Along with the bright leaf shades at this time of year we see trees and bushes loaded with colourful berries. Many of these provide much-needed food for birds and small animals.

There are several creatures which gather food at this time of year and hide it underground so they can come back during the winter months and eat it; you will probably immediately think of squirrels doing this, but mice, ants and several bird species such as woodpeckers and most corvid species do too. Did you know that crows are so clever that if another crow is watching them hide food, they will come back later and move it, so that the other bird doesn’t steal it?

Storing seeds and berries is also beneficial for the plant whose seeds are taken. If a cache is forgotten (and many are because a creature needs a very good memory to remember the locations of all its stores!) or the animal dies, then those seeds have effectively been dispersed and can germinate – ensuring the spread of the plant’s offspring to new ground where they won’t be in competition with the parent or sibling plants. It is, however, intensely frustrating for gardeners whose entire nut-tree might be stripped of its barely ripe harvest by an industrious jay!

Some plants actually evolve big nutritious seeds or nuts to attract hoarding animals because this increases the likelihood of their seeds being spread. Bright berry colours have actually evolved in the same way as flowers; to attract animals to them.

Not all animals store food. Some such as waxwings and blackbirds will simply sit in the tree and eat the berries. The coloured part of the fruit or berry is only a casing for the seed itself and even where berries are not hoarded, they are still dispersed by animals eating them but not digesting the actual seed, so that it passes straight through and is deposited a distance from the parent plant. – normally with a ready-made package of fertilizer!

Some seeds – such as from yew – are actually poisonous but the coloured casing isn’t so it is also important to the bird to pass it straight through. (Note that this does not apply to humans – our metabolism does digest the seed, with dangerous consequences!)

So next time you’re enjoying a delicious apple, pressing elderberries for wine, or munching on blackberries as you walk through the fields, pause to consider how their plants have evolved to entice you to spread their seeds.