Some of the birds that inhabit our yards during the winter travel about in flocks. Among the birds that adopt this behavior are American robins, chipping sparrows, brown-headed cowbirds, common grackles, and red-winged blackbirds.
Being a member of a flock offers a bird many advantages. A bird traveling in a flock is less likely to be captured by a hawk, owl, or other predator. This is called the predator dilution effect.
Here is how it works. Should a Cooper’s hawk dive into a flock, it must select one bird and not be distracted by all of the others in the flock. This is often difficult to do when lots of birds are frantically trying to escape with the lives. As such, to be successful the hawk must target a single bird. If the hawk attacked the whole flock and simply lashes out trying to catch a bird, chances are all of the birds will fly away unscathed.
Another advantage to being the member of a flock is that it is extremely difficult for a predator to approach a flock of birds when hundreds, if not thousands, of pairs of eyes are poised to detect any potential danger.
In addition, flocks have a tendency to find food more readily than individual birds. In many cases, the older, more experienced members of the flock know the best places to find food and roost. This is a real bonus since food is often difficult to find in winter.
In addition, birds that expend as little energy as possible trying to locate food have a greater chance of survival during frigid weather. A bird in poor physical condition can easily succumb to the cold on frigid nights simply trying to maintain its body temperature.
I am sure you are familiar with the old adage, “There is safety in numbers.” As you can see, in the case of birds that flock together in winter, this statement is indeed true.
In a recent blog, I noted that one of the great joys of backyard wildlife watching is sharing your observations with others. This prompted Debbie Menard to report one of her most interesting recent wildlife sightings. I found her report so interesting I thought I would share it with you.
Debbie is one of the few folks I know that offers safflower seeds on her menu of food offerings at her backyard bird cafe. Since gray squirrels do not relish the oily seed, it is sometimes used as an alternative to sunflower seeds. For some reason, gray squirrels seem to shy away from this odd seed.
In fact, it is a seed that only a handful of backyard birds will routinely eat. The seed appears to be eaten most often by the northern cardinal. The short list of other species that will eat safflower seeds includes the likes of downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, tufted titmouse, mourning dove, Carolina chickadee, blue jay, finch and the white-breasted nuthatch.
One day this summer Debbie watched a white-breasted nuthatch pluck a safflower seed from a feeder and characteristically fly off with it in its bill. The bird landed on the trunk of a large white oak tree. Once there, the bird made a few modifications to the bark of the tree. Once the bird was satisfied with its handiwork, it wedged the seed in the cavity it had created and flew away.
This was the first time Debbie have ever seen a white-breasted nuthatch engage in this fascinating behavior.
What a great sighting!
Keep your eyes peeled, a white-breasted nuthatch, or some other bird, may be caching seeds in your backyard right now.
Regardless of whether you live in a large city, small town, subdivision or in the rural countryside you need to protect your small dogs and cats from coyotes.
Georgia’s coyote population is rapidly expanding. This is truly remarkable when you consider the coyote is not native to the Peach State. However, since the 1850s the range of the coyote has increased threefold and now can be found in every state with the exception of Alaska.
As the coyote has expanded its range, it has demonstrated its adaptability for living in a variety of new habitats by altering their diet to fit the food available. In other words, in addition to dining on rodents and rabbits, in some areas their diets include birdseed and an occasional small domestic pet.
Although it is unlikely a coyote will capture your small pet, by adopting a handful of preventative measures you can guarantee that it will never happen.
It is always a good idea not to let your cats and small dogs stay outside at night. Coyotes hunt at night and, if given a chance, they will prey on small domestic animals.
If it is necessary to let your pet out for a “bathroom” break from dusk to dawn, go outside with it, keeping it within sight at all times. During this time frequently talk to your pet. This will alert a coyote that a human is close by. A healthy coyote will avoid humans. In addition, it is also best to keep your pet on a leash.
If you feed pets outside, remove any uneaten food by sundown. Pet food will attract a variety mammals such as opossums, foxes, skunks, and rodents. Coyotes will also eat the food as well as many of the other mammals they attract.
Like a growing number of other backyard wildlife enthusiasts I am incorporating native plants into my home landscape. To date, I have been pleased with native plants I have introduced that produce seeds, fruits, berries and/or nectar for my wildlife neighbors. I wish I could say the same for two caterpillar host plants—passionflower and spicebush. My problem with them is two of the butterflies that lay their eggs on them do so long before the plants can become established.
This problem first cropped up several years ago when I tried to grow passionflower in my yard. After vainly trying to grow the plants from seeds, I planted young plants. Much to my delight the plants did well and soon slender passionflower vines inched their way up a nearby fence.
One day when I went out to look at my rapidly growing vines I spotted a number of spike-covered orange and black gulf fritillary caterpillars munching on the vines’ tender leaves. At first I was thrilled that gulf fritillaries were using my plants as hosts for their caterpillars.
My delight soon changed to concern when it became the insatiable caterpillars quickly devoured every single leaf on the vines. They then proceeded to eat the vines down to the ground.
Although my crop of passionflower leaves was exhausted for that growing season, I was hoping the plants would come back the following year.
The next spring I kept looking for the passionflower vines to emerge from the ground. When this did not happen I realized the caterpillars had destroyed the plants the previous year.
This problem resurfaced when I transplanted a healthy four-foot tall spicebush in my backyard last year. Aided by frequent watering, the small shrub grew well. Much to my surprise, in 2017 I did not see a single spicebush swallowtail caterpillar on the plant.
This spring the tree sprouted a meager crop of fresh green leaves. Eventually, I notice a number of folded-over leaf shelters on the leaves. This was a sure sign tiny spicebush swallowtail caterpillars were hiding beneath their green leaf shelters. In a matter of days, these voracious caterpillars ate every single leaf on my spicebush. I was hoping I was not facing a replay of my experience with passionflowers.
My fear that caterpillars had once again destroyed a host plant in my yard was alleviated when I noticed small green buds had appeared at the shrub’s woody base. Perhaps I still had a chance to save the plant.
I decided the best thing I could do to save the shrub was to somehow prevent female spicebush swallowtails from laying their eggs on the few newly-sprouted leaves. With that in mind, I have wrapped a small piece of bird netting around the base of the plant in hopes spicebush swallowtails will not be able to extend the tips of her abdomens through the netting far enough to lay their eggs on the new leaves; only time will tell whether or not my efforts will prove successful.
In the meantime I am checking the shrub daily to see if my efforts prove to be successful. I also want to make sure a snake doesn’t become entangled in the netting.
If it works, I might just try to plant passionflower again. In the meantime, I just wish butterflies would be a little more patient.
If you have discovered a solution to this dilemma, please let me know.
Chances are, if you fill a feeder with sunflower seeds during the winter, you are going to attract tufted titmice. Once they find a feeder stocked with sunflower seeds, they spend much of their time making forays to the feeder. On each visit, they daintily pluck one sunflower seed and quickly fly away with it.
If you have spent any time watching titmice feed, you have probably wondered how many titmice you are feeding. Whenever I have attempted to estimate the winter titmouse population in my backyard, I quickly discovered I could never come up with an answer more definitive than more than one.
Fortunately, for those of us that ponder such questions, there are ornithologists that have conducted studies concerning the winter habits of titmice in winter. Their findings have revealed during the winter titmice form small flocks principally made up of family members. As such, a flock often numbers no more than three individuals (a mated pair and one of their young that hatched the previous spring). At times, one or two others join them.
The group will forage for food throughout an area ranging from 15-20 acres in size. This tract will include the adults’ nesting territory.
One day about the time winter has loosened its icy grip on the Peach State it will dawn on you tufted titmouse seem to be visiting your feeder less frequently. This is a sign the winter flock has broken up. After the breakup, often the only birds left in the area will be the pair that nested there the previous year. The others will be elsewhere trying to find their own nesting territory.
By that time of the year, I am willing to trade my not being able to see tufted titmice as often as I have over the previous few months for the arrival of spring.
Now that temperatures are finally beginning to drop, activity around our bird feeders is on the rise. When this happens, we have the opportunity to witness the fascinating feeding behaviors of our feathered guests.
A behavior I particularly enjoy watching is caching. One bird that routinely stores seeds in my backyard is the Carolina chickadee.
If you feed birds, you are undoubtedly familiar with this feathered sprite. It is particularly fond of black oil sunflower seeds. Typically, a Carolina chickadee will fly in, pluck a single sunflower seed from a feeder, and fly off to a nearby branch. Once there it firmly holds the seed, between its feet and quickly chisels the seed’s hull open, and swallows the exposed fat-rich seed. The bird then returns to a feeder and repeats the process. This behavior is replayed countless times throughout the day.
However, if you are patient, and watch Carolina chickadees feeding in your backyard, you just might be lucky enough to see a chickadee store a seed.