Native plantings attract new backyard visitors/Inside the DNR

As I was hauling firewood near our house, I saw a flock of about 30 birds alight in a box elder tree along our lane, about 100 yards off. At first glance I thought they might be starlings, but something made me look closer. When I got close enough, I recognized crests on the chunky bird’s heads clearly they were waxwings.

I assumed I was seeing cedar waxwings, the common waxwing in most of Michigan, although their chunky appearance made me look and listen closer as I neared their location. At about 70 yards away, some of the birds flew down to feed on high bush cranberries that hung heavily on bushes I planted about 15 years ago.

I was gratified that the birds were taking advantage of those berries, because I had planted the bushes for the purpose of attracting and feeding wildlife during the winter. They are one of the few berries that are native and “persistent,” meaning they stay on the bushes all winter unless something eats them.

It is not unusual to see cedar waxwings in those bushes.

Finally, I could hear the birds, and realized I was not hearing the voices of cedar waxwings. Rather, the birds were Bohemian waxwings, and this marked my first viewing of them at home.

I set the wheelbarrow down and watched the birds as they all swooped down to cranberry bushes and began to feed. After a few minutes they all picked up and flew around, landing once again in the box elder, now almost over my head. As I picked up the handles on the wheelbarrow and started again toward the house, the birds didn’t go anywhere. They just let me trundle on by, another difference between Bohemian and cedar waxwings – my experience has been that Bohemian waxwings are substantially less skittish than cedar waxwings. Later, from the house, I could see them back in the cranberry bushes feeding on berries again.

Those who are interested in providing natural food sources during winter for birds like waxwings, bluebirds and robins might consider planting high bush cranberries, Sargent’s crabapples or Siberian crabapples. These shrubs and small trees produce fruit that stays on through the winter and is available to wildlife when most fruits are gone. I have found that creatures eat the crabapples first, and they eat the high bush cranberries when things get tough.

Interesting enough, I have never had a problem with deer munching high bush cranberry bushes, but they will eat both the Sargent’s crabapple bushes and Siberian crabapple trees. Siberian crabapples eventually grow out of the reach of deer and become small trees, but I have Sargent’s crabapples that are over 20 years old and no more than 7 feet tall so they remain within reach of deer.

For more information about improving native, back yard food sources that attract a variety of wildlife, visit the DNR’s website at DNRfoodsources.

Doug Reeves is assistant chief of the Michigan DNR’s Wildlife Division. To receive regular stories about wildlife viewing opportunities by email, visit, click on the red envelope, and subscribe to the Wildlife Viewing listserv.