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AMERICAN GOLDFINCH NUMBERS AT GEORGIA FEEDERS VARY FROM WINTER TO WINTER

       Anybody that sets out a smorgasbord of food for the birds wintering in their backyards can tell you that, for no apparent reason, the numbers of American goldfinches they feed from year to year can vary widely.  Let’s take a close look at this apparent dilemma and see if there is an explanation for this odd phenomenon.

       Studies have shown that nationwide, on an average, those of us that feed birds during the month of January will see an average of 10 American goldfinches at our feeders on a regular basis.  However, some years flocks of upward of 100 or more American goldfinches descend on our feeders.  Likewise, in other years, if you are like me, you do not come close to hosting even 10 birds.

       The answer to this mystery is linked to the goldfinch’s breeding and winter ranges and average January temperatures.

       The American goldfinch has a large breeding range that extends in a broad band that sweeps across southern Canada and the northern two-thirds of the contiguous United States. 

       In Georgia, American goldfinches breed throughout much of the state with the exception of the southeastern slice of the state.

       Meanwhile, the bird’s winter range encompasses its breeding range and the entire South.

       However, some years American goldfinches breeding in the northern portion of their breeding range might not migrate at all.  However, if food supplies are inadequate and/or winter temperatures average 0˚F or below, many will take wing and migrate upwards of 1,000 or more miles southward to escape the cold and locate food.

       In comparison, during a normal winter our homegrown American goldfinches stay pretty close to home each. When this occurs, we are likely to see few goldfinches feeding on nyger and sunflower seeds in our backyards.

       That being said, it is apparent the only way we can predict whether we are going to host a lot of American goldfinches at our feeders this winter is to watch the weather reports for those parts of the continent north of Georgia.

BACKYARD SECRET — BLUE JAYS ARE NOISIER IN THE FALL AND WINTER

      Have you ever taken a walk through the woods on a crisp fall or winter day and found that you were constantly assailed by the loud, raucous calls of blue jays?  If you have, chances are you wondered if it was your imagination that these large, handsome birds seem to call more frequently at this time of the year than in spring and summer.  The truth of the matter is blue jays do indeed call more often during autumn and winter.

       I have long been aware of this fact.  I first became aware of this when I found a blue jay nest near my home.  Throughout their entire nesting period, I never heard a sound made by the nesting birds.  However, during the fall, long after the blue jays had fledged their young, the jays living in that neck of the woods frequently called. 

       The reason for this is, if the jays regularly called near their nest, predators might be alerted to the fact that the birds are nesting somewhere close.  This might prompt an avian or mammalian predator that might hunt for food elsewhere to focus its attention on the area where it frequently hears blue jays calling.

       However, during the fall and winter when blue jays are spending most of their time roaming the woodlands looking for food, they routinely communicate with one another and other animals via their loud calls.  In addition, during these feeding forays, should they encounter a hawk or other predator, they are quick to sound the alarm to any critter living nearby.  

HOW MANY DIFFERENT SPECIES OF BIRDS DO YOU FEED IN YOUR YARD?

        According to data collected by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch, some 350 species of birds feed at backyard bird feeders throughout the North American Continent.  Only 90 of these birds are considered regular visitors to our feeders.  The vast majority of the birds that eat at feeders are only casual visitors.  Do you have any idea how many different birds you have fed at your feeders over the years?

         Recently I tallied the number of species that have visited feeders at my Monroe County home during the past 40+ years.  My wife and I have tallied feeding 38 species of birds during this period.  Three birds strictly fed on suet.  One species ate suet and fruit.  An additional four species consumed only hummingbird nectar, or jelly.  The remaining 30 species either exclusively ate seeds or also supplemented their diet with other foods too. 

         In addition, five species were only seen using our birdbaths.

         The keys to attracting the greatest variety of birds to your feeder include offering birds a wide variety seeds (sunflower seeds, white millet, safflower seeds), suet, jelly, hummingbird nectar, cornbread, fruits, nuts, and the like.  Offer these foods in a variety of feeders and locations.  Some birds simply prefer to feed on the ground, other avian diners are more likely to visit feeders suspended from wires or sitting atop poles.  Also, it is a good idea to space feeders widely apart; this reduces competition between the various birds visiting your feeding area.

         Now that we are in the winter bird feeding season, how many different species of birds, do you anticipate seeing at your feeders during the next few months?  Depending on where you live in Georgia, I would say, you would be doing exceptionally well if you see as many as 25 species this winter.  As a rule, urban homeowners feed fewer birds than those folks living in suburban and rural settings do.  However even though I suspect most of us will feed fewer than 25 birds this winter.  Speaking for myself, I will be enjoying watching whatever birds show up.

GEORGIA’S SECOND HUMMINGBIRD SEASON IS IN FULL SWING

       Georgia’s second hummingbird season is now in full swing.  This season runs from November 1 through the end of February. Although fewer hummingbirds visit our feeders during this time of the year, far more species of hummingbirds are seen in the Peach State during these four months than at any other time of the year.

       While a few ruby-throated hummingbirds winter in the Peach State each year, the hummingbird most often seen at Peach State feeders during the winter is the rufous.  The rufous hummingbird breeds throughout the Pacific Northwest as far north as southern Alaska.  This hummingbird traditionally winters in central Mexico.  However, over the past several decades some of these migrants have been wintering every winter across the Southeast.

       Today, while I was working in my home office, I spotted my first rufous of the year feeding at a feeder hanging just outside my office window.

       If you want to give yourself a chance to see a rufous or one of the other hummingbirds that visit Georgia in the winter, maintain a hummingbird feeder in your yard throughout the winter.  Chances are you will not see one of these special birds.  However, if one of these birds does make an appearance, it will be something you will not soon forget.

A FEW OF THE PILEATED WOODPECKER’S SECRETS ARE REVEALED

Have you ever stopped to think about how little you know about woodpeckers? I know I have.  For most of us, our knowledge of them is based largely on fleeting sightings of the woodpeckers foraging for food on our backyard trees, hearing their loud calls reverberate through our neighborhoods and their incessant drumming on trees far out in the woods behind our houses.  This is especially true of the pileated woodpecker. Even though it is our largest woodpecker, it does not visit our feeders as often as its smaller kin do.  Fortunately, for those of us that ponder such things, biologists have unlocked some the secrets that have shrouded the private life of the pileated woodpecker.  Let’s take a look at the fascinating winter roosting behavior of this impressive bird.

            As a rule, pileated woodpeckers do not roost in their nesting cavity.  Instead, like many of Georgia’s woodpeckers, pileated woodpeckers usually chisel out roughly four cavities that they use solely for roosting.  Each is excavated in a dead tree.  However, in one study, as many as 12 roosting cavities were documented being used by a single bird.  These hollows are critical to their survival during extremely cold winter weather.  The reason for this is good roosting cavities provide the birds with places to sleep out of sight of nighttime predators, as well as protection from the deleterious effects of frigid winds and temperatures.  The insulating affect of a roosting site can be so significant and can ultimately determine whether or not a woodpecker will survive an extremely cold night.

            Biologists have learned that roosting pileated woodpeckers do not sleep on the bottoms of their roosting sites.  To the contrary, they sleep perched upright clutching on to the interior side of the roost site with their bills neatly tucked beneath a wing.

            For reasons that are not fully understood, pileated woodpeckers might roost of up to four consecutive days and they suddenly begin roosting in another cavity.  Alternate roosting sites are often located quite some distance away.

            I will probably never witness a pileated woodpecker going to roost late on a winter afternoon just before my neighborhood is cloaked in darkness.  However, even though I know a smidgeon about the roosting behavior of this remarkable bird, I simply cannot imagine how challenging it is for this impressive bird to weather the bone-chilling cold on a crisp, clear, frigid winter night.  However, I am glad they are up to the challenge.

WINTER ROOSTING COVER FOR AMERICAN GOLDFINCHES

        With cold weather lurking just around the corner, the thoughts of many backyard wildlife enthusiasts have turned to providing winter roosting sites for their backyard bird neighbors.  As such, some are winterizing nesting boxes or erecting roosting boxes.  These measures help birds that roost in cavities such residents as Carolina chickadees, brown-headed nuthatches, and eastern bluebirds.  However, little thought is given to providing winter roosts for birds that do not use natural or manmade cavities as nighttime roosts. 

       The truth of the matter is most backyards such as sparrows, finches, robins, mockingbirds, cardinals, doves, and a host of others roost in vegetation.  One such bird is the American goldfinch. 

       The American goldfinch roosts in dense vegetation. The birds often roost among the needles of conifers.  When they cannot locate such a roost site and are forced to spend the night in an open spot, their risk of succumbing to the cold dramatically increases.  In fact, when they roost in thick leafy vegetation, they can use one-third less energy to survive a frigid night than they would if they roosted in a more exposed spot.  The energy saved can mean the difference between life and death.

       Do you have any thick shrubs or trees in your yard that goldfinches and other birds could roost for a winter roost site this winter?  

BACKYARD SECRET – BLUE JAYS COMMUNICATE WITH THEIR CRESTS

       We all recognize that blue jays communicate with one another using a wide variety of calls; however, it is less widely known that these noisy birds also communicate with their cohorts using their crests.  In fact, you can learn much about a blue jay’s state of mind by looking at how high a jay’s crest is held above its head.

       Blue jays use their crests to demonstrate its level of calmness and aggression.  For example, the next time you see one or more blue jays placidly feeding in your yard, undoubtedly, their crests will be held close to their heads.  However, if a family cat comes into their view; their crests will instantaneously become erect.  On the other hand, should the cat turn around and walk in the other direction realizing the feline no longer poses a threat; the birds’ crests will drop.  Similarly, if a blue jay is startled by the arrival of a bird the blue jay perceives as a competitor for the food it is dining on, such as an American crow, the jay will erect its crest.  By the same, if a cardinal alights near a feeding jay, the blue jay might not raise its crest at all. 

       How high a jay erects its crest is indicative of its perceived level of threat or agitation.  For example, if a blue jay notices a hawk circling in the sky some distance away, it may not fully raise its crest.  However, once the hawk flies close enough to where the jay senses it poses an imminent threat, its crest will then become fully erect.

 

ATTRACTING PILEATED WOODPECKERS TO A FEEDER IS A CHALLENGE

              It is truly a challenge to attract a pileated woodpecker to a feeder.  I have been feeding birds for more than a half a century and have never fed a morsel of food to a pileated woodpecker.   However, pileated woodpeckers do visit backyard bird feeders.  According to data collected in Project FeederWatch, less than a quarter of the people that feed birds in the Southeast host pileated woodpeckers.

            Personally, I can count on one hand the number of people that have told me they have been able to attract our largest woodpecker to their feeders.  However, several years ago Leon and Julie Neel told me that pileated woodpeckers visited a  homemade suet feeder outside their home near Thomasville.  This feeder was truly unique and beautiful.  The feeder was a large cypress knee.  Suet was packed into a number of large holes drilled around the knee.  This feeder was both functional and beautiful.

            If you want to meet the challenge of trying to attract a pileated woodpecker to your feeders, there are a few facts you need to know.  First,

The pileated woodpecker was not considered a feeder bird until the 1950s.  Since that time, pileated woodpeckers have visited feeders more frequently.

            If a pileated woodpecker begins visiting your feeder, it will typically be extremely cautious.  However, its trepidation will somewhat diminish with time.

            Initially, only one bird will visit a feeder.  However, don’t be surprised if the bird’s mate visits later.  The reason for this is the members of  a  pair of pileated woodpeckers maintain a bond with one another throughout the entire year.  In addition, they occupy  the same territory throughout all seasons.  However, they are more tolerant of other pileated woodpeckers that might enter their territory during the winter.

            The best food to use to attract pileated woodpeckers is suet.  You can use either plain or peanut butter suet. 

            Suet should be offered in a large feeder.  Large feeders attached to the trunk of a tree work well.  Suet can also be smeared into the bark of  a tree.  Some folks have been successful in attracting  the birds to large log suet feeders suspended on  poles.  Others smear a layer of suet between two slabs of wood, which are attached to a tree.

            If you are going to try to meet the pileated woodpecker challenge this winter, go into it with realistic expectations.  Chances are you will not be successful.  However, if are patient, you just may be rewarded with the rare opportunity of being able to see pileated woodpeckers on a regular basis. 

BACKYARD SECRET – MALE BLUEBIRDS APPEAR TO SING WITH THEIR BILLS CLOSED

     If you have ever watched eastern meadowlarks or grasshopper sparrows singing from atop a fencepost, their bills will be wide open.  However, if you take the time to watch a male eastern bluebird singing from a branch in your backyard, its beak will seem to be completely closed.  The truth the matter is, if you are able to view the bird through a pair of binoculars or spotting scope you will learn that its bill is actually barely open.  I think that is truly an amazing feat!

      

BACKYARD SECRET — WHITE-THROATED SPARROWS & DARK-EYED JUNCOS HYBRIDIZE

       Some ten percent of all species of birds hybridize.  Two of the birds that hybridize with one another are the white-throated sparrow and dark-eyed junco.

       Among the places where white-throated sparrow/dark-eyed juncos hybrids are known to occur are Canada, New York, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Arkansas, and Georgia.

       Since both species are routinely seen throughout most Georgia during the winter, it is possible that one or more of these rare birds has visited your yard.

       As you might expect, hybrids will display traits of both species.  Although, the plumage of these birds is highly variable, many have pink bills, brown wings, and gray coloration on their breasts and heads.  Their songs are known to exhibit bits and pieces of the songs sung by each species.

       Antidotal evidence suggests these unlikely hybrids are more often seen in the company of sparrows than juncos.

       If you pay close attention to the sparrows visiting your feeders this year, you just might spot one of these unusual birds.  If you do observe a sparrow that you feel might be a hybrid, take a picture of it, and let me know.  Who knows?  There may be more of these odd birds flying about than we realize.