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.

When the Thrushes Return

Varied Thrush, male, California

Varied Thrush, male, California

It is in the autumn when the birds have left their summer breeding grounds, that we gratefully receive the thrushes in northern California.


We watch all summer long as the toyon bushes and madrone trees flower, then bear fruit. Toward late summer the berries grow bigger and start to turn from green to orange and red.  Here’s what we say, “It looks like the berries will be just right for the thrushes.”


Hermit Thrush on Toyon

Hermit Thrush on Toyon

If we are so lucky to get rain–and we have been this year–then the berries grow plump and they are perfect for the thrushes.


Not every year does it all turn out so well. If we have drought, the berries wither and drop to the ground. And the thrushes do not come.


But right now, our hillsides and forests are bright with the fresh new berries ripening in the autumn sun.


Our first hermit thrush arrived about two weeks ago — this is an event worth noting (and I do), for soon more will follow.  In the past few years there has been one quirky individual who arrives first and leaves last every season.


He’s not eating the berries yet, apparently they’re not perfectly ripe.


As ground birds, they can be seen hopping on the ground, or tugging at berries in the bushes. In addition to the berries, thrushes eat insects, worms, and snails.


And it is not just the hermit and varied thrushes that winter here, we also look forward to greeting the robins.


American Robin, Calif.

American Robin, Calif.

Robins, also in the Turdidae thrush family, come in flocks.  Whereas the hermit and varied thrushes are often individuals or in pairs, the robins come in very large flocks, sometimes as much as 100.


There are many genera and species of Turdidae in the world. (For more info click here.)


But here in northern California, we treasure our three fall thrushes, and avidly listen for the “chirrup” and chipping sounds, joining us for yet another winter.


American Robin eating toyon berry, Calif.

American Robin eating toyon berry, Calif.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander


Thrush Rush

Hermit Thrush on Toyon

Hermit Thrush on Toyon

Check out the “before” and “after” photos of this Toyon Bush.  In less than one week, every single berry was devoured.  Four different thrush species came over the course of a few days:  robins, western bluebirds, hermit thrush, and varied thrush.  The hermit thrushes ate most of it, cleverly camped out underneath.


When rain didn’t fall, it looked like we weren’t going to have any berries this year.  When there are no berries, the migrating thrushes barely visit, if at all.  Fortunately we had a few weeks of rain in December.  When the rain falls the berries fatten, the thrushes come in, the berries provide, the thrushes fill up, return to their breeding grounds, and produce their offspring.  It is amazing how many glorious cycles unfold on this earth.

Bird photos:  Athena Alexander


Toyon Bush:  BEFORE

Toyon Bush: BEFORE


Toyon Bush:  AFTER

Toyon Bush: AFTER









Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush