Feeding birds

Bobbee™ bayberry (Myrica pensylanica ‘Bobzam’)

A recent article in Audubon Magazine written by Susan J. Tweit (January-February 2013) highlights the importance of planting native shrubs with high fat berries to support our overwintering native songbirds.  Consider the black-capped chickadee, one of the most common North American wintering birds.  They lose heat quickly because they have a large surface area for their size.  They have to feed all day on foods rich in antioxidants and fats.  Then they spend the night crammed into tiny cavities shivering and burning the day’s fuel.

You can help chickadees and many other birds by planting native shrubs and trees with high fat berries. Choose native plants because birds recognize them easily and have to spend less energy foraging. Another benefit of choosing native shrubs is they will support native insects and provide food for baby birds in the spring.

A study conducted at the University of Rhode Island looked at the amount of fat stored in different types of berries.  They found the best berry for fat content was our native bayberry, Myrica pensylvanica, with berries that are half fat! Northern bayberry is a large, semi-evergreen shrub that can get rangy with age.  It makes a great plant for the back of the shrub border of in a naturalized setting.  If you want a more refined selection for a small garden, consider planting Bobbee™ bayberry (Myrica pensylanica ‘Bobzam’).  This cultivar will stay compact, but still provide lots of high fat fruit for the birds.


Plant % Fat
Northern bayberry (Morella [Myrica] pensylvanica)  50.3%
Southern arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum)  41.3%
Gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa)  39.9%
Northern spicebush (Lindera benzoin)  33.2%
American burningbush (Euonymus atropurpurea)  31.2%
Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)  23.6%

Source: Designing Gardens with Flora of the American East, 2010, by Carolyn Summers 

Some other plants recommended for winter fruit include:

 Wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera) – Smaller bayberry that grows well in the coastal plain, especially at the Delaware beaches.

Southern arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum)Prefers sun to partial shade, moist, acidic soil; foliage rich burgundy in fall; important for native bees and butterflies as well as birds.

American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) – Likes light shade and will grow in the hottest areas; moist soils; gorgeous purple berries; deer love to browse

Common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) – Drought-tolerant, craggy tree with knobby bark; fruits eaten by many bird species; attracts butterflies and moths.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) –Large rangy shrub for big natural areas, leaves turn brilliant scarlet and orange in the fall and berries are high in vitamin C.

Smooth sumac (Rhus copallina) – A little smaller shrub with great red fall color with berries high in vitamin C.

Aromatic sumac (Rhus aromatica) – This sumac is lower growing and has a cultivar, ‘Gro Low’ that makes a great groundcover.

Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) – Many cultivars of this popular deciduous holly have large, red fruit (or orange) that can last well into the winter.

Depending where you live and the bird populations present, you may find these shrubs are stripped of their fruit well before they would help our overwintering birds.  In that case, you are helping the fall migrators.  But, the more people who plant native shrubs, the more food we’ll be providing and that can’t do anything but help those birds we love to watch!

One thought on “Feeding birds

  1. I am writing an article on winter ornamentals for the February issue of Northern Home Garden and Leisure Magazine (www.northernhgl.com) and would like permission to use your image of bayberry fruit in winter. A high resolution image would yield the best results in print. Photo credits will of course be provided in the article. Please don’t hesitate to contact me.

    many thanks,
    Robert Pelletier
    Northern HGL
    (450) 294-3377, ckehne@accglobal.net

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *