English hawthorn is like deciduous firethorn.

Bloom and colorful foliage provide most of the color besides green within home gardens during spring and summer. Deciduous foliage becomes more colorful for autumn. Winter berries and a few other lingering fruits become more colorful as deciduous foliage sheds through winter. All this color adheres to precise schedules within a collective ecosystem.

Many plants exploit wildlife. It is how they compensate for their immobility. Many provide incentive for the services that they desire from the wildlife that they exploit. For example, after enticing pollinators with fragrance or color, flowers happily exchange extra pollen or nectar for pollination. Many plants provide edible fruits in exchange for seed distribution.

It is no coincidence that so many different winter berries ripen through autumn for winter. They provide sustenance to many migratory birds who rely on them. Overwintering birds who compete with migratory birds appreciate their efforts as well. Such winter berries are small but abundant, for ‘grab and go’ convenience. Bright color is the best advertisement.

Some people appreciate how winter berries attract birds and squirrels into their gardens. Some appreciate the seasonal color of such berries more than the wildlife. Unfortunately, wildlife decides the outcome, and such outcomes are variable. It is impossible to predict if berries will disappear as they ripen, or linger as they deteriorate through most of winter.

Firethorn is likely the most familiar of the winter berries here. It seems to be more prolific with its brilliant red berries than any other species. Some old fashioned cultivars produce bright orange or perhaps even bright yellow berries. Some sorts of cotoneaster resemble firethorn, but with subdued rusty or orangish red display for less refined woodsy gardens.

Toyon, or California holly, is most prolific with winter berries where it grows wildly without pruning. It gets big though. Real hollies, which are more popular in other regions, do not produce many berries locally, particularly since male pollinators are uncommon. English Hawthorn is a small deciduous tree that displays berries that resemble those of firethorn, but on bare stems.


26 thoughts on “Winter Berries Attract Migrating Birds

  1. I lecture on birding for gardeners and wildlife gardening and it has always amazed me that people “discriminate ” so to speak even among birds and wildlife. They will ask me how to get rid of certain birds or wildlife when clearly the topic of the talk is to attract such things!I guess it’s a case of be careful what you wish for.


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    1. Mulberry trees were familiar components of the orchards that formerly inhabited the Santa Clara Valley. They were on the perimeters of the orchards, or near barns or farmhouses, rather than within the orchards. They were not there for production, but to distract birds from the fruit within the orchards. Apparently birds that ate stone fruits preferred mulberries if they were available. Cultivars were selected to ripen at about the same time as the fruit within the associate orchard. No one seems to remember that sort of technology.


    1. They supposedly live here like everywhere else in North America, but they seem rare to me. I do not remember ever noticing even one here. I see them only in other regions, such as the Sierra Nevada. They supposedly like Eucalyptus bloom, although I do not know why.

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    1. At least one Kousa dogwood produces an abundance of fruit here, but because birds do not take enough of it, the tree must be removed! A few others are already gone. It is so unfortunate. I would like such a tree in my own garden, just for fruit production. This particular tree is not in my own garden though, and makes a mess outside one of the lodges.

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      1. The berries are beautiful. My dogwood is not even an attractive thing, but it provides a safe haven for birds to hide and nest in in the summer, and the berries for food in the fall. Even when the leaves are gone, birds sit in it all the time. So, unattractive but so necessary. I enjoy watching all the activity in it from my living room window all year long.

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      2. Our flowering dogwoods are spectacular both in bloom (prior to foliation) and with their colorful foliage during autumn, but they produce no berries. The Kousa dogwood lacks good color for autumn, and the dingy greenish white bloom only makes the spring foliage look . . . pale. I just like it for the fruit.

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      3. We have beautiful dogwood trees here, amazing pink colors in the spring. No fruits but the colors are worth waiting for. This thing is just a huge bush, and I have to trim off ground shoots every spring or it would take over the yard. But I love it, because the birds do. 😊

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      4. Well, they color well in our milder winter weather. However, they do not like more arid climates just slightly farther inland. Several mature specimens are quite happy at work, and my colleague used to grow them on the farm, but I was never able to grow them well in the Santa Clara Valley, just a few miles to the north.

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    1. Do red elderberries grow wild there? I wanted black American elderberries for a long time, but have been too pleased with the native blue elderberries to bother with them now that I suspect that they are not likely much better. Red elderberries are likely more different. There is a species that is native here, but I have never seen it.


      1. Not sure I’ve ever seen the blue ones, but I know the black ones are edible. In Sweden, we sometimes don’t even let them become berries – we dip the entire flower in batter and fry it as “elderberry pancakes”. Be sure to not do that with the red berry ones, though. If I’m not mistaken, they are poisonous to humans. Thankfully fine fare for birds, though. 🙂

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      2. According to some documentation, the blue elderberries are two varieties of the American black elderberry. I learned it as a separate species, with a variety that grows more like a shabby small tree than an open shrub. Both live here. The berries are, as the name implies, powdery pale blue. I got so in the habit of using them as black elderberries that I would not mind if I never procure copies of black elderberry now that they are available in California. They are so abundant at work that I use them for everything that elderberries can be used for. When there were not so many to collect from, I did not use the flowers for fritters or beverages. I left all the bloom for berries. Apparently, any type of fresh elderberry can cause illness if not sufficiently ripe, or eaten excessively. Red elderberries are just a bit more toxic. I do not mind because I do not eat them fresh. Even the juice gets cooked. I prefer the flavor that way. I would like to grow red elderberries here just to experience them, but will not likely continue to use them for culinary purposes after trying them for the first time. I am told that they are not as richly flavored as the blue elderberries or black elderberries. I would like to get the exact species (or variety) that is native near here, even though I have never seen it.
        You might find this to be amusinghttps://tonytomeo.com/2017/10/01/blue-ribbon/

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      3. Yes, but they are not so good fresh anyway. People sometimes add fresh blue elderberries to fruit salad, and, on rare occasion, people get sick from doing so. I think that the flavor is icky while fresh, so would not want to add them to salad, or anything else for that matter. Fermentation also denatures the toxicity.


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