There are a number of birds that have returned to New England from their southern wintering grounds and are working hard to find enough to sustain themselves until food is more plentiful. Eastern Bluebirds, Hermit Thrushes, Northern Mockingbirds, Eastern Phoebes and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers adapt their diets to whatever is available at this time of year, which can mean going from eating insects to consuming fruit. Fruits that persist through the winter are few and far between, but one of the plants that provides the most sustenance to birds in early spring is Poison Ivy. The off-white, berry-like fruits are extremely popular with at least 60 species of birds, including the early returning migrants previously mentioned, as well as Gray Catbirds, Yellow-shafted Flickers, Wild Turkeys, and Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers. The popularity of Poison Ivy fruit with birds explains why this plant is common along fencerows and other areas where birds roost (and pass the seeds). (Caution – irritating urushiol, an oily resin found in the sap of Poison Ivy, is present in the leaves, stems, flowers, roots and fruit of this plant.)
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They may not be sweet, plump and juicy, but the fruits of staghorn sumac play a crucial role in the lives of many birds that overwinter in New England. True, they’re not a preferred food for these birds, but because they persist through the winter, these fuzzy fruits are an important source of food in late winter and early spring, when very little else is available. Ruffed grouse and wild turkeys rely on sumac fruit as a source of food throughout the winter, and bluebirds, robins, cardinals, mockingbirds and starlings are frequent visitors to staghorn sumac shrubs this time of year.
Eastern bluebirds have already been seen checking out nest boxes – behavior that usually isn’t observed for another month or so. Interestingly, even though most people religiously clean out their bluebird boxes every year prior to the nesting season, experiments show that bluebirds prefer nesting boxes containing old nests. While breeding has not yet begun, it won’t be long before males will be trying to attract females to their nest site by carrying material in and out of the hole, perching, and fluttering their wings. After the males choose the nest site and perform for a mate, the females actually do the hard work of building the nest.