Plant Berry Bushes for the Birds

Cardinal bird in snowy winterberry bush

As a family with an active child, our most successful place to watch birds is through windows. Birds tolerate us that way and we see amazing things while munching granola in our PJs.

By Scott Woodbury

[This article was first published in The Gateway Gardener September 2017 issue.]

As a family with an active child, our most successful place to watch birds is through windows. Birds tolerate us that way and we see amazing things while munching granola in our PJs. Through the kitchen window we watch finches, sapsuckers, and nuthatches all winter on the sunflower feeder. In October we see woodpeckers devouring the blue Virginia creeper berries on the porch arbor. Out the back window we watch cardinals and sparrows eating pokeberries. I’m amazed how long the dried berries last through winter on the sturdy red stalks. In mid- to late winter we see bluebirds eating bright-red flowering dogwood berries out the porch windows. For some reason they save them until the end of winter. Out of the spare bedroom window is often a single mocking bird perched on top of the possumhaw (deciduous holly) all winter. This miserly bird doesn’t share the over-abundance of berries it guards while sitting on top of the shrubs.

A picture of a housefinch eating serviceberry.

A housefinch dining on serviceberry.
Photo by Robert Weaver

We’re not just indoor birders, however. We also like to walk outside with binoculars to look in the treetops for flocks of waxwings and robins that gorge on cedar and black gum berries. Robins stuff their faces and are messy eaters, littering the ground with fruits that they knock off. That is not a problem with the juncos that feed on the ground anyway. Waxwings seem to take their time by comparison, feeding at the tops of trees as far away as possible from noisy human onlookers. Waxwings are known to eat their weight in berries in a single day. I love the soft sounds of waxwings calling see-seee-seee. Listen for their arrival in October.

In nature and in the native garden, juvenile and adult birds switch to eating berries (high in fat) when insects become scarce in late summer and fall. This happens to coincide with the beginning of bird migration and winter flocking. Berries like holly, black chokeberry, spicebush, poison ivy, rough-leaved dogwood, and black gum fuel long flights to overwintering grounds in central and South America. They also help winter-resident birds build up a store of body fat to survive long winters.

A robin eating winterberry fruit.

A robin finds some winterberry berries.
Photo by Robert Weaver

Berry-producing plants are as crucial to birds as birds are to plants, a phenomena of mutual benefit called co-evolution. Turns out robins, bluebirds, and many other birds digest berry pulp, but not the seeds. Seeds receive a quick acid treatment while passing through the birds and come out with a better chance of sprouting in spring and with a wee boost of fertilizer. That is one reason why invasive bush honeysuckle and other invasive and weedy seedlings sprout prolifically beneath the branches of shrubs and small trees.

The view out our windows amazes us month after month. We see nature up close because that’s where the native plants grow. That’s where we planted them. That’s why I love the new tagline for the Grow Native! program—“keeping nature near.” The nearer native plants and nature are to home and in our lives, the nearer the natural world can be in our heads and hearts. It makes good sense.


Horticulturist Scott Woodbury is the Curator of the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, MO, where he has worked with native plant propagation, design, and education for 25 years. He also is an advisor to the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s Grow Native! program. Find suppliers of berry-producing native plants at, Resource Guide.