Chickadee in evergreen

A black-capped chickadee, a winter-only resident in most of the Bay region, looks for a meal in the branches of a pine tree. Chickadees eat mostly insects in warm months, but seeds and berries make up about 50 percent of their winter diet. (Chad Horwedel/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Ignored most of the year, evergreens now  take center stage — because, as the name suggests, they stay green year-round. Most evergreens, though not all, are conifers, which propagate with cones, not flowers.

And most evergreens, though not all, have needle– or scale-like leaves, which do in fact shed and regrow, just not all at once every fall. It’s generally agreed that deciduous trees drop their leaves in the fall to conserve water through the winter. The waxy coating on conifer needles and scales (and on the leaves of non-conifer evergreens like hollies, magnolias, rhododendrons and wax myrtles) prevents water loss.

Without evergreens, our winter landscape would be dull and desolate. But we humans aren’t the only beneficiaries of the winter gift of evergreens. These trees and shrubs offer shelter for birds and mammals. Just as important, their berries, seeds and needles are a critical food source for resident mammals and birds that do not migrate to warmer climates for the winter. The list of evergreen-dependent birds is long: black-capped chickadee, Carolina chickadee, cedar waxwing, evening grosbeak, American goldfinch, ruffed grouse, dark-eyed junco, blue jay, eastern towhee, house finch, purple finch, evening grosbeak and eastern meadowlark. Mammals such as white-tailed deer, chipmunks and gray squirrels also feast on seeds and needles.

White-tailed deer in snow

A white-tailed deer stands near a grove of young hemlocks. The evergreen’s tender needles are a favorite winter meal. (tuchodi/CC BY 2.0)

The American holly, one of the most common non-coniferous evergreens in the Chesapeake Bay region, provides excellent shelter for many species. The fruit is eaten by birds like the common flicker, gray catbird, mourning dove, ruffed grouse, northern bobwhite, gray catbird, blue jay, northern mockingbird, white-throated sparrow, eastern towhee and cedar waxwing. Raccoons and white-footed mice also consume the berries, while white-tailed deer may graze on its leaves and twigs.

The ubiquitous eastern red cedar tree (actually a juniper) is particularly attractive to cedar waxwings, purple finches and mockingbirds. Eastern hemlocks give protection to black-capped chickadees, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, cardinals and dark-eyed juncos. The waxy fruit of common wax myrtle is favored by tufted titmice, northern flickers, finches, white-eyed vireos, black-capped chickadees, Carolina chickadees, gray catbirds and eastern towhees.

You can also find species of evergreen shrubs, ferns and ground covers.

Now that the flowers are gone and leaves have fallen, does your yard look bare and lifeless? Consider adding some evergreen plants to not only put some color on the winter landscape, but also provide food and shelter to local winter wildlife. See the box on this page for a sampling of evergreen plants native to the Chesapeake watershed that you can add to your yard this upcoming spring.

Kathryn Reshetiloff, a Bay Journal columnist, is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office in Annapolis.

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