While many of us may recall learning in school about the phenomenon of bird migration, some in the Pacific Northwest may not be aware that our area is a migratory bird destination for many species. As the gray, rainy days continue and the leaves fall in autumn, we get to observe birds more closely and can see them better on stark branches. It is not uncommon to see full bird feeders and suet blocks hanging around my area, but we can do more to help out our feathered friends. Planting plants with winter berries, food for winter birds, is easy and creates a beautiful garden at the same time.
Here are some of my ornamental favorites that are also enjoyed by winter birds in the Northwest.
Japanese barberries serve up vibrant leaf color and red berries in fall
There are several barberries (Berberis spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9) in my garden that provide all types of berries. The fall leaf color of Japanese barberries (Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea* spp. and cvs., Zones 4–8) is a vibrant red color, setting off the oblong red berries. They are a feast for birds. Japanese barberries grow to about 3 feet tall and up to 8 feet wide, depending on the variety. Give these shrubs space and they can be covered with birds, all enjoying the food. Equipped with thorny stems, they also help dissuade predators and provide the birds with some shelter from wind. With their disposition for sun or partial shade, as well as any soil and any water, what’s not to love?
Siebold’s barberry adds flavor to the garden during the quieter times of year
Another barberry with good stature (4 feet tall and wide) and great berries is Siebold’s barberry (Berberis sieboldii, Zones 5–8). The new growth on this shrub has lovely bronzed red hues aging to green. The heavily veined leaves turn a beautiful orange-red before dropping in autumn and leaving the dangling round berries for birds to enjoy. It is pretty funny to see the birds trying to eat the berries while swinging on the stem. In early spring, flowers drip from branches in tangerine tones. This shrub is maintenance-free with very few demands. It is happy in most dry to moist soils and in full sun to partial shade.
Golden Raindrops® crabapple is a bird-pleaser throughout most of winter
In the low light of winter, Golden Raindrops® crabapple (Malus transitoria ‘Schmidtcutleaf’, Zones 4–8) can be seen glowing as if lit with tiny lights (its fruit). One of my absolute favorite fall trees, it is also a favorite of birds. In autumn, the leaves turn a lovely yellow and then drop to the ground, leaving the small yellow apples dangling on red stems for much of winter. In sun or partial bright shade, it grows to only 20 feet tall with a spread of about 15 to 20 feet wide. In my garden, the height of the branches keeps birds off the ground, while nearby evergreens provide shelter for our feathered friends.
Blue Muffin® arrowwood produces wonderful blue berries and is a delight throughout the year
True to its name, Blue Muffin® arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum ‘Christom’, Zones 3–8) has vibrant blue berries. In fall its leaves turn yellow and drop, leaving a bounty of berries for foraging birds. An excellent dwarf shrub, Blue Muffin® grows 5 to 7 feet tall and wide with average water and good sun. The showy white flowers in the spring, textured leaves, and easy care make it a welcome addition to any garden. Despite the delicious common name, its berries are not edible for human consumption.
Many other plants hold their berries and seeds into winter. With diminishing forests and grasslands around us, a border of these shrubs as well as grasses is an excellent way to provide shelter and food for overwintering birds. Creating a type of hedgerow with a mixture of these plants and native plants is a sure way to support wildlife in your garden.
The number of bird species that are in our region throughout winter, and throughout the year, is astonishing. Keep an eye out for these birds: dark-Eyed junco, golden-crowned sparrow, Pacific wren, Townsend’s warbler, fox sparrow, northern shrike, horned lark in the snow, common redpoll, gray-crowned rosy finch, pine grosbeak, snow bunting, pine siskin, chestnut-backed chickadee, and red-breasted nuthatch. For more on area birds, check out BirdWeb—Seattle Audubon’s Guide to the Birds of Washington State.
*Considered invasive in some areas of the country. For more information, please visit invasiveplantatlas.org.
—Susan Calhoun is the owner of Plantswoman Design in Bainbridge Island, Washington.
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