Berries and Birds

With the onset of chilly winter days in Northern California, the insects are gone and the songbirds are feasting on berries. And what a party it is.

Native toyon and madrone berries are the most common winter berry on our mountaintop property. They ripen at this time of year when the berries have become essential.

Usually the berries begin to start appearing in fall, and occasionally a songbird will taste one to test for ripeness. If the berry is not ripe yet, it does not get eaten; it stays on the branch until riper days. I have actually witnessed birds taste-testing and then spitting out the unripe berry.

Then in January the feasting begins.

Every year is different depending on rain and temperatures.

This year the thrushes arrived in fall, more than I’d ever seen before. They stayed for a month or so, but when we didn’t get rain they left our mountaintop. I heard them down in the valley while walking in the park. It’s more mild down there.

January came and the rains came, and now the thrushes are starting to return, fortunately.

Meanwhile, the resident finches and some robins have been enjoying the berries.

Soon, as it always goes, a big flock of robins or cedar waxwings will arrive and spend the day here devouring the berries.

That day will be like the circus coming to town.

Birds everywhere, so much hopping and chirping. A blur of songbirds flying from one berry bush to another, lots of commotion and cross-traffic in the sky.

Robin flocks are unsynchronized and usually several dozen individuals; while waxwing flocks are in perfect synchronicity, and number about two dozen. The cedar waxwings, named for the cedar berries they prefer and the red-tipped wings, fly in formation and land all together in a tree before they disperse to feed.

You can see the tongue on this cedar waxwing.

Hermit and varied thrushes are solitary birds, so it’s not as much of a scene. They wait for the big flocks to leave, and then they hop around snapping up the few remaining berries in the shrubs and undergrowth.

We have other native berries here too, like manzanita, coffeeberry, and blue elderberry. Poison oak produces white berries. They all get eaten, but at different times of the year.

In the Bay Area’s mild winter climate, there are many ornamental non-native plants that produce berries and attract birds. The two berry plants I see most commonly in residential neighborhoods are both in the rose family: cotoneaster and pyracantha.

Last fall we were in our friends’ suburban garden two mornings in a row when large flocks of cedar waxwings dropped down to raid the pyracantha bushes. It was a lively and animated scene dominated by dozens of these elegant birds landing above us.

There is often talk of drunken robins eating fermented berries, though this is something neither I nor Athena have ever witnessed. Scientists don’t really advocate this theory.

I looked at five You Tube videos this week where drunken robins were promised. None of the five showed a teetering robin, but there were zealous flocks plucking at berries and creating a whirlwind of chaos.

Mostly birds prefer the fresh berries, for the sugar content. I have seen them go for the withered leftover berries when there was nothing else available, and maybe those few were fermented. There may be some instances where a bird found a fermented berry….

One of the glories of birds and berries, and life on earth, is the seasons. This season the berries will be eaten, the birds will be nourished, then the days will get longer again, and the thrushes will migrate away, and the spring birds will arrive to begin their mating and nesting.

The sacred cycle of life.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

83 thoughts on “Berries and Birds

  1. Great series, Jet! I love the Robin flying out of the tree, and the Cedar Waxwings. I saw one the day before yesterday in a Russian Olive tree. I thought it was odd to see just one. It’s early for them to be here. Maybe that one got the itch to move south before the rest of the flocks. 😀 I know I’m itching to travel!

  2. Sacred circle of life, indeed❤️ Enjoy the berry party and the circus coming to town! Lovely mental and photo images, Jet and Athena, thank you!

    • Thanks so very much, Terry, I’m really glad you stopped by today. These waxwing photos should offer a good close-up view of the waxwings that visit your neighborhood that are always kind of too far away to see clearly.

  3. Wow! That varied thrush is quite a stunner isn’t he. What you say about the robin flying erratically in groups – I know our own robin here in the UK is a completely different bird, but it doesn’t fly in flocks at all. It is a very sweet little thing that is generally considered to be very friendly. I would certainly agree with that and always say hello when I see them in our garden. I was wondering if the American Robin is a friendly bird. It sounded funny about the birds spitting out unripe berries 😊

    • Hi Alastair, how nice to “see” you today. We are so enamored of the varied thrush, so I’m glad he attracted your attention, too. I enjoyed hearing about your European robin and would love to see one someday. I remember once in a U.S. park when I heard two British voices exclaiming in complete glee, binoculars to their faces, “Why, it’s an American Robin.” Many years ago, but a sweet memory. I like knowing the European robins are friendly and you greet them when they visit your garden. As to your question about the American robin and friendliness. They are friendly enough, yes, but I wouldn’t call them endearing, like say, a chickadee. They are quite big and raucous. They laugh a lot, have a special chuckle, and this always brings a smile to my face. And yes, it was funny to see the bird spitting out the unripe berry. As always, my friend, sending smiles your way….

  4. How wonderful to winter in such a relatively mild environment where the berry party can be watched appreciatively. Living in a harsher inland zone, I don’t get much closer to the ecological bond of bird & berry at this time than the black-capped chickadees feeding on sumac (which is also pretty), so I really enjoyed this excellent account!

    • Yes, Walt, it is wonderful to winter in a mild place. I grew up in Wisc. where the winters were brutal and when I had the freedom, I left those brutal winters behind forever. But I appreciate the beauty of the freshly fallen snow and quiet forest, like you described in your recent post. And I’m happy to share some of the berry parties we enjoy here, it’s such a cheerful and interesting phenomenon. They eat every single berry on the bush. By the end of the season, every berry is gone. It’s fantastic! Sending warm smiles your way, my friend.

  5. Hi, Jet, I appreciate the warmth of your words and information, as well as Athena’s photos. Some of the birds look as though they are posing for her! We have a couple bird feeders in the front yard, so each day we are looking for “action” and watching the little guys (mostly woodpeckers, juncos & sparrows, now that our hummers have migrated.) I absolutely love to see the little ones use their feet to move the rocks below the feeder when some seeds fall. It would be awesome to see one spitting! Have a great weekend! 🌞

  6. Wonderful photos, Athena, so many perfect berry-in-mouth captures! 🙂
    While I don’t think berries cause drunkenness in birds (none that I’ve seen), we used to have a couple of Baldwin apple trees in the yard where their apples didn’t drop in fall, but cling and rot in place. The robins and waxwings visiting in January would get a bit woozy it seemed, a bit impaired, but still able to fly. There was an incident with our cat and a waxwing, where I had to rescue him and keep him until he could be released. Whether it was rotten luck or alcohol impairment, he didn’t let on. 😉

    • I truly enjoyed hearing about the waxwings in your garden, Eliza, espec. the Baldwin apple trees that didn’t drop. Funny how life in our backyards evolves, what we see and facilitate and enjoy. How lovely to have apples in your garden. I’m remembering your garden, even though I’ve never been there personally, and every season that you vividly present in your posts. Wondering if the nearby creek that had the frozen water is frozen right now. Cheers to you and your garden and the seasons, my friend. I’m headed your way to see what’s happening there now….

      • Thank you, Jet. It warms me that you think of my garden. Usually from mid-Dec. to early Feb. our days don’t rise above freezing, so the ice thickens daily and the snow stays. This year has been so mild that temps rise above freezing most days, so the ice grows and wanes, but doesn’t cover. We’re in for a week of cold nights in the teens, so there will be more ice. Currently, we only have about an inch of crunchy snow covering the ground. Our ‘winter’ may be limited to the ten days before Christmas when we had 14″ of snow and a week of cold temps.

      • Our property is very extreme (though not as frigid as yours) and wild, so even though I very much enjoy gardening, the outdoor work here is more trail work and forestry than gardening. So I love going to your garden, Eliza.
        All that snow and ice and yet somehow the flowers appear every spring and summer. An amazing planet we have….

  7. Splashes of colour and the blur of bird life feeding – what a wonderful winter sight! Thanks for your words, and Athena’s delightful photographs. A bright spot in a grey week.

    • I’m so very pleased that I could bring a bright spot to this gray week, pc. My goodness, what a whirlwind of unbelievable antics this week has been, eh? Sending color and brightness to you, my friend, and easier days ahead.

    • It is a delight to bring you the birds and berries this week, Tim. And I’m so grateful for your weekly visits, I appreciate them a lot. Time for me to check out what’s going on in NM….

  8. We’ve found this happening in our area too, at this time of year. I guess when there isn’t much else to eat, these berries help the birds get through tough times – at least, that’s how it is up here in BC. California would have more choices, I suppose, with your warmer climate. Great photos!

    • I always appreciate hearing about the birds and weather up in BC, Anneli. With you and I both being on the same coast we share a lot of the same species. I have thought many times this week about those juncos hunkered in the wood pile during your storm. Thanks so much, Anneli.

  9. Love this theme, Jet, along with Athena’s excellent shots. I didn’t know about “taste-testing” but have wondered about drunken birds. Amazing how they flock to one place…”party at the pyracantha!” Thanks for taking my mind off the news.

    • Always a complete joy to hear from you, Jane, and great fun to share the backyard activities. I liked your thought: “Party at the pyracantha” and am smiling right now at it. I’m glad the birds and berries could lighten the heaviness of this week’s news for you. Thank heaven there are the birds and berries….

  10. Just seeing your title post in my inbox got me excited, Jet! 😁 Beautiful captures and great info. There’s something about images of birds and berries, it truly is a double bonus each time!

    • A delight to receive your comment, Donna, thank you. I am so very lucky that Athena has the patience and skill to photograph, and you and I both know how much it takes to capture the berry in the mouth. Sending lots of smiles and thanks.

    • I just looked on the range map and see that you do get the cedar waxwing where you live, Bill. So you keep your eyes open and hopefully you’ll see some. Many thanks, dear Bill.

    • Isn’t it so wonderful, Craig, when you have something in your neighborhood that is attractive to the birds? A fun place to hang out this year and next January too. Thanks so much and have fun.

  11. I can attest to the drunken bird theory. We have picture windows on the south and birds fly into them every January. Often they will break their necks and those red berries will pop out! We’ve had to string ribbons in the windows to save the poor things – I’ll post a pic!

    • It’s a shock when a bird flies into the window reflection, but I’m glad you’ve made the effort to string ribbons in the window. Interesting that it’s every January, too, and not surprising since we’re both in the Bay Area and the berries are a draw right now. I look forward to that photo, Jan, will stop by to see what you’ve been up to. Many thanks.

  12. I love the colours of your American Robins and the Varied Thrushes. We still have some red berries around here. I’m not sure what happened to the Mistlethrushes this year, but they normally clear many of the trees.

    • Yes, all those colors on the American Robins and Varied Thrushes, it is magnificent. I liked hearing about your Mistlethrushes, too, Mike. I googled the mistle thrush and see that they are much like our hermit thrushes. Great to have you stop by, thank you.

  13. What a wonderful posting, Jet. Many of the birds were familiar to be, but I have never seen a Varied Thrush (and would love to do so). Pickings are slimmer where I live for the birds in terms of berries, so it is nice to see such feasting there. I am absolutely intrigued at the way that some of the birds are primarily carnivores during warm seasons and turn into vegetarians during cold seasons.

    • I agree, Mike, it is an intriguing topic that birds switch up their dietary preferences. Seems like flexibility is a good way to survive. Thanks so much for your visit, I’m happy you enjoyed the birds and berries.

  14. In Illinois I’d notice some berries that were eaten right away while others lingered. Not sure whether the latter were not good to eat or they just weren’t ready, but it was interesting. I greatly enjoy today’s post so thanks for a lovely addition to my Friday reading. Have a wonderful weekend!


    • Yes, Janet, we study the berries too, sometimes wondering why there are so many still on the bushes. But when it’s not ripe it must taste pretty bad, and how quickly it all changes when they ripen. I so enjoyed your visit and lovely comment, Janet, thank you. I hope your weekend is a joy, too.

  15. Such incredible photos with those precious berries gently, or perhaps not so gently should one try to pluck it way. As you know I know very little about birds however we have had the experience of having berries on trees, long after the leaves have gone. I can only say there was a significant increase of birds flying into windows. I grew up being told such behavior was from the fermented berries. Perhaps just birds with a poor sense of direction?

    • As always, Sue, a delight to hear from you. I think the bird traffic picks up when the berries are available, and they get disoriented with the reflections in the windows. There are stickers you can buy from bird places that are relatively unobtrusive. You adhere them to the window and it tells the bird there is a window here, it really does prevent bird crashes. Sending smiles and warm wishes your way, dear Sue.

  16. Eating fermented berries is like “going for a drink” moment, the fermentation produces alcohol and can make a bird to get drunk. It happen to squirrels and other animals. Thank you for the post, my friend. 🙂

    • ahh, I’m so glad I could share with you the bright yellow tail tip of the cedar waxwing, RH. All those amazing photos of colorful, tropical fish and marine creatures that you have shared with me over the years, I am elated to share this yellow tail tip with you as a thank you. I so loved those Christmas Tree worms!

  17. Great presentation Jet! The glorious cycles of life, one flowing into the other are
    all well represented in fabulous photos and perfectly deceptive words here
    on your marvelous blog! Thank you for sharing your adventures with us!
    love, Eddie

  18. Ohhhh, the varied thrush is so pretty! I don’t think we have them here. There is a mulberry tree that cedar waxwings in this area visit every June to feast on the mulberries. It was quite a treat seeing them once with their cool “sunglasses.” 🙂 The picture Athena got of the one with the berry in its mouth and the glimpse of its tongue is amazing! The cycle of life truly is sacred. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about your local berries and birds.

    • It is always a great joy to have you stop by, Barbara. You’re right, your east coast does not have the varied thrush, they occur west of the Rockies. So I’m very glad I could share this exquisitely beautiful thrush with you here. I’m glad you have had the pleasure of watching the cedar waxwings in the mulberry tree every June. I find the mulberry tree completely exotic, just like you do with the varied thrush. It’s fortunate we can share all our images and memories with one another, and spread the glory. Thanks so very much, Barbara.

  19. how very true the sacred cycle of life! so delightful to see the birds feasting on berries! amazing captures by Athena! as always, thanks for sharing, Jet! 🙂

  20. Thank you so much for this birds and berries post Jet! Athena’s photos are so vibrant and capture the excitement of berry time! Speaking to my Mum in Scotland today, she was saying she has to be careful with all the red pyracantha bird poop freezing overnight on her front path. Thrushes and backbirds abound in her yard these days. Have you noticed how more people are tuning into nature during the pandemic. It’s certainly makes my day. Thank you 💕🙏💕

    • I loved hearing about your Mum in Scotland, Val, with the frozen berry poop and all her berry-seeking birds. I was hoping to hear about berries and birds in Europe, and thank you so very much.

  21. More robins came to our crabapple tree this year, and there wasn’t anything left for the waxwings by the time they left. The robins were especially fun to watch, though, there were so many of them.

    • I liked hearing about the crabapple tree and your robins and waxwings, Judi. And I’m with you, I find the robins espec. fun to watch, they’re raucous and numerous and all over the place. Thanks so much, Judi.

  22. Very enjoyable post. The photos were particularly lovely… with the brightly colored berries and active birds. I learned a lot about the birds and the berries! Now more than ever I appreciate the promise of seasons and progress and time marching forward. Thank you for that reminder!

  23. Yes, we keep marching forward, don’t we. This is nature and life, and how wonderful that we have so many beautiful examples in our midst to remind us to put one foot in front of the other and just keep going. Thanks so much for your visit, dear Nan, always appreciated.

  24. I’ve seen more robins in the past month than I’ve seen in the past decade. It’s pure pleasure to have your photos, since when I encountered the birds last Sunday, I only had my macro lens with me: not so useful for birds in the treetops! I wonder if it wasn’t weather that impelled so many to arrive here in such flocks. We just had quite a front, and snow came with it — the snow line was only a hundred miles north of me, and places like Austin got 4″-6″ of snow. If I were a robin, I’d be flying south to the land of berries and insects, too!

    • I so enjoyed your comment, Linda, and contribution to the birds and berries post. How wonderful for you to see “…more robins in the past month than … in the past decade.” One of my biggest thrills with birds is watching the huge robin flocks. I was under a flock of 100+ this morning at dawn, so delightful. Your reasoning in re to the storm could very well be their cause. It’s crazy to think of Austin getting 4-6″ of snow! Thanks so much, my friend.

    • As it always is, I so enjoyed your visit and comment, Sylvia, thanks so much. The sleek elegance of a cedar waxwing is splendid, and yes, breath-taking. My warmest thanks.

    • I’m fortunate to have a big toyon bush right outside my office window. I can stand and watch the birds eating the berries from behind the window and am completely entertained. What a delight to have your visits today, Bertie, thanks so much.

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