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Winter reflection: Berries from heaven

The humble berry can bring festive magic – and rare winter visitors.

On the first of December, I dragged my artificial Christmas tree down from the attic and plugged it in. With the flick of a switch it glowed with light. On went my collection of odd Christmas baubles: a bescarfed tweed sausage dog, a golden stegosaurus, a crystal stag, a small ceramic robot and a handful of glass spheres dusted with glitter. The whole thing took less than five minutes, which left me feeling obscurely cheated by the ease of my seasonal effort. So later that afternoon, the light dying and the air outside thick with wood-smoke, I went out with a pair of secateurs to collect greenery from the big holly tree outside. It’s tall, wreathed in ivy and, this year, heavy with fruit. I shook each cut branch to rid it of wintering insects, dragged the whole lot inside and started laying down boughs on sills and mantels. The gloss of lamplight on the leaves and the gem-like clusters of berries made the house look spectacularly festive, but I felt a pang of guilt at bringing the outside in: those berries were meant for birds, not me.

Most berries, packed with fats and carbohydrates around the seeds at their hearts, have evolved as vegetable offerings to birds; some even contain alkaloid compounds toxic to mammals. Passing through avian digestive systems, the seeds are carried far and wide before being deposited in droppings to take root and flourish. There are the little lights of haws; fat dusty globes of sloes among blackthorn needles; hips like miniature lamps and handfuls of rowans and whitebeams, like tiny apples. There are weirder berries, too, such as the pale, gelid orbs of mistletoe, or spindleberries, looking as if Pucci decided to make tiny popcorn ornaments out of pink and orange wax.

Blackcaps adore mistletoe. These plump little warblers pick away at the berries’ sticky flesh until their beaks are covered in goo that they then wipe on to branches, where the seeds adhere and grow. In recent years German blackcaps have taken to spending winters here rather than in Africa, and it’s thought they are directly responsible for spreading mistletoe to new areas of the UK.

In early winter, mistle thrushes turn full Smaug: they’ll claim possession of particularly fine yew trees, hollies, mistletoe clumps or bushes full of berries, and defend them, chasing away intruders with strident, football-rattle calls. The better they defend their hoard, the earlier and more successful their breeding attempts tend to be the following spring. But not all birds are so territorial. At this time of year our local blackbirds are joined by small flocks from Scandinavia and other parts of Northern Europe, and they’ll feast on berries together. In the presence of such bounty they’ll tolerate, if not entirely welcome, each other’s presence.

With exceptions such as dog-roses and brambles, most shrubs and trees flower and fruit on that year’s new growth, so the traditional yearly trimming of hedgerows in autumn deprives a whole community of valuable winter foodstuffs. But increasingly, as hedgerows become valued for wildlife rather than simply as barriers for livestock, they are cut only every two or three years, which ensures a supply of berries through the coldest months.

Some berries are more palatable than others. Autumn blackberries disappear fast; by winter they’ve gone except for furry, frost-dried knots. Hawthorn and blackthorn too. Wood pigeons feast on the black fruits of ivy, clambering awkwardly on thin twigs to grab them and later depositing bright purple droppings under their roosts. As winter progresses, some berries ferment and become alcoholic, and it’s not uncommon to see faintly disoriented birds wandering around beneath affected shrubs.

Among the last berries to be eaten in winter are those on ornamental shrubs and trees, either because they are relatively unpalatable, or because they’re coloured so unusually that many birds do not recognise them as edible. It’s these berries that become the targets of the unpredictable visitations of a creature that more than any other means winter magic to me.

The last time I saw them was five years ago in a pedestrian precinct in Alton, Hampshire. It was a bitter February day and everyone was hooded and hatted, heads down, trudging stoically between shops. I was asking my mother where she’d like to meet for coffee after our errands were done when I heard an unearthly trilling noise and, like a gravity-stricken whirlwind, a pack of fat birds swirled down from the blank sky on to a slim sorbus tree right above us.

They were waxwings, irregular winter visitors from the far north. They’re neither pink nor grey nor brown but something in between that’s no colour, the way winter skies are no colour. They glommed on to the tree and began stuffing their maws with white berries, every so often rising en masse before resettling in a slightly different arrangement. They had elegant crests, dark bandit masks, flashes of russet, patterns of daffodil yellow on their black tails and wings – and on their wing coverts, rows of the bizarre ornaments for which they’re named: small, waxy, red protuberances that look like the heads of matches. They’re both highly classy and fantastically trashy to look at; no Christmas decoration could ever approach their absurd, animate beauty.

Their magic isn’t simply in the surprise – some years they appear, often they don’t – but where they’re most often seen. They are particularly drawn to the fruits of tree cultivars beloved of town planners, so every winter there’ll be reports of waxwing flocks on the internet with descriptions such as: Twenty birds, Aldi car park.

My mother and I stood entranced. No one else noticed them, even though the nearest bird was two feet from our faces – they’re so unconcerned by people they’ll will even feed from apples held out in one’s hands if they’re hungry enough. A few seconds later the winter vision swirled upwards again like leaves and was gone, leaving a bare tree and faint trills over the shopping centre.

Helen Macdonald is the author of “H is for Hawk” (Vintage)

This article appears in the 13 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special