Although the periods of warm weather we have experienced this winter have reduced our home heating bills and provided the opportunity for us to spend more time outside, it has increased the chances that the birds visiting our feeders can contract a life-threatening disease. As such, reports of sick and dying birds are beginning to crop up.
The two main culprits in these die-offs are typically salmonella and aspergillosis. These diseases are extremely deadly and can decimate the birds feeding in our backyards unless steps are taken to stem their spread.
Aspergillosis is caused by a fungus. Aspergillosis spores are produced by a green mold found naturally throughout the state. Quail, turkeys, cardinals, sparrows, finches and other birds are highly susceptible to the disease. The organism kills by infecting its victim’s throat and lungs. Animals contract the disease by eating food infected with the spores.
Salmonella is bacterial disease that attacks birds, mammals as well as reptiles and amphibians. Salmonella bacteria are spread by animals eating food that has been contaminate by the droppings of animals infected with the disease.
Since both diseases flourish during any season of the year, as long as the weather is warm and wet, our abnormally warm winter will continue to promote conditions that encourage the harmful bacteria and mold to thrive on bird feeders and the waste seed and hulls found on the ground beneath them.
Fortunately, you can greatly reduce the chances of birds contracting the diseases by taking a few simple steps.
Periodically clean feeders and birdbaths with a cleaning solution composed of two ounces of bleach mixed with a gallon of water. Thoroughly scrub each feeder and birdbath and then rinse with clean water. Allow feeders to dry in the sun before refilling them with seed.
Over time, both seeds and seed hulls build up beneath feeders. Consequently, during periods of wet, warm weather you should rake up the seeds and hulls and dispose of them in the trash. Periodically changing the locations of your feeders also helps thwart the spread of the diseases. After cleaning the area, I also treat the ground with a solution of bleach and water.
Researches have discovered sunflower hulls contain a play growth inhibitor. By removing the hulls, you are ensuring that the grass or ornamental plants growing beneath the feeders will not be affected by the growth inhibitors.
Keep all seed dry. Avoid using feeding trays with solid floors. If you scatter seed on the ground, during warm, damp weather only put out enough food to feed the birds for a single day. Hopper-type feeders, feeding trays covered by roofs or feeding trays with screen bottoms help prevent the development of mold and bacteria.
Your quick action can save the lives of countless birds and guarantee you will be able to watch a parade of birds throughout the entire year.
For the past couple of weeks, I have been hearing a smattering of reports of greater sandhill cranes heading north. However, the large, gray, long-legged birds had eluded me until a couple of days ago when I spotted six flocks passing over my home. Two days later, I saw another flock. All of the birds were flying northwest.
Seeing the large birds flying north in late winter is always a special event for folks like me that are not fond of winter. This is because the sandhill crane is a true harbinger of spring.
If you would like to see sandhill cranes passing over your yard, here are a some tips you should find helpful.
First of all, it has been my experience that you will hear the birds before you ever spot them. The call of the sandhill crane sounds something like a rolling Garoo a-a-a interspersed with cacophony of shrill, almost bell-like rattles and croaks. If you hear these sound coming from upon high, look in that direction.
Flocks of sandhill cranes constantly change their shape. They can be flying in an undulating V formation one moment and suddenly appear to be totally disoriented and flying about in broad circles the next.
If you have a pair of binoculars, take a close look at the birds. If the large birds are gray and flying with outstretched necks and have long legs extending beyond their tails, you are looking at sandhill cranes and not geese.
Nowadays, since efforts are underway to establish a breeding population of whooping cranes in the Midwest, it is possible to see a whooping crane or two interspersed with the sandhill cranes. The birds migrate and winter together.
During the past two winters whooping cranes are been seen wintering with sandhill cranes here in the Peach State.
It is easy to separate a whooping crane from a sandhill. Whooping cranes are white and sport black wingtips. If you are lucky enough to see a whooping crane, that would truly be something special.
At any rate, take the time to look and listen for sandhill cranes. If you are lucky enough to spot them migrating north, you will be witnessing an event that ornithologists tell us has been going for well more than two million years.
Once again, we are experiencing what I call a yo-yo winter. This is a winter when temperatures go from being very cold to very warm. Whenever this happens, it is possible to see a handful of butterflies in our backyards. The cloudless sulphur is the species that most often makes an appearance in my Middle Georgia backyard.
The cloudless sulphur is the largest predominantly yellow butterfly most of us are apt to see in the Peach State. It has a wingspan that can range anywhere from a little more than two inches to slightly less than three inches in length.
Each winter some cloudless sulphurs can be seen flitting about our backyards, especially when temperatures soar to 65˚F and above. Last week when temperatures reached the high 60s, cloudless sulphurs made appearances in my yard on two consecutive days. These individuals are the only butterflies I have spotted this year. I was not the only one lucky enough to see a cloudless sulphur. A friend told me she spotted a cloudless sulphur in Thomasville last week also.
There is a good chance that you might see a cloudless sulphur this winter as long as we do not experience temperatures that dip to 20˚F or below. When it gets that cold, most cloudless sulphurs cannot survive.
If you are looking for a great way for you and your family to become citizen scientists without leaving your home, take part in the 2019 edition of the Great Christmas Bird Count. All you have to do is record the birds you see in as little as 15 minutes at least once during the four-day count period. This year the Great Backyard Bird Count begins Friday February 15 and runs through Tuesday February 19.
The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, National Audubon Society, and Bird Studies Canada sponsor the count.
The count enables biologists to monitor the status of bird populations in the United State and abroad. These data are also proving invaluable in assessing the impacts of weather and habitat change on bird populations.
The scope of this survey has changed dramatically since its inception in 1998. What was initially a survey conducted in North America, the project has gone global. This past year 214,018 volunteers from more than 100 countries took part in the count.
As you might expect, most of the checklists (108,921) submitted in 2018 were sent in from the United States. However checklists were turned in from countries such as Columbia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, Costa Rica, and Mexico to name but a few.
When to checklists were tallied it was determined 6,310 species of birds were seen. Remarkably, these birds represent more than half of the species of birds in the entire world.
Here is the list of the ten species whose names appeared most often on checklists in 2018: northern cardinal (48,956), dark-eyed junco (43,742), mourning dove (43,412), American crow (40,959), blue jay (37,549), downy woodpecker (36,495), house finch (34,766), black-capped chickadee (21,942), and house sparrow (31,884), and European starling (28, 683).
Interestingly, the most numerous species seen last year was the snow goose. Some 4,957,118 of the large white and black waterfowl were sighted.
If you would like to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count, the first thing you need to do is decide how many areas you want to survey. It is totally up to you where and how many areas you wish to conduct your count efforts. Most folks simply count the birds they see in their backyards. Others survey several areas. Next, go online and register for this year’s count. I should note the count is free.
The only stipulation is you survey a spot for a minimum of 15 minutes. A count can be conducted at a location only once or every day during the four-day count period.
After you complete a count, you simply submit your data online (birdcount.org). After I submit my data, I like to pull up the map that displays the data collected throughout the state in real-time.
Since you only submit data for the birds you can identify, practically anybody can take part in the survey.
For details concerning how to register and conduct your count(s) visit the Great Backyard Bird Count website.
I sincerely hope you will take part in this year’s count. If you do, you will be birding with a purpose and have a lot of fun along the way.
One of a handful of wood warblers that can be found in the Georgia in the winter is the yellow-rumped warbler. Fortunately, for those of us that enjoy seeing warblers, yellowrumps do winter in our backyards. However, attracting them to feeders on a regular basis can be a challenge. One reason why most wood warblers do not regularly winter in Georgia is that they feed almost exclusively on insects throughout the entire year. As we all know, throughout most of our winters this food is in short supply. Although the yellowrump’s spring and summer diet is principally insects (80%), in winter 90 percent of their diet consists of a variety of plant materials such as fruits, berries, and seeds.
Some of the foods this warbler prefers while wintering far from its breeding grounds that extend throughout the vast Canadian forests, as far south as the northern tier of the United States, are the berries of poison ivy, Virginia creeper, and wax myrtle. In fact, when I was learning to identify birds several decades ago, the yellow-rumped warbler fondness for wax myrtle berries earned it the name myrtle warbler. Other choice foods eaten by the bird include red cedar and smooth sumac berries as well as the meats of such nut-bearing trees like hickory, pecan, and black walnut.
Although yellow-rumped warblers winter annually throughout the state, they are often irregular visitors at our feeders. This may be perhaps related to the abundance of food. When their preferred native foods are abundant they seem to have little inclination to partake in our food offerings. One-year decades ago yellow-rumped warblers arrived in the Thomasville, Georgia area only to find wax myrtle berries were far and few between. Faced with a food shortage, the birds sought alternative sources of nourishment. Interestingly, Thomasville residents later reported that year yellowrumps flocked to their feeders in numbers far exceeding anything they had ever seen before.
There are a number of foods yellow-rumped warblers will eat at feeders. The birds are fond of suet (check an earlier blog for the recipe for a suet I have used for years), cornbread, both peanut butter and hearts, white bread, orange halves, and pecan chips. They will also rarely eat sunflower seeds.
By far, over the years I have attracted more yellowrumps with water than anything else. For that reason, I highly recommend that you maintain birdbath throughout the winter. Keep in mind all of your backyard feathered visitors need water throughout the entire year.
If you want to attract yellow-rumped warblers to your yard, I would also recommend that you set out a few wax myrtle plants. Wax myrtle offers food for yellow-rumped warblers and other birds. It also provides nesting and winter cover for a host of birds.