Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
In This Place

Under-Appreciated Local Tree a Major Food Source for Birds

Mark Faherty
Red-spotted Purple and Baltimore orioles in Mark's yard.

Over the past week, a sudden influx of dizzying numbers of birds along with some big, colorful butterflies greatly enhanced the ambience of my neighborhood. The ebb and flow of bird activity at the scale of a yard or street is often puzzling, as mixed flocks come and go, leaving no clues when they suddenly disappear for a day or even weeks. 

The ups and downs of butterfly numbers are equally mysterious. But the common denominator for these phenomena was no mystery – it was the presence of a tragically underappreciated tree, the Wild Black Cherry.

You may know it as Prunus serotina, member of the same genus as cultivated plums and cherries, as well as its more popular local cousin the Beach Plum. Often misidentified locally as Chokecherries, black cherries are ubiquitous trees in these parts, where they seem to relish the bad soil and coastal storms, and where birds and mammals happily spread and fertilize the seeds. Like other year-round Cape Codders, these trees are tough and resourceful, more casual than formal, more function than form, and get craggy with age. But if you follow the local gardening groups on social media, you won’t find a lot of black cherry fans, with folks often advising others to rip them out.

Credit Mark Faherty

But for our local wildlife, they’re indispensable. Pollinators get millions of flowers each spring for pollen and nectar, butterflies and moths get tasty leaves for their caterpillars, and birds get literally tons of cherries ripening in late summer, right when they are fattening up for migration. Black Cherry hosts caterpillars of a staggering 456 butterfly and moth species, second only to oaks around here. And that’s just butterflies and moths, saying nothing of the untold numbers of other insects they support. These herbivorous insects feed other insects, mammals, and birds, of course, putting cherries at the base of a pretty big backyard food web.

A few fruit-laden individuals scattered between my yard and some abutting properties were constantly filled with hungry birds for the better part of a week, with the activity spilling over to my other trees, plus my feeders and birdbath. The biggest tree, the one hosting most of the action, sits in a mostly unused corner of my neighbor’s yard, where it arches gracefully down toward the swing set that it shades. My neighbor once disdainfully asked me what it was, claiming it looked like “a weed that had grown into a tree”. I gave my usual speech on behalf of the black cherries, and I like to think he spared it as a result, making this week’s wildlife-fest possible.

For the time these trees were in fruit, my previously quiet yard played daily host to 70 robins, up to 20 Cedar Waxwings, at least 10 Baltimore Orioles, maybe 15 catbirds, several flickers, and some young Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Even a mockingbird, a locally declining species that I had never recorded in my neighborhood, got in on the action, becoming the 138th bird species I’ve recorded in my nondescript suburban yard over the last 5 years. In addition to the bird swarms, numerous Tiger Swallowtails and Red-spotted Purples, two of our biggest, most spectacular butterflies, have been daily visitors to my yard thanks to the black cherries that fueled their caterpillar phase.

I suspect you have a few black cherry saplings around if you look. Your neighbor or landscaper will say pull them, but I’m asking you to give them a chance. They may not have the alleged flair of a crepe myrtle or the subdivision friendly, cookie-cutter form of those god-awful Bradford Pears and Leyland cypresses, but these wildlife fueling stations are beautiful if you know how to look. Which, incidentally, is the same thing I tell my wife about my increasingly crazy “pandemic hair”…