Archive | September 2022

BACKYARD SECRET— AMERICAN CROWS RARELY LIVE ALONE

        It is no coincidence that we rarely find an American crow living alone.  This reason for this is American crows are social animals. 

       American crows live typically live together in small groups consisting of a breeding pair and their offspring. 

       My wife and I feed crows.  This enables us to watch their behavior.  One thing we have learned that the family of crows that visits our home consists of a male and female and their three young.   As such, when the crows arrive, we always see five birds.

       My daughter also feeds crows.  Until recently, like clockwork four crows show up every day to dine on her food offerings.  One of the birds has a damaged wing.  Apparently, something happened to that bird, as it has not appeared to dine with its family during the past few weeks.

BANDED SPHINX MOTH FOUND

        Moths are among the most unappreciated backyard inhabitants.  Although many are just as beautiful as the most gorgeous butterflies, we rarely see them since many primarily fly at night.  A good example of one of these nocturnal beauties is the banded sphinx (Euromorpha fasciatus).

       Kim Walton (the administrator for this blog) recently found one of these moths lying on the ground in her garage one morning as she was about to leave.   Although the moth was alive, it did not attempt to fly away.

       The banded sphinx is a large moth (3.4 inches).  It lays its eggs on a number of host plants including water primrose, grape, and Virginia creeper. 

       It is a nocturnal feeder.  While we are asleep, it is flying about nectaring at a variety of plants.

       Since the banded sphinx ranges across the entire state, if you keep your eyes peeled, you might find one of these strikingly beautiful moths in your yard too.

BEST TIME TO CLEAN BARN OWL BOXES

         If you erect and maintain nesting boxes for birds in your yard, you realize the need to annually repair and clean them during a time when birds are not nesting.  This is easy to do because the nesting dates of most birds that nest in our backyards are well known.  However, if you have a barn owl nest box on your property, you have a problem.  It seems that biologists know surprisingly little about when barn owls nest in Georgia.  

       Such is not the case in California.  Researchers at the University of California, Davis combed through almost 100 years of banding and other records to determine when barn owls nest in California.

       The biologists found that the median egg laying date in California is February 20.  Consequently, the lead author of the study Ryan Bourbour says, “We want to reduce disturbances to breeding pairs prior to egg laying.”  Based on the findings the researchers recommend boxes need to be erected, repaired, and cleaned in the fall.

       Unfortunately, the only nesting records for Peach State barn owls are largely anecdotal.  Only a dozen barn owl breeding records surfaced during The Breeding Bird Atlas of Georgia Project.  Although most records came from central Georgia, breeding was corroborated from the mountains to the coast. Undoubtedly, barn owl nesting is more common and widespread in all parts of the state.

       In Thomas Burleigh’s book Georgia Birds, the author noted that nests have been located from March to December.  However, biologists do not have enough data to develop a median egg laying date for Georgia.

      Since we know there is a need to provide more nesting sites for barn owls in Georgia, we all need to check our barn owl boxes during each season of the year.  When we conduct a check, if no nesting is currently going on, we need to repair and clean it.  If nesting has or is taking place since the last check, record it too.  Over time, we should be able to determine when nesting takes occurs in our part of the state.

       If you don’t have any barn owl nesting boxes on your property, consider erecting one.  Once you have one in place, follow the procedure outlined above.

       It would be great if landowners knew when it is the best time to conduct an annual barn owl nest box check.

       Let me know what you find.  I will forward your information on to the Wildlife Conservation Section biologists trying to restore nongame wildlife throughout Georgia.  Hopefully, your information will enable them to establish a median egg laying date for Georgia and recommend the best time to check barn owl nesting boxes.

BACKYARD SECRET – AN ASTOUNDING NUMBER OF BIRDS DIE FROM STRIKING WINDOWS EACH YEAR

     Researchers have found that up to 74 percent of the birds that fly into windows die.  In the United States, this translates into as many as a billion birds.

     Although this type of mortality takes place throughout the year, many of these mortalities occur during the birds’ spring and migrations.

     The list of birds killed includes thrushes, warblers, juncos, raptors, sparrows, tanagers, grosbeaks, hummingbirds, and scores of others.

MILKWEED PLANTS ARE OFTEN CONTAMINATED

       When it became abundantly clear, the monarch population was in decline private citizens, government agencies, and conservation groups launched an international effort to save this spectacularly beautiful butterfly.  One of the problems facing the monarch is a lack of the milkweed.  The milkweed is the monarch’s only known host.  For quite some time, thousands of us have been trying to remedy this problem by planting native milkweeds in our yards.  In response to the high demand for milkweeds, commercial nurseries expanded the propagation and marketing of these important caterpillar plants.  However, a recent study conducted by the Xerces Society and the University of Nevada found many of these plants are contaminated with chemicals that are potentially harmful to monarchs.

       The researchers tested the foliage of 235 milkweed plants sold at 33 nurseries scattered across the United States.  The researchers were trying to determine if any of these plants harbored chemicals that might be harmful to monarch caterpillars.

The study revealed the plants were contaminated with 61 different pesticides.  As many as 28 different pesticides were found in or on individual plants.  Another startling discovery was an average of 12.2 pesticides was found per plant.

 

       Ironically, plants advertised as “wildlife friendly” were not contaminated with fewer pesticides. Instead, many actually harbored more of the deadly chemicals than those not so labelled.  In fact, with respect to one pesticide, milkweed plants that were supposedly sold as being wildlife friendly had a greater chance of being contaminated with a dose of it that exceeded the known sub-lethal concentration.

       Matt Forister, a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno expressed his feelings regarding these alarming findings this manner, “In many ways, they are as contaminated or worse than plants growing on the edges of agricultural fields.  That was quite a surprise to me.”

       To date, the potential impacts of only 9 of the 61 chemicals on the monarch are known.  However, the scientists pointed out that 38 percent of the samples contained high enough concentrations of the chemicals that could affect the monarch’s ability to eat and migrate.

       Where does that leave those of us that purchase these plants?  The researchers recommend that we encourage the nurseries where we buy milkweed plants to sell only pesticide free plants.

       In addition, Aimee Code, Pesticide Program Director at the Xerces Society went on to say, “It’s important to keep gardening for pollinators for the long term.  Just take steps to reduce pesticide exposure: cover new plants the first year, water heavily, discard the soil before planting, as it may be contaminated, and avoid pesticide use.”

MOCKINGBIRDS ARE DINING ON POKEBERRIES

               I try to keep abreast of what the wildlife eats throughout the year.  This exercise has allowed me to watch how the food habits of a number of my backyard residents change throughout the year.  Recently I was reminded of this fact as I watched a northern mockingbird dine on pokeberries.

              Throughout the spring and much of the summer mockingbirds I watched them dining on suet, insects, blackberries, and other delicacies.   Then seemingly, overnight birds seemed to abandon the places where they had been feeding.  Last week they reappeared at pokeweeds that have colonized my property.  The birds were dining on the plants’ juicy, purplish-black berries.  While I have only seen mockingbirds eating the berries so far this summer, I suspect they have to share them with other backyard residents such as brown thrashers, eastern bluebirds, cardinals and even red-bellied woodpeckers.

              The first time I witnessed a mockingbird eating pokeberries a couple of weeks ago the bird was having a difficult time plucking them from a cluster of fruit dangling from a droopy branch.  Since it was seemingly impossible for the bird to perch on the flimsy branch and dine of the berries at the same time, it was forced to attempt to hover close to the berries.  It immediately became obvious that the mockingbird’s ability to hover will never be favorably compared with that of a hummingbird. In spite of this, after several tries grab the berries, the cluster of berries eventually disappeared into the mouth of the determined bird.

              If you find pokeberry plants sprouting in an out-of-the-way spot in your yard, let them grow.  If you do, you will be rewarded with an attractive plant, and a great source of food for birds and other wildlife.  In addition, you will be offered with some great wildlife viewing opportunities and the chance to learn more about the feeding habits of wildlife without having to leave your home.

SNAKE CATCHES HUMMINGBIRD AT FEEDER

         Ruby-throated hummingbirds face a host of perils. One of these is being caught by a snake.  Over the years, hummingbird fanciers have sent me pictures of snakes coiled around feeders seemingly patiently waiting to pluck an unsuspecting hummingbird out of the air as it flies in to catch a quick meal. Since this unsettling scene is rarely reported, I suspect it does not happen very often.  In our case, during the decades my wife and I have been feeding hummingbirds we had never seen it until this past week.  Not only did I find a rat snake hanging onto one of our feeders, it was also clutching a hapless hummingbird in its gaping mouth.  None of the photos I have received in the past ever captured this.

        All of this changed when I stepped out on to on our deck on a quiet late summer morning less than a week ago and spotted what appeared to be a dark lump on the far side of one of our hummingbird feeders. I immediately stopped and tried to figure out what I was looking at.  When I advanced closer to the feeder, I could see that the unknown object was a young rat snake.  It was so small (three feet long) that it did not have to wrap itself around the feeder.

       Once I realized what I was looking at, I turned around and went back into the house to tell my wife to grab her camera and hurry outside to see what was taking place.  On the way back outside, I picked up my camera too.

       When we returned, we realized that the best view of the snake was from the yard.  When we found just the right spot to record the event, we started snapping pictures. All of this time the snake remained motionless.  Finally, the snake moved its head away from the perch that encircled the feeding ports enough for us to realize it was just not waiting for a bird—it had already caught one and was in the process of swallowing it headfirst.  Initially all we could see of the hummingbird was its emerald green back, wings, tail, and legs.

 

 

       As we stood, transfixed, the snake began making swallowing motions that consisted of moving its head forward and opening and closing it mouth.  As it did so, the bird slowly slipped deeper into the snake’s mouth and throat.  Remarkably, in only five to 10 minutes the bird disappeared. 

       I then removed the feeder from the shepherd’s hook on which it was hung, and slowly walked to the far back of our spacious backyard and set the feeder on the ground.  Throughout the whole process, the snake showed no signs of fear. However, when I placed the feeder on the grass the snake slowly slithered off.

       Of course, we are disappointed that we lost a hummingbird to a rat snake. However, we realize that each year an untold number of hummingbirds succumb to predators, being caught in spider webs, accidents, and disease. At the same time, it will not hurt of feelings if we never witness it again.