“Those are bird berries. Only birds eat them. They’re no good for people to eat.” That was my warning when my children were young, and we had a lot of red-berried bittersweet nightshade growing along sidewalks in the neighborhood. Actually, while poisonous for cattle and other animals as well as children to eat, I wasn’t being absolutely truthful about birds; they also avoid the nice red berries. The odor is unpleasant and so animals tend to avoid the plant.
However, there are plants with red berries that birds do enjoy. You may have noticed recently some red berries on dogwoods, for instance. It may be that these early berries are red so they can be seen by migrating birds against the leaves which are still green.
Spicebushes, common along the edges of roads and forests, have red berries, especially if they grow in the sun. I was surprised by a red-berried spicebush recently because many of the shrubs I’ve seen have small green berries that never seem to ripen.
Spicebush? Perhaps you’ve seen one without realizing what you were looking at. In early spring before leaves appear, the woods edges may be lined with yellow festooned twigs. A few people call these bushes the “forsythia of the woods” because they bloom early like forsythia, but they look nothing like the common forsythia. These tiny, clustered flowers include both male and female on the same shrub. The female flowers will develop into those berries over the summer, ripening more easily if they get a regular dose of sunshine.
You can positively identify spicebush by snapping a twig or breaking a leaf which will emit a lovely allspice-like smell, thus its name.
Are there other berries that birds like? Birds (and animals) like a variety of berries and often gorge themselves before migratory flight or to ready for winter. Blue juniper berries are a favorite with many birds as well as animals. Robins have been observed to eat as many as 220 berries in one day. The berries of beautyberry or callicarpa, eastern red cedar, firethorn or pyracanthus, American cranberry bush or viburnam trilobum, chokeberry or aronia, crabapple, service berry and hawthorne are tasty too.
The staghorn sumac shows its tightly packed red flowers in cones now. They’re not as tasty as some other berries, so birds often ignore them until other food sources are scarce. In early March robins and overwintering birds will suddenly attack and eat sumac berries.
Where do you see birds snacking on berries at this time of year? On what kind of shrub or tree are the berries growing?