Nature Connection: It’s A Berry, Berry Good Time

By: Mary Richmond

Just a few of the many robins in one of our holly trees. MARY RICHMOND PHOTO

If you’ve been out and about over the last few weeks you may have noticed there have been many robins out and about. On the warmest of days in this oddly warm January we have had so far there have actually been worms close to the surface of dirt and lawn areas. If you doubt this, go dig a hole for a bulb. I unearthed several in a matter of minutes while planting the last of my daffodil bulbs this week. The worms, however, are a bonus for the robins at this time of year. What they really have gathered for are the berries.

We tend to think of our American robins as harbingers of spring, but in reality some stay year-round, only heading farther south when the weather forces them to move on. Others, such as the more robust appearing robins, probably come here from farther up north. A few years back a huge roost of over 20,000 robins in West Barnstable drew the attention of the local papers. Before long the attention of the public wandered away but the robins return year after year and spread out all over to feast during the day, returning to the big roost only as night fell.

Robins, as you probably know, do not eat seeds. They eat insects, worms, and fruits, especially berries. If you want to see robins in the winter, plant some American holly and winterberry, a cousin of our familiar holly. Winterberry is a deciduous holly so you will see bushes full of red berries but no leaves. 

At this time of year, you may also see these bushes alive with birds. Robins love the berries but so do cedar waxwings, bluebirds, mockingbirds, and even starlings. This past year seems to have been a particularly good year for berries, and the birds have been stuffing themselves.

There are other berries birds go for in winter such as privet, bittersweet, and cat briar berries. There’s a lot of discussion about the value of native plants these days and this includes berry bearing vines, shrubs, and trees. Cat briar, also called green briar, is native, but privet and Asian bittersweet are not. Birds and other animals will eat the berries, but they may not provide the same nutrition as the native varieties. In fact, many biologists refer to them as junk food. This is true of our non-native rose hips, such as the invasive and pervasive multiflora rose as well.

If you’re like me you’re probably already getting seed and garden catalogs. This is the time of year to consider planting native shrubs as well as flowers in our yards and gardens. 

There’s a lot of information available about the best plants to add and also the plants to avoid. In fact, there is a new list out of invasive plants such as Scotch broom, which should be pulled and destroyed. If you’re of a certain age you probably remember when this decorative shrub and the fall color favorite burning bush were all the rage and every yard seemed to have at least one of each. Well, it’s time to change our landscaping habits and think local.

On a recent walk I encountered birds feeding in grasses, in thickets of poison ivy filled with the telltale white berry clusters, in red cedar trees, and in the various hollies along the path. Other birds were foraging in the bark of trees and shrubs for insect larvae, spiders, and whatever else they could find in their travels from branch to branch.

If you’re a regular reader of this column you may be someone who feeds the birds, has begun a pollinator garden, and is trying to ignore the messy leaves and seed heads in their gardens. I’ve noticed that many people are out raking their gardens in this warm weather, and I have to admit it makes me cringe. This is not the time to clean up your garden. Leave the leaves and the mess so the small insects and beneficial organisms that live in them can survive until spring. This will do more for the diversity of life in your yard than any planter filled with flowers or any bird feeder filled with seed.

The cold days and nights will return and as you stay cozy and warm, maybe think about what you can add to your yard to encourage more birds, butterflies, bees, and other beneficial wildlife as you peruse those pretty catalogs. Any native berry bearing bush will be a wonderful addition, bringing you and yours years of enjoyable bird and nature watching opportunities.

Some bushes will have berries early in the summer, some late in the summer, and some, like the winterberry and holly, will hold their berries well into the winter. Bushes such as serviceberry, bayberry, highbush wild blueberry, beach plum, native cherries, and native wild roses are all easy to grow and prolific berry producers. Hollies need mates, so make sure you have both a female and male bush. Only the female will bear the berries.

There’s nothing like the sight and sound of hundreds of robins and waxwings picking berries in your yard over the period of a few days. It’s an amazing spectacle, one we witness every year thanks to several mature and heavy berry bearing holly trees in our backyard. 

Have fun thinking about your spring and summer gardens. I always want to plant about five times more things than I have room for, but it’s fun to dream. It’s also fun to see all the birds enjoying my gardens in winter, eating echinacea and evening primrose seeds, feasting on berries, and gleaning seeds from wild grasses at the edge of the funky little wooded area we’ve let grow wild. In fact, it’s berry, berry good.