Shrubs and Trees for the Garden’s Birds

For as long as I can remember, I have been a birder. Going back over fifty years to my childhood in Georgia, I recall early mornings sitting with my father in front of the patio door, looking out on the garden through the wide expanse of glass to watch songbirds at feeders we hung from the branches of an old crabapple. We scattered millet and cracked corn for the blackbirds, crows, and sparrows, the birds that liked to scratch their living out of the grass. And we made daily lists of the different species that came to feed: tufted titmouse, blue jay, cardinal, junco, chipping sparrow, towhee, chickadee, white-breasted nuthatch, and many more. An average day would bring twenty different birds, an exceptional day more than thirty, including woodpeckers, wrens, cowbirds, blackbirds, and grackles.

Often there would be a newcomer, a warbler flitting through the branches of a tree, or an “LBJ”, a little brown job, darting in and out of the multiflora rose hedge my father planted around the perimeter of the garden. The plants went in the ground the same year the Soil Conservation Service introduced the rose, declaring it to be a great bird plant. Now, half a century later, Rosa multiflora, having escaped from cultivation into roadsides and forest edges, is on every state’s invasive species list.

As a teenager, I went on birding trips with other members of the Chattahoochee Valley Natural History Society and attended all of their monthly meetings, the most memorable being a talk by Roger Tory Peterson. After the talk I obtained his signature on my well-worn copy of A Field Guide to the Birds. Over time and countless birding trips, his inked signature faded and smeared until it was unrecognizable. When the book’s binding gave way, I replaced it with a new edition.

Today, at 64, I live in a another part of the country, about as far North as you can get from Georgia, and I am still an avid birder. I still watch the feeders from the sliding glass doors that look out on the porch, keeping a list, and Marjorie and I garden for the birds, planting shrubs and small trees that produce fruits for their harvest from late summer through early winter.

Like the insects that comprise up to 80% of many birds’ diets during breeding season, the berries and other fruits of native shrubs and trees are essential foods for many avian species. High in fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, fruits of the plants described below enable migrating birds to sustain long distance flights and help overwintering birds survive when insects are scarce.

Mapleleaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium, Zones 3 to 8)

The purple-black berries of mapleleaf viburnum offer stark contrast to the pink autumn leaves.

The purple-black berries of mapleleaf viburnum offer stark contrast to the pink autumn leaves.

There was a time when the arrowwood viburnum (V. dentatum) would have topped anyone’s list of native shrubs for the bird garden, but the viburnum leaf beetle’s devastation of this species throughout much of New England has removed it from all such lists. There are, however, native viburnums that are less susceptible to the beetle and, based on a decade of experience growing mapleleaf viburnum in Marjorie’s Garden, I am recommending it as an excellent fruiting plant for birds.

In late September, the leaves of our mapleleaf viburnums take on shades of salmon-pink flecked with purple, autumn leaf colors not found in any other plant. At the same time, the slightly flattened oblong berries mature to a glossy blue-black. For a short time in early October, before the fruits, are taken by the birds, this combination of colors is one of the highlights of our autumn garden.

In our garden, the mapleleaf viburnum fruits seem to be the exclusive property of white-throated sparrows. It appears odd to see these ground-scratching little birds hopping from branch to branch, stretching their necks to reach berries hanging just out of reach. A flock of ten or so sparrows arrives on an appointed day known only to them and a few days later the viburnum branches are bare. We count it as a good trade, berries for their sweet whistle, Old-Sam-Peabody-Peabody, heard even in winter.

American Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis, Zones 3 to 8)

American elderberry is one of the best native shrubs for sustaining the garden’s birds. Over 48 bird species, including thrushes, catbirds, yellow-breasted chats, and rose-breasted grosbeaks, are known to eat its small purple berries as they ripen through the summer.

Elderberry fruits

Elderberry fruits

We grow most of our elderberries in a bed that borders the east side of our house. From the overhanging porch we look down into the canopy of large pinnately-compound leaves raising flat-topped clusters of creamy white flowers to the June sky. And we watch the white-throated sparrows feast on the fruits in late August. They perch on slender canes that bend toward Earth as they reach up to pluck the ripe berries.

Dogwoods (Cornus sp.)

The shrubby dogwoods, silky dogwood (C. amomum, Zones 5-8) and gray dogwood (C. racemosa, Zones 4-8), are excellent choices for the bird garden. Both species grow from 6 to 12 feet high but differ in width; silky dogwood can spread to twice its height while gray dogwood is more subdued, spreading only 4 to 8 feet wide. Both of these dogwoods have very high wildlife value, their late summer fruits the preferred food of common flickers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, downy woodpeckers, Eastern kingbirds, catbirds, bluebirds, waxwings, vireos, pine warblers, grosbeaks and many others. The berries of silky dogwood are porcelain blue, while those of gray dogwood are milky white, borne on red stalks that brighten the winter landscape.

The deep blue berries of pagoda dogwood are a favorite of many bird species.

The deep blue berries of pagoda dogwood are a favorite of many bird species.

A must for any bird garden is the pagoda dogwood (C. alternifolia), a small understory tree reaching no more than 15 feet in height with wide-spreading horizontal branches. In winter, these branches give the tree a pagoda-like form. From late spring to early summer, pagoda dogwood brightens a shady nook of the garden with large flat clusters of creamy white flowers. In late summer, birds feast on its purple-black berries. And in autumn, its leaves are painted yellow, red, and purple. Among the birds that eat the late summer fruits are bluebirds, brown thrashers, cardinals, cedar waxwings, flickers and other woodpeckers, catbirds, mockingbirds, robins, song sparrows, thrushes, and vireos.

Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata, Zone 3-9)

Found growing in the wet soils of red maple swamps and on the bare shoulders of granitic outcrops, winterberry holly is at home in most gardens. As with all hollies, male and female flowers are borne on separate plants, so in order to have bright red holly berries, your garden must have a ratio of one male plant for up to nine female plants. And just any male cultivar will not do, as clones selected from different regions of the country have different flowering times. Fortunately, horticulturists have selected cultivar pairs to ensure proper timing of pollination and an informed nurseryman can advise you on the best male partner for you chosen female cultivar.

Winterberry fruits, before the leaves drop

Winterberry fruits, before the leaves drop

In mid-coast Maine gardens, winterberry fruits generally start to ripen in autumn as the foliage begins to turn yellow, although for some cultivars in some years, the fruits will turn red while the leaves are still green and for a short time the plants resemble evergreen hollies. But as winter approaches, the leaves quickly turn brown and drop, leaving behind a feast for birds, including robins, catbirds, mockingbirds, bluebirds, cedar waxwings, woodpeckers, thrashers, thrushes, chickadees, titmice, and game birds. Fortunately for gardeners, the birds tend to leave the berries for our enjoyment until a midwinter thaw.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis, Zones 4 to 8)

Of all the woody plants in Marjorie’s Garden, the Allegheny serviceberry, a small tree that typically grows 15 to 30 feet in height, is one of the most important in nurturing the garden’s wildlife. In early spring, small native bees just out of their winter nests pollinate the tree’s white flowers. In summer, we pick our share of the tree’s fruits, always in small handfuls of only the ripest berries as we walk by the tree on our way to the vegetable garden, all the while knowing that we are sharing the harvest with catbirds, robins, grosbeaks, wood thrushes, cardinals, hairy woodpeckers, and cedar waxwings. And by summer’s end, a horde of insects has mined or chewed the once-fresh apple-green leaves to tattered remnants.

Like blueberries, serviceberries do not all ripen at the same time.

Like blueberries, serviceberries do not all ripen at the same time.

Serviceberry flowers give way to fruits that resemble blueberries in size and turn purplish-black when fully ripe. Like blueberries, each serviceberry ripens in its own time with only a few in each cluster ripe on any early June morning.

The list could go on, but the five woody plant species discussed above rank among the best for nurturing the garden’s birds, providing energy for long migrations and, for winter residents, energy to survive long winter nights.

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About Reeser Manley

I was born in Laramie Wyoming but moved to the southeast at an early age. I was educated through my B.S. in Biology in the Columbus, Georgia area, then crossed the Chattahoochee River to earn my M.S. in Botany at Auburn University. For the next ten years, I worked as Horticultural Manager for the George W. Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C. At 40 years of age, I decided to return to graduate school and in 1994, I earned a Ph.D. in Horticultural Science from Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. Fast forward through 10 years at university (7 at UMaine, Orono) and you find me teaching high school science in Eastport, Maine, the edge of the world, and writing a weekly garden column for the Bangor Daily News. My new book, The New England Gardener's Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, will be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. You can learn more about the book by visiting its Facebook page: