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MANAGING PLANTS FOR WILDLIFE IS LAGGING BEHIND

       Once every five years the United States Fish and Wildlife Service surveys the participation of American’s in hunting, fishing, and other wildlife-related activities.  The latest report (2018) documents the findings from the 2016 survey.  Although the report revealed that, from 2011-2016, wildlife watching increased 20% (71.8-86.0 million individuals); Americans have not fully embraced the value of managing plants for wildlife in their yards. 

       The survey revealed that that around-the-home participants 16 years and older jumped to 81.1 million.  They accounted for 94% of all of the Americans that watched wildlife.  The most popular activity of these 59.1 million folks was feeding birds and other wildlife; they represented 73% of all around-the-home participants.  Thirty-eight percent said they photographed wildlife.  Those that fed other wildlife accounted for 18% of around-the-home participants.  However, only 10% maintained plants for wildlife in their yards.  In addition, just 9% maintained and managed natural areas for the benefit of their wildlife neighbors.

       It is exciting that interest in wildlife watching is on the rise.  However, it is concerning that we wildlife watchers are, largely focusing our attention on simply feeding the wildlife that we enjoy living just outside our backdoors.  Meanwhile, we are losing thousands of acres of wildlife habitat each year.  Unless we enhance the wildlife habitat that remains, the time may come when many of the wild animals that provide us with so much enjoyment will become rare or simply disappear.

       One way to ensure this does not happen is to restore and create wildlife habitats in our yards.  There are so many ways that we can provide backyard wildlife with suitable places to live, the task seems impossible.  One of the best ways to tackle this daunting task is to begin by selecting a species or species that you are most fond of and direct your efforts at addressing their needs.  Then begin by setting just a few goals to accomplish.  For example, if you are interested in butterflies, incorporate a few host plants into your landscape.  If you are fond of birds, plant one or more seed, fruit or berry-producing plants.   Only after you have made these changes, make the decision as to whether you are going to try to accomplish anything else this year.

       Whatever you do, make planting native plants a priority.  These plants are often best suited to survive in your neck of the woods and require less care.  In addition, the food they often produce more food and support far more insects than ornamentals.

       When you start looking for lists of these plants, as other habitat enhancement tips, begin by checking out the Archive section of this blog.  It contains a treasure trove of often hard to find information relating to backyard wildlife.

       We can all be better stewards of our yards.  With that in mind, can you imagine how much our backyard wildlife neighbors would benefit if each one of us made a conscientious effort to enhance our property for them this year?  With that in mind, I hope you will make a New Year’s resolution to enrich your home landscape for wildlife.  I know I plan to do just that.

 

A CHRISTMAS GIFT THAT WILL HELP YOU AND THE BIRDS

       With only days remaining until Christmas, I thought you might appreciate a gift idea for someone that feeds birds.  This gift is not attractive; however, it is practical, inexpensive, and will benefit both backyard wildlife enthusiasts and the birds.  The gift I am referring to is a trash bag stand.  Now before you dismiss this suggestion, let me explain.

       One of the tasks that nobody that feeds birds enjoys is cleaning up discarded seed hulls and rotting seeds beneath seed feeders.  In an earlier blog (check archive), I wrote about a couple of handy tools that make this job easier.  I would like to add another tool to this list of valuable devices.  This tool is a collapsible trash bag stand.

       The device is little more than a metal frame.  To use it, all you have to do is place a trash bag in the center of the frame and stretch the opening of the bag around the top of the frame.  Once the bag is in place, the frame and bag will stand up on their own.

       The reason it is so helpful because you can easily deposit the seeds, hulls, and the directly into the bag for disposal in your trash.  Trying to place the waste collected in a dustpan, wheelbarrow, or shovel into a bag that you have to hold open with one hand while disposing of the waste in the bag with the other in no easy task.  As far as I am concerned, this is the most difficult step in the whole process.  However, when you use a trash bag stand, it is far easier and quicker to deposit the waste through the wide opening of a bag stretched open in a trash bag stand.  When you have accomplished the task, simply remove the bag from the stand, tie off the top and you are ready to dispose of it and its contents in the trash.

       The birds benefit because you dramatically reduce the chance they will contact any of the variety of diseases that flourish in damp, rotting seeds and their hulls.

       Trash bag stands come is a variety of sizes ranging from 30-35 gallon models to those that hold 13-gallon bags.  The bags are collapsible and cost as little as $11 to $25.

       Since it makes the whole process of keeping a bird feeding areas clean, perhaps we would be more apt to clean our bird feeding areas more often.  Now that is not a bad thing.

WHY ARE WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCHES SCARCE IN MOST BACKYARDS?

       If you are lucky enough to see white-breasted nuthatches in your yard, have you ever wondered why you rarely see more than one or two nuthatches at the same time?

       The reason for this is they are territorial.  As such, they vigorous defend their turf against other nuthatches.  In woodland (both hardwood and mixed pine/hardwood) areas, these territories typically range from 25 to 30 acres in size.  However, in areas broken up in a patchwork of small woodlots and other habitat types, a pair’s territory can easily measure 60 acres or so.

       If you happen to see more than two white-breasted nuthatches visiting your feeders, chances are your yard is located where the territories of two pairs of white-breasted intersect.  In addition, pairs will often make brief trips into the territories occupied by other pairs.  In years when their favorite food is scarce, they can show in a variety of locations.

BACKYARD SECRET–RUBY-CROWNED KINGLETS DON’T REQUIRE MANY CALORIES TO SURVIVE

       Although I have studied wildlife my entire life, I find that my thirst for knowledge regarding these fascinating animals is far from being slaked.  In fact, I honestly believe it has increased.  One reason for this is that the nuggets of information I uncover constantly amaze me.  For example, I recently stumbled across a fact concerning the ruby-crowned kinglet that is nothing short of unbelievable.

       The ruby-crowned kinglet is a winter resident in Georgia.  However, due to the habitat it occupies while it is spending the winter here, unless you went out looking for the bird, you might not realize that it is one of your backyard neighbors.  

       The ruby-crowned kinglet spends its time foraging for food among the limbs, branches, and foliage found from the tops of trees to thick shrubs looking for its favorite winter foods such as tiny insects and other invertebrates as well as their eggs.  They also dine small berries and seeds.    These tiny birds seem to be full of energy, constantly flitting about from spot to spot on their endless quest for food.  As such, you would think that they are constantly burning up huge amounts of energy. 

       According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, such is not the case.  Studies of the ruby-crowned kinglet’s metabolism have revealed these remarkable birds suggest that it may only use approximately 10 calories a day.  This is unbelievable!  I do not know of any other backyard bird that burns up so few calories per day.

       I am now determined to learn more about this astounding claim.

    

HOMEGROWN BUTTERFLY FEEDER

       Recently, a hard freeze brought an abrupt end to the growing season of many of our nectar plants.  The next morning when my wife and I walked outside and looked around the yard, it was not a pretty sight.  Mexican sunflower, cosmos and other plants were drooping and their flowers withered.  It was obvious that the butterflies that were still flying about our yard were in for some hard times. 

       Later in the morning when we noticed a cloudless sulphur was trying to nectar at a dead Mexican sunflower blossom, we decided try to come to the aid this and any other hardy survivor of the freeze.  Since we have not enjoyed great success attracting butterflies to commercial butterfly feeders, we decided to set out a couple of homegrown butterfly feeders.

        We immediately moved a pot containing several pineapple sage plants in full bloom to a spot near the dead Mexican sunflowers.  Talk about immediate gratification–within minutes a cloudless sulphur appeared and began nectaring on the pineapple sages’ long, scarlet blossoms.

       Encouraged by our success we later positioned a couple of containers containing scarlet sage to spots around the yard.  Since we have not experienced another frost since that time, we have enjoyed watching cloudless sulphurs and gulf fritillaries visiting our homegrown feeders every day.

       Our ability to take this action was due to the fact that we grow a number of nectar plants in large containers.  Once we heard of the impending, hard freeze we moved pots containing pineapple and scarlet sage either up against the side of the house or inside our sunroom.

       We realize that providing food for a handful of butterflies after a frost killed most of their food supply means little to the populations of gulf fritillaries and cloudless sulphurs.  However, it means a lot to handful of butterflies that are benefitting from our efforts.  In addition, it has made us feel good.

MISTLETOE IS FAR MORE THAN A SYMBOL OF CHRISTMAS

       With our preoccupation with attracting backyard wildlife with supplemental foods such as suet and seeds, it is easy to overlook the fact that those backyards that often attract the greatest variety of numbers of backyard wildlife are also home to a variety of native plants.  One of the most underappreciated plants that inhabit the yards of many of us is American mistletoe.

       Whenever the subject of the mistletoe arises, more often than not one thing comes to mind; most people regard the plant as one of the treasured symbols of Christmas.  Supposedly, if a couple passes through a door adorned with a sprig of mistletoe bearing berries, it is permissible for them to share a kiss.  At the end of the kiss, the couple is supposed to remove one of the berries.  However, it is out of place for a couple to steal a kiss beneath a berryless frond of mistletoe.

       Although this popular legend has been around for centuries, few realize that mistletoe is also an important food plant for many forms of wildlife ranging from insects to birds and mammals.  This very different side to the mistletoe should further endear the plant to everyone that shares an interest in wildlife.  Let me explain.

       This widespread parasitic plant is the host for the great purple hairstreak.  This beauty is the only Georgia butterfly that lays its eggs on the mistletoe. 

       Mistletoe also produces both pollen and nectar that feed countless insects.  Bees frequently avail themselves of the food offered by mistletoes.  Ants, native bees, honeybees, flies, also visit the plant’s tiny flowers.

       Mammals such as white-tailed deer, gray squirrels, and eastern chipmunks eat mistletoe.  Deer are particularly fond of the mistletoe’s protein-rich foliage.

       Many species of birds eat mistletoe’s white almost translucent berries.  Each berry contains two to three seeds that and enveloped in extremely sticky flesh.  Among the birds that gobble up mistletoe berries are cedar waxwings, eastern bluebirds, eastern meadowlarks, American robins, northern flickers, purple finches, blue jays, dark-eyed junco, white-breasted nuthatches, American goldfinches, and eastern towhees.

       Now that you know that mistletoe is a valued wildlife food plant, are you willing to say mistletoe is far more than a magical Christmas plant?  I am.

SEEING A RARE BIRD AT YOUR BIRD FEEDERS IS ALWAYS EXCITING

      Now that we are on the doorstep to winter, activity around our bird feeders is going to increase.  In fact, during the winter our feeders will be visited by more birds than at any other time of the year.  When this occurs, we are always on the lookout for a rare bird.  Some rare visitors to our feeders, such as the yellow-headed blackbird, are easy to spot.  However, others such as hybrids are much more difficult to identify.  One such hybrid is a cross between a white-throated sparrow and a dark-eyed junco.

       The white-throated sparrow winters throughout Georgia.  On the other hand, the dark-eyed junco commonly winters across the entire state, with the exception of extreme southeast Georgia.  However, in New England and Canada portions of their individual breeding ranges overlap.

       For reasons that are not fully understood, these birds will occasionally interbreed and produce offspring.  The resulting hybrids will display traits of both parents.  Since the combinations of these plumage patterns vary widely from bird to bird, trying to figure out what you are looking at is often perplexing.  For example, in the case of dark-eyed junco/white-throated sparrow hybrids, observers have reported birds with the wing pattern of a white-throated sparrow and the head pattern of a dark-eyed junco. Other birds look much like white-throated sparrows but sport the white outer tail feathers of dark-eyed junco.

       In order to spot one of these hybrids, you must carefully study the flocks of sparrows that converge on your feeding area.  With a little luck, you will spot any bird that just does not seem to to look right. 

       If you see a bird that is a potential hybrid, take lots of pictures of it and share them with others (please include me on this list).  Sometimes it takes many people to reveal the true identify of a hybrid.  

       White-throated sparrow/dark-eyed junco crosses are more common than you might think.  Such birds have been seen in many states such as Minnesota, Arkansas, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, Virginia, Connecticut, and even Georgia.  Who knows?  There is no reason why the next sighting of this fascinating bird may occur in your backyard.

PINEAPPLE SAGE IS GREAT FOR LATE SEASON HUMMERS AND MORE

        There are at least 60 species of salvias.  In addition, more than 50 cultivars of these popular plants are also available.  There are so many varieties of salvias available it is difficult for Georgia gardeners to decide which are best for their gardens.  If you are looking for salvia that blooms late from late summer into fall and provides nectar for hummingbirds, butterflies, native bees and other pollinators, I recommend you plant pineapple sage (Salvia elegans).

       This plant is native in Central America.  Here in Georgia it is  either a tender perennial or annual.  While it is susceptible to cold weather, some gardeners report that when mulched it can survive winter temperatures that plummet as low as 5˚F.

       One of the things I like about pineapple sage is that it begins blooming late in the summer and will continue producing blooms until the frost ends its growing season.  Consequently, in autumn, it is providing nectar when it is often a scarce commodity.

       Although ruby-throated hummingbirds have been gone from our yard for weeks, they did nectar at the plants long tubular-shaped blooms before they left.  However, the main beneficiaries of its nectar are now cloudless sulphur and sleepy orange butterflies, and native bees.

       Over the years, many folks that have been lucky enough to attract wintering hummingbirds have told me that rufous hummingbirds frequent the pineapple sage’s striking red blossoms.

       Pineapple sage grows to be 3-4 feet tall and 3-4′ wide.  It seems to prosper in spots bathed in both morning and afternoon sunshine.  Pineapple sage also needs frequent watering. In addition, they do best in rich, well-drained soil.

       The plants are easily propagated from cuttings.  Young plants should be transplanted as soon as the threat of frost has passed in your neck of the woods.

       As you might expect, the blooming period in the southern half of the state is considerably long that it is in Middle and North Georgia.  However, regardless of how long is blooms, when it is blooming it provides pollinators with a valuable source of food while at the same time adding beauty to our yards.

                 Cloudless Sulphur on Pineapple Sage

       My wife and I bring our potted plants inside in the winter.  The pineapple sage growing in our yard is mulched during the winter.

       With the freezing weather forecast during the next several days, it is time for us to protect our pineapple sage before it is too late: This is one plant we do not want to lose.

BACKYARD SECRET–FEEDER BIRDS CAN TASTE THEIR FOOD

      One of the joys of eating is that we can taste our food.  As such, it is one of the reasons why we prefer some foods to others.  In the not too distant past, few folks held the belief that birds also have a sense of taste.  We now know this is not the case.

       Whereas we have about 9,000 taste buds, the birds that visit our feeders possess only 50.  Consequently, they must rely heavily on sight and touch to select foods.  Instead of being located on its tongue, a bird’s taste buds are located near the tip of its bill as well as the floor and roof of its mouth.

IS IT A GOOD IDEA TO FEED BIRDS IN AUTUMN?

        Back in the day, most bird enthusiasts never fed seeds to birds during the autumn months.  Nowadays fall bird feeding is quite popular.  However, if you are currently offering sunflower seeds, millet and other delicacies to birds in your backyard, have you ever wondered if this causes more harm than good?

       The truth of the matter is it appears fall bird feeding is more beneficial than harmful.  Some go so far to say that fall feeding discourages birds from migrating.  However, the truth of the matter is it appears fall bird feeding can actually benefit birds.  Here are a few reasons why this is the case.

       Seed eating migrants actually benefit from your efforts.  The reason for this is during migration they deplete the stored fat that fuels their flight south.  An abundant supply of seeds offered at feeders allows them to quickly refuel and continue on to the winter homes.

       An abundant supply of seeds also allows resident birds to build up the fat reserves they need to survive cold weather.  This is especially important during those years when acorns and other seeds hard are hard to come by.

       While it is true, that, for many birds, autumn is a time of plenty–food seems to be everywhere.  However, as the year moves on into December and beyond, these food supplies will be exhausted.  Consequently, the seeds provided by your feeders become increasingly more important to seed-eating birds.

       Finally, feeding birds in the fall provides you with some great wildlife watching opportunities.  Not only do you enjoy tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees and others permanent residents making endless trips to and from you feeders, but you also get to see southbound birds that might have passed over your yard on their way south.  This year, for example, this fall backyard wildlife watchers were able to catch glimpses of rose-breasted grosbeaks.  For many, they only see this bird in the spring.

       The bottom line is, if you keeping your feeding area clean, fall feeding can benefit wild birds.