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YOU MAY NOT HAVE TO LEAVE YOUR YARD TO SEE SPRING MIGRANTS

      I suspect that most folks that enjoy birding would like to make the trek to Texas’ High Island to witness the spring songbird migration.  If you catch conditions just right, in a single day, you can get up close and personal to 30 species of warblers and literally scores of vireos tanagers and other birds.  While this small island is the one of the very best places to see spring migrations, if you have the right habitat, you can see a kaleidoscope of songbirds from March into May pass through your own yard.

       As migratory songbirds move northward, they make a number of stops before they reach their breeding grounds.  These bits of critical habitat are referred to as stopover areas.  Songbirds rest and refuel at these locations.  Backyards offering the birds the proper food, water, and cover can serve as stopover sites.

       The vast majority of migratory songbirds rarely visit feeders stocked with seeds and suet.  However, can you attract them if you offer them the foods that will help fuel their spring migration flights.  By far, the most important foods eaten by spring migrants are insects.  However, the bulk of the insects consumed by the birds are the larvae of moths and butterflies (commonly referred to as caterpillars).

       Most of these caterpillars feed on tree leaves.  Therefore, if one or more of the trees that serve as hosts for moths and butterflies is growing in your yard, the better are your chances of attracting spring migrants.

       When it comes to hosting moths and butterflies not all trees are created equal.  The worst trees are introduced ornamentals.  Some of these trees do not host any moths and butterflies.  Studies have shown ornamentals produce 35 times less caterpillar biomass than native trees.

       Here is a short list of some of the native trees that host the most species of moths and butterflies.  The numbers of species of moths and butterflies that each tree hosts are found in parentheses.  This list was developed by Dr. Doug Tallamy. 

       In Georgia, oaks (557) serve as host plants for more butterflies and moths than any other group of trees.  Other important hosts to lepidopterans are cherries (456), willows (455), birches (411), poplars (367) crabapples (308), maples (297), alders (255), hickories (235), elms (215), pines (201), hawthorns (168), beeches (127), dogwoods (118), and sweetgum (35).

       Should you find that none of these trees are in your yard, if you want to have your yard serve as a spring songbird stopover site, consider planting one or more trees found on this list.  The small investment in time and labor this requires will pay huge dividends for decades to come.

       If you already have one or more of the caterpillar producers growing in your yard, from now into May, periodically scan the tree foliage for migrants.  How long the migrants stay is largely dependent on the amount of food they find.  If your trees don’t harbor many caterpillars, migrants might stay and feed for only a day.  Conversely, if caterpillars are abundant, migrants may linger for three or more days before moving on.

       If you are lucky, one morning you may walk outside and see your trees alive with a dozen or more warblers gleaning insects for your trees’ foliage.  While you might see far more species at High Island, the fact that you spotted these birds in your yard will make the experience extra special.

       

OFFERING HUMMINGBIRDS NESTING MATERIAL

        If you are looking for a gift for hummingbird devotees, a hummingbird nesting kit may be the answer.

       You can purchase kits from several companies or make your own.  Each kit consists of a wire suet feeder and a supply of nesting material.  All of the kits I checked out online contain either raw or processed cotton.  Some even include kapok and lichens.

       Currently hummingbird nesting kits are rarely employed in Georgia.  In fact, I only know one couple that annually offers cotton to ruby-throated hummingbirds .  They have told me that, on several occasions, they have seen female hummingbirds collecting cotton from their wire cages.  They also mentioned hummingbirds have a definite preference for loose cotton over cotton balls.  Perhaps this is because the birds find it more difficult to pull fibers out of a compacted ball.  Who knows?

       I suspect, in most locales, hummingbirds have little problem finding plant down to line their nests.  If that is the case, you might ask yourself,  “Why would anybody want to offer ruby-throated hummingbirds cotton?”  One reason might be having an ample supply of cotton fibers available to line their tiny nests makes the female’s arduous job of constructing a nest a little easier.  However, it may be because hummingbird fans simply want to experience the exhilaration that stems from watching a hummingbird actually use “their” cotton to construct its nest. 

       I know it would make my day!

BACKYARD SECRET — IT IS POSSIBLE TO TELL ONE DOWNY WOODPECKER FROM ANOTHER

       It is common knowledge that the male downy woodpecker has a red patch on the back of its head.  Female downies lack such a patch.  Knowing this, you can easily tell a male from a female downy woodpecker.

       However, did you know that you could distinguish between individual downy woodpeckers?  Remarkably, this is possible.  It seems that the black and white pattern displayed on the back of the head of each downy woodpecker is slightly different from that displayed by any other downy.  

       With that in mind, if you photograph or sketch the patterns displayed on the napes of each downy woodpeckers seen at your feeders, you can learn all sorts of neat things regarding the downy woodpeckers that feed in your yard.  You can determine how many individuals use your feeders.  It would also be possible to discover if some birds are more dominant.  You name it.

       This technique is similar to the one used by biologists to differentiate between individual zebras.  In the case of zebras, each animal has its own distinctive pattern of black and white stripes.

MORE NEST BOX INFORMATION

        In response to the recent blog regarding the placement on birdhouses in backyard settings, one of our fellow bloggers requested information concerning the minimum size of entrance holes recommended for the species mentioned.  Realizing many others might have the same question, below you will find this information.  In addition, I have included the recommended  minimum height a box should be placed above the ground for each of these eight species.

Species Minimum Hole Size Height Above Ground
Eastern Bluebird 1.5″ 5′
Carolina Chickadee 1 1/8″ 5′
Tree Swallow 1 3/8″ 5′
Tufted Titmouse 1 1/8″ 5′
Carolina Wren 1.5″ 5′
House Wren 1 1/8″ 5′
Great Crested Flycatcher 1.5″ 6′
Brown-headed Nuthatch 1 5′

BIRDHOUSES ARE OFTEN PLACED TOO CLOSE TOGETHER

     Nesting birds are often very territorial.  As such, when one pair spots another pair of the same species trying to nest too close to their nesting site, conflicts emerge.  With that in mind, one of the reasons why birds do not use birdhouse in some yards is boxes are placed too close together.  When nesting boxes are packed in too closely, some birds of the same species will fight with one another and sometimes end up not nesting at all.

      NESTING PAIR OF BLUEBIRDS

       With this in mind, here is a list of some of the birds that commonly nest in Georgia backyards and the recommended spacing between boxes designed avoid territorial battles.

Eastern Bluebird – Minimum of 100 yards.

Carolina Chickadee – 30 feet

Tree Swallow – 35 feet

Tufted Titmouse – 580 feet

Carolina Wren – 330 feet

House Wren – 100 feet

Great Crested Flycatcher – 1 box per 6 acres

Brown-headed Nuthatch – 1 box per 6 acres

       Keep in mind that some species tolerate birds of another species nesting close to their nest.  For example, eastern bluebirds will allow Carolina chickadees to nest well within 100 yards of their nests.  In this case, if a Carolina chickadee nest box  is equipped with an entrance hole measuring 1 1/6th of an inch in diameter, bluebirds would never try to nest in a birdhouse with an entrance hole that small. 

BACKYARD SECRET–THE HUMMINGBIRD HAS THE FEWEST FEATHERS OUT OF ANY OF OUR BACKYARD BIRDS

As remarkable as it may seem, the hummingbird is cloaked with fewer feathers than any other bird in the entire world.  Depending on the species, a hummingbird’s plumage is comprised of only 1,000 – 1,500 feathers.  In comparison, the emperor penguin is covered with 80,000 feathers.

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.