Laural berries and birds

Asked August 20, 2020, 6:07 PM EDT

I've read that all parts of English Laurel bushes are poisoness but have observed birds eating the berries, most recently a pileated woodpecker. So is the berry flesh poisoness or not?

Clackamas County Oregon

1 Response

Hello and thank you for contacting OSU Extension Service! And what a terrific picture of a Pileated Woodpecker!

In general, there are plants that have poisonous fruits and other plant parts that are poisonous to humans and other wildlife, but not poisonous to birds. Toxins produced by plants is nature's way to prevent a plant species from being consumed and killed. However, some wildlife have evolved physiological ways to digest or pass through such toxins to avoid being harmed. In this way, the plant and the birds benefit -- birds derive the nutritional value from the plant (fruit) and the plant has its seeds distributed so it can spread.

Poison oak/ivy is a good example of a native plant in Oregon that birds can and do consume its berries without harm. If we were to eat poison oak berries, we'd become very sick!

Regarding the Carolina cherry-laurel (Prunus caroliniana), a very commonly planted non-native to Oregon, the fruits appear to be harmless to birds. Here's a very brief reference to this found on the University of Texas Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center: https://www.wildflower.org/expert/show.php?id=8602#:~:text=Our%20understanding%20is%20that%20everything,%2C%20to%20themselves%2C%20at%20least. There are other webpages that reference that the berries are harmless to birds.

Lastly, I like to recommend planting native species as much as possible. Not only do they tend to do better in our climate, they also don't become invasive species. Laurel can spread through its fruits (by birds), and could become an unwelcome plant in natural areas. There are many natives that produce berries that birds will consume. In addition, if there are pets and children who might consume the tempting purple laurel fruit, it may also be a good idea to replace such plantings. I am by no means advocating removing such trees if you derive enjoyment from them and favor their evergreen leaves as a component on your property. It's just one thing to consider as you think about the poisonous nature of the fruit of the laurel.

I hope this response has helped answer your question. If you have any further questions or comments, please feel free to respond here.

Thank you again for contacting OSU Extension Service!