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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.”

THIS APP IS A MUST FOR BACKYARD BIRDERS

         If you want to easily elevate your bird identification skills to a new level, I suggest that you download into your smart phone the free Merlin Bird ID app.  This app is designed by the Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology to simplify bird identification.

       One of the best ways to learn to identify birds by sight and sound is to be fortunate enough to have a mentor that can guide you through what at first seems to be a complex and confusing process.  If you are like me, when you started out on this lifelong journey, you had to teach yourself the nuances of bird identification using nothing more than a Peterson field guide and a vinyl long-playing recording of bird calls.   Nowadays beginning and veteran birds alike can benefit from a variety of birding tools that make birding easier than ever before.  One of best of these tools I have stumbled across is the Merlin Bird ID app.  When you download Merlin into your iPhone, you are carrying an electronic mentor around in your pocket. 

       Merlin helps to visually identify birds in two ways.  For example, you can name a bird using a photograph. Simply take a picture of the bird and run it through the app’s photo processing feature, the picture will be compared to literally thousands of digital photographs in Cornell’s massive photo library.  In a matter of seconds, Merlin will make suggestions as the bird’s identity.

       If you don’t have a picture of a bird, you can determine the bird’s identity by answering three simple questions relating to its size, color and habitat. In a matter of seconds, Merlin processes your answers and generates a list (complete with photos) of possible matches.

      The feature that I am most fond of is the song/call identifier. If you hear a bird singing from a dense shrub or treetop and wonder what bird is producing the distinctive sounds, Merlin is ready to solve the mystery.  All you have to do to use this feature is hold out your phone and tap the record button. The device uses your iPhone’s microphone to detect the songs and calls filling the air all around you.   The app records these sounds and compares them to the bird songs housed in Cornell’s extensive audio library and develops a list of possible matches (complete with photos).  The matches pop up on your phone’s screen. Often you will be amazed at what the device detects.  Whereas you might have thought the calls and songs coming from the trees and shrubs around your house were made only by mockingbirds and cardinals, only to discover white-eyed vireos, pine warblers, and a wood thrush were also lurking nearby.  On more than one occasion, the app has identified up to ten species of birds vocalizing in my backyard on a spring morning.

       At the end of each recording session, you can compare the app’s identifications with the recordings of each species in question and decide whether or not Merlin was correct.

       Keep in mind these are tentative identification. However, based on my limited experience using the app, I have found the sound identification feature has been accurate over 90 percent of the time.

       The Merlin app also has a variety of other features that I did not describe. With that in mind, for more information regarding this powerful birding tool, go online and read about Merlin’s entire suite of features.

It is truly amazing that the app is packed with so much information.  Can you believe the app is free?

       If you give the app a try, let me know what you think of it.

IT’S TIME TO PRUNE TRUMPET CREEPER VINES

      One of the keys to transforming a backyard into a hummingbird haven is providing hummingbirds with an abundance of food throughout the year.  One of the plants that is often used to meet this objective is a native vine named trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans).  This vine is so favorited by ruby-throated hummingbirds it is often called hummingbird vine.  However, like many hummingbird food plants, it requires some care.  In the case of the trumpet creeper, this Georgia native needs to be pruned annually; and now is the time to do so.

       Trumpet creeper does well on trellises, arbors, and fences.  However, since it grows rapidly it should never be planted near a building. To prevent this from happening, trumpet creeper vines need pruned annually.  Also, pruning back the vines will stimulate them to produce more nectar-laden flowers.

       As such this is one of the chores you need to accomplish before leaves begin to appear.  By doing so, you will be enhancing the beauty of your hummingbird haven and help ensure ruby-throated hummingbirds will have an abundance of nectar this year.

IT IS TIME TO REMOVE VINES AND TALL PLANTS GROWING NEAR NESTING BOXES

        Before we know it, spring will be here, and birds will be nesting in the nesting boxes we have erected for them.  Among the chores we all need to tackle in preparation for this year’s nesting season is trim back the vines, saplings and shrubs growing close to each of our nesting boxes.

       One of the main reasons why this should be done is it helps protect the birds nesting in our boxes from arboreal snakes (those that climb trees).  Snakes such as the rat snake are capable raiding nesting boxes erected on poles.  For that reason, it is always best to mount nesting boxes on poles equipped with predator guards.  However, even the best predator guards cannot protect a nest if vines encircle the pole or tall vegetation is growing nearby.  Such plants create a veritable superhighway for snakes trying to raid a nesting box.  Even if vegetation is not actually touching a box or pole, a snake can circumvent a predator guard and gain access to adults, eggs and/or young birds by simply climbing up nearby vegetation and then extending their body the distance between their head and the box.

       For this reason, we need to make every effort to cut back tall vegetation in a wide circle around each nest. While we are creating this protection zone, any branches growing close to the top of the box should also be trimmed away.  Snakes are also capable of using a canopy of branches to gain access to a nesting box.

       Taking a little time to perform this simple task can give the birds nesting in our boxes a better chance of being successful.

 

 

A NOVEL WAY TO KEEP FIRE ANTS OUT OF NEST BOXES

       Here in Georgia fire ants can threaten birds that nest in nesting boxes.  These pesky ants will enter nesting boxes and actually kill hatchlings.

       Several decades ago Jackson, Mississippi resident R.B. Layton came up with a novel way to keep these dreaded imported insects from reaching his nesting boxes.  Layton soaked either wood thread spools or sweetgum balls with the oil additive STP and placed them between the boxes and the poles that held them aloft.  Supposedly, this formed a barrier over which the ants would not pass.

       If you decide to try this technique, since thread now comes on plastic spools, you will have to find them at a craft store.  They are available in a variety of sizes.  I would imagine that you need to buy spools that are unpainted; an unpainted spool would probably retain more STP than those that are painted.  As for sweetgum balls, they can be located beneath sweetgum trees across the state.

       Since I have never had a problem with fire ants entering my nest boxes, I have never tested this technique.  However, if you try it, I would love to know if it worked for you.

SCRATCHES IN THE SNOW—WHERE IS THE WATER?

        Shortly after midnight on Friday (January 29), a light dusting of snow fell on my yard.  The brief snow shower occurred on a very cold, windy night.  The temperature dipped to 26⁰F and the wind chill hovered in the teens. When I walked down the path leading to my home office, I discovered that the water in the birdbath was frozen and covered with snow.  When I got closer to the birdbath, I noticed that birds had left scratches in the snow as they vainly tried to reach water.

       This was a stark reminder that wild birds need water during the winter just as much as they do during the spring, summer, and fall.  However, it seems that during the winter we sometimes focus on just providing the avian visitors to our feeders with a supply of fresh food.

       The truth of the matter is without a dependable source of water close by birds must travel some distance to find it.  This enhances their chances of being killed by predators.  In addition, it forces them to use energy that they need to avoid freezing to death on bone-chilling winter nights.

       Many birds drink water at least a couple of times day.  Other birds obtain water from the fruits, insects, and other invertebrates they eat.  However, during the winter months their primary source of food is not always readily available.  In spite of the fact their primary sources of water are often difficult to locate, they continually lose water through respiration and their droppings.

       They also require water to bathe.  Birds need to keep their feathers clean.  It is much easier for a bird to preen feathers into place when they are clean instead of dirty.  Consequently, clean feathers arranged in just the right positions can help a bird from losing too much body heat.  This can make the difference as to whether or not it can survive a cold night.

       With that in mind, it is essential that all of us make water available to our bird neighbors throughout the winter.  In my case, it almost seemed some birds had left me with a cryptic message in the snow that I interpreted as meaning, “Where is the water?”  I got their message loud, clear, and immediately poured fresh water in the birdbath.

       I hope my experience will prompt you to keep a fresh, clean supply of water in your backyard.  If you do, I know the birds will definitely benefit from your actions.

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.

 

THE WIND CAN AFFECT MONARCH WATCHING

       Monarch watching has been downright abysmal around my home.  As of October 15, only one monarch had made an appearance at the Johnson Homestead.  However, the next day monarchs were seen twice in my yard.  The first sighting took place in early afternoon.  Then just before dark, I spotted a monarch drifting across the bird feeding area located in front of my office.  While I will never know for sure, it seemed it was looking for a place to roost for the night. 

       I suspect the monarchs had been riding the wind.  Yesterday a cold front swept through Middle Georgia.  This leads me to believe this was the case because it is a fact that during their fall migration monarchs often catch rides on northerly winds found along the leading edges of approaching cold fronts.  If these winds are blowing in the direction the butterflies want to go, the butterflies can fly long distance without having to expend a lot of stored fuel.  When this occurs monarchs are often seen making their way southward  for several days after the leading edge of the cold front has left your us far behind.

       On the other side of the coin, if the north winds are too strong, monarchs are known to fly so high in sky it is impossible for us to see them as they wing their way over our yards.

       Conversely, when the prevailing winds are blowing from the south, they tend to hang around and forage for nectar before resuming their migration.  This situation often provides us with some of our best monarch watching opportunities.

     

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!

BIRDHOUSES ARE OFTEN PLACED TOO CLOSE TOGETHER

     Nesting birds are often very territorial.  As such, when one pair spots another pair of the same species trying to nest too close to their nesting site, conflicts emerge.  With that in mind, one of the reasons why birds do not use birdhouse in some yards is boxes are placed too close together.  When nesting boxes are packed in too closely, some birds of the same species will fight with one another and sometimes end up not nesting at all.

      NESTING PAIR OF BLUEBIRDS

       With this in mind, here is a list of some of the birds that commonly nest in Georgia backyards and the recommended spacing between boxes designed avoid territorial battles.

Eastern Bluebird – Minimum of 100 yards.

Carolina Chickadee – 30 feet

Tree Swallow – 35 feet

Tufted Titmouse – 580 feet

Carolina Wren – 330 feet

House Wren – 100 feet

Great Crested Flycatcher – 1 box per 6 acres

Brown-headed Nuthatch – 1 box per 6 acres

       Keep in mind that some species tolerate birds of another species nesting close to their nest.  For example, eastern bluebirds will allow Carolina chickadees to nest well within 100 yards of their nests.  In this case, if a Carolina chickadee nest box  is equipped with an entrance hole measuring 1 1/6th of an inch in diameter, bluebirds would never try to nest in a birdhouse with an entrance hole that small.