Home / Blogs / Beneficial trees for birds, your appetite and your creative side
May 10, 2021
Photo credit: Chesapeake Bay Program.
You can easily create a multifunctional landscape that attracts birds, pollinators and insects while at the same time gives you the opportunity to eat off of your landscape and get crafty. Attracting birds to your property is all about providing a mix of native plants, habitat, nesting sites and food sources. You can do this by installing nest boxes and bird feeders or by planting trees and shrubs that birds love. Some of the same trees and shrubs can be eaten by humans or used in crafting like wreath making, basket weaving or as woody florals in centerpieces and bouquets.
Forests are critical for birds because they provide a source of food and protection. For example, frugivores are birds that eat mainly fruit and include orioles, mockingbirds and waxwings. Fruit and berry producing trees and shrubs provide a source of food for these birds. Flowering trees and shrubs also attract insects that are eaten by flycatchers, robins and warblers which are considered insectivores, meaning they eat insects. You can take the first step in attracting birds to your property by planting a native tree or shrub.
A successful planting starts with picking the correct species for your site conditions. Consider light and pollination requirements, soil and moisture preference, and any space restrictions on your property. When selecting trees or shrubs, make sure they are able to grow in your climate and are native to the area. Planting native species to your area is very important if you want to attract birds. Not only is the fruit of native trees preferred by birds, but insects also prefer (and sometimes only consume) native species, which in return is another food source for birds.
Not sure what plants are capable of growing in your area? Check out the Plant Hardiness Zone map on the USDA website to find out. Nativeplantcenter.net is also a great resource to see what species are native to the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Check out the list below of my favorite trees and shrubs to plant for birds, crafting and picking.
Fruit and bark of the persimmon tree (Photo credit Chesapeake Bay Program (left), Virginia Tech Dendrology (right)).
American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), also known as common persimmon, is a high wildlife value tree. Many birds such as wild turkeys, cedar waxwings, catbirds, robins and mockingbirds eat the delicious 1-inch round fruit. The fruit of the American persimmon is complex and sweet, but picking one too soon will have you puckering up. The best time to pick a persimmon is after the first frost between September and late November. The fruit should be dark orange to partially red and be very easy to remove from the branch.
Separate male and female plants are needed for successful pollination, and fruit production occurs every other year (biennial) starting between year 6 and 8. Standing 50’-75’ tall with a spread of 35’-50’, the American persimmon is considered a tall canopy tree. It thrives in full sun to partial shade and prefers clay or loamy soils that are dry or moist and well drained. They grow in USDA plant hardiness zones 4 through 9.
American persimmon is considered a pioneer species because it is the first to colonize a barren field after a disturbance such as fire or logging. The tree can be found in a broad range of sites including open fields, disturbed areas and in deciduous woodlands. You may already have some persimmon on your property. It is easily identified by its waxy leaf, orange fruit and dark-colored bark that is deeply furrowed and blocky, resembling alligator skin or cobblestones.
Wild American plum fruit (Photo credit: Virginia Tech Dendrology).
Wild American plum (Prunus americana) is a flowering, fast-growing, tall shrub to small tree that provides excellent nesting habitat and protection for songbirds due to its thicket forming qualities and sharp thorns.
You can find birds nesting in thickets formed by root sprouting along streams, woodlands, pastures and fencerows. Its root sprouting also makes this species a great choice for erosion control. Wild American plum tolerates full sun to partial shade and prefers loamy and sandy soils that are dry or moist.
Male and female varieties are cross pollinated by bees and fruit begins to produce at year 3. The fruit is large, juicy, and sweet with tough, tart, skin and should be picked between late May and Mid-summer when the fruit turns dark red and is firm, but not too hard. It is typically eaten fresh or made into jams, jellies and pies and can also be dried like prunes and then made into fruit leather. Check out this wild plum jam recipe by Earth, Food and Fire.
Serviceberry leaves and fruit (Photo credit: Ryan Davis, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay).
Also known as downy serviceberry, shadbush, or juneberry, the common serviceberry fruit (Amelanchier arborea) is loved by over 35 species of birds. Cedar waxwings, robins, catbirds, thrushes, mocking birds and even the famous Baltimore oriole are among many birds that enjoy the fruit. Not only do birds enjoy the berries, the showy white flowers bloom from April to May which in return attracts insects that birds also rely on for food.
Common serviceberry gets its nickname, Juneberry, because the sweet blue-purple berries ripen June through July. Serviceberries have both male and female flowers and are self-pollinating, but you should plant at least two trees to ensure pollination. This small understory tree grows up to 25’ tall and can be found naturally in woods, along river banks, swamps, and rocky slopes. There are about 20 different varieties of serviceberries, but common serviceberry grows in USDA plant hardiness zone 5 to 9 and prefers full sun to shade and loamy or sandy soils that are moist to dry.
If you can only plant one species on this list, I would suggest the common serviceberry. Not only is it good for birds, it is extremely resilient, adaptable and is beautiful throughout all four seasons. The tree is enjoyed in the spring for its white blooms, summer for its sweet fruit, fall for its vibrant color and winter for its beautiful bark. Serviceberry is a good urban tree because it can withstand pollution, salt and drier or wetter sites.
If you can beat the birds to the berries, check out this recipe for serviceberry pie.
Black chokeberry fruit (Photo credit: Ryan Davis, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay).
Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) doesn’t sound very appetizing with a name like that, but it is happily eaten by both humans and birds. Chokeberries, or aronia berries, in Maryland come in black and red varieties, but black chokeberry tends to be sweeter and preferred by birds over the red chokeberry. The small black fruit is ready to be harvested between September and November once reaching the age of 3. Black chokeberry is self-pollinating, but it is recommended that you plant more than one to ensure adequate pollination for fruit production.
The small shrub growing up to 12’ wide and 12’ tall has beautiful white flowers that bloom in spring and is found naturally in bogs, swamps, cliffs, old field clearings and rocky areas. Black chokeberry grows in USDA plant hardiness zone 3 – 8 and can tolerate a wide range of conditions including road salt making it a good choice for urban sites. The shrub will grow in full sun or partial shade in loamy or sandy soil that is dry, moist, or wet.
Black chokeberry is a great nutrition source and is very high in antioxidants. I make a smoothie a few times a week using black chokeberries, blueberries (also a MD native!), bananas, flax seed, chia seeds and plant-based milk. You should try mixing black chokeberries into your favorite smoothie!
Left: Eastern red cedar, loblolly pine, and magnolia swag (Photo credit: Teri Batchelor). Right: Eastern red cedar branch with berries (Photo credit: Virginia Tech Dendrology).
The eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) is a tall, coniferous, evergreen shrub reaching up to 75’ tall that benefits wildlife and over 50 species of birds. This species is critical to birds because it provides a food source, nesting habitat and provides cover all year long. The dense branches of the eastern redcedar are the perfect refuge and shelter for songbirds and gamebirds. Some gamebirds that utilize this tall shrub are quails, ruffed grouse, pheasants, and turkeys.
Eastern redcedar is dioecious, meaning it has separate male and female plants, coniferous, meaning it bears cones rather than fruit, and evergreen, meaning it bears leaves all year long. Males bear yellow cones and female plants bear small blue cones in the spring which mature into small, pale, blue-green fruit in the fall. The eastern redcedar is found on a broad range of soils and habitats. It prefers full sun and dry or moist soil, but can be planted in clay, loamy or sandy soils. This large shrub is considered a pioneer species and is the first to appear on the landscape which is why you usually see it shaded out in forests.
Eastern redcedar berries have some culinary uses, but there are a few toxic juniper look a likes, so I suggest using this species to craft with instead, just to be on the safe side. The foliage from this evergreen shrub is typically used to make wreaths around the holiday season. Not into crafting? Plant eastern redcedar as a hedge row on your property to provide habitat and it also makes a fantastic windbreak and privacy screen.
Red-osier dogwood used as a decoration (Photo credit: Ryan Davis, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay).
Red-osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) is a beautiful, fast-growing, multi-stemmed, deciduous shrub with bright red branches. Many songbirds utilize this shrub along with waterfowl, marsh birds and shorebirds because it provides food and excellent habitat due to its dense thicket forming branches. The white flowers also bring in many pollinators that insect loving birds feast on.
Red-osier dogwood is very adaptable and grows about 10’ wide and 10’ tall on a variety of landscapes such as open fields, swamp and along river banks. It can be planted in USDA grow zones 2 – 8 in clay, loamy or sandy soils that are moist, wet or dry, but cannot withstand drought. It does best when planted in full sun or partial sun.
The blueish-white berries ripen in late summer to early fall, but are not eaten by humans because they are bitter, unpalatable and may cause nausea. Instead, this shrub is often used in landscaping due to its four-season beauty; spring brings white flowers, summer brings berries, fall brings bright color foliage and winter brings bright red stems. The bright red stems are often used in basket weaving or as a woody floral in crafting and creating flower designs because they hold onto their color when dried. Also, if you’re into birds and photography, this is the perfect chance to get that million-dollar shot!
Photo by Chesapeake Bay Program.
Curious as to where you can purchase some of the trees and shrubs I just mentioned? The Maryland Native Plant Society offers a list of local native plant nurseries and which can be found on their website.
If you don’t have room to plant, consider building nest boxes and installing bird feeders to encourage birds to visit your property. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides great resources on how to choose the right house for the right bird and provides construction plans on how to build the best bird house. You can find this info on NestWatch under the tab “All About Birds”. Bird houses and feeders also make a nice addition to any tree planting.
Maryland Forests Projects Coordinator
Forests for the Bay