CLIMATE CHANGE APPEARS TO BE AFFECTING HOUSE FINCH NESTING

 

        Have you ever wondered if climate change is affecting the birds that visit our backyards?  A recently completed study of house finch nests has shed some light on how the warming of the globe is affecting this common backyard resident.

       Biologists found house finches appear to be nesting earlier in California in response to climate change. 

       This conclusion is based on an analysis of museum records of house finch nests collected over more than 100 years (1895 to 2007).  When these data were compared to the spring temperatures recorded in the areas where the nests were collected, it was found the finches were nesting four and a half days earlier for every degree Celsius the spring temperature has increased in the locales were the house finch nests were collected.    If you would like to know if house finches in the Peach State are altering their nesting dates in a similar manner, you should consider becoming a citizen scientist and conduct your own study based on house finch nesting records collected in your backyard, neighborhood, or county.

MOCKINGBIRD EXPANDS ITS DIET

        I cannot remember a time when my wife and I have not hosted mockingbirds in our yard.  During this time, we have learned mockingbirds dine on a wide variety of foods.  In fact, after watching these fascinating birds for more than four decades, we thought we had a pretty good understanding of what mockingbirds will and will not eat. 

        Each spring we compete with these vocal birds for blueberries.  Later in the year, we always enjoy watching them defend our berry-laden dogwood trees, refusing to allow other birds to feed on the trees’ shiny red berries.  We have observed them feast on pokeberries as well as the berries of the American beautyberry.  We have also seen them devour all kinds of insects, earthworms and even a small lizard or two.  Much to our chagrin, they seem to relish plucking black swallowtail caterpillars from bronze fennel plants.

        In winter, we have watched them dining on slices of apples and oranges.  They also seem to eat more than their share of suet laced with peanuts and peanut butter.  While we frequently see mockingbird land on seed feeders, never had we seen one eat a single seed at these feeding stations.  That all changed earlier this week when I watched a mockingbird feed on white millet for several minutes.  This particular bird landed on a platform feeder filled with white millet seed.  Upon landing, it began feeding by thrusting its bill forward scooping up several seeds at a time.  Time after time, it repeated the process until it suddenly flew away.

        If it is indeed true that mockingbirds rarely eat white millet seed at backyard feeders, I cannot help but wonder why this bird chose to partake in the shiny, round seeds.  It will be interesting to see if the bird returns to dine on millet again.  If not, perhaps this adventuresome mocker quickly learned why generations of its kin chose to ignore this common backyard bird food.

TRY FEEDING PECANS – MANY BIRDS LOVE ‘EM

          In spite of the fact that there are dozens of wild bird foods to choose from, the vast majority Georgians feed their feathered neighbors mixed seed, or black oil sunflower seeds.  If you want to expand your feeder menu, consider pecans.

          Since pecan meats are loaded with calories, and laden with fat, they are a great alternative food for birds, especially during the winter.  In addition, they are popular with many feeder birds.  In one study conducted in the Peach State, the nutmeats from a wide variety of nuts were tested to determine which were preferred by birds.  The study revealed pecan meats were the second most preferred nutmeats tested.  Surprisingly, black walnut meats topped the list.

          Pecans can be fed to birds in a number of ways.       

          Suet containing bits and pieces of suet can be purchased from your favorite bird supply store. 

          While you can place whole pecans in your feeder, it has been my experience that, if you do so, crows and large birds as well as squirrels will be the only diners that will avail themselves of the nuts. 

          In an effort to let birds know the nuts are a source of food, some folks crack a large hole in the shell of each pecan.  This allows smaller birds access to the meats.    However, most folks either simply crush pecan meats into small pieces or buy nutmeats that have already been crushed.  If cracked pecan meats are not available at your bird supply shore, they can be purchased at any grocery store.  Better yet, if you live near a pecan processing plant, check and see if you can buy either rejected nuts or bit and pieces of nuts there.

          As you probably know, pecan meats will get rancid.  This problem is particularly acute in warm weather.  With this in mind, it is a good idea to store your supply of pecan meats in a freezer.

          If you offer your feeder visitors pecan meats the birds most likely to dine of them are Carolina chickadees, nuthatches, blue jays, and woodpeckers.   

WHY DO SOME BIRDS FORM FLOCKS IN WINTER?

       Some of the birds that inhabit our yards during the winter travel about in flocks. Among the birds that adopt this behavior are American robins, chipping sparrows, brown-headed cowbirds, common grackles, and red-winged blackbirds.

       Being a member of a flock offers a bird many advantages. A bird traveling in a flock is less likely to be captured by a hawk, owl, or other predator. This is called the predator dilution effect.

       Here is how it works. Should a Cooper’s hawk dive into a flock, it must select one bird and not be distracted by all of the others in the flock. This is often difficult to do when lots of birds are frantically trying to escape with the lives. As such, to be successful the hawk must target a single bird. If the hawk attacked the whole flock and simply lashes out trying to catch a bird, chances are all of the birds will fly away unscathed.

       Another advantage to being the member of a flock is that it is extremely difficult for a predator to approach a flock of birds when hundreds, if not thousands, of pairs of eyes are poised to detect any potential danger.

       In addition, flocks have a tendency to find food more readily than individual birds. In many cases, the older, more experienced members of the flock know the best places to find food and roost. This is a real bonus since food is often difficult to find in winter.

       In addition, birds that expend as little energy as possible trying to locate food have a greater chance of survival during frigid weather. A bird in poor physical condition can easily succumb to the cold on frigid nights simply trying to maintain its body temperature.

I am sure you are familiar with the old adage, “There is safety in numbers.” As you can see, in the case of birds that flock together in winter, this statement is indeed true.

MISTLETOE IS FOR LOVERS AND BIRDS ALIKE

Everyone is familiar with the Christmas tradition of kissing beneath a sprig of mistletoe.  However, what is less known is the fact the waxy berries produced by this parasitic plant are eaten by a wide variety of wild birds.

       This popular custom apparently originated in Europe during the 1500s.  The first mention of the holiday tradition in America appeared in the writings of the famous early American Writer, Washington Irving.

       According to legend, couples that share a kiss beneath sprig of mistletoe are bestowed with good luck when it comes to affairs of the heart.  However, this blessing is only enjoyed by couples that also pluck a berry from the mistletoe branch .  Those that do not share a kiss will suffer bad luck.  In addition, once the last berry is removed, the mistletoe’s magical power is lost.

       Mistletoe berries are loved by many birds.  For example, both cedar waxwings and eastern bluebirds relish the small berries.  The seemingly translucent, white berries are also gobbled up by American and fish crows, hermit thrushes, American robins, evening grosbeaks and chickadees.

       Although the magical powers of the mistletoe can be disputed, there is no question that the ubiquitous plant provides our backyard bird neighbors with an important source of food during a time of the year when food is at a premium.

WHY DO WE SEE MORE CARDINALS IN OUR BACKYARDS IN WINTER THAN AT ANY OTHER TIME OF THE YEAR?

 

       Throughout the breeding season, adult northern cardinals live in distinct breeding territories that measure anywhere from three to 10 acres on size.  The size of these territories is dictated by the availability of food and suitable nesting sites. 

       Since cardinals will vigorously defend these territories during the breeding season; if your backyard is located within such an area; other cardinals are kept away.  This effectively limits the numbers of cardinals that feed in your year during the spring and summer.  This means the only cardinals you are apt to see at your feeders are a breeding pair of adults and their fledglings.

       In fall and early winter, many cardinals form flocks that that daily wander about large territories large enough to contain adequate food for the flock.  These flocks generally contain roughly equal numbers of males and females.

       Interestingly, the birds that comprise such flocks also roost together at night.

       By the same token, some adult pairs never leave their spring/summer territory.

       Consequently, throughout winter flocks of cardinals will descend on backyards offering sunflower seeds and white millet.  I especially like to watch these flocks feed late in the day.  During this special time, often called the golden hour by photographers, their plumage seems to glow.

       Winter cardinal flocks disband in late winter and early spring.  When this occurs, pair of birds will once again stake out breeding territories and the numbers of cardinals visiting your feeders will plummet.

 

WILL FEEDER BIRDS SURVIVE IF THEY ARE NOT FED WHILE YOU ARE AWAY ON A HOLIDAY TRIP?

       If you are one of the many of folks that take a trip during the Christmas holiday season, you might be wondering whether you should be concerned that the birds that have been visiting your backyard feeders will have enough to eat while you are away.

       In most cases, your feathered backyard diners will not suffer greatly if they are not fed for a few days.  The primary reason for this is studies have revealed that most of the birds that visit our backyard diners obtain only about 25 percent of their daily food from feeders.  This is especially true for birds that are members of a wide-ranging flock such as mourning doves, and chipping sparrows.  Each day these birds forage for food across a feeding territory that is many acres in size.

       However, if your feeders represent the primary source of food for stay-at-home birds such as the eastern towhee, your absence may create a problem.  This situation would be especially dire if a heavy snow falls and/or temperatures plummet below freezing.  This has been borne out by reports of juncos and finches that were suffering from a lack of food actually dying during extremely cold nights.

       With that in mind, if you are at all concerned about the fate of your birds while you are away on a holiday trip, arrange for a neighbor or friend to feed your backyard neighbors while you are away.