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Here's to the frugivores

Mark Faherty
American Robin

Unless you aggressively try NOT to look at birds, you’ve probably noticed flocks of robins rampant on Cape in recent weeks. These hungry hordes often number in the hundreds, sometimes the thousands, and fly around looking for unsuspecting fruiting trees and shrubs to skeletonize. One of these frugivorous gangs just stripped my backyard winterberry of its winter interest, leaving nary a speck of red fruit behind. But it’s not just robins out there gobbling up your ornamental and other fruits. This week we take a closer look at the winter frugivores and their favorite fruits.

American Robins are of course the most conspicuous of the group — big, brightly colored, and moving in swarms that are hard to miss. Robin numbers around just one winter roost in Barnstable have been estimated at over 80,000 birds some years. For perspective, that’s sixteen times higher than the entire global population of 5000 Piping Plovers. In recent days I’ve seen big robin flocks targeting American Holly berries in the “holly districts” of Mashpee and Falmouth, extensive thickets of invasive privet fruits in Barnstable and Orleans, and cedar “berries” in Harwich and the dunes of Sandy Neck. In the swamps of Wellfleet they are probably hitting the winterberry hard right now. If you have ornamental crab apples, they are coming for you too if they haven’t stripped them yet.

Among the robins you may notice some other crowd favorites, like Cedar Waxwings and Eastern Bluebirds. Bluebirds often flock with goldfinches and House Finches in search of various fruits, especially cedar. Cedar Waxwings also favor, you guessed it — cedars. But they eat all the other fruits as well, including invasive species like multiflora rose, bittersweet, and privet along with native offerings and ornamentals like crabapple. Whenever you see a flock of waxwings, look for a bigger grayer one with red under the base of the tail — a few of their rare northern cousins the Bohemian Waxwing show up every winter.

The cedars I reference are Eastern Red Cedar, which is really a juniper (Juniperus virginiana), and their fruits are really modified cones — they are a conifer after all. So basically these “cedars” are just one big lie after another. But no matter — the birds love them, and with a bumper crop of those dusty blue fruits this year, they have been arguably the most important bird food this winter.

In addition to the species I’ve mentioned red cedars also feed the small numbers of Baltimore Orioles that winter here. Oddly high numbers of Western Tanagers have been on Cape the last two winters, and are often seen feeding on cedar fruit in addition to bird feeder fodder. That species shouldn’t get any closer to here than Central Kansas, and normally winter in Mexico. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, which despite the name are an actual, uncommon woodpecker and not a made-up species intended to troll birders, also love cedar fruits along with that sweet, sweet sap.

Some interesting, more solitary birds quietly hole up in our many swamps and tangles of mostly invasive shrubs and vines all winter and eat mainly fruit. These include our small wintering population of Gray Catbirds, Yellow-breasted Chats, Fox Sparrows, and Hermit Thrushes. You’re probably not aware of them, but we birders know how to make them show themselves.

If you want in on the winter frugivore action in your yard, there are several good options for native landscape plants to attract them. Start with any or all of our native hollies — American Holly, Inkberry, and Winterberry. Chokeberries are great, and so are crabapples. Most consider red cedars trash trees, but you can do what I do and move any volunteer seedlings, combining them with other native shrubs, like dogwoods and viburnums, to create a wildlife-friendly privacy border. Add a heated bird bath to accompany your winter fruit offerings, and you’ve got yourself a bird spa — get ready for the frugivorous hordes and enjoy the show.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.