Archive | February 2017


One of the most striking and familiar birds that resides in our backyards is the male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis).  I think you would be hard pressed to find a Georgia homeowner that cannot identify a male northern cardinal.  The bird’s brilliant red plumage seems to demand that we look at the common backyard resident that wears such beautiful plumage.



The cardinal is not native to the Old World.  As such, I can only imagine what European colonists thought when they spotted a male cardinal for the first time.  No bird in their homeland looks anything like this crested, scarlet beauty.  It is not surprising that it became known as simply the red bird.

Later it dawned on somebody that the hue of the bird’s feathers was very similar to the color of the vestments worn by a select group of men that were members of the Catholic Church’s Sacred College of Cardinals. Therefore, it seemed reasonable to call the bird the cardinal.  People apparently liked the name so well that, to this day, it is still known as the cardinal. 

          It is interesting to note that members of the Sacred College of Cardinals have been required to wear scarlet vestments since 1274, when Pope Gregory decreed that they do so at the Second College of Lyons.

          These clergymen serve as personal advisors to the pope. In addition, they are charged with the important responsibility of electing a new pope.

          Who would have ever thought that a decision regarding the clothing worn by special Catholic clergymen made long before a songbird we now know as the cardinal was ever seen by Europeans would have such a dramatic impact on one of our favorite birds?



While we await the return of millions of warblers and other birds that have been wintering beyond our southern border, let’s turn our attention to a warbler that is a permanent resident throughout the state.  The bird I am referring to is the pine warbler.

Interestingly pine warblers are far more abundant throughout the state in winter than at any other time of the year.  This is because, in addition to our resident pine warblers, our backyards and woodlands  are currently hosting most of the continent’s pine warblers.  Indeed, your backyard is part of the winter home of this beautiful bird.a-male-pine-warbler-feeding-on__-suet

Throughout most of the year, the pine warbler generally does not venture far from pine trees.  As such, they can be seen looking for food on the ground, tree trunks, and pine boughs alike.

However, during the winter I sometimes encounter them feeding on the ground in harvested fields.  For some reason, at this time of the year, they often move about and feed with eastern bluebirds.

The pine warbler is roughly five and a half inches long.  The male has a bright yellow breast.  As such, right now, if you catch a flash of bright yellow in the tops of the pine trees growing in your yard, chances are you are looking a male pine warbler.  The male’s back is olive-green.  Females are duller versions of the males.  Both males and females sport yellow rings, often called spectacles around their eyes.  In addition, both sexes display two white wing bars.  With the help of a good pair of binoculars, you will be able to see pine warblers also have dark cheeks and faint streaks on their sides.

Pine warblers are sometimes tricky to identify because individual birds show varying amount of yellow.  Some birds will be extremely yellow, while others show little yellow.  With that in mind, don’t get hung up on the amount of yellow displayed by different birds. Instead, concentrate instead on those field marks that don’t vary such as wing bars and the spectacles around their eyes.

The bird’s song can be best described as a musical, slow trill.  Once you see a pine warbler singing, you will be able to associate it with its clear, loud song.  When you learn the song, I am sure you will hear the bird more often than you will see it.  Also, you will discover that the small songbird is probably more common in your neighbor than you ever realized.

       Pine warblers will visit backyard feeders.  They are particularly fond of sunflower seeds and suet.

This is a great time to learn to identify the pine warbler. The reason for this is once the spring migrants begin passing through your backyard the pine warbler will be only one of many warblers that display a yellow breast.



The sweetgum is a common forest and backyard tree throughout Georgia. This valuable tree provides us with striking fall color, is a host plant for 30 species of butterflies and moths, produces food for a broad spectrum of wildlife ranging from American goldfinches and wood ducks to white tailed deer, and is also used to make medicine, plywood, furniture, and veneer.

However, would you believe that sweetgum logs were once employed as cannons during the Civil War?



Cannon barrels fashioned from sweetgum logs were not widely used. However, historians have reported that in 1865 the thirty-third Missouri Volunteers manned a battery of seven sweetgum log cannons at Spanish Fort, Alabama; they were nicknamed The Sweetgum Battery.  Six of the cannons fired six-pound shells. The other cannon shot a twelve-pounder.  It has been said that these cannons could accurately strike targets 500-600 yards away.


        If you erect bird nesting boxes, invariably there will come a time when a woodpecker, gray, or flying squirrel takes it upon itself to enlarge the entrance hole on one of your bird boxes.  When this happens the perpetrator might enlarge a 1.5-inch entrance hole to one that is now is 3-4 inches in diameter.

       Whenever a bird or mammal remodels the entrance hole in a nesting box, the structure is often destroyed or, at the very least, puts any bird that tries to nest in the box at risk.

       A bigger hole allows larger birds to nest in the box.  Most boxes erected in Georgia are designed to help alleviate the eastern bluebird’s housing shortage.  A box equipped with a 1.5-inch hole, prevents larger, more aggressive European starlings from nesting in the box.  Without such protection, bluebird numbers would plummet.

       A larger hole also allows nest predators such domestic cats, raccoons, and even opossums to reach into a box and snatch out nesting adults, their eggs, and young.

       I have found that one of the best ways thwart unsolicited attempts to alter the size of entrance holes is to equip nesting boxes with a simple, inexpensive device called a hole guard.

       The hole guard is nothing more than a piece of metal that is attached around the entrance to a nest box.  They are available in various sizes.  For example, if you want to encourage birds the size of a bluebird or smaller, install a hole guard featuring a 1.5-inch opening.  Likewise, if your goal is to encourage smaller birds, such as Carolina chickadees to nest in your boxes cut a one-inch entrance hole in your box and protect it with a one-inch hole guard.

       Believe me these simple devices work. In fact, they are so effective, I will not erect a new box without one.

       In all the years that I have used them, I have seen a hole guard fail only once.  In that case, the hole guard actually worked, however, an unknown critter almost totally destroyed the entire box. In spite of this all out attack, the hole guard remained in place.

       Hole guards can be purchased are stores that specialize in birds. If you try one, you will not be disappointed.





If you are looking for a great activity that your whole family can enjoy, why not join the thousands of wildlife enthusiasts across the nation and around the world that will take part in the 2017 Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC)?

This year the twentieth annual GBBC will be held Friday, February 17, through Monday February 20.

The count is sponsored by the National Audubon Society, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and Bird Studies Canada.

The information collected by thousands of volunteers  provide wildlife biologists with a wealth of information regarding the status of birds throughout the United States, Canada, Columbia, Mexico, India, Morocco, Botswana  and 123 other countries.

The data collected during this annual event are being used by biologists in a host of ways.  For example, it helps us better understand how weather affects bird populations and the timing of bird migrations.  It is also being utilized to determine the impact of diseases such as West Nile virus on birds.  In addition, it is proving to be invaluable in assessing the impacts of widespread habitat changes on both bird diversity and numbers.

Joining the ever-growing army of private citizens that are aiding in this monumental effort is as easy as one, two, three.

The first step is to visit the GBBC website online at  Here you will find the simple directions needed to compile a checklist and submit your valuable data.  In addition, if you download the count form, you will have a good idea what birds are likely to be seen in your area of the state.

Next, select an area(s) you want to survey.  The area can be as small as a backyard, neighborhood, park, the countryside you pass on your drive to work, or an entire county for that matter.

Then, anytime during the four-day count, take as few as fifteen minutes away from your busy schedule and count only the birds that you can recognize.  If you only feel comfortable identifying cardinals, simply count cardinals.

You can conduct a count on one or all four days of the count period.  If you count on different days, you must submit a separate checklist for each day that you run a count.  Many people survey a variety of sites each day during the count period.

Once you have completed a count, return to the GBBC website, and log your data.  Although some people wait until the end of the count period to submit their sightings, I like to submit mine the day I conduct each survey.

This allows me to see how my data is impacting the count.  This is possible because the site provides participants with real time maps illustrating the flow of information arriving from the field.  As the data pours in from around the state and country you can literally watch as the maps fill up with color indicating areas where birds were seen.

I cannot overemphasize that you do not have to be an expert birder to take part in the count. All you have to do is tally the birds that you can identify.  For that reason, it is a great conservation activity for youngsters, and oldsters, seasoned birders and casual wildlife watchers alike.

In addition, you do not even need to leave your home to do something positive for the birds that make your backyard and  neighborhood such wonderful places.  It does not get any better than that!









european-starlingCan you tell what time of year the European starling shown here was photographed? If you are like most folks, you could only guess at the correct answer.

Since most of us are very familiar with starlings, when we see one we give it nothing more than a quick glance.  However, if we stopped and closely studied even what we consider a common bird, we would begin to notice subtle features that we perhaps long overlooked.

Since the European starling’s bill typically changes color during the year, it is possible to know roughly when a photo of one was taken.  During the fall and winter the straight, slender bill of the adult starling is usually dark. In contrast, during the breeding season (spring and summer) it is usually bright yellow.

The bird shown here was photographed in summer.



honeybee feeding at winter honeysuckle

Along about this time of year, when I walk out into my backyard and a gentle zephyr is blowing in from the east, I can often catch the lemony scent of a winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima).

Although this shrub is only about eight feet wide and seven feet tall, it is very special to my wife and me.  We moved this shrub from my wife’s Alabama home well more than three decades ago.  My wife fondly remembers a winter honeysuckle that grew just outside her bedroom window.  When should would open her window on warm winter days, the scent produced by the plant’s small, white flowers would fill her room with their fresh, lemony fragrance.  Like her mother, we bring winter honeysuckle branches adorned with flowers into our house simply to enjoy to pleasant aroma that given off by the small, showy blossoms.

There was a time when plants like winter honeysuckle and abelia were commonly found in yards throughout the South.  Today, in spite of the fact that both are attractive and used by wildlife, more often than not, they are missing from home landscapes.

We are fond of our winter honeysuckle for a number of reasons.  First, it has sentimental value.  In addition, a provides a touch of floral beauty at a time of year when few plants are blooming.  That would be enough to earn a spot our my yard; however, it is also a source of nectar and pollen for wild pollinators during a time when they find food extremely scarce.

Winter honeysuckle was introduced into the United States from China during the middle of the 19th century.  Those that brought the plant here touted its merits as an ornamental and hedge plant.  It proved to be so popular that it first showed up in plant catalogs in 1860.

It is a deciduous shrub that grows to a height of around ten feet.  The leaves are oval in shape.  This woody shrub blooms from late winter to early spring in most parts of the state.  Its half-inch, creamy white flowers are arranged in pairs.  They are followed by a crop of small, red berries that are frequently eaten by birds.

Although the plant grows best in rich soil types, it will also grow in dry sites. While it does best in full sunshine, it will grow in partial shade too.

If you want to add winter beauty to your backyard, as well as provide a food source for wild pollinators, you my might want to consider adding this shrub to your home landscape.





One of the most commonly seen woodpeckers in our backyards is the downy.  The downy holds the distinction of being our smallest woodpecker.

This tiny (6.5-6.75″) woodpecker is easily identified by its black and white plumage.  The downy woodpecker also sports a short bill less than the length of its head.

Something that many people do not realize is that you can distinguish female from male downy woodpeckers.  It order to do this you must catch a glimpse of the back of the bird’s neck. If the bird displays an unbroken red patch across its nape, it is a male.  If the bird lacks this red snippet, it is a female.