The birds and the berries

Fall is upon us, and with the season comes a profusion of color. But it’s not just leaves that bring autumn color and beauty; berries do too.

Bird-friendly, berry-producing shrubs have a lot of environmental value. They help sustain and nourish bird populations, providing energy in the form of fruit and seeds when other sources of food become scarce. They help to replace natural bird habitat lost or highly disturbed by urban/suburban development, large-scale farming, and grazing. They provide cover and nesting sites for birds and give them places to hide from predators (hawks, raccoons, opossums, and wayward cats). Evergreen shrubs that keep their foliage throughout winter also help to shelter birds from harsh weather.

Another benefit of berry-producing shrubs is that most have nectar-rich flowers. Such flowers are favored food sources for Anna’s and rufous hummingbirds, native bee species, honeybees, butterflies, and other insect pollinators.

Besides providing wildlife value and habitat, berry-producing shrubs can also be a wonderful source of entertainment. Fully ripe berries attract many different birds to a garden and bring hours of joy to novice and avid bird watchers alike. For an added show, some birds will even get intoxicated after eating fermented berries. My front yard used to be planted with a pyracantha hedge, and one year many old berries were left on the plants. A large flock of cedar waxwings visited, and after feasting for a while the cute, plump little birds were flying groggily to a nearby tree or fluttering in a stupor on the ground!

Many California native shrubs are outstanding choices for a bird-lover’s landscape.  They attract fruit-eating birds such as cedar waxwings, finches, grosbeaks, mockingbirds, robins, tanagers, thrushes, and towhees. Here’s a sampling of what I like to call “beautiful berry-bearing bushes,” all suitable for planting in San Joaquin County:

  • Manzanitas(Arctostaphylos spp.) — There are numerous species, some suitable for our valley growing conditions. Their fruits aren’t technically berries (they’re “drupes”), but their rounded reddish fruits with sticky coatings are bird favorites.
  • Oregon grape(Berberis aquifolium)— These showy evergreen plants have shiny, spiny, holly-like leaves and nectar-rich, bright yellow flowers in spring, followed by juicy purplish berries in the fall.
  • Woodland strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis) — Although not a shrub, this low-growing groundcover for partial shade has small, red, seedy, edible fruit.
  • Toyon(Heteromeles arbutifolia)— A large evergreen shrub or small tree with dark green leaves, small white flowers in early summer, and bright red berries in winter.
  • Hollyleaf cherry(Prunus ilicifolia) A tall, attractive, evergreen shrub with lightly spiny leaves and spikes of creamy white flowers in spring. Many types of birds (eat its dark red to deep purple fruits. The fruits look like big berries, but they’re actually small cherries with pits and minimal flesh.
  • California coffeeberry(Rhamnus californica)— This large, sun-loving evergreen shrub has dark green leaves and inconspicuous, greenish-white flowers in spring. The berries change color from green to red to black as they ripen from late summer through fall and winter. Two attractive and compact cultivars of coffeeberry are ‘Mound San Bruno’ and ‘Eve Case.’  [NOTE to The Record: Cultivar names are meant to be enclosed in single quotes – that is the standard nomenclature. PLEASE DO NOT CHANGE.]
  • Snowberry(Symphoricarpos albus) — A small deciduous shrub with open form and arching stems. It bears small pink flowers in spring and waxy white berries in fall and winter. After the leaves drop, the showy berries persist on the stems.
  • Currants — California golden currant (Ribes aureum)and pink-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum). These moderately sized, deciduous plants have thorny stems, small maple-like leaves, and gorgeous flowers in winter and spring, followed by tasty fruit in the fall.
  • Fuchsia flowering gooseberry (Ribes speciosum)— A summer-deciduous plant with profuse, pinkish red, tubular flowers in late winter to early spring. The berries are reddish orange and very spiky when ripe
  • Blue elderberry(Sambucus mexicana) — A large deciduous shrub with clusters of creamy white flowers in spring and dark blue berries in fall. 
  • California wild grape(Vitus californica‘Roger’s Red’) — This deciduous, rambling, ornamental vine has intense yellow to red fall leaf color. The grapes ripen in fall; they are small and purple with a bitter skin.

A cedar waxwing eating a toyon berry (Photo courtesy of Evleen Anderson, Golden Gate Audubon Society)

Some berry-producing non-native plants are also very attractive to birds:

  • Hollies— Mockingbirds favor the berries from these thorny-leaved shrubs.
  • Amethyst beautyberry— An attractive deciduous vine with delicate pinkish-purple flowers in summer and dense clusters of bright violet berries that persist from September into early winter.
  • Pyracantha, camphor, cotoneaster, and privet— A word of warning: although many bird species enthusiastically feed upon the berries of these shrubs and trees, these plants are also invasive (ranked here in order from moderate to severe). Birds eat the berries and readily spread the fast-sprouting seeds to wildlands. Plant similar native plants instead, especially if you live in a rural or semi-rural area.

While some of the berries listed above are edible for both birds AND people, others are unpalatable or mildly toxic. NEVER consume a berry unless you know it’s safe.

This time of year is an optimal time for planting California natives; they can develop deep roots during fall and winter and become established before the heat of summer. Why not try a new berry-growing plant this year, and see what birds it brings?

For more information, read The California Wildlife Habitat Garden by Nancy Bauer, or visit the Theodore Payne Foundation online and follow the links: Native Plant Database > Plant Guides > Birds.

For gardening-related questions, call the UC Master Gardener office at 209-953-6112, or visit our website.

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