Archives

BACKYARD SUET PREFERENCE TEST

        Surveys have shown that some 54 percent of those folks that feed birds feed suet.  Consequently, it is obvious that we are spending a lot of money on this greasy treat.  With that in mind, this past summer, I decided to conduct an informal test to see which of two flavors the birds in my backyard preferred.

       During the study, the birds that most often visited my suet feeders were hairy and downy woodpeckers, brown thrashers, mockingbirds, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees, brown-headed nuthatches, house finches, and northern cardinals.

       I compared peanut butter flavored suet to one labelled as  berry-flavored.  I placed the suet cakes in wire suet feeders hung on a single Shepherd’s hook.  Initially I planned to conduct the test over several months.  However, after several weeks I ended the test after it became obvious that peanut butter suet was overwhelming preferred to berry-flavored suet.  Remarkably, I fed a total of 17 peanut butter-flavored suet cakes before the cake of berry-flavored suet was finally eaten.  Since then, I have purchased only peanut-butter flavored suet.

       It would be interesting to know if results would have been different if I ran the same test at other times of the year.

       However, before I expand by informal survey efforts, I am going to be feeding my backyard bird neighbors peanut butter-flavored suet.

WHERE ARE THE FEEDER BIRDS?

       These days one of the main questions being raised by folks that feed birds in their backyards is, “Where are the birds?” We all know that late fall into winter is a great time to feed our feathered neighbors.  However, many of us are currently seeing few winter migrants at our feeders.

       In my case, those only migrants I have seen are one white-throated sparrow, two dark-eyed juncos, and a handful of yellow-rumped warblers.  Other bird enthusiasts have told me similar stories.  They also go on to say, the same thing has been going on for a number of years.

       There are undoubtedly many reasons why we are seeing fewer birds during the late fall and winter than we once did.  For example, weather has a great influence on the timing of the fall migration.  The milder the weather to the north of Georgia, the later migrants seems to arrive in the Peach State. However, there is more to it than that.

       In addition, since seeds produced by wild plants are more abundant now than at any time of the year, many birds prefer to dine on them while they last.   

       There is also a much more significant reason behind what we are seeing.  A study conducted by the National Audubon Society has found that the winter ranges of many birds have dramatically changed.  When the researchers compared data collected on Christmas Bird Counts for the past 90 years, they discovered that the winter ranges of scores of birds have changed in an apparent response to global warming-related changes such as both temperature and precipitation.

       These conclusions are based on an analysis of data concerning 89 different species of birds that were collected in

119 different count circles.  The biologist found birds are wintering further north than ever before. The same is true for woodpeckers, as well as passerines, and others. This trend appears consistent for species that live in forests, grasslands, mixed habitats, shrublands, and other habitat types.

       In other words, if this trend holds true, many of our favorite winter feathered guests will winter far north of Georgia. I suspect we will still see some northern migrants. For example, I was delighted that two dark-eyed juncos are currently feeding in my backyard.  While they were once a common sight around my Middle Georgia home, the birds that arrived this year are the first I have seen in my yard in a number of years. 

Another species that has been affected by these changes is the evening grosbeak.  I have not seen an evening grosbeak in my yard for decades.  However, at one time each winner I banded many of these showy, noisy birds in my backyard.

       I have heard many say that change is good.  However, I think you will agree that this is a change that is definitely far from good.   

YOU WILL NOT BELIEVE HOW MUCH A CHIPPING SPARROW MUST EAT TO SURVIVE THE WINTER

       The feeding activity around my bird feeders has picked up over the past few weeks. One of the birds that is becoming more common with each passing week is the chipping sparrow.  Although it is small, weighing only 0.43 ounces, it has a hefty appetite.

       Ornithologists have found that a chipping sparrow must eat some two pounds of seeds to survive the winter.  In other words, a winter flock of 24 chipping sparrows will consume 48 pounds of seed before spring arrives.

       What is even more amazing is that much of their diet consists of tiny seeds.  Most folks offer chipping sparrows and other birds mixed seed.  Such mixes often include canary seed, white millet, and rape. I prefer to offer these petite winter residents white millet. 

       While I am certain that the chipping sparrows that visit my white millet feeders do not rely exclusively on food I offer them, I am glad my seed offerings are helping ensure I these birds will be visiting my yard for years to come.

CHIPPING SPARROW

CEDAR WAXWINGS HAVE ARRIVED IN OUR BACKYARD

       For the past few weeks, winter visitors have been arriving in our Middle Georgia backyard.  Yesterday cedar waxwings made their first appearance.

       While my wife and I were checking out the plants growing in containers on our deck, I activated my Merlin Bird Identification App.  In in matter of seconds, the app detected the call notes of a cedar waxwing.  Once the bird’s name appeared, I looked for the bird(s) in the trees and shrubs growing nearby.   When I did not see one, I decided that Merlin had made a mistake.

       Seconds later, I was proven wrong when a flock of a couple of dozen cedar waxwings swooshed in from the northwest and landed in the top of a tall red cedar tree.  As the birds flew from limb to limb searching for the tree’s small berries, a slightly smaller flock joined them.  We watched the birds disappearing in and out of the cedar’s thick canopy, for a few minutes, when without warning the cedar waxwings took to the air and flew over the house.

       Although cedar waxwings visit our yard each winter, we do not consider them a feeder bird simply because they have never visited our feeders.  Here they feed exclusively on red cedar and mistletoe berries. 

       However, data collected through Project FeederWatch indicate they will dine on dried fruits. One of their favorite dried fruits is raisins. There are reports that cedar waxwings can devour a half a pint of raisins in a matter of minutes.  The birds will also eat halved and chopped apples and other fruits.

 

       Although these gregarious birds do not feast at our feeders, they do visit our birdbaths to both drink and bathe.

       If cedar waxwings do not visit your backyard, it could be due to the fact you are not offering them anything to eat or a place to bathe.  With that in mind, consider planting a red cedar and/or other native trees and shrubs that retains their fruit throughout the winter in your area of the state.

       In addition, keep your birdbath full of clean water throughout the winter.  This will benefit cedar waxwings and your other backyard winter guests.

A HANDFUL OF NECTAR PLANTS LINGER ON

       As I write this column, we are well into the second week of November.  Nowadays when my wife and I walk outside and scan our gardens, it is obvious that most of the wild and ornamental nectar plants that fed untold numbers of wild pollinators this fall are no longer blooming.  Yet, in spite of this, a variety of insects is still hard at work collecting nectar and/or pollen.  Fortunately, for them, they can still find food in some plants that my wife and I have grown in containers on our deck.  These plants are now the primary source of food for a wide variety of pollinators.

       Although some of the plants we grew on our deck have been nipped by a frost a couple of weeks ago, four species of plants are still blooming and attracting most the of butterflies, carpenter bees, bumblebees and other pollinators we are now seeing.

       Globe amaranth has been blooming since last summer.  Currently their blooms seem to be favored by checkered skippers, fiery skippers, whirlabouts, dun skippers, common buckeyes, and fiery skippers.  Occasionally a cloudless sulphur or gulf fritillary we land on the plants’ colorful globe-shaped blooms.  Bumblebees also visit the plants.

       A single Mexican sunflower is still producing blooms that are being visited by bees and butterflies.  It survived the frost because it was growing close to the house.

       With each passing day, our scarlet sage plants are  producing fewer new blossoms.  Nevertheless, there are still enough red blossoms to attract their share of the cloudless sulphurs, sleepy oranges, and gulf fritillaries pollinators that are still hanging on in our yard. 

       However, beyond a shadow of a doubt, pineapple sage is the star of the show.  Our pineapple sage plants are still blooming in profusion.  A day ago, I saw seven cloudless sulfurs and a couple of gulf fritillaries nectaring at the same time at a blossoms produced by scarlet sage plants growing in a single large container.  Bumblebees and a few carpenter bees are still feeding on the blossoms  too.

       We hope our plants continue to bloom for some time to come. However, we know eventually we will be left with lots of fond memories of the beauty and pollinators the plants have brought us this year.

       After they cease blooming, we plan on leaving the plants in place, as we know the seeds they have produced will be eaten by cardinals, American goldfinches, house finches and others well into the winter.

       We are already making plans for next year.  We want to continue expanding the number and variety of autumn bloomers.

If we are successful, I am certain our backyard pollinators and birds will benefit from our efforts.

 

NOTE:  If you would like more information regarding pineapple sage, go to the SEARCH feature on the blog and type in, Pineapple Sage Is Great For Late Season Pollinators And More. When you hit the return key, this archived blog will appear on your screen.

RED-HEADED WOODPECKERS HOARD INSECTS

       I find the behavior known as hoarding fascinating.  Hoarding simply refers to an animal storing food for future use.  Fall is a great time to watch hoarding.   Over the years, I have enjoyed seeing blue jays, chipmunks, gray squirrels and red-bellied woodpeckers store caches of food in my yard.  However, I have never been lucky enough to see a red-headed woodpecker hoard food.  One of the main reasons I would like observe this behavior is that it hoards insects.

       Like the other hoarders that hoard feed throughout my yard, red-headed woodpeckers store a wide variety of nuts and other seeds.  They are, however, especially fond of beechnuts and acorns.  The birds stash these bits of food away in traditional places such as under the bark of trees, cracks in railroad ties, wooden fence posts, and dead trees.  However, on occasion, they will even slip food beneath the shingles on barns and houses.  One of their favorite places to hide food in the cracks found on the flat surfaces of tree stumps.  Interestingly, it is our only woodpecker that covers stored seeds with bits of bark or wood.

      However, what I find most interesting is the fact that they will store both live and dead insects.  They are especially fond caching grasshoppers and crickets.  Often live insects are crammed into holes and cracks so tight that it is impossible for them to escape.  I find that truly remarkable.

       Perhaps this will be the year that I will witness the seemingly unbelievable hoarding habits of this intriguing bird.

       In the meantime, if you have been lucky to witness red-headed woodpeckers hoarding food in your backyard, I would like to hear about it.

BACKYARD SECRET—BIRDS CAN SLEEP WITH ONLY ONE EYE CLOSED

       Sleep is just as important to birds as it is to us. However, a bird’s sleep is far different from that we experience.  One way that it differs is birds can actually sleep with one of their eyes open. 

       A bird is capable of performing this unbelievable fete because half of its brain is fully asleep while the other half is only partially asleep.  In other words, the side of the brain with the open eye is only partially asleep.  This enables a sleeping bird to detect the approach of a potential predator.

       I find that truly amazing!

IS THIS FINCH SLEEPING?

BACKYARD SECRET—WHEN IS IT TIME TO REMOVE DEAD ZINNIA PLANTS?

        By this time of the year the zinnias in my gardens have, in large part ceased blooming.  While there are scattered colorful blossoms here and there, most of my once beautiful flowers and plants have been nipped by an early frost. All that remains of the zinnias are brown stalks and the withered remains of the flowers they once displayed to hungry pollinators.

       When each of us is faced with this situation, we must decide if we should go ahead and cut or otherwise remove the drab remains of these garden favorites.  Many gardeners immediately remove the dead plants in an attempt to beautify their garden.  However, I am one of those backyard gardeners that leave the plants standing.

       This is done because I realize that a number of birds dine on zinnia seeds.  Here is a list of some of the birds that eat the seeds of dead zinnias:  American goldfinch, chipping sparrow, house finch, purple finch, cardinals and pine siskins.

       I keep an eye on this unorthodox food source and remove the dead plants only after the birds have extracted all of the seeds they harbor.  When this occurs varies from year to year.

DEAD ZINNIA SEED HEADS

   With that in mind, I hope you will refrain from rushing out and removing your zinnia plants as soon as they are killed by cold weather.  If you leave them, you just may catch a glimpse of a bird feeding on the seeds located in the withered remains of the past summer’s zinnia blossoms.  If you do, you might find the dead zinnias not as unattractive after all.

GEORGIA MINT MAKES A MAGICAL CHANGE

       I am sure you are familiar with the fairy tale that tells the story of how an ugly duckling magically turned into a beautiful swan. While my wife and I don’t have any swans swimming around the Johnson Homestead, each year we witness the similar transformation of a native plant known as Georgia mint from what many would call a nondescript weed into a beautiful wild flower.   Let me explain.

       If you visited our yard in early summer, you might wonder why we would find room for what some folks might think is an ugly weed to grow in our yard.  However if you returned anytime from late summer well into October you would discover the reason why we are so fond of it.

       At this time of the year, countless pale lavender-white flowers literally blanket our stand of Georgia mint.  Admittedly these blossoms are small, however, what they lack in size they more than make in delicate beauty.

       In our neck of the woods, the blooming period for Georgia mint extends for weeks.  In fact, the plants are still in full bloom as I write this blog.  In comparison, most of our most valued pollinator plants have either ceased blooming or will soon do so.  As a result, with each passing day bees (particularly small bumblebees), and butterflies are faced with an increasing shortage of flowers.  Fortunately, for them, in our yard, Georgia mint serves as a life preserver.

       Currently, our Georgia mint is in high demand.  Small bumblebees, cloudless sulphurs, sleepy oranges, a wide variety of skippers (e.g. ocolas, fierys, whirlabouts, cloudeds and duns), gulf fritillaries and buckeyes make daily trips to forage on the petite flowers.  Although In past years, monarchs have also joined the assemblage of pollinators, we have not seen any this year.

       Each year, when Georgia mint becomes the most visited pollinator plant in our yard, we are reminded that anyone that has the desire to help bees, butterflies and other pollinators should make the effort to provide a parade of plants that supplies these flying gems food throughout as much of the year as possible.  For us, Georgia mint is one of our most important late season nectar plants.

THE RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD POPULATION IS DECLINING

        According to a recently published report entitled 2022 State of the Birds, the rufous hummingbird population is in decline. The rufous hummingbird has lost half its total population during the past 50 years. In addition, there is a very real chance that it will plummet another 50 percent during the next half century.

       The rufous hummingbird nests primarily in Washington and Oregon, north through Canada’s western provinces all the way to southeastern Alaska.

       The vast majority of rufous hummingbirds’ winter in Mexico, however, for decades many have annually wintered in the Southeast.  In fact, it is the most commonly seen hummingbird during the winter in Georgia.