Overwintering Birds Gotta Eat, Too!

January 5, 2023 · 5 minute read
Overwintering Birds Gotta Eat, Too!

As we head into the doldrums of winter with all of the celebrations behind us, it can be daunting to pull through January and February as you wait for spring to finally come.  Now imagine you are a bird. Life gets a whole lot harder, and the upcoming months are not the best months for finding food when you are a bird.  It’s easy for humans to help our feathered friends by putting out feeders and suet cakes, but even with the best of intentions, things can go wrong.  You may remember in 2021 that there were warnings about feeding birds from bird feeders that caused some concern, but luckily that went away before becoming a huge problem.  While I am sure this not common, it never hurts to find better and more natural ways to feed birds in the winter season.

By selecting and planting appropriate plants in your landscape, you can lay out a winter feast for birds when most other forage is gone.  The following is a list of my favorite plants that would work well in our area, provide good food for overwintering birds, and not pose invasive spread issues (many bird friendly species are invasive).

Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia)
This is one of my absolute favorite shrubs/small trees, and it is criminally underplanted.  This plant grows into a vase-shaped plant that is about 8 to 10 feet tall and 5 to 6 feet wide at maturity. It functions best in a border at the rear of a property, or intermixed into planting islands to act as a mid-level woody plant that blends well with taller evergreens and small shrubs/perennials.  The plant can be somewhat wild, and likes to grow from suckers and canes at the base of the plant.  For this reason, it does not suit itself to being a focal plant or a foundation plant.  Chokeberries need little care with the exception of light pruning to develop a good form.  The plant has clusters of small white blooms, develops a stunning orange/red fall color that lasts for a substantial amount of time, and provides a native and natural source of berries for birds.

Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata)
While there are a myriad of Hollies available at local nurseries, if you are looking for a plant to benefit birds, you will be hard-pressed to find a better option than the Winterberry Holly.  First and foremost, this is a native Holly! The best part is that when birds spread it, even if it is a cultivar, it will likely revert back to the native species or by sterile.  This shrub comes in many sizes, as the cultivars and varieties abound with a major focus being on the size and quantity of the Holly’s trademark red berry.  The plant is far less showy during most of the season, as it is a deciduous Holly that does not have the typical glossy leaves.  This plant is surely the ugly duckling though.  As fall comes, the foliage turns a pale yellow and drops to reveal showy red berries along the stems of the plants.  It’s like Christmas decorations for your backyard!

The only caveat is that this is a dioecious plant. Meaning, you have to make sure you are selecting females for the showy aspects, but also plant one male (non-fruiting) in the vicinity to ensure you have proper pollination for berry development.

American Holly (Ilex opaca)
This is “the American Holly.”  This is no shrub and should not be treated as such.  The American Holly can turn into a grand tree reaching 50 to 60 feet tall and 20 to 30 feet wide.  This is a tree to put in an area where it can be allowed to grow to its mature size, as it truly shines at maturity.  Do be aware that this plant has prickly leaves that are not good for high traffic areas, or where children or pets play.  This is also a dioecious plant that needs males and females.  If purchasing at a nursery, it is important to make sure only females are purchased, as we are lucky enough to have plenty of native male trees to take care of pollination.

Native Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)
This medium caning shrub is great in mixed plantings, as it fills low spaces well during the growing season. It has graceful stems that cascade from a central clump of lime-green foliage.  Flowering occurs along the stems/canes of the plant, but it is not known or planted for its flowers.  As the summer progresses, the blooms slowly turn into clusters of small green berries that mature, over time, into glossy purple berries that flank each stem.   Do be sure that you are buying a Beautyberry with the species americana.

Crabapples (Malus sp.)
I will have to say that this is not my favorite plant selection, but it does fit the bill when it comes to providing winter bird forage.  Crabapples, much like regular apples, have been bred for a very long time.  Edible apples have of course been bred to develop the fruit we love, whereas the Crabapple has been bred for its flowering and size.  For this reason, I can’t really give a good recommendation for cultivars, but it is very important that any local grower look for Apple Scab and Fireblight resistance in any Crabapple planted.  Crabapples are wonderful for birds, bees, and anything else that likes their small fruit, but so many cultivars are extremely sensitive to the same diseases that plague edible apple trees.  These trees, as a group, usually have terrible form and architecture, and benefit greatly from periodic structural pruning.

Perennials (myriads!)
Do your best to not cut off perennial and annual flower heads until March or April, as many of the seed heads can provide important forage to a variety of birds.  This may not always be an option, but do your best to forgo the neighborhood pressure to cut everything back before the holiday season.

Do please be careful in selecting these plants, as they may not be able to survive in your specific site due to size limitations, moisture, and/or sunlight.  Take the time to research the plants to make sure they will work well for your specific site.  Also be cautious as some very bird-friendly plants can be very invasive in our region, so make sure that any plants you are selecting do not fall into this category.