Growing Fruit and Berries for Birds

Gardeners have appreciated the value of encouraging birds to their plots probably since gardening began.  We only have to watch as a robin repeatedly visits newly turned ground, or spend a little time observing a small flock of blue and great tits foraging amongst to our roses, to appreciate the huge numbers of insects that these birds take, reducing, or even eliminating, the need for some other form of pest control.  Add to these benefits the pleasure of getting to know your local birds and the joy that many people feel when observing wildlife and there is every reason to invite birds into our gardens and allotments.  We may have to cover soft fruit or tolerate a little pilfering by blackbird or starling, but to my mind the benefits of a bird friendly garden far outweigh any disadvantages.

A well-designed and effective wildlife garden will always make provision for its wildlife visitors by incorporating plants with natural food. Feeding the birds with seed mixes and peanuts, which more than thirty percent of us do in one form or another, is a very important aspect of wildlife-friendly gardening and nowadays contributes to the conservation and survival of many species.  However, there will always be times when what nature provides is best.  In springtime young birds in the nest need the protein-rich diet supplied by insects and other invertebrates, and at the beginning of winter, seeds and berries provide the nutrients birds need to see them through the cold weather ahead.  There was a time when this natural harvest in the countryside, together with spilt grain and weed seeds from fields of stubble, provided good pickings and a vital food supply for all manner of bird species.  Sadly this is no longer the case.  More and more birds need to rely on our gardens as a source of food at all times of year.  This month, as well as visiting our feeders, some birds will be seeking a supply of fruits and berries.

What to plant Thick shrubs, both native and non native, will always provide a good habitat for birds, not just to shelter and possibly find a nesting site, but also to search for insect food.  Choosing flowering shrubs that set edible fruit is the best of all possible worlds.  A native such as hawthorn will attract many insects to its nectar and pollen, protect a vulnerable nest with its thorns and dense foliage, and provide nutritious berries from September through the winter.  But if we would like more variety in the garden, how can we be sure that a non-native shrub will have edible berries?  One very general guide is that as a rule, red or orange berries attract more birds than yellow or white.  Many shrubs, including holly, Pyracantha and Berberis have been bred with berries of paler colours to please the gardener rather than garden wildlife.  These berries are often left completely untouched.  The breeding and selection process singles out plants with berries that ripen slowly or not at all, so many never develop their ‘final’ berry colour, and stay hard and inedible.  Shrubs like these will provide colour in the garden throughout the winter but are best planted with a selection that will also provide food for birds.  Those than ripen only slowly may be useful, as berries left until the very end of the cold weather will be welcomed by a large number of species, especially thrushes and blackbirds, and over-wintering warblers such as blackcaps.

So where non-natives are concerned, red is best, but some shrubs have black or dark purple berries.  By and large these seem to be palatable but it can be a rather hit and miss affair.  It is not uncommon to find that a berried shrub that attracts masses of birds one year will be devoid of avian visitors the next winter.  This can be the result of weather conditions which may affect the palatability of berries, or there may be a surplus of food elsewhere.  The key is to plant as large a variety of berried shrubs and climbers as you can and hedge your bets.

Which birds can you expect  A wide range of species will feed on berries and fruits when the weather is harsh but winter migrants are especially vulnerable to lack of food.  Having made the long journey from colder climates, especially the Scandinavian countries, they have expended large amounts of energy to get here and of course have the long journey back to contend with.  In recent times their primary food sources - berries from hawthorn hedges and excess fruit from our once abundant apple orchards – have dwindled, and even shy migrants such as redwings and fieldfares have now resorted to visiting gardens and staking a claim on a Cotoneaster or Pyracantha.  Here they may have the local song or mistle thrush to contend with, the latter being particularly territorial!   A good food source is worth fighting for though, and energy spent chasing off a rival is energy well spent.

Many birds have their favourite food sources, although when the weather gets really cold, they will take whatever is available.  Robins are especially fond of spindle berries and if you are fortunate enough to have a mistletoe plant in an old apple tree, you may well be graced with an over-wintering blackcap. This species is also fond of ivy berries, and will share these with thrushes and wood pigeons.  All the thrush species are partial to apples and bramblings and some other finches will eat the apple pips.

In winter our birds have to take their chances and find food wherever they can.  By planting some good berry bearing shrubs for them, you could be supplying that vital ingredient that keeps them alive until springtime.

Add to your bird friendly shrubs

Autumn and winter are good times to add to your bird friendly shrubs, trees and climbers.  Prepare the ground well, add plenty of compost to the planting hole and stake trees where necessary.  The new plants should be kept well watered throughout their first year.  As well as the best bird-attracting berries and fruits below  you could also try elder, yew, bird cherry and blackberry, all of which will attract thrushes, blackbirds, starlings, finches, and even the odd waxwing in a good year.  Mistletoe can be ‘planted’ by pushing berries into crevices on an apple bough.

Of the non-natives, snowberrry, honeysuckle, and roses that bear hips will all provide food, and soft fruits such as raspberries and gooseberries will attract some birds earlier in the year.

Top Five Natives for Berries and Fruits

Hawthorn – The best native hedging shrub.  Attracts thrushes, including redwings and fieldfares, waxwings and finches.

Rowan – An excellent small native tree for a garden.  Attracts blackbirds, waxwings and thrushes.

Elder – A good shrub if you have space but it can become invasive.  Attracts many species especially starlings, finches and thrushes.

Holly – A good general wildlife shrub for food and nesting for many species.

Spindle – Provides a very late food supply.  Loved by robins.

Ivy – A brilliant all round wildlife plant.  The berries set very late and provide a vital food source for pigeons, doves, thrushes and blackbirds and warblers.

Top Five Non-Natives for Berries and Fruits

Pyracantha - A good food source and nesting shrub for many species.

Berberis – Red berried varieties are best for redwings, fieldfares and blackbirds.

Viburnum – The black-berried Viburnum tinus attracts smaller birds to its fruit, especially finches and robins.

Cotoneaster – The Herringbone Cotoneaster (C. horizontalis) is a must, but other red berried forms are also good.

Apple – Leave windfalls for thrushes, blackbirds, starlings, finches and many other species.


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017