How do birds survive the winter? It’s amazing, when you think about it, that such tiny animals can successfully survive in our region, with snow often covering up food supplies and temperatures that can dip below zero sapping the energy out of warm-blooded creatures. If it’s warm enough to rain, that might even be worse; wet feathers, as you know if you’ve ever gotten soaked while wearing down clothing, are almost useless as insulation.
Yet there they are: chickadees, cardinals, bluebirds, hermit thrushes, sparrows, waxwings, mockingbirds, the American robin and many others, hanging in there after every storm or cold snap. Indeed, our winter birds often don’t even look stressed.
A host of instincts and learned behaviors enable birds to make it through the winter, and every species uses a different set of strategies. But a key secret for many overwintering songbirds is a reliance on fruit, rich in carbohydrate and sometimes fats as well, as a food source during the colder months. Augmenting the available supply of native fruits and berries is one constructive step you can take to help birds survive. If the berries in question happen to be in your yard, they will produce the added benefit of active birds for you to watch.
Mockingbirds, bluebirds, cedar waxwings and robins are probably the most important avian fruit eaters during our winters. The hermit thrush, an uncommon species here, also relies heavily on fruit in the winter. Among the best shrubs to plant for wintertime berries are native members of the hollies: American holly, winterberry and inkberry. While many birds find bayberries hard to digest, a few species, notably the yellow-rumped warbler, eat these fruits avidly. Crab apples are popular with the larger fruit-eating birds, and cardinals in particular seem to like them. But avoid planting or encouraging exotic plants like multiflora rose, autumn olive or bittersweet: these plants are aggressive invasive species and unquestionably do more harm than good.
Compared to the typical seed-filled bird feeder, fruit-bearing plants more closely resemble the natural food supplies of birds. The highly-concentrated food supply in a seed feeder can actually pose a threat to birds; as birds crowd around, they exchange diseases and are vulnerable to attacks by cats or hawks. Berries encourage more natural behavior by birds, and while they don’t appeal to all of our wintering songbirds, they may be a more beneficial food source to offer than the traditional bird seed.
So consider adding some native fruit-bearing shrubs to your landscaping. Even a couple of berry-laden shrubs will provide a useful resource to birds, making their winter a bit easier and encouraging them to visit your yard.