By Jon Morgenson
The colorful fruits of fall and winter observed on trees such as crabapple and hawthorn provide landscape interest and a feast for the human eye as well as providing a literal feast for birds. These late ripening fruits provide a much needed source of nutrition for the leaner snow covered days ahead. Birds, whether they are migrating hordes of Cedar Waxwings or throngs of stay at home Robins, often congregate in large numbers while feeding on tree fruits and when viewed at a distance they seem themselves like a large cluster of fruits.
I have observed birds feeding in certain crabapples and wondered why they reject the fruits of crabapples nearby. Looking more closely I noticed the fruits were significantly different in size. The smaller fruits were being consumed much quicker than the larger fruits. It appeared a crabapple over ½ inches in diameter was much less attractive to birds than smaller crabapples. Two trees that were almost cleaned of fruit were ‘Winter King’ Hawthorn and ‘Prairifire’ Crabapple whose fruits are 1/3 to 3/8 of an inch in diameter, that fruit size and smaller matches the size of native trees and shrubs and seems to be preferred. Now for my disclaimer-my observations are simple and in no way scientific and do not take into account the differences in fruit palatability (at a given time) between tree species or different varieties (selections) within the same species; so readers please “take my observations with a grain of salt.”
If you would like to attract birds with fruit bearing plants, remember that many vines and shrubs as well as trees produce fruits that are attractive and nutritious to birds, and by using all three types of plants a natural layered effect can be achieved with the plantings to improve your habitat. Select your plants so that they provide food in all seasons as different plants bear and ripen fruit at different times. This brings another good point to mind. Plant a wide diversity of fruiting plants and you will have a better chance of attracting multiple species, as not all birds eat the same fruits. Also consider using native plants as native birds developed with these plants and recognize them.
Following is a partial list of plants that would work very well to attract birds:
Trees: Hawthorns, Crabapples, Pagoda dogwood, Serviceberry (Shadblow), Common Hackberry, Black Cherry
Shrubs: Roughleaf dogwood, Gray dogwood, Smooth Sumac, American Elderberry, Chokecherry, Chokeberry, Coralberry, Gooseberry, Viburnum species, Black Raspberry
Vines: American Bittersweet, Wild Grape, Virginia Creeper (Woodbine), Bristly Greenbrier (Smilax)