I admit I’m not a huge gardener. I appreciate working the soil, and I like growing my own food, but I’m much stronger in the birding area than in the blooms. As a naturalist, though, I know there’s a lot of value in gardening for wildlife.
There’s something inspiring about seeing a cheery flock of cedar waxwings suddenly settle into your backyard, stretching to pluck every berry within reach. They gulp the fruits down one after another before leaving as quickly as they arrived.
You can revel in this picture-perfect scene, too. Not only are berries among the most natural and essential food sources for birds, they’re also easy to grow. Translation: You don’t have to be much of a gardener to grow berries for birds!
Take a look at my top 12 picks for backyard berries, compiled with the bird-watcher in mind. (My editor made me add the botanical names.) All of them are easy to grow in small spaces, yield good crops and will bring birds to your backyard for years to come. From one birder to another, I hope this advice allows you to simply plant, walk away and then get your binoculars ready to enjoy the view.
Bayberry (Myrica). While most warblers are spending the winter in Central and South America, flocks of the yellow-rumped species remain in the southern United States all winter long. Many species of bayberry, including wax myrtle, provide fruit for the warblers. In fact, the eastern subspecies of the yellow-rumped warbler is often referred to as the myrtle warbler.
Currant (Ribes). Many currants produce fragrant flowers and abundant fruit. Except for a few species, the berries are largely unpalatable to people, but the birds will thank you for planting these treats in your backyard. A bonus: Hummingbirds are wild about the flowers.
Dogwood (Cornus). Several species are native to North America, and over 40 kinds of birds have been documented eating their berries. One of my favorites is the gray catbird, whose long tail and stubby wings are perfectly suited for flying though dense dogwood thickets. The plant is available as either a small tree or a bush.
Elderberry (Sambucus). A hit with many birds, from wrentits to flycatchers, purplish-blue elderberries grow in clusters. If you somehow can harvest the berries yourself before the birds devour them, they make a delicious pie filling, jam or syrup.
Holly (Ilex). What’s more festive than holly’s bright-red berries clustered among dark-green leaves? Although the fruit can be mildly toxic and irritating to humans, birds seem to have no problem with it. Research suggests that the berries lose some of their toxicity after the first frost, which is when birds tend to chow down on them. Another thing to know about holly: It’s dioecious, meaning you need to have both male and female plants to ensure that fruit will be produced.
Huckleberry (Gaylussacia). A relative of the blueberry, huckleberry is equally popular with birds. While I prefer to enjoy it in ice cream form, the birds love it right off the bush.
Juniper (Juniperus). Any of the juniper species can offer double benefits for birds, providing good cover and choice nesting locations as well as fruit. The berries are especially popular with the Townsend’s solitaire; while they’re less appealing to some other birds, they still offer valuable winter nutrients. And for the gardener, these hardy shrubs require little maintenance.
Raspberry (Rubus idaeus).
I used to find towhees and sparrows in my raspberry patch every morning when I’d go out to harvest berries for my breakfast pancakes. The dense patches provide excellent cover, and sometimes the birds refused to flush from the thicket as I picked a few treats for myself.
Serviceberry (Amelanchier). Most of these species bloom early and then quickly yield berries for birds, including the vireos. It’s easy to find serviceberry shrubs. Some serviceberries are considered small-scale trees, but they don’t grow too large, so both tree and shrub work nicely in smaller landscapes.
Viburnum (Viburnum). With around 150 different species, this is a versatile choice for your backyard berry patch. These shrubs can do well clumped as a hedgerow. They also make a good transition species at a forest’s edge. The berries are favorites of both birds and larger wildlife.
Plant any of these choices, and watch the show begin! A flock of waxwings can make short work of a berry buffet, while a northern mockingbird will vigorously defend a berry patch to hoard the pickings, enjoying them at a leisurely pace. Either way, when you plant berries for birds, you’ll have a front-row seat to some fascinating bird behavior all year long.
Berry Benefits for Birds
Calories: High-calorie berries provide critical nutrients, especially when it’s cold out and other food is hard to find.
Antioxidants: Research indicates many species of berries for birds contain antioxidants that help them handle the stress of migration.
Shelter: Many berry bushes provide essential nesting habitat throughout the year while protecting birds from bad weather and predators.