By Eric Duran
For a naturalist, winter is a mixed bag. Most of the wildflowers and insects go away. The reptiles and amphibians hibernate. Many of the plants in our region are somewhat less resplendent. However, as a birdwatcher, the Gulf Coast of Texas is actually an exciting place this time of year.
Many birds migrate to the Houston area to spend the winter with us. Ducks and other waterbirds head to lakes, ponds, and wetlands. Short-eared owls show up on the prairies. And of course, a whole host of perching birds show up in our yards.
One of the things that you can do to help these birds and attract them to your home is to provide food plants for them in your garden. This month we’ll have a look at birds that love berries, and the trees and bushes you can plant to attract them.
The first thing we need to know is that not all birds eat all things. Of course you know that, but it’s important to remember that not all birds are going to be attracted to your birdfeeder, which has seeds in it. Not all birds eat seed. Many of the songbirds attracted to your yard are insect eaters, some are seed eaters, some are fruit eaters, and some eat a combination of those things. (We’re not going to cover hawks and owls this month. I don’t think you’re going to provide live mice for birds of prey.)
So, besides providing bird seed for seed-eating birds like blue jays, chickadees, titmice, cardinals, sparrows, and doves, you can provide fruit eating birds with berries by planting native berry producing shrubs and trees. Some of the seed eating birds will eat berries as well, and you can also attract birds like mockingbirds, robins and Cedar Waxwings.
I want to start my plant suggestions by highlighting some native hollies. Hollies are ideal for Bellaire and West U yards. They produce their berries in the winter, so they’re perfect for wintering birds. If you can find one at a nursery, American Holly tall and probably fits your image of what a holly tree should look like.
Yaupon Holly is a very common native shrub that comes in short tree/large shrub and miniature (medium shrub) sized varieties and is the easiest to find at local nurseries. Yaupon has a long history of use by native people, in which the leaves are dried and brewed to make a caffeinated beverage for a mild stimulant and in spiritual ceremonies. It’s very similar to Yerba Mate. These plants are evergreens, but there is also a native deciduous holly called Possomhaw Holly (or deciduous holly).
Depending on the weather when you shop, you may also get some other native berry producing plants producing fruit into the winter, or starting in late winter. Plants will sometimes react in unique ways to mild Southern winters — trees and shrubs like, coralberry, native hawthorns, black elderberries, black cherry, laurelcherry and native plums. You may also want to plant Spring and summer fruiting berries like American Beautyberry, native Red Mulberry, and native blackberries, for migrating birds. The Northern Catbirds, orioles, and Brown Thrashers will be passing through during Spring migration.
Thanks for joining us again this month to learn about Bellaire/Houston area nature and wildlife. If you have any questions about native wildlife friendly plants, or about nature in general, feel free to email me at email@example.com. I urge you to plant native plants, so as not to contribute to habitat degradation from introduction on invasive non-native plants.
Also, sometime this winter, grab a pair of binoculars, and head over to the Nature Discovery Center in Russ Pitman Park to enjoy our gorgeous wintering birds.
Duran is head naturalist at the Nature Discovery Center, 7112 Newcastle Dr., Bellaire, NatureDiscoveryCenter.org.