Read This Before Eating Wild Bird Berries!

Are bird berries poisonous to humans?

Some berries eaten by birds are safe for human consumption but others are highly toxic. Many birds can consume berries that are poisonous to humans but safe for them, like poison ivy berries. Do not eat wild berries you encounter just because you’ve seen a bird eat them. You could get seriously ill.

Read on to find a list of berries that are poisonous to humans.

Birds can feed on a wide range of foods, including poisonous plants. There are different levels of toxicity to various plant species, and if birds consume less than the lethal threshold, they are relatively safe.

For instance, birds can eat a small number of Nandina berries, but if they eat too many, they may get sick or die. However, birds usually know to avoid berries that are toxic to them unless they are the only source of food left.

nandina berries

Birds have a high tolerance for toxic substances. Typically, berries that may be poisonous to humans are easily consumed by birds. And our pets like cats and dogs have even more limited tolerance for certain chemicals in berries. This means that pets have more limited berry options compared to humans.

In nature, birds will prefer to eat insects and seeds during the warmer months. However, during winter the ground is frozen and there are fewer insects and the birds, therefore, feed on winter berries. Thrushes and waxwings eat the flesh of wild plums, blackthorn, cherries, and hawthorn. 

Some berries are poisonous to birds, like Holly berries. They select their food through sight, so occasionally they will stumble upon toxic fruits. However, over time, birds will learn to identify the toxic species to avoid when foraging. Want to plant berries that birds love? Here’s my list of berry shrubs to plant in your garden.

If you intend to grow fruit trees to feed local birds, choose species that are not poisonous. Plant a mixture of berries that offer nutritional benefits to birds. Identify the varieties toxic to humans and pets and keep them away from your farm. Ingesting poisonous fruits causes minor cases of discomfort and irritation for both humans and pets. However, prolonged consumption of these fruits can lead to death. 

How do you know if a berry is poisonous?

The best way to differentiate poisonous berries from edible ones is to take a photo of the plant and look it up online. There are apps that identify plants through your camera phone like PlantSnap and Leafsnap. Once you identify the plant name, search if it’s edible.

It is difficult to tell whether a berry is poisonous just by looking at it. There are no distinctive features that distinguish between berries that are safe to eat and those that are toxic.

An unconventional way to identify poisonous berries is to check their color. Although this method has no scientific evidence to back it, some people argue that white or yellow berries that grow in clusters are unfit for human consumption. Blue and black berries are said to be safe. Red berries can either be poisonous or safe.

This method is not a sure way of confirming a plant’s toxicity. Nevertheless, the best way to assess the toxicity of wild berries is to learn about them or carry along a taxonomic book or app with you when foraging. 

You can also pick up a book on wild fruits and learn the different types of berries, where they grow, and how to tell whether they are ripe and which ones are safe for humans. You can also check your state directory on wild plants and foraging to see if any plants are unsafe for you. 

Bird berries poisonous to humans

Red Baneberry (Actaea rubra)

Bittersweet (Celastrus spp.)
U.S. Forest Service- Pacific Northwest Region/Flickr

This North American native berry is an herbaceous perennial that blooms in the spring. It is bushy and grows to around three to five feet. It is characterized by long roots and feathery serrated leaves.

Small fragrant white flowers appear in the spring and are replaced by clusters of red berries in the fall. The berries lead to headaches, diarrhea, vomiting, and dizziness when consumed. If eaten in large quantities, they can cause cardiac arrest. 

Bittersweet (Celastrus spp.)

Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster spp.)
liz west/Flickr

The plant is native to North America and extremely toxic to humans. It causes vomiting and diarrhea. The berries are a favorite food for songbirds and other wildlife.

Bittersweet is dioecious. It is characterized by creeping shrubs with woody stems, green or purple-lobed leaves, star-shaped yellow flowers, and red fruits. The leaves produce an unpleasant smell when crushed. 

Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster spp.)

Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster spp.)
Sid Mosdell/Flickr

A deciduous shrub growing as high as 25ft. It is characterized by small rounded, glossy green leaves that turn red or orange in the fall. Pink flowers bloom in the summer, giving way to small red fruits in the fall.

The leaves, berries, and flowers contain glycosides and cyanogenic that affect the heart, liver, kidney, or brain. They are high risk to children and pets. Grow in USDA zones 4-9. 

Black Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)

Black Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
Pam Morgan/Flickr

The berries are toxic when eaten raw. Many species of elderberries are highly toxic, causing nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps. The berries grow in large clusters.

Cooking removes the toxicity and makes them safe to eat. The flowers, seeds, branches, and berries contain glycosides that lead to cyanide buildup in the body. 

Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis)

Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis)

This is a popular plant for many North American gardeners. The red berries are poisonous and can cause vomiting, fatigue, confusion, abdominal pain, and reduced heart rate when ingested.

They contain glycosides that can lead to cardiac arrest and potentially death. It is common in nurseries and characterized by bell-shaped flowers and orange-red berries with few large seeds.

Other toxic berries include American Mistletoe (Phoradendron serotinum), American Holly (Ilex opaca), Euonymus (Euonymus spp), Jerusalem Cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum), Honeysuckle (Lonicera spp). 

Bird berries that are safe for humans to eat

California Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum)

California Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum)
John Rusk/Flickr

This evergreen shrub is native to the Pacific coastal region. It is characterized by small, oval, leathery leaves, urn-shaped white and pink flowers that bloom in the spring, and blue or black berries that follow in the summer.

The berries can be eaten by birds and humans. They can be consumed fresh or made into jams, syrups, or beverages.  It matures at 2-8ft high and grows in USDA zones 7-9. 

California Gooseberry (Ribes californicum)

California Gooseberry (Ribes californicum)
odonata98 (Kimberly Reinhart)/Flickr

A deciduous shrub native to North America. It has spiny stems, rounded leaves, and clusters of white flowers that appear in the spring.

They give way to red berries in the fall which are a favorite food for birds and can be eaten by humans. They can be used as an ingredient for jams, wines, and syrups. Grows in USDA zones 7-10, and matures at 3-8ft tall. 

Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia)

Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia)
Katja Schulz/Flickr

A semi-evergreen shrub known for its white or pink flower clusters appearing in the spring. The glossy dark green leaves turn red in the fall. The flowers are followed by red berries in the fall that are a food source for waxwings, thrushes, catbirds, and songbirds. They grow naturally in woodland and swampy areas. The berries are high in vitamin K and antioxidants. Grow in USDA zones 4-9. 

Red Mulberry (Morus rubra)

Red Mulberry (Morus rubra)
Photo by kami rao on Flickr

A deciduous tree native to North America. It is known for inconspicuous flowers that bloom in separate male and female plants. They are followed by purple-red fruits that can be eaten raw or used to make jams, jellies, and wines. Birds devour them. The berries are rich in iron and antioxidants. Red Mulberry grows in USDA zones 4-10. 

Not all berries eaten by birds are safe for humans. Birds have a higher tolerance to certain substances and therefore may be unaffected by wild berries with adverse effects on humans. When foraging, ensure you have adequate knowledge of the poisonous fruits to avoid. If you consume poisonous berries, seek medical attention immediately.