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.
If you lived in New England in the early 1800’s, the sight and sound of a Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) would not be familiar to you. In the mid to late-1800’s they began extending their range northward in eastern North America to the point where they are now year round residents throughout New England. This range expansion is largely attributable to changes in habitat (more fields and shrubby areas), as well as the demise of the practice of capturing mockingbirds for the pet trade. However, during the last 25 years Vermont has experienced a 26% decline in breeding mockingbirds, due largely to diminishing habitat, according to the Vermont Center for Ecostudies’ 2nd Breeding Bird Atlas.The Northern Mockingbird is known for its ability to mimic other birds’ songs (a male’s repertoire often contains more than 150 songs, which changes and can increase as the bird ages). In the spring and fall, if you hear a bird singing at night, especially during a full moon, it is often an unmated male mockingbird. At this time of year, you’re more likely to see, not hear, a Northern Mockingbird.