Many amateur birdwatchers think that birds only eat seed. They don’t. Birds can be divided up into two groups; those that eat seeds and those that eat insects. Most are familiar with seed eaters like blue jays, cardinals, doves, and goldfinches. But many others like bluebirds, cedar waxwings, mockingbirds, and robins are insect eaters and spend the growing season foraging for small insects, not seeds. But come wintertime, when the insects vanish, they dine on small fruits and berries.
When it comes to the birds, berries from native plants are the best; because these are what they evolved with. So, leave them in your landscape every chance you get. Here are a few that our feathered friends are fond of.
American holly: American hollies are most known for Christmas decorations but provide outstanding bird food as well. Like all hollies, they are either male or female. Only the females produce berries. Hybrids with the dahoon holly are available and include Foster holly and Savannah holly. These have equally attractive berries.
Beautyberry: The berries on this native shrub are typically magenta purple, but also come in pink or white. I usually cut them to the ground each spring to keep them more manageable and to promote long fruiting stems for cutting.
Dogwood: Not only are the red berries showy and attractive to wildlife but the flowers are spectacular along with colorful fall foliage.
Elderberry: I’ve always wondered why we don’t use elderberry in our borders like they do in Europe. It has showy white flowers followed by attractive purple fruit that the birds love. They can be made into delicious jelly.
Hackberry (sugarberry): Hackberries are weedy and weak-wooded, but when it comes to bird food there are none better. Why do you think they come up everywhere?
Hawthorns: You won’t find many hawthorns for sale in local nurseries, but they are useful plants for our native birds. The mayhaw is most famous for its jelly, while the delicate parsley leaf hawthorn is sometimes used in “wildscaping.”
Possumhaw holly: Also known as “deciduous yaupon,” this native holly is among our most spectacular winter plants. It’s hard to drive on a roadway in Texas during the winter without seeing them. The cedar waxwings, robins, and bluebirds usually finish off the showy fruit in early spring.
Red cedar: Although no longer popular as landscape trees, our native “cedars” are very valuable in supporting overwintering birds. Males produce yellow pollen cones while females produce attractive small blueberries.
Red mulberry: These medium-sized trees used to be used for fence posts. The elongated fruit on the females look like blackberries but tastes even better in my opinion.
Rusty blackhaw viburnum: Another native deciduous small tree that sports pretty fall color and blue-black berries that the birds love.
Sparkleberry (tree huckleberry): This native blueberry cousin produces loads of mini blue-black fruit among pretty fall-colored foliage.
Sumac: Suckering into vigorous colonies, there aren’t many plants as spectacular in fall color as our native sumacs. In addition, the small fruits on the female plants are attractive to many species of songbirds.
Virginia creeper: This deciduous native vine with five leaflets sports red and orange fall colors along with blueberries for the birds.
Yaupon holly: This native evergreen is a staple in the nursery industry. The female cultivars have small bright red berries that feed many a bird. Yaupon comes in standard, fastigiate, weeping, and dwarf types and can be grown in a natural shape or sheared at will.
Greg Grant is the Smith County horticulturist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. He is the author of Texas Fruit and Vegetable Gardening, Heirloom Gardening in the South, and The Rose Rustlers. You can read his “Greg’s Ramblings” blog at arborgate.com, read his “In Greg’s Garden” in each issue of Texas Gardener magazine (texasgardener.com), and follow him on Facebook at “Greg Grant Gardens.” More science-based lawn and gardening information from the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service can be found at aggieturf.tamu.edu and aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu.