CAROLINA WRENS USE HORNET NESTS AS WINTER ROOST SITES

      The Carolina wren is one of a number of birds that roost in cavities during the winter.  These sites provide the birds with protection from rain, ice, and snow, cold winds, as well as frigid temperatures.

       It is well-known fact Carolina wrens roost during the winter in such locations as potting sheds, livestock barns, garages, hanging baskets, bird nesting boxes as well as tree cavities.  Remarkably, they also use the abandoned papery nests of bald-faced hornets. 

       This odd behavior has been documented in at least two states.  More than 90 years ago a West Virginia naturalist collected a bald-faced hornet nest and hung it in a shed.  Sometime later, he noticed a pair of Carolina wrens had apparently modified the entrance hole of the nest to enable them to easily enter and leave the football-sized nest.  He went on to report Carolina wrens used the hornet nest as a winter roost site for the next five years.

       A researcher in North Carolina reported that, over the course of a decade, he stored abandoned bald-faced hornet nests beneath a porch.  During this period, at least one Carolina wren roosted in the nests each winter.

       To my knowledge, this behavior has not been documented in Georgia.  If you have witnessed Carolina wrens roosting in a hornet nest in the Peach State, I would love to hear from you.

WHITE-THROATED SPARROW ALERT

       When the temperatures begin to drop and the woodlands don their multi-colored cloak of yellow, orange, and red, I find myself eagerly awaiting arrival of those birds that make the long trek from the north to winter in my backyard.  Yesterday my wait for the first of these special visitors to arrive ended.  The first bird to show up this year proved to be a white-throated sparrow.

       Although I was not lucky enough to see it, I heard its clear, unmistakable call.  As far as I am concerned, it is arguably the sweetest bird song we Georgians are likely to hear each winter.  Some are convinced this sparrow seems to be saying, “Pure sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.”  However, may others believe it is repeating the phrase, “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.”

       Now that I know white-throated sparrows are here, I hope I will soon catch a glimpse of this distinguished member of the sparrow family.  The white-throated sparrow is a cinch to indentify.  Like many sparrows it displays a gray breast as well as black and white stripes down the length of its head. Likewise, the feathers on its wings, back, and tail colored varying shades of brown.  There are, however, a few field marks that set it apart from its kin.  Adult white-throated sparrows also have snow-white throats.  In addition, bright yellow patches adorn the birds’ lores (the areas located just in front of the eye).

       During the time I host these birds, they spend most of the day on the ground beneath the thick shrubs that border two sides of my yard.  Here they scratch away leaves looking for something to eat.

       When they venture out into my yard, they prefer to feed on the ground.  The birds are especially fond of white millet, which I scatter on the ground.  They will also dine on canary and sunflower seeds, cornbread, and suet.

       Banding studies have found that once whitethroats winter in a yard, they are apt to return to the same location the following year.  In fact, some white-throated sparrows have been known to return the same backyard up to six years in a row.

       I hope that you will be lucky enough to have white-throated sparrows winter in your backyard this winter.  If they find your yard to their liking, you will soon learn why I think they are so special.

 

YELLOW JACKETS SEEM MORE PRONE TO STING IN FALL

       Throughout most of the year, it seems that we have a truce with yellow jackets.  For the most part, these small, yellow, and black wasps will not attack unless we antagonize them in some way or just happen to venture too close to their nests.  However, have you ever wondered why, from late summer into fall, folks seem to be stung more often by yellow jackets than at any other time of the year?  If so, read on. 

       There are a few plausible reasons why the chances of being stung by yellow jackets increases as the days are cooler the foliage transforms from green into a kaleidoscope of color.

       Entomologists tell us yellow jackets are simply more abundant in autumn.  At this time of the year, a yellow jacket nest may contain upwards of 800 individuals.  Faced with this overcrowding, the members of the colony become less tolerant of one another as well as humans and other animals alike.

       Some biologists suggest this behavioral change may also be linked to the insect’s switch from a predominantly protein diet to one rich in carbohydrates.

       Realizing these insects are more apt to sting without provocation at this time of year, we all need to use caution when changing the nectar in our hummingbird feeders or working about our yards.         

       This threat will slowly diminish as the sterile female workers begin dying with the approach of winter.  Interestingly, the only yellow jackets that survive the winter are the queen.

A FEW HALLOWEEN MYTHS LINKED WITH OWLS

       Since long before the first Halloween, witches and owls have been linked together in some truly bizarre myths. 

       For example, the Romans and Greeks once believed witches could actually transform themselves into owls.  Other folk tales tales say witches used owls as messengers.

       Owls have also been viewed as harbingers of bad luck and even death.  One myth tells us bad luck will befall anyone that hears an owl hoot three times.  Another claims the only creatures that can live with ghosts are owls.

       Even to this day, many people find the calling of an owl unnerving.  However, should the trick or treaters that invade your neighborhood hear the calls of a great horned, barred, barn or screech owl, the sounds can make their nighttime adventure a little more exciting.

LOOK FOR RED-BELLIED WOODPECKERS CACHING FOOD

        Although the red-bellied woodpecker is notorious for caching food, backyard wildlife watchers rarely see this fascinating behavior.  However, if you would like to watch a red-bellied woodpecker in the act of storing food, there is no better time to do so than right now.

The reason for this is, in spite of the fact that the woodpecker caches food throughout the entire year, it does so more often during the fall.  With that in mind, during the next several weeks, whenever you see a red-bellied woodpecker carrying something in its bill, follow its flight.  If the bird happens to land, see if it tries to shove the item into a tree crack or crevice (the bird will even stash food in wood posts and buildings), more than likely you have witnessed caching. The list of items stored by this woodpecker includes acorns, nuts, seeds, fruits, fruit pulp, kernels of corn, suet, peanut butter, whole peanuts, and even insects. 

   It has been reported that a captive red-bellied woodpecker even cached toothpicks and nails.

       For some reason, unlike many birds that cache food, the red-bellied woodpecker rarely vigorously defends its stored its  food treasures from would-be robbers.

       If you happen to witness a red-bellied woodpecker caching food, please let me know.

MIGRATING MONARCHS NEED OUR HELP TOO

       From the reports I received this week, a wave of monarchs was apparently migrating through Middle Georgia.  In addition, it was encouraging to hear that most of those reporting the appearance of these large orange and black butterflies were seeing more monarch than they had seen in years. 

       For example, my wife and I saw no fewer than seven monarchs at one time in our yard.  While that might not seem remarkable, during the fall, in recent years, we have not seen more than two or three at time visiting our flowers. A friend that lives in Lamar County said she was thrilled to discover 15 monarchs nectaring on ageratum late one afternoon.  She went on to say this was far more than she had seen on her property in years.  In another instance, a friend that lives in McDonough reported seeing many monarchs flying along the highway while driving from his home to Jonesboro.  He was excited that this was more monarchs that he had seen in long time.  Yet another friend reported larger than normal numbers of monarchs showing up in his Monroe County yard. 

       The appearance of monarchs in Georgia backyards in autumn points out the need for all of us to ensure that these iconic butterflies have plenty to eat on their epic journey to the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico.  This extremely long migration can take as long as two months.  During this flight, monarchs touchdown in many places as they travel anywhere from 25 to 100 miles a day.  At each stop they need to be able find enough food (nectar) to restore their fat reserves that fuel their long journey to their winter home, survive the winter, and then return to the United States.

       Some researchers feel that the ability of monarchs to find enough nectar along the fall migration pathway is extremely critical to the survival of the species.  As such, we all need to put out the welcome mat to America’s favorite butterfly as it moves south.  The best way this goal can be accomplished is to grow a variety of fall-blooming nectar plants in our backyards.  If we all offer a helping hand, we can create a series of stepping stones monarchs can use as they cross the state each autumn.

       The problem is the nectar plants in many backyard gardens across the state are pretty ragged by this time of the year.  As such, they do not provide monarchs with nearly as much nectar as they could.

       When the monarchs arrived in my yard this year they were greeted to a mix of flowers including butterfly bush, zinnia, cosmos, scarlet sage, Turk’s cap, mountain mint, liatris, ageratum, goldenrod, and lantana.  By far, the monarchs most often fed at butterfly bush blossoms.  The next most popular plant visited was lantana.  Interestingly, while monarchs preferred ageratum at my friend’s house in Lamar County, they never visited it in my yard.  In addition, while they have fed at Georgia mint growing in my yard in past years, they did not visit it this year.

       This points out the fact that we need to provide migrating monarchs with a variety of nectar plants.  When this is done, chances are the butterflies will find one or more plants in just the right stage of blooming to provide them with much-needed nectar.

       If you are interested in adding some autumn bloomers to your landscape to help southbound migrating monarchs, here are a few of the other nectar plants reported to attract monarchs in fall: Mexican sunflower, ironweed, aster, marigold, blanket flower, and petunia.

       If you have noticed monarchs feeding at other flowers in your yard at this time of the year, I would appreciate knowing about it.

THE POKEWEED IS A GREAT SOURCE OF FOOD FOR BIRDS

                Whenever we discuss feeding birds in a backyard setting invariably the discussion centers around offering birds seeds, suet, and other offerings in feeders hung outside our homes.  While supplemental feeding is important, the foods provided by native plants is often far more valuable to our feathered neighbors.  One of these native food plants is the common pokeweed.

                One of the reasons it is rarely mentioned is because few people are inclined to plant pokeweed in a garden.  Although it possesses colorful stems and berries, I suspect most homeowners deem this large, gangly perennial plant unworthy of growing alongside a bed of zinnias, or towering above their roses.  However, the plant’s reputation of being a weed belies its value as a plant that produces food relished by a host of birds.

                For this reason, my wife and I permit pokeberries to grow in idle spots around the perimeter of our property.  These are places we where we allow native vegetation to flourish.  These areas are occasionally mowed to prevent the intrusion of tree saplings.  We also remove any foreign invasive plants that happen to appear.

                If you decide to encourage pokeweed plants to grow in an idle corner of your property, you will have the opportunity to view scores of hungry birds dining on plant’s dark purple, juicy berries.  The birds you are most likely to see are year-round residents such as northern mockingbirds, brown thrashers, eastern bluebirds, European starlings, mourning doves, American crows, red-bellied woodpeckers, and northern cardinals.  In preparation for, and during their fall migrations, birds that nest here and elsewhere in North America, also gobble up pokeberries to help fuel their hazardous journey to their wintering grounds.  The list of neotropical migrants that dine on pokeberries includes the gray catbird, eastern kingbird, wood thrush, Swainson’s thrush, veery, summer tanager, and hooded warbler.  Later when the migratory birds that winter in the Peach state arrive, they rarely pass up the opportunity to feed on what pokeberries remain.  These birds include the likes of the hermit thrush, cedar waxwing as well as fox and white-throated sparrows.

                Chances are you have never seen some of these birds in your backyard.  With that in mind, if you want to enhance your chances of catching glimpses of these birds without leaving the confines or your property, while providing a nutrient-rich source of food for birds and other wildlife, find a place for common pokeweed on your land.