Archive | November 2020

HOW TO MAKE GOLDENROD MANAGEABLE IN YOUR GARDENS

       Goldenrod is one of our most gorgeous fall flowers.  In addition to beauty, it is also a valued late season source of food for a wide variety of native pollinators including butterflies such as the monarch.  While its virtues are indisputable, goldenrod is rarely considered a desirable garden plant.  A primary reason for this it spreads and often grows extremely tall.  However, I want to share with you tip that just might make you less inclined to pull up goldenrods that often crop up in gardens across the state.

       More than 30 species of goldenrods are native to Georgia.  As such, various species of the plan thrive in a variety of habitats.  In addition, some goldenrods grow to be only a couple of feet tall while others can attain heights of eight feet or more.

       Like many of you, goldenrods volunteer in our flower gardens every year.  Obviously, the goldenrods growing in my yard are tall varieties.  These plants easily top out at six to seven feet tall.  This requires us to pull them up.  If we don’t, they completely shroud other plants growing nearby.

       This year my wife taught me, a trick that makes these lofty nectar plants easily managed.  In August, she trimmed a few of goldenrods down to where their stalks were approximately a foot tall. 

    

“Long-tailed skipper feeding on blooms produced by a goldenrod pruned in August.”

         Each plants responded by developing three to four stems.  As summer gave way to fall, the goldenrods growing along the edge of our property grew to be as tall as expected and produced golden plumes of flowers.

       Their tiny flowers were visited by lots of bumblebees, some monarchs, and a variety of other pollinators.  This feeding activity ceased a few weeks ago.

       Meanwhile, the pruned goldenrods continued to grow eventually topping out at three feet tall and just recently produced their crop of flowers.  These blossoms could not have come at a better time.  Although many pollinators still are active in our yard, with each passing day, it is becoming more difficult for them to find nectar and pollen.  Our pruned goldenrods are helping meet their need.  In addition, they are extending the goldenrod’s floral show into late autumn.  The bonus is we have found a way to include goldenrod in our nectar gardens.  Wow! A well-time pruning can make huge difference.

WINTER ROOSTING COVER FOR AMERICAN GOLDFINCHES

        With cold weather lurking just around the corner, the thoughts of many backyard wildlife enthusiasts have turned to providing winter roosting sites for their backyard bird neighbors.  As such, some are winterizing nesting boxes or erecting roosting boxes.  These measures help birds that roost in cavities such residents as Carolina chickadees, brown-headed nuthatches, and eastern bluebirds.  However, little thought is given to providing winter roosts for birds that do not use natural or manmade cavities as nighttime roosts. 

       The truth of the matter is most backyards such as sparrows, finches, robins, mockingbirds, cardinals, doves, and a host of others roost in vegetation.  One such bird is the American goldfinch. 

       The American goldfinch roosts in dense vegetation. The birds often roost among the needles of conifers.  When they cannot locate such a roost site and are forced to spend the night in an open spot, their risk of succumbing to the cold dramatically increases.  In fact, when they roost in thick leafy vegetation, they can use one-third less energy to survive a frigid night than they would if they roosted in a more exposed spot.  The energy saved can mean the difference between life and death.

       Do you have any thick shrubs or trees in your yard that goldfinches and other birds could roost for a winter roost site this winter?  

DO YOU FIND IT DIFFICULT TO ATTRACT WHITE-THROATED SPARROWS TO YOUR FEEDERS?

       If you have trouble attracting white-throated sparrows to your feeding area this winter, here are a couple of tips that might solve your problem.

       First, keep in mind white-throated sparrows spend much of their time on close to the ground deep within shrubby, overgrown areas.  If your yard does not possess such a spot, chances are slim white-throated sparrows will winter there.

       If you do have a shrubby spot or two, place food near these areas.  The reason for this is, as a rule white-throated sparrow are reluctant to venture far from these safe havens.

       It is also a good idea to scatter millet or other small seeds on the ground.  Although the birds will feed from elevated feeders, they seem to prefer to dining on or very close to the ground. 

ZEBRA HELICONIANS HAVE BEEN RARE AUTUMN TREATS

     The appearance of a zebra heliconian (also called a zebra longwing) in our backyard, has always been special treat.  However, for reasons I do not fully understand, my wife and I have seen more of the beautiful black and yellow-striped butterflies this year than ever before.

       We saw our first zebras of the year back in August.  After a long hiatus, they began appearing weeks later on a regular basis.  Invariably, once they reappeared we never spotted more than one zebra heliconian at a time.  However, during the past few weeks we have been regularly seeing at least two at a time.  Two days ago, for the first time ever, we startled to find four of them feeding at bright orange Mexican sunflower blossoms.  Oddly, the day before a friend told me he had seen four in his yard.

       The zebra heliconian is a year-round resident in Florida southward through Central America.  Zebra longwings can also be found along the southern Gulf Coast of the United States all the way to Texas.  In fact, this Neotropical butterfly can be observed somewhere in the United States throughout the entire year.

       During the summer, in spite of the fact they normally doesn’t range far, many zebra longwings begin drifting northward far from the Sunshine State.  As such, each year, they are regularly seen in South Carolina.  In fact, sightings have been made as far north as New York.

       The field guides tell us that, in Georgia, this butterfly is most often seen in the Coastal Plain.  However, the truth of the matter is, in most years, as few will show up in backyard throughout the Lower Piedmont.  This year, for example, I have received reports of them being seen from Grovetown, Forsyth, and Woodland. 

       The zebra longwing has the distinction of having the longest continuous life span as an adult of any butterfly found in the United States.  While most adult butterflies live only a few weeks or less, the zebra longwing’s adult life extends for six or more months.  This longevity undoubtedly allows them to roam as far as they do.

       One of the things I find most fascinating about zebra longwings is they congregate at nighttime roosts.  These aggregations are called crèches and can number anywhere from 25-30 individuals.  Typically branches or Spanish moss are chosen for roost sites.  Such locations are sometimes used by the butterflies for days on end.

       I would dearly love to find a zebra longwing crèche this year.  Meanwhile, although I don’t know how long the Johnsons will be able to enjoy watching zebra heliconians drifting about our backyard, every time we see them, we will consider the event a rare autumn treat.

WHAT AND HOW MUCH FOOD DO PEOPLE FEED BIRDS EACH WINTER?

       For decades, Project FeederWatch has been surveying bird feeding activities throughout the United States and Canada.  The data collected has provided biologists with valuable insights into the habits of people that feed birds as well as the possible impacts of bird feeding on bird populations.  Here are a few of the findings of this monumental study.

       On the average, participants in the FeederWatch Project feed in excess of 300 pounds of seeds and 20 pounds of suet and bird “pudding” each winter. 

       By far, the most common offering proved to be mixed seed.  In addition to mixed seed, the foods fed most often were suet, black-oil sunflower, and niger seed.

       The study also found the feeders most popular among FeederWatch participants were hanging feeders (98%), suet holders (83%), and raised platforms (68%). 

       How does your own bird feeding activities compare to the results of this survey?

BACKYARD SECRET – BLUE JAYS COMMUNICATE WITH THEIR CRESTS

       We all recognize that blue jays communicate with one another using a wide variety of calls; however, it is less widely known that these noisy birds also communicate with their cohorts using their crests.  In fact, you can learn much about a blue jay’s state of mind by looking at how high a jay’s crest is held above its head.

       Blue jays use their crests to demonstrate its level of calmness and aggression.  For example, the next time you see one or more blue jays placidly feeding in your yard, undoubtedly, their crests will be held close to their heads.  However, if a family cat comes into their view; their crests will instantaneously become erect.  On the other hand, should the cat turn around and walk in the other direction realizing the feline no longer poses a threat; the birds’ crests will drop.  Similarly, if a blue jay is startled by the arrival of a bird the blue jay perceives as a competitor for the food it is dining on, such as an American crow, the jay will erect its crest.  By the same, if a cardinal alights near a feeding jay, the blue jay might not raise its crest at all. 

       How high a jay erects its crest is indicative of its perceived level of threat or agitation.  For example, if a blue jay notices a hawk circling in the sky some distance away, it may not fully raise its crest.  However, once the hawk flies close enough to where the jay senses it poses an imminent threat, its crest will then become fully erect.

 

ATTRACTING PILEATED WOODPECKERS TO A FEEDER IS A CHALLENGE

              It is truly a challenge to attract a pileated woodpecker to a feeder.  I have been feeding birds for more than a half a century and have never fed a morsel of food to a pileated woodpecker.   However, pileated woodpeckers do visit backyard bird feeders.  According to data collected in Project FeederWatch, less than a quarter of the people that feed birds in the Southeast host pileated woodpeckers.

            Personally, I can count on one hand the number of people that have told me they have been able to attract our largest woodpecker to their feeders.  However, several years ago Leon and Julie Neel told me that pileated woodpeckers visited a  homemade suet feeder outside their home near Thomasville.  This feeder was truly unique and beautiful.  The feeder was a large cypress knee.  Suet was packed into a number of large holes drilled around the knee.  This feeder was both functional and beautiful.

            If you want to meet the challenge of trying to attract a pileated woodpecker to your feeders, there are a few facts you need to know.  First,

The pileated woodpecker was not considered a feeder bird until the 1950s.  Since that time, pileated woodpeckers have visited feeders more frequently.

            If a pileated woodpecker begins visiting your feeder, it will typically be extremely cautious.  However, its trepidation will somewhat diminish with time.

            Initially, only one bird will visit a feeder.  However, don’t be surprised if the bird’s mate visits later.  The reason for this is the members of  a  pair of pileated woodpeckers maintain a bond with one another throughout the entire year.  In addition, they occupy  the same territory throughout all seasons.  However, they are more tolerant of other pileated woodpeckers that might enter their territory during the winter.

            The best food to use to attract pileated woodpeckers is suet.  You can use either plain or peanut butter suet. 

            Suet should be offered in a large feeder.  Large feeders attached to the trunk of a tree work well.  Suet can also be smeared into the bark of  a tree.  Some folks have been successful in attracting  the birds to large log suet feeders suspended on  poles.  Others smear a layer of suet between two slabs of wood, which are attached to a tree.

            If you are going to try to meet the pileated woodpecker challenge this winter, go into it with realistic expectations.  Chances are you will not be successful.  However, if are patient, you just may be rewarded with the rare opportunity of being able to see pileated woodpeckers on a regular basis. 

A SIMPLE WAY TO WINTERIZE A BLUEBIRD BOX

        Although those of us that live in Georgia do not have to withstand the bitter cold that winter brings to the northern sections of the country, it still gets mighty cold in these parts.

       When temperatures plummet into the 20s and below, simply trying to stay alive on a frigid winter night can be a life-threatening event for many of our wildlife neighbors.  One way in which we can assist birds such as bluebirds that roost in nesting boxes survive extremely cold weather is by winterizing nesting boxes.

       If you have erected a well-built nesting box, it is equipped with several 3/8″ ventilation holes drilled under the eaves of the box’s roof.  These vent holes are designed to dramatically reduce the temperature inside the box in hot weather.  However, during the winter vent holes allow heat to escape. 

       With that in mind, it is a good idea to plug these holes before the onset of winter.  By so doing, you will increase the amount of heat retained in a box.

       Now that most of us are getting our first taste of cold weather, there is no better time to perform this simple task than right now.

       When the last threat of severely cold weather has passed next year, do not forget to unplug the vent holes.