Elderberries are very popular among wild birds, and the antioxidant-rich fruit feeds hundreds of different species of birds. Not only are elderberries tasty, but they also provide many health benefits for birds and can be great nesting sites.
What You'll Learn
Elderberries are the fruits that grow from several varieties of the Sambucus tree. The tree’s black, blue, or red berries provide food for many species of birds.
Not only are elderberry plants good for the birds, but the birds are good for the elderberry plant! While birds obtain nutrients and energy from elderberries, they also contribute to the growth and survival of the plant species by distributing the seeds in new locations. Let’s dive deeper into the relationship between birds and the elderberry plant.
Types of Elderberries and the Birds They Attract
Elderberry plants have several names that often depend on regional preference, the most common being the American Elderberry, European Elderberry, Blue Elderberry, and Red Elderberry. Each variety attracts different species of migrating birds.
If you’re ever on a nature walk and come across a tree with tiny white flowers and shiny, dark berries, you’ve likely stumbled across the American Elderberry (Sambucus nigra Canadensis) or the European Elderberry (Sambucus nigra). Both species grow in North America, prominently east of the Rocky Mountains and across central Europe.
As the two most common types of elderberry plants, the American and European Elderberry are closely related and sprout hundreds of black or purple-black berries. While humans must boil these sweet-tart berries before consuming them, as the raw berries are poisonous to humans, birds love to snack on them straight from the plant!
The American and European Elderberry plants feed more than 120 species of birds, including warblers, orioles, tanagers, catbirds, thrashers, mockingbirds, and waxwings.
The Blue Elderberry (Sambucus Mexicana or Sambucus nigra var. caerulea), also known as the Mexican Elderberry, is commonly found between California, British Columbia, and the Rockies.
Unlike the dark, purple-black berries of the American or European Elderberry plant, the Blue Elderberry grows blue berries that appear to be dusted with white powder.
The Blue Elderberry attracts many bird species, and the berries are especially important to the diet of birds native to California.
Some birds that feed on the American/European Elderberry plant also enjoy the blue elderberries, including warblers, orioles, and tanagers. The Blue Elderberry plant is also popular among jays, woodpeckers, pigeons, grosbeaks, robins, thrushes, bluebirds, towhees, and many more.
The Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemona var. racemona) is easy to differentiate from the other elderberry varieties because, like its name, the plant produces bright red berries.
The plant only grows in cool, moist areas. It is often found along the coastal mountain range from California to Washington. It can even grow in Alaska!
Songbirds, also known as perching birds or passerine birds, especially enjoy the fruits of the Red Elderberry. These include thrushes, robins, and up to fifty more species! The plant also feeds six species of game birds.
Birds and the Elderberry Plant Cycle
Although birds feed on the elderberry plant, they are also one of the plant’s most reliable friends! Birds play an important role in distributing elderberry seeds, which helps the plant thrive and grow in new locations. Let’s take a closer look at this process.
Blooming and Feeding
Once an elderberry plant germinates and grows, it may take up to three years for the plant to fully fruit. In the spring, the plant blooms and produces large, umbrella-shaped clusters of small white flowers.
The fragrant blooms attract many insects, and birds flock to the plant to feed on the insects. In late summer to early fall, the elderberry plant produces lots of berries to feed the hungry birds. Migratory birds are especially drawn to Red Elderberries because of their bright color, and the fruit serves as an important energy source for their journey.
After birds feed on the elderberry plant, they play an important role in ensuring that future birds can continue to enjoy the plant’s delicious fruit. Birds help disperse elderberry seeds in three major ways.
First, birds help seeds fall from the plant during feeding by accidentally knocking the seeds from stems or flowers. The seeds become buried in the soil over time and may germinate into new plants.
If birds decide to take their meal on the go, this provides another opportunity for the elderberry plant to find new places to grow. Some birds prefer to store food in a particular location to eat later and may drop some seeds or fruit during transit.
Finally, birds aid in transporting seeds to a new location through their droppings. Birds digest the fleshy part of the elderberry fruit and pass the seeds. Their droppings, which are full of seeds and high in nitrogen, act as a natural fertilizer that facilitates the growth of a new elderberry plant.
Benefits of Elderberry Plants for Birds
Birds and elderberry plants have a very symbiotic relationship. While birds aid in the growth of new plants, the plant provides many important nutrients that ensure the birds stay healthy and strong.
In addition to providing nutrients, the plant provides birds with comfy nesting sites and protection from predators.
Elderberries are an especially nutrient-dense fruit. They are a great source of antioxidants and are packed with vitamins A and C, which are essential nutrients in a bird’s diet.
The nutritional value that elderberries provide is especially important for migratory birds. Some birds travel hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of miles during migration and must continually refuel to complete their journey.
In addition to their antioxidants and vitamins, elderberries also contain the fats and carbohydrates necessary for birds to keep their energy and strength.
Nesting and Protection
If birds eat a few too many elderberries, they can cozy up in the elderberry tree to sleep it off! Elderberry trees, and in some cases, shrubs, provide great nesting sites for birds.
The American Elderberry can grow up to 12 feet tall and equally as wide, which provides great cover and shade for nesting birds.
Specifically, elderberry trees, and trees in general, protect birds and their nests by hiding them from predators and protecting them from environmental harm. The elderberry tree’s large blooms offer camouflage for nests, and its branches help support nests and prevent them from getting blown away by storms and strong winds.
Next time you take a nature hike, be on the lookout for the American or European Elderberry, the Blue Elderberry, or the Red Elderberry, and take note of any birds you see feeding on the yummy fruit. Just remember not to eat any yourself-elderberries are poisonous to humans! Happy bird watching!
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I am Bryan Powell and I own BirdHour.com. I love bird watching; in fact, I have a parakeet of my own. I enjoy spending time outdoors and observing the natural world around me. This website is a means of sharing my passion for birds with others who may be interested in this activity.