Winter Berries (What Time is it in Nature)
Winter is a tough time for a lot of animals. Many small mammals – and even some large ones such as bears – simply avoid the harsh winter weather by hibernating, but not all animals have that luxury. Birds tend to remain exposed to the elements throughout the year, regardless of the weather, and have to fend for themselves. Given that there are so many fewer insects available in the winter, not only do birds have to suffer through the cold weather, but they must also find food in a comparatively bleak landscape. Happily, many plants produce fruits late in the year that persist well into the winter. These fruits are vitally important to many bird species to sustain them through the winter. There are many fruit-bearing plants at Prairie Ridge, so let’s explore some of them!
The berries of the American Beautyberry peak in the fall and disappear entirely in the early winter, but they represent a tremendous food source for birds while they last. Beautyberry berries are clustered in dense clumps along the length of branches near the top of the shrubs. You’ll find many birds feasting on the berries, including Northern Cardinals, Mockingbirds, and various sparrows. You’re most likely to see Mockingbirds eating Beautyberry fruits at Prairie Ridge, especially on the two bushes near the Outdoor Classroom.
The berries of Wild Raisin appear at about the same time as the Beautyberry fruits and they’re just as splashy! The bush just downhill of the bird feeding station produces heaps of pink and purple fruits in the late summer that shrivel and turn inky blue over time, but they persist well into the winter. You’ll see a variety of birds eating Wild Raisin berries at Prairie Ridge, including Eastern Bluebirds, American Robins, and Northern Cardinals.
Though certainly not everyone’s favorite plant to encounter, Poison Ivy produces a big crop of tasty berries that birds love in the fall. There’s a particularly dense area of poison ivy climbing up the trees just behind the Prairie Ridge office trailer where you can see many birds feeding on the berries in the late fall and early winter. Among them, you’re likely to see Yellow-rumped Warblers and Eastern Bluebirds.
Red Cedar belongs to the juniper group, which means that its “berries” aren’t really berries, but cones. However, the birds make heavy use of the juniper cones in the winter! Red Cedar is a favorite winter perching spot for many birds as it provides a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet for many species while the dense foliage provides excellent shelter from the wind. You can find Red Cedar across much of Prairie Ridge, including some large trees down the hill from the bird feeding station. Red Cedar attracts many birds, but some of the showier species you’re likely to see at Prairie Ridge include Cedar Waxwings, Blue Jays, and a variety of woodpeckers.
Hollies are one of the last things birds will eat, closer to spring than the fall. Holly berries contain some very bitter chemicals that are distasteful to birds (and, in many cases, toxic to humans), but these start to break down once the berries have been frozen and thawed a few times. Winterberries produce many large berries at the tips of their branches, making them easily accessible to birds. Winterberries are also one of the few deciduous holly species, so they lose all their leaves in the winter and expose their bright fruit to the worst of the weather. You might see Catbirds, woodpeckers, or Brown Thrashers on the Winterberry shrubs in the Prairie Ridge Arboretum starting in a few months.
While all of these species produce vital food for birds in the cooler months, many of these plants benefit from their fruits being consumer by birds. Seeds pass through the digestive system of the birds and are deposited in other locations, helping many berry-producing plants spread across the landscape. Some species, such as Red Cedar, see a marked increase in sprouting success when a seed has passed through a bird rather than simply falling to the ground. The birds rely on the plants for food and many of these plants rely on the birds to transport their seeds to new locations. It’s a great relationship for both parties!
There are many trees and shrubs with berries visible now at Prairie Ridge. Take a walk soon and look for pops of bright color to find berries on the grounds. You’re likely to see a huge variety of birds making use of them!
What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive.