Archive | January 2022

BRACKET FUNGI ARE ODD BACKYARD INHABITANTS

       Remarkably, our backyards are home to untold wild inhabitants.  I don’t think there is anybody that can identify all of them.  However, the fact is we do not know the correct name of them to appreciate their beauty and the role they play in wild communities.  One group of organisms most of us are largely unfamiliar with is known as the tree bracket (also called shelf) fungi. 

        As their name suggests, tree bracket fungi grow on trees (both dead and alive).  The shelf-like structures were see growing on the sides of trees are the fungi’s fruiting bodies. Each species of bracket fungi has its own distinctive appearance.

Photo taken South Monroe County, Forsyth, GA

 

       Kim Walton (this blog’s webmaster) submitted the attractive fungi depicted in the accompanying photo growing on the side of a tree near her home in Monroe County.

       Shelf fungi are more than just pleasing to the eye.  Throughout history, some species have been used as folk remedies.  In addition, these fungi provide cover for spiders, songbirds, insects, and a variety of other critters.

       If you know the name of this type of bracket fungi, I would appreciate it if you would share its identity with me.

WHERE A COYOTE LIVES CAN AFFECT ITS HEALTH

       The coyote’s name is on the long list of animals that are not native to Georgia.  However, much to our dismay, they are living here and have spread across the state.  They are now living in rural and urban areas alike.  This scenario has also played out across other states.  With this in mind, biologists at the University of Alberta conducted a study to determine if coyotes living in and around humans in urban areas are just as healthy and their cousins that inhabit rural habitats.

       Here in Georgia urban coyotes are now feeding on foods tossed into garbage cans, tossed out of the windows of cars racing down the highway, seeds scattered beneath our bird feeders, as well as food left outside our homes for the family dog.  They are preying on domestic pets such as dogs, cats.  They are also attacking goats, sheep, and other livestock.

      As expected, the researchers found coyotes living in the city eat lots of processed foods such as fast food, dinners tossed in the garbage.  The researchers even found coyotes consume pieces of gloves, and the wrappers placed around burritos and the like.  These items are a far cry from the foods one would expect to find in the typical diets those coyotes living away from humanity.

       Their data collected in this study showed the coyotes feeding in backyards and other food-rich locales are less healthy.  These coyotes possess less kidney fat.  This is a clear indication they are not eating a nutritious diet.  The fact that their spleens are also larger is a sign that the human food they are gobbling up is having a deleterious impact on their immune systems.

       It would seem that coyotes that have adopted an urban lifestyle are paying the price for living away from the natural world.

       While we cannot eliminate the coyotes that are living close to us, we can stop unwittingly contributing to their dining choices.  For example, we all need to secure our garbage cans so coyotes cannot dine on our leftovers.  We can also make a point of not leaving pet food outside overnight.  If we adopt these and other simple measures, we will be helping ensure coyotes will not make our yards part of their feeding territories.

MYSTERIOUS WILD BIRD DISEASE SEEMS TO HAVE VANISHED

       Last May a mysterious illness that affected songbirds suddenly appeared in the eastern states.  By the time the illness finally abated, it had killed thousands of birds in the District of Columbia, Delaware, New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia.  This prompted state wildlife agencies and conservation groups, to urge the public to cease providing wild birds with water or food.  Then, for some unknown reason, the songbird illness suddenly disappeared this past July.

       The birds affected by the outbreak displayed the same symptoms: swollen, crusty eyes, paralysis, are tremors.  

       The birds that were most affected were young common grackles, blue jays and European starlings.  However, the roster of birds that showed symptoms of the disease included Carolina wrens and chickadees, red-bellied woodpeckers, eastern bluebirds, American robins, house finches, northern cardinals, and house sparrows.

       The outbreak prompted the Cornell Wildlife Health Lab and the National Wildlife Health Lab, as well as wildlife disease labs across the country, to try to diagnose the cause of the illness.  Their efforts methodically ruled out all of the known wildlife illnesses.  This left them at a loss to explain what was causing the problem.

       However, the scientists found the sudden appearance and decline of the disease closely mirrored the Brood X cicada emergence. This leads many of the scientists to theorize that mysterious bird illness that plagued birds across a vast swath of the east this past summer is linked to the cicadas.  According to this theory birds may have been affected the cicadas in a number of ways.  For example, they could have eaten cicadas poisoned by homeowners trying to eliminate the insects from their yards.  Some birds may have also become sick from eating the cicadas themselves.  It is also possible that a toxin produced by a fungus commonly found on cicadas could have poisoned the birds.

       While this theory seems plausible, more research is needed before wildlife disease experts will definitively say this was indeed the cause of the problem.

       In the meantime, many states have lifted bird-feeding restrictions implemented during the outbreak.  However, they are urging that homeowners keep their bird feeding areas and feeders clean.  While we were fortunate that the mysterious songbird illness did not crop up in Georgia, we should all strive to keep our bird feeders and the ground around them clean.

BACKYARD SECRET–A CHEMICAL IN AMERICAN BEAUTYBERRY CAN HELP REPEL MOSQUITOES

       American beautyberry is a native shrub that is gaining popularity among Georgia backyard wildlife enthusiasts.  Sometimes called French mulberry, clusters of round magenta berries festoon the plant from late summer into winter.  The berries are not only beautiful, but also serve as food for hungry gray catbirds, northern mockingbirds, cardinals as well as other birds and mammals.

       Now it seems we have another reason to admire American beautyberry.  Researchers with the United States Department of Agriculture have discovered that the beautyberry’s leaves contain a chemical that repels mosquitoes.

American Beautyberries

       This remarkable finding is due to a conversation Charles Bryson, a botanist that works for the Southern Weed Science Program in Stoneville, had with researchers with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Products Utilization Unit at Oxford, Mississippi.  Bryson told the researchers that his grandfather, John Rives Crumpton, related to him that back in the day farmers in Northeast Mississippi were able to keep worrisome biting insects away from mules and horses by placing crushed beautyberry leaves beneath the leather harnesses of their animals.  This led folks to crumple beautyberry leaves and rub them on their own skin.

       This fascinating story led chemists to attempt to isolate the chemical that seemingly had the remarkable ability to repel pesky insects.  One of the chemicals they were able to isolate was callicarpenal.  When the efficaciousness of the chemical was tested, it was found to be just as effective in repelling mosquitoes as the popular repellent DEET.

       Indeed the American beautyberry is more than an attractive native food plant.

MANAGING PLANTS FOR WILDLIFE IS LAGGING BEHIND

       Once every five years the United States Fish and Wildlife Service surveys the participation of American’s in hunting, fishing, and other wildlife-related activities.  The latest report (2018) documents the findings from the 2016 survey.  Although the report revealed that, from 2011-2016, wildlife watching increased 20% (71.8-86.0 million individuals); Americans have not fully embraced the value of managing plants for wildlife in their yards. 

       The survey revealed that that around-the-home participants 16 years and older jumped to 81.1 million.  They accounted for 94% of all of the Americans that watched wildlife.  The most popular activity of these 59.1 million folks was feeding birds and other wildlife; they represented 73% of all around-the-home participants.  Thirty-eight percent said they photographed wildlife.  Those that fed other wildlife accounted for 18% of around-the-home participants.  However, only 10% maintained plants for wildlife in their yards.  In addition, just 9% maintained and managed natural areas for the benefit of their wildlife neighbors.

       It is exciting that interest in wildlife watching is on the rise.  However, it is concerning that we wildlife watchers are, largely focusing our attention on simply feeding the wildlife that we enjoy living just outside our backdoors.  Meanwhile, we are losing thousands of acres of wildlife habitat each year.  Unless we enhance the wildlife habitat that remains, the time may come when many of the wild animals that provide us with so much enjoyment will become rare or simply disappear.

       One way to ensure this does not happen is to restore and create wildlife habitats in our yards.  There are so many ways that we can provide backyard wildlife with suitable places to live, the task seems impossible.  One of the best ways to tackle this daunting task is to begin by selecting a species or species that you are most fond of and direct your efforts at addressing their needs.  Then begin by setting just a few goals to accomplish.  For example, if you are interested in butterflies, incorporate a few host plants into your landscape.  If you are fond of birds, plant one or more seed, fruit or berry-producing plants.   Only after you have made these changes, make the decision as to whether you are going to try to accomplish anything else this year.

       Whatever you do, make planting native plants a priority.  These plants are often best suited to survive in your neck of the woods and require less care.  In addition, the food they often produce more food and support far more insects than ornamentals.

       When you start looking for lists of these plants, as other habitat enhancement tips, begin by checking out the Archive section of this blog.  It contains a treasure trove of often hard to find information relating to backyard wildlife.

       We can all be better stewards of our yards.  With that in mind, can you imagine how much our backyard wildlife neighbors would benefit if each one of us made a conscientious effort to enhance our property for them this year?  With that in mind, I hope you will make a New Year’s resolution to enrich your home landscape for wildlife.  I know I plan to do just that.