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Evergreens provide winter shelter, food

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Jessica Walliser
Bayberries are an important winter food source for birds.

Evergreens are important plants for birds, especially during the winter months. Not only do they provide shelter from cold winter winds, they’re also great nesting sites come spring. But, the berries and seeds some evergreens produce are one of their most valuable traits to birds, especially during the winter when other food becomes more scarce.

Trees such as the eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) produce small, fleshy, berry-like cones that birds such as cedar waxwings adore. This plant also shelters “sleeping” insects during the winter. These overwintering insects are a favorite food source for many different birds who glean them off the plants all winter long. Other species of juniper also produce small, blue berries that birds consume. Robins, thrushes, grosbeaks, catbirds, bluebirds, cedar waxwings and other birds enjoy plucking juniper berries off the plants.

Cone-bearing evergreens, like spruces, firs and pines, provide seeds for various species of birds, including finches, who pick them out of the cones.

American holly (Ilex opaca) is a broad-leaved evergreen that produces much-needed fruit for birds in the winter. Female holly plants bear small red berries that are a favorite food source for many species of songbirds.

One of the best evergreens for birds is the northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica). Another broad-leaved evergreen that produces small berries that hang onto the plant well into the winter, this shrub is also a great landscape plant. Its gray fruits are an important food for catbirds, swallows, bluebirds and others. Bayberries thrive in moist soil and can tolerate salt spray from roads, too. Like hollies, only the female plants produce berries, so you’ll need one male plant for every five to six females for good berry set.

Late winter and early spring can bring some interesting bird behavior because of the berries of many of these trees. As the winter turns to spring, frozen berries thaw and may start to ferment. Birds who gorge on these fermented berries may become intoxicated. Fermentation toxicity can even lead to bird deaths, if they eat too many and become disoriented.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com.

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to [email protected] or The Good Earth, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601.

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