Robert’s Butte near Lookout CA is covered in western junipers (Juniperus occidentalis). While walking there recently Leonard and I noticed evening grosbeaks eating the juniper berries. This surprised us as neither Leonard nor I can recall seeing evening grosbeaks eat juniper berries before.
Western junipers are important for the survival of many local species throughout the year, especially during period of severe weather conditions, such as we experienced this year. Dense stands of juniper provide thermal and hiding cover for deer and other animals. During the breeding season a wide variety of birds nest in junipers. Very importantly, juniper berries are also essential for keeping several kinds of birds alive over the winter. Robins, Stellar’s jays, mountain bluebirds, Townsend’s solitaires, scrub jays and cedar waxwings are all known to eat juniper berries in the winter. On our walk we saw all six species eating the berries (the berries are actually cones). Rabbits, coyotes, mice and woodrats, among other animals, also eat juniper berries in the winter.
I always wondered how a bird or animal could survive on those bitter, blue berries. Occasionally I will pick a few to flavor a sauerkraut dish I make. But I always considered juniper berries nutritionally lacking. I was surprised to discover that ripe juniper berries contain 46% carbohydrates and 16% fat – definitely more food value than I imagined and enough to keep an animal alive. According to the literature, a robin can eat over 200 juniper berries in a day.
Evening grosbeaks eat a wide range of small fruits and seeds. Although evening grosbeaks prefer maple seeds, I suppose juniper berries qualify as small fruits. Usually Leonard and I associate and see evening grosbeaks on maples and elms and do not think of them as fruit eaters.
These cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) were eating juniper berries, pictured on the tree and on the ground, on Robert’s Butte. Cedar waxwings live in our area during all the season of the year.
Other than mice and Stellar’s jays, I have done previous posts (which can be viewed by clicking the links) on all the animals and birds mentioned: