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Provide Native Berries To Your Backyard Birds

If you are interested in attracting berry-eating birds to your backyard, use this list to decide which native shrubs to plant.

Tammie Painter

In the bird world, songbirds are the prime berry eaters. This includes thrushes, waxwings, bluebirds, blackbirds, warblers, orioles, Northern Cardinals, towhees, jays, grosbeaks and others. Several of these birds, such as tanagers, eat insects for part of the year, then gobble berries to gain weight for the winter.

When these plants flower, many of them draw nectar-loving hummingbirds, giving you another birdwatching opportunity.

Because numerous native berries grow throughout North America, the following list is not exhaustive but provides an idea of which native shrubs grow well in your region. The plants appeared alphabetically by their scientific names.

Note: Although not always tasty, the berries of the following plants are not poisonous to humans. Still, to avoid stomach upset, warn children not to eat the fruit.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.): Although these deciduous shrubs can grow to more than 20 feet tall, they can be controlled with pruning or trimmed into a small tree.

Serviceberries prefer cold or temperate regions with regular rainfall, and they tolerate freezing weather. In spring, the hardy shrubs produce drooping clusters of white or pink flowers. Attractive purple berries appear in the summer.

Manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.): Manzanita is the common name for numerous species of native evergreen shrubs whose habitats include temperate forests, mild coasts, frigid permafrost and open plains. They grow in any well-drained soil but prefer acidic conditions.

This highly variable group includes forms ranging from low, sprawling mats to tall, upright shrubs. In spring, the plants bear clusters of bell-shaped flowers that produce small fruit in late summer. The plants do fine in partial shade but will bear more fruit in sunnier spots. Once established, manzanitas require little water.

American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana): The name says it all for this deciduous shrub. In the spring, this Southeastern native bears bundles of lilac flowers. By fall, these rings of flowers grow into bright purple berries for the birds. The show continues as the leaves change from light green to purplish-red before dropping in autumn.

Although the plant will die back in freezing conditions, the shrub will regrow if you protect the roots with a layer of mulch. American beautyberry grows naturally in woodlands and does best in partial shade. To boost berry production, plant two or more shrubs.

Cedar Waxwing
Songbirds, such as cedar waxwings, are prime berry eaters.

Mahonia (Mahonia sp.): With their glossy and spiny evergreen leaves, Mahonia look like holly. Several species of this plant are native to North America. Some — such as hollyleaved barberry (M. aquifolium), also known as oregon-grape — thrive in moist, cool and shady conditions, while others — such as Fremont’s mahonia (M. fremontii), also known as desert mahonia — make themselves at home in the Southwest’s sunny and arid conditions. Yellow flowers bloom in late spring, followed by blue berries from late summer to early fall. Mahonia require little care except for an occasional trim to control height and shape.

Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana): Despite the ugly name, chokecherries bear attractive white blooms and colorful foliage in the fall. During summer, dark-red to black berries replace the flower clusters. These deciduous shrubs are native to all areas of North America except for the Southeast and the far north. Due to their heat and drought tolerance, the plants perform especially well for gardeners in hot and arid regions. You can plant chokecherries in a row to form a screening hedge.

In the bird world, songbirds are the prime berry eaters. This includes thrushes, waxwings, bluebirds, blackbirds, warblers, orioles, Northern Cardinals, towhees, jays, grosbeaks and others. Several of these birds, such as tanagers, eat insects for part of the year, then gobble berries to gain weight for the winter.

Currants (Ribes sp.): If you enjoy currants, the birds might have competition each summer for these tart and juicy berries. Golden currant (R. aureum) is native to many parts of North America and grows as far south as northern Mexico. Redflower currant (R. sanguineum) hails from the western regions of North America.

To go along with their names, golden currant bears yellow flowers and fruit, whereas redflower currant produces pinkish-red flowers and bright red fruit. Both plants grow to about 8 feet tall and prefer to be kept out of intense afternoon sun. Once established, these shrubs tolerate drought quite well.

Buffaloberry (Shepherdia sp.): Their tolerance of cold and windy conditions makes these species a top choice for bird-loving gardeners in the Midwest. Buffaloberry has a low, spreading form with branches covered in silvery oval leaves. The flowers aren’t showy, but the bright orange and red berries provide a brilliant display in mid-summer.

Once established, buffaloberries tolerate drought. Keep in mind that the plants are either male or female. For the female plants to become pollinated and produce berries, you will need a male plant nearby. Quality nurseries will have the sex of each plant on its label.

If your region’s growing season is on hiatus, consider this the perfect time to dig deeper into the native possibilities. After more research in person and online, you’ll know which berry species will work best for you — and your resident and visiting birds.

Want to learn more about how to provide a habitat for your backyard birds?

Plant A Garden For Your Backyard Birds
Provide Fresh Water For Wild Birds

Excerpt from WildBird, January/February 2012 issue, with permission from its publisher, I-5 Publishing LLC.


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Posted: April 15, 2014, 5:45 p.m. PDT

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