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BACKYARD SECRET: FEW NORTH AMERICAN BIRDS HAVE BLUE FEATHERS

       Blue jays and eastern bluebirds are undoubtedly the two most common blue birds seen in Georgia backyards.  In addition, from time to time we also spot indigo buntings, blue grosbeaks, and other birds that display varying amounts of blue feathers just outside our backdoors. 

      Since we regularly see birds that display the color blue you might be surprised to learn only two percent of all of the species of birds found in North America have blue feathers.

BACKYARD SECRET – THE FALL BIRD MIGRATION IS HUGE

       Have you ever stopped to wonder how many birds migrate in North America each fall? If so, chances are more birds are on the move each fall than you ever imagined.  Those folks that make their living studying birds estimate that some five billion birds migrate across our continent each autumn.

       Some of these birds nest, feed, or pass through our yards.  With that in mind, keep your eyes peeled for the appearance of some of these long-distance travelers in your yard.  One way that you can attract these birds is by operating a mister.  Misters have the reputation of attracting a wide assortment of birds that are otherwise rarely seen in backyard settings.

       Since the migration is well underway, now is a great time to set up a mister in your yard.

HUMMINGBIRDS ARE SWARMING TO SCARLET SAGE

      Having studied hummingbirds for decades, I have learned the folks that usually attract the most birds to their yards are those that plant a wide variety of flowering plants that offer the birds plenty of food from spring through fall; supplemented with sugar water served in feeders.  There is no better time to witness this than August. 

       I say this because hummingbirds are more abundant in our yards right now than they have been at any time earlier this year.  As such, if you have planted a wide variety of nectar-laden plants, this is a great time to see which of these plants these tiny-feathered jewels favor during the heat of summer.  The abundance of hummingbirds gives you the opportunity to assess their food preferences in a very short period.

       For years, my wife and I have been planting a host of different plants for hummingbirds.  Right now, by far, the plant most often visited by hummingbirds is scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea).  This Georgia native produces an abundance of scarlet red one-inch long tubular-shaped flowers.

       We are growing scarlet sage in flowerbeds with companion plants such as black-eyed Susans, purple coneflower, zinnia, blanket flower, and cosmos.  We also have it planted in containers on our deck.  Some containers contain nothing other than scarlet sage.  However, since it produces an abundance of seed, some of the seeds dropped last year somehow found their way into nearby pots where my wife is rooting buddleia and roses.  Additionally, scarlet sage has volunteered in containers where she scattered the seeds of zinnias, blanket flowers, and black-eyed Susans this spring.  Scarlet sage is growing well there too.

       From morning to dusk, hummingbirds repeatedly visit the scarlet sage blooms more often than those of lantana, zinnia, trumpet creeper, Turk’s cap, purple salvia, hosta, Mexican sunflower, and other hummingbird favorites.  This plant has literally become a hummingbird magnet.

       While I thoroughly enjoy watching rubythroats feeding at scarlet sage blooms planted about the yard, I especially enjoy those growing in containers on our deck.  Regardless of whether I am working on the deck or sitting nearby the plants enjoying a cup of coffee and having the birds feed a few feet away.

       If you do not have as much hummingbird activity around the flowering plants blooming in your yard right now, I suggest you begin planting hummingbird food plants.  By including them in your gardens, next year your yard will be more beautiful, hummingbirds will have more food choices and the numbers of hummers using your yard should increase.  Now that is called a win, win, win situation.

        

PANTING HELPS BACKYARD BIRDS KEEP COOL

          During the current heat wave, when we step outside into our   backyards one might think we have entered Sonora Desert.  With daily temperatures hovering in the 90s and heat indexes soaring well above 100˚F, trying to keep cool is next to impossible.  While it is difficult for us to keep cool in this oppressive heat, rest assured it also tough for our bird neighbors.

          One way in which our bodies try to keep us cool is by sweating.  When perspiration builds up on our skin and evaporates into the air.  Although none of us like to be covered with sweat, sweating does help keep us from overheating.  Since birds do not have any sweat glands, one of the ways in which they eliminate excess body heat is through a behavior called gular fluttering (more commonly known as panting).

        When a bird is panting, it opens its mouth and flutters its neck muscles.  This increases the airflow across the airsacs in its lungs.  This, in turn, helps excess heat and moisture to pass from a bird’s lungs into the air expelled when the bird breathes out. 

        Now you know why birds don’t sweat the heat.

BACKYARD SECRET: BIRDS ARE FANS OF POKEBERRIES

        Pokeweed is one of the many plants homeowners often refer to as weeds.  These objects of our distain try to grow in alongside our precious cultivated plants, invade our lawns, and are generally viewed of as nuisances.  However, some of these plants may be more valuable than you think.  One such plant is pokeweed. 

       Other than the few folks that dine on the plants tender shoots in the spring, pokeweed is not a plant most people allow to grow in their backyards.  This is unfortunate because, if allow to grow in the right spot it produces a bounty of dark purple berries that are relished by more than 50 species of birds.  Among the backyard favorites the devour pokeberries are cardinals, mourning doves, mockingbirds, and bluebirds.  The berries also provide nourishment for fall migrants such as thrushes and vireos that pass through our backyards on their fall migration.

       Although pokeberries are often considered a fall food, they are just beginning to ripen in my backyard.  This event caught the attention of a mockingbird.  Although the vast majority of the pokeberries in my backyard are still green, as soon as one turns dark purple the mockingbird gobbles it up.

       I must admit I remove pokeberries from some of my flower gardens.  Meanwhile, I let me grow in idle spots and in the shrubby borders that define the north and south sides of my yard.

       If a pokeberry takes root in a similar spot in your yard, I urge you to let it grow.  It will provide your avian neighbors with an important source of food later in the year.

BACKYARD SECRET: HUMMINGBIRDS PREFER NECTAR WITH PLENTY OF SUGAR

   

    RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD FEEDING

       Ruby-throated hummingbirds do not feed at flowers containing small amounts of nectar.  In fact, they refuse to feed at flowers harboring less than 12 percent sugar.

       Studies have found that they prefer to dine on nectar that contains anywhere from twenty to twenty-five percent sugar.

       With that in mind, is it any wonder the recommended ratio of sugar to water in the sugar water we most often feed hummingbirds dining at our backyard feeders is one part sugar to four parts water?

BACKYARD SECRET: AMERICAN GOLDFINCHES NEST DURING THE HEAT OF SUMMER

       In Georgia, the American goldfinch is one of the last birds to nest.  In fact, most of these colorful birds don’t even begin nesting until late June.  However, most nesting occurs during July and August.  Remarkably, some American goldfinch nests remain active into September.

       In spite of the fact they prefer to nest in habitats featuring small trees and shrubs, they will also nest in our backyards.  If you are fortunate enough to have a pair of American goldfinches nest in your yard, you are in for a real treat!

       It seems the female is charged with the with the duty of incubating the eggs.  During these 12-14 days, she will spend upwards to 95 percent of her time perched atop her fragile eggs.

As you might imagine, this leaves little time for to feed.  In spite of this, the dedicated female never goes without food.

AMERICAN GOLDFINCH (Male)

       The reason for this is every hour or so throughout the day her mate will circle the nest.  If the female is hungry, she will softly call to him.  Upon hearing the call, he quickly drops down from the sky and lands near the hidden nest.  Once he lands the female will leave the nest and land nearby.  He then quickly feeds her a nutritious meal of partially digested seeds.  After eating, the male flies away and the female returns to her nest.

       If you suspect American goldfinches are nesting in your yard, be on the lookout for a male repeatedly flying in circles over a small tree or shrub.  If your suspicions prove to be correct, you will have the wonderful opportunity of witnessing this rarely seen behavior on regular basis.

INDEPENDENCE DAY HUMMINGBIRD EXPLOSION

        No Independence Day celebration would be complete without fireworks.  The explosions of brilliant colors against the dark summer night add a special excitement to this festive time of the year.  However, during this special time of the year aerial kaleidoscopes of color do not have to be confined to the night.  From dawn to dusk, hummingbirds decked out in iridescent green and red streak across Georgia backyards creating their own colorful aerial displays.

       July is a special time of the year for hummingbird enthusiasts.  Beginning around Independence Day there is an explosion of hummingbirds at our feeders.  Up until then, ruby-throated hummingbirds have been scattered across the countryside living in discreet breeding territories measuring an acre or more in size.  Consequently, aside for a brief period that extends from late May into early June, large concentrations of hummers around our feeders are rare occurrences.  All of this changes after the females complete their nesting chores.  With the breeding season largely coming to an end, rubythroats begin preparing for their fall migration.

       For these flying dynamos, getting ready for this epic journey means storing the fat needed to fuel their southward flight away from backyards across North America.  These tiny birds may visit 1,500 flowers in a single day trying to put on weight as quickly as possible.

       The main sources of food are nectar gleaned from flowers, small soft-bodied invertebrates as well as the sugar water we offer them at feeders hanging in our backyards.  Since drought conditions across much of the state have resulted in a paucity of nectar-laden wildflowers this year, nectar will be in short supply this summer.  This forces the birds to look to the flowering plants and hummingbird bird feeders located in our backyards for a readily available source of energy.

       The folks that will host the most hummingbirds at this time of the year are those that had the foresight to incorporate a variety of nectar-bearing flowers into their landscape design to go along with feeders filled with fresh nectar.  If you failed to plant flowers for hummingbirds this past spring, make a mental note to do so next year. 

       Meanwhile offer your hummingbird visitors plenty of nectar.  Begin by hanging up one or two feeders.  Add additional feeders as the number of diners at your backyard cafe increase.  Make sure there is always plenty of food for the birds.  If you plan on going on vacation, ask a neighbor to monitor and refill feeders as needed.  This will help ensure an explosion of ruby-throated hummingbirds will be patrolling your feeders long after the fireworks of this Independence Day have faded away.

BACKYARD SECRET: CARDINALS HAVE TWO VOICE BOXES

      The song of the northern cardinal is one of the most beautiful songs we hear in our backyards.  Remarkably, like other songbirds, the cardinal produces its melodious notes using not one but two voice boxes. 

       If you listen carefully to a cardinal song, you will notice each phrase of the bird’s song is composed of a blending of both high and low notes.  The lower notes are created in its left voice box.  Meanwhile, higher notes are formed in the bird’s right voice box.  Working harmoniously, the two voice boxes enable the cardinal to create a distinctive and pleasing song enjoyed by homeowners across the state.

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.