Robins, and holly–and starlings, oh golly

The harbingers of spring.

American robin in magnolia tree February 9, 2018

An American robin (Turdus migratorius) stopped by on February 9, 2018. Perhaps he was a loner. Perhaps he is a member of the small flock of robins I saw recently in the park across the street. He sat in the magnolia tree above a Sparkleberry winterberry shrub and chirped. His dark black head identifies him as a male. Female robins have lighter grey heads.

American robin on Sparkleberry winterberry shrub February 10, 2018

By the next day, February 10, 2018, the robin, which I’m assuming was the same one, decided to taste a winterberry fruit, and he was joined in the tasting by a male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis).

Northern cardinal on Sparkleberry winterberry shrub February 10, 2018

This cardinal is definitely a male since female cardinals are brown. I’ve been hearing his che-e-er, che-e-er, che-e-er since the middle of February. As I watched the two birds vie for position on the small winterberry shrub, I wondered if they were congenial, or if they were fighting for territory. A little later, I saw them flying together. Or perhaps the cardinal was chasing the robin. It was impossible to tell.

Winter Red winterberry shrub December 21, 2017

Winterberries are deciduous hollies. I have 4 winterberry shrubs in my garden. 2 female and 2 male. Above is an image of the Winter Red winterberry (Ilex verticillata), a female, on December 21, 2017–before the robins stripped it bare. Well, I hope it was the robins.

Bare Winter Red winterberry shrub February 28, 2018

In 2016, the Winter Red fruits were eaten by a small flock of robins on December 28. See the post Robins ate the winterberries for details. I didn’t get photos of their feast this time, but I would guess the Winter Red fruits disappeared at about the same time this winter. The above photo of the Winter Red shrub was taken on February 28, 2018. It had been bare for some time before I took the photo.

Sparkleberry winterberry shrub December 21, 2017

The other female winterberry shrub is a Sparkleberry (Ilex serrata x. I. verticillata), a cross between a Japanese winterberry and a North American winterberry. I have always been annoyed that the nursery I bought it from tagged it as an Ilex verticillata, never mentioning that it was a cross with a Japanese holly. At first, I thought the birds didn’t like the Sparkleberry fruits, but now I think it’s just that the fruits become edible at a different time of year than the Winter Red fruits. I try to buy native plants, not because I have ideological notions about plants. I don’t. I buy them because the birds and insects in my garden seem to prefer them, or at least it seems so to me. I’ve read Douglas A. Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, which has influenced my opinion on these matters. By February 10, when the robin and the cardinal showed up to eat winterberries, this Sparkleberry was their only winterberry option since the Winter Red was stripped bare in December. And the story doesn’t end there.

American robin on Sparkleberry winterberry shrub February 13, 2018

On February 13, the robin was back, again assuming he’s the same one. He wasn’t eating much, just sitting around. Maybe the fruits weren’t ripened yet quite to his liking.



On February 17, 2018, a small flock of robins, probably from the park across the street, came for the Sparkleberry winterberry fruits. I guess the fruits were finally ripened just right because the robins were eating them energetically. Unfortunately, a flock of European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), as seen in the bottom photo above, came not more than 5 minutes after the robins and stripped the shrub bare. What a nuisance starlings are. I didn’t get photos of the robins as a flock. I would guess perhaps 30 robins, and about that many starlings. It was a free for all with the starlings winning most of the fruits I fear.



European starlings are pests for sure, but they are interesting. Please see the post European starling for some background on starlings. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, when European starlings grow fresh plumage in the fall, the feathers are brown with white tips. By summer, their feathers are a dark iridescent brown. Starlings don’t molt. Their feathers simply wear away and the white tips disappear. It’s called wear molt. Also, their beaks are brown in winter but turn to yellow as mating season approaches. Starlings mimic the songs of many other birds, including robins. Also, they are a nuisance, as I’ve mentioned before.

Sparkleberry winterberry shrub stripped bare February 26, 2018

The above photo, taken on February 26, shows the Sparkleberry winterberry shrub stripped bare. Winterberry shrubs pretty much disappear into the winter landscape once their fruits are gone.

The male winterberries don’t produce fruit but are a necessity if you want berries on the females. Jim Dandy winterberry, an early male, was recommended by the local nursery mentioned earlier for female Sparkleberry winterberries. I have since discovered that they were wrong again. According to online sources, a late male, such as Southern Gentleman, is recommended for Sparkleberry winterberries. I am so annoyed at that nursery. Never buy any plant, other than maybe annuals, without doing your own research. Go and shop around. Then go home and do research. Then go back and buy–maybe. The RareFind Nursery catalog recommends a Southern Gentleman male for the Winter Red female, so that’s the male I bought for the Winter Red. Since the Southern Gentleman made its appearance in my garden as a successful pollinator for the Winter Red, the Sparkleberry has produced more fruits without a doubt.



The Southern Gentleman, seen in photo at left above, is small but mighty, evidently, serving as pollinator for both the Winter Red and Sparkleberry females. The Jim Dandy, seen at right, has nothing in my garden to pollinate. Guess I need to find him a female mate this spring. At any rate, the Jim Dandy is a nice-sized, attractive shrub even without berries or a mate. Gardening is difficult.

A few years ago, we spent a lot of time and effort researching evergreen hollies. Because of my preference for native species, I soon found that the American hollies (Ilex opaca) were much to my liking. Their native range includes most U.S. states on the Atlantic coast, ranging north as far as Massachusetts, where the Pilgrims took note of them in 1620, and also including the U.S. Southeast west to Texas.

But American hollies aren’t easy to find in nurseries. A different local nursery from the one mentioned above had some 6′ to 8′ American hollies, but the nursery wasn’t sure of the cultivar name, which was not encouraging. Then there was the expense, not only of more mature trees costing over $200 apiece, but also the delivery and planting expenses involved with larger trees. Also, it’s true that more mature trees take a long time to become established in their new environment after transplanting. They can sit around for a couple of years before starting to show growth again.

So, after much more thought and research, we opted for small potted American hollies, knowing we would have a long wait to see the holly trees we dreamed of in the garden. But it’s fun to watch them grow. At least I think so.

We bought 6 American hollies from RareFind Nursery. We picked them up ourselves to save shipping charges. Our visit turned out to be a most pleasant experience, exploring their extensive grounds and visiting with the knowledgeable and helpful staff. We came home with 3 female Dan Fentons; 2 female Old Heavy Berries; and 1 Jersey Knight as a male pollinator.

American hollies from left to right: Dan Fenton, Old Heavy Berry, and Jersey Knight–with some crabapple twigs interspersed in foreground February 7, 2018

There are New Jersey stories about these American hollies. In the 1930s, the Holly Society of America started a holly collection at the site of the Rutgers Gardens. They hoped to cross American hollies with English hollies (Ilex aquifolium) to produce attractive cuts for the east coast Christmas holly market. The crosses turned out to be sterile and produced none of the attractive fruits needed for the Christmas market. Enter Dr. Elwin Orton, Rutgers University professor, who became legendary as a plant breeder of hollies and dogwoods. Under Orton’s guidance, the project evolved into an American holly breeding program, subsequently producing many new cultivars, including the 3 American hollies that we selected and brought home.



The Rutgers Gardens holly collection is certainly worth a visit, if only to see what stately specimens little hollies might grow up to be, given enough time and good fortune. The photos above were taken on August 27, 2015, during a visit to Rutgers Gardens.



We brought home and planted 3 Dan Fentons, 2 up front and 1 in back. The Dan Fenton in the middle photo above is not thriving, perhaps because it is in partial shade, or perhaps because it is in a poor drainage area. Several online sources recommend mulching hollies with used coffee grounds. After reading about this, I purchased a second compost bucket for the kitchen counter and starting separating coffee grounds from the rest of the compostable scraps. Since coffee grounds are acidic and hollies love acid, it seems like a good plan to use the coffee grounds for this dedicated purpose. Anyway, the vegetable garden doesn’t need acid in its compost.

According to RareFind Nursery, Dan Fentons have dark green leaves, showy red berries, and a pyramidal form, growing to 30′ over time. Dan Fentons are female hollies. There’s a Jersey story about that as well. According to an article on the Cumberland County, New Jersey web site, Dr. Orton, who bred the cultivar, named it for Daniel Fenton, a Rutgers University graduate and World War II veteran, who was a co-founder of the Holly Society of America. After the war, Fenton came home to Millville, New Jersey, hoping to regain his teaching position at the local high school teaching agriculture and science. While waiting for an opening at the school, he got a job at the Silica Sand Company in Millville, whose president, Clarence Wolf, was in the habit of sending native holly boughs to his customers nation-wide as holiday gifts. After hiring Fenton, Wolf put him in charge of the holly farm that he had developed on site. In time, Fenton became known as Mr. Holly, and Millville became known as the Holly City, through Fenton’s efforts to preserve and propagate the native hollies. Fenton is credited with planting more than 4,000 holly trees in Cumberland County.



Our second selection, Old Heavy Berry, doesn’t has such a memorable story, but you have to admit that’s a good name. Old Heavy Berry. I’m a pushover for good names. When I heard that name, I was sold on the spot. It is also a cultivar developed by Orton at Rutgers, reported to grow 40′ tall. The Old Heavy Berry we planted up front, as seen in the photo at left above, is tall and slender; the one in back, seen in the photo at right, is wide without an upward inclination as yet. We will see what happens with that.

American holly Jersey Knight February 28, 2018

Finally, we chose 1 Jersey Knight as a male pollinator. According to the Missouri Botanical Gardens web site, Jersey Knight grows to 7′ or 8′ tall in its first 10 years, but may grow to 30′ tall over time. In another Jersey story, this web site reports that Jersey Knight was discovered at the New Jersey home of Judge Thomas Brown in 1945 and was introduced and registered by Dr. Elwin Orton in 1965.

Crocuses blooming on February 28, 2018

To bring this lengthy post full circle, I had planned to end with a photo of crocuses blooming on February 28, 2018, as yet another harbinger of spring. Alas, on March 7, 2018, a nor’easter dumped 16″ of snow on our area, burying crocuses and any other signs of spring in its wake. Please see the post Nor’easter of March 2018 for details.

Small American hollies completely buried in snow March 8, 2018

The little American holly trees were buried beneath the snow. Are their branches just bent under the weight of the snow, or are they broken off. We didn’t know the answer to that on the morning of March 8, 2018, when the above photo was taken.

American hollies after being dug out from under the snow March 8, 2018

Fortunately, they all survived. After we used our gloved hands to dig the snow away, the hollies proved just how limber they are by resuming their normal upright habit with nary a broken limb. Above is a distance shot of the 4 American hollies up front. The 2 in back were intact as well.

Robins and crocuses may be harbingers of spring, but they aren’t guarantees. Now I am impatient for the snow to melt. Spring will come. In the meantime, I must remember to cherish winter things–like holly. Seasons are good.








3 Comments on “Robins, and holly–and starlings, oh golly

  1. I would not have guessed that robins eat holly berries. I do not watch them much, but I think of them as eating worms our of damp lawns, and insects from fallen fruit. We do not even have cardinals here. Nor do we have holly berries now. Most were eaten already. Holly is not popular here anyway.

    • In winter, most robins join flocks and migrate to wherever the fruit is. I’ve read that as much as 60% of a robin’s diet is fruit. American hollies and winterberries need the winter to shine. There’s a Celtic myth where the Oak King, with all of his leaves, lords it over the Holly King in summer, but when his leaves are gone in winter, then the Holly King rules.

      • 60%? I probably do not notice it because we do not have many berries here. We do not have many robins either. When I was a kid, they were on the ground out in the orchards after rain.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.