Junipers Help Birds Cope with the Cold

These native trees provide wildlife a steady supply of food and shelter from harsh weather conditions

01-26-2015 // By Doreen Cubie

Cedar Waxwing Feeding on Juniper 

WHEN THE COLD WINDS BLOW and the snow piles up, Ron Johnson knows which trees will be sought out by birds and other animals in many parts of the country. “Junipers help pull wildlife through tough times,” says Johnson, a professor emeritus in wildlife biology at Clemson University. Not only do native junipers produce abundant food, their dense branches also offer crucial protection from the effects of winter. When spring finally arrives, mockingbirds and other songbirds often shelter their nests deep inside these conifers.

According to Johnson, many types of trees and shrubs will provide one, or perhaps two, of these benefits. But junipers are among the few plants that do it all. “They’re one of the top 10 plants for wildlife,” he says, pointing out that even one juniper in your yard can give birds and small mammals a boost. Everything from eastern bluebirds and evening grosbeaks to wild turkeys and sharp-tailed grouse devour the fruit. On a frigid day, some birds may gulp down more than 200 of the berries. Plus, the berries add splashes of brilliant blue to backyards during the cold months.

Experts note, however, that there are a few downsides to junipers. For one, they should not be planted near apple or crabapple trees because they are susceptible to cedar-apple rust, a fungal disease. Juniper pollen also can cause hay fever. If you live in a fire-prone area, do not place these highly flammable conifers near your home or other buildings. In addition, the trees can take over nearby meadows or prairies. “If you have a grassland right next to you,” says Johnson, “proceed cautiously.”

Another point to consider: Nearly all species of junipers are dioecious, which means male plants produce only pollen and female plants produce only fruit. If there are no other junipers in your neighborhood, you must include a male in your yard or the females will not set fruit. One way to determine the gender of junipers is to buy them in fall or winter when females are fruiting. In milder regions, those seasons also are good times to plant junipers.

Native Junipers

About a dozen juniper species are indigenous to the continental United States. Before you plant the trees, make sure you only cultivate species that are native to the area where you live. Here are a few of them:

Rocky Mountain juniper: This large tree grows in the wild from eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana and western North Dakota south to Arizona and New Mexico. Sometimes called western red cedar, it is the most cold tolerant of the junipers.

Eastern red cedar: Despite its name, this tree is a juniper. The most widespread conifer in parts of the East and Midwest, it is native to 37 states. Dozens of bird species feast on the tree’s berries, including cedar waxwings, which get their common name from their fondness for the fruit.

Ashe juniper: Native from Missouri to central Texas, this tree can grow as tall as 40 feet. Some birds use thin strips of its bark to build their nests, and others, such as curve-billed thrashers and bobwhite quail, eat its berries. 

Common juniper: This small species grows in the wild across the northern tier of the lower 48 states and southern Canada. It flourishes best in cooler climates and like other junipers, it is a magnet for birds.


Trees for Wildlife

To provide habitat for wildlife and help teach students about nature, NWF regularly distributes seedlings to schools and communities. To learn how you can support this program, visit www.shopnwf.org/treesforwildlife.


Writer Doreen Cubie is based in South Carolina.

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