Of Birds and Berries

by Peter Gordon, Elachee Director of Education

Just as many human cultures harvest fruit and seeds in the fall, animals also take advantage of the autumn abundance. Even when certain traditional food sources are not available in certain years, for whatever reason, the fruit surplus is so great in the northeast Georgia forests that there is usually a readily available back-up to be found. A diverse variety of native, berry-bearing shrubs and trees become favorite food stops for certain species of migrating birds, their summer vacations over, who depend on berries to fuel their return trips to their tropical homes. 

Migrating Thrush love to feast on the fruits from Black Gum trees and American Beautyberry in the Chicopee Woods Nature Preserve.For years, the Elachee staff has enjoyed the annual migratory Thrush ‘food line’ at the Chicopee Woods’ resident Black Gum trees (Nyssa sylvatica). One of the first trees to change to its fall colors, the Black Gum produces a blueberry-sized fruit that American Robins (Turdus migratorius), Wood Thrushes (Hylocichla mustelina) and Swainson’s Thrushes (Catharus ustulatus) find irresistible. These normally staid and elegant birds turn gluttonous at the first sight of this fruit-laden tree. 

In particular, one Black Gum located near the Elachee Nature Academy Preschool playground has been a particularly popular autumn meeting spot for both hungry birds and bird-watching Elachee staffers, alike. Thrushes dominate but other species are often spotted at the tree-top table. These include woodpeckers, Summer Tanagers (Piranga rubra) and Scarlet Tanagers (Piranga olivacea) and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (Pheuticus ludovicianus).

For the past several years, this local Black Gum has produced its fruit earlier than usual. Not to be thwarted, visiting thrushes, catbirds and cardinals have fallen back on a “Plan B” to meet their hungry needs, as in Beautyberry. American Beautyberry is another favorite abundant Chicopee Woods flowering shrub that migrating birds flock to each autumn.

American Beautyberry (Calicarpus americana) is a native southeastern coastal plain shrub that has become a popular ornamental addition to local piedmont gardens. With the help of the berry-consuming bird flocks, the plant has spread all over the grounds and gardens at Elachee. Its lavender or white berries have become a much appreciated back-up plan for our thrushes who attack the berries with the same gusto they devote to Black 

Do you want to attract fruit-eating birds to your outdoor classroom or backyard garden? The Ecology of Fruit-eating Birds, published in 2009 by the Georgia Ornithological Society, identifies the top five trees which provide the most berries/birds ‘bang-for-the-buck.’  They are Red Mulberry (Morus rubra), Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) and of course, the Black Gum. 

Here’s to a fabulous fall migration season! For more information about birds and berries, call us at Elachee at 770-535-1976.