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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.

IT IS ALMOST TIME FOR THE GREAT BACKYARD BIRD COUNT

       Each year during a brief four-day period in February, literally thousands of folks throughout the world take time away from their busy schedules to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC).  During this brief time period were are given the opportunity to serve as citizen scientists dedicated to collecting data that enables biologists better monitor the winter distributions and movements of literally thousands of birds.  This year the count dates are February 12-15, 2021.

       Since the count began in 1998, the GBBC has experienced astounding growth.  These figures demonstrated its size and scope.  In 2020, the count was conducted in 194 countries.  An estimated 268,674 people participated in the event.  The citizen scientists tallied 27,270,156 individual birds representing an amazing 6,942 species.

       The list of the ten most frequently reported species contains birds that are native to the United States. This figure reflects the number of checklists reporting these species.  This is not surprising when you consider that the USA led the world in the number of checklists submitted (169,234).  This total was far above the numbers of submitted by any other country.  This is demonstrated by the fact that India finished a distant second with 26,979 checklists submitted.

  1. Northern Cardinal (70,168)
  2. Dark-eyed Junco (59,318)
  3. Mourning Dove (58,361)
  4. Downy Woodpecker (52,276)
  5. Blue Jay – (50,808)
  6. House Sparrow (49,180)
  7. House Finch (48,796)
  8. American Crow (48,639)
  9. Black-capped Chickadee (43,775)
  10. Red-bellied Woodpecker (40,826)

       Three of the great things about this count are you don’t have to be an expert to take part.  Just report those species you can identify.  Each count requires a minimum of 15 minutes of your time.  Finally, you select where you want hold a count.  If you do not want count the birds in your backyard, pick any other place you want (e.g. park, schoolyard, your entire neighborhood or simply a small wetland near your home.)

       For more details, go to the Great Backyard Bird Count website. www.birdcount.org

AMERICAN CROWS ARE FASCINATING TO WATCH

       Recently my daughter and granddaughter made their first attempt to feed crows .  What they did not know as they scattered sugarcoated popcorn on their lawn, was that they would soon have front row seats watching a crow do something they never imagined they would ever see.   

       Remarkably, 15-30 minutes after they returned to the house after setting the table for the crow banquet, two American crows showed up and slowly walked up to the food offerings.  The birds fed for a short while and then departed leaving a small amount of  popcorn  here and there across the lawn.

       Later that same day three crows flew in to the feeding area.  While the birds were feeding on the remaining food, one of the crows picked up some popcorn, carried it to another part of the lawn, and pushed the food down into the dry two to three-inch tall grass.  It then placed grass clippings atop the stash of food.  This behavior was repeated a few more times before the birds left.  They thought it was odd that the bird tilted its head sideways each time it hide popcorn.

   

       The next morning two crows reappeared at the recently- opened crow diner.  During this visit, one of crows walked over to some of the spots where popcorn had been hidden the day before and retrieved the food hidden there.

       Clearly, what my daughter and granddaughter witnessed was a behavior often referred to as short-term hoarding.  The bits of grass arranged above each stash served as a marker.  In addition,  it is believed that when the crow tilted its head sideways at each location of a stash it was forming a mental image of the marker with one eye, as well as the general locale with the other.

       After the crows left, my daughter and granddaughter were left with the unforgettable memory of a remarkable example of  bird feeding behavior that far exceeded their expectations.

       The next time American crows fly into your feeding area, keep a close eye on them.  Who knows what you will see?

BACKYARD SECRET — BLUE JAYS HOARD CHIPS OF PAINT

       It is a well-known fact that many birds, including blue jays, hoard food.  However, some blue jays take hoarding to a new level.  It seems that at times blue jays will actually hoard chips of paint plucked from the sides of houses and other buildings.

       Nobody knows for sure why these large, handsome birds would ever want to hoard paint chips.  However, some suggest they use the chips as a source of calcium.  Who knows?

COMMON GRACKLES ARE NOT ALWAYS WELCOMED AT OUR FEEDERS

        Most of us enjoy hosting a variety of birds at our feeders.  However, the common grackle one bird that is not always a welcomed guest in our backyards.

       The common grackle is one of the larger birds that frequent our feeders.  Common grackles measure anywhere from 12-12.5 inches in length.  This makes them three to four times larger than a finch.  I often hear people say the common grackle uses its large size and threatening bill to bully other smaller birds away from feeding nearby.  This does not endear it to people that enjoy watching other birds partake in their feeder offerings.

       If that is not enough to turn public opinion against them, the bird has an appetite that matches its size.  A single grackle can eat a huge amount of food in a very short period to time.  This problem is especially acute when a flock of wintering grackles descends on our feeders.  As anybody that feeds birds knows, a flock of grackles can wipe out a feeder full of black oil sunflower seeds in a matter of minutes. 

       They also love suet.  I personally have seen them devour a cake of suet in a single afternoon.

       Whenever I make presentations dealing with bird feeding people often ask, “How can I deal with this problem?”

       Although there is no perfect solution to this dilemma, here is a list of a few of the ways in which you can deal with common grackles devouring too much food are your feeders.

       When grackles arrive, stop feeding birds on feeding trays and hoppers.  Grackles seem to prefer feeding at flat, open feeders and feeders equipped with large perches.  Replace them with tube feeders with short perches.  You can also purchase feeders with removable perches, which prevent larger birds from using them.  Feeders surrounded with wire cages are also available.  These wire barriers prevent larger birds from taking seeds from the feeder standing in the middle of the cage.

       During times when grackles are a problem, begin offering foods that grackles do not like.  For example, avoid feeding scratch feed or mixed seed containing a high percentage of cracked corn, milo, wheat, and oats.  Since grackles avoid nyger and safflower seeds, feature them at your feeders.

       There are a couple of ways to deal with suet.  I simply remove suet when grackles become a problem.  However, suet can also be placed in feeders suspended in wire cages, or use feeders that require birds to feed while hanging upside down.

       Fortunately, in my neck of the woods, common grackles do not pose a problem until the first couple of weeks in February roll around.  When the birds do make their annual appearance, I activate my grackle action plan.  If everything goes well, grackles do not hang around too long and I can resume my regular feeding regime.

             

BALTIMORE ORIOLES ARE HERE RIGHT NOW!

       Not too long ago, I would never have believed that Baltimore orioles would become regular winter residents in Georgia.  However, if they offer the right food Georgia bird-feeding enthusiasts can honestly say they now have a legitimate chance of enticing a Baltimore oriole to their yard during the coldest months of the year.

       This is truly remarkable, considering that Baltimore orioles have historically wintered from southern Mexico southward to Columbia.  If you have any question that the Baltimore oriole is expanding its winter range, simply look at recent data collected during the Great Backyard Bird Count.  During the 2020 edition of the count 302 reports of wintering Baltimore orioles involving 976 individuals were received.  The vast majority of these reports (95%) were submitted from volunteers living in a broad band of coastal states ranging from Virginia to Texas.

       This year I have received reports of Baltimore orioles feeding in backyards from College Park to Glynn County.  I am certain many more birds are going unreported. 

       While Baltimore orioles eat a wide variety of foods during the winter, you probably stand your best chance of attracting one these birds if you begin offering grape jelly at your feeders.  This recommendation is based on scores of reports I have received over the years from individuals that successfully hosted orioles in their yards.

       I might also add that most of these fortunate folks highly recommend that you use Welch’s grape jelly.  This belief is based on their contention that less expansive jellies do not contain as much fruit juice as Welch’s.  I might add that I personally cannot attest to the validity of this claim.

       If you decide to try to attract a Baltimore oriole to your yard with jelly, you can display it in any number of ways such as in a feeder specially designed for this purpose.  You can also place the jelly in small plastic containers.  I use the small containers used by restaurants to serve sauces.  I simply fill the containers with jelly and place them in the corners of a hanging platform seed feeder.

       If you are successful, instead of briefly glimpsing these birds as the pass through your yard on migration, you will be able to see one of our most colorful birds on a regular basis.  What a treat!