AMES, Iowa – If you want 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.
The following trees and shrubs provide food for birds 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 colorful flowers, many varieties also possess attractive, persistent fruit. Initially, the fruit are hard and marble-like. They gradually become palatable to birds after freezing and thawing several times.
Crabapple varieties that are good food sources for birds include ‘Snowdrift,’ ‘Indian Magic,’ ‘Profusion,’ ‘Adirondack,’ Harvest Gold, ‘Prairifire’ and ‘Ormiston Roy.’
Birds tend to ignore the fruit of a few crabapple varieties. The fruit of ‘Adams,’ ‘Donald Wyman,’ and Red Jewel are not readily eaten by birds.
Crabapples are extremely variable in size and growth habit. However, most varieties attain a height of 15 to 25 feet.
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’). Both hawthorns grow to a height of 20 to 30 feet.
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.
The Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) is a small (4 to 6 feet tall), rounded, thorny shrub. Its green leaves change to orange to reddish purple in the fall.
The Japanese barberry produces small, inconspicuous, yellow flowers in spring followed by small, oval-shaped fruit. The fruit turn bright red in fall and persist into winter.
Numerous barberry varieties are available. Many possess reddish purple foliage.
The grayish white, berry-like fruit of northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) are used to make bayberry candles. The fruit also are important sources of food for birds.
Northern bayberry is an upright-rounded shrub that grows to a height of 6 to 9 feet with a similar spread. Its foliage is glossy, dark green, and aromatic when bruised. Fruit are borne mainly on female plants. Since bayberries are usually not sold by sex, plant several shrubs to ensure good fruit set.
Other important winter food sources include sumac (Rhus species), nannyberry (Viburnum lentago), eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) and roses (native species and Rosa rugosa).
(The author is an Extension horticulturist at Iowa State University.)