berries latter in the winter, when little other food is available. While rather plain and unassuming for most of the summer, Winterberries come into their own after the first few frosts: a massed planting of winterberries on the edge of a woodland or in front of an evergreen planting will literally light up the late fall landscape. Winterberries grow to 9 feet, and will tolerate moist, acidic soils, as well as a considerable amount of shade. Many cultivars are available, though not all (especially the yellow berried forms) seem equally palatable to our feathered friends, especially wild turkeys, who arrive to my garden in droves in late autumn and routinely strip the branches bare of fruit.

Aronia arbutifolia (z 4) A member of the rose family, the Red Chokeberry grows to 9 feet and produces white flowers in the spring, followed in the fall by outstanding red berries that persist well into the winter. The autumn foliage color is also spectacular: a rich, deep crimson. Tolerant of most conditions and soils, the aronia’s principle drawback is that the bush can get somewhat leggy when grown singly; use either massed plantings, or prune singles heavily to maintain a dense shape. The cultivar ‘Brillantissima’ seems a substantial improvement on the species, and is equally favored by birds.

Cornus racemosa (z 3) The Gray Dogwood is a multi-stemmed small tree or shrub, which grows to about 15 feet. Numerous diminutive white flower clusters appear in early summer, followed later in the season by small white berries on red fruit stalks that are consumed by dozens of bird species. The fall color, while not spectacular, is a pleasant, reddish purple. Gray Dogwood’s growth habit is very dense, and often makes a good barrier plant, especially when periodically cut back to the ground in the early spring. Extremely easy to grow, the Gray Dogwood prefers full sun and moist, well-drained soil, but is extremely tolerant of less than perfect conditions. It’s excellent for specimen use in the shrubbery border or massed plantings along verges or woodlands.

Sambucus canadensis (z 3) The American Elder has been a popular plant from time immemorial; its purple fruits are beloved not only by birds, but also by humans, for use in jellies, pies, juice and the famous elderberry wine. Rather an ungainly plant, the American Elder grows to about 10 feet, with multiple stems. Like the gray dogwood and many similar species, it tends to get gangly if not periodically cut back to the ground. The American Elder prefers full sun, and a moist spot. The profuse white flowers appear in June-July and are quite ornamental; the purple black fruits arrive from August-September. Several interesting cultivars are available, including a number with red berries, and one, ‘Aurea,’ with golden leaves. (An important note: only the Sambucus berries may be eaten: the foliage and branches contain a toxin poisonous to humans and cattle if consumed.)

Crabapples (Malus spp, z 4) The crabapple family is so extensive that it’s almost impossible to make general recommendations. Trees are chosen primarily for their flower color (white to red) size (dwarf to full) berry color (gold to purple) and disease resistance (poor to excellent, a very important consideration in a species highly susceptible to severe diseases like fire blight). However, within these parameters, if you’re interested in helping our avian friends, then inquire at your local nursery about berry persistence, a critical factor in winter feeding. Many type of crabs lose their berries early in the season; others, like my Japanese crabs, don’t, making them very attractive for birds at this time of year. One exception to this rule is probably the best crab of all, malus ‘Donald Wyman’.  Spectacular in every other way, the birds shun the berries which persist almost till spring.


Well you’ll have to ask our feathered friends about that.


Going to the Birds — 2 Comments

  1. Michael, the robins you’re seeing HAVE migrated–from farther North. Come Spring they’ll go back home, and your own robins will return. I suspect we’re seeing larger flocks because of changed weather patterns (aka global warming). Love your newsletter.

  2. You know Pam, you’re probably correct; I never thought of that possibility, but it makes sense. “My” winter robins are hugely fat; but those who build nests in a month or two always look like something out of a bad Dickens tale. My fatties will have headed north, leaving their poor southern cousins to make do with spring pickings. Sounds like some humans I know. Anyway, thanks for writing.

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