MISTLETOE IS FAR MORE THAN A SYMBOL OF CHRISTMAS

       With our preoccupation with attracting backyard wildlife with supplemental foods such as suet and seeds, it is easy to overlook the fact that those backyards that often attract the greatest variety of numbers of backyard wildlife are also home to a variety of native plants.  One of the most underappreciated plants that inhabit the yards of many of us is American mistletoe.

       Whenever the subject of the mistletoe arises, more often than not one thing comes to mind; most people regard the plant as one of the treasured symbols of Christmas.  Supposedly, if a couple passes through a door adorned with a sprig of mistletoe bearing berries, it is permissible for them to share a kiss.  At the end of the kiss, the couple is supposed to remove one of the berries.  However, it is out of place for a couple to steal a kiss beneath a berryless frond of mistletoe.

       Although this popular legend has been around for centuries, few realize that mistletoe is also an important food plant for many forms of wildlife ranging from insects to birds and mammals.  This very different side to the mistletoe should further endear the plant to everyone that shares an interest in wildlife.  Let me explain.

       This widespread parasitic plant is the host for the great purple hairstreak.  This beauty is the only Georgia butterfly that lays its eggs on the mistletoe. 

       Mistletoe also produces both pollen and nectar that feed countless insects.  Bees frequently avail themselves of the food offered by mistletoes.  Ants, native bees, honeybees, flies, also visit the plant’s tiny flowers.

       Mammals such as white-tailed deer, gray squirrels, and eastern chipmunks eat mistletoe.  Deer are particularly fond of the mistletoe’s protein-rich foliage.

       Many species of birds eat mistletoe’s white almost translucent berries.  Each berry contains two to three seeds that and enveloped in extremely sticky flesh.  Among the birds that gobble up mistletoe berries are cedar waxwings, eastern bluebirds, eastern meadowlarks, American robins, northern flickers, purple finches, blue jays, dark-eyed junco, white-breasted nuthatches, American goldfinches, and eastern towhees.

       Now that you know that mistletoe is a valued wildlife food plant, are you willing to say mistletoe is far more than a magical Christmas plant?  I am.

SEEING A RARE BIRD AT YOUR BIRD FEEDERS IS ALWAYS EXCITING

      Now that we are on the doorstep to winter, activity around our bird feeders is going to increase.  In fact, during the winter our feeders will be visited by more birds than at any other time of the year.  When this occurs, we are always on the lookout for a rare bird.  Some rare visitors to our feeders, such as the yellow-headed blackbird, are easy to spot.  However, others such as hybrids are much more difficult to identify.  One such hybrid is a cross between a white-throated sparrow and a dark-eyed junco.

       The white-throated sparrow winters throughout Georgia.  On the other hand, the dark-eyed junco commonly winters across the entire state, with the exception of extreme southeast Georgia.  However, in New England and Canada portions of their individual breeding ranges overlap.

       For reasons that are not fully understood, these birds will occasionally interbreed and produce offspring.  The resulting hybrids will display traits of both parents.  Since the combinations of these plumage patterns vary widely from bird to bird, trying to figure out what you are looking at is often perplexing.  For example, in the case of dark-eyed junco/white-throated sparrow hybrids, observers have reported birds with the wing pattern of a white-throated sparrow and the head pattern of a dark-eyed junco. Other birds look much like white-throated sparrows but sport the white outer tail feathers of dark-eyed junco.

       In order to spot one of these hybrids, you must carefully study the flocks of sparrows that converge on your feeding area.  With a little luck, you will spot any bird that just does not seem to to look right. 

       If you see a bird that is a potential hybrid, take lots of pictures of it and share them with others (please include me on this list).  Sometimes it takes many people to reveal the true identify of a hybrid.  

       White-throated sparrow/dark-eyed junco crosses are more common than you might think.  Such birds have been seen in many states such as Minnesota, Arkansas, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, Virginia, Connecticut, and even Georgia.  Who knows?  There is no reason why the next sighting of this fascinating bird may occur in your backyard.

PINEAPPLE SAGE IS GREAT FOR LATE SEASON HUMMERS AND MORE

        There are at least 60 species of salvias.  In addition, more than 50 cultivars of these popular plants are also available.  There are so many varieties of salvias available it is difficult for Georgia gardeners to decide which are best for their gardens.  If you are looking for salvia that blooms late from late summer into fall and provides nectar for hummingbirds, butterflies, native bees and other pollinators, I recommend you plant pineapple sage (Salvia elegans).

       This plant is native in Central America.  Here in Georgia it is  either a tender perennial or annual.  While it is susceptible to cold weather, some gardeners report that when mulched it can survive winter temperatures that plummet as low as 5˚F.

       One of the things I like about pineapple sage is that it begins blooming late in the summer and will continue producing blooms until the frost ends its growing season.  Consequently, in autumn, it is providing nectar when it is often a scarce commodity.

       Although ruby-throated hummingbirds have been gone from our yard for weeks, they did nectar at the plants long tubular-shaped blooms before they left.  However, the main beneficiaries of its nectar are now cloudless sulphur and sleepy orange butterflies, and native bees.

       Over the years, many folks that have been lucky enough to attract wintering hummingbirds have told me that rufous hummingbirds frequent the pineapple sage’s striking red blossoms.

       Pineapple sage grows to be 3-4 feet tall and 3-4′ wide.  It seems to prosper in spots bathed in both morning and afternoon sunshine.  Pineapple sage also needs frequent watering. In addition, they do best in rich, well-drained soil.

       The plants are easily propagated from cuttings.  Young plants should be transplanted as soon as the threat of frost has passed in your neck of the woods.

       As you might expect, the blooming period in the southern half of the state is considerably long that it is in Middle and North Georgia.  However, regardless of how long is blooms, when it is blooming it provides pollinators with a valuable source of food while at the same time adding beauty to our yards.

                 Cloudless Sulphur on Pineapple Sage

       My wife and I bring our potted plants inside in the winter.  The pineapple sage growing in our yard is mulched during the winter.

       With the freezing weather forecast during the next several days, it is time for us to protect our pineapple sage before it is too late: This is one plant we do not want to lose.

BACKYARD SECRET–FEEDER BIRDS CAN TASTE THEIR FOOD

      One of the joys of eating is that we can taste our food.  As such, it is one of the reasons why we prefer some foods to others.  In the not too distant past, few folks held the belief that birds also have a sense of taste.  We now know this is not the case.

       Whereas we have about 9,000 taste buds, the birds that visit our feeders possess only 50.  Consequently, they must rely heavily on sight and touch to select foods.  Instead of being located on its tongue, a bird’s taste buds are located near the tip of its bill as well as the floor and roof of its mouth.

A BEAUTIFUL PLACE FOR BUMBLEBEES TO SPEND A COOL FALL NIGHT

       The Confederate rose brings spectacular beauty to yards across Georgia.  However, my wife, Donna, and I have found that its showy blossoms are also used as places for bumblebees to escape the cold on chilly autumn nights.

       This large multi-stemmed shrub or small tree was brought to North America in the 1600s.  Since then it has been widely planted throughout the Southeast.  It popularity stems from the fact that, from late summer until frost, it bears scores of white blossoms that measure up to six inches in diameter.  These flowers eventually turn light pink before finally becoming rose-colored.

       While my wife and I thoroughly enjoy the beauty the flowers bring to our yard, our discovery that these stunning blooms provide bumblebees with warm refuges on chilly fall nights has heightened our appreciation for the plant.

       For quite some time, I had not given any thought to this interesting behavior until late one afternoon this past week.  Late one afternoon I noticed that my wife, was looking deep into the one of the blossoms adorning a Confederate rose growing alongside our driveway.  I walked up to find out what had caught her attention.  When she said she was looking at a bumblebee that had settled in for the night deep inside a Confederate rose bloom, I peered down into the throat of the flower and spotted the insect.  As we stood nearby discussing her find, a couple of other bumblebees flew into other blossoms.

       When I returned to the flowers well after dark, sure enough, the bumblebees were still there awaiting morning when temperatures warmed to the point where they could utilize the muscles that control their wings and fly away.

       A number of animals seek cover on chilly nights.  Many birds and mammals retreat to natural cavities, nesting boxes, thick vegetation, and other places.  However, I doubt that many spend cold nights nestled in cover as beautiful a Confederate rose blossom.

       If you have a Confederate rose growing in your yard, before the blossoms nipped by a frost, as the sun is setting check them out.  If bumblebees are still flying about in your neck of the woods, chances are one or more might be using some of gorgeous blooms for nighttime cover also.

IS IT A GOOD IDEA TO FEED BIRDS IN AUTUMN?

        Back in the day, most bird enthusiasts never fed seeds to birds during the autumn months.  Nowadays fall bird feeding is quite popular.  However, if you are currently offering sunflower seeds, millet and other delicacies to birds in your backyard, have you ever wondered if this causes more harm than good?

       The truth of the matter is it appears fall bird feeding is more beneficial than harmful.  Some go so far to say that fall feeding discourages birds from migrating.  However, the truth of the matter is it appears fall bird feeding can actually benefit birds.  Here are a few reasons why this is the case.

       Seed eating migrants actually benefit from your efforts.  The reason for this is during migration they deplete the stored fat that fuels their flight south.  An abundant supply of seeds offered at feeders allows them to quickly refuel and continue on to the winter homes.

       An abundant supply of seeds also allows resident birds to build up the fat reserves they need to survive cold weather.  This is especially important during those years when acorns and other seeds hard are hard to come by.

       While it is true, that, for many birds, autumn is a time of plenty–food seems to be everywhere.  However, as the year moves on into December and beyond, these food supplies will be exhausted.  Consequently, the seeds provided by your feeders become increasingly more important to seed-eating birds.

       Finally, feeding birds in the fall provides you with some great wildlife watching opportunities.  Not only do you enjoy tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees and others permanent residents making endless trips to and from you feeders, but you also get to see southbound birds that might have passed over your yard on their way south.  This year, for example, this fall backyard wildlife watchers were able to catch glimpses of rose-breasted grosbeaks.  For many, they only see this bird in the spring.

       The bottom line is, if you keeping your feeding area clean, fall feeding can benefit wild birds.

SOLVING THE MYSTERY OF THE LUMPY SQUIRRELS

       From time to time, all backyard wildlife watchers see something that they cannot explain.  For example, if gray squirrels frequently visit your feeders, chances are you will eventually spot one that appears to have lumps somewhere on its body. When this happens, it is only human nature to wonder what causes these mysterious lumps.  A vast majority of the time, hidden inside each lump is the larva of a parasitic fly known as the squirrel bot fly.

       Squirrel bot flies parasitize animals such as gray and fox squirrels, and rabbits.  The squirrel bot fly looks much like a bumblebee.  However, if you have the rare opportunity to examine one, you will see that it has one set of wings instead of two like the bumblebee.

       Adult bot flies live for only two weeks or so.  During this brief time, a female must lay her fertilized eggs on the branches of trees and other surfaces.  If a squirrel happens by and touches an egg, it rapidly hatches and the larva tries to hitch a ride on the squirrel.  The tiny larva must then make its way into the squirrel’s body via a body opening.  This often occurs when a squirrel grooms itself and unwittingly swallows a bot fly larva.  A larva can also gain access to the body through the bushytail’s eyes.

       Once inside, the larva travels through the squirrel’s body before eventually ending up between the animal’s skin and flesh.  Here it rapidly grows.  As the larva increases in size, it creates a noticeable lump.  Many people call these lumps warbles or wolves.

       Over time, the liquid-filled lump swells.  A bot larva can reach a size of 1.5-inches long and an inch wide.  During this period in its life, a larva chews an exit hole in the squirrel’s skin through which it eventually wiggles out and drops to the ground.

       Once on the ground it burrows into the soil and pupates.  It will remain there until spring when it sheds the covering that protected it throughout the winter and emerges as an adult.

       Meanwhile, once a larva leaves a squirrel, the open wound it left behind heals and any hair that was lost while the larva was living just below its skin will regrow.

       Fortunately, we, as well as dogs and cats, cannot be infected by coming into contact with a squirrel parasitized by a bot fly.

       The amazing drama involving the bot fly and the gray squirrel is played out in countless backyards across Georgia each year.  However, I had never seen a “lumpy” squirrel in my yard until this year.  Have you ever seen one in your yard?  If you have, you now know the answer to a mystery that has confounded many folks for generations.

BACKYARD SECRET–BLUE JAYS DON’T RELOCATE MOST OF THE ACORNS THEY HOARD

       Blue jays are currently busy hoarding acorns.  Whereas some birds and mammals store acorns in a single spot, such is not the case with blue jays.  These handsome birds hide each acorn they gather in a separate spot throughout the territory they will occupy throughout the winter.  It is hard to believe that a blue jay might bury an acorn it plucked from your lawn at a spot more than a mile away.

       Since a single blue jay can hoard up to 107 acorns per day, you might wonder how in the world it remembers every spot where it has buried an acorn.  The truth of the matter is it doesn’t.  Studies have found that a blue jay only retrieves roughly a quarter of the acorns it stashes away each fall.

       In other words, each day that a blue jay is collecting and hiding acorns it is potentially planting 75 acorns.  Obviously, some of these acorns will rot; other critters will consume some of them.  The rest could potentially germinate and develop into new oak trees.

       One might say that blue jays are playing a key role in replanting our precious forests.  Looking at it another way, a single blue jay plants vastly more trees than any of us in a week than most of us do in a lifetime.

MY FIRST WINTER BIRD OF THE FALL–A RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET

       For weeks, I have been eagerly awaiting the appearance of my first winter bird of the fall.  By that, I mean the migratory birds that winter in my backyard typically arrive well before winter actually begins.  Well, my wait is finally over as this week I spotted a ruby-crowned kinglet eating bird butter laced with peanuts.

       I find it interesting that, although the ruby-crowned kinglet is one of the last insectivorous birds to leave its northern breeding grounds, it was the first to arrive in my yard located in Middle Georgia.  I cannot help but wonder if the bird I saw will indeed winter here, or, was a migrant using my yard as a stopover to refuel before  moving on southward to its winter home is south Georgia or Florida.

       Since I never see more than one ruby-crowned kinglet at a time, I would like to know if only one of these tiny passerines establishes a territory in my yard each winter.  Since there is evidence that these small birds set up winter territories, perhaps more kinglets actually inhabit my three acres of land than I realize.  If such is the case, it could be possible that I host more than one ruby-crowned kinglet and the only one I see is the bird that claims the portion of the yard where my feeders are located.

       Overwhelmingly, when a ruby-crowned kinglet makes an appearance in my bird feeding area it dines on bird butter.  However, in one instance, I watched a kinglet sifting through white millet offered in a small feeder.

       If you would like to attempt to attract a ruby-crowned kinglet to your yard this winter, make sure suet or bird butter are on the menu of your backyard bird cafe.  Other foods known attract ruby-crowned kinglets are peanut butter, mixed seed, finely cracked nuts, peanut hearts, cornbread, and doughnuts.  They will even visit hummingbird feeders from time to time.

       I have never seen a ruby-crowned kinglet drink at my birdbath.  However, there are numerous reports of them doing so.

       If you are successful in attracting a ruby-crowned kinglet to your yard for the first time, you will quickly learn they are a joy to watch.  They are full of energy and are constantly on the move.  Some might even say they get tired just seeing them constantly flit about in search of food.

 

CAN WOOLLY BEAR CATERPILLARS PREDICT THE WEATHER?

       This week I made an exciting find.  While walking from my office to the house, I just happened to look down and spotted a woolly bear caterpillar curled up in the gravel.  This was the first woolly bear I have seen this year.

       The woolly bear is the caterpillar of the Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella).  Stiff bristles cloak the caterpillar’s body giving it a fuzzy appearance.  A rusty band extends across the midsection of the insect.  Black bristles cover the front and rear portions of the insect.

       When I spotted to fuzzy caterpillar, it brought back fond memories of my childhood.  Back then, it was commonly believed the width of the rusty band can be used to predict the weather.  According to popular folklore when the rusty band is wide, we are in for a mild winter.  Conversely, when it is narrow we will have to suffer through a severe winter.

       Entomologists tell us that the width of the rusty band is controlled by the age of the caterpillar and not the impending weather.  As the caterpillar ages it goes through a series of molts.  With each molt, the black bristles that comprise two black bands are progressively replaced with rusty bristles.  Consequently, the width of the rusty band is broadest when the caterpillar molts for the last time.

       From the looks of the caterpillar I found, if the woolly bear can actually predict the weather, the winter in my neck of the woods should not be too severe.

       If you find a woolly bear crawling across your lawn or driveway, make a note of the width of its rusty band.  Then next spring pull out the note and see if the woolly bear’s prediction was right or wrong.