Bucks County Herald

Elizabeth Ludlow Bowman: Tips for the Compleat Gardener

Flocks of birds usher in winter

Euonymous berries in winter.

I was sitting outside on my deck enjoying the chilly but not frigid air of Christmas Eve when a large flock of medium-sized dark birds flew in, perched in naked trees, sang me songs before flying away with a loud whoosh of wings.

Makes me think about birds in winter, I used to feed them but I got two cats who loved to leap and snag anything flying by so I decided for the birds I would not make them prey but with many acres of wild land around me teeming with life, birds should be able to feed themselves naturally as different fruits mature and soften to feed them in deep winter.

I do miss birds at the feeder but nature provides, starting in late fall with hackberries hanging from native trees that soften and become a dark, shiny blue, telling the flocks it is time for the feast. For a week or two one hears a lot of singing and flapping in the treetops.

Actually the fruit is tasty though very small and mostly a large seed. The hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) is a native that prefers limey soils and bottom land and is in the elm family, its foliage hosts so many caterpillars that the leaves are rarely worth admiring, but as host to bugs and birds she is a queen.

I have many young hackberries around my home at the moment, and one or two large ones that I suddenly noticed one day. They don’t seem to care about intermingled walnut trees and rocky, slate-filled soil.

A little later in the season the berries of the red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) begin to soften, inviting over 90 species of birds to fatten up for migration and wintering on the rich food. Sometimes the berries over-ripen, and imbibing fowl, notably the American robin, gets intoxicated, and behaves drunkenly. The flock of birds that stopped by earlier were discovered to be those very robins.

Junipers and red cedar are often the first to claim disturbed land, they like rough conditions and thrive in the presence of stones. The cedar depends on its seed mixing with bird poop and being dropped preferably in a crack in a stone where the seed will stay protected during germination. The seed has a limited span of viability so the birds provide the catalyst. These trees also provide serious shelter for birds in winter with the dense, evergreen foliage and deer will take advantage of some protection from snow provided and may nibble on the lowest branches.

Juniper berries were the beginning of gin, originally touted for its medicinal qualities as genievre, the French word for juniper according to John Eastman in the “Book of Field and Roadside.” Cedar and junipers have long been used medicinally for the pungent fumes in rubs and ointments, even teas to treat all manner of ailments. Cedar will repel insects as siding and is an effective repellent in an attic for mice and squirrels.

Later in the winter the crabapples are finally softening to feed the passing bird while I often see flocks of sparrows and juncos down in the fields and woodlands where asters and goldenrod have gone to seed.

I perceive nature takes care her birds and I am glad to let her do it. I am glad to look around me into acres of natural, unpoisoned land and I feel blessed.

Happy new year and in the new year keep your legislators on speed dial to put the best interest of our environment over that of chemical companies.




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