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Bushes, Berries & the Birds that Eat Them

Cedar Waxwings feast on Winterberry.

Stories from the Coast

Bushes, Berries & the Birds that Eat Them

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

by MCHT Land Steward Kirk Gentalen

Start with some wind, add a little rain and then cool down the temperature a bit.

Mix all this up in November and what do you get?

Canopies that were once robustly covered with green leaves start to peel apart. Leaves drop from their perches, falling and dancing their way to cover lawns and inspire raking sessions. Obstructed views open almost overnight and in some places nutrition and sustenance in the form of fruits, seeds, and nuts are in clear view for wildlife of all kinds.

Yes, this is a wonderful time of the year.

Cruising the roads of St. George these days it’s hard not to notice leafless shrubs covered in red berries. And while we see several species of shrubs with red berries, the deciduous Winterberry (Ilex verticillate) dominates the roadsides. A member of the Holly family (Aquifoliaceae), Winterberry branches can be covered with berries that remain on plant well in winter if they not forcibly removed. This trait gives the species its common name.

Medium- to large-sized song birds such as waxwings and thrushes (predominantly Hermit, Swainson’s and American Robin) will converge on a Winterberry thicket and pick it as clean as their gizzards allow. Mimic thrushes (Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Grey Catbird) defend individual shrubs from other birds and mammals, claiming the fruit for their bills only. Just the other day I was accosted by a Grey Catbird who didn’t like strangers getting too close to its Winterberry shrub. I bet that catbird stays north until those berries run out. It didn’t seem like it was going to give up that tasty food anytime soon.

Song birds such as waxwings and thrushes (predominantly Hermit, Swainson’s and American Robin) will converge on a Winterberry thicket and pick it as clean as their gizzards allow.

The Yellow-rumped Warbler are rare for their ability to eat through the wax coating the berries found on Bayberry bushes.

Another berry we appreciate is the good ol’ Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) from the Wax Myrtle family (Myricaeae). A small shrub with waxy leaves, Bayberry grows globular clusters of blackberries with a white wax covering that gives them a grayish appearance. People have traditionally used the wax to make candles, shaving lather, and for medicinal uses (emetic, stimulant). Conversely, the wax covering of Bayberries prevents most songbirds from accessing the fruit or obtaining any nutrition from eating them. Bayberries are highly attractive to one of my favorite songbirds though – the Yellow-rumped Warbler (aka Myrtle Warbler, also lovingly known as “Butterbutts”).

Both Bayberry and Winterberry are native to Maine and are recommend for yard landscaping to encourage observable wildlife by providing animals with food and habitat.

Yellow-rumpeds are unique in the warbler world for producing an enzyme that allows them to digest wax and thus as a species they view bayberry as an extremely valuable food source. With (somewhat) limited competition for the berries, Butterbutts are known to overwinter along the coast of Maine in years when Bayberry fruits are bountiful. They regularly overwinter further north than other warblers in North America largely because of their connection to Bayberry.

Both Bayberry and Winterberry are native to Maine and are recommend for yard landscaping to encourage observable wildlife by providing animals with food and habitat. Regardless of whether it’s in your yard, along a road, or in the woods—late fall is an exciting time to keep your eyes on those Winter and Bay berry shrubs, and on what songbirds and animals might be eating them! Enjoy!

A version of this story originally appeared in Kirk’s “Nature Bummin” column in The St. George Dragon, November 2017.

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