Beautiful berries and birds a boon of winter
American robins, eastern bluebirds and other kinds of birds wintering in Lancaster County are exceptionally attractive when eating the orange berries of hawthorn trees or bittersweet vines. Those birds also are pleasing to see consuming the small fruits of other types of trees, shrubs and vines in hedgerows, woodland edges and suburban areas.
Ripe by autumn and clinging to their plants through winter, many berries, and small, berry-like crab apples, are red or orange, bright colors that appeal to our eyes, as well as being edible to a variety of birds. The beauty of these small fruits is why their woody plants are commonly planted on lawns.
American holly and staghorn sumac trees, and winterberry, Tartarian honeysuckle, pasture rose and multiflora rose bushes produce red berries. Hollies and winterberries are planted on lawns while sumacs grow along country roads. Tartarians are abundant in woods. Pasture roses are attractive in damp pastures while invasive multiflora rose creates thorny patches in hedgerows and meadows.
Orange berries grow on hawthorn trees, pyracantha bushes and bittersweet vines. Hawthorns grow in successional woods and are planted on lawns. Cultivated pyracantha is also introduced to lawns. And bittersweet hangs abundantly in hedgerow and woodland edge trees.
Berries with red or orange colors in the green or gray backdrop of winter foliage or twigs are attractive to us and easily seen by a variety of wintering, berry-eating birds, including northern mockingbirds, robins, bluebirds, cedar waxwings, starlings, yellow-rumped warblers, woodpeckers and other kinds of birds. Those birds eat many brightly-colored berries, and crab apples, through fall and winter, which is a reason they don't migrate south. Bird migration is based on finding a reliable food supply for the winter, not avoiding cold weather.
Berry-eating birds digest the pulp of those fruits and gain nutrition, but pass many of the seeds in their droppings across the landscape as they fly from place to place in search of food, often some distance from the parent plants. If those seeds are not eaten by mice, squirrels and seed-eating birds, some of them sprout into new plants. Birds are why many kinds of woody plants are widespread and abundant in hedgerows and woodland edges.
Some berry-eating bird species stay in one place through winter. Northern mockingbirds, for example, claim a patch of berries in fall and defend it from feathered interlopers of various kinds through winter. However, flocks of wintering robins, cedar waxwings and starlings sometimes clean out a mocker's berries in spite of protests from the pugnacious "owner," forcing the mockingbird to find another berry patch.
But other kinds of berry eaters roam far and wide to find berries. Wintering groups of waxwings are feathered gypsies, continually moving about in search of berries. And large flocks of starlings swarm daily over local landscapes to consume berries, as well as other edibles.
Not all berries have bright colors, however. Bayberry bushes and poison ivy vines have off-white berries that are eaten by birds with no ill effects. Tear-thumb vines have lovely, pale-blue berries.
And still other kinds of vines and trees produce dark berries that are eaten by birds through winter. Virginia creeper and green briar vines produce deep-purple ones. Those on creepers have red stems that are attractive. Honeysuckle vines produce shiny-black fruits. Wild grape vines have dark, berry-like fruits, while hackberry trees produce brownish berries.
Wrongly called red cedars, red junipers are in the juniper genus. The evergreen junipers inhabit roadsides and abandoned fields and meadows. They develop columnar shapes and produce berry-like, pale-blue cones that are decorative and ingested by wintering birds as they would berries.
Berries, crab apples, grapes and berry-eating birds are pretty and interesting to experience through winter. And many of those wild fruits are no farther than one's back door.
Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a naturalist for the Lancaster County Department of Parks and Recreation. Email him at email@example.com.