Food for Wildlife

After three lean years, our oak trees finally produced a bumper crop of acorns last September. Forewarned by hordes of blue jays screaming from the treetops as they plucked ripe acorns from the oaks, I had to be careful on our steep trails not to slide on the fallen nuts that were more hazardous than marbles.

grey squirrel

Grey squirrel eating an acorn (Juraj Patekar image on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Still, not every section of forested Pennsylvania had a good acorn crop, despite predictions from folks that should know better. Dr. Marc Abrams, a forestry professor at Penn State says there’s “no way to predict it,” calling a heavy mast year “one of the amazing mysteries in nature that we still do not have a handle on.”

Dr. Warren G. Abrahamson, a Bucknell University professor who conducted a long term study of acorn production from 1969 to 1996 with Jim Layne of the Archbald Biological Station in Florida, agrees, although he says that “the production of acorns definitely is not forecasting but hind casting the weather.” In their September 2003 report of their work they claimed that the size of the acorn crop each year is partly controlled by precipitation which affects acorns during different stages of development in prior years.

Other experts think that the group behavior of masting trees called synchrony most likely depends in part on the temperature during pollination in late April or May. Since oaks are wind-pollinated, meaning the wind must transfer pollen from staminate (male) to pistillate (female) flowers, a period of rain might disrupt the process.

For instance, a cold, wet spring in 2012 affected red oak production in 2013 because all the oaks in the black oak group (those with pointed lobes on their leaves) take two years to mature. Those in the white oak group (those with smooth lobes on their leaves) take only a year and would be affected by a late spring frost during pollination.

Still others believe that synchrony occurs as a way to outsmart nut predators by producing more nuts than the predators can eat, ensuring that at least some nuts will grow into trees. But whatever the causes, it is cyclic and occurs every three to five years.

On our dry mountaintop we have mostly chestnut oaks with an occasional white oak in the white oak group. Deer prefer these tastier acorns and squirrels eat them almost immediately because they spoil more quickly than those in the black oak group, which include scrub, black, northern red, and scarlet oaks here. Those acorns the squirrels store.

hickory nut

Hickory nuts form 10 to 25 percent of a squirrel’s diet in a good year (image by Peppysis on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Acorns are not the only hard mast fruit. Others include the squirrels’ favorite—hickories, especially pignut, mockernut, and shagbark—which consists of 10 to 25 % of their diets in a good year and ripen before acorns. But like oaks, as well as the other hard mast producers—American beeches and black walnuts—they are also wind-pollinated.

Hard mast is high in fat, carbohydrates, and protein and is important to at least 180 species of birds and animals in fall and winter, but since it is highly variable in production from year to year, wildlife must depend also on a wide variety of soft mast throughout spring, summer, and fall. These fleshy, perishable fruits high in sugar, vitamins, and carbohydrates include a wide variety of native trees, shrubs, and woody vine species.

Foresters and wildlife biologists, in fact, consider mast to be the woody plant fruits and browse of native trees, shrubs and vines even though the word mast comes from the Old English “maest” which meant the forest tree nuts on the ground that fattened domestic pigs and other animals.

A wide variety of soft mast allows many mammals and birds to survive the lean years of hard mast. Of course, there are always some nuts every year, but ever since the extinction of American chestnut trees which, because they were insect-pollinated and didn’t bloom until summer, reliably produced an excellent crop of nuts, wildlife has had to adjust to a feast or near famine hard mast situation.

Consequently, encouraging biologically diverse meadows and forests, stocked with native trees, shrubs, and woody vine species produces food for wildlife throughout the year. And diverse food leads to diverse wildlife, as we’ve discovered on our property.

Other examples of trees that are insect-pollinated and produce a huge number of seeds every year as well as foliage, twigs and bark are red and striped maples. Striped maple, also called moosewood or goosefoot, has fruit that matures in early fall and is eaten by ruffed grouse, rodents, and songbirds. In addition, it produces browse for deer and bark for rabbits and beaver.

Elk eat the buds, foliate, twigs and bark of red maple, songbirds gorge on the seeds, and squirrels and mice store them for winter.

Basswood is another insect-pollinated tree, producing seeds squirrels and chipmunks consume while deer and rabbits browse its foliage.

The best of the soft mass fruit is that of wild black cherry trees. It fruits abundantly every third or fourth year in August and is pollinated by solitary bees. Seventy bird species feed on the fruit including grouse and wild turkeys. Black bears, raccoons, foxes, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks and mice relish the dark cherries.

witch-hazel fruit and flowers

Witch-hazel fruit and flowers (Image by Rodger Evans on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The fruit of sassafras trees, which is high in fat, is eaten by turkeys, bobwhite quail, black bears, pileated woodpeckers and gray catbirds. Rabbits and deer browse its twigs, black bears like its stems and deer its leaves. Despite its popularity, we have many sassafras trees in our forest.

Common witch-hazel, which flowers in late fall, develops woody capsules the following spring and summer. Those capsules contain a pair of shiny, black hard-coated seeds that shoot out in autumn before the next flowering. But squirrels, turkeys, quail, and grouse go after them, especially if the acorn crop fails. Deer browse heavily on witch-hazel, but it persists in growing above the deer line here.

Common spicebush (my personal favorite) produces brilliant spicy red fruits eaten by grouse, pheasants, and quail. It also provides shoots for rabbits and browse for deer, but it too survives and thrives, especially in wet areas along our stream. Our son Dave has planted it as an attractive shrub in our yard and his.

Both red-berried elder, which blooms the same time as the invasive barberry, has red berries available for birds in June or early July, although it only lives on steep slopes here because deer are fond of its browse. Deer also like common elderberry. It blooms in late June or early July and hangs heavy with clusters of dark purple berries favored by birds and humans in late August.

White-throated sparrow with staghorn sumac fruit

White-throated sparrow with staghorn sumac fruit (Kelly Colgan Azar photo on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Staghorn sumac is making a recovery on our property, living on the sunny edges of meadows and forests. Blooming in late June and early July, its greenish-yellow, fragrant flowers morph into bright red, cone-shaped clusters of fruit that last through the winter, providing food for squirrels, songbirds, grouse, pheasants, turkeys and quail. Deer and rabbits browse on this shrub as well.

Wild berries are a popular summer food. First come the lowbush blueberries as early as mid-June on our powerline right-of-way, followed by the huckleberries. Black bears are particularly fond of them, but so are songbirds, grouse, chipmunks, pheasants, and mice.

Black raspberries ripen in early July and blackberries in early August. Both are incredibly important fruit for songbirds, skunks, opossums, foxes, squirrels, chipmunks, and black bears, while rabbits like their cover and rabbits and deer browse on their stems. Of course, the wildlife must also compete with me, especially in the blackberry patches.

Opossum eating wild grapes

Opossum eating wild grapes (photo by pverdonk on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Greenbrier of several species has bluish-black berries eaten by songbirds and gamebirds and deer browse them. They browse wild grapevines too, but wild grapes are among the most important and valuable food for wildlife including songbirds, gamebirds, foxes, skunks, raccoons, opossums, squirrels and deer. The vines provide winter shelter for animals and birds too. I remember one winter when the hard mast failed and deer spent the season among the grapevines of the Far Field thicket, yarding up like they do in northern New England.

My list of native trees, shrubs and vines could be greatly expanded. In other parts of Pennsylvania, particularly south of us, still other wildlife food, such as common papaws, are important. But diversity remains the key to providing abundant wildlife food, even in years when hard mast is scarce.

The Mushroom Man

Bill Russell

Bill Russell

“I was trained by the gypsies,” Bill Russell told me.  “They would come to set up camps near my home in Turtle Creek, southeast of Pittsburgh, for six weeks every summer.”

The gypsies may have added to his growing knowledge, but Russell caught mushroom fever while hunting field mushrooms with his parents when he was a toddler.  Because he was closer to the ground, he spied three button mushrooms his parents had missed.  His mother sautéed those mushrooms for him, and he was hooked immediately on mushroom hunting.

Once he learned to read, his father bought him a mushroom guide.  He memorized much of it over the winter and then studied mushrooms in the woods, fields, and backyards near his home.  His first discovery was glistening inky cap Coprinus micaceus.

“I have a deep affection for the inky,” he writes in his excellent book Field Guide to Wild Mushrooms of Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic.  “It’s the first wild mushroom I learned by myself to eat when I was a mycologically precocious youngster.”

Still, he moved slowly and carefully when identifying wild mushrooms, and his book is filled with warnings to go slowly in mushroom identification.  His parents remained leery of his expertise, and every Thanksgiving, when he bestowed a big basketful upon them of velvet stem mushrooms (Flammulina velvutipes) to add to the turkey stuffing, his mother gamely added them, but Bill was the only person who ate it.

Young enoki (velvet stem) mushrooms by frankenstoen on Flickr

Young enoki (velvet stem) mushrooms by frankenstoen on Flickr (Creative Commons Attribution license)

By the time he graduated from high school, he could identify 50 edible mushrooms.  But Russell and his mushroom-hunting pal, Karen Croyle of Osceola Mills, also know many non-edible species, as we discovered during a field trip last July along the Lower Trail in Blair and Huntington counties with Russell and Croyle.

After a wet, late spring and early summer, when mushrooms popped up everywhere, by mid-July it had dried up, and the graveled, wide Lower Trail with grass and young trees on either side wasn’t a mushroom-hunters’ paradise.  Luckily, we had several pairs of young eyes close to the ground, and Jake Miller, almost ten years old, found the first mushroom, and his brother Andy, almost five years old, found the second.

Our son Dave, our 13-year-old granddaughter Eva, who was with us for the summer, and I were eager to learn more about mushrooms.  Eva had already shown great interest in the mushrooms growing in our forest during hikes with me, admiring their many colors and shapes.  Back in June, we had found a large chicken mushroom at the end of Black Gum Trail, and she had urged me to harvest it and carry it the couple of miles to our home in my wide-brimmed hat.

According to Russell’s book, we had picked the white chicken mushroom Laetiporus persicinus, known in our area as “spring chicken,” which has white undersides instead of the sulfur yellow of the true chicken mushroom L sulphureus.  White chicken mushroom grows on dead stumps and logs from late May through the summer, while chicken mushroom, also called “sulfur mushroom,” “sulfur shelf” or just plain “chicken,” appears from late summer through much of the autumn.  Both species taste like chicken breast meat.  “…a skillful cook,” Russell writes, “will make you believe that you are eating real old-fashioned Kentucky fried,” and our son Dave has invented several recipes even mushroom haters like.

We never did find a chicken mushroom on our field trip, although a participant had brought one that she had found in her backyard for Russell to identify.  Apparently, she didn’t have a copy of his book because it has excellent photos of both chicken mushroom species in it.

Russell with the disputed bolete

Russell with the disputed bolete

Of course, not all the so-called edible mushrooms are as easy to identify.  Despite the expertise of Russell and Croyle, they didn’t agree on the identity of Andy Miller’s find.  Was it Boletus bicolor, as Russell thought, or B. sensibilis, as Croyle maintained?  It all depended on how quickly the rosy-capped mushroom with a bright yellow stem bruised blue.  If slowly, it was the edible bicolor, if instantly, the “reportedly poisonous” sensibilis.  Even after they bruised the specimen, it was still debatable whether it had turned instantly or more slowly, so it was not the kind of mushroom I’d ever be willing to experiment with, but I could appreciate its beauty.

A small, fragile, bell-shaped, light-brown mushroom Russell called Coprinus micaceus or “I don’t know it.” Although it was another species, I would not gamble on, this was the first species Russell learned to identify and eat as a youngster.

We also found a polypore, which Russell defines in his book as “usually wood-growing, tough or woody shelf-like mushrooms with a typically off-center stem—or no stem—and a firm layer of pores under the cap.”  The afore-mentioned chicken mushrooms are also polypores.

Once again, there was a little uncertainty about the species. Was it a black-footed polypore (Polyporus badius) or elegant polypore (P. varius)? Both grow on stumps and logs of deciduous trees or on buried wood, both are leathery and a shade of brown, but elegant polypore are smaller than black-footed polypore.  As far as polypores are concerned, though, none are known to be poisonous, Russell told us, although many don’t taste great and/or are tough and chewy.  Some, like chicken mushroom, are choice edibles, some have medicinal uses, and still others produce dyes.

Despite the paucity of interesting mushrooms, Russell and Croyle never ran out of mushroom talk.  For instance, oak-loving collybia (Collybia dryophila), a flat, brown, gilled mushroom that grows in groups in oak or pine forests, is easy to identify if “it’s infected with collybia jelly, Syzygospora mycetophila, because the jelly covers the oak-loving collybia’s cap with distinctive pale, gnarled lumps.” Sure enough, Russell pictures both species in his book.

Chicken mushroom

Chicken mushroom

Later, as we drove back up our mountain road, I spotted a huge chicken mushroom growing in the steepest part of the hollow.  Dave and Eva leaped from the car, ran down the slope to the stream, crossed it, and harvested the mushroom from a fallen log.

“We should have had the walk here,” Eva said.  Unfortunately, the Lower Trail lacks the moist, deep oak forest we have, which yields so many wild mushrooms and continued to yield them throughout the rest of the summer and fall.

Eva and I had caught mushroom fever from Russell and Croyle, and on one walk found many we couldn’t identify, despite my five mushroom guides, and four we could, including golden fairy spindle (Clavulinopsis fusiformis), horn of plenty (Craterellus fallax), jack o’lantern (Omphalotus olearius), and fuzzy foot (Paxillus atrotomentosus).  Eva also made spore prints of several species, following directions in Russell’s book, and pored over the guides with me.

We did not find enough horn of plentys (also called “black trumpets” or “woods truffles”) to harvest, although in previous years we had eaten what, Russell writes, “some of my chef friends…consider …the very best of all the edible mushrooms.”  These trumpet-shaped mushrooms come in black, gray, or dark brown and are as unmistakable as chicken mushrooms.

Golden fairy spindle (Clavulinopsis fusiformis) by Ian Bryson on Flickr

Golden fairy spindle by Ian Bryson on Flickr (Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license)

The golden fairy spindle is one of dozens of lovely coral mushrooms with either simple clusters of stalks or branching, coral-like growths, many of which are beautifully colored.  Russell writes that mushroomers have also called the golden fairy spindle “tongues of flame,” “slender golden fingers,” and “yellow-colored coral.”  Another mushroom guide calls them “spindle-shaped yellow coral,”  which is why it is important to learn the scientific names.  Of course, there are several differences even in those names from book to book.

The jack o’lantern grows in large, orange clusters on the base of tree trunks and glows an eerie green in the dark, hence its name.  Folks in our area sometimes mistake it for the edible golden chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius), but the jack o’lantern causes nausea and vomiting.  Russell spends several paragraphs explaining the difference between the two species.  He also says that the same chemical reactions that cause bioluminescence in fireflies is responsible for the jack o’ lantern’s glow.

Black horns of plenty

Black horns of plenty

Fuzzy foot may also be poisonous, according to Russell.  “Its fat, dark brown, fuzzy stem [and] tan gills that run down the stem are its identifying characteristics.” But other guides dispute the poisonous claim, and some folks eat it with no problem.  Again, I’m not willing to risk it.

Even after Eva left for home, I continued my mushroom study.  Small, white, parasol-like caps on top of thin, black stems that grew in our hollow turned out to be Marasmius capillaris (many mushrooms don’t have common names). Shiny cinnamon polypore or fairy stools (Coltricia cinnamonea), a stalked, reddish-brown species grew beside Guesthouse Trail.  Under the hemlocks, I found the red-stalked dog stinkhorn (Mutinus ravenelii).  And one day on our road bank, I identified dye maker’s polypore (Phaeolus schweinitzil), the pale yellow crown coral (Clavicorona pyxidata) and another orange-yellow coral Ramariopsis laeticolor.

None of these species are mentioned in Russell’s book because he only covers 100 of the most common species in our area.  And one expert, Dr. David L. Hawks worth, says there are six species of fungi for every plant and about 1.5 million species of fungi on earth.  Of those, only five to ten percent of fungi have been discovered and named.  From 1980 to 1999, an average of 1,100 new species have been found and described per year.  With this possibility in mind, Russell even tells readers what they should do if they suspect they have found a new species.

Grilled red sea bream with hen of the woods (maitake) by Yumi Kimura on Flickr

Grilled red sea bream with hen of the woods (maitake) by Yumi Kimura on Flickr (Creative Commons BY-SA license)

But my final find, in late September, was what Russell calls “excellent tasting.”  It also specializes in oak forests — the incomparable hen of the woods (Grifola frondosa) or what the Japanese call maitake.  Because it looks like the ruffled brownish-gray feathers of a domestic hen tucked beneath a tree, it’s difficult to spot.  It’s so delicious that “competition for this species can be intense,” Russell says.  Mine was at least a foot across, but Russell has seen one that weighed forty-two pounds.  Nevertheless, we had enough for a delicious stir fry and cream of wild mushroom soup.  What a perfect ending to my mushroom-hunting year.

“What are mushrooms?” Russell asks in his book.  “To those who study and admire them, they are a lifelong source of exploration and adventure.”

Bill Russell has a website, Wild, Wild Mushrooms. It is “all about the wild mushrooms, (including morels, oyster mushrooms, chanterelles, boletes and other exotic fungi) that grow in Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic states,” and includes links to other mushroom sites and recipes.

Photos by Dave Bonta except where otherwise indicated. Larger versions of the photos from Flickr may be seen on click-through.

A Fruitful Year

Some years are more fruitful than others.  Last year was one of those years.  From mid-June until mid-August I never set out for my morning walk without slipping a pint jar into my pocket.  I wanted to be prepared to pick first the low bush blueberries, then the huckleberries on the powerline right-of-way, and later, in August, the blackberries that overhung the Far Field Road.

But for nearly three weeks in July, most of my berry-picking centered on our home grounds where, for the first time in more than two decades, black raspberries escaped most of the ravages of deer and the attention of black bears and produced a crop that I could barely keep up with.

Video of Marcia picking raspberries in 2008. (Subscribers must click through to watch.)

Back in 1971, when we first saw our place on a Fourth of July weekend, I couldn’t believe the abundance of black raspberries growing in the backyard. Over the years, as the deer herd increased, the black raspberry canes decreased. Then, the bears appeared. Those canes that survived the browsing of the deer, namely those growing on the steep slope below the front porch, were trampled by bears overnight and stripped of their almost-ripe fruit.

The ubiquitous white-tailed deer

The ubiquitous white-tailed deer

During the last several years, our hunters have trimmed the deer herd and the black raspberries have begun to recover.  Last summer we had a perfect storm of berries — patches outside the kitchen door, below the front porch, surrounding the springhouse, on a steep slope beside the guesthouse, and in the guesthouse backyard.  Secondary patches thrived beside the driveway and in our side yard.  Every hot, humid morning I was out early, picking several quarts.  Although some went into the freezer for winter fruit salads, we ate most at our meals, either alone or combined with blueberries and huckleberries, depending on whether I had the strength and will to pick both in one day.

The word “fruit” comes from the Latin fructus meaning “that which is used or enjoyed,” and we certainly did both with our wild berry crops.  I did most of the picking.  Occasionally, I was rewarded with more than berries.  Once in the patch outside the kitchen door I found a song sparrow nest that contained four greenish-white eggs heavily blotched with brown.  While picking blueberries on the powerline right-of-way, a tiny American toad hopped in front of me.  Hooded warblers serenaded me as I harvested blackberries on the Far Field Road.

With all the bears on our mountain, I was surprised that they left the black raspberries alone and that I never encountered them amidst the blueberry and huckleberry shrubs.  No doubt, the incredible abundance of wild berries everywhere on our mountain kept them busy.  I, after all, ranged only a mile or so in search of berries, but I knew of other patches on neighboring properties that had as much or more berries than our property and that were not picked by humans. And the bear scat on our trails certainly showed evidence that they were enjoying berries as much as we were.

Not only did the wild fruit crops palatable to humans thrive.  So too did those palatable to birds and animals, such as the red-berried elder, also called mountain elder. This beautiful, native shrub likes cool, moist, rocky woods and blooms in April.  On steep slopes, where deer cannot reach to browse its twigs and foliage, red-berried elder thrives, bearing pyramidal clusters of berry-like drupes here by the sixteenth of June.  Our son, Dave, photographed chipmunks eating them, and I have watched rose-breasted grosbeaks gobbling them up.

chipmunk with red elderberries

chipmunk with red elderberries

The naturalist-writer Henry David Thoreau once wrote in Faith in a Seed, “If you would study the habits of birds; go where their food is, for example, if it is about the first of September, to the wild black-cherry trees, elder bushes, pokeweed…” The “elder” he meant is the common elder, those shrubs with flat-topped, clusters of small, white flowers that  are even more popular wildlife food.  By early September, those shrubs inside our three acre deer exclosure hung heavy with the umbels of purplish-black, berry-like drupes, and I flushed two ruffed grouse feeding on them.

Because common elder blooms long after the last frost — in late June and early July — it always produces a bumper crop of fruit.  “Many species of wild birds are attracted to the ‘banquet table’ which the common elder spreads in the fall,” William Carey Grimm wrote in The Book of Shrubs, such as gray catbirds, American robins, eastern bluebirds, northern cardinals, rose-breasted grosbeaks, eastern towhees, red-bellied woodpeckers, brown thrashers, and wood and hermit thrushes.  But because white-tailed deer browse on its twigs and foliage, the “common” elder has become uncommon in many areas. What the deer don’t eat, the sprayers of roadsides, drainers of swamps, loggers of stream sides, and abolishers of fencerows destroy, because this is a shrub of fencerows and waysides that flourishes in rich, moist soils along streams and swamps.  Those in our exclosure grow along its moist border, reaching a height of seven feet, while those that grew along our stream at the edge of our First Field wetland are gone because of deer browsing.

Wild black cherry trees are not deer food so we have many in all stages of growth including large trees. As early as the second of July, I flushed a brown thrasher fledgling that was eating wild black cherries from a medium-sized tree at the edge of First Field.  But it was mid-August before most of the cherries in the forest began to ripen.  Then they were loaded with fruit, some of which were green, some red, and some black.  Common grackle flocks quickly discovered them, and during an evening walk, my husband Bruce and I watched hundred of blackbirds stream over First Field and land on Sapsucker Ridge, their black bodies silhouetted against a golden sky as they ate cherries.

Cedar Waxwing in an ornamental cherry tree (photo by m. heart, Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license)

Cedar Waxwing in an ornamental cherry tree (photo by m. heart, Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license)

The following day, Tim Tyler, one of our hunter friends, was cutting out black locust trees on First Field when he discovered a cedar waxwing nest with four pale gray eggs spotted with brown in a locust tree.  He immediately stopped cutting there and left a small grove of six trees standing to protect the incipient waxwing family.

Thoreau wrote about finding a small black cherry tree in “full fruit” and hearing the “cherry-birds — their shrill and fine seringo — and robins… The cherry-birds and robins seem to know the locality of any wild cherry tree in town…” “Cherry-birds” are cedar waxwings. Had the waxwings waited for the cherry crop, which was unusually late because of a cold spring, before starting their family?  They do, after all, feed fruit to their nestlings. On the other hand, it could have been a second nesting.  Successful cedar waxwing couples often have second families, especially during good fruit-bearing years.

I kept an eye on the nest from a distance and always saw the female sitting on it.  But on the fifteenth of September, a cedar waxwing keened from the bare branch atop one of the tall black locusts above the nest site.  It looked around alertly, as male cedar waxwings do when they are on guard for their family. I peered at the nest through my binoculars and saw the female on the nest as usual.  Then she flew up toward the male and both of them flew off.  I took the opportunity to check their nest and found four nestlings.  One looked more advanced than the others did, but this sometimes happens with waxwings because often the female starts incubating before she lays all her eggs.

That was the only time I went near the nest, but I continued to watch it from a distance.  Soon the nestlings’ little crested heads were visible above the rim of the nest.  At least one parent was on guard in the tall locust whenever I walked past. Based on my calculations, that the female sits 12 days on her eggs before they start to hatch—a process that can take form 48 to 96 hours—and another 16 days as nestlings, I expected them to fledge around September 24.

Sure enough, on the morning of September 24, the cedar waxwing nest was empty except for a broken egg still holding smelly liquid and two squished wild black cherries.  The nest had been woven of wild grape stems, lined with dried weeds and plastered on the outside with fluffy white material.

In addition to cedar waxwings, I saw red-eyed vireos, blue jays, and scarlet tanagers harvesting wild black cherries, but the list of songbirds and other wildlife that feast on them is legion.  Thoreau mentioned gray catbirds, brown thrashers, eastern kingbirds, blue jays, red-headed woodpeckers, eastern bluebirds and northern cardinals as the most common birds that eat wild black cherries, in addition to robins and cedar waxwings.  Huge piles of bear scat studded with cherry pits on our trails testified to their popularity with bears. And the smaller animals, such as foxes, squirrels, and chipmunks, also ate the fruit.

A bower of pokeweed above Coyote Bench ripened too in September.  Pokeweed, known by many alternative names, for instance, pokeberry, poke, redweed, inkberry, and pigeon berry—can grow up to 12 feet tall in rich, moist soil.  Its long clusters of dark purple berries and large shiny seeds are popular with many songbirds, especially mourning doves, hence its name “pigeon berry.”  Philadelphia-based bird artist, Alexander Wilson, wrote back in the early nineteenth century that “the juice of the berries is of a beautiful crimson and they are eaten in such quantities by these birds [robins] that their whole stomachs are strongly tinged with the same red color.” I’ve watched eastern bluebirds harvesting the berries from pokeweed growing beside our house.

Solomons plume (AKA false Solomons seal) in berry

Solomon's plume (AKA false Solomon's seal) in berry

Several of our spring wildflowers flaunted autumn fruit also.  In mid-September, I walked down our road and found twin orange berries hanging from the end of yellow mandarin stems.  A series of twin blue berries dangled beneath Solomon’s seal stems, bright red clumps of jack-in-the-pulpit berries bent over from their weight, and a string of pinkish-red berries hung from the stem ends of false Solomon’s seal.  Wild spikenard displayed upright clusters of wine-colored berries.  Even the small beginnings of maple-leaved viburnum shrubs had a few dark, bluish-black clumps of berries.

But the wild nut crops were thin or non-existent, probably due, in part, to a cold spell in late spring.  No wonder wildlife was busily harvesting the September fruit crops. Because nature often gives bounteously with one hand and takes with another, the more diversity we have in wildflowers, shrubs, and trees in our forests, the more likely the animals and birds are to find enough to eat even if a major food fails.

All photos were taken by Dave in Plummer’s Hollow except where indicated otherwise.