Thursday, October 16, 2008

Quick Question: Birds and Apple Trees with Nancy Coverstone

My mom has some apple trees on her property. Each autumn the apples fall to the ground and my mom (or me, if I can be wrangled into it) rakes them up so we can mow under the trees.

I was thinking, though, wouldn't these apples be better for birds if they are laying on the ground all delicious and eat-able? I've seen Robins eating my mom's fallen apples, but would other birds eat them as well? Would leaving them on the ground mean that I won't asked to mow?!

I did a little research and turned up this informational page produced by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. I wanted to know more, so I emailed Nancy Coverstone, the Extension Educator at the UMaine Cooperative Extension, with my problem. She gave a great response, including some thoughts on how birds will benefit not just from eating the apples themselves but from eating the things that eat (or grow on) the apples. Many thanks for Nancy for her thoughtful response. Here's the interaction:

Birdist: My mom has three apple trees on her property. Traditionally, my family has raked up the fallen apples in autumn and put them in a pile in an out-of-the-way part of the property. I want to start thinking about other strategies in order to maximize benefit to birds. However, I also have to take into consideration more domestic considerations, like mowing. As far as I can tell, here are my options: a) continue to rake and pile fallen apples, b) let apples fall and leave them there all winter, don't mow under the trees, and c) something in between. What do you think of these options? Which will be best for birds?

Nancy Coverstone: I’m assuming the fruits are not persistent (staying on the tree, and above the snow line, into the winter.) Persistent fruit, whether apples or other kinds, are particularly beneficial for resident bird species, because the fruits are not buried under the snow and are available during winter, and are made palatable by the freezing and thawing that takes place.

The trees you have, both while the apples are still on the tree and when they’ve fallen to the ground, are eaten by many birds, mammals and insects.

Once the apples have fallen, I don’t think it matters that they remain under the trees. It makes sense to mow under the trees, so that other vegetation does not compete with the apples trees and also that the apples as they rot attract wasps in the fall and some butterflies too. It’s great to have a fall food source for wasps and other insects, but conflict does arise if you are mowing.

So – raking up the windfalls is fine to do. I would, however, put them in an out of the way place, in the sun and spread out, rather than in a pile. I would also locate this “apple spread” near some shrubs where birds can perch, before they might move to the ground to eat or peck at the apples. Being in the sun is beneficial for butterflies, bees and the other insects that might feed on the rotting fruit, because they need the warmth of the sun on them to be active.

Whenever I think of what might benefit birds, I also consider what benefits other forms of life, because usually what’s good for one is good for others. An example is that during the winter, chickadees may eat the larvae of wasps who fed on the rotting apples. See what I mean?

Also, the cover and nesting opportunities provided for some bird species is not affected by your management of the fallen apples.

Just some thoughts.

Since you found the fact sheet on apple trees and wildlife, I assume you’ve found the other Habitats fact sheets on UMaine Extension’s publication site. Check out some of the books now on offer through this site – under Yard and Garden and Natural Resources especially. ΓΈ

I and the Bird Number Eighty-Six now up at The Drinking Bird


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