WHIDBEY BIRDING | The fruit won’t fall far from the tree, if our birds have anything to do with it


Last week my husband developed a real itching for homemade cherry pie. Spurred by seeing roadside stands selling cherries, he fondly remembered a sour cherry tree growing at a home he once owned.

It wasn’t long before Bill brought home a sack of pie cherries. I pulled out an old recipe and produced a smacking-good pie.

We aren’t the only Whidbey Island inhabitants who get a yearning for fruit in July.

The other day I watched a robin hopping on the lawn outside our kitchen window. I expected it to plunge its beak into the grass for a juicy worm.

Instead it fluttered to the base of a salmonberry shrub, leapt into the air and stole a juicy berry off a low branch. It paused for a moment and nicked another.

Next, I noticed a rustling at the top of the same bush and saw a Cedar Waxwing gulping down salmonberries as well.

Both these species of birds have been eating protein-rich insects all spring while they prepared for and raised nestlings. Now with the abundance of ripe, juicy fruit, they’ve added that to their diet.

Several years ago, I watched as six different bird species descended on one of our apples trees, just as the apples ripened. The expected fruit banquet-goers were there: a robin, a Steller’s Jay and a Northern Flicker. Two other species, the Dark-eyed Junco and White-crowned Sparrow, could have been after insects as well as the fruit.

But the most unlikely pirate was a Pileated Woodpecker. With claws designed to cling to tree trunks, the woodpecker had to performed acrobatics to reach the apples. It couldn’t rest on the outer branches where the apples hung, and when it did maneuver close to the fruit, its sharp bill glanced off the wobbly apple, rather than pierce it.

Although birds enjoy eating fruit in our gardens, it’s difficult to attract them to feeding stations with fruit. That said, some people have set out orange halves and apple slices to lure in orioles and tanagers. If anyone has had success with feeding our Western Tanagers that way, please let me know.

All in all, the best approach to attracting birds to fruit is to plant native bushes like Oregon grape, salmonberry, huckleberry and trailing blackberry.

Plants and birds enjoy a symbiotic relationship around fruit. The birds consume the juicy fruit, then fly off and defecate the seeds, thereby dispersing the seeds for the plant.

Here on Whidbey, that relationship has also contributed to widespread distribution of non-native invasive plants. For example, our robins have “planted” European holly seeds throughout the open wooded areas. We can all help keep this invasive plant at bay by yanking it out when we find it in the wrong place.

Bill and I usually don’t mind sharing some of our bounty with avian scavengers. However, our generous attitude wanes when our wine grapes begin to ripen.

Days before the sugar content in our grapes is prime for picking, we notice a crow or two tasting the goods. Then word goes out through the crow Internet and is picked up by the Cedar Waxwing Twitter Web. Within hours, a Woodstock of crows and waxwings descends on our vineyard. The concept of tasting and leaving is not something the birds have evolved to understand.

Nothing we’ve tried can keep those winos away from their addiction. We’ve considered a machine that blasts a sonic boom every few minutes. But I’m sure our neighbors would be turning their blasts toward us the minute we tried that.

This year, we’re resolved to float overhead nets — yards and yards of it — over the grape plants.

Nevertheless, in spite of the minor annoyances, let us celebrate the rapture of birds, and fruit and summer. And speaking of yummy fruit,

I hear a leftover piece of cherry pie calling my name.

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