When I walk through the fields and forests in the fall I’m always struck by the great abundance of food that nature provides, from seeds to nuts to berries. Everything from bees to birds to bears relies on it and it’s always good to see a year like this one when they can easily find plenty. Some is saved and not eaten right away but coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) like the one in the above photo always seem to be stripped of seeds almost as soon as they form. Goldfinches especially love these seeds.
If you’d like a photographic challenge try a shot of a single aster seed. If that seems too easy try it when the wind is blowing. Turkeys, goldfinches, sparrows, chipmunks, and white-footed mice all eat aster seeds. There are so many asters that the seed heads last through most of the winter.
There is one oddity in this post and this is it. Though I’ve searched several times for birds, animals or insects that eat milkweed seeds (Asclepias syriaca) over the years I can’t find a single one that does. It’s hard to believe that a plant would produce so many seeds when they don’t get eaten, but milkweed seeds apparently aren’t eaten by anything. Or if they are, scientists don’t seem to know much about it.
Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) grows along rivers and streams and this is the perfect place for ducks and other waterfowl to get at the seeds. Deer feed on the shrub’s leaves and wood ducks often nest in its thicket like branches. Native Americans chewed its bark to relieve toothache pain.
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is our only deciduous native holly. Many birds including robins, catbirds, mockingbirds, bluebirds, and cedar waxwings love these berries and will eat them throughout winter. Though the berries are toxic it is thought that their toxicity lessens the longer they stay on the shrub, so that might help explain why many of the berries can still be found in late winter.
It’s a great year for grapes; I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many on the vines. These in the photo are river grapes (Vitis riparia), so called because they grow on the banks of rivers and streams. They are also called frost grapes because of their extreme cold hardiness. The freeze we had finished the leaves on this vine but not the fruit, which probably became sweeter. Many birds eat these small grapes including cardinals, mockingbirds, catbirds, robins, wood ducks, several species of woodpecker, cedar waxwings, blue jays, and turkeys. Many animals also love grapes, including foxes, rabbits, raccoons, skunks and opossums. Deer will eat the leaves and new shoots and many birds use the bark for nest building; especially crows.
In the mid-1800s for several different economic reasons the bottom fell out of farming in this area and many farms were abandoned, with the farmers and their sons going off to work in the woolen, shoe and paper mills that were springing up everywhere in New England. What they left behind is mostly gone now except for many miles of stone walls, an occasional cellar hole, and apple orchards. It isn’t at all unusual when out in the middle of nowhere to stumble upon apple trees that are still bearing bushels of fruit. Of course since they receive no care the apples aren’t very good for much besides cider, but many animals and birds love them. Deer and bears will travel long distances for ripe apples and just the other day I saw two gray squirrels fighting over a half-eaten one. Robins, blue jays, bobwhites, cardinals, cedar waxwings, crows, grackles, downy woodpeckers, bluebirds, grosbeaks, catbirds, hairy woodpeckers, house finches, mockingbirds, orioles, purple finches, red-bellied woodpecker, red-headed woodpecker, and titmice all eat apples.
Though Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) are poisonous to humans many birds love them, including thrushes, woodpeckers, warblers, vireos, mockingbirds chickadees, and turkeys. So do mice, red fox, skunks, chipmunks, squirrels, and deer. I’ve read that birds are attracted more to red fruits than the blue black berries of Virginia creeper, so the vine compensates by having red leaves and stems in the fall. When the birds land amidst all the attractive red hues they find and eat the berries. Since thirty five species of birds eat them it must be a successful ploy.
I don’t know about partridges, but I do know that turkeys eat the berries of partridge berry plants (Mitchella repens) because I’ve seen them doing so. Bobwhites, grouse, red foxes, skunks, and white-footed mice are also said to eat them. This little trailing, ground hugging vine makes a great native groundcover if you’re looking to attract birds and wildlife.
I’ve always suspected that birds or animals were eating poison ivy berries (Toxicodendron radicans) because they disappeared so quickly, but it wasn’t until I visited Grampy’s Goat Sass Farm blog that I saw photos of them actually doing so. By the way, if you’re a bird lover you’d be wise to visit Grampy’s blog; you’ll see some of the most amazing photos of them that you’ve seen, including bald eagles. For example I saw some photos of warblers, chickadees and sparrows eating these poisonous berries and thought Ah ha, I knew it! I’ve since read that vireos, cardinals, goldfinches, woodpeckers, deer, black bears, muskrats and rabbits consider the berries a delicacy. For a human, eating these berries would be a very bad idea. People have nearly died from getting the rash produced by poison ivy inside their bodies.
Unfortunately birds also love the berries of the highly invasive burning bush (Euonymus alatus) and spread the seeds everywhere, so it isn’t uncommon to find a stand of them growing in the woods. I know a place where hundreds of them grow and though they are beautiful at this time of year not another shrub grows near them. This is because they produce such dense shade it’s hard for anything else to get started. The sale and cultivation of the shrub is banned in New Hampshire. There are many native shrubs that make a good substitute.
Another highly invasive plant with berries that are loved by birds is the Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii.) In 1875 seeds imported from Russia were planted at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, Massachusetts. Birds helped it escape and now it has become a very invasive shrub that forms dense thickets and chokes out native plants. These thickets are so thorny that only the smallest animals can get through them so for years the plant was used for hedges.
European barberry (Berberis vulgaris) and American barberry (Berberis canadensis) also grow in parts of New England but each of those has clusters of three or more thorns while Japanese barberry has a single thorn, as can be seen in the above photo. Thorn count is a good identifying characteristic when the plants have no leaves. This is another shrub that is banned in New Hampshire but I don’t think we’ll ever stop its spread.
Rose hips are a fruit that’s good for birds, animals, and humans; they are one of the richest sources of vitamin C known. During World War 2 vitamin C syrup was made from rose hips because citrus fruits were almost impossible to find. The best rose hips for harvesting are found on Rosa rugosa, named for the wrinkled (rugose) surface of its leaves. Personally I like to leave them for the birds and animals. Squirrels, rabbits, deer, bears, moose, and coyotes are animals that are known to eat rose hips. Birds include blackbirds, robins, grouse, juncos, bluebirds, grosbeaks, pheasants, quail, and thrushes.
Shadbush (Amelanchier arborea) is a tree with a lot of historical baggage. The Native American food pemmican was flavored by its fruits along with dried meat and fat. Natives also made arrow shafts from its dense, hard wood and showed early colonists how to use the blue-black berries. The name shadbush comes from the way the trees bloomed in spring when the shad fish were running in New England Rivers. I recently found a spot where many of them grow and they were heavily laden with fruit, which surprised me because bluebirds, cardinals, cedar waxwings, gray catbirds, orioles, red squirrels, and scarlet tanagers all eat the fruit. Beavers and deer eat various other parts of the tree but I didn’t see any signs of them either. It seems odd that there would be so much fruit left and I wonder why the birds and animals haven’t eaten it.
We have many different nut trees here in New Hampshire, including beechnuts, walnuts, butternuts, hazelnuts, acorns, and hickory nuts. We have several hickories here including bitternut and shagbark, like the one in the above photo. Unfortunately most of our chestnuts were wiped out by blight in the early 1900s, but I’ve heard rumors of them possibly making a comeback.
Bears, deer, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, turkeys, sparrows, white-breasted nuthatches, yellow-rumped warblers, pine warblers, cardinals, rose-breasted grosbeaks, grouse, pheasants, and wood ducks are just some of the animals and birds that eat our native nuts. Without nuts many forest animals and birds wouldn’t survive.
I’ve never seen so many acorns on the ground as we have this year. A single large oak can produce 15,000 acorns in a good year and there are so many on the ground right now that walking the trails is like trying to walk on marbles. The blue jays, pigeons, ducks, woodpeckers, squirrels, mice, chipmunks and other birds and animals are having an easy time of it, thankfully. I ate some red oak acorn meat once when I was a boy and I don’t think I’ll ever forget how bitter it was, but acorns were the main food source for many Native Americans tribes who knew how to remove the bitterness.
If you’d like to try to make flour from acorns as the natives did, choose only those with their caps still on, because when acorns are ripe they normally fall fully dressed. Usually only the added weight of a worm thrashing around inside can make them break free from their caps while still on the tree, and you don’t want wormy acorns.
My little smiling friend seemed very happy to see such abundance in the forest but it isn’t always this way. Plants go through cycles and sometimes a year of abundance can be followed by a year of scarcity. One way to help animals and birds survive the winter is by planting native trees, shrubs and plants. Our natives often have beautiful flowers as well as fruit that animals and bids love, so you really can’t go wrong in choosing them.
Autumn is the mellower season, and what we lose in flowers we more than gain in fruits. ~Samuel Butler
Thanks for coming by.