RSPB Scotland's Molly Martin tells us all about the berries that tempt our birds and other wildlife in autumn.
Eat, drink and be berry
Red and black jewels are glistening in hedgerows and woodlands across the UK this autumn; it’s looking like another bumper year for berries. Autumn berries are a key source of nutrients for wildlife, and one of our main temptations to migrant birds. Most of them are red or black because they stand out best in birds’ vision. Here are six berries you might be able spot at this time of year.
Hawthorn grows well as a tree or as part of a hedgerow, it has pale green, lobed leaves, and in summer is covered in small white flowers. Once these flowers are pollinated, dark red haw berries grow, in some years, hawthorn produces massive amounts of berries! The branches of hawthorn are very spikey, so provide good shelter for birds which come to feed on the berries. Haws are particularly favoured by hawfinch; thrushes and tits also feed in the bushes, and fallen berries will be happily gobbled by hedgehogs and other mammals. Humans have long used haw berries for medicines, and though they shouldn’t really be eaten raw, they are often turned into wine or jelly.
At this time of year, rowan berries are one of the most striking ‘fruits of the forest’ growing in big bunches. The berries are bright red and very shiny. Waxwing love rowan berries, and seeing a flock feeding up in the tree-top is a real autumn treat. Visiting thrushes such as redwing and fieldfare also feed in large groups on rowan berries. They can be made into a tart jam.
Bryony is a climbing vine that winds its way along fences and twisting up into trees, strangling branches as it goes. The berries are beautiful and fall like scarlet fairy lights along the tendrils, or in great dangling masses that bloom from green to orange to red, but are extremely poisonous to many animals including humans and can be fatal if ingested! Birds however will sometimes eat these berries and spread the seeds.
Bramble bushes greet woodland walkers like old friends, instantly recognisable with their shining dark clusters and pale flowers. A few scratches as you reach for the juiciest berry makes it taste all the more sweeter. Blackberries are a favourite among wildlife too, mice, squirrels and badgers, blackbirds and robins, even butterflies, will be drawn to these delicious fruits.
Also known as bittersweet, like all members of the nightshade family this is a poisonous plant. The berries might look inviting, hanging in clusters like bright red droplets, but they have an unpleasant taste and are very toxic. Some birds such as blackbirds, song thrushes and robins can tolerate these poisonous berries, and will eat them before other plants ripen.
Guelder rose is a shrubby bush that grows in mixed woodland, and can be a good indicator that you’re standing in an ancient wood. Its berries are dark-light red, and almost translucent. Berries form in autumn after the pretty, five-petaled white flowers are pollinated. They grow in small clusters, and are eaten by many species of birds, but especially favoured by bullfinches. For humans, berries can be made into jellies or jams, but shouldn’t be eaten raw.
We spend 90% of net income on conservation, public education and advocacy
The RSPB is a member of BirdLife International. Find out more about the partnership
© The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a registered charity: England and Wales no. 207076, Scotland no. SC037654