They were here, of course, for the fruit. Cedar Waxwings are especially dependent on fruit in their diet, so much so that ‘Cedar’ in their common name is a nod to Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), whose fruit-like cones are an important source of winter food for this bird. The other part of their common name, ‘Waxwing’, refers to the waxy looking red tips on their secondary wing feathers.
Like most other birds, Cedar Waxwings also eat insects, especially when they are breeding and raising young. I did see one bird take a break from the Winterberry fruit to browse the branches of a nearby Witch-hazel (Hammamelis virginiana) for some insect protein. But fruit was the main attraction for this flock.
While I watched, the birds put on an impressive acrobatic display in pursuit of the delectable fruit.
It’s not by accident that such an abundance of fruit is available for these and other birds. The groundwork is laid in late spring, typically June where I am in central New Jersey, when these shrubs produce a wealth of small flowers that are a major attraction for pollinators, including many different species of bees, wasps and flies.
While they stayed with us, the Cedar Waxwings also ate the remaining Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) drupes, as well as some crab apples. The birds moved on after three days, when the trees and shrubs were stripped of their bounty. It was a mesmerizing spectacle while it lasted.
Cedar Waxwings are typically found in woodland habitats, near water or woods edges, but they are sometimes found in open fields, too. It all depends on food availability. They are sociable birds, and often nest in proximity to other members of their species, with several nests possible in a single ‘neighborhood’. When they aren’t breeding, they travel in flocks, moving from place to place to find the fruit they need. A few days before the invasion of this flock, I saw one or two Cedar Waxwings in the trees outside. Because of their gregarious nature, it’s unusual to see a lone bird of this species. Now I can’t help wondering if these early birds were scouts, looking for the next food stop for the group.
To attract Cedar Waxwings to your own yard, be sure to provide the fruit they love. In addition to Winterberry Holly and Eastern Red Cedar, American Holly (Ilex opaca), Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), native viburnums such as Blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium), Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana), hawthorns, apples and grapes are all very appealing to this sleek and lovely bird. To see them in summer, offer them blueberries, serviceberries, cherries and blackberries, among other fruit.
I have my desk facing the windows of our home office so that I can be easily distracted, and sometimes this strategy really pays off. For the last several days, I’ve had a hard time tearing myself away from my windows because of the steady stream of birds that are visiting to eat the ripe Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) and Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) fruit from the trees outside.
Both Flowering Dogwood and Blackhaw Viburnum have fruit that looks like a berry but is actually a drupe, a type of fruit that has a fleshy outside, and a single seed inside encased in a stony covering. A peach is an example of a drupe. The fleshy outside is perfect for tempting a bird or small mammal to eat it. The seed goes through the animal’s digestive tract and is later ‘dispersed’ complete with fertilizer to help give a new plant a good start.
The birds went for the Dogwood fruit first. This seems appropriate, since Flowering Dogwood blooms a few days earlier than Blackhaw Viburnum. A flock of American Robins swooped in to eat, with each Dogwood hosting three, four, five, or more birds at once, bobbing in and out of sight as the branches swayed up and down from the activity.
Several Northern Flickers alighted in the trees, staying a while to join in the feast.
Other more cautious birds made a swift pass to grab a bite, then flew on to enjoy it in a less congested location. At least three Hermit Thrush stopped by,
a few Red-bellied Woodpeckers,
and even Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers supplemented their diet with fruit in between their usually forays drilling holes in tree bark for the sap that will ooze out, and for the insects that are attracted to the sap.
Outside, I hear other birds and see them ignoring this bounty of fruit, relying on different food sources. Brown Creepers and White-breast Nuthatches are active in trees nearby, probing the trunks for insects sheltering in the bark grooves. Brown Creepers start from the bottom of a tree trunk and work their way to the top,
while the Nuthatches move in the opposite direction.
Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows recently returned for the winter. They’re busy probing the bushes and fallen leaves for insects, seeds and fruit.
While I watched, a Red-tailed Hawk swooped in, scattering the smaller birds, but only briefly deterring them from their foraging. The Red-tail perched nearby for a few minutes, silhouetted against the sky, then left with empty claws.
The Dogwood fruit is just about all eaten now, but the birds are still working on the Blackhaw Viburnum.
Robins are consuming most of the Blackhaw fruit, but the Sapsuckers fly in to supplement their diet, too. Squirrels are also taking advantage of this feast.
The flower buds that are visible at the same time these plants are offering their ripe fruit promise that the show will continue next year. I just hope that when these plants bloom next spring the bees, flies, butterflies and other flower visitors are as successful as they were this year in pollinating the flowers.
So much action, and I live in a townhouse development in central New Jersey! Who needs to travel hundreds of miles to see the wonders of nature, when they can be present in your own backyard? Just provide the native plants that the animals we live with depend on. We humans depend on these plants and animals, too.
Thinking about doing a fall clean-up in your garden? Maybe you are planning to remove the layer of naturally fallen leaves that are beginning to blanket your planting beds?
I hope my encounter with a Red-banded Hairstreak will prompt you to change your plans.
On a recent walk on a woodland trail near my home in central New Jersey, I had just turned around to head back to my car when I noticed a flutter of brownish wings at ground level at the edge of the trail. My first thought was that it was probably a moth, but when I saw the insect in profile, I could tell it was a butterfly. As I looked more closely, I saw the tell-tale markings of a Red-banded Hairstreak. I decided to watch for a while.
She stayed on the ground, walking over obstacles that seemed like they would be a challenge for someone her size, especially when she could choose to fly. While I observed her, she climbed over leaves, rocks, leaf stems and small branches, never once taking to the air. Several times she paused in place for a few seconds. Was she just resting, or maybe getting her bearings? No! She had a purpose in mind.
Red-banded Hairstreak caterpillars eat fallen leaves and other decaying plant matter. This little female was laying eggs on or near the kinds of material that her caterpillars would need to eat when they hatched. She alternated walking for a bit with brief pauses to lay an egg.
After nearly five minutes, she flew off, presumably scouting for another promising location to lay more eggs.
The caterpillars that hatched from her eggs will spend the winter snug in the fallen leaves, waiting for warm spring days to arrive before completing their metamorphosis to become the next generation of Red-banded Hairstreaks.
Since my encounter with the Red-banded Hairstreak in the woods, I’ve seen other individuals in my own shade garden several times. Fortunately for them and for me, I leave the fallen leaves undisturbed in the garden. I recommend you do the same!
It’s difficult to walk past Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) when it’s in fruit without noticing it. The abundant, vividly red, globular, fleshy fruits of this aptly named shrub never fail to catch the eye.
Where do all of those luscious-looking fruits come from?
Have you ever noticed Winterberry Holly in bloom?
In late spring, Winterberry Holly is covered with an equally large number of somewhat inconspicuous greenish-white flowers. The flowers bloom gradually over a period of a few weeks.
Like all hollies, Winterberry usually has male and female flowers on separate plants. Only female flowers can develop fruit. Although it isn’t typical, there may occasionally be a specimen with male and female flowers on the same plant, or some flowers that are perfect, that is, they have both male and female parts. Plants often have some variation, as they continue to evolve to try to find the most effective and efficient survival strategies.
Female flowers are usually in small clusters of up to three. The flowers have a single pistil (the female reproductive part) at their center. The green rounded base of the pistil is the ovary. If a flower is successfully pollinated, the ovary will mature, becoming the bright red fruit we see later in the season. The ovary is topped by a stigma, where pollen must be deposited in order for pollination to occur and fruit to develop.
The white arrow- or spade-shaped projections in between the petals of the female flowers are sterile stamens; they don’t produce pollen that can fertilize the flowers. It’s likely that they help attract pollinators. As these sterile stamens age, they turn brown.
Male flowers often bloom in crowded clusters of up to 10 or more. The male reproductive parts, called stamens, reach upward from the face of the flower, the anthers at their tips ready to deposit pollen on a flower visitor.
Winterberry Holly needs third party assistance to move pollen from a male flower on one plant to a female flower on another plant, in order to achieve pollination. It may be easy for people to walk past without noticing when these shrubs are in bloom, but fortunately the flowers are enticing beacons to potential pollinators of many different species, especially bees. A recent study showed Winterberry Holly to be among the most attractive to bees of the flowering shrubs.
In my own garden I spotted Bumble Bees, Mining Bees, Sweat Bees, Small Carpenter Bees and a wasp visiting the flowers for nectar rewards. Bees also eat pollen, and female bees may collect pollen to feed their larvae.
Without the assistance of these flower visitors, pollination would not take place, no fruit would develop, and Winterberry Holly would not be able to reproduce. If these pollinators do the job the plants have enticed them to do, fruit develops, ripening by fall.
Birds are the primary target audience for the colorful display of Winterberry Holly’s bright red fruit. Many different species of birds including Eastern Bluebirds,
and Hermit Thrush
eat the fleshy fruit and later become the unwitting dispersers of the seeds inside as they deposit them with natural fertilizer when defecating.
Small mammals like mice and squirrels may eat Winterberry fruit, too. People are just the accidental beneficiaries of the bright spectacle, but shouldn’t eat the fruit, which is toxic to humans.
Winterberry Holly fruits contain more carbohydrates than fats, making them less preferred by birds than some other fruit available in the fall. As a result, Winterberry fruit is frequently passed over until later in the season, often well into winter, although sometimes a flock of hungry American Robins or Cedar Waxwings will strip a Winterberry Holly of all its fruit in a matter of hours.
Winterberry Holly is a deciduous shrub or understory tree that grows to a maximum height of about 15 – 20 feet (5 – 6 meters). It prefers moist soil, and is indigenous in bogs and wet woods in the eastern half of the United States and Canada. It makes a great addition to your own landscape for its benefit to pollinators, birds and other wildlife. It doesn’t hurt that Winterberry Holly adds some bright color to a winter landscape.
Eastman, John. The Book of Swamp and Bog. 1995.
Eaton, Eric R.; Kauffman, Ken. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. 2007.
American Cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus var. americanum synonym V. trilobum), also called Highbush Cranberry, Cranberrybush Viburnum, and several other common names, is not the source of the cranberries often served for Thanksgiving dinner. Those cranberries come from an unrelated species, Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon), a member of the heath family, and a plant that is more closely related to blueberries than it is to American Cranberrybush.
American Cranberrybush gets its common name from the color of its bright red fruit, which does resemble the cranberries so often used to make holiday side dishes or to garnish a salad. The common name Highbush Cranberry refers to this shrub’s height, which can be in the range of 8 to 12 feet (2.5 – 3.6 meters), much taller than the species that yield fruit for those traditional dishes.
This lovely shrub blooms in spring, usually some time in May. Its floral display consists of two types of flowers arranged in a large rounded cluster, creating a lace-cap effect. Large white sterile flowers form the perimeter of the flower cluster, surrounding a dense group of much smaller fertile flowers that make up most of the inflorescence. The job of the sterile flowers is to be showy enough to attract potential pollinators to the fertile flowers, where the work of reproduction is carried out. This floral strategy is shared by Hobblebush Viburnum (Viburnum lantanoides, synonym V. alnifolia) and some of the hydrangeas.
The sterile perimeter flowers bloom first.
Then gradually, the fertile flowers open for business, enticing pollinators to visit, including many flies, bees and beetles, all important pollinators.
Spring Azure butterflies use the flowers and buds of this and other spring-blooming viburnums, and a few other woody species as food for their caterpillars.
Hummingbird Clearwing and several other moth species also use this and other viburnums as food for their caterpillars.
American Cranberrybush leaves have three lobes, resembling the leaves of Red Maple (Acer rubrum). To protect itself from hungry marauding caterpillars, American Cranberrybush has glands on its leaf stems just below where the stem meets the leaf blade. These glands are extra-floral nectaries, designed to lure insects that can be enticed by both a sweet nectar treat and the protein available from a caterpillar. Ants, wasps, even some flies are potential security guards that are paid for their presence with nectar from these glands, with the potential for a bonus: as many caterpillars as they can find. Ants drink nectar and eat caterpillars and other insects. Wasps and flies drink nectar, and some also hunt caterpillars or other insects to feed their young. The presence of these predatory insects helps protect American Cranberrybush from foraging caterpillars.
American Cranberrybush is a variety of a look-alike shrub, European Cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus) which is of European origin and can become invasive in North America. The two can interbreed, which has the undesirable potential to lead to the loss or alteration of the native variety. The best way to tell the two apart is by their extra-floral nectaries. On American Cranberrybush, these nectaries are somewhat convex or slightly rounded at the top, while those on European Cranberrybush leaf petioles (stems) are concave.
By late June, developing fruit replaces successfully pollinated flowers, ripening as the summer goes on. The fruit is a drupe, a fleshy fruit with a single seed encased in a stony pit. Peaches and cherries are examples of fruits that are drupes.
American Cranberrybush fruit has a relatively low fat content, so it is less desirable for migrating birds than some other options like Spicebush (Lindera benzoin). It often lasts well into the winter, but this year, where I live and play in central New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, the fruit was already gone by mid-November. Of course, we have already had a few hard freezes, followed by warm-ups.
Robins, Bluebirds, Hermit Thrush, Cedar Waxwings, grouse and many more birds eat American Cranberrybush fruit.
All kinds of animals, from moose to fox to squirrels and mice also eat the fruit.
What about humans? If we get to it before our animal neighbors do, can we use this fruit as an actual cranberry substitute? If it is cooked with sugar or other sweetener added, people find the fruit of American Cranberrybush edible, too. Some sources say that fruit from European Cranberrybush tends to be more bitter.
Look for American Cranberrybush in wet woods or along streams in its native range, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia in Canada, and in the United States from Maine to Washington state, south to New Jersey, West Virginia and Illinois, although it is more common in the eastern US. The USDA also shows it in one county in New Mexico.