Winter Food For Birds Berries, Nuts and Seeds are Available in Yards and Natural AreasOct 31, 2023 ● By Sheryl DeVore
A bluebird rests on a sumac tree. Photo by Jack Nowak.
In fall, a cornucopia of berries and nuts are available outdoors to feed wild creatures, but beginning in December, the outdoor banquet may seem to mostly have disappeared. “November and December can be rough times for birds seeking berries in the region,” acknowledges Ken Klick, restoration ecologist for the Lake County Forest Preserves. “But birds can still find berries and nuts in the wild and in backyards that help sustain them during the cold winter climate.”
Among the native plants providing berries in winter is the sumac. “Robins, bluebirds and song sparrows will be picking at the berries of sumac even in the coldest months of winter,” Klick says. Other bird species documented eating sumac berries in early and late winter include American goldfinch, black-capped chickadee and northern cardinal.
Four kinds of sumac grow in the region: smooth sumac, staghorn sumac, poisonous sumac and poison ivy. Birds can eat berries from all four without getting ill, but humans can get an itchy rash by touching the poison sumac and ivy. Most sumacs encountered in the Chicago region are the smooth and staghorn, though poison ivy frequently climbs tree trunks or grows as a low ground cover. Poisonous sumac is only found in boggy areas; for example, off-trail at Volo Bog State Natural Area, in Ingleside. Migratory yellow-rumped warblers, which linger into November and December in this region, relish poison ivy berries which provide nutrition as they continue their journey southward.
Nannyberry is another native shrub that provides fruits to birds. Growing in moist woods and prairies, the nannyberry holds its blue-black fruits well into winter, according to the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. Robins, bluebirds and cedar waxwings eat nannyberry fruits.
Crab apple trees can also provide a food source in the colder months. Many common backyard crab apples are cultivars not native to northern Illinois, according to Klick, but certain varieties do offer fruits for the birds. Genoa resident Karen Lund says
the fruits of the crab apple trees in her backyard get eaten by robins, cardinals, waxwings, blue jays and goldfinches. One November, she discovered a rare winter visitor, an evening grosbeak, feasting on the cranberry-sized fruits. Lund also has planted Washington hawthorns (Crataegus phaenopyrum) in her yard as well, which attract the same birds that enjoy crab apple fruits, she says.
“If you want a plant with red fruit that lasts throughout the winter, hawthorns are an excellent choice; and as an added bonus, hawthorns are native plants,” writes Rhonda Ferre, a retired horticulture educator for the University of Illinois Extension Service. In addition, the Morton Arboretum on their website recommends cockspur hawthorn (Crataegus crus-galli), a Chicago-area native plant that provides white flowers in spring and persistent fruit into fall and winter.
Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), a tree that grows in bog areas including Volo Bog, also offers nutrition for birds in the colder months. “The red fruits of native winterberry holly form on the female plants in fall, and by early winter they’re often snapped up by hungry robins and other wintering birds,” according to the Chicago Botanic Garden website.
One plant that produces berry-like seed cones is the eastern red cedar, often called juniper. “My juniper is loaded with berries this year,” Lund says. “I can’t wait to see what birds will eat the berries.” Perhaps she’ll discover a Townsend’s solitaire, a rare bird species visiting the region in winter. One study suggested the Townsend’s warbler needs to eat up to 84,000 juniper berries to survive the winter. Lund also planted a river birch and alder to attract winter finches.
“Common redpolls, pine siskins and goldfinches will pick the seeds of alders and birches,” Klick says. Redpolls and siskins are winter visitors to the region, and finding a grove of birches and alders in November and December might offer opportunities to see these two bird species. “I remember seeing a paper birch being gleaned by siskins along Lake Michigan near Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve last November,” Klick recalls. “It was a beautiful sight.”
Wintering birds also eat the seeds of native prairie plants such as little bluestem and indian grass. Backyard gardeners that leave prairie plants such as black-eyed Susan, purple coneflower, goldenrods and asters remain in fall instead of cutting them back might see a goldfinch or house finch perched on the plant devouring the seeds. “All native plant seeds provide vital sustenance, especially for the winter birds,” Klick says.
Acorns (actually nuts from native oak trees) also provide food for various bird species in winter, including blue jays, red-headed woodpeckers and wild turkeys. The passenger pigeon, now extinct, but once seen in huge flocks across the northern Illinois sky, also ate acorns, as well as nuts from native hickory trees.
Sheryl DeVore has written six books on science, health and nature, as well as nature, health and environment stories for national and regional publications. Read more at SherylDeVore.Wordpress.com.