Archive | February 2022
DOWNY WOODPECKER AVOIDS BEING EATEN
There are many avian predators that would like nothing better than make a meal out of a downy woodpecker. The roster of birds that are constantly on the lookout for birds such as the downy includes the sharp-shinned hawk, American kestrel, and Coopers hawk. Since the downy cannot fly as fast as these feathered hunters, it often employs other means to avoid being caught and eaten. Recently, I observed a downy woodpecker escape the sharp talons of one of these skilled aerial hunters.
Late one afternoon while I was working in my office, I paused to look the out the office window overlooking a nearby bird feeding area. Cardinals, titmice, American goldfinches, house finches as well as an occasional Carolina chickadee were visiting a sunflower seed feeder. Surprisingly the suet feeders were not hosting any feathered diners. However, I did spot a downy woodpecker clinging to the shepherd’s hook holding up two of the feeders. Since downy woodpeckers often land on the pole and seemingly shimmy up to the suet feeder, I thought this bird would do the same.
However, all of a sudden the birds suddenly took flight and vanished, except for the downy; which remained motionless. I continued to watch the bird for a few minutes before returning to my work. However, as you might imagine it was difficult for me to focus on my writing. Consequently, I opted instead to frequently check on the downy. To my surprise, every time I took a peek at the bird it was in the same place. In fact, it never once even moved its head. In the meantime, the birds that suddenly departed did not return.
Finally some 20 minutes later I decided it was time to return to the house. When I opened my office door the bird still did move. It finally flew when I walked down the office steps and started making my way back to the house.
I suspect what happened was that a hawk approached the birds dining in my bird feeding area. All of them, with the exception of the downy, decided the best way to avoid being attacked was to flee as quickly as possible. The downy, on the other hand, employed a totally different method to avoid being caught – it remained motionless. As fool hardy as this may seem, in many cases, by remaining motionless when danger approaches prey animals become invisible to predators. This explanation makes sense to me since, in the face of approaching danger, one of the downy woodpecker’s defenses is to flatten themselves against the bark of a tree.
Since I never saw or heard a hawk, I will never know for sure that is what happened. One thing I do know is I will never forget this experience and hope I will witness this behavior again.
IT IS TIME TO REMOVE VINES AND TALL PLANTS GROWING NEAR NESTING BOXES
Before we know it, spring will be here, and birds will be nesting in the nesting boxes we have erected for them. Among the chores we all need to tackle in preparation for this year’s nesting season is trim back the vines, saplings and shrubs growing close to each of our nesting boxes.
One of the main reasons why this should be done is it helps protect the birds nesting in our boxes from arboreal snakes (those that climb trees). Snakes such as the rat snake are capable raiding nesting boxes erected on poles. For that reason, it is always best to mount nesting boxes on poles equipped with predator guards. However, even the best predator guards cannot protect a nest if vines encircle the pole or tall vegetation is growing nearby. Such plants create a veritable superhighway for snakes trying to raid a nesting box. Even if vegetation is not actually touching a box or pole, a snake can circumvent a predator guard and gain access to adults, eggs and/or young birds by simply climbing up nearby vegetation and then extending their body the distance between their head and the box.
For this reason, we need to make every effort to cut back tall vegetation in a wide circle around each nest. While we are creating this protection zone, any branches growing close to the top of the box should also be trimmed away. Snakes are also capable of using a canopy of branches to gain access to a nesting box.
Taking a little time to perform this simple task can give the birds nesting in our boxes a better chance of being successful.
A NOVEL WAY TO KEEP FIRE ANTS OUT OF NEST BOXES
Here in Georgia fire ants can threaten birds that nest in nesting boxes. These pesky ants will enter nesting boxes and actually kill hatchlings.
Several decades ago Jackson, Mississippi resident R.B. Layton came up with a novel way to keep these dreaded imported insects from reaching his nesting boxes. Layton soaked either wood thread spools or sweetgum balls with the oil additive STP and placed them between the boxes and the poles that held them aloft. Supposedly, this formed a barrier over which the ants would not pass.
If you decide to try this technique, since thread now comes on plastic spools, you will have to find them at a craft store. They are available in a variety of sizes. I would imagine that you need to buy spools that are unpainted; an unpainted spool would probably retain more STP than those that are painted. As for sweetgum balls, they can be located beneath sweetgum trees across the state.
Since I have never had a problem with fire ants entering my nest boxes, I have never tested this technique. However, if you try it, I would love to know if it worked for you.
A PAIR OF BLUEBIRDS HAVE REMINDED ME THAT SPRING IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER
For the last week, I have been seeking reminders that spring is just around the corner. Fortunately, my quest has not been in vain. A pair of bluebirds provided one such reminder.
Several times during the past few weeks when I have walked outside to greet the morning, I have heard the soft sounds uttered by a pair of eastern bluebirds. I know that you have probably heard bluebirds make similar sounds. A male and female were obviously communicating with one another using soft trills lasting several seconds. I have heard it a number of times and always found them both beautiful and soothing.
The birds’ notes directed my gaze at the lower limbs of a nearby oak tree. In each instance, the birds acted out the same performance. I would spot a male and female bluebird perched several feet from one another. The birds would continue to “talk” to one another for quite some time. Then, when it seemed they decided I did not pose a threat, they would fly to a nearby bluebird-nesting log. When one of the birds entered the log, the other would sit on the rim of the top of the potential nesting site. One would enter the log, stay a short while, and then leave; its mate would then repeat the procedure.
Although bluebirds are known to inspect potential nesting sites earlier in the winter, their activity on these February mornings reminded me that March is just a couple of weeks away. That means winter will soon relinquish it icy grip on the land and before the end of March hosts of bluebirds will be actively nesting throughout much of Georgia.
As such, after witnessing the bluebirds’ ritual, I realized that now is a great time to clean out, repair my existing boxes, and perhaps add another to my yard. Who knows? Perhaps the pair that has been inspecting this particular nesting log will decide to nest there this year. I hope so.
If a pair of bluebirds have already subtly reminded you that spring is lurking nearby is a similar manner, you should take the hint and get ready for the new nesting season, If you have not had to pleasure to witness such an event, don’t wait for a pair of bluebirds to remind you of this need, go ahead and make preparations for the nesting season—it will be time well spent.
BACKYARD SECRET—THE MINK WILL CLIMB TREES AND RAID BIRD NESTS
If you made of list of animals that might potentially raid the bird nests in your yard, your list would more than likely include the names of critters such as various birds, raccoons, cats, squirrels, rat snakes and opossums. I would be surprised if your list included the mink. However, the truth of the matter is the mink can climb trees and raid bird nests.
The mink eats a wide variety of animals including crabs, crayfish, fish, salamanders, frogs, rabbits, voles, mice, rats, muskrats, snakes, ducks, insects, squirrels, and even young turtles.
Being an opportunistic predator, it is easy to believe it also dines on the eggs and hatchlings of ground-nesting birds. However, they will also not pass up a chance to eat the eggs and young found nests placed in trees.
They are able to take advantage of this source of food because they are skilled climbers. Mink can climb high into a tree, scramble from limb to limb, and then retreat down a tree headfirst.
The good news is most homeowners should not worry that a hungry mink will climb a tree in their yards searching for food. This is especially true if you do not live close to the mink’s preferred habitat. However, if your home is located near a creek, river, marsh, beaver swamp, or pond surrounded by thick habitat there is always an outside chance a mink will make a hunting foray into your backyard.
JOIN THE GREAT BACKYARD BIRD COUNT
If you are looking for a birding activity that is fun, can involve the entire family, takes as little as 15 minutes of your time, helps bird conservation efforts, and is free, the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) may be just what the doctor ordered. The 2022 GBBC will take place February 18-21.
The GBBC was launched in 1998 in an effort to determine the status of wintering bird populations across the United States. In 2009, the survey area was expanded in include Canada. Then in 2013, the survey went global.
This bird survey depends on the voluntary participation of folks living around the globe. Without their efforts, the survey could not succeed. I am sure that the success of the organizations that sponsor the event (The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, National Audubon Society, and Birds Canada) must be astounded to see how the public has embraced this project. Look at these figures: in 2021, approximately 300,000 men and women living in 190 countries submitted sightings of 6,436 species of birds
If you have never taken part in a GBBC, why not do so this year? To participate, all you have to do is select an area you would like to survey. Although the count’s name suggests each survey must take place in a backyard, you can actually count birds wherever you like. For example, if you are a teacher, you and your class might survey the school grounds. Others tally the birds they see in their neighborhoods, in city and state parks, national wildlife refuges, or state wildlife management areas. Others prefer to conduct their counts while leisurely walking along the ocean.
After you have made your selection(s), all you have to do is count all of the birds you can identify within your count area for a minimum of 15 minutes. You can do this once or each of the four days of the count period. You can also conduct multiple counts at several locations. I know folks that routinely survey six to eight areas each day throughout the 4-day count period. Once you have completed a count you then enter the data online. It is a simple as that.
If you think this might be something you would like to try, visit the GBBC website (birdcount.org). Here you will find a wealth of information concerning the count, and instructions on how to register as a member of the 2022 count team. The site also tells you where you can download a checklist of the birds you are most likely to encounter, as well as directions on how you can follow worldwide participation in the count in real time.
Last year 6,922 checklists were received from Georgia. These checklists were enough to earn Georgia 13th place among the 50 states. The only Southeastern states that ranked higher is participation were Florida (5th) with 12,892 lists, and North Carolina. In the Tar Heel State, a total of 10,335 checklists earned Georgia’s neighbor to the north 8th place.
If you take part in the count for the first time this year, chances are you will look forward to the GBBC for years to come.
BACKYARD SECRET—THE BLUE JAY’S DIET CONTAINS MORE CALCIUM THAN OTHER BIRDS
Some time ago, I wrote a Backyard Secret regarding the blue jay’s unusual habit of eating paint chips. At the time, I reported that the bird’s need for calcium might be the reason that blue jays will literally chip bits of paint off buildings and eat them.
Research conducted by Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology found that blue jays consumed more than double the amount of calcium eaten by any of the other species studied. Consequently, these findings offer credence to the theory the birds are obtaining needed calcium from the chips.
It is interesting to note that folks living in the Northeast have reported this habit more often. Here acid rain has had a deleterious impact on the region’s soils. It seems acid rain has been depleting naturally occurring calcium in the soil.
One way in which some people living in this part of the country cope with the problem is to offer feeder birds chicken eggshells. In order to thwart the spread of disease, the shells either heated in an oven or boiled before offering them to the birds.