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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.

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.

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.

BACKYARD SECRET—THE FALL MIGRATION IS LARGER THAN THE SPRING MIGRATION

       Trying to estimate how many birds migrate through North America twice each year seems like an impossible task.  However, Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology has taken on this task.  Using data from 143 weather stations scattered across the contiguous United States the lab has come up with the best estimates to date.

       These data indicate that an average of 4 billion birds fly south out of Canada into the United States each fall.  Some 4.7 billion leave the country heading on to their wintering grounds.

       Far fewer birds return in the spring.  According to Edward W. Rose, a postdoctoral fellow at the Laboratory of Ornithology, “in the spring, 3.5 billion birds cross back into the U.S. from points south, and 2.6 billion birds return to Canada across the northern U.S. border.”

TAKE PART IN THE GREAT GEORGIA POLLINATOR CENSUS

       If you want to engage in an activity designed to help conserve our valuable pollinators, take part in The Great Georgia Pollinator census. This year the census takes place August 19-20, 2022.

       The University of Georgia, Garden Club of Georgia, Inc., and a number of other conservation groups sponsor the count.

       You do not have to be an expert in the identification of the state’s pollinators to take part.  The reason for this is UGA provides participants with a color tally sheet.  The pollinators are divided into eight broad categories ranging from honeybees and butterflies to flies and spiders.  All you have to match the insects you spot with photos on sheet.

       Simply select an area you want to census.  Then count all of the pollinators you see in just 15 minutes.  Once the survey is complete, upload your data and your duties as a citizen scientist are completed.

      Now that is what I call simple.

       If you would like more information concerning all aspects of the count, visit the count’s official website The Great Georgia Pollinator Count – Citizen Science at Work (ggapc.org)

SWEETSHRUB IS A FRAGRANT ADDITION TO YOUR YARD

     I am surprised that more Georgians are not familiar with the sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus).   Since it bears some of the most fragrant blossoms of any of our native woodland shrubs, you would think that most folks would want it growing in their yard.

     The sweetshrub’s blossoms are maroon in color and produce a pleasing aroma that my wife and I are convinced smells like apples. However, some describe the scent as smelling like spicy strawberries.  Others inhale the shrub’s pleasing aroma and say it reminds them of a mixture of pineapples and bananas.

     Regardless of how you interpret the pleasing odor, the vast majority of us love it.  In fact, some people think so highly of it they plant sweetshrubs near their outside doors.  This allows them to lean over and take a whiff of the flowers before heading out for the day.

     The sweetshrub is also a pollinator plant.  Although Sweetshrub blooms generate pollen used by native bees and butterflies, sap beetles are the plant’s main pollinator.  However, since sap beetles are small (1.4-inch) and nondescript we often overlook them.

 

     The way in which these beetles pollinate sweetshrub blossoms in a little strange.  The fragrant flowers draw the beetles with the scent they emit.  Once the beetles land on the blossoms, they crawl down inside the bloom and begin gathering pollen. Here is where this gets odd.  When the beetles are ready to leave, they have a difficult time exiting the flower. As such, they often remain there until the flower matures enough for its petals to fold back enough for them to depart.  Once they are on the wing, they fly off carrying granules of pollen.  When they land on another sweetshrub blossom, they inadvertently pollenate that flower.

     Sweetshrub is easy to grow from seed, transplants, and cuttings.  While there are cultivars on the market, I have never planted any of them. If you want to be sure you are planting sweetshrubs that produce beautiful maroon blooms, a pleasing apple scent, and pollen relished by pollinators; you cannot go wrong buying plants from reputable nurseries that deal in native plants.

BREAKING NEWS – HUMMINGBIRDS DO HAVE A SENSE OF SMELL

        We have long been aware that hummingbirds have great eyesight and hearing.  However, biologists have unable to demonstrate that hummingbirds could smell.  However, recent studies conducted by researchers at the University of California Riverside have revealed for the first time that hummingbirds can smell insects that pose a danger to them while they are visiting flowers bearing nectar.  The findings also suggest that this ability helps them avoid danger while feeding.

       According to Erin Wilson Rankin, associate entomology professor and coauthor author of the paper that was published in   the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, “This is pretty exciting, as it is the first clear demonstration of hummingbirds using their sense of smell alone to make foraging decisions and avoid contact with potentially dangerous insects at a flower or feeder.”

       The experiment was deceptively simple.  They provided more than 100 hummingbirds the option of feeding at two feeders.  One feeder contained sugar water and another filled with sugar water and additives that indicated that an insect was present.  One additive was formic acid which is produced by some Formica ants.  This chemical is known to be harmful to humans and mammals alike. The other was an ant attraction chemical. Another chemical tested was a chemical left behind when a European honeybee visits flowers. 

       The hummingbirds seemed oblivious to the honeybee-generated chemical.  However, the birds avoided food laced with both of the ant-based chemicals.

       Since all of the feeders were identical, the only way that the birds could differentiate between the feeders was through their sense of smell.

       It seems like every few years we learn something new and fascinating about hummingbirds.  As such, it begs the question, “What will researchers discover next about these amazing birds?”

FEEDING NYGER SEED IN SUMMER

       Although nyger seed is fed to birds throughout all seasons, many backyard bird feeding enthusiasts shy away from offering the tiny, black seeds to their feathered dining patrons during the summer. Is there some basis for this concern?  Most definitely, however, here is how and why I do.

       Nyger seeds are typically relished by a small number of the birds that visit our feeders.  American goldfinches and pine siskins are especially fond of them.  Other birds that consume nyger seeds are mourning doves, purple and house finches, dark-eyed juncos and indigo buntings, to name a few.  However, during the summer, in my yard, the vast majority of the nyger seeds are eaten by American goldfinches. 

       That is fine with me, since I would rarely have a chance to regularly enjoy gazing across my yard at splendor of a male goldfinch in full breeding plumage if they did not come to my feeders to feed.  To me, it is worth the money I spend on nyger seed to enjoy this pleasure. As anybody that feeds birds knows, nyger is the most expensive seed we offer in our feeders.

       The reason for this is it is raised overseas.  Most of the 70 million pounds of it that is imported into the United States is raised in India and Ethiopia.  The cost of shipping the seed that far jacks up the price.  On top of that, the United States Department of Agriculture requires that all nyger seed undergo costly heat sterilization.  This is done in attempt to keep potential invasive weeds that might contaminate the nyger seeds from entering the United States.  As a result, we can pay $60 or more for a 20-pound sack of nyger seed.  This is definitely not a seed you want to waste.

       Since nyger seed contains 40 percent fat, it spoils easily. In addition, nyger seeds have very thin coats.  With that in mind, they can spoil in the matter of a few days in the hot summer sun.

       Consequently, during the summer I fill my nyger seed feeders with a small amount of seed. I also store nyger seed in a cool place. If I have room in my freezer, I will often store it there.  

       I also buy small amounts of the seed.  The reason for this is once it becomes rancid the birds shy away from it.

       The bottom line is throughout the summer the birds will dine on nyger seed in your backyard can get along very nicely without it.  If, however, you live within the American goldfinch’s breeding range in Georgia (throughout the state except in the southeastern counties), and you want to enhance your chances of seeing American goldfinches when they are most beautiful, nyger just might help you accomplish that goal.

LOOK FOR WIDOW SKIMMERS PATROLLING YOUR YARD

        Today when I walked on to my deck for the first time,

        I flushed a dragonfly that had perched atop a pole supporting one of the plants growing in a container.  The distinctive color pattern on its wings and body color told me it was a widow skimmer (Lebellula luctuosa).

      The male widow skimmer (called a king) is one of our most recognizable dragonflies.  It is a medium-sized (1.2 – 2 inches long; with a 1-1.5-inch wingspan) dragonfly with wings marked with black and white blotches.  The black blotches extend outwards from its body toward the tips of its wings.  Much narrower white markings are located just beyond the black blotches.  The insect’s body is powder blue.

       In contrast, the wings of the female (called a queen) are marked with a single dark blotch on each wing.

       While this dragonfly is most common along the borders of lakes, and swamps, it also ventures into our backyard.  The widow skimmer is most common in the summer but can also be spotted in the spring and autumn.

       This distinctive dragonfly lives as an adult for just a few weeks.  During this time males establish a territory up to 250 square acres which it vigorously defends again the intrusions of others.

       The widow skimmer habitually uses perches. The black skimmer I spotted today flew off and returned to the same perch several times in a few minutes.

       If are you interested in photographing a widow skimmer, all you have to do is to stand motionless a short distance away from a favorite perch and wait for it to return.  This saves you having to scamper about the yard trying to snap a picture.

       The widow skimmer feeds a wide variety of small soft-bodied invertebrates such as spiders, flying ants, hover flies, and even mosquitoes.   Prey is snatched from the air with its legs.

       If you spot a widow skimmer in your yard, don’t be afraid of it.  Widow skimmers do not attack or bite humans.  Just enjoy its beauty and mastery of the air as it patrols the air space above your lawn and gardens.

 

A SHORT LIST OF PLANTS THAT HELP FEED POLLINATORS IN HOT, DRY CONDITIONS

    For weeks, much of Georgia has been suffering drought conditions.  If that was not enough, this past week, temperatures soared above 100ºF, and heat indexes topped out at 122ºF at my Middle Georgia home. When this occurs, it is extremely difficult for pollinators such as butterflies, bees, wasps, beetles, and others to collect enough nectar to meet their needs.  One of the reasons for this is it is a struggle for nectar plants to stay alive in our backyards and elsewhere. Even if they are successful stay alive, they often either don’t bloom or produce little nectar. Here is a short list of the plants growing in my backyard that have not been phased by this year’s extreme growing conditions and have done the best job of providing the pollinators with nectar.

   Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) – This low-growing, hardy perennial bears clusters of white flowers.  The pollinators that visit this plant are native bees, butterflies and others.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) – My wife and I are fond of this plant because it is easy grow, beautiful, its blooms last a long time, and it is a super source of nectar for a variety of insects.  Although it is often touted as a good butterfly plant, we have noticed, in our yard, it is more often visited by tiny bees, flies, wasps, and other pollinators.

   BUTTERFLY BUSH (Buddleia davidii) – This introduced deciduous shrub a veritable butterfly magnet. This past week I spotted five butterflies on one of our butterfly bushes feeding at the same time.  This was notable because it marked the first time I had spotted that many butterflies feeding together this year.   From spring into the fall, it consistently draws more butterflies than anything else we grow.  The plant feeds butterflies, moths, bumblebees and other pollinators.

   Red-hot Poker (Kniphofia) – This large herbaceous perennial sends up an abundance of large spikes topped with clusters of long tubular flowers.  We find the blooms are more often visited by hummingbirds than bees and other pollinators.

       I hope you will share with me your list of nectar/pollen producing plants that have done well this year.