Last May a mysterious illness that affected songbirds suddenly appeared in the eastern states. By the time the illness finally abated, it had killed thousands of birds in the District of Columbia, Delaware, New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia. This prompted state wildlife agencies and conservation groups, to urge the public to cease providing wild birds with water or food. Then, for some unknown reason, the songbird illness suddenly disappeared this past July.
The birds affected by the outbreak displayed the same symptoms: swollen, crusty eyes, paralysis, are tremors.
The birds that were most affected were young common grackles, blue jays and European starlings. However, the roster of birds that showed symptoms of the disease included Carolina wrens and chickadees, red-bellied woodpeckers, eastern bluebirds, American robins, house finches, northern cardinals, and house sparrows.
The outbreak prompted the Cornell Wildlife Health Lab and the National Wildlife Health Lab, as well as wildlife disease labs across the country, to try to diagnose the cause of the illness. Their efforts methodically ruled out all of the known wildlife illnesses. This left them at a loss to explain what was causing the problem.
However, the scientists found the sudden appearance and decline of the disease closely mirrored the Brood X cicada emergence. This leads many of the scientists to theorize that mysterious bird illness that plagued birds across a vast swath of the east this past summer is linked to the cicadas. According to this theory birds may have been affected the cicadas in a number of ways. For example, they could have eaten cicadas poisoned by homeowners trying to eliminate the insects from their yards. Some birds may have also become sick from eating the cicadas themselves. It is also possible that a toxin produced by a fungus commonly found on cicadas could have poisoned the birds.
While this theory seems plausible, more research is needed before wildlife disease experts will definitively say this was indeed the cause of the problem.
In the meantime, many states have lifted bird-feeding restrictions implemented during the outbreak. However, they are urging that homeowners keep their bird feeding areas and feeders clean. While we were fortunate that the mysterious songbird illness did not crop up in Georgia, we should all strive to keep our bird feeders and the ground around them clean.
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.
One of the first things beginning birders learn is when they hear what they are sure is a red-shouldered hawk, they cannot be certain the call is that of a red-shouldered hawk. The reason for this is blue jays often mimic the call of this well-known predator.
Recent research has revealed much about the mimicry practiced by the blue Jay. For example, we now know blue jays do not just mimic red-shouldered hawks. The truth of the matter is they also mimic other predators such as the osprey and Cooper’s hawk.
It is apparent that blue jays mimic the call of the red-shouldered hawk in an effort to warn other jays living nearby that a predator is in the neighborhood. However, some ornithologists believe that blue jays may also mimic the call of a hawk in an effort to scare other birds such as grackles enough that they drop their food as they make a hasty flight to cover. Once the bird leaves, the blue jay can fly down and consume the acorns or other food left behind by the startled birds.
If you have a theory that helps explain why blue jays mimic hawk calls, I would love to hear it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.