When I was growing up, we had a large dogwood tree in the backyard that produced a good crop of berries almost every year. I remember just watching that tree for extended periods and being amazed at the diversity of birds that visited to dine on the berries. I was reminded of how attractive a productive dogwood tree can be recently when I visited two Charlotte parks to search for migrants.
At Sheffield Park, a flash of orange caught my eye as a female or immature summer tanager hovered to pluck a berry from a large dogwood. I soon observed two Swainson’s thrushes, several American robins, a gray catbird, brown thrasher, and a rose-breasted grosbeak partaking of that tree. I was reminded that the woods of Idlewild Road Park have a large number of dogwoods and have been very productive in the past. I drove on over and headed down a trail to a nice hardwood forest with a dogwood understory.
Immediately I saw a scarlet tanager in the dogwoods, then another and another. Six scarlet tanagers and an additional summer tanager were all there. A group four Eastern bluebirds flew in, another three Swainson’s thrushes, a wood thrush, some American robins, a red-bellied woodpecker, a Northern flicker, and downy woodpecker; all made for constant in and out action in the dogwood canopies.
Birds are attracted to the berries because of their red color. It is well know that hummingbirds like red, but clearly many bird species have the same affinity. Spicebush, a common lowland shrub, has red berries that are favored by birds, as do magnolias.
Plenty of other species love dogwoods, too. I have seen gray-cheeked thrushes, veeries, red-eyed vireos, red-headed woodpeckers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and even pileated woodpeckers on dogwood. The tree is clearly an important fall food source for hungry migrants. If you have a nice dogwood on your property, or know of a nice grove of multiple trees, take some time to watch for activity. You might see some unfamiliar species.
Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com. Check out his blog at piedmontbirding.blogspot.com