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.
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…
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.