Did you know that the greatest challenge for overwintering birds is keeping warm? We have our heated houses and blankets. Even when the birds take shelter in dense shrubs or trees, the wind still finds them. During the winter, birds have to spend more hours seeking foods, mainly berries, that are rich in antioxidants and fats. At night, when they shiver to keep warm, they are burning up the fuel they ate during the day.
You can help birds by planting native shrubs and trees that bear the right berries. Native plants are best because birds recognize them and thus spend less energy seeking them. Be sure, when you choose such plants, that your habitat is one that is suitable. The best plant installed in the wrong site will not survive.
Did you know that crabapples (Malus) are an American native? There are an infinite number of cultivars and they vary enormously in height and width as well as berry color. I do know that the robins in my yard thrive on the berries of my crabapple. I’ve seen them eating the berries off the tree when the snow is deep and eating them on the ground when the snow is minimal or when it is gone.
Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) is commonly found in the Cleveland area and easy to grow in full sun to partial shade and in average to dry but preferably acidic soil. The flowers are inconspicuous and the foliage is semi-evergreen to deciduous. Typically, Bayberry grows five to six feet high and nearly as wide. If the soil is not too dry, it will eventually sucker but rarely does so in dry soil. Its best asset is its gray berries that are more than fifty percent fat. This is a berry that can provide refueling birds all winter long. For landscaping purposes, it is good to know that Bayberry is salt tolerant.
Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) is a shrub that is not used nearly enough. Its spring flowers are flat white clusters that become creamy white berries. Its berries are also high in fat content. Gray Dogwood is an extremely adaptable plant, growing well in sun or shade, wet or dry soil. There are several cultivars that range in height from two feet to ten feet. Some are clumpers and some are stoloniferous. The foliage turns a beautiful shade of red in the fall.
Northern Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is another native that is attractive to birds and to us. It needs space, growing six to twelve feet high and wide and best in full sun in average to moist soil. The early spring flowers are bright greenish-yellow and fragrant, therefore, an excellent alternative to Forsythia. Being dioiceious,female plants need a male pollinator in order to set fruit. The flowers of female plants give way to bright red drupes (berry clusters) that mature in fall and are high in fat content. The drupes are very attractive but are largely hidden by the thick leaves (yellow in autumn) until they drop. This is also a great shrub for the larva (caterpillar) of the spicebush swallowtail butterfly that feeds on the leaves of this shrub.
You can enjoy beautiful berries in late summer and fall and then the birds can eat them during the winter.