The dark-eyed junco, commonly referred to as the snowbird, is one of my favorite winter visitors. Like too many other birds, however, I do not see it as often as I did in the past. In fact, I am ashamed to say some winters I do not see it at all. I find this remarkable as data collected in Project Feeder Watch suggest the junco is seen around bird feeders more often (80%) than any other bird.
In spite of the fact that I do everything I can to attract this visitor from the far north, most bypass my yard. Knowing that the small sparrow-like birds prefer millet seeds over sunflower seeds, I spread white millet on the ground beneath my feeders This is done because the bird spends 65% of its time on the ground and seems to prefer eating there over dining in elevated feeders.
I also maintain two birdbaths that offer it easily accessible places to drink and bath.
My yard is also blessed with several thick trees and shrubs that provide much-needed cover on cold winter nights.
Recent studies have begun to unravel some of the secrets surrounding dark-eyed juncos. For example, we now know that each fall adult females migrate before immature females and males. In addition, females have a tendency to travel farther south than males. This can result in more males being seen during the winter in the northern states than the Southeast. This is illustrated by the fact that during one study documented 72% of the juncos seen in Alabama were female.
I would like to know if the same holds true in my yard. With that in mind, this winter I will be paying close attention to the sexes of the juncos that visit my backyard.
Have you noticed whether females out number males in your yard?
Early last week the overnight temperature dropped to 24˚F. As expected, the hard freeze changed the complexion of my backyard. Prior to the frigid weather a dozen or so plants were still blooming. They were providing wild pollinators with a much-needed source of nutrition.
The only flowering plants that survived the cold weather were sweet alyssum, blanket flower, and sasanqua. Although most of the flowers on my butterfly bushes died, remarkably a few survived too.
However, some did survive and are visiting the meager array of blossoms that remain. The only insects I have seen lately are yellow jackets, bumblebees, and cloudless sulphur butterflies.
The yellow jackets have continued to feed on the sugar water found around the feeding portals of a couple of hummingbird feeders that are being maintained in hopes they will attract a rare winter hummingbird.
Tiny native pollinators have focused their attention on the tiny blossoms adorning sweet alyssum encircling a backyard birdbath. Two or three cloudless sulphurs and a couple of bumblebees are regularly spotted visiting butterfly bush, sasanqua and blanket flower blossoms. When they are gone, I will give my full attention to the animals that inhabit my backyard throughout the winter.
Indeed Mother Nature provides those of us willing to watch and listen great wildlife viewing opportunities throughout every season of the year.
Attracting the northern flicker to a backyard feeder is a challenge. However, you have the best chance of doing so during the winter months.
Roughly, 75% of the northern flicker’s diet is composed of a variety of insects. As anybody that has watched a northern flicker forage for food on their lawn realizes, the bird is particularly fond of ants.
The remainder of the bird’s diet consists of a number of native fruits, berries and seeds produced by plants such as the sumac, dogwood, hackberry, pine, oak, black gum, and Virginia creeper (the bird is particularly fond of the berries produced by this vine).
It has been reported northern flickers can sometimes be attracted to feeders stocked with shelled peanuts and hulled sunflower seeds. Since animal matter makes up the majority of this large woodpecker’s diet, it should come as no surprise to learn flickers will often also dine on suet. Some folks feel hungry flickers prefer suet laced with insects, however, the truth of the matter is the birds also eat regular suet cakes.
I must confess I have never been able to attract a northern flicker to my backyard feeding area. However, from time to time, one will drink from a birdbath.
If you are looking for a challenge this winter, consider trying to attract a northern flicker to your feeders. By winter’s end, if you are successful, I suspect you will be one of an elite group of homeowners that successfully met this daunting challenge.
Some months ago, I posted a blog regarding backyard birds eating dry dog food (the blog can be found by using the blog’s Search feature). Since that time four backyard wildlife enthusiasts have shared their experiences concerning birds eating both dog and cat food.
One woman reported that, on a couple of occasions, she has seen sparrows venturing into her carport to dine on cat food.
Another blogger said he successfully raised a young crow feeding the bird a mash consisting of water and Purina Puppy Chow. The bird eventually fledged and remained flying about his neighborhood where it was remained throughout the summer before finally disappearing.
Another backyard birder wrote that she pours regular dog kibble into a sunflower feeder. This unusual offering has attracted dark-eyed juncos, Carolina chickadees, and tufted titmice.
Yet another fan of backyard wildlife shared his experience with an American robin. It seems several years ago he was surprised to see an American robin feeding on dry dog food served in a shallow pan sitting on his deck. For three consecutive days, the robin flew in, nestled in the dog food, and leisurely feed on the chunks of food while his Eskimo Spitz calmly watched nearby.
If you would like to share your experiences regarding birds eating pet food, please send them to me. I am sure other folks would like to read about them.
Today I awoke to a thermometer reading of 32˚F. This marks the first day the temperature has plummeted to the freezing mark this fall. While I do not have any idea how long the temperature hovered this low, I know it could not have been too long since none of the plants flowering in my backyard showed any signs of frost damage.
When I ventured outside for the first time on this sunny, cool day the temperature had risen to 57˚. Much to my surprise the first creature I saw this morning was a monarch butterfly. The monarch was nectaring on the purple blossoms displayed on two butterfly bushes.
Needless to say, I was startled to see a monarch on such a cold morning since even on a sunny day, monarchs are rarely seen when the air temperature is in the 50s. When it is cloudy, this magnificent butterfly often does not take to the air until the air temperature reaches 60˚. That being the case how was this butterfly out and about feeding?
In autumn, when monarchs are passing through the south on their way to Mexico they seem to prefer to roost in pecan and oak trees; especially those growing close to a nearby source of nectar. These trees offer protection from the wind and their dense foliage provide places to roost that at are often warmer than the air temperature.
During the past few years, I have noticed that late in the afternoon during the monarch migration, monarchs will nectar on one particular butterfly bush growing on the north side of my home. Just beyond my driveway stand three water oaks. Several times as the sunlight melted away, the monarchs would flutter up into the oaks and vanish from sight. While I am not positive this is their nighttime roost, I suspect it is.
Wherever the monarch I saw this morning roosted, it could not move until the temperature rose above 40˚. As the temperature slowly climbed, the butterfly had to crawl to a sunny spot and open its wings and bask in the warming rays of the sun. The butterfly’s black scales and abdomen enabled to it to absorb the heat needed to raise its body temperature. Once its flight muscles reached 55˚ degrees, the monarch was capable of flight.
I am certain the monarch I saw this morning is now miles away from my backyard. As the sun begins to dip below the horizon this afternoon, I hope it finds another suitable roost site and the night will not be as chilly as it was last night in Monroe County.
For those of us that enjoy feeding birds and other wildlife in our yards, it will come as no surprise that the gray squirrel is one of the most accomplished animal athletes living just outside our backdoor. Let’s take a quick look at a few examples of this animal’s remarkable athletic prowess.
If a cat or dog surprises a gray squirrel while it is foraging for seeds beneath one of our feeders, it can run away from this domestic predator at a speed of 14 mph. Once it reaches a nearby tree it can then scamper up the tree at 12 mph.
Gray squirrels are also great jumpers. They can leap six feet or more from one branch or tree to another. They can also vault a distance of 16 feet when dropping down from one limb to another. In addition, a squirrel can spring vertically at least five feet high. To put this accomplishment in perspective, if we had this ability, we could leap upward from a sidewalk to the top of a five-story building.
Is it any wonder, gray squirrels are prospering amid all of the threats posed by humans and their pets in backyards, cities and towns across the Peach State?
Since the weather has abruptly changed from being more like autumn than summer, my wife and I have been seeing eastern bluebirds inspecting some of our nesting boxes. I am certain the birds are not checking out potential nesting sites–it is much too early for that. The birds may be just curious, or perhaps the onset of cold nights has triggered a search for suitable roost sites.
In addition to the bluebird, a number of familiar backyard birds also roost in cavities and nesting boxes including screech owls, woodpeckers, tufted titmice, brown-headed nuthatches, and Carolina chickadees. In the case of the bluebird, they typically roost alone in warm weather. However, when temperatures dip below freezing, a cavity or nesting box might harbor anywhere from a couple to more than 20 bluebirds.
The advantage of nesting together is the birds share their body heat. During an extremely frigid night, the additional heat offered by a group of roosting birds may spell the difference between life and death.
With that in mind, as we enter the harshest portion of the year, keep an eye on your nest boxes. There is a good chance one more bluebirds or other cavity-nesting birds are roosting in a box erected to provide a place for them to nest.
The best times to look for such activity is late in the afternoon when the birds are going to roost, or first thing in the morning when they are leaving for a day of foraging.
You can also peek inside a box. If you see some downy feathers scattered about the bottom of a box, chances are birds are roosting there.