Our covenants on Dewees Island specify that we only garden with native plants, and over 90% of the island is still in its natural state. Two of our most abundant native plants showed up in this article in Audubon Magazine about creating re-fueling spots for winter birds. Berries provide both fat and antioxidants to help birds survive:
These lilliputians (Chickadees) lose heat quickly because their surface area is large for their mass; they weigh about as much as a dozen paperclips (a third of an ounce) but stretch 5.5 inches long. Meeting that challenge means ramping up the number of hours they devote to feeding and seeking out foods rich in antioxidants and fats.
The two berry plants they recommended for our area, Yaupon Holly and beautyberry, are both abundant on the island. Yaupon Holly, Ilex vomitoria, was used as a purge by Native Americans and is found all over the island.
A specimen tree at the landings building is marked, so you use that as an ID guide. The bright red berries are a common winter sight here, and we have seen a large variety of birds feeding on them, including Carolina chickadees. The other plant they mentioned is American Beautyberry, Callicarpa americana, which can be found all along the road paths on the island, especially along the north end towards Capers Inlet. I’ve harvested berries and scattered them in the yard, but my hunch is that the seeds need to pass through a bird before they are viable enough to grow. One of the most valuable sources they mention for berries in the north is Northern Bayberry, Morella [Myrica] pensylvanica, a relative of our Wax Myrtle, Myrica cerifera. Apparently the berries on that plant are rich in fat, which helps songbirds maintain body heat in winter.
Both myrica species can be used to make candles, but it is a very slow way to obtain wax– you have to collect lots of berries. If you are interested in understanding more about what native plants can make your yard more friendly to birds, be sure to stop by the South Carolina Native Plant Society’s plant sale on March 15th at Charlestowne Landing.
On the island, a wide variety of birds feed on these berries, from Carolina Chickadees to Mockingbirds, to our vast flocks of Yellow-rumped Warblers. Also known as Myrtle Warblers, these tiny birds are easily recognizable by the yellow rump (aka butter butt) seen when they fly. By eating berries as well as insects, they have developed an ecological niche that allows them to winter farther north than many migrating warblers.