BRACKET FUNGI ARE ODD BACKYARD INHABITANTS

       Remarkably, our backyards are home to untold wild inhabitants.  I don’t think there is anybody that can identify all of them.  However, the fact is we do not know the correct name of them to appreciate their beauty and the role they play in wild communities.  One group of organisms most of us are largely unfamiliar with is known as the tree bracket (also called shelf) fungi. 

        As their name suggests, tree bracket fungi grow on trees (both dead and alive).  The shelf-like structures were see growing on the sides of trees are the fungi’s fruiting bodies. Each species of bracket fungi has its own distinctive appearance.

Photo taken South Monroe County, Forsyth, GA

 

       Kim Walton (this blog’s webmaster) submitted the attractive fungi depicted in the accompanying photo growing on the side of a tree near her home in Monroe County.

       Shelf fungi are more than just pleasing to the eye.  Throughout history, some species have been used as folk remedies.  In addition, these fungi provide cover for spiders, songbirds, insects, and a variety of other critters.

       If you know the name of this type of bracket fungi, I would appreciate it if you would share its identity with me.

WHERE A COYOTE LIVES CAN AFFECT ITS HEALTH

       The coyote’s name is on the long list of animals that are not native to Georgia.  However, much to our dismay, they are living here and have spread across the state.  They are now living in rural and urban areas alike.  This scenario has also played out across other states.  With this in mind, biologists at the University of Alberta conducted a study to determine if coyotes living in and around humans in urban areas are just as healthy and their cousins that inhabit rural habitats.

       Here in Georgia urban coyotes are now feeding on foods tossed into garbage cans, tossed out of the windows of cars racing down the highway, seeds scattered beneath our bird feeders, as well as food left outside our homes for the family dog.  They are preying on domestic pets such as dogs, cats.  They are also attacking goats, sheep, and other livestock.

      As expected, the researchers found coyotes living in the city eat lots of processed foods such as fast food, dinners tossed in the garbage.  The researchers even found coyotes consume pieces of gloves, and the wrappers placed around burritos and the like.  These items are a far cry from the foods one would expect to find in the typical diets those coyotes living away from humanity.

       Their data collected in this study showed the coyotes feeding in backyards and other food-rich locales are less healthy.  These coyotes possess less kidney fat.  This is a clear indication they are not eating a nutritious diet.  The fact that their spleens are also larger is a sign that the human food they are gobbling up is having a deleterious impact on their immune systems.

       It would seem that coyotes that have adopted an urban lifestyle are paying the price for living away from the natural world.

       While we cannot eliminate the coyotes that are living close to us, we can stop unwittingly contributing to their dining choices.  For example, we all need to secure our garbage cans so coyotes cannot dine on our leftovers.  We can also make a point of not leaving pet food outside overnight.  If we adopt these and other simple measures, we will be helping ensure coyotes will not make our yards part of their feeding territories.

MYSTERIOUS WILD BIRD DISEASE SEEMS TO HAVE VANISHED

       Last May a mysterious illness that affected songbirds suddenly appeared in the eastern states.  By the time the illness finally abated, it had killed thousands of birds in the District of Columbia, Delaware, New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia.  This prompted state wildlife agencies and conservation groups, to urge the public to cease providing wild birds with water or food.  Then, for some unknown reason, the songbird illness suddenly disappeared this past July.

       The birds affected by the outbreak displayed the same symptoms: swollen, crusty eyes, paralysis, are tremors.  

       The birds that were most affected were young common grackles, blue jays and European starlings.  However, the roster of birds that showed symptoms of the disease included Carolina wrens and chickadees, red-bellied woodpeckers, eastern bluebirds, American robins, house finches, northern cardinals, and house sparrows.

       The outbreak prompted the Cornell Wildlife Health Lab and the National Wildlife Health Lab, as well as wildlife disease labs across the country, to try to diagnose the cause of the illness.  Their efforts methodically ruled out all of the known wildlife illnesses.  This left them at a loss to explain what was causing the problem.

       However, the scientists found the sudden appearance and decline of the disease closely mirrored the Brood X cicada emergence. This leads many of the scientists to theorize that mysterious bird illness that plagued birds across a vast swath of the east this past summer is linked to the cicadas.  According to this theory birds may have been affected the cicadas in a number of ways.  For example, they could have eaten cicadas poisoned by homeowners trying to eliminate the insects from their yards.  Some birds may have also become sick from eating the cicadas themselves.  It is also possible that a toxin produced by a fungus commonly found on cicadas could have poisoned the birds.

       While this theory seems plausible, more research is needed before wildlife disease experts will definitively say this was indeed the cause of the problem.

       In the meantime, many states have lifted bird-feeding restrictions implemented during the outbreak.  However, they are urging that homeowners keep their bird feeding areas and feeders clean.  While we were fortunate that the mysterious songbird illness did not crop up in Georgia, we should all strive to keep our bird feeders and the ground around them clean.

BACKYARD SECRET–A CHEMICAL IN AMERICAN BEAUTYBERRY CAN HELP REPEL MOSQUITOES

       American beautyberry is a native shrub that is gaining popularity among Georgia backyard wildlife enthusiasts.  Sometimes called French mulberry, clusters of round magenta berries festoon the plant from late summer into winter.  The berries are not only beautiful, but also serve as food for hungry gray catbirds, northern mockingbirds, cardinals as well as other birds and mammals.

       Now it seems we have another reason to admire American beautyberry.  Researchers with the United States Department of Agriculture have discovered that the beautyberry’s leaves contain a chemical that repels mosquitoes.

American Beautyberries

       This remarkable finding is due to a conversation Charles Bryson, a botanist that works for the Southern Weed Science Program in Stoneville, had with researchers with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Products Utilization Unit at Oxford, Mississippi.  Bryson told the researchers that his grandfather, John Rives Crumpton, related to him that back in the day farmers in Northeast Mississippi were able to keep worrisome biting insects away from mules and horses by placing crushed beautyberry leaves beneath the leather harnesses of their animals.  This led folks to crumple beautyberry leaves and rub them on their own skin.

       This fascinating story led chemists to attempt to isolate the chemical that seemingly had the remarkable ability to repel pesky insects.  One of the chemicals they were able to isolate was callicarpenal.  When the efficaciousness of the chemical was tested, it was found to be just as effective in repelling mosquitoes as the popular repellent DEET.

       Indeed the American beautyberry is more than an attractive native food plant.

MANAGING PLANTS FOR WILDLIFE IS LAGGING BEHIND

       Once every five years the United States Fish and Wildlife Service surveys the participation of American’s in hunting, fishing, and other wildlife-related activities.  The latest report (2018) documents the findings from the 2016 survey.  Although the report revealed that, from 2011-2016, wildlife watching increased 20% (71.8-86.0 million individuals); Americans have not fully embraced the value of managing plants for wildlife in their yards. 

       The survey revealed that that around-the-home participants 16 years and older jumped to 81.1 million.  They accounted for 94% of all of the Americans that watched wildlife.  The most popular activity of these 59.1 million folks was feeding birds and other wildlife; they represented 73% of all around-the-home participants.  Thirty-eight percent said they photographed wildlife.  Those that fed other wildlife accounted for 18% of around-the-home participants.  However, only 10% maintained plants for wildlife in their yards.  In addition, just 9% maintained and managed natural areas for the benefit of their wildlife neighbors.

       It is exciting that interest in wildlife watching is on the rise.  However, it is concerning that we wildlife watchers are, largely focusing our attention on simply feeding the wildlife that we enjoy living just outside our backdoors.  Meanwhile, we are losing thousands of acres of wildlife habitat each year.  Unless we enhance the wildlife habitat that remains, the time may come when many of the wild animals that provide us with so much enjoyment will become rare or simply disappear.

       One way to ensure this does not happen is to restore and create wildlife habitats in our yards.  There are so many ways that we can provide backyard wildlife with suitable places to live, the task seems impossible.  One of the best ways to tackle this daunting task is to begin by selecting a species or species that you are most fond of and direct your efforts at addressing their needs.  Then begin by setting just a few goals to accomplish.  For example, if you are interested in butterflies, incorporate a few host plants into your landscape.  If you are fond of birds, plant one or more seed, fruit or berry-producing plants.   Only after you have made these changes, make the decision as to whether you are going to try to accomplish anything else this year.

       Whatever you do, make planting native plants a priority.  These plants are often best suited to survive in your neck of the woods and require less care.  In addition, the food they often produce more food and support far more insects than ornamentals.

       When you start looking for lists of these plants, as other habitat enhancement tips, begin by checking out the Archive section of this blog.  It contains a treasure trove of often hard to find information relating to backyard wildlife.

       We can all be better stewards of our yards.  With that in mind, can you imagine how much our backyard wildlife neighbors would benefit if each one of us made a conscientious effort to enhance our property for them this year?  With that in mind, I hope you will make a New Year’s resolution to enrich your home landscape for wildlife.  I know I plan to do just that.

 

BACKYARD SECRET–NOT ALL EASTERN TOWHEES HAVE RED EYES

       When we are watching the birds living in our backyards, are we REALLY looking at them?  For example, the eastern towhee is a common backyard resident throughout the state of Georgia.  In spite of the fact that we are likely to see the bird scores of times over the course of a year, more than likely most of us do not know the color of an eastern towhee’s eyes.  This is because we rarely take the time to look at a common bird long enough to note any of its subtle features.

       The truth of the matter is throughout most of Georgia eastern towhees have red eyes.  In comparison, those towhees that reside in extreme south Georgia have white eyes (sometimes referred to as yellow eyes).  In fact, white-eyed eastern towhees also abound in Florida and south Alabama.  Towhees displaying both red and white eyes inhabit the vast area between south Alabama and southeastern North Carolina.

EASTERN TOWHEE with red eyes

       Ornithologists believe that the first white-eyed towhees originated in Florida during the Pleistocene era. At that time, Florida was a large island.  When the seas began to retreat Florida was no longer an island.  This allowed populations of towhees with white eyes to move northward.

       If you live in extreme south Georgia, or in that portion of Georgia located between south Alabama and southeastern North Carolina, take a closer look at the towhees feeding on the ground beneath your feeders.  Who knows, towhees with white eyes may have been dining on your food offerings for quite some time and you did not even know it.  If you live elsewhere in the state, there is always a chance to you might see a towhee with white eyes too.

       As for me, I live in an area where I have a reasonable chance for seeing a towhee with white eyes.  Although I have been looking such a bird for decades, I have only seen towhees with red eyes.  Perhaps 2022 with be the year I will spot both. I hope so.

WHY DO BLUE JAYS MIMIC HAWKS?

       One of the first things beginning birders learn is when they hear what they are sure is a red-shouldered hawk, they cannot be certain the call is that of a red-shouldered hawk.  The reason for this is blue jays often mimic the call of this well-known predator.

       Recent research has revealed much about the mimicry practiced by the blue Jay.  For example, we now know blue jays do not just mimic red-shouldered hawks.  The truth of the matter is they also mimic other predators such as the osprey and Cooper’s hawk.

       It is apparent that blue jays mimic the call of the red-shouldered hawk in an effort to warn other jays living nearby that a predator is in the neighborhood.  However, some ornithologists believe that blue jays may also mimic the call of a hawk in an effort to scare other birds such as grackles enough that they drop their food as they make a hasty flight to cover.  Once the bird leaves, the blue jay can fly down and consume the acorns or other food left behind by the startled birds.

       If you have a theory that helps explain why blue jays mimic hawk calls, I would love to hear it.

A CHRISTMAS GIFT THAT WILL HELP YOU AND THE BIRDS

       With only days remaining until Christmas, I thought you might appreciate a gift idea for someone that feeds birds.  This gift is not attractive; however, it is practical, inexpensive, and will benefit both backyard wildlife enthusiasts and the birds.  The gift I am referring to is a trash bag stand.  Now before you dismiss this suggestion, let me explain.

       One of the tasks that nobody that feeds birds enjoys is cleaning up discarded seed hulls and rotting seeds beneath seed feeders.  In an earlier blog (check archive), I wrote about a couple of handy tools that make this job easier.  I would like to add another tool to this list of valuable devices.  This tool is a collapsible trash bag stand.

       The device is little more than a metal frame.  To use it, all you have to do is place a trash bag in the center of the frame and stretch the opening of the bag around the top of the frame.  Once the bag is in place, the frame and bag will stand up on their own.

       The reason it is so helpful because you can easily deposit the seeds, hulls, and the directly into the bag for disposal in your trash.  Trying to place the waste collected in a dustpan, wheelbarrow, or shovel into a bag that you have to hold open with one hand while disposing of the waste in the bag with the other in no easy task.  As far as I am concerned, this is the most difficult step in the whole process.  However, when you use a trash bag stand, it is far easier and quicker to deposit the waste through the wide opening of a bag stretched open in a trash bag stand.  When you have accomplished the task, simply remove the bag from the stand, tie off the top and you are ready to dispose of it and its contents in the trash.

       The birds benefit because you dramatically reduce the chance they will contact any of the variety of diseases that flourish in damp, rotting seeds and their hulls.

       Trash bag stands come is a variety of sizes ranging from 30-35 gallon models to those that hold 13-gallon bags.  The bags are collapsible and cost as little as $11 to $25.

       Since it makes the whole process of keeping a bird feeding areas clean, perhaps we would be more apt to clean our bird feeding areas more often.  Now that is not a bad thing.

WHY ARE WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCHES SCARCE IN MOST BACKYARDS?

       If you are lucky enough to see white-breasted nuthatches in your yard, have you ever wondered why you rarely see more than one or two nuthatches at the same time?

       The reason for this is they are territorial.  As such, they vigorous defend their turf against other nuthatches.  In woodland (both hardwood and mixed pine/hardwood) areas, these territories typically range from 25 to 30 acres in size.  However, in areas broken up in a patchwork of small woodlots and other habitat types, a pair’s territory can easily measure 60 acres or so.

       If you happen to see more than two white-breasted nuthatches visiting your feeders, chances are your yard is located where the territories of two pairs of white-breasted intersect.  In addition, pairs will often make brief trips into the territories occupied by other pairs.  In years when their favorite food is scarce, they can show in a variety of locations.

WILL ANY NEW BIRDS VISIT YOUR YARD FEEDERS THIS WINTER?

       We backyard wildlife watchers have good idea what birds we will likely see at our feeders each winter.  For example, the lineup of resident birds that I expect to see at my feeders includes year round residents such as chipping sparrows, downy woodpeckers, house finches, Carolina wrens, tufted titmice, eastern towhees, northern cardinals, and mockingbirds.  In addition, the winter residents that typically make an appearance at my feeders are ruby-crowned kinglets, as well as both song and white-throated sparrows.  Most years I never see a pine siskin or purple finches.  During those times when large numbers of pine siskin’s and purple finches invade the south, I might see them every day. 

       However, if you are like me, you are always on the lookout for a visitor that you have never seen in your backyard.  I know my chance of spotting one of these rare birds is slim.  However, according to an analysis of the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count data, if this trend continues, our chances of seeing a rare winter warbler in the southeastern states might be increasing.

       For example, during last year’s Christmas Bird Count, a number of warblers that typically spend the winter outside our borders never left the United States.  This list of warblers these unusual winter residents includes the prothonotary, chestnut-sided, blue-winged, American redstart, yellow and Tennessee.

       This report has bolstered my hopes that one of these neotropical migrants will decide to spend some time in my yard.  However, even if one does not show up, I know I am going to have a great time watching the regular diners at my backyard bird smorgasbord.