Which birds eat holly berries?


Each October, when the weather begins to change in the UK, and most of my trees have dropped their leaves, one tree stands out in my garden – the holly tree.  This much-loved evergreen tree with its spikey leaves begins to display its bright red berries. A symbol of Christmas for many, these red berries act as the dinner bell to many garden birds that take the opportunity to feed on this vital winter food source.

Here is a list of UK birds that eat holly berries

  • Blackbirds
  • Fieldfares
  • Redwings
  • Thrushes

A vital food source

The holly berry is an essential food for several species of birds. Besides being a vital food source, the holly offers excellent protection from predators with its sharp needle-like leaves. If you have ever felt a holly berry, you may have questioned just how the birds digest such a solid berry. However, after many cold frosty nights and many a wet evening, these winter fruits begin to soften just enough to be an easy meal.

Over the years I have heard something fascinating facts about these little berries and they are one of the main reasons that I tolerate the yelp! of being pricked while collecting the fallen leaf litter each year.

Many plants use berries as an ingenious way of enticing wild birds to feed and distribute their seeds. Although holly berries are very toxic to humans, birds do not appear to be affected that much. 

One theory is that after one or two harsh frosts that the toxicity level drops sufficiently that the birds can safely eat them outside of the holly berry is soft and juicy having been in the harsh winter weather for weeks, and the bird can quickly digest it.

The holly berry’s inner seed can travel undamaged right through the birds gut before being dropped many miles away.  This might explain that holly tree that suddenly sprung up in your garden right near that fence post!

Although holly berries are often ripe by autumn, birds such as song thrushes, blackbirds, fieldfares and redwings don’t usually feed on them until late winter.

What other foods do these birds eat?

Although the holly berry is a favourite in winter, these particular wild birds have a varied diet.

Blackbirds

blackbird

The males live up to their name but, confusingly, females are brown often with spots and streaks on their breasts. The bright orange-yellow beak and eye-ring make adult male blackbirds one of the most striking garden birds. One of the most common UK birds, its mellow song is also a favourite.

rspb.org.uk

Here is a list of what Blackbirds eat:

  • Insects like caterpillars and beetles
  • Earthworms
  • Spiders
  • Snails
  • Berries
  • Fruit
  • Seeds

Fieldfares

fieldfare

Fieldfares are large, colourful thrushes, much like a mistle thrush in general size, shape and behaviour. They stand very upright and move forward with purposeful hops. They are very social birds, spending the winter in flocks of anything from a dozen or two to several hundred strong. These straggling, chuckling flocks which roam the UK’s countryside are a delightful and attractive part of the winter scene.

RSPB.org.uk

Here is a list of what Fieldfares eat:

  • Insects like caterpillars and beetles
  • Earthworms
  • Spiders
  • Snails
  • Slugs
  • Apples

Redwings

The redwing is most commonly encountered as a winter bird and is the UK’s smallest true thrush. Its creamy strip above the eye and orange-red flank patches make it distinctive. They roam across the UK’s countryside, feeding in fields and hedgerows, rarely visiting gardens, except in the coldest weather when snow covers the fields. Only a few pairs nest in the UK. It is listed as a Schedule 1 species of The Wildlife and Countryside Act

rspb.org.uk

Here is a list of what Redwings eat:

  • Earthworms
  • Berries (particularly hawthorn and rowan.
  • Apples

Thrushes (song)|

A familiar and popular garden songbird whose numbers have declined markedly on farmland and in towns and cities. It’s smaller and browner than a mistle thrush with smaller spotting. Its habit of repeating song phrases distinguish it from singing blackbirds. It likes to eat snails which it breaks into by smashing them against a stone with a flick of the head.

rspb.org

Here is a list of what Thrushes eat:

  • Insects like caterpillars and beetles
  • Earthworms
  • Spiders
  • Snails
  • Fruit
  • Berries

Holly berry defence

Whereas some of us may plant holly trees specifically for the birds. There are some of us that have Christmas in mind and would prefer to protect their prised holly berries.  If this is the case, what can you do to deter the birds? Here are a few ideas:

Flash tape

Flash type uses pieces of silver paper or foil that are tied to a piece of string. The tape flickers in the wind and causes a flash, often enough to deter the birds.  It is a good method for keeping birds away from berries, and the best thing about this method is that it’s very humane and doesn’t really affect the birds.

This method’s downside is that if birds become hungry enough, it will not deter them for long and overtime te birds will learn to ignore the tape.

CD/OLD DVD

Another approach is using old CD’s or DVD’s tied to string and working in a similar way to flash tape.  They are shiny and move a lot in the wind so will produce an almost constant flash, frightening away any birds in the area.  This method is simple enough, you simply tie a string through the holes of each CD or DVD and let it hang near your berries

Although this is a reasonably unobtrusive approach, the downside to this method is that if the birds are hungry, they will ignore it and it may not deter them for very long.

Netting

Probably one of the most popular and most reliable methods that are used is that of netting.  By draping a net over your holly berry fruit trees, you can stop the birds or at least deter them from getting to your trees oh berries

Netting is a very effective and inexpensive method, but unfortunately, it risks small birds getting inside if it’s not set correctly.  Branches often poke out netting and berries on the edge of the netting can still be reached by birds.  There is then a danger that wild birds may become entangled in the netting.

Bird Baths

One common theory amongst gardeners is that when birds go for berries, they are infact thirsty and not hungry.  The belief is that the high water content in berries is the primary interest and not food.  For this reason, many suggest keeping a birdbath nearby or similar water source encouraging the birds to leave your berries alone.  The big downside to this theory is that, if the birds are genuinely hungry, you’ve provided them with food and drink so wash it down afterwards!

Other interesting facts

Holly berry facts

Here are some other interesting facts about the holly berry:

Females have berries

Holly bushes are either male or female, but it is the female bush that actually has berries. However, for cross-pollination to be guaranteed, a male plant will need to be nearby.  Holly bushes without berries are either female living in isolation waiting for another male plant to cross-pollinate with or in fact male.

Toxicity levels control consumption

Another smart thing that holly bushes do is to control, where and when its berries are eaten.  Due to the berries’ toxicity levels, wild birds will only take a few at each sitting.  This means that frequent visits by the wild birds are required, which in turn helps the dispersal or the seed as it passes through the wild birds gut.

wayne

I'm Wayne. For many years, I have been a fan of feeding the birds in my back garden and often asked myself questions about what I was seeing. This prompted me to research things further and I have continued to do so ever since. This is the site where I share everything I have learned.

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