Winter Persistent Berries: A Bird’s Best Friend

      The title says it all really.  Most birds do not migrate to warmer climes in the winter, and as freezing temperatures roll in food gets scarce.  A very important food source for birds during these lean months are the nuts and berries that remain on certain plants well into winter. The following list highlights some of the more common genera and species of trees and shrubs that provide food, and often shelter, for birds during the short, dark days of winter.  

  • One of the most familiar and noticeable plants with winter persistent berries is the Holly tree (Ilex spp.).  Most people have seen the bright red berries that stand in stark contrast to the waxy green leaves into the dead of winter.  Both the leaves and berries provide a great bit of color in the stark winter landscape, but they also provide excellent food and cover for birds.  There are a few species in this genus that are deciduous, but still have plentiful berries even after the leaves fall off.
  • Chokecherry (Aronia spp.) is another shrub that retains its berries into winter, even after the leaves have long since fallen and become mulch.  Pandra has a Red Chokecherry in her front yard and the birds usually come and clean it off sometime in January or February, often in the span of one day. Here it is laden with fruit on a chilly, icy January day:

  • Most Hawthorns (Crataegus spp.) have winter persistent fruit and thorny branches that provide great cover for birds as well.  Thrushes and Waxwings are particularly dependent on the fruits of hawthorns in winter, and the main way in which the seeds are dispersed.
  • Eastern Juniper (Juniperus virginiana) aka Eastern Red Cedar has large pale blue berries that last into winter, and since it is evergreen it provides cover and nesting sites for birds as well.
  • Several species of Sumac (Rhus spp.) have abundant berries that last well into winter.
  • Crabapple (Malus spp.) trees have small fruits that add vibrant color to the winter landscape, as well as feed numerous species of birds.
  • Certain species of Arrowwood, most notably Viburnum prunifolium and V. nudum, have brightly colored winter-persistent fruits.
  • Rose hips, the berries formed after a rose (Rosa spp.) blooms, are another colorful and bird-friendly addition to the winter garden.
  • Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) has winter fruits and also provides nesting sites and cover for numerous bird species.
  • White Oak (Quercus alba) is for the really ambitious and patient birder.  It produces acorns every year, will eventually grow 80 to 100 feet tall, and will live for several hundred years in optimal conditions.  Jays and woodpeckers are especially fond of the acorns produced by these majestic trees.

       These are just a few of the native trees, shrubs and vines that many of our feathered friends depend on for winter sustenance.  When planning your landscaping and garden designs, take a moment to ensure there’s a little something for the birds in each season and they might just reward you with a winter serenade.

I heard a bird sing.

In the dark of December.

A magical thing.

And sweet to remember.” 

Oliver Herford