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YOU MAY NOT HAVE TO LEAVE YOUR YARD TO SEE SPRING MIGRANTS

      I suspect that most folks that enjoy birding would like to make the trek to Texas’ High Island to witness the spring songbird migration.  If you catch conditions just right, in a single day, you can get up close and personal to 30 species of warblers and literally scores of vireos tanagers and other birds.  While this small island is the one of the very best places to see spring migrations, if you have the right habitat, you can see a kaleidoscope of songbirds from March into May pass through your own yard.

       As migratory songbirds move northward, they make a number of stops before they reach their breeding grounds.  These bits of critical habitat are referred to as stopover areas.  Songbirds rest and refuel at these locations.  Backyards offering the birds the proper food, water, and cover can serve as stopover sites.

       The vast majority of migratory songbirds rarely visit feeders stocked with seeds and suet.  However, can you attract them if you offer them the foods that will help fuel their spring migration flights.  By far, the most important foods eaten by spring migrants are insects.  However, the bulk of the insects consumed by the birds are the larvae of moths and butterflies (commonly referred to as caterpillars).

       Most of these caterpillars feed on tree leaves.  Therefore, if one or more of the trees that serve as hosts for moths and butterflies is growing in your yard, the better are your chances of attracting spring migrants.

       When it comes to hosting moths and butterflies not all trees are created equal.  The worst trees are introduced ornamentals.  Some of these trees do not host any moths and butterflies.  Studies have shown ornamentals produce 35 times less caterpillar biomass than native trees.

       Here is a short list of some of the native trees that host the most species of moths and butterflies.  The numbers of species of moths and butterflies that each tree hosts are found in parentheses.  This list was developed by Dr. Doug Tallamy. 

       In Georgia, oaks (557) serve as host plants for more butterflies and moths than any other group of trees.  Other important hosts to lepidopterans are cherries (456), willows (455), birches (411), poplars (367) crabapples (308), maples (297), alders (255), hickories (235), elms (215), pines (201), hawthorns (168), beeches (127), dogwoods (118), and sweetgum (35).

       Should you find that none of these trees are in your yard, if you want to have your yard serve as a spring songbird stopover site, consider planting one or more trees found on this list.  The small investment in time and labor this requires will pay huge dividends for decades to come.

       If you already have one or more of the caterpillar producers growing in your yard, from now into May, periodically scan the tree foliage for migrants.  How long the migrants stay is largely dependent on the amount of food they find.  If your trees don’t harbor many caterpillars, migrants might stay and feed for only a day.  Conversely, if caterpillars are abundant, migrants may linger for three or more days before moving on.

       If you are lucky, one morning you may walk outside and see your trees alive with a dozen or more warblers gleaning insects for your trees’ foliage.  While you might see far more species at High Island, the fact that you spotted these birds in your yard will make the experience extra special.

       

OFFERING HUMMINGBIRDS NESTING MATERIAL

        If you are looking for a gift for hummingbird devotees, a hummingbird nesting kit may be the answer.

       You can purchase kits from several companies or make your own.  Each kit consists of a wire suet feeder and a supply of nesting material.  All of the kits I checked out online contain either raw or processed cotton.  Some even include kapok and lichens.

       Currently hummingbird nesting kits are rarely employed in Georgia.  In fact, I only know one couple that annually offers cotton to ruby-throated hummingbirds .  They have told me that, on several occasions, they have seen female hummingbirds collecting cotton from their wire cages.  They also mentioned hummingbirds have a definite preference for loose cotton over cotton balls.  Perhaps this is because the birds find it more difficult to pull fibers out of a compacted ball.  Who knows?

       I suspect, in most locales, hummingbirds have little problem finding plant down to line their nests.  If that is the case, you might ask yourself,  “Why would anybody want to offer ruby-throated hummingbirds cotton?”  One reason might be having an ample supply of cotton fibers available to line their tiny nests makes the female’s arduous job of constructing a nest a little easier.  However, it may be because hummingbird fans simply want to experience the exhilaration that stems from watching a hummingbird actually use “their” cotton to construct its nest. 

       I know it would make my day!

TOOLS TO EASE CLEANING UP FEEDING AREAS

      Although we know, it is imperative that we keep the ground below bird feeders free from seed hulls, droppings, and wet seeds; we don’t always do something about it.  One reason for this is it is not an easy task, especially when you have to dig out seeds and hulls imbedded in thick grass.  With that in mind, I want to tell you about two tools that I have found really help make completing this necessary task a whole lot easier.

       I use a small garden rake and an industrial long-handled dustpan.  Being only seven inches wide, the rake’s spring steel teeth make it easy for me to rake out the droppings, seeds, and hulls hidden beneath the grass growing beneath my feeders.  I then simply rake them into the long-handled, large capacity dustpan and pour them in a cardboard box of plastic trash bag.

       These two simple tools have eliminated my having to bend over.  In addition, I am able to clean my two bird feeding areas in a fraction of the time I once devoted to this task.

       If you have been putting off cleaning your feeding areas, now is the time to change your ways.  This need is been amplified by the fact regular rainfall and daytime temperatures that have been are soaring into the 70s and low 8os have created perfect conditions for the growth of the bacteria, fungi, and protozoan parasites that cause the majority of the disease outbreaks among our backyard birds.  

       As a result, reports of sick and dying birds at feeders are on the rise.  Using the two tools, I have just mentioned, spending a few minutes cleaning up the area beneath your feeders will help ensure that the birds feeding in your yard will not be the next site of an outbreak of salmonella, aspergillosis, avian pox, conjunctivitis (finch disease), or trichomoniasis.

IT IS ALMOST TIME FOR THE GREAT BACKYARD BIRD COUNT

       Each year during a brief four-day period in February, literally thousands of folks throughout the world take time away from their busy schedules to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC).  During this brief time period were are given the opportunity to serve as citizen scientists dedicated to collecting data that enables biologists better monitor the winter distributions and movements of literally thousands of birds.  This year the count dates are February 12-15, 2021.

       Since the count began in 1998, the GBBC has experienced astounding growth.  These figures demonstrated its size and scope.  In 2020, the count was conducted in 194 countries.  An estimated 268,674 people participated in the event.  The citizen scientists tallied 27,270,156 individual birds representing an amazing 6,942 species.

       The list of the ten most frequently reported species contains birds that are native to the United States. This figure reflects the number of checklists reporting these species.  This is not surprising when you consider that the USA led the world in the number of checklists submitted (169,234).  This total was far above the numbers of submitted by any other country.  This is demonstrated by the fact that India finished a distant second with 26,979 checklists submitted.

  1. Northern Cardinal (70,168)
  2. Dark-eyed Junco (59,318)
  3. Mourning Dove (58,361)
  4. Downy Woodpecker (52,276)
  5. Blue Jay – (50,808)
  6. House Sparrow (49,180)
  7. House Finch (48,796)
  8. American Crow (48,639)
  9. Black-capped Chickadee (43,775)
  10. Red-bellied Woodpecker (40,826)

       Three of the great things about this count are you don’t have to be an expert to take part.  Just report those species you can identify.  Each count requires a minimum of 15 minutes of your time.  Finally, you select where you want hold a count.  If you do not want count the birds in your backyard, pick any other place you want (e.g. park, schoolyard, your entire neighborhood or simply a small wetland near your home.)

       For more details, go to the Great Backyard Bird Count website. www.birdcount.org

ZEBRA HELICONIANS HAVE BEEN RARE AUTUMN TREATS

     The appearance of a zebra heliconian (also called a zebra longwing) in our backyard, has always been special treat.  However, for reasons I do not fully understand, my wife and I have seen more of the beautiful black and yellow-striped butterflies this year than ever before.

       We saw our first zebras of the year back in August.  After a long hiatus, they began appearing weeks later on a regular basis.  Invariably, once they reappeared we never spotted more than one zebra heliconian at a time.  However, during the past few weeks we have been regularly seeing at least two at a time.  Two days ago, for the first time ever, we startled to find four of them feeding at bright orange Mexican sunflower blossoms.  Oddly, the day before a friend told me he had seen four in his yard.

       The zebra heliconian is a year-round resident in Florida southward through Central America.  Zebra longwings can also be found along the southern Gulf Coast of the United States all the way to Texas.  In fact, this Neotropical butterfly can be observed somewhere in the United States throughout the entire year.

       During the summer, in spite of the fact they normally doesn’t range far, many zebra longwings begin drifting northward far from the Sunshine State.  As such, each year, they are regularly seen in South Carolina.  In fact, sightings have been made as far north as New York.

       The field guides tell us that, in Georgia, this butterfly is most often seen in the Coastal Plain.  However, the truth of the matter is, in most years, as few will show up in backyard throughout the Lower Piedmont.  This year, for example, I have received reports of them being seen from Grovetown, Forsyth, and Woodland. 

       The zebra longwing has the distinction of having the longest continuous life span as an adult of any butterfly found in the United States.  While most adult butterflies live only a few weeks or less, the zebra longwing’s adult life extends for six or more months.  This longevity undoubtedly allows them to roam as far as they do.

       One of the things I find most fascinating about zebra longwings is they congregate at nighttime roosts.  These aggregations are called crèches and can number anywhere from 25-30 individuals.  Typically branches or Spanish moss are chosen for roost sites.  Such locations are sometimes used by the butterflies for days on end.

       I would dearly love to find a zebra longwing crèche this year.  Meanwhile, although I don’t know how long the Johnsons will be able to enjoy watching zebra heliconians drifting about our backyard, every time we see them, we will consider the event a rare autumn treat.

WHAT AND HOW MUCH FOOD DO PEOPLE FEED BIRDS EACH WINTER?

       For decades, Project FeederWatch has been surveying bird feeding activities throughout the United States and Canada.  The data collected has provided biologists with valuable insights into the habits of people that feed birds as well as the possible impacts of bird feeding on bird populations.  Here are a few of the findings of this monumental study.

       On the average, participants in the FeederWatch Project feed in excess of 300 pounds of seeds and 20 pounds of suet and bird “pudding” each winter. 

       By far, the most common offering proved to be mixed seed.  In addition to mixed seed, the foods fed most often were suet, black-oil sunflower, and niger seed.

       The study also found the feeders most popular among FeederWatch participants were hanging feeders (98%), suet holders (83%), and raised platforms (68%). 

       How does your own bird feeding activities compare to the results of this survey?

BACKYARD SECRET – BLUE JAYS COMMUNICATE WITH THEIR CRESTS

       We all recognize that blue jays communicate with one another using a wide variety of calls; however, it is less widely known that these noisy birds also communicate with their cohorts using their crests.  In fact, you can learn much about a blue jay’s state of mind by looking at how high a jay’s crest is held above its head.

       Blue jays use their crests to demonstrate its level of calmness and aggression.  For example, the next time you see one or more blue jays placidly feeding in your yard, undoubtedly, their crests will be held close to their heads.  However, if a family cat comes into their view; their crests will instantaneously become erect.  On the other hand, should the cat turn around and walk in the other direction realizing the feline no longer poses a threat; the birds’ crests will drop.  Similarly, if a blue jay is startled by the arrival of a bird the blue jay perceives as a competitor for the food it is dining on, such as an American crow, the jay will erect its crest.  By the same, if a cardinal alights near a feeding jay, the blue jay might not raise its crest at all. 

       How high a jay erects its crest is indicative of its perceived level of threat or agitation.  For example, if a blue jay notices a hawk circling in the sky some distance away, it may not fully raise its crest.  However, once the hawk flies close enough to where the jay senses it poses an imminent threat, its crest will then become fully erect.

 

IDENTIFYING ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAKS IN FALL CAN BE TRICKY

       Whenever male rose-breasted grosbeaks magically appear at our feeders in the spring, it is difficult to mistake them for any other bird.  No other birds are cloaked in striking black-and-white plumage and also display bright crimson red chevrons on their breasts.  However, when they pass through Georgia in the fall, identifying them can be a challenge.

       The reason for this is the adults are in their nonbreeding plumage when they arrive at our feeders.  In addition, they are accompanied by adult and immature females, as well as immature males.  Whereas immature females are difficult to separate from adult females, the still look pretty much alike.

       Things are a bit trickier when it comes to distinguishing immature males from adult males.  However, the best way to describe an adult male is that it appears to be a washed out version of an adult male in breeding plumage.  In addition, there are subtle differences between adult and immature males that are often difficult to separate in the field.  Immature males will look much like the females, however they will sport varying amount of a rose wash on their breasts that is buffier than the breasts of the females. 

       Most years I only see rose-breasted grosbeaks in the spring.  However, others, like Ron Lee, entertain the birds during both seasons.  Such has been the case again this year.  Whereas Ron has been seeing these stunning migrants for quite some time this autumn, they have avoided my feeders.

       Ron has been kind enough to share with us the accompanying photo of a male rose-breasted grosbeak.  Ron took the picture taken October 10, 2020.

       With time running out on their fall migration schedule I suspect Ron’s photo is the only rose-breasted grosbeak I am likely to see this autumn.

AMERICAN HOLLY IS DIFFERENT

       At this time of the year, both resident and migratory birds are feasting on a variety of colorful berries such as American beautyberry and pokeberries.  However, have you noticed birds are not flocking to a native plant that produces one of the most colorful berries–the American Holly?

       Nowadays if you peer into the foliage of an American holly, you will discover that the berries that are synonymous with winter and Christmas are still green.  Even when they ripen, it will be a while before birds begin dining on these shiny red berries.  In fact, in most years, American holly berries will remain on the tree well into winter and provide birds with a valuable source of food long after the last beautyberry or pokeberry has been gobbled up.

       Among the reasons birds do not seek out holly berries when they first ripen is they are rock-hard and very bitter.  It is only after the berries have been exposed to one or more frosts do they begin to soften up.  Their exposure to cold weather also breaks down the chemicals that make the so bitter.  Even then, they are not considered a choice food.  American holly berries are not rich in many nutrients, although they are high in fats and oils.

       However, when birds have little else to eat, they will dine on dine on holly berries.  For birds that rely heavily on fruits and berries, holly berries can mean the difference between life and death. 

       A woman in Walton County once told me that, in winter, she often decorates her window boxes with branches of American holly covered with its showy red berries.  She went on the say that one-winter birds did not eat a single berry the entire winter.  However, one extremely cold March day a flock of robins descended on her yard.  Before the flock departed, the birds had eaten every single berry that had adorned the holly boughs placed in her window boxes.

       In addition to the American robin, among the more than two dozen species of birds that eat American holly berries are the northern cardinal, eastern bluebird, northern mockingbird, wild turkey, and northern bobwhite.

       This is just another example of the fact that we need to provide a wide variety of plants that provide food and cover for birds throughout the entire year. 

MY BACKYARD MOCKINGBIRD IS FACING A DILEMMA

 My wife and I have made a concerted effort to incorporate a wide variety of wildlife food plants into our home landscape.  Our goal has always been to provide our wildlife neighbors with a wide variety of foods throughout the entire year.  For one reason or the other, we never set out any American beautyberry plants.  However, years ago we found one growing alongside a backyard fence.  I am certain a bird unknowingly dropped a seed there as it perched on the fence.  Since then from late summer into fall and sometimes-even winter, the plant has been festooned with bountiful crops of round, bright lavender berries (actually, they are drupes).  This forces a host of birds to make some difficult dining decisions.      

       This is particularly true of the mockingbird that patrols our backyard.  A few weeks ago, I spotted the bird, as it was swallowing pokeberries.  When I unwittingly interrupted its meal, the diner immediately flew to an American beautyberry growing some distance away.  Upon landing, while keeping a close eye on me, it commenced eating beautyberry after beautyberry.     

  Later in the day, I saw it again eating suet from a feeder hanging near my office.  Whenever it flew away from the suet, house finches, cardinals, and Carolina chickadees flew in to eat their share of the fatty food.  In just a few moments, the mockingbird reappeared and scared the interlopers away.  The mockingbird definitely did not want to share food with other birds.

       On previous occasions, I have witnessed the bird defend plants bearing pokeberries and beautyberries from the likes of thrashers, cardinals, gray catbirds, American robins, and towhees.

       Since it is impossible for a single bird to defend all three of these sources of food, throughout the entire day it is faced with the dilemma of deciding of what and when to eat.  The appearance of the American beautyberries simply acerbated this bird’s problem.  

                    Mockingbird & American Beautyberries

 

If you are like us and never got around to planting American beautyberry in your yard, don’t wait for a bird to plant it for you.  Take the initiative and plant one yourself.  This native shrub is easy to grow.  The only maintenance it requires is cutting the stems back each winter. 

       You will enjoy its strikingly colorful berries and experience the satisfaction of knowing you are helping feed a wide variety of birds and mammals.  In addition, you will find that you have created a dining dilemma for mockingbirds and other birds that relish its berries.  Believe me, that is not such a bad thing at all.