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ATTRACTING THE SUMMER TANAGER TO YOUR YARD IN SUMMER

       Now that summer has officially arrived, days are getting shorter with each passing day.  When this occurs many migratory birds beginning putting on the fat that will fuel the migration to their wintering grounds.  One such bird is the summer tanager.

       The summer tanager is a common resident of wooded backyards across the state.  However, in spite of the fact, males are cloaked in red feathers and the females display a two-toned plumage (olive-green above, yellow below) and sport large pale bills, this colorful bird often goes unnoticed.  This is because it often feeds in the tops of trees.

       The summer tanager primarily consumes lots of insects such as bees, wasps, cicadas, yellow jackets and grasshoppers throughout the spring and early summer.  However, throughout much of the summer as it is packing on fat in preparation for their autumn migration, fifty percent or more of its diet consists of fruits and berries. 

       Consequently, if you would like to attract local and migrating summer tanagers to your backyard at this time of the year, the best way to do that is to provide them with the fruits and berries they relish.  If you look around your yard and cannot find any of the plants that produce this much-needed food, you should make every effort to add some of them to your landscape.

       Here are some of the plants that provide fruits and berries gobbled up by summer tanagers as they prepare before they embark on their long flight to Central and South America:  blueberry, blackberry, grape, hawthorn, flowering dogwood, rough-leaf dogwood, pokeberry, and black gum.

THE RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD’S DISPLAY FLIGHT

         One of the most fascinating animal behaviors can you see in your backyard is the display flight of the male ruby-throated hummingbird.

         Over the years, I have been fortunate to witness this fete on a number of occasions.  However, until last week I had never observed it three separate times in a matter of a couple of days.

        This acrobatic maneuver is unmistakable.  The male will repeatedly fly to and fro in a wide U-shaped arc.  Often the male is so adept at retracing the path of his previous arc it appears he is coursing along an unseen track.

        At times, the bottom of the arc brings the male so close to the head of a perched female you are convinced he is going to collide with her.  As he approaches the seemingly unperturbed object of his affection, the buzzing sound created by the air passing through his tail and wing feathers becomes appreciably louder.  This dramatic display is designed to convince the female he is a suitable suitor.  However, the only time she gives him the time of day is during a handful of days prior to her laying a clutch of two eggs.

        After I enjoyed the sight of a male rubythroat engaged in an aerial display, I related the story to my wife.  She said she had never been lucky enough to see the display.  Remarkably  the very next day, while we were both standing on our deck a male suddenly appeared and performed the aerial fete in front of us.  In fact, one side of the U-shaped arc was so close to our heads I thought he was going to collide with us.

         A couple of days later my daughter was standing on the deck with us when she suddenly exclaimed,  “What is that hummingbird doing?”  I looked up and could not believe my eyes–a male rubythroat was once again engaged in a display flight.

        Observing three ruby-throated hummingbird aerial displays and being able to be with my wife and daughter when they both witnessed their first courtship displays is something I will never forget;  this is backyard wildlife watching at its best.

THE AMERICAN GOLDFINCH IS A STAR AT FEEDERS IN SUMMER

       There was a time in the not too distant past when the only bird most folks fed during the summer was the ruby-throated hummingbird.  The bird readily takes to feeders filled with sugar water.  In exchange, they provide homeowners with the opportunity to enjoy seeing this flying jewel on a regular basis.  If that isn’t enough they also treat us to countless hours of enjoyment watching them fuss with one another and displaying their aerial skills.     

        Nowadays feeding seed-eating birds during the summer is also becoming increasingly more popular.  Although the birds can easily exist without our seed offerings, feeding birds that eat seeds in the summer allows us to enjoy the comings and goings of birds we once regularly saw only during the colder months of the year. 

        Most of the birds that are attracted to summer seed feeders are birds we are all familiar with such as house finches, American goldfinches, cardinals, red-bellied woodpeckers, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees, eastern towhees, chipping sparrows, and others.  However, in the minds of many, the bird that immediately stands out as the star of the daily show played out around feeders is the American goldfinch.

        The reason for this is the male American goldfinch is dressed in his breeding plumage.  The golden radiance of the bird reaches out and grabs your attention.  Bedecked with a black cap, wings, and tail, it appears nothing like the drab yellowish-green bird we feed at our feeders in winter.

        Although both male and female American goldfinches commonly visit feeders in summer, the female retains its subdued colors.  As such, she will look pretty much the same as she does in the winter.  

        As we, all know, in winter, American goldfinches gather in flocks that can make short work of a feeder stocked with black oil sunflower seeds.  Don’t expect to see large flocks of American goldfinches at your summer feeder.  The flocks have long disbanded and scattered across the countryside.  This means you are most likely going to see one or a just a few birds come to your feeders.  However, often long before I see these beauties make their entrance onto your backyard stage; you just might hear them announce their arrival by calling, “Just look at me! Just look at me!”

        If you decide to try your hand at trying to attract an American goldfinch or two to your feeder this summer, stock it with black oil sunflower seeds.  Since you will not be feeding as many birds as you do in winter, don’t put out a lot of seed.  It is also a good idea to buy your seeds in smaller bags.  This will help prevent the stored sunflower seed from becoming infested with insect pests.      

        Once you see a male American goldfinch at your feeder this summer it will be easy to believe that, it is not the same bird you watched hulling sunflower seeds on cold winter mornings.  You will also wish that it retained its gold and black plumage throughout the entire year.

      

BACKYARD SECRET: NORTHERN CARDINALS NEST MORE THAN ONCE EACH YEAR

Now that June has arrived, many birds have completed nesting this year.  Such is not the case with the northern cardinal.  Peach State cardinals will nest up to three times a year.  They sometimes nest for the first time in March.  Second and third nesting attempts follow through early July.

MEMORIAL DAY RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRDS

        For many years right around Memorial Day, I have received reports from homeowners throughout the state reporting the numbers of hummingbirds visiting their feeders dramatically increase.  Although it is great to have squadrons of rubythroats zooming around our yards, many hummingbird experts are scratching their heads trying to figure out why the birds are so abundant at that time of the year.  This year is no exception.

        The first ruby-throated hummingbirds begin arriving throughout much of Georgia in late March.  Typically, at this time of the year it is unusual to host more than two to four birds at a time.  At the peak of migration, you are lucky if you see six of eight of these aerial acrobats in your backyard.  Most of these linger only long enough to refuel before resuming their migration to points north.

        Once the migration has passed males and female scatter across the countryside and settle into breeding territories that possess a combination of suitable nesting sites and ample food supplies.  Once a male chooses a section of real estate, he spend the rest of his time trying to attract females.  These breeding territories rarely exceed an acre to two.  Consequently, if a male doesn’t select a territory that includes your yard, you might not see any hummers visiting your feeders for a month or two.

        If another male hummingbird happens to venture into a male’s breeding habitat, the interloper is attacked and usually driven off.  For this reason, during the peak of the breeding season, you are not apt to spot more than one ruby-throated hummingbird male using the same feeder.

        While male hummers are beating up on one another, the females are busy with the serious business of either incubating a fragile clutch of black-eyed pea-sized eggs or raising their first brood of the year.  During the 10-12 days that females are incubating eggs, they spend most of their time on the nest.  As such, they have little time to visit feeders.

        Once the eggs hatch, females are kept extremely busy finding enough food to feed their young.  During the approximately three weeks the young are preparing for their first flight, females are foraging for nectar as well as small, soft-bodied insects and spiders.  These animals provide the much-needed protein necessary for the development of the young.  As you might expect, females will visit our feeders more often during this time.

        Since most of the state is in the peak of the ruby-throated hummingbird nesting season, I think you can see why it is seems odd to have swarms of hummingbirds patrolling our feeders right now.  Some suggest perhaps this invasion is due to the fact hummingbird nesting was early this year, and the year’s first brood are now joining their parents at our feeders.  However, based on my observations, this theory doesn’t hold any water.  My banding efforts in prior years during this time frame revealed that all of the birds I captured in my backyard were adults.  This year, although I have not done any early banding, I have not seen any immature birds at my feeders.

        Another possible explanation is these the birds are late migrants.  This seems unlikely since some rubythroats actually begin their southward migration in July.  This leaves precious little time for the birds to reach their nesting grounds, establish breeding territories, and raise their young.  However, since very little hummingbird banding is conducted at this time of the year in the Peach State, this theory cannot be disclaimed or proven.

        A more plausible explanation is this dramatic change in hummingbird behavior is linked to another extremely dry spring.  Once again, this year Georgia was treated with winter temperatures that were well above normal.

       As a result, flowering plants bloomed much earlier than normal in many parts of the state.  This was followed by increasingly dry conditions throughout much of April.  A lack of rainfall has persisted throughout the month of May.  This has further reduced the number of nectar-rich blooms available to hummingbirds.  According to this theory, this situation has created a food shortage for hummingbirds and other nectar feeders.  Even in the best of times, a hummingbird must often venture far and wide to feed themselves and their young.  Our feeders offer hummingbirds with abundant sources of food that can be obtained with little effort.

        If this is the scenario that is playing out this year, it will be interesting to see how this affects the success of the birds’ first nesting efforts.  In the meantime, if hummers are not currently swarming around your feeders, be patient.  Hummingbirds will be jousting with each other around your feeders in about a month. If, on the other hand, you are lucky enough to have hummingbirds draining your feeders daily, don’t worry about why they are there, just sit back, and enjoy the show.

       

A HUMMINGBIRD AND CHICKADEES BROUGHT BACKYARD SURPRISES

        I learned a long time ago to expect the unexpected whenever I venture into my backyard.   Recently two events that took place in my backyard in the same afternoon once again demonstrated you never know when you are going to witness something special.

        In this case, I walked outside to take a close look at an extremely large cluster of long, tubular-shaped orange, red, and yellow blossoms poised atop one of our red-hot poker plant’s long flower stems.  While standing within six feet of the large torch-like floral cluster, a ruby-throated hummingbird suddenly flew in and began feeding on the backside of the cluster of flowers.  I could tell the bird was there because the tips of its wings projected beyond the sides of the flowery torch.  I stood transfixed, savoring the opportunity to be standing so close to the feeding bird.  All the while the bird fed I was hoping its feeding activities would bring it around to my side of the torch.  I would like to report my vigil was rewarded; however, the bird eventually flew off without circling the blossoms.  As it flew away, I could see the bird was an adult male rubythroat.

        About an hour later, I went outside to see what else was going on outside my backdoor.  This time when I reached the top of the steps leading from the deck into the yard, an adult Carolina chickadee perched in a nearby dogwood caught my eye.  Since the bird seemed agitated I began looking about to see if the family cat was nearby.

        Although I did not spot the cat, I saw four young chickadees flying from plant to plant.  The birds had obviously just fledged from a nearby log nesting structure.  Not wanting to stress the young birds, I watched the birds from the deck.  It was obvious the youngsters were testing out their wings for the first time.  They flew very slowly, never attaining an altitude of more than six feet.  These flights were short and ended in clumsy landings.

        Fearing my presence would alert the cat to what was going on, coupled with my desire not to hinder their initial attempts to fly, I went back inside.  An hour or so later I went returned outside and was pleased the new squadron of chickadees had moved on.

        I could not believe how fortunate I was to enjoy two fantastic wildlife adventures in the same afternoon.  While I always find something of interest whenever I make a backyard trek, it is not often that I experience two very special encounters with my backyard neighbors within hours of each other.

        What a day!

BACKYARD SECRET – LITTLE-KNOWN NEST PREDATORS

        Now that the nesting season is in full swing, the birds nesting in our backyards face formidable odds trying to fledge their young. As we all know, many nesting attempts end in failure due the fact predators eat both eggs and young.
       A list of the better-known nest predators includes crows, blue jays, raccoons, rat snakes, and opossums. However, there are a number of other animals that also eat eggs and/or nestlings. For example, would you believe deer mice, flying squirrels, and eastern chipmunks also raid bird nests?
      I find it amazing that cardinals, mockingbirds, bluebirds, and other backyard nesters are able to raise as many young as they do.

DO BACKYARD BIRDS PRACTICE MONOGAMY?

        Up until a few decades ago, biologists believed that as many as 93 percent of songbird families practiced monogamy.  However, since the development of DNA fingerprinting in the 1980s, we now know some birds that appear to be devoted mates will stray.

        This earth-shattering realization came about quickly.  For example, by 2002, researchers discovered that up until that time a meager 14 percent of the songbirds tested were truly monogamous.  Research has shown 19 percent of the nests of supposed monogamous birds are home to at least one nestling that was sired by a father different from the rest of its nest mates.

        A few of the backyard birds that are promiscuous are the eastern bluebird, ruby-throated hummingbird, house finch, and red-winged blackbird.

        It would appear that some of our backyard feathered neighbors live soap opera lives.

PROVIDING NESTING MATERIAL FOR HUMMERS

       Have you ever given any thought of trying to provide nesting hummingbirds with a source of nesting material?  I must admit while I have placed pieces of cotton in a wire suet feeder in the spring hoping it might be used by nesting birds, I never considered the possibility the white fibers might be used by a ruby-throated hummingbird.  However, three events have caused me to change my mind.

        Several years ago, I presented a hummingbird program to a garden club in southwest Georgia that met in the home of one of its members.  While I was setting up my projector and screen, the host asked me if I ever heard of a hummingbird using cotton to build a nest.  I told her although I had not, I could see how hummingbirds might incorporate cotton in a nest. 

        She then went on the explain that she had seen a female hummer collect cotton in her backyard.  It seems she planted a cotton seed in a pot that sat near her house.  The seed germinated and grew into a healthy plant festooned with balls of cotton.  Since the plant looked attractive, she left it in pot throughout the winter.

        The following spring while she was standing in her living room, looking out across her patio a female hummingbird flew down, plucked some cotton fibers from a cotton ball, and flew up to a nearby tree.  The bird repeated this behavior several times.  Although she never actually saw the bird using the cotton to build a nest, she surmised that is what the little bird was doing.

        I was reminded of this homeowner’s experience last week when I received an email from a man relating that he had witnessed a female hummingbird collect a bit of cotton from a suet feeder filled with cotton batting.  This prompted him to search for a nest.  Remarkably, his efforts paid off and he discovered a hummingbird nest close by.

        Earlier this week I mentioned this event to a cousin.  He was so intrigued by the story he went out and bought a wire suet feeder, filled it with cotton, and hung it out near his home.  Unbelievably before the sun set he spotted a female hummer pulling strands of cotton from the  feeder.  Now he is looking for a nest.

        With this kind of success, perhaps this is something we should all try.  Even though a hummingbird might not avail itself of the cotton we offer, chances are other nesting birds will.  

SPOTTED HORSEMINT–GREAT FOR BUTTERFLIES AND HUMMINGBIRDS

        Since you are a wildlife enthusiast, at this time of the year you are probably spending a lot of time gardening for wildlife.  With that in mind, I would like to suggest that you consider adding spotted horsemint (Monarda punctata) to your home landscape.  In addition, to producing a bevy of gorgeous purple-spotted blossoms that are accompanied by creamy to pink bracts framing each cluster of blossoms, this native perennial is also a butterfly and hummingbird favorite.

        The spotted horsemint (also known as spotted beebalm) grows up to three feet tall.  It prefers sand, and well-drained soil types although it will set its roots in other soils too.  Plants seem to do best when planted in full sun.  In addition, spotted horsemint can withstand dry conditions.

        This plant produces a multitude of stems and spreads via rhizomes.  As such, I find it is best to plant it in spots where it will not compete with other plants.

        I should also mention this native wildflower is resistant to deer browsing.  This is a real bonus as many homeowners are faced with the problem of hungry whitetails devouring their favorite flowering plants and shrubs.

        Planting spotted horsemint in your garden is an excellent way to enhance the wild plant diversity in your backyard.