The mulberry tree is one of the more common trees on our landscape. It can be found in rural areas along shelterbelts and forests, as well as in urban environments. It thrives in dry areas as well as moist bottomlands.
The latter part of spring and early summer are the best times to look closely at mulberry trees because this is when the berries are available. And the berries attract birds.
Cedar waxwings are one of the many species that eat mulberry fruits. But waxwings are rather shy, and I would guess that most people who have never noticed birds in general have never seen or even heard of waxwings. That is a shame, because cedar waxwings are strikingly beautiful; their plumage looks almost as if it were carefully painted by a skilled artisan who knew the power of subtlety.
They tend to travel in small groups, and when the mulberry trees bear their fruit, the waxwings are so preoccupied with feeding they hardly seem to notice a nearby observer. Seeing a cedar waxwing up close is a real treat, even for seasoned birders.
Another reason for taking a careful look at mulberries is that there are actually two closely related, similar species in Illinois: red mulberry and white mulberry. The white is the overwhelmingly more common, hardy, adaptable, and aggressive of the two. And so, it may be found nearly everywhere, but especially in shrubby areas, young forests, and disturbed areas, out-competing nearly every neighboring plant for space, light, water, and nutrients.
Such characteristics are typical of alien species. And, in fact, white mulberry is native to Asia, but not North America. It belongs to that group of species referred to as non-native and invasive. Botanists, ecologists, and master gardeners intensely dislike the tree.
White mulberry, though, is a favorite of birds. And in their droppings, they help spread it across the land. Of course, they also like the red mulberry…when they can find one.
[NOTE: This essay originally appeared in the Pekin Daily Times online edition in 2012.]