Sep 25, 2019 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, October 2019

Chokecherry Is for the Birds

Chokecherry berries ripen from July through October and don't drop to the ground. They effectively freeze-dry on the branch, providing high-energy food for winter birds.
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A native shrub found commonly from coast to coast, primarily in the northern half of the United States and across southern Canada, is important in helping birds survive winter. Historically, chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) was a dietary staple of Native Americans. Sometimes considered a weed, the plant is often a host to tent caterpillars—which feed songbirds in the spring and summer. But it is the fruit of chokecherry, which ripens from July through October and doesn't drop to the ground, that effectively freeze-dries on the branch, and provides high-energy food for more than 70 species of birds, including winter residents. The leaves and seeds of this shrub are toxic, but the fleshy pulp of the ripe fruit is tart and delicious to birds and (with sugar) to humans.

In the fullness of summer and in the depths of winter, chokecherry is not particularly noticeable. By early June, it has all but disappeared as part of the anonymous expanse of greenness that edges roads and woods and fills in abandoned fields. In winter, too, the twigs blend in with their surroundings. But for a brief time in spring, this shrub puts on a dazzling display of showy, white flowers. They are in compact bottlebrush-shaped racemes, erect or nodding, each one with a hundred or so tiny flowers, and they bloom when the leaves are about half-grown.

However lovely the flowers, chokecherry is even more beautiful in the autumn, when its shining fruits turn from green to red and then proceed to develop their final, rich purple color. Fruit production is reliable and prodigious: Often the branches are bent with the weight of many cherries. It is a preferred food for many birds in fall and winter.



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