“Leaflets three, let it be. Berries white, then take flight” is a commonly used rhyme to remember the details of poison ivy identification. At least that is the way we humans remember it. Although there are many perfectly fine- and many extremely beneficial – plants with three leaflets, there are far fewer with white berries. White berries are generally not good for us and it is a good rule to avoid white poison ivy berries. Again, I’m talking human beings here, because we are about the only complex beings that are allergic to the stuff. Nearly every other regional creature is un-affected by the urushoil found in poison ivy and many of those eat the fruits with gusto.
Although mammals such as Deer Mice and Deer will eat them, birds are far and away the largest consumer. Over 60 species of North American species have been recorded eating poison ivy berries. We’re not sure how many actually like them (most humans will eat liver or okra, for instance, but a large percentage of these folks will do so only when threatened at gunpoint). That, of course, is beside the point. Technically poison ivy fruit is not considered a high-quality food because it is low in lipids, but since wild animals do not pay attention to USDA diet recommendations, they are avidly consumed. Poison Ivy berries make up for their deficits because they are extremely abundant.
For Cardinals the poison ivy ditty might easily be extended to say “when in red, on ivy be fed.” The flight part of the rhyme would refer to a quick “flight towards” and not a rapid “flight from.” I regularly pass under a heavily laden poison ivy vine during my daily travels and always spot a flock of cardinals in its branches. Ask these red birds to do such a thing in the springtime and there would be blood on those red feathers (although it would be hard to see!). The guys would peck each other’s eyes out over the attentions of the females. I guess it is a sign of divine providence then that the poison ivy fruits ripen during the winter when the birds lose their animosity towards their fellow males. All are welcome at the poisoned table.
Such is the draw to a lush poison ivy patch that the cardinals also lose much of their skittish nature towards humans when feeding. It’s almost as if they know that two-legged gawkers will not approach them closely when they are imbibing on the forbidden man fruit. Thus the reason I could approach the birds pictured here. They saw me, yet they tolerated my feeble photographic and observational efforts.
As members of the Grosbeak family, Northern Cardinals have “gros” (large) beaks for cracking hard-shelled seeds. It is painfully obvious how honking big these beaks really are when you see them in clear focus. As opposed to being perfect and smooth, they are rather industrial looking. This beak also functions to quickly remove the fleshy outer portion of the ivy fruit so that the bird can reach the intended prize: the internal seeds. The ground under the ivy vine will be littered by discarded berry flesh by the end of the month. It also will be littered by poison cardinal poo.
My resulting photographs – especially those depicting a bright male or female redbird next to a patch of snow white ivy fruits – look very Christmas-like. Unfortunately, I can’t bring myself to use these on a future Christmas card for two reasons. First, I don’t send out Christmas Cards (unless threatened with a firearm) and secondly, I’m not sure what message would be relayed by sending out a depiction of Poison Ivy combined with a seasonal greeting. This could be a cardinal sin. If I subconsciously/on-purpose sent these cards to people that I don’t really like they might take it as a sign of affection because they are stupid. I would be misleading them. People I do like, because they are smart, might take offense and threaten me with a firearm.