OPINION

Party Time in the Back Yard

Steve Lekwa

It’s been party time in our back yard for the past week – at least for the birds. The focal point of the party has been the large serviceberry tree, or maybe I should call it a large bush with its multiple trunks. It’s almost like when someone opens a new bar in town. Everyone wants to show up and check it out.

It started slowly over two weeks ago; days before the first berries were truly ripe. A flock of cedar waxwings showed up to sample a few berries and pass them back and forth as part of their mating ritual. The local yard robins were checking them out, too, but didn’t seem interested in eating any. That all began to change as the berries grew and began turning red.

The ripening berries began to attract the attention of other birds, including more robins. The yard robins were quite indignant about visiting robins trying to get some of “their” berries, and spent more time trying to chase away the visitors than they did eating.

Our serviceberry had a heavy crop this year; heavier than any we’ve had in years. I removed an old ash tree a couple of years ago that shaded the serviceberry most of the day. The extra sunlight really perked up the serviceberry and the nearby red-osier dogwood bushes that also are showing a much better crop of berries this year. Word of the heavy berry crop spread fast, and before long there were way too many robins for the local pair to chase away. The backyard was virtually alive with robins, young and old.

You can tell what kinds of food most birds prefer to eat by the shape of their bills, so I wasn’t surprised to see thinner-billed birds, like the waxwings and catbirds, fluttering around the tree grabbing berries. Birds with shorter heavy bills tend to be seed eaters, so I was surprised when several other species of birds began competing with the robins and waxwings to get their share of the berries. A rose-breasted grosbeak, with its stout seed cracking bill, was right in there plucking berries with the robins. So were some house finches. The latter shouldn’t have surprised me because they peck the dickens out of my apples as they begin to ripen. which should start in a few more weeks. We were awed and delighted as we watched the berry fest a couple of days ago when a rising sun spotlighted a dazzling scarlet tanager male enjoying a few serviceberries. We seldom get to see those rare beauties around here. Then, this morning, another surprise visitor: a great crested flycatcher. I had been hearing one in the woods west of us for several weeks, but hadn’t seen it. The availability of a big crop of juicy berries was too much to pass up even for a bird that is specialized to catch insects high up in forest treetops. Even my yard bluebirds occasionally grabbed a berry, though they much prefer grabbing insects off the ground.

Most of the serviceberries will be gone in another day or two. I enjoyed a few handfuls myself. Some of the birds will continue to eat smaller, more bitter berries on the dogwoods, but the party is nearly over. We’ll miss all the activity and the surprise visitors that we normally don’t get to see in our yard. There are other berry-producing plants like vibernums, several kinds of dogwoods, bush and tree cherries, and mulberries that will also attract birds to your yard. I’m thinking that I should plant more of those. It’s hard to beat the lovely serviceberry, though, with its early spring white flowers, loads of juicy sweet berries (another name is Juneberry), colorful fall foliage and smooth gray bark. Thanks to the serviceberry, it’s been a delightful party.

Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.