Thursday, December 19, 2013

Wildlife in the Gardens: Birds and Winter Fruits and Berries

Northern cardinal male
By Erika Zambello

As fall turns into winter, our avian friends are looking to a few different sources of food to fatten up for the cold months ahead. One of the most popular trees in the Gardens is the Indian summer crabapple (Malus 'Indian Summer').

On a walk through the Terrace Gardens, I was immediately drawn to the flutter of wings and chipping of cardinals within the bare branches of the crabapple. Though the branches may be devoid of leaves, it was the tiny fruits that the birds were after. As I stood statue-still, I saw more than five species flit in and out of the trees in search of food.

Northern cardinal female
The first species to catch my eye was of course the bright red cardinals. The fiery males and more subdued-colored females cheeped back and forth to each other as they devoured the berry-sized apples, occasionally leaving the tree en-masse only to return a few minutes later. Tufted titmice buzzed, Carolina wrens sang, and eastern towhees looked on with their red eyes as I snapped photo after photo after photo.

Carolina wren
Other than the cardinals, the yellow-rumped warblers were my favorite birds frequenting the crabapple tree. Though they have lost their dramatic summer coloring, they are the most frequently seen warbler during cold months and still retain their signature yellow wing-bars and backsides. A loose flock had converged on the Terrace Gardens and were busily bouncing from tree to tree.

Yellow-rumped warbler
Though in the fall the trees are characterized by their bright orange and red fruits, in spring they boast bright red buds and beautiful dark pink flowers. Not surprisingly these trees need full sunlight to sport their buds and tiny apples, and this Terrace tree reaps the benefits of the open Historic Gardens. 

While we hope you enjoy the crabapple tree here at the Gardens, they are not recommended for home planting in North Carolina. However, there are many other seed-bearing bushes and trees that would make a wonderful addition to any yard or garden. The American beech (Fagus grandiflora) is an important late-fall food source for wood ducks, songbirds and grosbeaks. White oaks  (Quercus alba) make up 62% of the wood duck diet and are critical for many other birds in the winter. The American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) provides food for the bobwhite quail, catbird, mockingbird, thrashers and eastern towhees.

White-throated  sparrow
If you're interested in learning more about what to plant for local bird populations, check out the "Landscapes for Life: A Homeowners Guide to Sustainable Gardening" course offered at the Doris Duke Center in five sessions from January 15 to February 12, 2014. Registration is required, as space is limited. Learn more at or by calling 919-668-1707.

Northern cardinal male
Sarah P. Duke Gardens creates and nurtures an environment in the heart of Duke University for learning, inspiration and enjoyment through excellence in horticulture. The Gardens receives roughly half of its operating budget from Duke University. The rest comes from people like you, who value all that this public botanic garden has to offer. Duke Gardens is at 420 Anderson St.

Blogger Erika Zambello is a graduate student studying Ecosystem Science and Conservation at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment.

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