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BRUCE MACTAVISH: The berry birds of winter

A winter robin sits on a stack of its favourite winter breakfast, dogberries. – Bruce Mactavish photo
A winter robin sits on a stack of its favourite winter breakfast, dogberries. – Bruce Mactavish photo

Winter dogberries are a great source of energy for birds. In Newfoundland this food source can be immense.

The dogberry tree, or mountain ash as it is known outside of this province, grows very well on the island of Newfoundland.

The berry crop varies greatly from year to year. In some years there is not a single dogberry to be found. In other years the hills glow red in winter with actual tons of dogberries hanging from the tree.

This time around the crop is patchy.

I have my markers around St. John’s. The usual dogberry hotspots such as around the Fluvarium, Signal Hill and the White Hills are barren of berries. At lower elevations in the city of St. John’s there are good berry crops in some neighbourhoods but not in others. Cold windy weather in late June may have been responsible for limiting insect activity of the kind required to pollinate the flowers so they can develop into berries.

It seems the more sheltered areas did well. Good crops of dogberries are currently present in Conception Bay South, Torbay to Pouch Cove and along the Southern Shore south to Brigus South. The Maddox Cove/Petty Harbour area is particularly rich with berries.

What birds eat the dogberries?

Robins are a dogberry specialist. Hundreds will be enticed to stay into the winter instead of going south in the fall. Robins form flocks and rove about looking for the best berry crops. They take on a personality unfamiliar to those who know robins only in the summer time. Their red breast feathers become frosted with white tips. They have a wild-eyed look. They are constantly on high alert for an incoming sharp-shinned hawk. They may swarm your neighbour for a few days then suddenly they are gone.

When there is food everywhere they have the option to move around at will. As the berries get consumed the robins become more concentrated in search of those last meals.

There will not be enough berries to keep the robins going for the whole winter. They will face hard times when the berries run out.

They will be forced to leave Newfoundland and head south during the dead of the winter. A few will remain and try to stick it out until spring in the face of possible starvation. This is when the robins may come in to frozen dogberries or any berries stored in your freezer and dished out at your feeder.

But for now, and the next few weeks, times are good for the robins.

The rarity hunters are watching the robin flocks carefully hoping to pick out a European thrush. The European redwing is a robin-shaped bird with precisely the same desire for dogberries as the robins. Unlike a robin it has a brown striped breast and a dark brown cheek. The only red is a small patch on the side of the breast and under the wing.

Trace Stagg is on Cloud Nine having photographed a redwing feeding with robins in the dogberry trees in her backyard in Lumsden.

Birders are hoping it sticks around. Meanwhile there could be others to be found anywhere that you see robins.

Other berry specialists are the two species of waxwings. The cedar waxwing is a warm brown with a yellow wash on the lower belly. The Bohemian waxwing is a little bigger with a grayer body and a deep red patch under the tail feathers. Bohemian waxwings are a world class favourite among birders in the boreal forests regions of both North America and Eurasia. Bohemian waxwings have been moving through Labrador since November but are just getting on to the island of Newfoundland.

Flocks of 50-100 have been observed over the last two weeks in eastern Newfoundland. Both waxwings are highly photogenic.

Pine grosbeaks feast on cones and the buds of evergreen trees during most winters but gorge on dogberries when the opportunity presents.

Unlike the robins and waxwings that swallow the berries whole, pine grosbeaks crush the berries seeking the tiny seeds from within the berry. Pine grosbeaks are an attractive member of the finch family.

The males are a flaming pink while the females are subtly sexy gray white olive-green highlights. Being very friendly birds they are easy to observe as they quietly pick individuals berries out of the red clumps.

Other birds less specialized in eating berries also take advantage of a bountiful crop of dogberries.

Northern flickers eat a wide variety of foods including berries. Flickers are particularly numerous this winter and are certainly enjoying the berries. Hordes of starlings are also gorging on the red berries. Even the ruffed grouse and junco will take a little nibble at the occasional berry.

A good year for dogberries is a good winter for birds and an enjoyable time for bird watching.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at


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