Archive | June 2019

ATTRACTING THE SUMMER TANAGER TO YOUR YARD IN SUMMER

       Now that summer has officially arrived, days are getting shorter with each passing day.  When this occurs many migratory birds beginning putting on the fat that will fuel the migration to their wintering grounds.  One such bird is the summer tanager.

       The summer tanager is a common resident of wooded backyards across the state.  However, in spite of the fact, males are cloaked in red feathers and the females display a two-toned plumage (olive-green above, yellow below) and sport large pale bills, this colorful bird often goes unnoticed.  This is because it often feeds in the tops of trees.

       The summer tanager primarily consumes lots of insects such as bees, wasps, cicadas, yellow jackets and grasshoppers throughout the spring and early summer.  However, throughout much of the summer as it is packing on fat in preparation for their autumn migration, fifty percent or more of its diet consists of fruits and berries. 

       Consequently, if you would like to attract local and migrating summer tanagers to your backyard at this time of the year, the best way to do that is to provide them with the fruits and berries they relish.  If you look around your yard and cannot find any of the plants that produce this much-needed food, you should make every effort to add some of them to your landscape.

       Here are some of the plants that provide fruits and berries gobbled up by summer tanagers as they prepare before they embark on their long flight to Central and South America:  blueberry, blackberry, grape, hawthorn, flowering dogwood, rough-leaf dogwood, pokeberry, and black gum.

BACKYARD SECRET: SUNFLOWERS HELP THWART BEE DECLINES

       The demise of bee populations across the country is a major concern.  The economic and ecological impact of declining populations of these pollinators is staggering.  For years, scientists have been diligently trying to determine both the causes and solutions to this problem.  The findings of a study recently published in Scientific Reports suggest the sunflower may provide a glimmer of hope for some species of bees.

        The study investigated the possible impacts of diets of two species of bees containing various pollens on populations of two of the parasites linked to high bee mortality and sluggish colony growth.  The study reported European honeybees and common bumblebees that fed on the pollen produced in the flowers of sunflower plants were less infected with these parasites than bees that did not consume sunflower pollen.

        In the words of Rebecca Irwin (one of the biologists that conducted the study), “We tried other monofloral pollens, but we seem to have hit the jackpot with sunflower pollen.”

        Although this discovery is promising, the biologists that conducted the study were quick to point that, since sunflower pollen is low in both protein and some amino acids, the bees cannot live on sunflower pollen alone.  As such, they need to supplement their diets with the pollen of a variety of other pollen-producing plants.

        Consequently, if we homeowners want to help in the fight to thwart the ravages brought about by two of the deadly parasites that plague our bee populations, we need to add sunflowers to the variety of other pollen- rich plants growing in our backyard.  I am please to say sunflowers are currently blooming in my backyard.  I hope you will find a place for them in your backyard too.

BABY SNAKES OR SOMETHING REALLY WEIRD

 What do you think is the weirdest animal that lives in your yard?  Perhaps it is a spider, millipede, scorpion, or beetle.  Then again, it may be a land planarian.  Among the other names given this bizarre critter are soil planarian and arrowhead flatworm.

       Once you spot a land planarian, you can readily see why these critters are often mistaken for snakes.  They are shaped like a snake, have triangular heads, display broad dark lines that run down the length of their bodies, and can grow upwards of ten inches long.  However, if you examine them closely you will see they are covered with mucous, don’t have any eyes and are not covered in scales.

       The land planarian’s mouth is located about half way down the underside of its body.  Instead of eyes, this animal has eyespots that can only detect light.

       The body is covered with a heavy layer of mucous.  This mucous enables the flatworm to keep its body moist.  A flatworm will die if it loses water that amounts to more than 45 percent of its body weight.  As such, land planarians live in cool, moist spots such as under logs, rocks, and forest litter.  Around our homes, we most often find them under potted plants, or beneath objects stored on the ground like tarps and lumber.  Other than that, we occasionally see them on the surface of the ground when heavy rain saturates the soil.

       The land planarian eats a variety of invertebrates such as insect larvae, slugs, and earthworms.  While gardeners appreciate the fact they destroy plant pests, they don’t like them eating earthworms as they help aerate the soil.  In addition, anglers trying to keep a worm bed or folks that raise earthworms commercially hate them because they have been known to wipe out earthworm populations. 

       Oh, by the way, if they cannot find enough prey, they will cannibalize one another.

       This flatworm feeds by restraining its prey with a coat of slimy mucous.  Once it is subdued, the planarian extends its pharynx out of its mouth and into its victim and sucks out its body fluids.

       This odd critter employs two forms of reproduction.  It can lay eggs in a small cocoon (the eggs hatch in 21 days); however, it primarily multiplies by the process of fragmentation.  The process takes place once or twice a month. 

       Fragmentation occurs when a planarian attaches the tip of its tail to an object and simply pulls away.  Remarkably, the detached piece of tail is capable of moving about and will actually grow a new head within only 10 days!

       The planarian’s amazing ability to regenerate has long been of interest to biology students and medical researchers alike.  Unbelievably, a piece of a planarian, amounting to as little as 1/279th of its body, is capable of regenerating a totally new planarian in a matter of weeks.  You can cut a planarian’s head and half and the animal goes about its business sporting two complete heads. 

       Years ago, planarians were carried to the International Space Station to determine what effects, if any, the environment has on such things as their power of regeneration.  In one experiment, after an astronaut sliced a planarian’s head in half, the animal regenerated two heads in only five weeks time.

       Planarians are currently being employed by researchers involved in biomedical research studies focus everything from human aging, memory, and diseases to genetics.

       You can add the ground planarian to the list of exotic plants and animals that have been inadvertently brought to the United States.  In this case, it is believed this native of Indo-China they were shipped around the world during the 19th century hidden in soil accompanying nursery stock.

       Since the beginning to the 20th century, the flatworm has been located living in greenhouses across the country.  It has since been found in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, North and South Carolina, Tennessee and a number of other states.  It is thought the worms were introduced to these locations in potted plants sold in the nursery trade.

        While it is clear we could easily live without this critter, like it or not, there is little chance we will ever rid ourselves of the odd introduced animal.  In the meantime, countless folks will continue to be shocked when they lift up a pot and see what looks like a bunch of baby poisonous snakes poised to strike.  Just remember, if these weird animals are slimy and lack eyes, they will not bite.

BACKYARD SECRET: THE CATERPILLAR’S AMAZING GROWTH RATE

Some caterpillars exhibit an unbelievable growth rate.  Believe it or not, the caterpillars of some butterflies actually double their weight every two days.  If a human baby had a similar rate of growth, it would weigh a ton in just 14 days!

THE RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD’S DISPLAY FLIGHT

         One of the most fascinating animal behaviors can you see in your backyard is the display flight of the male ruby-throated hummingbird.

         Over the years, I have been fortunate to witness this fete on a number of occasions.  However, until last week I had never observed it three separate times in a matter of a couple of days.

        This acrobatic maneuver is unmistakable.  The male will repeatedly fly to and fro in a wide U-shaped arc.  Often the male is so adept at retracing the path of his previous arc it appears he is coursing along an unseen track.

        At times, the bottom of the arc brings the male so close to the head of a perched female you are convinced he is going to collide with her.  As he approaches the seemingly unperturbed object of his affection, the buzzing sound created by the air passing through his tail and wing feathers becomes appreciably louder.  This dramatic display is designed to convince the female he is a suitable suitor.  However, the only time she gives him the time of day is during a handful of days prior to her laying a clutch of two eggs.

        After I enjoyed the sight of a male rubythroat engaged in an aerial display, I related the story to my wife.  She said she had never been lucky enough to see the display.  Remarkably  the very next day, while we were both standing on our deck a male suddenly appeared and performed the aerial fete in front of us.  In fact, one side of the U-shaped arc was so close to our heads I thought he was going to collide with us.

         A couple of days later my daughter was standing on the deck with us when she suddenly exclaimed,  “What is that hummingbird doing?”  I looked up and could not believe my eyes–a male rubythroat was once again engaged in a display flight.

        Observing three ruby-throated hummingbird aerial displays and being able to be with my wife and daughter when they both witnessed their first courtship displays is something I will never forget;  this is backyard wildlife watching at its best.

THE AMERICAN GOLDFINCH IS A STAR AT FEEDERS IN SUMMER

       There was a time in the not too distant past when the only bird most folks fed during the summer was the ruby-throated hummingbird.  The bird readily takes to feeders filled with sugar water.  In exchange, they provide homeowners with the opportunity to enjoy seeing this flying jewel on a regular basis.  If that isn’t enough they also treat us to countless hours of enjoyment watching them fuss with one another and displaying their aerial skills.     

        Nowadays feeding seed-eating birds during the summer is also becoming increasingly more popular.  Although the birds can easily exist without our seed offerings, feeding birds that eat seeds in the summer allows us to enjoy the comings and goings of birds we once regularly saw only during the colder months of the year. 

        Most of the birds that are attracted to summer seed feeders are birds we are all familiar with such as house finches, American goldfinches, cardinals, red-bellied woodpeckers, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees, eastern towhees, chipping sparrows, and others.  However, in the minds of many, the bird that immediately stands out as the star of the daily show played out around feeders is the American goldfinch.

        The reason for this is the male American goldfinch is dressed in his breeding plumage.  The golden radiance of the bird reaches out and grabs your attention.  Bedecked with a black cap, wings, and tail, it appears nothing like the drab yellowish-green bird we feed at our feeders in winter.

        Although both male and female American goldfinches commonly visit feeders in summer, the female retains its subdued colors.  As such, she will look pretty much the same as she does in the winter.  

        As we, all know, in winter, American goldfinches gather in flocks that can make short work of a feeder stocked with black oil sunflower seeds.  Don’t expect to see large flocks of American goldfinches at your summer feeder.  The flocks have long disbanded and scattered across the countryside.  This means you are most likely going to see one or a just a few birds come to your feeders.  However, often long before I see these beauties make their entrance onto your backyard stage; you just might hear them announce their arrival by calling, “Just look at me! Just look at me!”

        If you decide to try your hand at trying to attract an American goldfinch or two to your feeder this summer, stock it with black oil sunflower seeds.  Since you will not be feeding as many birds as you do in winter, don’t put out a lot of seed.  It is also a good idea to buy your seeds in smaller bags.  This will help prevent the stored sunflower seed from becoming infested with insect pests.      

        Once you see a male American goldfinch at your feeder this summer it will be easy to believe that, it is not the same bird you watched hulling sunflower seeds on cold winter mornings.  You will also wish that it retained its gold and black plumage throughout the entire year.

      

BACKYARD SECRET: NORTHERN CARDINALS NEST MORE THAN ONCE EACH YEAR

Now that June has arrived, many birds have completed nesting this year.  Such is not the case with the northern cardinal.  Peach State cardinals will nest up to three times a year.  They sometimes nest for the first time in March.  Second and third nesting attempts follow through early July.