There’s an old saying that on Christmas Eve, animals can talk. If the animals are the birds on your property, they’ll probably be asking you for food.
More than anything, our winter birds want foods they naturally crave. When the robins come down here from the snowy Sierra, a tree loaded with juicy olives is a holiday treat for them.
As usual, Sonoma County is horticulturally blessed. We live in madrone country. Madrones flourish here, but when out of their native range, they are hard to grow. They also produce scads of reddish-orange berries that dangle in clusters. These provide food for many kinds of birds through most of the winter. If you plant a madrone, realize that it’s perfectly at home in the wild here, so keep it away from irrigated areas.
A welcome bird in this area is the cedar waxwing, and also its close relative, the bohemian waxwing. They’re an unusually beautiful and sociable bird. It’s amusing to see a number of them lined up on a limb, passing a berry from one beak to the next, up and down the line, until one bird suddenly gobbles it down. They travel in large flocks, making a loud whooshing sound as they land and take off, but their arrivals and departures are unpredictable. You can make them more predictable if you have a good food source they appreciate.
They like junipers, especially shrubby or tall, columnar ones. The soft, fleshy juniper fruits are a favorite and the dense foliage gives them shelter on cold rainy nights. Another favorite, not only of waxwings, but many other species of birds, is the English hawthorn. It’s a well-behaved tree with a showy display of small flowers in the spring and nutritious red berries in the winter. These berries not only feed birds, they have long been a human remedy for heart conditions. If you’re interested, check out the entry on hawthorn at WebMD.
In much of the continental United States, hollies are a holiday icon, with their rich dark green leaves and bright red berries. Our winters are too warm for most hollies, but we have the perfect substitute — the native toyon. It grows up and down the length of California, looking very much like a holly. In fact, early settlers around Los Angeles thought they were a kind of holly and named a town after them: Hollywood.
Just leave the land alone around here and pretty soon you’ll have toyons, planted by the birds who just love their red berries, which fully ripen and add to the ornithological smorgasbord during the holidays. Toyons grow from six to 10 feet tall and are rangy, but they take to cultivation. If cut back to produce a lot of year-old wood, they’ll make many more berries than if you just let them grow as they wish.
A berry-producing superstar in the landscape is the European mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia). This tree was the sacred rowan of the druids. It does beautifully in Sonoma County, producing clusters of orange-red berries that birds like, but our fine feathered friends will only eat them after the leaves drop in late fall. Thus, the tree, which grows 20 to 25 feet tall, provides food all winter.