Fruit-eating birds: American robins, northern mockingbirds, and gray catbirds

9 American robins on 2 winterberry shrubs December 22, 2018

What the above photo lacks in quality is hopefully made up for in quantity–of robins, that is. After looking at it for a long time, I make out 9 American robins on 2 distinct winterberries. The winterberry shrub in the foreground with purplish berries is a Sparkleberry (Ilex serrata x. I. verticillata), a cross between a Japanese and a native winterberry. The winterberry shrub in the background with bright red berries is a native Winter Red (Ilex verticillata). See the 2017 post, Robins ate the winterberries, for more information on the winterberry shrubs. The robins were part of a small flock of 20 or so who came early for their yearly feast of winterberries in my garden.

Immature American robin on Sparkleberry winterberry shrub December 22, 2018

By going back and reading previous robin posts, I find that I first observed robins eating winterberry fruits in 2015, and then every year thereafter. They’ve come for the winterberries on dates ranging from December 28 to March 20. The common denominator for their yearly visits seems to be warm weather more than anything. Robins form small flocks in winter and migrate in order to find food. While some robins make a complete migration to southern states and to Central America, other robins make shorter random migrations in search of food. Some don’t migrate at all if the weather is mild enough and the local food supply is adequate.

Male American robin on Winter Red winterberry shrub December 22, 2018

According to Birds of New Jersey Field Guide, male American robins sport a black head and tail, while females have gray heads and a duller chest. Juveniles are similar to females but have a speckled chest.

American robins on Winter Red winterberry shrub December 22, 2018

In March 2015, a particularly cold and icy month, I fed winterberry and crabapple fruits to a lonely old robin who sat around under the Sparkleberry winterberry shrub looking hungry. At the time, I naively marveled that robins ate fruits and berries, never having noticed them doing so before. See the post A robin experiment for details. Back then, the Sparkleberry shrub was new to my garden. Its young branches were too limber to support the robin’s weight. I didn’t have crabapple trees then, so I brought crabapple fruits from a nearly park to feed the robin. This experience convinced me that adding fruit-bearing native shrubs and trees to my garden would be a good thing for both me and the birds.

Male American robin on Sparkleberry winterberry shrub December 22, 2018

In the spring of 2016, after much research, I bought and planted 2 small crabapple trees. See the post Golden Raindrops crabapple trees for details. They bore small yellow fruits for the first time this year. The fruits soon disappeared. I suspect robins but don’t have proof of that. The small trees have grown to the point of providing some screening for our deck. They are fast growers for sure. Below is a photo of May crabapple blossoms.

During the spring and summer, robins are also partial to the fruits of a serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) in my garden. I’m calling it A. arborea, or Downy serviceberry, because that is the only serviceberry listed in the American Horticultural Society’s A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants with red-purple fruit. All the others listed have blue-black fruit. When I see the serviceberry branches bouncing about on a windless day, I know the robins are busy harvesting the fruits.

The photos below are of robins in the vicinity of the same serviceberry tree in June 2018, checking out the edibility of the fruits, I presume. June is mating season, so robins no longer travel in flocks and become territorial. I have not found a robin’s nest, which is just as well because our dogs would undoubtedly kill the baby robins during the time that they leave the nest but before they can fly.

My greatest success with fruits for the birds has always been the blueberry bushes, which have been in my garden for many years. I planted them as food for myself, but now I’m content to share the blueberry fruits with robins, northern mockingbirds, and gray catbirds.

Blueberries June 8, 2018. Not ripe yet.

There are 6 highbush blueberry bushes in my garden. I bought them from Johnny’s Selected Seeds ten years ago. There are 2 early-producing Patriot bushes, 2 mid-season Northland bushes, and 2 late Jersey bushes. I see in Johnny’s 2019 catalog that the same 3 varieties are still available. Blueberries are acid-loving plants, so a dressing of bone meal or peat moss is not amiss. I’ve taken to spreading used coffee grounds under the acid-loving plants in my garden. They seem to like it.

A northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), seen above, came for the blueberries in June and serenaded us from high on utility poles and rooftops early every morning during blueberry season. We graciously considered him an alarm clock and welcomed the ecstatic, manic string of bird calls pouring down upon us at sunrise. As if we had a choice in the matter. The mimicked songs were familiar to me from hearing local birdsongs, but I’m not very proficient at identifying birds by their songs and calls. Mockingbirds love blueberries. I know that for sure.

A gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis), as seen above, has come for the blueberries for several years now. I don’t know if it’s the same one each year or not. The first photo above is not good, but it does give a hint of the catbird’s chestnut highlights, particularly under the long tail. All the fruit-eating birds are no doubt supporting a mate and offspring at this time of year. I think of the area as my garden. Being territorial, they would probably contest that description. Their garden.

According to Birds of New Jersey Field Guide, grey catbirds are secretive birds with a call that sounds like a cat mewing, and so their name. Just like the robins in the serviceberry tree, they give away their presence on a still day by bouncing the blueberry branches around as they harvest the ripe fruits.

Gray catbird among blueberry bushes and milkweed on July 10, 2018

The photo above perhaps best shows off the grey catbird’s main features. Again according to Birds of New Jersey Field Guide, it is slate gray with a black crown, long, thin black bill, and long tail with a chestnut-colored patch underneath. Male, female, or juvenile–all the same. Now that I am accustomed to watching for the gray catbird each year, I cherish its presence far more than I miss the blueberries it harvests from my garden. His garden.

American robin eating blueberries July 4, 2018

Above is a robin on July Fourth, celebrating the day by enjoying some ripe blueberries. The blueberries tend to ripen over time, not only from varietal differences, but also on the same bush. If I get out early enough in the morning, I can usually pick a cupful of blueberries for my breakfast. Of course, I eat twice that amount in a hand-to-mouth manner, which is the best way. After that, the fruit-eating birds will show up, and the ripe berries will be gone until more have time to ripen.

But now it’s January, and we have just endured our first polar vortex of the winter with temps in the teens or below and wind chill at minus degrees. On one of the coldest mornings, 3 robins came and perched momentarily in the bare crabapple trees and winterberry shrubs. I saw them out the window. Before I could even think to get my camera, they were gone. So much for the theory that robins come for the winterberries during warm spells. I can only hope these robins found food and shelter during that dangerously cold weather.

The wind it doth blow, and we shall have snow.
And what will the robin do then, poor thing?

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