Provide for Birds in Winter

dark green evergreen with blue seeds

As the winter season marches on, it is always a treat to see bright colors out in our gardens. While some of that color comes from plants with winter interest, more can come from the wildlife that visits. Birds, particularly cardinals, cedar waxwings, and jays show up beautifully against a snowy backdrop, and you can use several ornamental plants to attract them to your yard. Below is a list of suggestions:

  • Northern Bayberry (Morella pensylvanica) is one of the best winter food sources for birds due to its high fat content. The waxy, gray berries are a favorite of chickadees, bluebirds, swallows, and warblers. Both male and female plants are needed to produce berries.
  • Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) provides white flowers in spring, excellent fall color, and, you guessed it, berries for birds in winter! All kinds of birds enjoy the blue-black berry clusters produced by this Viburnum. These berries can persist until mid-winter, assuming the birds don’t eat them all right away.
  • Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) has bright red, persistent berries that provide excellent winter interest as well as a good meal for robins, cedar waxwings, and scrub jays. One male plant is needed for every 5-10 female plants to ensure berry set.
  • Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) produces tiny pea-sized fruit that is eaten by a wide variety of birds. This tree is not considered a great garden beauty, but it is incredibly adaptable and can take tough situations, plus it provides a sturdy nesting area for birds in spring and summer.
  • Green Hawthorn (Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’) is a beautiful spring-blooming tree with small thorns and large red berries in fall and winter. Thrushes and waxwings are some of the most common visitors, but other small birds stop by to sample the fruit.
  • Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) is a native of Iowa with ornamental red stems in winter and clustered cream-colored berries that birds like bobwhites, woodpeckers, and cardinals adore. These fruits are produced in fall and sampled by many migrating birds, so plant these in clusters for the best outcome.
  • Crabapples (Malus sp) provide berries for many birds, including robins, cardinals, and waxwings. Smaller berries are easier for the birds to eat. It is usually crabapple fruits that persist the longest, due to their bitter nature, but after several freeze/thaw cycles birds enjoy them.
  • White Oak (Quercus alba) produces acorns every year that are enjoyed by woodpeckers, wood ducks, and jays. The avid birder can even crush or cut the acorns into smaller sections to attract a wider variety of birds.
  • Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) not only provides protection from wind and snow, but also produces pale blue, berry-like cones that are eaten by cedar waxwings and other birds.

Prepared by Lindsey Smith, Collections Curator — photo caption: Juniperus virginiana ‘Grey Owl’