14 August 2009
Supporter Services Team Manager
My life-long interest in birds and wildlife stems from my fortunate childhood upbringing in rural Oxfordshire where I can remember owning first pair of binoculars from a very early age. I started working for the RSPB in August 2005 for the Membership Services department and after a 5 months secondment in 2007, I started working full-time for the Wildlife Enquiries team in January 2008. After studying Environmental Studies and Ornithology via distance learning courses, I recently completed a diploma in Zoology at Oxford College.
Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is a tall bushy plant, with dull purple bell-shaped flowers in June and July. Preferring shady or wooded areas, deadly nightshade plants are best found on limestone and chalk areas of southern and eastern England. Though becoming increasingly uncommon in the UK, deadly nightshade or Belladonna, actually belongs to the same family as tomatoes, peppers and potatoes, and lives up to its name - its fruits are poisonous to man.
Deadly nightshade berries are shiny and black (when ripe) and first appear in August. Packed full of small seeds in their pulp, these berries can vary in size and can measure up to 20mm in size. Ripened berries of deadly nightshade plants do not last long, and soon over-ripen and dry up. It is uncertain as to where exactly the poison is concentrated in deadly nightshade fruit; whether it is in the fruit pulp or seeds, or present in both.
Though poisonous to most mammals, there have been records of birds eating deadly nightshade berries and such birds include blackcaps and song thrushes. Because of the short availability of the fruit and the competition offered by other fruiting plants such as bramble and elder, berries of deadly nightshade are often over-looked and rarely taken. One reason for the dispersal of the deadly nightshade plant, however, is thought to be down to birds.
Bittersweet or woody nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) is also poisonous to man and is often mistaken for deadly nightshade because of its bright green and red berries and spiky purple and yellow flowers. It flowers from June onwards with the berries ripening in August/September. The fruits of bittersweet, though not particularly nutritious, are very watery and are often sought by birds in dry weather, prior to elderberries and blackberries appearing.
Birds that take bittersweet berries include: blackcaps, blackbirds, song thrushes, robins and woodpigeons.
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