Archive | December 2020
BACKYARD SECRET — THE RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD IS A MIGRATION CHAMPION
Each winter a smattering of rufous hummingbirds spend the winter in backyards throughout Georgia. In fact, the rufous has the distinction of being our most common hummingbird during this time of the year. That being the case, I thought you would like to know that this tiny bird also holds title of being the North American bird migration champion.
Each year the rufous hummingbird’s annual migration takes it from its breeding range along the Pacific Coast of North America as far north as southeastern Alaska, to its winter home in Mexico and back again. Scientists have estimated that, in order to accomplish this phenomenal athletic fete, the rufous hummingbird flies approximately 49 million times its body length (3.75″). When this figure is compared to the distances flown by other North American birds relative to their body lengths, it turns out that the rufous hummingbird makes the longest migration of any North American bird.
WE PROVIDE CHIMNEY SWIFTS WITH PRACTICALLY ALL OF THEIR NESTING SITES
The chimney swift is one of our most recognizable birds. From daylight to dark from spring into fall, we hear its constant twittering and see these cigar-shaped birds, flying from daylight to dark over our yards in quest of flying insects and other invertebrates. However, what is far less known is that the chimney swift is almost totally dependent on humans to provide them with nesting sites.
Before the arrival of European colonists chimney swifts nested predominantly in hollow trees. However, as a wave of colonists swept westward across America, vast acreages of forests fell to the axe. As these forests were cut, the hollow trees found there also toppled. This resulted in an extreme shortage of suitable chimney swift nesting sites.
Fortunately, for both the birds, and us chimney swifts started using manmade nesting sites. Chimney swifts began nesting in chimney, silos, and barns. The chimney swift’s adoption of this new nesting habit has been extraordinary. According to noted ornithologist, Dr. Roger J. Lederer, “Chimney Swifts are so accustomed to nesting in human-made structures that only 10 instances of the bird nesting in the wild in the last century are known.”
BACKYARD SECRET – MOST RUBY-CROWNED KINGLETS THAT WINTER IN GEORGIA ARE LIKELY MALES
Remarkably, close to three-fourths of the ruby-crowned kinglets captured during banding operations conducted in Florida throughout the years have been females. This has lead ornithologists to suggest that more than likely male ruby-crowned kinglets winter farther north than do females.
Consequently, there is a good chance most of the ruby-crowned kinglets we see in our backyards here in Georgia during the winter months are males. Unfortunately, the only safe way for us to tell which is which is to see the scarlet red crest found only on the males. The problem is the male only displays his flashy, colorful crown when he is agitated. This apparently does not happen very often since many birders have told me they have never seen the male’s crown. It defies the laws or probability that they are only looking at females.
Until banding studies reveal the sex ratio of the ruby-crowned kinglets wintering in Georgia, the majority of the times we see this sprite of a bird we are going to have to be content in not knowing whether we are looking at a male or female. That will not bother me, as I am always pleased to just being fortunate enough to host this winter guest in my backyard.
AN EARLY CHRISTMAS PRESENT
When I took our dog out for a brief walk a little after noon December 14, the last thing I thought I would see is a butterfly. Earlier in the month on successive nights overnight temperatures dropped into the 20s. For all practical purposes, this ended our 2020 Butterfly Season. However, as I watched Sassy take care of business, the sight of a medium-sized butterfly fluttering about a large camellia bush caught my eye.
At first, I thought I was looking at a gulf fritillary. I sometimes see a few of these butterflies after a frost. However, when the butterfly landed, I was amazed when it turned out to be a question mark. Wow, what a surprise; it was my first question mark of the year. This was due, in large part to my having sheltered in place throughout the spring and summer and not butterflying away from my little corner of the world.
Consequently, the question mark is one of a handful of butterflies that is capable of wintering as an adult in Georgia. When it gets extremely cold adult question marks roost in holes in a tree, behind shutters or any number of other protected locations. Then when temperatures get warm enough for them to fly again they take to the air.
The air temperature when I saw this beautiful butterfly was 58˚F. Its rapid flight told me its body temperature was high enough to permit it to fly normally. However, since the butterfly was obviously looking for a suitable place to bask to further warm its flight muscles in the afternoon sun.
The lack of nectar plants poses no problem for this species as it feeds on plant juices, rotting fruit, dung, and carrion.
Who would have thought that my early Christmas present did not come in the form of a package wrapped in red and white? Instead, it proved to be a gossamer-winged flying jewel borne on orange and black jagged-edged wings trimmed in lavender.
I must admit that, for a brief period, I lost track of our little dog as I gazed upon this unexpected treat. Eventually, I was reminded of the reason I had gone outside in the first place when my dog barked to let me know she was ready to go back into the house. After I brought the dog back inside I quickly returned for a another look at the late season gift only to find it had flown off. However, I was left with a mental image I will long remember.
Keep your eyes peeled, you too may receive an early Christmas present. If you do, and it proves to be a question mark, I am sure you will not be disappointed.
AMERICAN GOLDFINCH NUMBERS AT GEORGIA FEEDERS VARY FROM WINTER TO WINTER
Anybody that sets out a smorgasbord of food for the birds wintering in their backyards can tell you that, for no apparent reason, the numbers of American goldfinches they feed from year to year can vary widely. Let’s take a close look at this apparent dilemma and see if there is an explanation for this odd phenomenon.
Studies have shown that nationwide, on an average, those of us that feed birds during the month of January will see an average of 10 American goldfinches at our feeders on a regular basis. However, some years flocks of upward of 100 or more American goldfinches descend on our feeders. Likewise, in other years, if you are like me, you do not come close to hosting even 10 birds.
The answer to this mystery is linked to the goldfinch’s breeding and winter ranges and average January temperatures.
The American goldfinch has a large breeding range that extends in a broad band that sweeps across southern Canada and the northern two-thirds of the contiguous United States.
In Georgia, American goldfinches breed throughout much of the state with the exception of the southeastern slice of the state.
Meanwhile, the bird’s winter range encompasses its breeding range and the entire South.
However, some years American goldfinches breeding in the northern portion of their breeding range might not migrate at all. However, if food supplies are inadequate and/or winter temperatures average 0˚F or below, many will take wing and migrate upwards of 1,000 or more miles southward to escape the cold and locate food.
In comparison, during a normal winter our homegrown American goldfinches stay pretty close to home each. When this occurs, we are likely to see few goldfinches feeding on nyger and sunflower seeds in our backyards.
That being said, it is apparent the only way we can predict whether we are going to host a lot of American goldfinches at our feeders this winter is to watch the weather reports for those parts of the continent north of Georgia.
BACKYARD SECRET — BLUE JAYS ARE NOISIER IN THE FALL AND WINTER
Have you ever taken a walk through the woods on a crisp fall or winter day and found that you were constantly assailed by the loud, raucous calls of blue jays? If you have, chances are you wondered if it was your imagination that these large, handsome birds seem to call more frequently at this time of the year than in spring and summer. The truth of the matter is blue jays do indeed call more often during autumn and winter.
I have long been aware of this fact. I first became aware of this when I found a blue jay nest near my home. Throughout their entire nesting period, I never heard a sound made by the nesting birds. However, during the fall, long after the blue jays had fledged their young, the jays living in that neck of the woods frequently called.
The reason for this is, if the jays regularly called near their nest, predators might be alerted to the fact that the birds are nesting somewhere close. This might prompt an avian or mammalian predator that might hunt for food elsewhere to focus its attention on the area where it frequently hears blue jays calling.
However, during the fall and winter when blue jays are spending most of their time roaming the woodlands looking for food, they routinely communicate with one another and other animals via their loud calls. In addition, during these feeding forays, should they encounter a hawk or other predator, they are quick to sound the alarm to any critter living nearby.
HOW MANY DIFFERENT SPECIES OF BIRDS DO YOU FEED IN YOUR YARD?
According to data collected by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch, some 350 species of birds feed at backyard bird feeders throughout the North American Continent. Only 90 of these birds are considered regular visitors to our feeders. The vast majority of the birds that eat at feeders are only casual visitors. Do you have any idea how many different birds you have fed at your feeders over the years?
Recently I tallied the number of species that have visited feeders at my Monroe County home during the past 40+ years. My wife and I have tallied feeding 38 species of birds during this period. Three birds strictly fed on suet. One species ate suet and fruit. An additional four species consumed only hummingbird nectar, or jelly. The remaining 30 species either exclusively ate seeds or also supplemented their diet with other foods too.
In addition, five species were only seen using our birdbaths.
The keys to attracting the greatest variety of birds to your feeder include offering birds a wide variety seeds (sunflower seeds, white millet, safflower seeds), suet, jelly, hummingbird nectar, cornbread, fruits, nuts, and the like. Offer these foods in a variety of feeders and locations. Some birds simply prefer to feed on the ground, other avian diners are more likely to visit feeders suspended from wires or sitting atop poles. Also, it is a good idea to space feeders widely apart; this reduces competition between the various birds visiting your feeding area.
Now that we are in the winter bird feeding season, how many different species of birds, do you anticipate seeing at your feeders during the next few months? Depending on where you live in Georgia, I would say, you would be doing exceptionally well if you see as many as 25 species this winter. As a rule, urban homeowners feed fewer birds than those folks living in suburban and rural settings do. However even though I suspect most of us will feed fewer than 25 birds this winter. Speaking for myself, I will be enjoying watching whatever birds show up.