The fall harvest season is on: it’s time to pick pumpkins and apples, the last of the field corn and soybeans; and if you’re a bird and you like fruit, it’s time to feast on the berries of the eastern red cedar, commonly known as juniper. Actually to be entirely correct, these “berries” are actually just fleshy cones that surround a few seeds within. They are covered with a waxy coating, which is also digestible if a bird has the right pancreatic enzymes to break it down.
Yellow-rumped Warblers love these juicy “berries”, gobbling them up whole.
Sometimes this large round nugget is a little hard to choke down, though, and the bird continually adjust the berry’s position in its mouth before swallowing.
Dark blue ones are the ripest, green ones the least ripe, and the birds seem to be quite choosy about which ones they take. There are so many berries within reach, but this bird needs to stretch upside down to get the perfect one.
Robins joined the feast, with three or four birds all foraging within a few feet of each other.
Being a much larger bird than the warbler, the robins had no trouble downing the berries, one after the other.
Robins toss their heads back as they swallow, and occasionally lose the berry in the process.
A couple of catbirds got into the action as well, but they preferred to consume their berries in private, away from the camera lens.
Juniper berries are the only fruit/spice from conifers we use in cooking, and of course they give gin its characteristic flavor. Beneath the waxy coating, green pulpy flesh surrounds a few seeds. Fruit-eating birds normally quickly separate the pulp from the seeds in their gut, digesting the sugary pulp and converting it to fat stores rather quickly. They then excrete the seeds as they fly off to other foraging areas, thus helping the plant spread into new locations.
But seed-eating birds might have a different strategy…
This female cardinal was systematically picking off berries and crushing them between her mandibles, squeezing the pulp and then discarding it.
It’s hard to tell whether she discards the pulp to get at the seeds, or discards the whole mass after squishing out berry juices.
Seed-eating specialists probably have stronger gizzard muscles that can crush the seeds to extract their nutrients, and seeds typically have higher fat and protein content than the sugary, pulpy mass that surrounds them.
Whatever the strategy, juniper berries provide a useful resource for migratory as well as non-migratory birds in the fall.