Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Perfect Plant for Birds in Georgia

Finding the perfect plant for gardeners who want to support birds would be a wonderful thing. Every bird lover would rush to purchase such a plant. Time to be amazed: such a plant exists and is native throughout Georgia. The plant is black cherry (Prunus serotina) - pronounced PROO-nus sair-OTT-ih-nuh - and it is found from far northern Georgia to the very southernmost counties. From east to west and north to south, black cherry thrives in the varied soils and climate of Georgia.

Black cherry (Prunus serotina) in bloom

Knowing what birds eat is the key to understanding why this plant, and its close native relatives, is such an ideal plant. Here is a quick review of the diet of adult birds. Adult birds, you see, are rather specific eaters.

Female red-bellied woodpecker on suet
Those adults that eat seed will flock to your seed feeders: cardinals, goldfinches, pine siskins, sparrows and finches of all kinds. You’ll also get birds like mourning doves, titmice, chickadees, bluejays and the occasional woodpecker. If you have some suet feeders, especially in winter, then you’ll bring in birds like warblers, wrens, bluebirds, and more woodpeckers that need some high energy food. Cold temps and snow cover will encourage even more species to stop by for a winter bite.

The plump fruits of black cherry 

In the spring and summer, birds focus more on their traditional adult diet and that’s where black cherry really shines. Birds that are frugivores (fruit is a large part of their diet) thrive on the small fruits of the native cherry trees, and as many as 53 different species of birds have been observed eating them (not all of them frugivores). These include birds like cedar waxwings, mockingbirds, catbirds and tanagers. Other wildlife eat the fruit too.

While adult diet is very important, we need also consider the diet of baby birds. That’s where the foliage of black cherry is important. A large percent of baby birds are raised on insects – 96% of bird species feed insects to their chicks. It takes an enormous amount of insects to feed just one clutch: an estimated 6000 to 9000 insects for a nest of chickadees and those are small birds.

Caterpillar of Furcula borealis on black cherry
While some of those insects are spiders and other things, most of them are caterpillars. Birds find caterpillars on the leaves of plants, primarily native plants. As most of you know, caterpillars are the larval form of butterflies and moths. Our native butterflies and moths have host plant relationships (think monarch butterfly and milkweed) with the plants they evolved with. Watch an entomologist explain it better in this short video.

Black cherry happens to be a host plant for over 450 different species of butterflies and moths. Species include those as familiar and beautiful as the Red-spotted Purple, the Viceroy, the American Lady, the Cecropia silkmoth, the Coral Hairstreak, and our state butterfly, the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.

Of course there are still many more species, some of them drab colored moths (see White Furcula moth pictured) that we don’t notice. These make up the bulk of the caterpillar population that feeds these birds; they are most of the 6000-9000 insects that are needed to raise just one set of baby birds.

The yellow-rumped warbler eats insects in the spring and summer
You'll also be supporting the many adult birds that rely on an insect diet. Birds that are insectivores include the warblers, flycatchers like the Eastern phoebe, bluebirds, wrens, robins and our state bird, the brown thrasher.

The flowers of black cherry are numerous and attract a wide variety of pollinating insects, especially native bees of several types. If you like to support native bees, you now have another reason to want black cherry in your landscape.

All in all, black cherry has extremely high wildlife value. If you only want to have it for the birds, that reason is plenty is good enough. All the other critters will enjoy the fringe benefits.


  1. Proud to have a couple of wild cherries here. Thanks for giving me even more reasons to love these trees.

  2. We have several of these on the property. I'm so glad to learn how beneficial they are!