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BACKYARD SECRET – MALE BLUEBIRDS APPEAR TO SING WITH THEIR BILLS CLOSED

     If you have ever watched eastern meadowlarks or grasshopper sparrows singing from atop a fencepost, their bills will be wide open.  However, if you take the time to watch a male eastern bluebird singing from a branch in your backyard, its beak will seem to be completely closed.  The truth the matter is, if you are able to view the bird through a pair of binoculars or spotting scope you will learn that its bill is actually barely open.  I think that is truly an amazing feat!

      

BACKYARD SECRET — WHITE-THROATED SPARROWS & DARK-EYED JUNCOS HYBRIDIZE

       Some ten percent of all species of birds hybridize.  Two of the birds that hybridize with one another are the white-throated sparrow and dark-eyed junco.

       Among the places where white-throated sparrow/dark-eyed juncos hybrids are known to occur are Canada, New York, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Arkansas, and Georgia.

       Since both species are routinely seen throughout most Georgia during the winter, it is possible that one or more of these rare birds has visited your yard.

       As you might expect, hybrids will display traits of both species.  Although, the plumage of these birds is highly variable, many have pink bills, brown wings, and gray coloration on their breasts and heads.  Their songs are known to exhibit bits and pieces of the songs sung by each species.

       Antidotal evidence suggests these unlikely hybrids are more often seen in the company of sparrows than juncos.

       If you pay close attention to the sparrows visiting your feeders this year, you just might spot one of these unusual birds.  If you do observe a sparrow that you feel might be a hybrid, take a picture of it, and let me know.  Who knows?  There may be more of these odd birds flying about than we realize.

DON’T REMOVE SPENT SEED HEADS FROM NECTAR PLANTS — BIRDS RELISH THEIR SEEDS

       Now that our days are characterized by low humidity and cool temperatures, it finally does feel like autumn.  While the weather has changed, the complexion of our gardens has been undergoing a major transformation.  Those of us that try to provide wild pollinators with food throughout as much of the year as possible still have an abundance of nectar-bearing flowers in full bloom.  However, alongside them are the dried seed heads of plants that bloomed earlier in the year.  Although our first impulse is often to remove these plants, I wish you would consider leaving at least a portion of them for birds that feed predominantly on seeds.

       The list of the flowering plants that produce seeds eaten by birds is quite long.  Here is a short list of some of the more popular plants that produce nutritious seeds for birds:  black-eyed susan, coneflower, cosmos, aster, scarlet sage, zinnia, coreopsis, and blanket flower.

       Birds will eat these seeds directly from seed heads or when the seeds fall to the ground.  In addition, it matters not whether the plants grew in containers on a deck or patio or in a traditional garden.

       My wife and I have truly enjoyed watching cardinals and American goldfinches feeding on scarlet sage and zinnia seeds produced by plants grown in large containers on our deck. 

       It never ceases to amaze me how a cardinal can pick up a tiny scarlet sage with its large beak.

       Among the birds that do not miss a chance to eat the seeds of nectar plants during the fall and winter are the northern cardinal, dark-eyed junco, chipping sparrow, and American goldfinch.

       If you want to add a new facet to bird feeding, simply resist the impulse to create a tidy garden.  Let the plants that produced the stunning floral display remain standing.

       If you do, you will be providing your autumn/winter avian visitors with a great source of food.  Meanwhile, you will enjoy watching the fascinating behavior of birds foraging for flower seeds.

IDENTIFYING ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAKS IN FALL CAN BE TRICKY

       Whenever male rose-breasted grosbeaks magically appear at our feeders in the spring, it is difficult to mistake them for any other bird.  No other birds are cloaked in striking black-and-white plumage and also display bright crimson red chevrons on their breasts.  However, when they pass through Georgia in the fall, identifying them can be a challenge.

       The reason for this is the adults are in their nonbreeding plumage when they arrive at our feeders.  In addition, they are accompanied by adult and immature females, as well as immature males.  Whereas immature females are difficult to separate from adult females, the still look pretty much alike.

       Things are a bit trickier when it comes to distinguishing immature males from adult males.  However, the best way to describe an adult male is that it appears to be a washed out version of an adult male in breeding plumage.  In addition, there are subtle differences between adult and immature males that are often difficult to separate in the field.  Immature males will look much like the females, however they will sport varying amount of a rose wash on their breasts that is buffier than the breasts of the females. 

       Most years I only see rose-breasted grosbeaks in the spring.  However, others, like Ron Lee, entertain the birds during both seasons.  Such has been the case again this year.  Whereas Ron has been seeing these stunning migrants for quite some time this autumn, they have avoided my feeders.

       Ron has been kind enough to share with us the accompanying photo of a male rose-breasted grosbeak.  Ron took the picture taken October 10, 2020.

       With time running out on their fall migration schedule I suspect Ron’s photo is the only rose-breasted grosbeak I am likely to see this autumn.

AMERICAN HOLLY IS DIFFERENT

       At this time of the year, both resident and migratory birds are feasting on a variety of colorful berries such as American beautyberry and pokeberries.  However, have you noticed birds are not flocking to a native plant that produces one of the most colorful berries–the American Holly?

       Nowadays if you peer into the foliage of an American holly, you will discover that the berries that are synonymous with winter and Christmas are still green.  Even when they ripen, it will be a while before birds begin dining on these shiny red berries.  In fact, in most years, American holly berries will remain on the tree well into winter and provide birds with a valuable source of food long after the last beautyberry or pokeberry has been gobbled up.

       Among the reasons birds do not seek out holly berries when they first ripen is they are rock-hard and very bitter.  It is only after the berries have been exposed to one or more frosts do they begin to soften up.  Their exposure to cold weather also breaks down the chemicals that make the so bitter.  Even then, they are not considered a choice food.  American holly berries are not rich in many nutrients, although they are high in fats and oils.

       However, when birds have little else to eat, they will dine on dine on holly berries.  For birds that rely heavily on fruits and berries, holly berries can mean the difference between life and death. 

       A woman in Walton County once told me that, in winter, she often decorates her window boxes with branches of American holly covered with its showy red berries.  She went on the say that one-winter birds did not eat a single berry the entire winter.  However, one extremely cold March day a flock of robins descended on her yard.  Before the flock departed, the birds had eaten every single berry that had adorned the holly boughs placed in her window boxes.

       In addition to the American robin, among the more than two dozen species of birds that eat American holly berries are the northern cardinal, eastern bluebird, northern mockingbird, wild turkey, and northern bobwhite.

       This is just another example of the fact that we need to provide a wide variety of plants that provide food and cover for birds throughout the entire year. 

STRAWBERRY BUSH USHERS IN THE FALL

      Currently throughout much of the state, there are few, if any, signs that fall is ready to blanket Georgia with a quilt of reds, oranges, and yellows.  However, those of us that have strawberry bush (Euonymus americana) growing in their backyards have been granted a preview of the colorful show yet to come.

       The strawberry bush is not a plant you would ever suspect as standing out among scores of other native shrubs that grow across the state.  It is small (4-8 feet tall), often grows under the canopy of larger hardwood trees, or among a myriad of brushy plants along forest edges or in recently harvested timber tracts.  However, from late summer into fall it is transformed into a shrub of unparalleled beauty.  

       At that of the year the plant’s seed capsules (arils), which are covered with conical warts, resemble green strawberries, turn pink and then bright red.  Thereafter the leathery capsules magically open and display shiny red berries that appear suspended on thin threads.  Once you cast your eyes on them for the first time, I am sure you will agree they possess unrivaled beauty.

       The opened pods and dangling berries, reveals where the plant got some of its nicknames such as hearts-a-bustin, bursting hearts or hearts-bursting-open-with-love.

       Strawberry bush is also referred to as spindletree.  It seems that the plant’s hard wood was once used to make spindles for spinning wheels.  If you will recall, in the popular children’s story of Sleeping beauty, the fair maiden fell asleep when she pricked her finger on a sharp spindle.  It is believed this relates to the folktale that claims that the wood of the strawberry bush is poisonous and, if a person ingests the wood; he or she will fall into a coma.  While I cannot attest that eating the wood would cause a person to end up in a coma, I do know that the plant is considered poisonous to humans.

       Such is not the case with birds and mammals.  In fact, it is an ice cream-food for white-tailed deer.  Whitetails simply cannot get enough of it.  In fact, one reason strawberry bush is not found in many woodlands is it has been heavily browsed by deer.  It is interesting to note wildlife biologists often use the prevalence of strawberry bush as an indicator of the size of a deer herd.

       Although, the berries are eaten by songbirds quail and even wild turkeys, strawberry bush rarely shows up in food habit studies.  I believe this is because, in most places, very few berries are produced compared to other plants such as pokeberries, and American beautyberries.

       Two things I also like about strawberry bush are that its leaves are aromatic and turn orange in the fall.

       If your garden is not plagued by white-tailed deer, strawberry bush would be a great addition on your landscape.  It is a Georgia native that is attractive and provides food for wildlife too.

       Once you establish it, you will become one of the few people that can enjoy this harbinger of autumn long before the main show begins.

BACKYARD SECRET-AMERICAN BEAUTYBERRY IS EASY TO PROPAGATE

       Recently I wrote about the how birds are attracted to American beautyberry.  In response to this blog, one of our fellow bloggers, Elizabeth Neace, was kind enough let us know this beautiful native shrub can easily be rooted using cuttings.  This is great news for anyone wanting to incorporate this native into his or her landscape.

HOUSE FINCH EATING AMERICAN BEAUTYBERRY

       I want to thank Elizabeth for sharing her backyard secret with us.  I am sure many folks will benefit from this valuable tip.

THE MORNING GLORY – FRIEND OR FOE?

        People seem to either love or hate morning glories.  Although it is often planted for the beauty it brings to the backyard garden, others consider it an invasive weed and pull it out of the ground whenever they find one.

        On one hand, it can be a nuisance that sometimes blankets plants gardeners feel are more desirable.  However, it is usually easy to control in a backyard setting.

        On the other side of the coin, its seeds are often consumed by songbirds and quail. 

        Morning glories also provide food for nectar feeders such as ruby-throated hummingbirds, as well as native bees, butterflies, and moths.  Remarkably, this fact is often overlooked by gardeners and even wildlife experts.

        The morning glory is also a host plant for the morning glory prominent moth.  This grayish, brown moth is often attracted to outside lights on warm summer evenings. 

        A number of butterflies such as the clouded skipper and cloudless sulphurs nectar at morning glory blossoms.

        Late blooming morning glories can also be particularly valuable to rubythroats during the late summer and fall when they are preparing to migrate, or are already en route to their wintering grounds.  Often these long-distance migrants have a difficult time finding enough food to navigate this difficult flight.

        I suspect the morning glory is more often considered a foe rather than a friend.  As is often the case though, the more you get to know a plant you consider to be a weed, the more you realize it may possess redeeming values you never considered before.

       

 

 

MY BACKYARD MOCKINGBIRD IS FACING A DILEMMA

 My wife and I have made a concerted effort to incorporate a wide variety of wildlife food plants into our home landscape.  Our goal has always been to provide our wildlife neighbors with a wide variety of foods throughout the entire year.  For one reason or the other, we never set out any American beautyberry plants.  However, years ago we found one growing alongside a backyard fence.  I am certain a bird unknowingly dropped a seed there as it perched on the fence.  Since then from late summer into fall and sometimes-even winter, the plant has been festooned with bountiful crops of round, bright lavender berries (actually, they are drupes).  This forces a host of birds to make some difficult dining decisions.      

       This is particularly true of the mockingbird that patrols our backyard.  A few weeks ago, I spotted the bird, as it was swallowing pokeberries.  When I unwittingly interrupted its meal, the diner immediately flew to an American beautyberry growing some distance away.  Upon landing, while keeping a close eye on me, it commenced eating beautyberry after beautyberry.     

  Later in the day, I saw it again eating suet from a feeder hanging near my office.  Whenever it flew away from the suet, house finches, cardinals, and Carolina chickadees flew in to eat their share of the fatty food.  In just a few moments, the mockingbird reappeared and scared the interlopers away.  The mockingbird definitely did not want to share food with other birds.

       On previous occasions, I have witnessed the bird defend plants bearing pokeberries and beautyberries from the likes of thrashers, cardinals, gray catbirds, American robins, and towhees.

       Since it is impossible for a single bird to defend all three of these sources of food, throughout the entire day it is faced with the dilemma of deciding of what and when to eat.  The appearance of the American beautyberries simply acerbated this bird’s problem.  

                    Mockingbird & American Beautyberries

 

If you are like us and never got around to planting American beautyberry in your yard, don’t wait for a bird to plant it for you.  Take the initiative and plant one yourself.  This native shrub is easy to grow.  The only maintenance it requires is cutting the stems back each winter. 

       You will enjoy its strikingly colorful berries and experience the satisfaction of knowing you are helping feed a wide variety of birds and mammals.  In addition, you will find that you have created a dining dilemma for mockingbirds and other birds that relish its berries.  Believe me, that is not such a bad thing at all.

BACKYARD SECRET–BIRDS CAN GET DRUNK EATING POKEBERRIES

       Pokeberries are widely recognized as being a super food plant for birds.  Scores of birds including the likes of bluebirds, cardinals, tanagers, brown thrashers, hermit thrushes, quail, catbirds, and scores of others consume the plant’s large, juicy, purplish-black berries.  However, it is not common knowledge that birds can become intoxicated from eating the berries.

       This situation is most common late in the year when they eat pokeberries that have become fermented.  While fermented pokeberry juice will not kill them, it can definitely leave them addled enough to become susceptible to predators such as hawks and the family cat. 

       I must admit that, although each year the pokeberries growing in my yards are laden with berries, I have never seen a bird get drunk eating them.  Perhaps the reason for this is my wildlife neighbors gobble them up long before they have a chance to become fermented.