To survive the freezing winter nights, some bird species sustain themselves with berries rich in fats and antioxidants. Berries are especially important in winter when other food sources become scarce. Berries are a high energy winter food for pine and evening grosbeaks, cedar and Bohemian waxwings, turkey, cardinal, robin, pileated woodpecker, ruffed grouse, and purple finch, among others. Deer, squirrels and some other mammals also like fruit in winter.
Nutrients in berries vary depending upon season and shrub or tree species. In general, native berry-producing species such as winterberry, mountain ash, and sumacs provide more nutrients for birds than invasive species like buckthorn. Ornamental crabs are good too but be sure to choose ones that will carry their fruit into winter and are disease resistant. An ornamental species we like to plant is the red splendor crab that attracts all the bird species listed above and more.
The red splendor crabapple is a large, open-grown, upright spreading crab that gets about twenty feet tall and wide. It showcases prolific, spectacular single pink blooms in spring that sometimes cedar waxwings like to eat. Once the flowers are fertilized by pollinators, thousands of one-half inch sized red berries develop and stay on the tree throughout the winter until consumed by wildlife. If all berries are not entirely consumed in winter, migratory birds like robins will finish them off in the spring and many migrants will eat them when heading south in the fall. Its dark reddish-green glossy foliage is very attractive and turns reddish-purple in fall. The red splendor crab was developed by Melvin Bergeson of Fertile, Minnesota, so it is hardy for our winter climates like we have in the northland.
If you add red splendor crabs to your backyard landscape, it is important to protect them in the first few years from rabbits and mice. They like to eat the nutritious bark sometimes girdling the trees before they have a chance to produce berries for birds and other wildlife.
The red splendor crab is one of the most fun species to watch during the wintertime at our Nature Education Center. These trees are used almost nonstop by birds and other wildlife while feeding on their berries. We keep running back and forth between windows to see the show that keeps interrupting the work we are doing, but it sure is fun to watch the action. If you want to get in on the action, look at the three-minute video of the hilarious Wild Turkey Balancing Act.