Buds for Birds – The Big Guns!

If you’ve read Doug Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home, you know that he is a huge fan of the native oaks. White and red oaks (Quercus alba and Quercus rubra), the most common types in the northeast, support over 500 species of caterpillar. This makes them one of the most important providers of bird food, as well as major producers of butterflies and moths. (Guess what the caterpillars that don’t become bird food turn into?!)

Besides the caterpillars, oaks are important in other ways. The craggy bark on mature trees is home to other yummy insects. Their acorns are eaten by Blue Jays, Wild Turkeys, and Wood Ducks, as well as by many mammals including mice and raccoons. Holes that develop in living and dead oaks provide nest sites for cavity nesters like chickadees, woodpeckers, owls, and bluebirds, and oak branches are home to other types of nest-builders.

So plant native oaks if you can!

Small is beautiful

But many of us don’t have yards sized to accommodate oaks, which can grow up to 100 feet tall. So this column is really about something(s) else! Having snuck in a plug for the oaks, I’ll now focus on two great little trees that will work where a more modest size is needed.

Serviceberry Flowers


First of all, consider serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), also known as Juneberry, shad bush, or shad blow. It blooms in early spring with a profusion of delicate white blossoms, making it a nice ornamental. It is also a host plant for several butterfly species, and the nectar of the blossoms provides an early-season food source for bees. Its greatest value for birds, though, lies in the small red berries it produces in June. As one of the earliest fruiting trees, it provides a food source for fruit lovers when most other fruits are not available. It’s a favorite of Robins, Catbirds, Mockingbirds, and House Finches. Roving bands of Cedar Waxwings usually drop in on mine a couple times each season, too. That’s a special treat, and the waxwings never came until I got a serviceberry.

Serviceberry is also said to be a great tree for Baltimore Orioles. I had high hopes for this beautiful visitor, but then I realized the hard truth. Because Orioles are in their nesting territories by the time the fruits are ready, you need to be close to Oriole nest sites to find them visiting your tree. I’ve had Orioles stop by during migration occasionally, but I’ve never had one visit my serviceberry because I’m not close enough to woods. If you live near nesting Orioles, though, you may be in luck if you have a serviceberry tree!

Serviceberry trees grow to 30 feet or less, and there are closely related species (also called serviceberry) that are more shrub-like in habit if you want something even shorter. They can take sun, part-shade, or shade, which makes them very versatile.

They do sometimes suffer from cedar rust, a fungal disease that is worse in wet springs. It is pretty yucky looking and can ruin the season’s fruit, but if the next spring is drier, your tree will do better then. Trees that get more sun and have better air circulation will be less susceptible to rust.

Dogwood flowers


Now let’s talk about dogwoods. Don’t be distracted by Kousa or Japanese Dogwood (Cornus kousa), often sold in nurseries. Buy American! The American or flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is a great small native tree. It grows 20 to 40 feet with a wide crown and graceful spreading branches. In the spring it blooms with creamy white flowers tinged with pink (you can also find cultivated varieties with pink flowers) that it holds for several weeks. In autumn, its leaves turn a reddish bronze.

One feature that makes this an important tree for birds is that, in contrast to the serviceberry, it’s a late season berry producer. Its berries ripen in fall, providing a food source for fruit eaters when a lot of other fruiting plants are done for the year. Many birds like the berries, including Cardinals, Titmice, and Mockingbirds.

An important principle of making your yard good habitat for many species is to have natural food sources that become available at different times. If you have both a serviceberry and a dogwood, you’re providing fruits during two important time periods.

Older dogwoods develop craggy bark that serves several purposes to birds. I’ve seen both White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches storing seed from the feeder for the winter by tucking it into cracks in the bark (called “caching”). And on the relatively few occasions when I’ve had a Black-and-white Warbler or a Black-throated Green Warbler in my yard, they’re usually in the ancient dogwood in back. Its bark must harbor a lot of little insects that they enjoy. (In fact, Downy Woodpeckers often peck at the branches for the same reason).

Besides these features, the flowers attract bees and butterflies, and it’s a host plant for the spring azure, a pretty little sky-blue butterfly. That explains why I get spring azures in my yard! Doug Tallamy says that spring azures won’t have anything to do with the Japanese / Kousa dogwood—a good reason to stick with our native dogwood.

In natural areas, you’ll see American dogwood as an understory tree, filling in under canopy trees. That means that it’s happy growing in shade or part-shade. It may burn out in full sun, so give it some shade.

American dogwoods were out of favor for a while because they suffered from an introduced fungal disease. There are now varieties that are resistant to the fungus, and they seem to be widely sold.

By the way, there’s also a Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea) that is shorter (up to 8 feet) and shrubby, with bright red stems that are attractive in winter. If you want something really modest in size that still produces fall berries, this could be the one for you.

A final word

If you haven’t read Doug Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home that I referred to earlier, take a look. It will tell you so much more about how native plants support birds, butterflies, and many other creatures of our ecosystems!

Barbara Malt, Vice President of the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society provided the content and flower images


Cedar Waxwing Feeding on Serviceberry and Serviceberry shrub photos, with permission from Gary Campbell at Campbell Landscape Design

Serviceberry flowers with permission from Karen Campbell at FocusOnNatives.com