On a cold fall day, I stand at my back door near Snohomish watching leaves lifted and tossed as if by an invisible wind. Leaves seem to bounce off the ground as I count a dozen orange and black birds rummaging under the bushes as if going through yesterday’s trash. I realize a flock of varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius) have arrived. For the next several months, they will subsist on a buffet of bugs and berries in my small garden.
Highbush Cranberry in the Garden
Many years ago, I planted half a dozen highbush cranberry (Viburnum edule) not knowing how large the bushes would grow, or that I’d be entertained by gregarious flocks of varied thrush through the winter.
The highbush cranberry, though not a true cranberry, is a great source of winter berries for native northwest birds. It grows 12–15 feet tall and wide and is usually found growing wild in the Cascade lowlands in association with marshes or swamps but it’s not that common in Pacific Northwest gardens.
In the late spring, disks of white petals form dense clusters at the end of the opposite-arranged branches. When the bushes got too tall, I used to prune the new growth, inadvertently removing precious buds and future blooms (which are good for the bees too). I learned that if I pruned the bush too hard, fewer berries developed. Now, I simply cut back some of the canes at the base. This keeps the bush a manageable shape, yet allows for maximum berry growth.
By mid-summer, the blooms have faded and the berry clusters begin to form. The berries ripen through the summer, reaching their peak in October.
Eating Highbush Cranberry
It is late September and the bushes are heavy with ripened berries when I steal a few quarts of the plumpest ones for cranberry jelly, leaving plenty for a berry-seeking thrush. The edible red berries can be made into a tasty jam—if one doesn’t mind the odor of smelly socks that steams off while the jelly is boiling.
When mixed with commercial cranberries, the berries make an excellent cranberry sauce. The Haida people have prized this berry, which, when stored in wooden boxes through the winter, becomes softer and sweeter over time.
Winter Berry Buffet
I usually see the first pairs of varied thrush arrive in early November to scout out the food supply, joined by more pairs if ripe clusters are plentiful. By December the yellowed leaves have fallen and the berries pop off the branches like dangling garnet jewels.
By January, at least six pairs of varied thrush will be helping themselves to the fermented berries. Unique in a northwest forest, highbush cranberries hold on to their berries, and they endure frost and rain until the following spring. These juicy, sugary berries provide an important high calorie meal that a hungry avian diner can’t pass up.
Deep into the winter, I listen to the spontaneous chatter of the chestnut-back chickadees (Poecile rufescens), the cackle call of the Steller’s jay (Cyanocitta stelleri), and the low hoot of the barred owl (Strix varia).
My garden offers a complete menu, from sow bug appetizers to entrees of Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium) and Nootka rose hips (Rosa nutkana), with plenty of sweet earthworms for dessert. I’m pleased that my efforts to provide year-round bird habitat are succeeding and that many creatures find refuge in this quarter-acre.
Not Feeders Alone
With entrancing bushes like these, I’ve established a bird friendly garden without overreliance on sunflower seeds and suet cages. As a supplement, I set out a thistle feeder and suet, but that is just to draw birds to the nutritious native fare.
In many places good intentions prevail, with birdfeeders and hummingbird nectar hanging over expanses of sheared golf course-like lawns. That’s like going to a restaurant that only has three items on the menu and the tables are all full.
While commercial seeds and nuts can help support thrushes and other birds through the toughest winters, it’s the berries and insects that provide the most calories and nutrients when temperatures drop. Feeders alone just aren’t enough for the varied thrush or others to make it through the winter.
This year, I’ll plant a few more native trees, such as black hawthorn (Crataegus douglaslii) or Sitka mountain ash (Sorbus sitchensis) in clusters or a hedgerow, so that more birds like the varied thrush can dine and dash without competition at the feeder.
Small birds like pine siskins (Carduelis pinus) won’t be outcompeted at feeders by a flock of dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) or a naughty eastern grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) if they can retreat to a thicket of western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia). Establishing a selection of native trees and shrubs will ensure an ample supply of berries for all.
As the winter progresses, the leaves will drop from the highbush cranberry, but the berries remain firmly attached, glistening with dew, a tasty meal for a hungry bird. Just the other morning, I saw the first leaves rustle. Ah, finally, the thrushes have returned!