Here in the diverse Verde Valley, we are living in pinyon-juniper woodlands generally occurring between 4,500 to 7,500 feet in elevation, and transitioning from grasslands at the lower elevations to ponderosa pine at the higher elevations. As its name indicates the juniper is a major representative tree here. Like the pinions, junipers produce an abundance of berries only periodically, usually every 2-5 years.
There are four species of junipers we are lucky enough to enjoy here. The Alligator Juniper is the largest juniper species in Arizona. Its life span ranges from 500-800 years. There is no doubting the alligator juniper when it is first seen. Its thick, deeply furrowed red brown bark is broken into small squared plates 1 to 2 inches across, like an alligator’s skin, giving it a much checkered appearance.
The Rocky Mountain Juniper is found more commonly in the Flagstaff area because it likes more moisture. It is the least drought tolerant of the junipers in our area. Its form is more upright, or columnar and has thin, flat needles on weeping branches.
The One-seeded Juniper is the most drought tolerant. It has tight bark that clings to the tree and reddish-purple berries that are small and softer than other juniper berries. This tree tends to be skinny and spindly. It almost always has several braches arising from the ground.
The Utah or Shaggy Bark Juniper is quite bushy, freely branched and has a definite trunk. Its shreddy bark was used by the Navajos. They would strip the bark off and put it inside their mattresses in the Hogan to ward off insects. The Ancient Ones soaked the shredded bark and wove it into a cord, used for making sandals, rope, and ladders. Its prolific bluish berries, which tend to be mealy and fibrous, fall onto the ground and are well preserved for months without molding or rotting. This is great for the animals that forage on these berries, such as rabbits, coyotes, bobcats and small mammals.
Junipers are so bountiful in their uses that they are called the Tree of Life. The juniper is anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory. Its berries have been used for culinary and medicinal purposes since ancient times. Juniper is used in making gin, various teas, and a paste is mixed with bear fat for wound care. The bark is used for garments, blankets and sandals. The wood is great for firewood and fence posts. The twigs are utilized in spiritual ceremonies like prayersticks. The juniper’s seeds are made into necklaces. The resin can be a form of chewing gum. And a dye is extracted from the bark and berries!
In our area, many birds take advantage of the juniper. A short list includes Evening Grosbeaks, Robins, Cedar Waxwings, Northern Mockingbird, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and the Phainopepla which also favors mistletoe berries.
The Evening Grosbeak, a heavy-set finch, has a bill that is perfectly suited to foraging for seeds. However, they also feed on hawthorn and juniper berries. They can manipulate fleshy berries in their beaks to remove the skin and flesh before cracking and swallowing the seed.
Everyone is familiar with the American Robin. During winter they move to moist woods where berry-producing trees and shrubs are common. It is hard to imagine now, but when poisoning by spraying of DDT in the 1950’s was common, the elm leaves of sprayed trees which were processed by earthworms, led to the death or reproductive failure of robins.
The beautiful Cedar Waxwing has a diet that averages 70% fruit. Not only do they utilize our juniper berries, but they also feast on hawthorn, mistletoe, Russian olive, honeysuckle, madrone and crabapple. The young are fed insects at first, but berries are added after a few days. These beautiful birds have a reputation for gluttony! An interesting fact is that the yellow terminal tail bands help the birds easily keep track of each other in the moving winter flock in search of fruiting trees.
Northern Mockingbirds make berries part of their winter diet, while mainly eating insects in the summer. They are not big feeder visitors, so plant fruiting trees and bushes to attract them to your backyard.
The Yellow-rumped Warbler is a serious generalist in its feeding moving from insects in the summer to berries in the winter. Not only are insects and berries on the menu, but the dietary list also includes spruce budworm a serious forest pest, seeds and suet.
Phainopeplas are another bird that eats a lot of fruit. However, they rarely feed off the ground so the abundance of juniper berries that fall are left for other birds and mammals. They glean the berries from the vegetation itself.
The list of birds feeding on juniper trees is actually a long one. If you have junipers in your yard, watch the number of species using it for food and shelter. The foliage of junipers may provide protective shelter and even nesting sites for mockingbirds, thrashers, robins, waxwings, juncos and sparrows.
Contributed by Rita Faruki