HOW MANY WORMS CAN A ROBIN EAT?

       We are all familiar with the old tongue twister that goes something like this, “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”  When I was a young boy I often wondered how much wood that would be.  Long ago I stopped wondering the answers to such whimsical questions.  Nowadays, I am intrigued by other mysteries such as how fast can a bird fly and how much food can a wild animal consume.  For example, I have long wondered how many earthworms an American robin can devour in a single day.

       Earthworms are an important component of the American robin’s diet. In fact, roughly 40 percent of the bird’s diet is comprised of earthworms.  Many of these earthworms are captured in our yards.  In fact, seeing a robin pulling a long worm out of the ground is a familiar sight in many yards across the state.

       As it turns out, robins are exceptionally skilled at hunting earthworms.  Remarkably robins have been found to capture upwards of 20 earthworms an hour. Another way to look at the American robin’s ability to pluck these slimy critters from the ground is illustrated by the fact that a single robin can eat up to fourteen feet of earthworms per day.       Wow!  I am impressed. 

HELPING BOX TURTLES CROSS THE ROAD

     Whenever you see a box turtle attempting to cross a busy highway, I am sure you cannot help but be concerned the reptile can safely complete its perilous journey.  Indeed, with traffic volume increasing every year, box turtle treks across the black asphalt ribbons that crisscross the state are becoming ever more dangerous.  Not wanting to see a box turtle struck by a vehicle, whenever possible, drivers often stop and try to help turtle avoid being crushed by a car or truck.  Once a turtle is retrieved, a driver must decide where to place it in order to keep it out of harm’s way.

       I have asked two herpetologists what they would recommend in this situation.  Both agreed it is best to place the turtle on the side of the road it was headed.  While there is always a chance the turtle will turn around and walk back onto the highway, in most instances, this is not the case.

       The experts also stressed it is not a good idea to move a turtle  a mile or two down the road to a place that appears to be safer.  When released some distance from its home range, box turtles often find it difficult to find enough food to survive.  This can result in the turtles wandering about.

       If you decide to come to the aid of a box turtle trying to plod across a busy highway, please make sure you have a safe place to pull off the road.  In addition, do not walk out into the highway to retrieve a box turtle until you are absolutely certain you can do so well before a oncoming vehicle reaches you.

HOARY EDGE OR SILVER-SPOTTED SKIPPER?

       Summer is a great time to watch butterflies.  Depending on where you live, coupled with the abundance and variety of nectar plants growing in your gardens, it is possible to spot 25 or more species of butterflies in a single day.  Currently, I am finding anywhere from 12-17 species a day.  It is relaxing to watch butterflies flying from flower to flower.  However, I find it even more satisfying when I can identify what I am looking at.  With that in mind, I thought I would offer you some tips that will help you tell the difference between two similar butterflies that are likely to be seen in your backyard.

       The two butterflies I am going to focus on are the hoary edge and silver-spotted skipper.  Both are overall dark in color and display patches of white on the undersides of their rear wings.

       In my neighborhood, my wife and I see the silver-spotted skipper far more often than the hoary edge.  However, it is not uncommon to find them feeding close to one another on the same plant.   

       Both butterflies are similar in size although the silver-spotted skipper is a bit larger with a wingspan that measures 1.75-2.40 inches in width.  In comparison, the hoary edge’s wingspan is 1.4-1.75″ wide.

       The feature that you can use to most easily tell whether you are looking at is a hoary edge or silver-spotted skipper is the position of the splash of white visible when the butterflies are perched with their wings closed.  The white patch of the hoary edge extends inward from the trailing edge of the wing.  To me, this frosty patch also seems to be somewhat smeared.

       In the case of the silver-spotted skipper, its underwing patch does not extend all the way to the rear edge of the wing.  Instead, it is situated near the center of the wing.  In addition, this patch takes on a bright silvery white hue.  Also, the outer edges of the patch are more clearly defined.   

THE HUMMINGBIRD’S ABILITY TO SELECT NECTAR-RICH BLOOMS

       August is a special month for both ruby-throated hummingbirds and those of us that enjoy watching them.  Throughout the entire month, the number of hummingbirds visiting our feeder swells as they voraciously feed on the nectar provided by our feeders and flowers.  The reason for this increased activity is these flying jewels must quickly eat enough food to enable them to store the fat required to fuel their long journey to their winter home.

       In order to accomplish this task, hummingbirds make frequent feeding forays to our feeders and as many flowers as possible.  Since hummingbirds have one the highest rates of metabolism known, they expend huge amounts of energy trying to prepare for their arduous migration.  Obviously, anything that makes this task more efficient greatly benefits these flying dynamos.

       One way the birds would be able to streamline their feeding binge would be to possess the ability to avoid visiting flowers that harbor little or no nectar.  Well, as amazing as it may seem, they can do just that.  Here is how it works.

       The amount of nectar produced by each nectar plant varies considerably throughout the day.  A number of variables such as soil moisture and weather conditions affect it.  When hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, wasps, and other nectar feeders consume nectar, it takes time for it to be replenished.  This time varies considerably.  For example, some flowers do so only once a day, others every half-hour, others varying amounts of time in between.

      Ruby-throated hummingbirds have the ability to learn how long it takes a flower to rejuvenate its supply of energy-rich nectar.  Consequently, when a rubythroat visits the zinnias, salvias, lantanas, bee balms, trumpet creepers, and the like growing in our hummingbird gardens they rapidly learn how long it takes each plant to produce a new crop of nectar.  Only then will they revisit a plant it fed at earlier in the day.  This eliminates the need to revisit the plant until correct amount of time has elapsed.

       This astounding ability has been demonstrated by researchers such as a team of University of Edinburg biologists.  Their experiments involved providing hummingbirds with two groups of artificial flowers laden with nectar.  One group of flowers was refilled with nectar every ten minutes.  The second group was replenished every 20 minutes.  In short order, the hummers learned when each group of flowers provided them with a source of food.

       Keep this in mind as you watch the hummingbirds visiting various flowers about your yard.  It will help you better understand why they feed at certain nectar plants when they do.  If you are like me, you will come away being even more impressed with a bird so small, ten could be mailed for the price of a first-class letter.

MOCKINGBIRDS DON’T LIKE TO SHARE

     Northern mockingbirds are common backyard residents throughout Georgia.  Unlike some of the birds, we see in our backyards, it is a permanent resident.  If you regularly see or hear a mockingbirds in your yard, it is safe to say your property is located within a mockingbird’s territory.  This means a mockingbird will try to keep other birds from its favorite food sources such as feeders.  Currently a mockingbird is defending my suet feeder.

       Consequently, the only time hairy and downy woodpeckers, cardinals, house finches, Carolina chickadees, brown headed nuthatches, tufted titmice and others an able to feed on the suet offered in a wire suet feeder is when the mockingbird is somewhere out of sight of the feeder.

       The only bird that doesn’t seem to be intimidated by the mockingbird is the brown thrasher.  I have never witnessed a mockingbird try to scare a brown thrasher away from a suet feeder; perhaps this because mockingbirds find thrashers too large and intimidating.

       Since I enjoy watching a variety of birds feeding in my feeding area, I have tried a couple of things remedy the situation. 

              MOCKINGBIRD AT SUET FEEDER

       For example, I purchased a suet feeder that was surrounded by hardware cloth cage. The suet feeder was positioned well away from the side of the cage.  While it allowed smaller birds such as brown-headed nuthatches, titmice, chickadees, and sparrows to slip through the opening in the hardware cloth and feed, it kept larger birds such as mockingbirds, cardinals, and woodpeckers away.

       My latest approach is to offer my backyard avian neighbors two suet feeders.  The theory is that it is impossible for one bird to defend more than one feeder.

       I began my experiment by placing another suet feeder within ten feet of the original feeder.  It didn’t take long for me to realize there the second feeder was positioned too close to the original feeder.  As such, the mockingbird kept other birds away from both feeders.

       I have since moved the second feeder some 30 feet away.  This seems to work fine, however, I now find it more difficult to watch and photograph birds visiting the second feeder.  That being the case, I need to begin moving the second feeder ever closer to the first feeder.  I am sure; at some point, the mockingbird will be able to defend both feeders.  Then I can move it back to a location just beyond that distance.

       Perhaps I do should go ahead a let the mockingbird defend a single suet feeder.  Since the bird cannot be near the feeder all of the time, I can enjoy seeing other birds dine to the suet during those times the mockingbird is elsewhere.  That may be best after all.   

       If you have come up with a great way to deal with an aggressive mockingbird trying to defend suet, mealworms, or fruit, I sure would like to know about it.

SOME ANTS PRACTICE SOCIAL DISTANCING

      The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered our lives in many ways.  It now appears that our lives will not return to normal until scientists develop a vaccine to protect us from the ravages of this unforgiving disease.  Meanwhile, aside from wearing masks and frequently washing our hands, the only way we can reduce our chances of contracting the disease is to practice social distancing.  This behavior is totally alien to us.  However, Austrian and Swiss biologists have discovered that black garden ants have long practiced social distancing to prevent the spread of disease within their colonies.

       As we all know, ants are social insects.  It seems the worker caste of black garden ant colonies is divided into nurses and foragers.  The foragers are charged with the responsibility of gathering food for the colony.  In comparison, nurses stay within the colony and care for developing broods of new ants.

       When the scientists exposed the foragers with a disease-causing fungus, they witnessed remarkable changes in the behaviors of both the foragers and nurses.  Those foragers that became infected with the fungus increased the amount of time they spent away from the colony.  By so doing they reduced the time they came in contact with other workers.  Their change in behavior coincided with the nurse ants transporting the broods deeper into the recesses of the colony.  The biologists theorize these behavioral changes helped minimize the spread of the disease throughout the entire colony.  The scientists went to say their research might suggest the ants have the ability to detect spores on themselves and other ants.

       Who would have ever believed something like this is going in the insect world?

HOW MUCH WATER DOES A GRAY SQUIRRELS DRINK PER DAY?

       The majority of the birdbaths placed in Georgia backyards are intended to be used by birds. However, the truth of the matter is many other animals visit them. I think it would be safe to say the “other” animal most often seen at our feeders is the gray squirrel. With that in mind, have you ever wondered how much water a gray squirrel consumes in a day?

       It seems that, a gray squirrel needs two to three tablespoons of water per day, however, a number of factors affect the amount of water a squirrel drinks. For example, female gray squirrels nursing young require more water than squirrels not producing milk for their young.

       It is interesting to note that, on the average, a gray squirrel drinks twice per day.

IN SUMMER, YOUNG BIRDS ARE OFTEN TOUGH TO INDENTIFY

        Now that we are well into summer our backyards are inhabited by birds that either breed locally and their newly fledged young. We are all familiar with the adult cardinals, robins, bluebirds, and towhees that we see every day. However, when their young begin visiting our birdbaths and feeders, it is often difficult to identify them. As such, some of these birds make us wonder if we are looking at a new addition to our backyard bird list or the young of a one of our summer residents. Below you will find some tips that can be used to recognize the young of some of our common backyard residents.

Eastern Towhee – Young towhees have the characteristic towhee shape. However, these youngsters have a definite brownish plumage. Unlike their parents, though, their undersides are streaked. This gives them the appearance of a large sparrow. In spite of this, they will be adorned with the same white feather pattern on their wings and corners of their tails seen on their parents.

 

American Robin – Juvenile American robins look like faded versions of the adult female robin. They differ, though by featuring white teardrop spots on their backs. The breasts of young robins seem to be bathed in reddish-brown and covered with distinctive dark speckles.

Northern Cardinal – Whenever I see an immature cardinal, it seems it has a bedraggled appearance. They too resemble their mothers; however, their plumage is dull brown. Often their tails and breasts will seem as if they have a faint reddish wash. Their bills are always blackish.

Eastern Bluebird – Young eastern bluebirds are not blue. Instead, they are light brown in color. The topside of their bodies will display pale white spots. The young birds’ breasts are covered in speckles that give them a scaly appearance.

       I hope these tips will help you identify some of the birds you are currently seeing. Keep in mind, as fall approaches, bird identification will become much more worrisome when the confusing fall warblers and other Neotropical migrants begin stopping in our backyards en route to the winter homes.

THE AMERICAN LADY

       One of the most common butterflies my wife and I are seeing in our backyard right now is the American lady (Vanessa virginianus).

       The American lady is a medium sized butterfly with a wingspan that measures from 1.75 – 2.4 inches wide.

       The American lady is a beautiful butterfly. From above the butterfly is reddish orange in color. Its forewings are bordered black. The tips of the forewings are also adorned with white spots.

       The American lady is gorgeous regardless of whether you see it from above or below. However, I personally find it most attractive when it holds its wings above its body while feeding. When you look at the ventral side of the butterfly in this position the first thing that catches your eye are two large eyespots. The underside of the wings also features a complex pattern of creamy white lines that will immediately remind you of a spider web. What a combination!

       The only butterfly that it can be confused with is the painted lady. Whereas there are a couple of subtle differences in the appearances of the painted lady and the American lady, the easiest way to separate the two is by counting the number of eyespots displayed on the trailing edge of the ventral side of the wings. The painted lady is decorated with four small eyespots whereas the American lady has but two large eyespots.

       Depending on where you live in Georgia, you may see American ladies flying from late January into November. Folks residing in the southern half of the state see them earlier and later in the year than those living in North Georgia.

       American ladies prefer to fly in open areas such as roadside, fields and meadows. Fortunately for us they are also commonly found in our backyards.

       American ladies nectar at any a number of ornamental and native plants. However, in our backyard, they are primarily nectaring at coneflowers and Miss Huff lantana.

       When you approach an American lady don’t be surprised if it flies away much sooner than an eastern tiger swallowtail. It is a bit skittish. However, if you stand motionless, often the American lady will soon return and land close by.

       Among the host plants used by the American lady are cudweed, some asters, and pussy-toes.

PLANT NOW TO FEED BUTTERFLIES AND HUMMINGBIRDS FROM LATE SUMMER INTO FALL

       If you want to ensure that butterflies, hummingbirds and other nectar feeders can find plenty of food in your backyard from late summer into fall, now is the time to sow a late crop of zinnias and Mexican sunflower seeds.

       Currently the gardens of most Georgians that plant for pollinators are awash with color and food (pollen and nectar). However, by late September and October many of these same beautiful pollinator havens will be far less colorful and offer hummingbirds, butterflies and other pollinators less food. In spite of trying to prolong the blooming period of cut-and-come-again plants, the numbers of flowers being produced will often dwindle by late summer. Other flowers will have simply ended their blooming period and will not blossom until next year.

       This situation can cause problems for all pollinators, including migrants making their way south on their fall migrations. This list of migrants includes several butterflies such as the monarch as well as ruby-throated hummingbirds.

       One way you can assist these critters this year is to plant more zinnias and Mexican sunflowers. Since both plants require somewhere from 60-70 days to go from seed to flower, you need to plant seeds for these plants right now.

       Both can be planted in beds. I can personally attest to the fact that zinnias also do extremely well in containers.

Long-tailed Skipper nectaring on Mexican Sunflower

     Since my wife and I have never planted Mexican sunflowers in containers, I don’t know how they do in that situation. I suspect because they grow so tall, they would more than likely require staking.

       Last year my wife and I enjoyed great success planting a second crop of zinnias. They attracted many butterflies, including monarchs, and hummingbirds. In addition, they added needed splotches of late color to our gardens.

       If you decide to try this practice, I think you will be pleased with the results. I know monarchs, ruby-throated hummingbirds, and scores of other pollinators will benefit from your efforts.