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Sumac creates biological hotspots!

Your narrator's car, perched along the verge of a Jackson County, Ohio lane, deep in the boondocks. I was down there yesterday to participate in the Beaver Christmas Bird Count - about the 20th year that I've done this count. Tis the season for bird counts; the count period began Saturday. I started doing CBC's when I was just a young lad, long before I had a driver's license, and have participated in nearly 100 to date.

The weather isn't obvious in the photo, but it was dismal. The temperature at 8 am was 34 F, and rose to only 37 F. Frosty temps are no problem, but the nonstop rain that ranged from light to moderate showers was an issue. To me, there are no worse weather conditions than drenching rain at temperatures just above freezing. Makes it much harder to find birds.

One unfortunate aspect of covering the same turf for many years is the negative changes one sees. Last year, the open area above was a wet thicket buffered by goldenrod meadows. For many years I pulled Swamp Sparrows and many other species from this plot. No more - cleared, and drained.

Sorry for the dreaded white sky background in these photos, but there's nothing I could do about that. White skies are the absolute worse for photographic backdrops, and we get a lot of those skies in Ohio winters.

On a more uplifting note, I was cruising this backwoods lane when I came across a nice thicket of Smooth Sumac, Rhus glabra. It's the plants on the left, adorned with reddish-brown clusters. Sumac is a gold mine for birds in the winter.

Here's a closeup of the fruit of Smooth Sumac. Each panicle is loaded with (apparently) tasty and nutritious fruit, and come lean times, frugivorous (fruit-eating) birds dig into them with gusto.

As I trolled up to the sumac, window down, I quickly heard and saw American Robins. Lots of robins. I estimated about 95 birds were flying around, dropping in to pluck sumac fruit, whisper-singing, and generally greatly enlivening the woods. This first-year robin stands guard by a nice cluster of sumac fruit.

One effect of having a big flock of active robins in a large woodland is that their hustle and bustle attracts lots of other birds. The sumac entices the robins. Their conspicuous activity draws many other birds who then forage in the vicinity even though the hangers-on aren't necessarily after the sumac's fruit. I probably had at least a dozen species in the mixed flock with the robin nucleus. In the songbird world, plants ultimately orchestrate the show.

Our young robin digs in. He and his brethren plucked many a berry in the time that I hung out and watched. Some of the fruit will probably pass through the ravages of the birds' digestive tracts intact, and thus new sumac colonies may spring up elsewhere. Birds do not get their due as avian Johnny Appleseeds.

The robin sates its hunger, one berry at a time. Just that one sumac panicle hosts hundreds of fruit.

In winter, this is the species that I key in on the most around sumac thickets, the Hermit Thrush. Sure enough, it wasn't long before I heard the distinctive low chuck call note. Shortly thereafter, the thrush flew in and also began harvesting sumac. Were the weather not so unpleasant, I probably would have found more than this one Hermit Thrush. They are more common than is generally thought in winter; searching sumac is key to finding them.

Every yard would benefit from having an assemblage of sumac. Native plants such as these are incalculably more valuable to birds and other animals than the all too common nonnative garden fare. In the sumac world, at least in this part of the world, the best bang for the buck probably comes from the aforementioned Smooth Sumac, and Staghorn Sumac, Rhus typhina. See if you can find some at an enlightened nursery, and stick 'em in the yard.

In the above photo, we see Smooth Sumac in full flower in mid-summer. The oceans of tiny greenish-yellow flowers attract legions of interesting pollinating insects. When I am out and about, camera in hand, and spot flowering sumac I always veer over for a look. I've obtained many a great insect image at these flowers.

By mid-August or so, the sumac thickets are sporting bright reddish-brown candelabras of long-lasting fruit. Come winter, it is there to provide sustenance to robins and other thrushes that are trying to ride out the northern winter.

Keep in mind next summer's Midwest Native Plant Conference in Dayton, Ohio: August 1st thru 3rd. That's an awesome venue to learn more about native flora, buy quality plants, and generally have a great time.


Woo hoo! Love reading such a great post about sumac. We've loved and planted this plant for so many years and it's fabulous to see how quickly they grow and attract wildlife. The colors this fall were phenomenal!
Auralee said…
We have been trying hard to eradicate a thicket of honeysuckle in the back of our yard. This looks like a likely replacement. I also found both sumacs you mentioned on a list of black-walnut tolerant species, which is a must for my yard (which has two large walnuts.)

Your post also reminded me of a flock of cedar waxwings we watched gorging on winterberries at Dawes Arboretum one fall. We were transfixed--an unforgettable nature moment. I love the soft clucking sounds robins make when feeding. You said "whisper-songs"--beautiful.
Brent Kryda said…
They do make for nice natural, native privacy screens in small yard landscaping. They also have a lovely advantage for northerners in that they can pull off a "poor man's cold hardy palm" effect nicely. In Detroit we have a sickness known as Tree-of-heaven syndrome where the darn thing gets planted precisely for the purpose of acting as such a "ghetto palm". Sumac works nicely to serve this foliage purpose instead, has the advantage of all the things you mention, and also can make a darn fine summer drink. I like mixing them with another open-habitat tree, the Eastern Red Cedar. Taking inspiration from abandoned fields has resulted in a lovely landscape, all the more so when these adaptive natives can oust invaders that like the same sort of thing.
William Comer said…
sumac makes wonderful citrus flavored tea also.

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