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LOOKING AT NECTAR PLANTS THROUGH THE EYES OF A HUMMINGBIRD

      My wife and I enjoy gardening for hummingbirds.  In an effort to provide them with a source of nectar throughout as much of the year as possible, we provide them a multitude of plants.  The list of nectar plants includes such hummingbird favorites as zinnia, Turk’s cap, trumpet creeper, lantana, coral honeysuckle, scarlet sage, lyre leaf sage, red buckeye, hollyhock, columbine and many more.  These plants provide us with an ever-changing mosaic composed of different colors.  Often when I gaze at this gorgeous setting, I cannot help but wonder what these plants look like through the eyes of the ruby-throated hummingbirds that visit these flowers countless times.

       Research conducted by researchers representing the Princeton University Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard, University of Maryland, Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory and the University of British Columbia has revealed our ability to see colors pales in comparison with that of hummingbirds.  Princeton University Assistant Professor Mary Caswell put it this way, “Humans are color blind compared to birds and many other animals.” 

       The research discovered hummingbirds appear to be able to detect pure ultra-violet from a combination of colors such as ultra-violet plus red and red as well as ultra-violet plus green from pure green.  Ultra-violet plus red and ultra-violet plus green were undetectable to the researchers.

       Many scientists believe the reason why hummingbirds are able to see far more colors than us is linked to the fact that a hummingbird’s eye contains four different types of cones whereas humans have but three.  The fourth type of cones detect near ultra-violet light (UV).  Ultraviolet light is invisible to the human eye. 

       The ability to detect near UV light is beneficial to hummingbirds because many nectar plants display colors in the near UV light range.  Consequently, such plants stand out more to hummingbirds than they do to humans.

              I am certain that this research represents another step toward our greater understanding of the hummingbird’s ability to see colors.  Wouldn’t it great to catch a glimpse at the colors of the natural world through the eyes of a hummingbird?

BACKYARD SECRET – THE RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD CANNOT WALK

       There are many reasons why the ruby-throated hummingbird is such an amazing bird.  For example, no other backyard bird is capable of performing the aerial fetes routinely carried out by this master of flight.  In spite of its performance in the air, it simply cannot walk a step.  At best, the bird can only shuffle its feet sideways.

       The ruby-throated hummingbird’s legs and feet are both extremely small.  In fact they are so small, the only time the vast majority of us ever seen them is when a hummingbird is perched on a hummingbird feeder.

       A retired elementary school teacher told me that many of her young students did not believe hummingbirds possessed legs and feet.  She went on to say the only way she was able to convince them otherwise was to show them the mummified body of a hummingbird that flew into her garage and died before it could be rescued.

       It might seem that not being able to walk would be a hindrance.  Obviously, that is not the case with rubythroats.  These aerial dynamos feed primarily while remaining airborne.  The only exceptions of this seem to be when they are perched at a feeder or flower petal eating nectar.

       If fact, if hummingbirds were burdened with legs and feet large enough to enable them to walk or run, the added weight of the bones and muscles would undoubtedly prevent them from being true masters of the air.

THE ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK MIGRATION HAS BEGUN

       The spring migration of the rose-breasted grosbeak has begun.  Like many of our songbirds, rose-breasted grosbeaks migrate at night in small flocks.  These flocks can be composed of upwards of 50 individuals.

       The birds that are now arriving in our yards wintered in Central and South America.  After spending some time refueling in our backyards they will continue on northward to the summer homes.  Here in the Peach State rose-breasted grosbeaks only nest in the extreme northeastern corner of the state.  Consequently, the vast majority of the birds that pass through Georgia backyards breed in the Appalachian Mountains, Mideast, Northeast, and southern Canada.

       Like ruby-throated hummingbirds, male rose-breasted grosbeaks are the first to migrate.  A few weeks later, the females make their first appearance at our feeders.

       The best way to attract rose-breasted grosbeaks to your yard is to offer the hungry birds a generous supply of black oil sunflower seeds.  Providing the birds with a place to bathe and drink is also helpful.

THE HUMMINGBIRD WATCH HAS BEGUN

       With March arriving this week, if you are a fan of the ruby-throated hummingbird, I am sure you are anxiously awaiting the arrival of the first rubythroat of 2021.

       Although some of the feathery, flying jewels are seen in Georgia during the month of February, the vast majority of the them don’t make landfall on the Gulf Coast until March.  From there, where you live in the Peach State will dictate when you spot your first rubythroat of the new year.

       For example, most years one doesn’t show up at the Johnson Homestead located in Monroe County until March 18.  By that time, rubythroats have already been making regular visits to backyard feeders scattered across the Coastal Plain.  However, many residents that live in the northern quarter of the state tell me they do not expect to see a rubythroat at their feeders until April.

       Males are the first to arrive in your neck of the woods.  Typically, females follow about 10 days later.  However, if a female is spotted at your feeder before you ever see a male, more than not, the first wave of males has already passed through your area and either did not linger long enough for you to see them, or, simply bypassed your home entirely on their way north.

       With the arrival of the year’s first hummers literally only days away, if you do not already have a hummingbird feeder hanging in your backyard, now is the time to put one up.  If you do so, you enhance your chances of seeing a rubythroat as early as possible.  In addition, you just might attract a rufous or other western hummingbird trying to store enough food to fuel his migration back to its breeding grounds far in the far west.

       I hope that you will take the time to share with me the arrival dates of your first male and female rubythroats of the year.  Your sightings will help me pin down the status of the 2021 ruby-throated hummingbird migration in Georgia.

GREATER SANDHILL CRANE ALERT

       Flocks of the largest bird you are apt to see from your backyard are currently passing over Georgia.  The birds I am referring to are greater sandhill cranes.  The birds are flying NNW (North-Northwest) over the state en route to their breeding grounds in a broad breeding range that includes, but is not limited to, Ohio, Michigan, and southern Ontario.

       The greater sandhill crane can weigh anywhere from 9-15 pounds, have a six to seven-foot wing span, and stand five feet tall.

       Sandhill cranes migrate in long, meandering V-shaped formations at elevation ranging from 500-5,200 feet above the ground.  At times, flocks abandon this flight pattern and seemingly become disoriented.  Then they suddenly regroup and continue their journey.

       Often you will hear the birds approaching long before you see them.  This is because when they are aloft they are constantly communicating with one another with their loud, unmusical calls that sound something like karoo, karoo, karoo.  These notes can be heard a mile or two away.

       Often when a migratory flock of sandhill cranes is spotted, they are mistaken for Canada geese.  However, the Canada goose’s often repeated karonk call sounds nothing like the call of the greater sandhill crane.

       After hearing the birds, if you are still perplexed as to whether or not you are looking at geese or cranes, take a close look at the birds.  If you see the birds’ legs and feet protruding well behind their bodies, you are looking at a flock of sandhill cranes.  Alternately, if the birds’ legs and feet do not extend beyond their tail feathers, you are looking at Canada geese.

       I hope you have the opportunity to view one or more flocks of these magnificent birds.  Every time that I see them, I consider it a special event.  I expect you will too.

BACKYARD SECRET–WOODPECKERS HAVE SELF-SHARPENING BILLS

        Whenever I see or hear a woodpecker chiseling into a tree, I ask myself the question, “How is it possible that the bills of woodpeckers never become dull? 

        I wish I were so lucky.  Whenever I am using a wood chisel, after continued use I have to sharpen the tool’s steel cutting edge, yet woodpeckers seem to drive their bills into wood seeming without ever having to stop and sharpen their pointed bills.

Photo credit: Terry W Johnson

        Remarkably, every time a woodpecker strikes a blow against a tree it is chiseling away wood and sharpening its bill at the same time.  What happens is the tip a woodpecker’s bill is covered with special cells that constantly wear off, leaving the bill as strong and sharp as ever.

        It is as simple as that.

TUFTED TITMICE NEED PLACES TO NEST TOO

       Like all cavity nesting birds, rarely are their enough places for tufted titmice to nest in most neighborhoods.  With that in mind, if your property is predominantly wooded, why not erect a nest box for one of our favorite backyard feeder birds?

       If you think you would like to take on this project, here are a few tips that will help enhances the chances your efforts will be successful.

       I would recommend that you start putting up a single box.  If a pair of titmice uses it, consider erecting another birdhouse.  However, since tufted titmice are territorial, it is best to space your boxes at least 580 feet apart.

       The diameter of the box’s entrance hole should be at least 1 3’8″.  As you might expect, the birds will nest in cavities with larger entrance holes such as the 1 1/2-inch hole recommended for bluebird boxes.  Whatever size you use, protect the entrance hole with a metal hole guard.  This simple device prevents other birds and mammals from increasing the size of the entrance hole.  If you don’t, more often than not, their handiwork will end up destroying the box.

       Titmice will nest in cavities as high as 87 feet above the ground.  However, I recommend that your box be placed about 5 feet high.  This allows you to safely check, clean, and maintain it.

       I hope you decide to erect a tufted titmouse nesting box this year, if you do, you will help alleviate a shortage in tufted titmice nesting sites.  In addition, you will benefit by being able see tufted titmice as well as hear their pleasant peter, peter, peter call more often from spring through winter.

BACKYARD SECRET–PINE WARBLERS ARE MOST OFTEN SEEN IN GEORGIA DURING THE WINTER

       We Georgians are fortunate that, since the pine warbler is a permanent resident throughout the state, we have the opportunity to see and hear it throughout the entire year.  However, it is not a coincidence that we see more pine warblers in the winter than at any other time of the year.

       One of the reasons for this is practically all of the pine warblers in the entire continent winter in the South.  Consequently, at this time of the year our resident birds are joined by untold numbers of pine warblers that nested outside the Peach State.  As such, the mere fact pine warbler populations are much higher the Peach State in the winter enhances the chances that we will see one.

       This warbler was named the pine warbler because of its long recognized affinity to pines.  This relationship was even known by John James Audubon.  Audubon dubbed the bird the pine creeping warbler. 

       During the breeding season pine warblers rarely venture far from pine trees.  In addition, they spend the vast majority of their time foraging for food in the canopy of pine trees.  Even when we hear a male loudly singing in the springtime, often we cannot see him since he is hidden in a dark green maze of pine needles.

       During the winter, things change dramatically.  During this harsh season, the invertebrates and their eggs that pine warblers relish are far more difficult to find than they are during the warmer months.  In addition, pine seeds are more difficult to locate.  This forces the birds to forage on or near the ground.  This makes them easier for us to spot them.

       Since the pine warbler is our only warbler that regularly eats seeds, during the winter it can also supplement its diet with grass, shrub, and forb seeds.  It is also true that when this warbler can find them, it will also eat berries.  In addition, during the winter insects and other invertebrates are often more abundant on or near the ground than atop pine trees.

       On a number of occasions, I have found pine warblers feeding in South Georgia far from pines in harvested crop fields.  Closer to home, it is not uncommon for me to find pine warblers looking for food in brushy field borders.

       Also, during this harsh season the pine warbler will abandon pinelands and venture into hardwoods and even cypress swamps.

       The bottom line is whereas those among us that have pines growing in our yards or nearby have a better chance of seeing a pine warbler throughout much of the year than those who live areas devoid of pine.  However, in the winter, when the bird is found in a wider range of habitats, and pine warbler populations are at a peak, almost everyone has a legitimate chance of seeing one of these birds.

       Of course, you will greatly enhance your chances of seeing this bird if your stock your feeders with foods that the birds prefer.  A list of these foods can be found in previous blog.  To access this post, simply go to the search feature on the right side of the blog and type in pine warbler.  When you press the return key, all of the previous columns dealing with pine warblers will appear.

HAVE CEDAR WAXWINGS EVER FED AT YOUR FEEDERS?

       Like many of you, I try to attract as many different species of birds to my feeders as possible.  However, in spite of repeated efforts, I have yet to see a cedar waxwing dine at my feeders.

       It is often said that coming close only counts when you play horseshoes.  If that is the case, several years ago when a cedar waxing visited a birdbath located close by my feeders, I should be able to place it on my list of feeder birds.  Right?  Whom am I kidding? You know as well as I do, to add a cedar waxwing this prestigious list would totally delegitimize it.

       Other people report that they have coaxed cedar waxwings to their feeders by placing currents, raisins, and chopped apples in a platform feeder.  I have heard once they recognize your feeders as a place to dine, they will regularly appear and gorge themselves on your food offerings.

       With that in mind, I have decided to adopt a new strategy to attract these enigmatic birds to my feeders.  I am going to concentrate my feeding efforts during those times when flocks of cedar waxwings visit the large red cedar trees growing in our yard are loaded with berries.  When that occurs, it might be best if my wife hides the raisins and apples since they just might find their way to a platform feeder perched in front of my office. 

       I will let you know how things turn out.

       In the meantime, I would like know if you have ever been successful in attracting cedar waxwings to your feeders.

NOT ALL SPARROW-LIKE BIRDS ARE ACTUALLY SPARROWS

       Chipping sparrows far outnumber any other sparrow that I see on or beneath my feeders.  However, if I take the time to examine a flock of sparrows foraging for seeds in my bird feeding area, I sometimes discover a white-throated sparrow sparrow or two.  This week, when I perused what I thought was a small flock of sparrows, I was pleasantly surprised that I to learn I was actually looking at a flock of pine siskins.  For weeks, pine siskins have been seen across much of the northern portion of the state, but they had not reached my Middle Georgia yard until a few days ago.

       Pine siskins are often mistaken for sparrows.  It is small (4.3-5.5 inches long), brown and covered my streaks much like some of the sparrows.  However, the bill of the pine siskin is very sharp and pointed whereas the bills of sparrows are more conical and blunt.  Two white wing bars highlight bird’s wings.  Splashes of yellow can also been seen on their wings and forked tail.  Often these yellow feathers are most easily seen when the bird is fluttering its  pointed wings.

       Another thing that I have noticed is the pine siskins are full of energy and move about much more than sparrows. In addition, when they visit feeders they often fuss with one another as well as other birds.  If you are in a position to hear their harsh, soft calls, you will find that they are constantly communicating with each other as they dine.

       They are also extremely tame.  Often they allow me to walk within 10-15 of them while they are feeding. 

       More often than not, they travel about in flocks.  Currently I am feeding 10-15 birds each day.  However, flocks of 20+ are not uncommon.

     Unfortunately, I only see pine siskins every few years or so.  When flights of siskins are seen deep into the Southeast it is a sign that there is a shortage of seeds produced by a variety of conifer trees that provide their favorite food.

       If you want to attract pine siskins to your feeders, provide these migrants with plenty of nyger and sunflower seeds.

       One word of caution:  keep your bird feeding area clean.  Mounting evidence suggests they are highly vulnerable to salmonella.  This is one of the common diseases transmitted to birds feeding on the wet, deteriorating food that often collects beneath bird feeders.

       Sadly, it is becoming more difficult to enjoy the sight of a flock of pine siskins feeding in our backyards.  It seems that according to Partner’s In Flight pine siskins numbers have dropped 80% since 1970.  Let’s all hope this alarming trend will soon be reversed so that the sights and sounds pine siskins will never disappear.