A coatimundi feasts on the fruits of the netleaf hackberry. Photo by Vince Pinto

February can be a rather bleak month, dietarily speaking, for our native wildlife. While most prudent invertebrates, reptiles, and amphibians give it a miss altogether, our broad array of birds and mammals must somehow tough it out and find sufficient food. Fortunately for these stolid February foragers, several key plant species dangle their fruits predominantly in winter. Not only does a wild animal gain nutrition and fitness from dining upon winter’s wild fruits, but the fruits themselves gain much in the bargain as well. 

In the game of “eat or be eaten” superficial examination of the relationships between native plants and wildlife seem to be heavily skewed towards animals taking advantage of plants. After all, when a wildlife species consumes part of a native plant, the animal benefits, while the plant loses part of its hard-earned flesh. Right? 

Well, sometimes this relationship actually can benefit the plant. In fact, a good number of plants lure in various birds and mammals to eat their fruits in the hope that their seeds might be successfully dispersed.

The obvious dilemma here from the plant’s perspective is that its seeds are immobile and therefore condemned to be moved only by wind, water, or gravity. While many plant species employ these means of dispersal, others have recruited warm-blooded vertebrates – our birds and mammals – in an effort not only to transport future generations to more distant locales, but even to help them germinate better in the process. Surround your seed with tasty flesh and there’s no telling just who might come in and sup upon the free feast, ultimately scarifying the seeds in stomach acids, thus improving germination rates!

This year the fruits of netleaf hackberry heavily bedeck their branches in an ongoing feast. Living up to its alternate name, sugarberry, the fruit tastes like rich date sugar – a sure temptation for mammals and birds alike. A cursory glance at the range map of this tree species virtually screams “birds ate me!” as many isolated populations are found in the western U.S. I have witnessed American robins, Townsend’s solitaires, and cedar waxwings, among others, downing the tasty orange-red fruits of this species. 

A slew of medium-sized, omnivorous mammals also partake of the sweet treats adorning the netleaf hackberry. The next time you pass this leaden-barked tree notice its rather gangly, often horizontal limbs. Despite their lack of girth these branches of about finger-to-wrist thickness easily accommodate the weight of a medium-sized foraging mammal. During the day watch for white-nosed coatis greedily devouring the fruit. They pull in smaller branches with their paws and artfully hang – even upside-down – in order to reach as much of the bounty as possible. Watching a troop of these neotropical procyonids is truly a marvel.

Seeing other mammals ferry fruits is decidedly more difficult, as they tend to be mostly nocturnal. Still, scat doesn’t lie, and even less observant forest wanderers may notice the seeds and remaining bright orange flesh of hackberries in the scat of northern raccoon, ringtail, grey fox (yes, they can climb trees with alacrity), Virginia opossum, and possibly some of our skunk species as well.

Coinciding with this sugarberry banquet are the truly different fruits (really unopened, fleshy cones) of red-berry juniper. This widespread conifer, like hackberry, has variable fruiting years. This year has been a boon, much to the benefit of our frugivorous native birds and mammals. 

Despite its aromatic taste, juniper fruit draws in much the same lineup of mammalian munchers as netleaf hackberry, leading this time to bright purple remnants in scat. Interestingly, the branches of this juniper are very mammal-friendly as well in regards to bearing their weight.

This juniper hedges its bet by luring in a number of birds as well. Cedar waxwings properly should be called juniper waxwings, as the name refers to their habit of eating the fruits of various Juniperus species. Sage thrashers, uncommon winter visitors to our parts, can be found hanging out in red-berry juniper, often consuming the fruit they’re surrounded by. Once I marveled at a red-berry juniper tree near my home that simultaneously housed multiple sage thrashers, a northern mockingbird, a curve-billed thrasher, and a crissal thrasher!

Adding to February’s frozen fruit feast are various mistletoes (as per my last article), snakewood or Warnock’s condalia, fishhook barrel cactus, cane cholla, and silverleaf nightshade – each with their own fascinating and literally alluring natural history tales to tell.

Vincent Pinto and his wife, Claudia, run RAVENS-WAY WILD JOURNEYS LLC, their Nature Adventure & Conservation organization devoted to protecting and promoting the unique biodiversity of the Sky Islands region. Visit: www.ravensnatureschool.org