When selecting plants for home landscapes, gardeners often choose trees and shrubs because of their ornamental characteristics. For many individuals, another important criterion is their ability to provide food for birds. Many attractive woody ornamentals also provide food for birds. By selecting different trees and shrubs, gardeners can provide food for birds from summer through winter.
Summer Food Sources
The following trees and shrubs provide food for birds during the summer months. Serviceberries (Amelanchier species) are large, multi-stemmed shrubs or small trees that reach a height of 10 to 25 feet. Ornamental characteristics include white flowers in spring and colorful fall foliage. The foliage in the fall varies from yellow to orange to red. Serviceberries also produce small, berry-like fruit that ripen in June. Birds love the fruit, devouring them as quickly as they ripen. The ripe fruit are also edible. They are excellent in pies and muffins.
Another large shrub or small tree is the pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia). Its mature height and spread is 15 to 25 feet. Ornamental characteristics include a horizontal branching habit, yellowish white flowers in spring, and reddish purple fall foliage. It also produces small, berry-like fruit which turn from green to red to blue-black at maturity. The mature fruit are an excellent source of food for birds. The pagoda dogwood requires a cool site and a moist, well-drained soil. Protected areas and eastern exposures are generally the best planting sites.
Though not widely plant, the Corneliancherry dogwood (Cornus mas) is an excellent ornamental for the home landscape. The Corneliancherry dogwood is one of the first woody plants to flower in Iowa, typically blooming in late March or April in central portions of the state. The yellow flowers are followed by oblong, 1/2-inch-wide fruit which turn cherry-red in July. The fruits are also edible. The Corneliancherry dogwood is a large shrub or small tree that can reach a height of 20 feet.
The bright red twigs of the redosier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera) are a common sight in Iowa during the winter months. This broad-spreading shrub grows approximately 6 to 10 feet tall. It produces small white flowers in flat-topped clusters in late spring followed by white, berry- like fruit in late summer.
The arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) is an adaptable, native shrub which grows well in sun or shade and tolerates most soils. It grows approximately 6 to 8 feet tall. Arrowwood viburnum produces creamy white flowers in spring followed by berry-like fruit which ripen in late summer. The mature fruit are blue in color.
Other ornamental trees and shrubs that provide food for birds during summer include gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa), silky dogwood (Cornus amomum), and Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa).
Fall Food Sources
Fall foods allow birds to build up their food reserves for the difficult months ahead. These foods are often available into winter if not consumed in the fall.
Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) is a large, multi-stemmed shrub or small tree that grows 10 to 15 feet tall. Its foliage is dark green in summer changing to purple or reddish purple in the fall. Blackhaw viburnum produces creamy white flowers in 2- to 4-inch-wide clusters in spring. The berry-like fruit turn bluish black at maturity and are a good source of food for birds in fall and early winter.
The bright red fruit of winterberry (Ilex verticillata) are a beautiful sight in fall. Winterberry is a deciduous holly. Like other hollies, it's dioecious. Male and female flowers are produced on separate plants. The small, inconspicuous flowers are produced in spring. The round, 1/4- to 1/2-inch-wide fruit on female plants turn bright red in early fall. Hungry birds usually devour most of the fruit by early winter. Two female varieties noted for their heavy fruit displays are 'Sparkleberry' and 'Winter Red.' A male variety, such as 'Southern Gentleman,' must also be planted for pollination and fruit set. Winterberry prefers moist, acidic soils and will grow in sun or partial shade. It commonly grows 6 to 10 feet tall.
Oaks (Quercus species) are long-lived, durable trees that are often planted as shade trees. Commonly planted oaks include the red oak (Quercus rubra), white oak (Quercus alba), swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor), and bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa). Oak acorns are important sources of food from fall into winter for gamebirds, such as turkeys, pheasants, and quail, plus blue jays, nuthatches, and several species of woodpeckers.
The eastern wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus), hazelnut (Corylus americana), and cotoneasters (Cotoneaster species) are other woody plants that provide food for birds in the fall.
Winter Food Sources
When attempting to attract birds to the landscape, trees and shrubs that provide food during the winter months are extremely important as natural foods are most limited at this time of year. Woody ornamentals that provide winter food usually have persistent fruit that do not initially appeal to wildlife. The fruit may be hard, marble-like or bitter in taste. The fruit eventually become palatable in winter.
Though it lacks impressive ornamental features, the hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) is a tough, widely planted shade tree that tolerates poor soils and difficult urban sites. It grows 40 to 60 feet tall. The pea-sized fruit of the hackberry eventually become dark purple and are an excellent source of food for many birds.
While crabapples (Malus species) are usually planted for their flowers, many varieties also possess attractive, persistent fruit. Initially, the fruit are hard, marble-like. They gradually become palatable to birds after freezing and thawing several times. Crabapple varieties that are good sources of food for birds include 'Snowdrift,' 'Indian Magic,' 'Profusion,' 'Adirondack,' Harvest Gold , 'Prairifire,' and 'Ormiston Roy.' Birds will not eat the fruit of a few crabapple varieties. Birds don't like the fruit of 'Adams,' 'Donald Wyman,' and Red Jewel .
Hawthorns (Crataegus species) are another group of small, flowering trees that possess attractive fruit. Hawthorns produce white flowers in spring. In fall, the fruit turn red and persist into winter, providing food for birds. Two hawthorns noted for their excellent fruit displays are the Washington hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum) and Winter King hawthorn (Crataegus viridis 'Winter King').
The American Cranberrybush viburnum (Viburnum trilobum) is an excellent shrub for screens and hedges. It grows 8 to 12 feet tall and produces white, flat-topped clusters of flowers in spring. The fruit turn bright red in fall. Initially ignored by birds, the fruit become palatable by late winter.
The bright red fruit of the red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) are another good source of winter food for birds. Red chokeberry is an upright, spreading shrub that produces small, white flowers in spring followed by red berries in fall. It grows 6 to 10 feet tall. An excellent fruiting variety is 'Brilliantissima.' Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is a related species that produces black fruit.
Other important winter food sources include sumac (Rhus species), northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), snowberries (Symphoricarpos species), nannyberry (Viburnum lentago), Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii), eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana), and roses (native species and Rosa rugosa).
The fruit of many trees and shrubs are important sources of food for robins, cedar waxwings, cardinals, brown thrashers, juncos, chickadees, and many other birds. Keep these small feathered friends in mind when selecting woody ornamentals for the home landscape this spring.
Additional information on this topic can be found in G-1609 "Landscape Plants that Attract Birds."
This article originally appeared in the February 25, 2000 issue, pp. 15-16.