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Blane Klemek column: Birds seek out winter fruit

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outdoors Bemidji, 56619

Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

I wonder if the city of Bemidji planners had ever thought about all the possible values of the flowering crabapple trees that were planted many years ago along the west side of Bemidji Avenue north of 15th Street and adjacent to Greenwood Cemetery?

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I'm sure they must have, because anyone who knows anything about these trees knows that their blossoms are not only a sure sign of springtime in the Northland, they also help to beautify the city.

Most people realize that the blossoms of flowering crabapple trees eventually become the trees' abundant fruits. Small little apples, often harvested by people in order to make jams and jellies, pies, and so on, are also gobbled up by wildlife, especially birds and especially during certain and critical times of the year.

While at work recently, I noticed something as I looked through my office building's front windows that overlook Bemidji Avenue. Tens of dozens of birds - I later estimated somewhere between 200 and 300 - were flocked within the branches of several crabapple trees. I couldn't immediately identify the birds, but I had a hunch.

With my binoculars in hand, I got up from my chair and walked to the window for a better look. Sure enough, the entire flock, spread out amongst six or more crabapple trees, was busily feeding on the trees' fruits. Every single bird was hungrily plucking the tiny apples one by one and devouring them. Indeed, thanks to the bees that in the springtime gathered nectar and pollen from the blossoms, these winter birds were feeding on, quite literally, the fruits of those bees' labors.

The species of birds? They were Bohemian waxwings, a well-known Minnesota winter resident, not to mention a voracious fruit eater. So how important are crabapples to wintering birds like waxwings and others? Very important, to be sure.

Indeed, the importance of crabapples to wintering waxwings was very evident to me as I observed them forage. And as everyone knows, any bird or animal eking out a living in the Northland's snow and cold are in constant search for food. In fact, food, or should I say the lack of, is one of the primary reasons most summer resident birds leave in the first place.

So the question becomes, what's a birder to do when environmental conditions and food availability become unfavorable to birds? No worms, no insects - just lots of snow, dormant plants, leafless trees, and barren landscapes. Is there more that we could do to attract birds to our backyards other than filling feeders with seed and suet?

Take for instance our avian friends the waxwings. Aside from insects, these species forage on berries and other fruits, as well as nuts and seeds, too. Sumac, grape, cedar, cranberry, mountain ash, raspberry, blackberry, strawberry, serviceberry, and nannyberry are just some of the many plant-foods many birds seek out and consume. It's precisely for this reason that it's always a great idea to plant on your property fruit-bearing trees and shrubs that retain their fruits throughout the winter months.

When insects are dormant and earthworms are well below the frost-line, those shriveled up crabapples, mountain ash fruits, and nannyberries are vital food sources for waxwings and pine grosbeaks. What's more, any fruits that aren't devoured in the wintertime become important food items for returning robins and other birds in the spring.

To illustrate an on-the-ground example, during my tenure as manager of the Wetlands, Pines, and Prairie Audubon Sanctuary near Warren, Minn., one of the management activities employed at the refuge was planting fruit and nut-bearing trees and shrubs. It has been and continues to be an integral part of the Sanctuary's mission to enhance wildlife habitat.

Crabapple, chokecherry, plum, wild grape, highbush cranberry and elderberry are just some of the many different species planted there. Other important food producing trees and shrubs include dogwood, sumac, cotoneaster, raspberry, service berry, and Nanking cherry. Aside from providing ideal food sources for birds and other animals, such plantings also provide important wildlife shelter. Most homeowners, as well as city planners, can easily provide in their backyards and boulevards a few of these important mast producing trees and shrubs.

An excellent reference that's worth the nominal cost is the book, "Landscaping for Wildlife," written by DNR nongame program supervisor Carrol Henderson. The publication contains a wealth of information for anyone wishing to enhance one's property for the benefit of wildlife. The book discusses many different ways to attract wildlife.

Simple and inexpensive conservation practices can be applied to a mere corner of your own urban or rural backyard, alongside our city streets, in parks, on golf courses, and much more. The wildlife will appreciate your efforts, not to mention the hours of wildlife viewing as you get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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