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THE RETURN OF THE GRAY CATBIRD

        For reasons I will never know, gray catbirds chose not to nest in my backyard this year. Since spring, I have been both looking and listening for this secretive bird.  Since I did not hear or see a catbird by the end of the third week in July, I was convinced I would not see one near my home this year.

        However, less than a week ago, one flew in and landed on a wire suet feeder hanging outside my home office.  I could not believe my eyes!  I immediately stopped working at my computer and watched the bird as it ate a couple of chunks of peanut butter-flavored bird pudding. I was just getting ready to snap a photo of the feeding bird when a brown thrasher scared the catbird away when it flew in the claim its share of the food.

        After the thrasher left, the catbird returned and briefly fed again.  Then it vanished.  This time it fed on the bird pudding while it was perched atop the feeder as a downy woodpecker fed while hanging on the side of the feeder.

        Over the years, gray catbirds have rarely visited my feeders. When they have shown up, they have always fed on suet.  I have never seen one eat any birdseed.  However, they are purported to eat fruit-flavored suit, jelly, cornbread, peanut butter and raisins.  They will also occasionally feed at hummingbird feeders.

        While I have not been successful attracting catbirds to my feeders, they will regularly visit my birdbaths.

        The catbirds that inhabit my yard during summers past have apparently been content to feed on berries and invertebrates.  In late summer, they feed on American beautyberries.

        I hope the gray catbird that recently made a late appearance in my yard, will hang around at least until the American beautyberries ripen.  If it does, perhaps it will serenade me with its cat-like call and long (up to 10 minutes) highly variable song.

        As you can tell, I greatly appreciate the return of the catbird.

HOW MUCH ARE WE SPENDING ON BIRDSEED AND FEEDERS?

        Few of us keep records of how much we spend annually on wild birdseed and feeders.  However, the Wild Bird Feeding Industry Research Foundation closely monitors our bird feeding habits.

       According to their 2015 report on our purchasing activity, the average American household that feeds birds annually spends an average of $59.73 on food and $39.52 on feeders.

       Although I do not keep a record of my bird feeding expenditures, I am confident I spend much more than this.  How much are you spending on this pastime?

BACKYARD SECRET—CHIMNEY SWIFTS CANNOT PERCH ON UTILITY WIRES

       If you ever spot a chimney swift perched on an electrical or telephone line, stop whatever you are doing and take a picture of it.  Your photo would be rare indeed.  This is because ornithologists believe these small birds are incapable of perching in such locations.

       This might seem odd since we routinely see mockingbirds, mourning doves, sparrows, red-shouldered hawks, sparrows, and many other birds perched on the wire.  The reason they are able to perch in such places is the structure of their feet and legs are very different from those of the chimney swift. 

       Instead, the chimney swift’s toes, nails, and legs are suited to cling to vertical surfaces such as upright trunks of trees, walls and the interior surfaces of chimneys.

BLOGGER REPORTS GOLDFINCHES LOVE ANISE HYSSOP

       One of the many things I enjoy about blogging is fellow bloggers are often willing to share their wildlife experiences and gardening tips.  Recently blogger Heather N. graciously revealed one of her wildlife gardening tips.

       Heather wrote that each summer one of the plants that goldfinches are drawn to in her yard is anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum).  She went on to say that these beautiful birds are eating anise hyssop seeds right now.

       Since I am not familiar with the plant, I decided to do a little research on it.  I found that it is native to the northern section of the United States and Canada.  However, this perennial herb is widely planted in many parts of the country, including Georgia.

       The plant produces blooms that attract a number of pollinators such as butterflies, bees and hummingbirds. Its leaves produce a pleasant licorice scent.  Its seeds are also consumed by a number of birds, like goldfinches.

       If Heather had not taken the time to share her wildlife gardening tip, I might not have ever learned of anise hyssop’s value to wildlife. Now that I am aware of it, I hope to find a place for it in my yard.

Thanks Heather!

BREAKING NEWS – HUMMINGBIRDS DO HAVE A SENSE OF SMELL

        We have long been aware that hummingbirds have great eyesight and hearing.  However, biologists have unable to demonstrate that hummingbirds could smell.  However, recent studies conducted by researchers at the University of California Riverside have revealed for the first time that hummingbirds can smell insects that pose a danger to them while they are visiting flowers bearing nectar.  The findings also suggest that this ability helps them avoid danger while feeding.

       According to Erin Wilson Rankin, associate entomology professor and coauthor author of the paper that was published in   the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, “This is pretty exciting, as it is the first clear demonstration of hummingbirds using their sense of smell alone to make foraging decisions and avoid contact with potentially dangerous insects at a flower or feeder.”

       The experiment was deceptively simple.  They provided more than 100 hummingbirds the option of feeding at two feeders.  One feeder contained sugar water and another filled with sugar water and additives that indicated that an insect was present.  One additive was formic acid which is produced by some Formica ants.  This chemical is known to be harmful to humans and mammals alike. The other was an ant attraction chemical. Another chemical tested was a chemical left behind when a European honeybee visits flowers. 

       The hummingbirds seemed oblivious to the honeybee-generated chemical.  However, the birds avoided food laced with both of the ant-based chemicals.

       Since all of the feeders were identical, the only way that the birds could differentiate between the feeders was through their sense of smell.

       It seems like every few years we learn something new and fascinating about hummingbirds.  As such, it begs the question, “What will researchers discover next about these amazing birds?”

FEEDING NYGER SEED IN SUMMER

       Although nyger seed is fed to birds throughout all seasons, many backyard bird feeding enthusiasts shy away from offering the tiny, black seeds to their feathered dining patrons during the summer. Is there some basis for this concern?  Most definitely, however, here is how and why I do.

       Nyger seeds are typically relished by a small number of the birds that visit our feeders.  American goldfinches and pine siskins are especially fond of them.  Other birds that consume nyger seeds are mourning doves, purple and house finches, dark-eyed juncos and indigo buntings, to name a few.  However, during the summer, in my yard, the vast majority of the nyger seeds are eaten by American goldfinches. 

       That is fine with me, since I would rarely have a chance to regularly enjoy gazing across my yard at splendor of a male goldfinch in full breeding plumage if they did not come to my feeders to feed.  To me, it is worth the money I spend on nyger seed to enjoy this pleasure. As anybody that feeds birds knows, nyger is the most expensive seed we offer in our feeders.

       The reason for this is it is raised overseas.  Most of the 70 million pounds of it that is imported into the United States is raised in India and Ethiopia.  The cost of shipping the seed that far jacks up the price.  On top of that, the United States Department of Agriculture requires that all nyger seed undergo costly heat sterilization.  This is done in attempt to keep potential invasive weeds that might contaminate the nyger seeds from entering the United States.  As a result, we can pay $60 or more for a 20-pound sack of nyger seed.  This is definitely not a seed you want to waste.

       Since nyger seed contains 40 percent fat, it spoils easily. In addition, nyger seeds have very thin coats.  With that in mind, they can spoil in the matter of a few days in the hot summer sun.

       Consequently, during the summer I fill my nyger seed feeders with a small amount of seed. I also store nyger seed in a cool place. If I have room in my freezer, I will often store it there.  

       I also buy small amounts of the seed.  The reason for this is once it becomes rancid the birds shy away from it.

       The bottom line is throughout the summer the birds will dine on nyger seed in your backyard can get along very nicely without it.  If, however, you live within the American goldfinch’s breeding range in Georgia (throughout the state except in the southeastern counties), and you want to enhance your chances of seeing American goldfinches when they are most beautiful, nyger just might help you accomplish that goal.

BACKYARD SECRET—THE HUMMINGBIRD DOESN’T CATCH FLYING INSECTS AT THE TIP OF ITS BILL

        We routinely see hummingbirds using their long slender bill to feed on the nectar stored in flowers and feeders.  However, most of us have never seen a hummingbird trying to catch flying insects.  Until recently those that have witnessed this fascinating behavior believed that the hummingbird uses its long slender bill to pluck insects out of the air at the tip of its bill.  Recent research has shown that this is not the case.

        Experiments conducted by Gregor M. Yanega and Margaret A. Rubega have discovered that the hummingbird actually catches small, elusive flying insects at the base of its bill. Two University of Connecticut researchers made this remarkable discovery by photographing hummingbirds feeding on flying fruit flies.  The revelation was revealed they used a video camera capable of recording images at a rate of 500 frames per second.

       The video revealed that as a hummingbird opens its beak to engulf its prey, its lower bill miraculously bends down from the tip to a point roughly halfway down this bill.  This enhances the chances the bird will capture a hapless fruit fly,

       Once again researchers equipped with modern research tools have demonstrated that when it comes to the natural world, often things are not what they appear to be.

BIRDS LOVE BLACK CHERRIES

       Many birds are so fond of berries and fruits they will travel some distance to eat them.  Even birds they we do not associate with such foods will go out of their way to find and eat them whenever they are in season.  My daughter Angela recently learned that one of these birds in the great crested flycatcher.

       Birds living in most subdivisions find wild foods hard to come by.   However, Angela has a black cherry (Prunus serotina) tree growing alongside the fence that separates her and her neighbor’s backyards. Somehow the tree escaped the bull dozer, or perhaps sprouted from a seed left behind by a bird that dined on black cherry sometime in the past. It is now old enough to annually produce a crop of pea-sized, shiny red to almost black fruits.

Black Cherry Tree || Photo credit: Angela Dupree

       Angela has seen many different species of birds descend on the tree in May and June to chow down on the juicy fruits.  However, recently she heard an unfamiliar bird call coming for the tree.  She immediately pulled up her Merlin bird identification app.  The app identified the bird as a great crested flycatcher.  She could not believe it!  She had never seen a great crested flycatcher in her yard before.  Needless to say, you would not expect to find this bird in a subdivision.

       Wanting to make sure Merlin had correctly identified her visitor; she sat down and waited for the bird to appear.  In a matter of minutes, the bird came into view—it was indeed a great crested flycatcher.  The bird was plucking black cherries hanging from the tree’s slender branches.

       Knowing that the great crested flycatcher primarily eats insects and other invertebrates she went online to see if black cherries are also consumed.  She learned that Georgia’s only flycatcher that nests in a cavity does indeed eat black cherries.

       Angela also learned that more than 40 other birds also eat the fruit of the black cherry tree.  Among the other birds that also dine on the juicy fruit are the summer tanager, eastern bluebird, woodpeckers, mockingbird, brown thrasher, and gray catbird. 

       My daughter is convinced that she would probably have never seen a great crested flycatcher in her yard if it wasn’t for the fact that a cherry tree was not there.  With that in mind she plans on keeping closer tabs on the birds that visit this great native tree.

       Angela realizes she will never know if the hungry great crested flycatcher flew in from the woods hugging a stream at the base of the hill well away from her home or elsewhere.  I guess it really doesn’t really matter from whence the bird came.  The important thing is it that it found this special tree and provided her with an unforgettable memory that prompted her to embark on a journey of discovery that led to her having greater appreciation for a tree that is too often considered to be nothing more than a weed.

THIS APP IS A MUST FOR BACKYARD BIRDERS

         If you want to easily elevate your bird identification skills to a new level, I suggest that you download into your smart phone the free Merlin Bird ID app.  This app is designed by the Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology to simplify bird identification.

       One of the best ways to learn to identify birds by sight and sound is to be fortunate enough to have a mentor that can guide you through what at first seems to be a complex and confusing process.  If you are like me, when you started out on this lifelong journey, you had to teach yourself the nuances of bird identification using nothing more than a Peterson field guide and a vinyl long-playing recording of bird calls.   Nowadays beginning and veteran birds alike can benefit from a variety of birding tools that make birding easier than ever before.  One of best of these tools I have stumbled across is the Merlin Bird ID app.  When you download Merlin into your iPhone, you are carrying an electronic mentor around in your pocket. 

       Merlin helps to visually identify birds in two ways.  For example, you can name a bird using a photograph. Simply take a picture of the bird and run it through the app’s photo processing feature, the picture will be compared to literally thousands of digital photographs in Cornell’s massive photo library.  In a matter of seconds, Merlin will make suggestions as the bird’s identity.

       If you don’t have a picture of a bird, you can determine the bird’s identity by answering three simple questions relating to its size, color and habitat. In a matter of seconds, Merlin processes your answers and generates a list (complete with photos) of possible matches.

      The feature that I am most fond of is the song/call identifier. If you hear a bird singing from a dense shrub or treetop and wonder what bird is producing the distinctive sounds, Merlin is ready to solve the mystery.  All you have to do to use this feature is hold out your phone and tap the record button. The device uses your iPhone’s microphone to detect the songs and calls filling the air all around you.   The app records these sounds and compares them to the bird songs housed in Cornell’s extensive audio library and develops a list of possible matches (complete with photos).  The matches pop up on your phone’s screen. Often you will be amazed at what the device detects.  Whereas you might have thought the calls and songs coming from the trees and shrubs around your house were made only by mockingbirds and cardinals, only to discover white-eyed vireos, pine warblers, and a wood thrush were also lurking nearby.  On more than one occasion, the app has identified up to ten species of birds vocalizing in my backyard on a spring morning.

       At the end of each recording session, you can compare the app’s identifications with the recordings of each species in question and decide whether or not Merlin was correct.

       Keep in mind these are tentative identification. However, based on my limited experience using the app, I have found the sound identification feature has been accurate over 90 percent of the time.

       The Merlin app also has a variety of other features that I did not describe. With that in mind, for more information regarding this powerful birding tool, go online and read about Merlin’s entire suite of features.

It is truly amazing that the app is packed with so much information.  Can you believe the app is free?

       If you give the app a try, let me know what you think of it.