Archive | December 2017

MOURNING DOVES EAT A VARIETY OF SEEDS

       Regardless of whether you live in the city, suburban neighborhood or in the country, chances are one of the patrons at your backyard bird diner is the mourning dove.

       When they fly in on whistling wings more often than not they are looking for black oil sunflower seeds, white millet, peanuts, cracked corn or mixed seed containing a variety of other seeds such as canary seed and rape. 

       If you have a pecan tree that drops pecans on your driveway, you have probably noticed that mourning doves are also fond of broken pieces of pecans created when car tires run over the nuts.

       If you are not offering any of these preferred foods, the birds will sometimes settle for a variety of other offerings such as scratch feed, popped corn, baked goods, and even milo (sorghum).

       In case you are unfamiliar with milo seeds, these are those round, reddish brown seeds most feeder birds ignore.  As a rule, the better seed mixes contain less milo than the bargain brands.

       Mourning doves relish both fairly large and tiny seeds.  For example, they will consume peanuts and kernels of corn as well as extremely small grass seeds.  One biologist took the time to count all of the grass seeds found in a mourning dove’s stomach.  When he completed this arduously task, he found the bird had consumed 17,200 seeds!

       Another important item in the mourning dove’s diet is grit.  Grit is nothing more than small pebbles, gravel, small chunks of concrete, and other hard objects.  The bird uses grit to grind up seeds it has eaten.  Biologists have found a mourning dove will swallow anywhere from 50 -100 bits of grit daily.  Often this grit is found along highways.

       Although mourning doves will feed at feeding tables and other above ground feeders, they much prefer to feed on the ground.  With that in mind, try to scatter only enough seeds that you feel will be eaten in a single day.  When too much seed is spread across the damp ground, you increase the chance that it will become moldy before the birds can eat all of it.

 

 

A HERMIT THRUSH FOR CHRISTMAS

After Ron Lee sent me a series of pictures of a hermit thrush, I immediately knew what I wanted for Christmas — a hermit thrush showing up at my backyard feeders.

       Although this thrush winters throughout Georgia, it is not a bird that frequents our feeders.  The exception to this rule is Ron and Jennie Lee’s backyard.  The Lees have hosted a hermit thrush in their backyard for several winters.

       These winter visitors are drawn out of the thick shrubs surrounding his year by cornbread that is scattered on the ground.

       The bird that has made the Lee’s backyard its home this winter has become exceptionally tame.  When Ron goes out into the yard to replenish the cornbread the thrush will suddenly appear and begin feeding.

       Ron says that a ruby-crowned kinglet has also developed a taste for cornbread.

       My wife and I have been feeding cornbread to the birds for many years.  Although this delicacy is regularly eaten by mockingbirds and other backyard diners, we have never attracted a hermit thrush. 

       Hermit thrushes are known to feed on the ground and in elevated feeders such as bird tables and trays.

       Aside from cornbread, they are also known to eat sliced apples, doughnuts, cracked corn, pieces of pecans, suet, and peanut butter.  White bread is also listed among the foods consumed by hermit thrushes.  However, Ron reports that when he has tried to offer his hermit thrush small pieces of white bread, the bird tosses them aside and seeks out the cornbread.

       Over the years, I have tried all of these feeder offerings without success.  I guess I need to see if Ron and Jennie will share their cornbread recipe with me.  In the meantime, I hope Santa will bring me a Christmas hermit thrush.

THE WILDLIFE CHRISTMAS TREE

If you were asked to name four plants that are associated with Christmas, what would you say?  You could not go wrong if you listed the holly, poinsettia, mistletoe, and the Christmas tree.  All of these plants will always be inexorably linked to this special holiday.  However, in the hearts and minds of most Americans, the plant that symbolizes Christmas more than any other is the Christmas tree.

       Each year millions of Americans center their celebration of this special holiday around the Christmas tree.  A number of different kinds of trees are used as Christmas trees.  According to The National Christmas Tree Foundation, the ten most popular Christmas trees are, in descending order of popularity,  the Frazer fir, Douglas fir, Colorado blue spruce, Scotch pine, eastern red-cedar, white spruce, eastern white pine and Virginia pine.

       However, throughout much of the 20th century, for most Georgians, the Christmas tree of choice was the eastern red cedar.  Most of us refer to this evergreen tree as simply cedar.  The tree is abundant, has a natural “Christmas tree” shape, and fills a room with the pleasant aroma of cedar.

       Nowadays, the popularity of the cedar has waned.  Some folks are buying artificial numbers fabricated from aluminum or plastic.  The majority of those that still use a natural tree are choosing firs, spruces, pines, or Leyland cypresses over the cedar.   

       Fortunately, for our backyard wildlife neighbors, eastern red cedars are showing up in home landscapes with increasing regularity.  This is due in large part to tree’s attractive conical shape, resistance to disease and drought and low maintenance.  It should not be overlooked that it is also so valuable to wildlife and deserves the title of The Wildlife Christmas Tree.  

       Unfortunately, in spite of the fact that the eastern red cedar provides wildlife with food, nesting sites and protection from the elements and predators, its importance to wildlife is rarely appreciated.

       This native cedar can be found growing throughout most of the eastern United States.  It ranges across 37 states from as far north as New England south to Georgia and west to Texas.  It is a common tree throughout most of Georgia, with the exception of our coastal counties.

       This is the cedar commonly found growing around abandoned house sites, vintage homes, and old cemeteries and along fence lines.

       The eastern red cedar is an extremely adaptable plant.  It can be found with its roots sunk into the damp flood plains that hug our rivers all the way to dry, red clay hilltops.  About the only place is does not do well is under a heavy forest canopy.

       More often than not, the cedars we see growing in fencerows have been unknowingly planted by birds.  Cedar seeds are very hard and often pass unscathed through a bird’s digestive system.  When a bird perches on a fence and leaves behind a dropping containing cedar seeds, the hard seeds often germinate and eventually become a young tree.

       Eastern red cedar trees are ideally suited for most yards.  These long-lived (300+ years), slow-growing evergreen trees can reach a height of 60 feet or more and measure two feet in diameter.

       Here in the Peach State, eastern red cedars bloom in February and March.  Small (1/4″) fleshy, greenish, blue berry-like cones mature from October to December.  Each cone usually contains two hard seeds.  The cones often persist until the following March.  This is extremely important as they provide food for wildlife throughout the winter when food is often hard to come by.

       One of the great things about red cedars is that they can be relied upon to fruit annually.  Bumper crops are produced every second or third year.

       Hosts of animals eat eastern red cedar foliage and fruits.  For example, both rabbits and deer will consume the foliage.

       More than two dozen birds dine on eastern red cedar fruits.  This impressive list includes such backyard favorites as the American robin, northern mockingbird, brown thrasher, mourning dove, eastern bluebird, and cedar waxwing.  As you might expect, cedar waxwings are extremely fond of this winter food.  The berry-like cones are also eaten by wild turkeys and quail.  Coyotes, opossums, chipmunks, and even armadillos consume them.

       The tree is also the host plant for the beautiful, petite juniper hairstreak butterfly.  This often-elusive butterfly spends its entire life in close proximity to cedar trees.  Females lay their eggs on the cedars.  Upon hatching, the caterpillars eat cedar foliage.

       Even the adults are invariably found on the trees.  Often the only way that you can hope to see a juniper hairstreak is to tap on the trunk of a cedar tree.  If the butterflies are present, they will briefly fly upwards before settling back into the thick, green foliage again.

       A number of birds build their nests in cedar trees including northern cardinals, brown thrashers, northern mockingbirds, American robins, and common grackles.

       The tree’s dense foliage makes it ideally suited for escape cover.  Birds will often fly into cedars to escape pursuing hawks.  Also, cedar trees provide protection against rain, snow, and sleet.  In fact, during the winter, the interior of a cedar tree provides an ideal roosting spot on cold, blustery winter nights.  At least 21 species of birds use the trees as roosting sites.

       Some of the birds known to roost there are chipping sparrows, northern cardinals, wild turkeys, and eastern screech owls.

       I strongly suspect wintering hummingbirds such as the rufous hummingbird also roosts in these trees since I often find that they are frequently the only good roosting sites available in yards frequented by these western migrants.

       It appears that the eastern red cedar may never again be the most popular Christmas tree in the Georgia.  However, the fact it is prospering throughout the state and is even becoming an integral part of backyard landscapes insures that this tree will remain an important wildlife plant well into the future.

       On Christmas eve, when I look at the my Christmas tree surrounded by lovingly wrapped presents, I will find it comforting to know that not too far from my backdoor stands my large wildlife Christmas tree.  Although no colored lights hang from its spreading boughs, on the ground beneath it, there will be untold numbers of tiny blue nutrient-rich presents ready to be discovered on Christmas day by my hungry wildlife neighbors.  And when I pull up the covers and drift off into sleep, I will know that the birds roosting in the tree are protected from the harshest winter weather.

       If you are planning to build a new home on a site where one or more eastern red cedars are growing, leave them standing.  On the other hand, if no cedars are growing in your yard, plant one or more.  In either case, you will be giving your wildlife neighbors gifts that never stop giving.

 

  As such, by offering our backyard neighbors with a dependable source of food, nesting sites, and cover, it deserves to be called the wildlife Christmas tree.

© Terry W. Johnson originally published in “The Out My Backdoor” column featured in Georgia Wild E-Newsletter

georgiawildlife.com/archive

A PERFECT CHRISTMAS GIFT

If you are searching for a gift for someone on your Christmas list that shares your passion for the natural world, a good choice would be my latest book entitled,

A Journey of Discovery.  

 

This 267-page volume covers a wide range of plants and animals that are part of the fabric of Georgia’s natural heritage.

       Here is a brief list of a few of the more than 70 chapters contained in the book:

America’s Long Love Affair With The Hummingbird

Counting Hummingbirds Is No Easy Task

Black Bluebirds And Other Backyard Oddities

A Buffet For Wood Ducks

How Do I Deal With An Angry Bird?                                             

Water Moccasin or Watersnake—That Is the Question                

Luna Moths—Nighttime Beauties                                            

Fox Squirrels—The Forgotten Ones                                           

Our Fascination With Antlers                                              

Zinnias And I Go Back a Long Way                                    

Redbuds Are Stealing The Show                                           

Owls, Folklore And Halloween                                                 

The Origin Of Thanksgiving                                                     

The Basics Of Winter Bird Feeding                                       

Butter—Kids And Birds Love It                                 

Taking Time To Watch                                                          

How Wildlife Copes With The Heat                                          

Can Local Birds And Plants Predict The Weather?                        

The Backyard Olympics                                                           

Do Released Bass Live To Fight Another Day?

The book can be purchased at your local bookstore or at The Monroe County Reporter in Forsyth, The Bird Store in Macon or online at Amazon and other booksellers.

BACKYARD SECRET: WHAT ACCOUNTS FOR THE MOST DEATHS AROUND BACKYARD BIRD FEEDERS?

 According the  a study of bird feeding in the United States and Canada called ProjectFeederWatch, window strikes are  responsible for more deaths at feeders than cats, hawks or any other factor.

       This conclusion is based more than 2,000 deaths reported during the study.  According to the analysis of these data, nearly half of all deaths are caused by birds striking windows. If these data are correct, the study leaders estimate that one in ten birds might be killed by flying into buildings annually.

       While this is indeed a cause of concern to those of us that feed birds in our backyards, these deaths might represent only two or less percent of North America’s fall bird population.   

       This conclusion is based on volumes of data collected by literally thousands of citizen scientists that submitted detailed logs a wide range of subjects relating to their bird feeding programs.

       This monumental study was sponsored by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Bird Studies Canada, National Audubon Society, and the Canadian Nature Federation.

FEEDER TREATS FOR DOWNY WOODPECKERS

For most of us, the downy woodpecker is the most common woodpecker that visits our feeder.  This tiny woodpecker is only about the size of a house sparrow (6 1/2 – 6 3/4″ long).  Indeed, it is so small that it holds the title of being the smallest woodpecker in North America.  However, what it lacks in size, it makes up with being one of the most energetic birds to grace our backyards.  It seems to always foraging for food.

       If you would see downy woodpeckers more often at your feeders this winter, here is a list of some of their favorite feeder foods.

       While the downy woodpecker will eat plant material, it primarily feeds on animals such as both adult and immature insects.  As such, one of the first foods should offer at your feeder is suet.  As we all know this insect substitute is made from animal fat.

       Unfortunately, the very best suet is hard to come by.  This suet is suet rendered from the hard, opaque fat that surrounds beef kidneys.  The very best way to obtain this suet is to buy it directly from a butcher.  Sadly, most of us do not know a butcher.

       This means that we have to buy suet cakes.  These cakes are made from animal fats. These fats are soft and can come from anywhere on an animal carcass.  Whereas beef suet does not melt when the temperatures rises, suet cakes typically do.  Fortunately, for us, downy woodpeckers will eat suet cakes.

       The best way to feed suet cakes is to offer them in inexpensive mesh suet feeders. 

       Downy woodpeckers are also fond of sunflower seeds.  For reasons that I cannot explain, downy woodpeckers seem to eat sunflower seeds more often in some locales than others.  In my neck of the woods, they seem prefer suet and whole, peanuts to sunflower seeds.

       Hulled peanuts are a great downy woodpecker food, however, sometimes hard to come by.  However, if a store that specializes in birding-related items is located nearby, you are in luck.  The peanuts are best offered to the birds in special cylindrical whole peanut feeders.

       Downy woodpeckers are also known to eat cracked corn as well as a wide variety of dairy products and baked goods.  The list of these foods includes doughnuts, American cheese, coconut, and bread.

       If downy woodpeckers eat other food items at your feeders, please let me know.