A winter garden that’s for the birds

Trees, shrubs, even ground covers with ‘persistent fruits’ will delight you, too.

Gillian Jones/The Berkshire Eagle/AP
American robins eat staghorn sumac in North Adams, Mass.

Once insects and other summer foods are gone, birds begin eating more fruit. That explains the flocks of robins now gorging on the small fruits still hanging from my flowering crab apple and mountain ash trees. Both have persistent fruits, fruits that last into fall and winter. They will lure a horde of varied birds, including marauding bands of cedar waxwings, with their Zorro-like black masks and wings tipped with red. 

Depending on your location and the availability of berries – by “berry” I mean any small, fleshy fruit – you may entice dozens of bird species. Bluebirds, blue jays, catbirds, chickadees, finches, grosbeaks, mockingbirds, northern cardinals, orioles, phoebes, tanagers, vireos, warblers, and woodpeckers are just a few of the birds that turn to eating fruit when the mercury drops. 

Just as not all fruits are persistent, not all fruits are equal. Birds coping with cold temperatures or long migrations need foods that are high in fat, carbohydrates, and protein. Scientists have identified some of the most beneficial native fruits for migrating birds, with arrowwood viburnum and bayberry topping the “highly recommended and preferred” list. 

In an interesting symbiosis, plants developed colored fruits to attract wildlife to eat and disperse their seeds. Birds are drawn to these darkly pigmented fruits, which also are very nutritious.

That’s good for the plants, good for the birds, and good for us because late fall and winter are drab times in the garden. Having plants dotted with the bright colors of persistent fruits – red, orange, rose, lavender, purple, pink, yellow, blue, white, and more – isn’t like a perennial border in June, but it’s really nice when flowers are just a memory. Moreover, these plants will provide benefits in color, form, and function throughout the year. While it’s too late to add new plants to my garden now, it’s a good time to think about what I might add in spring. Most birds eat an array of berries, and most plants attract an array of birds. Dogwoods alone attract nearly 100 bird species, as do sumacs.

The experts at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York (www.birds.cornell.edu) recommend choosing native plants, which have coevolved with native wildlife. They are the most appealing to the birds living in and migrating through your neighborhood. Native plants tend to be more hardy and less susceptible to pests and diseases, too. Check with local experts – a nursery, an agricultural extension, garden clubs – and be sure you’re not planting something that’s invasive. 

When you think about new plants, think vertically as well as horizontally. You want to attract treetop as well as ground-
hugging birds, so consider large and small trees, shrubs, vines, and ground covers, both evergreen and deciduous. Keep your location in mind: Sassafras fruits appeal to pileated woodpeckers – and who wouldn’t want pileated woodpeckers? – but sassafras doesn’t survive in the far north.

If space is limited, you might try container plants. American beautyberry, “Blue Muffin” viburnum, black chokecherry, and winterberry are four midsize shrubs that bear persistent fruits. Or plant a vine, such as American bittersweet, Carolina moonseed, or Virginia creeper. Again, check to be sure these plants are appropriate for your area. 

You can’t add too many fruiting plants to your garden, but birds can eat too much fruit, it seems. Drunken birds are an oft-reported sight in winter when fruits may ferment. It’s common enough that in 2014 officials in Canada’s Yukon had to set up “drunk tanks” for waxwings that overindulged on the red berries of mountain ashes.

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