The bird cherry is a small deciduous tree or large shrub that grows up to around 10 metres tall with a thick crown. It has pale to darkish-grey bark, and its thin, ovate leaves are between 3 and 10 centimetres long. It bears fragrant whitish-pink flowers that grow in thick, hanging clusters (or racemes) 8 to 12 centimetres in length. The edible fruit is shiny black and bitter to taste. It measures 8 to 10 millimetres in diameter and contains a large seed. The flowering period is between April and June and the fruit ripen in July and August. It can be propagated by cuttings, root suckers or seed.
The bird cherry thrives in damp habitats and is commonly found by streams and in moist woodlands.