Don’t trust the birds


Recently I’ve written about some obscure brightly colored fruits many think are poisonous. Beautyberries and firethorn are edible and birds love both. Don’t let the latter fool you, because you can’t trust the birds.

Now that leaves are beginning to fall, their persistent fruits and those from evergreen plants are more noticeable. I am a fan of many ‘out of the mainstream’ fruits, but don’t experiment unless you know what you’re doing. You can’t assume wild or ornamental fruits are safe because birds or wildlife eat them.

All hollies are poisonous. They contain cyanide producing compounds as well as other toxic substances. We have numerous holly species in our landscape and many readily escape cultivation. One beautiful one is called winterberry holly.

Like all hollies it has separate male and female plants. This means that some plants will be loaded with fruit while others have none.

Most people know hollies are poisonous but few recognize this one as a holly species because plants lose their leaves in the fall. This exposes clusters of beautiful tempting red berries. These fruits are toxic to people, livestock and pets. Winterberry holly’s most potent toxin is a chemical called theobromine. It causes severe nausea and diarrhea, but death is unlikely.

Some hollies have red berries and some have black ones, but none can be consumed by humans. They do draw birds. Usually birds don’t eat them until they’ve been softened by numerous frosts. This likely makes them more palatable.

Another common landscape plant with bright red berries is Nandina, also known as heavenly bamboo. This shrub is commonly used in local landscapes and also escapes into adjacent areas. Some types grow to be over 10 feet tall and in full sun can produce copious fruit.

Nandina is only mildly poisonous and the toxins are in the seeds not the berry pulp. This is small consolation as far as I’m concerned. I still suggest people and pets should not eat these fruits.

Some sources list Nandina fruits and foliage as edible, but the tedious rinsing necessary to remove bitter compounds renders them low on my foraging list. Berries usually persist late into the winter before birds finally run out of other options.

Another bright red inedible fruit in our local landscape is the cotoneaster. The two main species are rockspray and bearberry. Neither is considered edible, nor are they dangerous. They will give you an upset stomach and a little nausea if you eat very many. However, they are quite bitter and it is unlikely you would care to do that if other options are available.

Lastly, another plant with attractive red berry-like structures is the yew. These soft hollow balls are actually cones and not fruit. All parts of the plant are poisonous but the seeds in these unusual soft cones are highly toxic. The genus name for yew is Taxus, which means toxin, but many birds eat the seeds with no problems. Keep children and pets away from them, since they can be a curiosity.

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com) and frequently publish articles in several other newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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14 Responses to Don’t trust the birds

  1. kimberlypaigeweaver says:

    I have heard that hollies are poisonous. But I never knew that birds can eat them, while humans caint.

  2. awhitenhs12 says:

    its crazy that birds can eat hollies, and not be affectd by it

  3. i think its weird too that the birds can eat without being affected

  4. sbright16 says:

    I think that it’s weird that a bird can hollies and nbot get hurt because it seems like it would hurt their insides.

  5. its very obscure that birds cannot be affected by this plant

  6. susiehedley says:

    It’s good to know about these attractive yet toxic plants and how just because a bird eats something doesn’t mean it’s safe.

  7. Morgan Murray says:

    I learned that all hollies are poisonous. The Nanina shrub can grow up to be over 10 feet tall. Some sources of this foliage are edible because it is only mildly poisonous and the toxins are in the seeds not the berry pulp. I never knew that some hollies have black berries. I always thought that they had red berries. Usually birds don’t eat them unless they have been softened by many frosts. From this article I learned that not everything a bird will eat is safe for humans to eat.

  8. Brianna Ruetten says:

    From this I learned that some hollies have red berries and some have black ones. Before this I thought that they only were red.

  9. Im surprised that that the berries don’t affect a bird but they can affect us. I also learned that holly berrys come in black. Before this I thought it only came in red.

  10. jordan2197 says:

    I did not know that all hollies are poisonous. they have Cyanide producing compounds as well as other toxic substances are in them. I also did not know that some hollies have black berries and some have red, I always thought that they all had red berries and that bird usually don’t eat them until the berries have been softened by several frosts. some types can grow to be 10 feet tall and in full sun they can produce Copious fruit. Nandina also known as heavenly bamboo is only mildly poisonous and their toxins are in the seed not in the berries pulp. some sources list the Nandina fruits and foliage is edible.
    I did not know that the yew is all poisonous meaning the parts but the birds can eat them with out being harmed while if humans do they will be harmed.

  11. curtis24 says:

    I never new all hollies were poisonous.they have toxic substances like cyanide.We have several holly species in our landscape.But they are toxic to humans live stock and pets.

  12. ashleychory says:

    I never knew that all hollies are poisonous. The Nanina shrub can grow up to be over 10 feet tall. this foliage are edible because it is only mildly poisonous and the toxins are in the seeds not the berry pulp. I some hollies have black berries. Usually birds don’t eat them unless they have been softened by many frosts. they are toxic to human as also live stock and pets.

  13. birds should always stop messing with the food and berries in the wild.

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