Berries Are For the Birds
Article and photos by Inga Hinnerichsen
The last of the fall flowers have withered. Only dry brown stems remain of their former glory… but not all is lost yet. There are still lots of protein rich seed packets left at the ends of many stems. They not only insure the new plants germinating in the spring, but also provide nutrition for many over-wintering birds and small mammals in our area.
By now most of the insect eating migratory birds have left on their annual trek south. A few hardy (foolhardy?) individuals are sticking it out for the winter. A handful of Robins always ignore the call of the south, but their normal ground foraging will be rudely interrupted by frost and a blanket of the white stuff. What to do?
The smaller seed-eaters will soon polish off the remaining plant seeds on the old stems. That leaves a variety of berries that tend to stick to the shrubs much longer. These energy-packed little bundles are favourites not just for birds, but also many small mammals. Birds with strong, sturdy beaks and rodents with their sharp incisors will easily break up the hard stones and nuts inside the fruit. Many varieties of berries never get a chance to ripen before they are devoured by birds and critters with a sweet tooth. Some of these early treats are the fruits of the Nannyberry bush, the Alternate Leaf Dogwood, Mulberry, Elder Berry, Service Berry and Black Cherry. All of these grow on our property, but I never get to see the berries ripen before they are gone.
Some cultivated varieties are also fair game. We have a couple of cherry and plum trees that produce lovely flowers in the spring. It always looks promising with small green fruit developing, but they too, are gone in no time. I gave up on my strawberry patch a couple of years ago. Regardless of trying to protect the plants with netting and chicken wire cages, which managed to keep the birds out, the squirrels still managed to get in. After a paltry handful of strawberries, most of which already had been nibbled on, I had enough. You win some, you lose some.
I have a Burning Bush at my front porch. I love the bright pink leaves that only remain for a few days. When they’re gone the small red berries become available for Cardinals and other small birds. One year I had Eastern Blue Birds feasting on the fruit right outside my dining room window.
Next come the Riparian Grape, Sassafras, Wild Cherry and Virginia Creeper. You can see evidence of the birds’ dinners as dark blue splotches on your deck railing or front steps.
Some species persist into fall and winter. Perhaps the berries aren’t the tastiest, but in a pinch, when everything else fails, they provide sustenance in the bleak months. A few of them, the Russian Olive, the Asian Bittersweet and the Multi-flora Rose, are introduced invasive plants. Many winter birds feed on their fruit and, unfortunately, enable them to spread out with seeds in their droppings.
The white berries on the Poison Ivy seems not to cause any ill effects in the birds that eat them. Even the Spice Bush fruits seem to find their ways onto the menus of the birds. In the past, people used to collect the berries, dry them and ground them to be used as flavoring of more bland foods. The Multi-flora Rose bright red clusters of small berries make a very beautiful accent for your holiday table centre piece… just make sure they go out in your garbage when they’ve done their job. Mine go out into the fire pit.
Don’t forget to supplement the diets of our winter birds with bird seed, peanuts and suet cakes. It’ll make life a little easier for our feathered friends in the winter months.
Here’s a recipe for how to make your own suet cakes:
- This recipe makes 3 suet cake trays, 4 if you add the optional birdseed.
- First, you need to buy 3 – 4 of the commercially produced cakes. Save the square shallow plastic trays after the birds have polished off the nutritious treats. You also need a wire cage that holds the cake trays.
- 1 packet of lard
- 1 bag of corn meal (750g)
- 3 – 4 tbsp peanut butter
- 1 cup sunflower, or other bird seed, of your choice (optional)
- Melt the lard and the peanut butter in a pot on the stove – the microwave oven also works well
- Mix the corn meal (and bird seed) with the melted lard
- Scoop the mixture into the cake trays and let cool and harden.
- I like to wrap the trays in cling wrap so they can be stacked
- Store in a cool place, protected from thieving mice, until you serve them to the hungry birds.
A few extra cakes make a very nice Christmas gift for your birding friends!