November Crabapple feast

A couple of years ago, I planted a Crabapple tree that bears small fruit for birds to eat in winter. Last year, there were only a few berries and I didn’t spot anything eating them. This year has been a different story. In mid-November, during an unusually cold and snowy week, the birds entertained us as they feasted on the Crabapples.

Room with a (garden) view

I’m a big fan of Margaret Roach’s A Way to Garden blog, podcast, and books. Roach explains that birds taught her to garden at her rural New York state home, meaning that her garden attracts birds by meeting their needs. She shares plant suggestions and garden design tips that have guided many of my own decisions. With winter almost here, I am reminded of Roach’s valuable advice to Look out the window: garden design 101. Simply put, choose plants and strategically place garden beds, so you can enjoy them, and the wildlife they attract, from within your house.

When it comes to cold, snowy weather, I’m a real wimp — very un-Canadian! I blame my Reynaud Syndrome, which quickly turns my fingers deathly white. If I’m going to enjoy our wildlife garden in winter, it must be from indoors. I’ve designed the gardens accordingly, by looking out our windows as I dream and plan.

First of all, in the backyard, we placed the circulating steam/pond within view from our patio door. Beside the pond, I planted a ‘Prairie Fire’ Crabapple tree, which has beautiful pink flowers in spring and red fruit in winter. I clustered 5 Red Osier Dogwood shrubs nearby so we can enjoy their bright red stems peeking out of the snow, and the bird that eat their berries. I then added a variety of native bird seed plants, such as Purple Coneflowers and Anise Hyssop, to attract Goldfinches and Juncos.

A feast for birds

Last year, all of these plants were still small, so we didn’t see much wildlife activity. This year has been much more successful. We even removed the window screen, so I can open the glass door to take unobstructed photos of our backyard visitors. Even as a beginner, amateur photographer, I was able to capture some amazing sights!

An American Robin kindly posing with a Crabapple in its beak. (November 17, 2019)
This Robin was more interested in eating than posing. (November 17, 2019)
A female Cardinal struggles to keep her balance as she reaches for a Crabapple. (November 17, 2019)
A male House Finch takes a break between Crabapples. I haven’t seen House Finches for a while. The combination of cold weather, available Crabapples, and the flowing stream brought them back for a visit. (November 17, 2019)

…and other creatures

We were also delighted to see other critters eating the Crabapples, too. Apparently, mid-November was still too early for Chipmunks to be hiding out in their dens for winter. We got to watch our resident Chippies doing gymnastics and eating right outside the window on another Crabapple tree. Of course, wherever there is food, you also find Black and Grey Squirrels.

A cute Chipmunk hangs by his toes while it eats from a second ‘Prairie Fire’ Crabapple planted right outside the patio door. (November 15, 2019)
A chubby Squirrel joined the feast as well. (November 15, 2019)

Plant small-fruiting Crabapples

Crabapples are an easy fruit to provide for overwintering birds. While it can be difficult to find native shrubs (that produce berries for birds), nurseries reliably sell Crabapple trees each spring because they feature pretty, fragrant flowers that appeal to customers.

If you buy Crabapple trees that grow small fruit, they can be a valuable food source for birds throughout fall and winter. In Crabapples for birds, Johnson’s nursery in Wisconsin explains that Crabapple fruits vary in hardness; the softer the fruit, the earlier it is ready for birds to eat. They list numerous small-fruiting Crabapple varieties, grouped according to when they’re soft enough for birds. For example, in this list my ‘Prairie Fire’ Crabapple trees provide mid-winter season fruit; obviously with our colder Ottawa weather, the timing of this list is off. It is still useful though, if you use it more as a guide for which Crabapples are ready earlier, in the middle, or later. Since My ‘Rosthern’ Crabapples are ready quite early, and ‘Prairie Fire’ is ready now, I’d like to add another Crabapple that will be ready later in winter.

The popularity of Crabapple trees in urban areas encourages fruit-eating Robins to hang around in winter. According to the Michigan State University Extension page American Robin: Harbringer of spring or year-round resident?, Robin migration is determined more by food supply than temperature. In winter, they form nomadic flocks that show up wherever there is abundant fruit.

The commonly-available Crabapple cultivars aren’t native. However, in Bringing Nature Home, Douglas Tallamy explains that these non-native Crabapples are very similar to native trees (page 166). They are successfully used by the moth and butterfly caterpillars that use native Crabapples as a host plant. I have never seen native Crabapple trees for sale, so at lease non-native ones seem okay to plant too.

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