Autumn Berries: A Feast for Birds

The white-blue berries of Brown-stem dogwood
Masses of Poison oak berries hiding lots of Golden-crowned sparrows
petite Lincoln’s sparrow in the Himalayan blackberries
This immature White-crowned sparrow is sitting in a California wild rose bush surrounded by the rose-hips
A Swainson’s thrush in the Brown-stem dogwood eating the berries
Another bird that eats many kinds of berries in the fall is the California Quail

The berries this time of year become important food for many birds. It is fun to look for the different colors that show themselves as the leaves begin to fall and then sit and watch for the birds that come to eat them.

National Audubon has a wonderful article on growing natives in your garden for birds and this paragraph was my favorite:

“Birds and native plants are made for each other, thanks to millions of years of evolution. Large, colorful fruits feed birds and, in return, birds spread the plant’s seeds far and wide, supporting whole ecosystems. Native plants are also important hosts for protein-rich native insects like butterfly and moth caterpillars, which nesting birds need to feed their growing chicks. For their part, birds have shaped their entire life cycles, including their migrations, and feeding habits, around plant communities and the seasonal fruits and insects they serve up.”

As we see the fall and winter migrants arrive it is good to remember they are timing their arrival with the food that is available for them.

The beautiful purple-blue berries of the Brown-twig dogwood, Cornus glabrata, are a treat to see this time of the year. There are many birds that eat these berries, including Swainson and Hermit thrushes, Golden-crowned and White-crowned sparrows, and American robins. This California native shrub is sold at nurseries as Brown dogwood.

Another not well-loved but truly awesome native plant that is an important food source for many birds and mammals is Poison oak, Toxicodendron diversilobum.  This plant is not only beautiful in its fall splendor this time of the year, but it is also full of nutritious berries loved by Scrub jays, Wrentits, Chestnut-backed chickadees, sparrows, and as many as 45 other species of birds. Knowing this has made me appreciate and respect this plant more each fall.

The rosehips of the California wild rose, Rosa californica, and other species of wild roses are also an important food source for birds in the winter. Cedar waxwings, finches, sparrows, robins, and other birds eat them.

The last wild berry I wanted to mention because I see so many birds using them this time of the year is the nonnative plant, Himalayan blackberry, Rubus armeniacus. This plant begins to produce berries in July and even today when I was out walking there were plants with red and ripening fruit on them. The aggressive nature of this plant is a problem in many areas, especially along riparian corridors. It can out-compete many native shrubs. A positive aspect of this plant, besides the many blackberry cobblers, pies, and jams for us, is that its foliage and thorns provide a protected place to nest for many birds. Also, it is a source of food for our resident birds and for the sparrows and other birds that spend the winters here in our valley. Seeing the lovely Lincoln’s sparrow and the California quail feeding on the dried and fresh berries brought that home for me. There are of course many other berries that birds love growing here, such as Elderberry and Coffeeberry, but this is all I will cover today! Go out and see what berries you can find around you and watch for the animals they attract.