Berry bounties for birds

Cape May warbler dining on pokeberry Photo by ©Carol Tuskey.


By Maria de Bruyn

My friend Carol has one of our area’s most bird- and pollinator-welcoming yards. She grows native plants and trees that attract many creatures, which has helped her record over 100 bird species that have visited over the years.

As climate change progresses, one of the many consequences is an overall loss of birds. From 1970 to 2019, the North American breeding bird population declined by 2.9 billion birds. This was partly due to extreme heat-related habitat destruction, which is now intensifying. This year, much of Antarctica’s sea ice disappeared, resulting in a massive loss of emperor penguins. Not one of the newborn penguin chicks survived in four of the five colonies studied.

Birds are sometimes shifting their breeding and overwintering ranges further north. Increasing droughts and wildfires in their summer and winter habitats are destroying nesting sites and food sources. Nature-oriented organizations emphasize that we can help mitigate climactic effects for wildlife and humans by working to restore and create habitats for birds and the pollinating insects on which they and we rely.

Top left: rose-breasted grosbeak. Top right: red-bellied woodpecker. Bottom left: Swainson’s thrush. Bottom right: scarlet tanager. All photos by ©Carol Tuskey.

Spring and autumn planting of nut- and berry-producing trees and shrubs is one step we can take. A very popular tree is the dogwood. In the spring, all types of dogwoods have beautiful flowers. Their late summer/autumn red berries attract numerous bird species, and their fall/winter leaves are gorgeous. Carol and another friend, Brian, have planted several dogwoods around their homes and had dozens of birds roosting in the branches and enjoying ongoing meals.

Dogwoods provide habitat and food for moths and butterflies (and their caterpillars), as well as pollinating insects and bees. Rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks enjoy the fallen fruit. You can expect to see birds on dogwoods include Northern cardinals, tufted titmice, Eastern bluebirds, various thrushes, Cedar waxwings (and about 25 other species!).

There are more than 50 types of dogwoods, including both trees and shrubs. Various websites provide useful information about them and tips on how best to plant and care for them.

Top left: rose-breasted grosbeak. Top right: red-bellied woodpecker. Bottom left: Swainson’s thrush. Bottom right: scarlet tanager. All photos by ©Maria de Bruyn.

The American beautyberry is a shrub that is easy to grow and very popular with bugs and birds. I started with one in my backyard and the birds spread the seeds around so that several new plants emerged. I transplanted a few to my front yard and the birds planted one in front of my kitchen window. In a couple years, it grew to about 10 feet, and I can now watch the catbirds, cardinals, house finches, and other birds enjoying a meal while I wash dishes!

You may have seen the clusters of purple berries on bushes when walking in natural areas. (Springtime shrubs have clusters of small white flowers.) I recently learned from the NC State University website that crushed beautyberry leaves produce a chemical substance that may repel ticks, mosquitos and fire ants! I might try that as a mosquito repellant.

Another advantage of this plant is that the beautyberry can be grown in a container, so it could liven up a patio or balcony if pruned regularly. It is a low-maintenance shrub that just needs watering when rainfall is scarce.

Top left: Cape May warbler dining on pokeberry. Top right: Cape May warbler on persimmon. Bottom right: cedar waxwings on serviceberry. Bottom left: yellow-rumped warbler on wax myrtle. Photos by ©Carol Tuskey (top left) and ©Maria de Bruyn (top right and bottom).

A third berry-producing shrub that appeals to birds — but unfortunately not some people — is the pokeberry (also called pokeweed). When birds eat the berries, they spread the plant since each berry carries 10 seeds that can remain viable for 40 years.

Pokeweeds can also be grown in containers. In addition to small ones growing in sunny yard areas, I have a couple in a large pot on my porch, which is visited regularly by a gray catbird who adopted them as a personal café. The berries don’t all ripen simultaneously so my visitor has had an ongoing source of food. Carol’s large pokeweeds have rewarded her with dozens of avian visitors, including many migrating warblers.

While all parts of the pokeberry are poisonous for humans, these plants can be useful. Native American and rural groups have used them for dyes and as ingredients for medications. University researchers recently found pokeweed dye can double the ability of fibers used to absorb solar energy by solar cells, which would make solar energy even more productive.

There are other trees and shrubs that produce berries enjoyed by the birds and other wildlife. They include persimmons, Eastern red cedar, firethorn, winterberry, chokeberry, crabapple, elderberry, serviceberry, wax myrtle (also known as bayberry) and hawthorn. If you have the opportunity to plant some of these or to influence plantings by nature reserve and trailway managers, you’ll be making animals and people quite happy!

Maria de Bruyn participates in several nature-oriented citizen science projects, volunteers at Mason Farm Biological Reserve and the Orange County Senior Center, coordinates a nature-themed book club, posts on Instagram ( and writes a blog focusing on wildlife at

Carol Tuskey, a health-care professional, loves gardening, birding and being retired.

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