FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. -- As fall weather envelopes the region, migratory birds push south and year-round resident birds prepare for an unpredictable winter. The availability of nutritious sources of food for these birds may determine whether they will survive, or not.
Unfortunately, many of the readily available food sources for birds in the fall consist of fruits from invasive plants. The shiny blue fruits of Porcelain Berry, the bright orange berries of Oriental Bittersweet, the inky blue fruits of Japanese Honeysuckle, the scarlet fruit capsules of Burning Bush, and so many others, are the foods that birds can most easily find in our region.
We often blame birds for spreading these invasive plants when they eat the fruit and excrete the seeds, which then germinate. But, why blame the birds when they are simply eating what they can find?
Of additional concern is the relatively low nutritional content of invasive fruits that can threaten birds’ survival. Recent research published in Northeastern Naturalist has found that during migration, the fruits of invasive shrubs are of less nutritional value to birds than the fruits of native shrubs.
Replace those invasive shrubs with native trees, shrubs and vines that deliver the power-packed nutrition birds need in the fall. Here are some candidates to consider for your yard:
Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)
This familiar, small native tree with its lovely spring white or pink blooms, is a preferred food source for migrating birds. Red fruits, called drupes, are loaded with the right combination of fats and energy density for birds’ long journey south.
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
A tall to medium sized, shade-tolerant shrub, Spicebush graces the early spring garden with yellow flowers that emerge before its leaves do. The leaves feed the caterpillars of the Spicebush Swallowtail and Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. In the fall, red drupes feed both migrating and resident birds.
Hearts-a-Burstin (Euonymus americanus)
This airy, native euonymus adds a subtle note to the woodland garden until its fruit appears in early fall. The plant is named for the showy red fruits that are exposed when the fruit capsules burst open. Unlike its robust invasive counterpart, Burning Bush, this is a well-behaved plant.
Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum)
Arrowwood is named for its straight stems thought to have been used as arrows by Native Americans. Its white flower clusters appear in early summer and are followed by inky blue fruits, relished by birds. As with most native Viburnums, plant two selections of this plant to ensure fruit and remove the troublesome Viburnum Leaf Beetle.
American Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens)
Outcompeted by invasive Oriental Bittersweet, this native alternative is better behaved and worthy of reintroduction. Buy it when you see it; it’s not easy to find. Use native Bittersweet on a fence or a trellis and watch its orange fruit attract birds in the fall.
Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)
Another great native vine, Trumpet Honeysuckle sports tubular orangey-red flowers from spring through fall. Its leaves feed the caterpillars of the Spring Azure and Snowberry Clearwing. A favorite nectar source for hummingbirds, this plant produces highly nutritious orange fruit for birds in the fall.
Take advantage of the fall sales at local nurseries to score some of these great native plants for birds. You will be rewarded with lovely bird songs next spring.
Kim Eierman, a resident of Bronxville, is an environmental horticulturist and Founder of EcoBeneficial . When she is not speaking, writing, or consulting about ecological landscapes, she teaches at the New York Botanical Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, The Native Plant Center and Rutgers Home Gardeners School.