Winter’s Berry Banquet

A bird perched on a branch eating berries

Once the flowers fade and leaves fall, there usually isn’t much colour left in our yards, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have beautiful winter gardens. Leave interesting seed heads standing and include plants with different branching shapes or attractive bark. Also consider growing native shrubs with berries that bring a pop of colour through the fall and winter. Whether it’s the berries or the birds eating them that will adorn our yards in winter, either way it’s a win-win for both us and the birds.

Many berries get gobbled up by hungry migratory birds in the fall, looking for the sugars and fats the berries provide to help them make it to their winter homes. However, many bright red, dark blue and bright white berries are left behind long after the first snowfall. These berries aren’t left because they’re unwanted, but because they will change with the cold weather. Some may increase their sugar and fat content, while others lose toxicity so birds can safely eat them. Winter birds such as cardinals, mockingbirds, finches and even a few hardy robins benefit from these long-lasting fruits.

Keep an eye on chokecherries, winterberries and hawthorn shrubs during the coldest winter months. One day, a flock of birds may descend into your yard and clean the berries off the branches in a few hours. Some missed partridgeberries or chokeberries may provide a much needed snack towards the end of winter when food is becoming more scarce. Some, like the bright red bunches of highbush cranberries, last right to the end of winter when oaks and maples begin to bloom. These berries are low in nitrogen and acidic, so can be difficult for birds to metabolize without additional protein. Waxwings save them for last, combining the berries with protein-rich tree flowers that help their bodies pull out all the good nutrients from the berries.

Enjoy the festive feel these berries provide to your yard over the holidays. If you have an abundance of berries, snip off a few bunches to bring indoors to use for festive crafts and decorations, but be sure to leave lots for the birds.

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