Archive | December 2018

WHY DO SOME BIRDS FORM FLOCKS IN WINTER?

       Some of the birds that inhabit our yards during the winter travel about in flocks. Among the birds that adopt this behavior are American robins, chipping sparrows, brown-headed cowbirds, common grackles, and red-winged blackbirds.

       Being a member of a flock offers a bird many advantages. A bird traveling in a flock is less likely to be captured by a hawk, owl, or other predator. This is called the predator dilution effect.

       Here is how it works. Should a Cooper’s hawk dive into a flock, it must select one bird and not be distracted by all of the others in the flock. This is often difficult to do when lots of birds are frantically trying to escape with the lives. As such, to be successful the hawk must target a single bird. If the hawk attacked the whole flock and simply lashes out trying to catch a bird, chances are all of the birds will fly away unscathed.

       Another advantage to being the member of a flock is that it is extremely difficult for a predator to approach a flock of birds when hundreds, if not thousands, of pairs of eyes are poised to detect any potential danger.

       In addition, flocks have a tendency to find food more readily than individual birds. In many cases, the older, more experienced members of the flock know the best places to find food and roost. This is a real bonus since food is often difficult to find in winter.

       In addition, birds that expend as little energy as possible trying to locate food have a greater chance of survival during frigid weather. A bird in poor physical condition can easily succumb to the cold on frigid nights simply trying to maintain its body temperature.

I am sure you are familiar with the old adage, “There is safety in numbers.” As you can see, in the case of birds that flock together in winter, this statement is indeed true.

MISTLETOE IS FOR LOVERS AND BIRDS ALIKE

Everyone is familiar with the Christmas tradition of kissing beneath a sprig of mistletoe.  However, what is less known is the fact the waxy berries produced by this parasitic plant are eaten by a wide variety of wild birds.

       This popular custom apparently originated in Europe during the 1500s.  The first mention of the holiday tradition in America appeared in the writings of the famous early American Writer, Washington Irving.

       According to legend, couples that share a kiss beneath sprig of mistletoe are bestowed with good luck when it comes to affairs of the heart.  However, this blessing is only enjoyed by couples that also pluck a berry from the mistletoe branch .  Those that do not share a kiss will suffer bad luck.  In addition, once the last berry is removed, the mistletoe’s magical power is lost.

       Mistletoe berries are loved by many birds.  For example, both cedar waxwings and eastern bluebirds relish the small berries.  The seemingly translucent, white berries are also gobbled up by American and fish crows, hermit thrushes, American robins, evening grosbeaks and chickadees.

       Although the magical powers of the mistletoe can be disputed, there is no question that the ubiquitous plant provides our backyard bird neighbors with an important source of food during a time of the year when food is at a premium.

WHY DO WE SEE MORE CARDINALS IN OUR BACKYARDS IN WINTER THAN AT ANY OTHER TIME OF THE YEAR?

 

       Throughout the breeding season, adult northern cardinals live in distinct breeding territories that measure anywhere from three to 10 acres on size.  The size of these territories is dictated by the availability of food and suitable nesting sites. 

       Since cardinals will vigorously defend these territories during the breeding season; if your backyard is located within such an area; other cardinals are kept away.  This effectively limits the numbers of cardinals that feed in your year during the spring and summer.  This means the only cardinals you are apt to see at your feeders are a breeding pair of adults and their fledglings.

       In fall and early winter, many cardinals form flocks that that daily wander about large territories large enough to contain adequate food for the flock.  These flocks generally contain roughly equal numbers of males and females.

       Interestingly, the birds that comprise such flocks also roost together at night.

       By the same token, some adult pairs never leave their spring/summer territory.

       Consequently, throughout winter flocks of cardinals will descend on backyards offering sunflower seeds and white millet.  I especially like to watch these flocks feed late in the day.  During this special time, often called the golden hour by photographers, their plumage seems to glow.

       Winter cardinal flocks disband in late winter and early spring.  When this occurs, pair of birds will once again stake out breeding territories and the numbers of cardinals visiting your feeders will plummet.

 

WILL FEEDER BIRDS SURVIVE IF THEY ARE NOT FED WHILE YOU ARE AWAY ON A HOLIDAY TRIP?

       If you are one of the many of folks that take a trip during the Christmas holiday season, you might be wondering whether you should be concerned that the birds that have been visiting your backyard feeders will have enough to eat while you are away.

       In most cases, your feathered backyard diners will not suffer greatly if they are not fed for a few days.  The primary reason for this is studies have revealed that most of the birds that visit our backyard diners obtain only about 25 percent of their daily food from feeders.  This is especially true for birds that are members of a wide-ranging flock such as mourning doves, and chipping sparrows.  Each day these birds forage for food across a feeding territory that is many acres in size.

       However, if your feeders represent the primary source of food for stay-at-home birds such as the eastern towhee, your absence may create a problem.  This situation would be especially dire if a heavy snow falls and/or temperatures plummet below freezing.  This has been borne out by reports of juncos and finches that were suffering from a lack of food actually dying during extremely cold nights.

       With that in mind, if you are at all concerned about the fate of your birds while you are away on a holiday trip, arrange for a neighbor or friend to feed your backyard neighbors while you are away.

BACKYARD SECRET: CAROLINA CHICKADEE WINTER FOOD

       During the winter, a Carolina chickadee must eat an average of 150 black oil sunflower seeds per day just to survive the bitter cold. 

       The birds rarely depend solely on our food offerings to survive.  However, our feeders offer the birds a dependable source of food when natural foods cannot always provide the tiny birds with enough food to meet their nutritional needs.

       Although the birds prefer sunflower seeds to all other feeder offerings, they will also dine on suet and pieces of various nuts.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES ARE BACK!

              This week a blogger from Warner Robins reported that Baltimore orioles have shown up at her feeder.  This is the first report I have received of Baltimore orioles appearing in the Peach state this fall.

              As anybody that follows this blog knows, Baltimore orioles have become regular winter visitors throughout the state.  As such, those of us that feed birds are constantly trying to offer foods that will attract these gorgeous birds to our backyards.

       Recently during a talk gave in Warner Robins, I mentioned grape jelly seems to be the oriole’s food preferred winter food.  However, I mentioned that repeatedly folks that have fed orioles grape jelly claim the birds don’t cater to just any jelly.  It is their contention the birds far and away prefer Welch’s grape jelly to all other brands.

       One of the people in the audience that day added grape jelly to her backyard bird-feeding menu that includes such favorites as black oil sunflower seeds, and dried mealworms.

       This week she thrilled that Baltimore orioles have shown up at her feeders.  While she expected the birds would partake in the jelly, she was surprised to see the birds are currently only dining on mealworms.  

       Based on this experience I am adding mealworms to the list of foods bloggers have reported being used by Baltimore orioles.

       Here is a complete list of these foods:  grape jelly, sasanqua petals, hummingbird nectar, satsumas, grapes, and dried mealworms.

       If orioles show up in your yard this winter, please let me know when they arrived and what foods they are eating.

       For a complete list of all of the blogs I have written on Baltimore Orioles, type the word oriole in the search bubble found in the top right hand corner of the first page of the blog.

THE PINE SISKIN IS A BOOM OR BUST BIRD

        As far as Georgians are concerned, the pine siskin is a boom-or-bust bird.  By that, I mean some winters they feed at our backyard feeders in large numbers and then are not seen again for years.  

       This year is shaping up to be a boom year.  Many Georgians have already been treated to the sight of pine siskins visiting their feeders

       This behavior is not unique to the pine siskin.  The list other birds exhibit this behavior includes the purple finch and red-breasted nuthatch. This odd behavior qualifies them as being irruptive.

       An irruptive species is one that irregularly winters well beyond its normal winter range.  Although, it is extremely difficult to predict when an irruptive winter flight will occur, such flights often occur every two to ten years.

       A number of factors seem to trigger these movements.  However, in most cases, a failure of the bird’s most important winter food crops is the culprit.  In the case of the pine siskin, failures in pine and alder seeds crops seem to be linked to their mass migrations into the Deep South.

       To me, pine siskins display a subtle beauty.  They are smaller than an American goldfinch.  Their bodies are covered with brown streaks.  However, their tails and wings are highlighted will yellow feathers.  On the other hand, pine siskin bills are short and far more sharp-pointed compared to the bills of goldfinches, house finches, and sparrows.

       If you are like me, you enjoy hosting pine siskins.  It seems you rarely see one or a few siskins.  If they are wintering in your areas, chances are the diners will arrive in a flock. 

       One reason backyard wildlife enthusiasts are so fond of them is they are extremely tame.  If you slowly approach them while they are feeding, the birds will often allow you to walk to within a few feet before flying off.

       Although they will occasionally eat suet, they are particularly fond of nyger and black oil sunflower seeds.  They also routinely drink and bathe at birdbaths.

       Interestingly while they are in Georgia, pine siskins are extremely nomadic.  A flock feeding in your yards today might suddenly leave and feed in backyard miles away.  In one instance, a wintering pine siskin did not stay put in the yard where it was banded.  Later is the same winter it was recaptured at a feeder located some 450 miles away.

       If you have never seen a pine siskin in your backyard, this may be there year you will.  If you have hosted pine siskins in the past, the winter of 2018-2019 may be the year you will get to renew an old acquaintance.