Archive | October 2020

DON’T REMOVE SPENT SEED HEADS FROM NECTAR PLANTS — BIRDS RELISH THEIR SEEDS

       Now that our days are characterized by low humidity and cool temperatures, it finally does feel like autumn.  While the weather has changed, the complexion of our gardens has been undergoing a major transformation.  Those of us that try to provide wild pollinators with food throughout as much of the year as possible still have an abundance of nectar-bearing flowers in full bloom.  However, alongside them are the dried seed heads of plants that bloomed earlier in the year.  Although our first impulse is often to remove these plants, I wish you would consider leaving at least a portion of them for birds that feed predominantly on seeds.

       The list of the flowering plants that produce seeds eaten by birds is quite long.  Here is a short list of some of the more popular plants that produce nutritious seeds for birds:  black-eyed susan, coneflower, cosmos, aster, scarlet sage, zinnia, coreopsis, and blanket flower.

       Birds will eat these seeds directly from seed heads or when the seeds fall to the ground.  In addition, it matters not whether the plants grew in containers on a deck or patio or in a traditional garden.

       My wife and I have truly enjoyed watching cardinals and American goldfinches feeding on scarlet sage and zinnia seeds produced by plants grown in large containers on our deck. 

       It never ceases to amaze me how a cardinal can pick up a tiny scarlet sage with its large beak.

       Among the birds that do not miss a chance to eat the seeds of nectar plants during the fall and winter are the northern cardinal, dark-eyed junco, chipping sparrow, and American goldfinch.

       If you want to add a new facet to bird feeding, simply resist the impulse to create a tidy garden.  Let the plants that produced the stunning floral display remain standing.

       If you do, you will be providing your autumn/winter avian visitors with a great source of food.  Meanwhile, you will enjoy watching the fascinating behavior of birds foraging for flower seeds.

HALLOWEEN AND WILDLIFE FOLKLORE

        Unfortunately, folktales link many of our backyard wildlife neighbors such as owls, toads, snakes, and bats to Halloween.  That being the case, with Halloween only a few weeks away, there is no better time to dispel one of the tall tales regarding one of these unfortunate animals — the toad.

        The animals associated with Halloween have a number of things in common.  For example, many are creatures of the night.  This is a time when folktales tell us these animals consort with witches and goblins.  Such associations are enough to malign any animal.  As such, it is not surprising that people fear the toad.  Although we are not afraid toads will bite us, many people honestly believe that, if you touch a toad, you will get warts.  Apparently, toads also infect witches with warts as they are often depicted with warts on their noses.  Let’s do a fact check and see if this bit of folklore is actually true.

        The origin of this belief was long ago lost in the mists of history.  However, it is widely believed this notion originated from the fact that the skins of toads are covered with lots of oddly shaped warts.  Since medical knowledge was rudimentary at that time in history, this conclusion was not disputed and took on a life of its own.  Who among us has not heard our father or mother tell us not to pick up that toad, because will give your warts?  

        The truth of the matter is warts are caused by something called a human papillion virus.  There are 150 or so viruses of this type.  They most often infect humans through a cut or scratch.  It has been suggested that one of the reasons children seem to develop warts more than adults is their roughhousing make them more prone to get scratches and cuts.  In addition, the fact that their immune systems have not yet fully developed makes them more susceptible to many infections like warts.

        I can personally attest to the fact that toads do not cause warts.  When my granddaughter was a youngster, I often accompanied her on forays into the dark to see how many toads she could capture in a single night.  On a good night, she might catch a dozen or more of the “warty” critters.  After examining and photographing them, she released them where they were captured.  During these unforgettable adventures, she never developed any warts.  However, I was left with a wealth of priceless memories.

        I hope that I have dispelled this folktale.  Unfortunately, I suspect that the belief that toads can infect us with warts will be around for many Halloweens to come.

IDENTIFYING ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAKS IN FALL CAN BE TRICKY

       Whenever male rose-breasted grosbeaks magically appear at our feeders in the spring, it is difficult to mistake them for any other bird.  No other birds are cloaked in striking black-and-white plumage and also display bright crimson red chevrons on their breasts.  However, when they pass through Georgia in the fall, identifying them can be a challenge.

       The reason for this is the adults are in their nonbreeding plumage when they arrive at our feeders.  In addition, they are accompanied by adult and immature females, as well as immature males.  Whereas immature females are difficult to separate from adult females, the still look pretty much alike.

       Things are a bit trickier when it comes to distinguishing immature males from adult males.  However, the best way to describe an adult male is that it appears to be a washed out version of an adult male in breeding plumage.  In addition, there are subtle differences between adult and immature males that are often difficult to separate in the field.  Immature males will look much like the females, however they will sport varying amount of a rose wash on their breasts that is buffier than the breasts of the females. 

       Most years I only see rose-breasted grosbeaks in the spring.  However, others, like Ron Lee, entertain the birds during both seasons.  Such has been the case again this year.  Whereas Ron has been seeing these stunning migrants for quite some time this autumn, they have avoided my feeders.

       Ron has been kind enough to share with us the accompanying photo of a male rose-breasted grosbeak.  Ron took the picture taken October 10, 2020.

       With time running out on their fall migration schedule I suspect Ron’s photo is the only rose-breasted grosbeak I am likely to see this autumn.

OCOLA SKIPPERS ARE MIGRATING THROUGH OUR BACKYARDS

       Whenever butterfly migration is mentioned, the monarch comes to mind.  However, while the monarch is undoubtedly our most famous butterfly migrant, a number of other butterflies also migrate.  One of these butterflies is the ocola skipper and it is passing southward through our backyards right now.

       The ocola is far from being our largest (wingspan: 1/5-1.75″) or most striking butterfly.  It is best described as being elongated in shape and dark brown in color. Whenever I see one, it reminds me of a jet airplane.  When it opens its wings, it displays a distinctive white arrowhead-shaped mark.  However, from the side, is appears to be a nondescript small, slender butterfly.  In addition, when its wings are closed, the butterfly’s light veins are distinctive.

       Although the ocola can be seen in Georgia from late March into early November, it is most abundant in my yard in late summer and early fall.  Currently the ocola is among the most common butterflies feeding on our flowers. 

       These distinctively shaped butterflies are feeding at a number of nectar plants including the butterfly bushes, cosmos, globe amaranth, and zinnias.

       Oddly, there is mounting evidence that, for some unknown reason, some Ocala’s actually migrate north in the fall and show up in places such as Ontario, Canada and Massachusetts.

       That being said, I believe it is safe to say that the destination of the ocolas we are currently seeing in our yards is Florida.  In winter, they winter throughout the peninsula of the Sunshine State.  Some even overwinter as far south as Key West.

       Who would have ever imagined this small butterfly could successfully navigate such a monumental journey?

AMERICAN HOLLY IS DIFFERENT

       At this time of the year, both resident and migratory birds are feasting on a variety of colorful berries such as American beautyberry and pokeberries.  However, have you noticed birds are not flocking to a native plant that produces one of the most colorful berries–the American Holly?

       Nowadays if you peer into the foliage of an American holly, you will discover that the berries that are synonymous with winter and Christmas are still green.  Even when they ripen, it will be a while before birds begin dining on these shiny red berries.  In fact, in most years, American holly berries will remain on the tree well into winter and provide birds with a valuable source of food long after the last beautyberry or pokeberry has been gobbled up.

       Among the reasons birds do not seek out holly berries when they first ripen is they are rock-hard and very bitter.  It is only after the berries have been exposed to one or more frosts do they begin to soften up.  Their exposure to cold weather also breaks down the chemicals that make the so bitter.  Even then, they are not considered a choice food.  American holly berries are not rich in many nutrients, although they are high in fats and oils.

       However, when birds have little else to eat, they will dine on dine on holly berries.  For birds that rely heavily on fruits and berries, holly berries can mean the difference between life and death. 

       A woman in Walton County once told me that, in winter, she often decorates her window boxes with branches of American holly covered with its showy red berries.  She went on the say that one-winter birds did not eat a single berry the entire winter.  However, one extremely cold March day a flock of robins descended on her yard.  Before the flock departed, the birds had eaten every single berry that had adorned the holly boughs placed in her window boxes.

       In addition to the American robin, among the more than two dozen species of birds that eat American holly berries are the northern cardinal, eastern bluebird, northern mockingbird, wild turkey, and northern bobwhite.

       This is just another example of the fact that we need to provide a wide variety of plants that provide food and cover for birds throughout the entire year.