Archive | March 2019

BLUEBIRD BOX COLOR IS IMPORTANT

        Cavity nesting birds have a difficult time finding a place to nest.  In fact, there simply aren’t enough suitable cavities to meets the needs of the birds that need them.  Throughout Georgia a wide assortment of birds nest in tree cavities including the eastern bluebird, Carolina wren, house wren, house sparrow, tree swallow, European starling, purple martin, barn owl, tree swallow, screech owl, great crested flycatcher, Prothonotary warbler, and wood duck.  In an attempt to offset the shortage of natural cavities, for more than eleven decades folks have been building and erecting nesting boxes.  Beyond a shadow of doubt more nest boxes have been built for bluebirds than any other species. They have been so successful they have played a large part in the recovery of this beautiful bird.

       While the majority of bluebird nesting boxes look pretty much the same, some provide better nesting sites for the birds than others. Often the only thing that determines whether or not a box is better than another is its color.

       Bluebird nesting boxes are painted in a rainbow of colors. In fact, I once saw a black bluebird nesting in a blue bluebird box. I would like to know how many red and black See Rock City have been erected across the south. Some folks paint nesting boxes in the colors of their alma mater or favorite football team. Others leave boxes unpainted. With this bewildering array of colors to choose from, you might be wondering what works the best. In truth, bluebirds don’t seem to show a preference for any color.  However, studies have shown that year in and year out more bluebirds fledge from boxes painted certain colors over all others.   Let’s take a look at what’s best for the birds and your pocketbook.

      Most store-bought bluebird boxes are unpainted.  Typically, they are made from finished pine boards.  If you take such a box home and hang it out without doing anything to it, chances are it will rot in a season or two and end up lying on the ground. Consequently, if you want the box to last a lot longer, coat it with a good quality exterior paint or stain before you put it up.  When you treat a box in this manner, it will last several years.  With most bluebird boxes costing anywhere from $10-$25 or more, this is a significant savings.

       However, boxes made from cypress or cedar should not be treated. These woods naturally resist decay.  It is not unusual for a well-made cypress box to last up to 25 years.

       Here in the South, it is best to paint boxes a light color.  Any light color is suitable. Bluebirds don’t care if a box is white, gray, light pink or pale blue.  However, whatever you do avoid using dark colors.  The reason for this is simple, pastel colors absorb less heat than boxes coated in dark colors.

       Here in the Peach State during the spring and summer (the bluebird’s nesting season), the thermometer often soars above 90°F.  However, when air temperature reaches only 87°F, the temperature inside a nesting box painted a dark color can soar to 107°F or more.  When eggs are exposed to such intense heat, developing bluebird embryos can be killed.  Bluebird eggs seem to develop best when temperatures inside a box are no higher than 99°F. 

       When painting a box, I prefer using an oil-base exterior paint. You will find it will last longer than other exterior paints.  I ALWAYS avoid lead-based paints since there is always the potential that birds and other wildlife can ingest paint chips containing lead.

       It is always best to paint a box before it is erected. Use a medium-sized flat brush. Apply at least one coat of paint to all exterior surfaces. If the bare wood absorbs a lot of paint, apply a second coat.  I would recommend that you apply 3 or more coats of paint to the back of the box. Since this surface will be in direct contact to a tree, post, or metal pole, as such it will be exposed to water much longer than the other surfaces of a box.  The extra paint provides an added barrier to water.

       Under no circumstances should you paint the interior of box or its entrance hole. In fact, I recommend that you avoid using spray paint since there is always a possibility that paint can be accidentally sprayed inside the box.

       Isn’t it amazing how a little dab of the right color paint can be so important to such a gorgeous and popular bird?

LYRELEAF SAGE PROVIDES NECTAR FOR HUMMERS AND OTHERS

        Those of us who try to stock our gardens with a variety hummingbird nectar plants are constantly on the lookout for something new.  Too often, this quest leads us to nonnative plants while overlooking native plants.  One of these  native plants, the lyreleaf sage (Salvia lyrata), may actually be blooming in your yard.  In fact, I found a few lyreleaf sage plants blooming in my yard.

        The lyreleaf sage grows in a wide variety of locations. It can be found anywhere from open woods, roadsides, lawns, damp meadows to dry waste sites. In spite of the fact that the plant displays beautiful lavender blossoms on a slender stalk (1-2 feet tall) it is often overlooked. In fact, many homeowners consider it a weed and mow it down.

        Lyreleaf sage begins blooming as early in February in some parts of Georgia and will continue blooming into May.  One of the reasons I am so fond of this plant is it provides hummingbirds with a source of nectar early in the spring when nectar is often scarce.   The plant also attracts butterflies and bees to its nectar-laden showy blooms.  

        The plant readily reseeds often forming robust colonies.  However, as with many roadside  and pasture plants, mowing often hinders its ability to reproduce.

        If you are fond of salvias, you will love this native salvia. Although its blossoms are small, they are every bit as beautiful as the salvias the grace our gardens.

        Although you can purchase lyreleaf sage seeds, they are often pricey.  I have seen 20 seeds cost more than six dollars.  Before you go out and buy some lyreleaf salvia seeds, explore your yard, there is a chance it has been hiding there in plain sight.  If you  do not locate it, I honestly believe it would be worthwhile spending a little money to get it established.

LEAD CAN AFFECT MOCKINGBIRD AGGRESSION

          We Georgia homeowners are well aware of the fact the northern mockingbird is one of our most aggressive backyard birds.  In fact, if you are like me, it is hard to believe you would want them to be any more aggressive.  However, the results of a study published by Stephanie McClelland in the journal Science of the Total Environment suggest that the amount of lead found in the soil within a mockingbird’s territory can affect its aggressiveness.

    The study was conducted in neighborhoods scattered across New Orleans, Louisiana.  The data collected during the study found mockingbirds living in areas where high levels of lead are present in the soil are more aggressive than those inhabiting neighborhoods where soils are not contaminated with this pollutant.

         Now that I know lead can affect the level of aggressiveness displayed by mockingbirds, I cannot help but wonder if this element is affecting the mockingbirds living in my yard.  I hope that is not the case.

BACKYARD SECRET: ATTRACTING INDIGO BUNTINGS TO FEEDERS IN SPRING

         I do not know anybody that consistently attracts indigo buntings to their feeders.  The only times I have seen them feeding in my backyard has been in the spring.  In each case, the beautiful all blue birds fed on white millet seeds offered in open trays or scattered on the ground.

        With that in mind, if you want to try to attract this spectacular bird to your backyard for the first time, I suggest you begin making white millet available to any indigos passing through your area. 

        If you are successful, the first birds you see will be males.  Female indigo buntings migrate north a bit later.

OFTEN IT PAYS NOT TO MOVE

        Birds have a variety of ways to keep from being eaten by bird of prey.  For example, some birds escape into deep cover at the approach of a hawk. Others rely on the pattern and coloration of their plumage to blend in with the surrounding landscape.  There are even birds that use erratic and fast flight to stay out of harm’s way.  Another way in which birds escape the sharp eyes of an avian predator is to remain motionless.  Recently nature enthusiast Debbie Menard watched a downy woodpecker use this ploy to keep from being snatched up by a Cooper’s hawk.

        Debbie maintains a number of nectar and seed feeders close by her Monroe County residence.  This allows her to watch birds as she moves about inside her home.  Recently she noticed a downy woodpecker perched on a nearby peanut feeder.  She did not give this much thought, as downy woodpeckers are frequent visitors to the feeder.  However, several minutes later she was surprised to see the black and white bird had not moved.   When she looked about her yard it quickly became apparent, birds had mysterious vacated her feeding area.  Indeed something seemed to be amok.

        The first thing that came to mind was the Cooper’s hawk that regularly patrols her yard must be nearby.  When she heard the raucous, incessant calls of American crows and blue jays, it became obvious that the Cooper’s hawk or other predator must be nearby.

        When she checked the downy woodpecker again, she found it was still seemingly frozen to the feeder.  All told, the downy remained glued to the feeder for at least 15-20 minutes.

        Finally, when Debbie ventured out into her carport, she inadvertently flushed a Cooper’s hawk that apparently had been perched in an oak growing along the edge of her driveway.

        After the hawk departed, the downy woodpecker flew off and the regular diners at her backyard cafe returned and resumed their feeding.

        This behavior displayed by the downy woodpecker worked because many predators detect the presence of potential prey by detecting an animal’s slightest movement.  Although the woodpecker was in plain sight, the bird was essentially invisible to the Cooper’s hawk. However, if the bird had moved the slightest bit, its ruse would have been over and the woodpecker would have had to make a desperate dash to cover to avoid the sharp talons and bill of the formidable predator.

        If you would like to share an interesting backyard wildlife experience with other bloggers, please let me know.

HUMMERS ARE ARRIVING EARLY THIS YEAR

       In my last blog, I predicted that, in spite of our warm winter weather, ruby-throated hummingbirds would probably not arrive early this year.  Boy was I ever wrong.    Since the blog was posted, at least four hummers have been spotted in Monroe County.  The first bird arrived at a home near Juliette March 9.  Two birds were reported arriving three days later on March 12.  To top it all off, today (March 14) I spotted a male ruby-throated hummingbird visiting a feeder hanging in front of my office.  All four sightings are earlier than any I am personally aware of during the past 40+ years.  Personally, until today the earliest I have ever seen my first rubythroat of the year is March 18.

       Please let me know when you spot your first rubythroat.  I cannot believe folks in this Middle Georgia County are spotting   hummingbirds earlier than anybody else in the state.

HUMMINGBIRDS WILL PROBABLY ARRIVE ON TIME THIS SPRING

       Our unseasonably warm winter this year has raised expectations the ruby-throated hummingbird migration will be early this year.  As with most bold predictions, I suspect this one will prove to be wrong for the rubythroats that breed or pass through the Peach State.

        For years, the first report of the arrival of a ruby-throated hummingbird I received each year came from the Southwest Georgia city of Colquitt.  The recently departed Grace Moore would call to let me know she and her husband Hill just spotted a male rubythroat at their feeders. Based on their observations, the first birds would arrive in Colquitt around March 13.

       My wife and I usually see our first ruby-throated hummingbird at our Middle Georgia home in Monroe County around March 18, although other local hummingbird enthusiasts have spotted their first birds as early as March 17.

       In a typical year, the first rubythroats arrive in South Georgia around March 11.  Across much of Middle Georgia, the first hummer of the year appears during the third week in March.  Folks living in North Georgia rarely see their first ruby-throated hummingbird until April 1. 

       Each spring the males are the first to arrive.  They are followed 7-10 days later by the first wave of females.  However, I have noticed many homeowners throughout the state don’t see their first hummingbirds until April.  When they do see one, it is often a female.  This does not mean females arrived before the males.  It simply indicates both males and females were flying about their corner of the world when they spied their first birds.  This has happened to me a number of times.

       Often the first birds arrive before people have even hung up their feeders.  Countless times, I have homeowners have told me about looking out their window on cool March morning and spotting a hummer hovering at the spot where a feeder hung last year.  When this happens, it is hard not to feel like a heel.  This is especially true when you ponder the fact that a tiny, tired bird had traveled hundreds of miles from southern Mexico or Central America to reach your backyard only to find that it didn’t have an energy-rich meal waiting for it at a feeder where it fed the previous summer.

       If this has happened to you, I am sure you immediately scurried to the cabinet and pulled out a feeder, hurriedly filled it with nectar mixed a batch of nectar, and hung it outside your window.  Then you sat back a hoped that the bird would return.

       If you want to avoid going through this traumatic experience, I urge you to go ahead and hang out at least one of your hummingbird feeders as soon as possible.

       If you have never fed hummingbirds birds before, now is a good time to start.  Purchase a feeder that is easy to clean.  I also prefer feeders that have perches.  Feeders with perches encourage hummingbirds to linger longer and use less energy when feeding.

       Fill your feeder either with store-bought or homemade nectar.  If you want to make your own hummingbird food, simply mix 4 parts water to 1 part sugar.  Bring the water to a boil before adding the sugar.  Boil the mixture for 2-3 minutes.  Allow the mixture to cool before pouring it into you feeder.  Store the remainder in the refrigerator.

       I don’t know about you, but I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of hummingbirds.  It is a sure sign that our wacky winter is about to end.  It also marks the beginning of the 2019 hummingbird season.  During this special time of year, we will be treated to the beauty and aerial acrobatics of what is arguably Georgia’s favorite bird.

       I hope ruby-throated hummingbirds will arrive early this year.  If they do, nobody will be more excited that me.