Holly is commonly used as an ornamental decoration during the holiday season, but it has the additional benefit of attracting many bird species when planted in the garden. Along with the strong leaves that offer shelter and nesting habitat, the berries of holly plants can be a fantastic food source throughout the winter when other food sources are scarce. In this article, we look at 16 birds that eat holly berries as part of their diet.
16 Birds That Eat Holly Berries
The berries of the female holly plant begin to ripen and turn red in the fall and they persist into the winter. With their dark evergreen leaves and colorful red berries, it’s no wonder they are such a bright spot in the winter landscape and are used to decorate festive winter celebrations. While you may know that holly berries are not fit for human consumption, many birds can safely eat them. Holly berries can provide a burst of energy and some extra calories during the winter when other food sources are less plentiful.
1. American Robin
The American robin is a familiar and beloved bird across North America, often associated with the arrival of spring. However, many robins stay in their winter territories and adapt to the season’s food availability.
Holly berries become a valuable food source for these versatile birds when insects and worms are harder to come by. Their orange-red breasts provide a charming contrast against the backdrop of holly’s rich red berries.
2. Cedar waxwing
Cedar waxwings are renowned for their sophisticated appearance, marked by their black bandit mask, trailing crest, silky tawny feathers and vibrant yellow tail tips.
They often travel in large flocks, and you are likely to see a group of them descend on a berry tree and have a feast. These birds love eating fruits and berries, and holly berries are certainly on their list of winter delicacies.
Bluebirds, both Eastern and Western varieties, may be known for coming to feast on mealworms at your feeder. However aside from insects, they also love to eat berries. Mistletoe, holly, bayberry, sumac, dogwood and more are all on the menu.
Bluebirds are often considered a symbol of hope and happiness, and their vibrant blue plumage brightens up a winter landscape.
4. American Goldfinch
American goldfinches are renowned for their brilliant yellow plumage during the summer, earning them the nickname “wild canaries.” However, in winter, while they still show hues of yellow most of their plumage changes to a more muted olive-brown.
Goldfinches are primarily seed eaters. Having a nyjer feeder or planting thistle, aster, sunflower and zinna in your yard can attract them. However they do supplement their diet with other foods on occasion, including small berries like holly, insects or tree buds.
5. Northern Mockingbird
Northern mockingbirds are known for their uncanny ability to mimic the songs of other birds. They are also adaptable in their dietary choices. In the spring and summer, northern mockingbirds will primarily eat insects like beetles, moths, bees, ants and grasshoppers. However when the season turns to fall and winter, mockingbirds switch over to a diet heavy in fruits and berries.
This will include holly, pokeweed, elderberry and juniper just to name a few. In fact, due to their aggressive nature, if they find a tree or shrub producing a lot of berries they may defend it against other birds, which can sometimes cause backyard disputes.
6. European starling
European starlings will typically eat insects throughout the year. However, during the cold weather when insects aren’t as readily available, they will supplement with all sorts of other food sources from seeds to picking through your trash.
Berries are definitely on their extended menu, including holly, cherries, hackberries, sumac, mulberries and blackberries. During winter, they often form large flocks that feed on holly berries, contributing to the seed dispersal of these festive plants.
7. Hermit Thrush
Hermit thrushes are known for their beautiful, flute-like songs. Like many birds, during the spring and summer they take advantage of the bounty of insects for food. However during the fall and winter they supplement their diet with a number of berries, including holly.
During the winter, hermit thrushes can be found in the southern U.S. and along the west coast. In the non-breeding season they may forage together in small flocks with other forest birds such as chickadees, kinglets and titmice.
8. Northern Cardinal
Northern cardinals, known for males brilliant red plumage, make for a picture-perfect sight against a winter landscape. In fact, cardinals and holly berries are two natural motifs often used together in decorative winter art.
The two main areas of a cardinal’s diet are seeds and fruits. You’ll be likely to attract many to your winter feeder by leaving out sunflower seeds. However berry producing trees and shrubs can also attract them, such as holly, sumac, mulberry, dogwood, hackberry and wild grape. A nice, dense holly tree or shrub also provides good nesting habitat.
9. Blue jay
Blue jays are relatively common birds in the eastern U.S., known for their vibrant blue plumage and distinct white markings. They are also recognized for their assertive and often noisy personalities.
Blue jays eat a variety of foods, and you’ll often see them flying away with acorns and other large nuts to cache them away in secret stores. However, fruits like holly berry are also enjoyed, especially during the fall and winter.
10. Mourning dove
Mourning doves are peaceful birds known for their soft, mournful cooing calls. They are often seen perched on utility wires or foraging on the ground throughout the United States.
Mourning doves have a specialized diet, consisting mostly of grains, and seeds. However, these doves also appreciate the nourishing qualities of holly berries during the winter months, and will opportunistically eat the occasional berry.
11. Ruffed grouse
Ruffed grouse are ground-dwelling birds found in forested areas of the northern United States and Canada. They are actually the most widely distributed resident game bird. This grouse can digest foods high in cellulose, giving them the ability to eat a diet mostly comprised of vegetation like leaves, buds, fruits and even bark. During the winter they can add in holly and other berries.
To protect themselves from cold winds, they will seek out stands of dense evergreens or even burry themselves in snow drifts where they can create an insulated chamber.
12. Northern bobwhite
Northern bobwhite quail are small, plump birds known for their distinctive whistled “bob-white” calls. They are considered a game species but suffer from declining populations.
They are primarily ground-dwelling and are often found in grassy or shrubby habitats. The diet of the northern bobwhite can vary with season and place, but holly berries may be included in many regions. The main staples of their diet are leaves and seeds from agricultural crops and weedy fields.
13. Wild turkey
Wild turkeys are large and robust birds, known for their impressive plumage and keen foraging abilities. They are often found in forests, woodlands, and open fields and have a varied diet consisting of seeds, fruits, insects, and sometimes small animals.
Holly berries are among the foods that wild turkeys consume during winter, among many other opportunistic food sources. They can use their long toes to dig through shallow snow and leaf litter to find acorns, beech nuts, and other seeds and berries.
14. Gray Catbird
Gray Catbirds are mainly summer visitors to the U.S. Catbirds are gray all over with a black stripe across the top of their head. You’ll probably hear them before you see them, calling at you from the shadows of vegetation with their meow-like screech.
While insects are their main summer food, they also enjoy fruits and berries when they can find them. Holly, cherries, poison ivy and blackberries are all enjoyed, and you may have to cover your garden raspberries, grapes and strawberries if you don’t want them to poke around!
15. Northern Flicker
Since they are known for drilling on wood to gain access to their insect prey, you may not think woodpeckers would eat berries. But they do have variety in their diet, especially the Northern Flicker.
This somewhat unusual woodpecker not only likes to eat ants from the ground, but also includes fruits and seeds in their diet during the winter months. Berries from holly are a welcome winter staple, as are dogwood, wild cherry, wild grape, hackberry, elderberry and sumac.
16. Townsend’s Solitaire
When you talk about berry eating birds you have to include the Townsend’s Solitaire. This bird of western mountain forests spends the summer eating insects, but then switches to a diet of berries during the non-breeding season.
Their berry of choice is the juniper, and research suggests they eat thousands upon thousands of them to help them survive the winter season. Other berries they consume include buckthorn, holly, serviceberry, elderberry and winterberry.