Fall Fruits for Wildlife

There are a number of trees and shrubs that provide soft, fleshy fruits for wildlife during the fall and winter months. A name given to this type of food source is “soft mast,” so named because the fruit is not encased in a hard shell. These fall fruits are important to most animals, like birds who need bursts of energy for their fall migration as well as animals who need to add some fat reserves to get through the lean times of winter. Many of these fall fruits are characterized by containing a high sugar content, which is important for providing a quick source of energy. Some of the more common fruit producing plants available in the fall include, dogwoods, viburnums, eastern red cedar, crabapple, American holly, winterberry holly, spicebush, crabapple, pawpaw, sumac, and pine trees.

Black Haw FruitPhoto by FCFCDB

The flowering dogwood and many of the shrubby varieties such as silky, grey, and red osier dogwoods produce reddish to blue berries this time of year. Some experts estimate that there are 40 or more species of birds that eat dogwood berries, including wild turkeys. Dogwood berries have a high fat content, which provides high energy reserves for both migrating birds and year round residents, especially during the winter. Dogwood berries are also high in calcium, which develops harder egg shells, thereby improving nesting success. Black haw produce a bluish black berry in the fall as well. This berry is readily eaten by a number of birds including cardinals, cedar waxwings, towhees, and brown thrashers.

Black haw berries are high in sugars and are good sources of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron. With a high oil content which helps sustain energy levels, Spicebush berries are favorites for bluebirds, thrushes, vireos, turkeys, and many others. The leaves of spicebush are consumed by many butterflies and moths, especially the eastern tiger swallowtail.

In addition to people, pawpaw fruits are prized by raccoons, opossum, bear, and a variety of birds. Pawpaw have a high sugar content for bursts of energy, are loaded with vitamin C, and are a good source of iron, zinc, and magnesium, all of which are very important nutrients for the proper function of the body.

The American holly and winterberry holly produce fruits that don’t ripen until after two or three frosts occur. These fruits are not much use to most migrating birds, but they serve as very nutritious fare for our year round resident populations. Grouse, wood duck, turkey, and catbirds are some of the birds that feed on winterberries.

Eastern red cedar is the most common evergreen found in the eastern part of the country. This tree is really a juniper— not a cedar. One of the characteristics of junipers is the production of a fleshy, berry-type fruit. The eastern red cedar produces a purplish fruit that matures in late fall and is readily consumed by turkeys, doves, and the cedar waxwing, a bird whose name is derived from its favorite fruit. Eastern red cedars have a dense foliage which makes excellent winter thermal cover for many overwintering birds, many of which tear strips of cedar bark from the trees to use for their nesting material. The cedar helps repel insects and mites from the nest. Pine trees also offer winter thermal cover, and the pine seed kernel has a high fat content.

Persimmons are another fruit that needs frost to ripen. After the fruits ripen, they are sought after by a number of birds and land animals. These fruits are high in carbohydrates, and they are a source of protein, iron, phosphorous, potassium, and calcium.

Crabapples ripen in the fall and are devoured by a number of animals. These fruits are a good source of carbohydrates, Vitamin A, calcium, and iron.

Sumac berries develop in the fall and are persistent throughout much of the winter. These fruits have are not very tasty to animals, nor are they very nutritious. The function of sumac seems to be an emergency food source when not much else is available.

There are many sources of soft mast in the area that provide food for both migrating birds and for those who remain for the winter. This food provides both energy boosts as well as fat energy reserves, depending on which is needed.

Article by Frederick County Forest Conservancy District Board

Nature Note for 12/22/19