Archives

BARN SWALLOWS HAVE A LONG ASSOCIATION WITH MANKIND

       If we were to travel back through the mists of time, we would find that barn swallow nested in sinkholes, caves, and on rock crevices and cliffs. This significantly limited the breeding range of this swallow. However, while many species of birds have not adapted to the spread of humankind across the globe, that is not the case with the barn swallow.

       For example, here in North America the barn swallow has a long association with humans. It is believed that the barn swallow probably attached their mud nests to Native American structures.

       The historical record tells us that it did not take the barn swallow long to take advantage of manmade structures built by European colonists in North America. A Swedish naturalist that traveled throughout what is now the Northeastern United States during the mid-1700s wrote that he found barn swallows nesting beneath overhanging rocks, as well as “on the edges of perpendicular rocks.” He went on to say the birds also nested in stables, as well as both inside and on the sides of dwellings.

       This habit has greatly expanded since that time. Nowadays practically all barn swallow nests of plastered in manmade structures ranging from beneath bridges, on the sides and rafters of barns, inside culverts, in and on tool sheds, in basements and the sides of our homes. There seems no limit to the number of places where these birds will nest.

       Over the centuries, barn swallows have become extremely popular. The barn swallow is the national bird of both Austria and Estonia. In many cultures, when a barn swallow builds a nest on a barn, it is considered good luck. In Estonia, legend has it that anyone that commits the crime of killing barn swallow will go blind.

       A Native American legend relates that one day a barn swallow had the audacity to swipe fire from the Gods. The story goes on the say the bird then presented fire to humans. In an effort to thwart this act of thievery, the Gods shot flaming arrows at the bird. One of the arrows struck the bird at the base of its tail. The arrow subsequently burned away the bird’s central tail feathers. As a result, ever since the barn swallow flies about the land displaying two long tail feathers.

       Remarkably, the barn swallow has the distinction of being of having the greatest range of any other swallow. Its breeding range stretches across North America, Europe and winters in both Africa and South America.

       I think you will agree it appears that the barn swallow’s relationship with us is not going to wane with time.

BACKYARD SECRET—SOME BARN SWALLOWS WILL KILL THE NESTLINGS OF OTHERS

       The barn swallow nests throughout the entire state. More often than not their mud nests are attached to some manmade structure such as a bridge, barn, or even on the side of a house. Aside from the fact that some folks don’t like the mess nesting barmy swallows leave behind after they have nested on the underside of a front porch, they are considered welcomed neighbors. In fact, some consider it good luck to have a barn swallow nest on the side of their house or barn.

                                                   BARN SWALLOW NEST

       When you delve into the nesting behavior of this popular bird a dark secret emerges. It seems that, from time to time, unmated male barn swallows will actually kill the young of a nesting pair. Right about now you might be wondering why such an act occurs. The answer is biologists believe unmated males commit this deed in an effort to mate with the mother of the young whose lives he has taken.

       Who would have ever imagined such a thing might take place in their backyard?

HUMMINGBIRD MOMS ARE SPECIAL TOO

       On the second Sunday in May we celebrate a very special person in our lives. Yes, I am referring to our mothers. These very remarkable individuals shower us with love and devote their lives to raising us to become all that we can be. Today, while I was sitting on the deck of my home thinking about how much my mother has meant to me, a female hummingbird appeared at a backyard feeder. As the bird fed, it occurred to me that female ruby-throated hummingbirds are also special moms.

       Each spring they return from their winter homes to raise another generation of rubythroats. When you stop to think about it this is not an easy task. Without the help of her mate, each female must construct an amazingly delicate nest in one to ten days (it takes longer if she does not rebuild an old nest). This requires her to make countless trips to gather the untold numbers of items needed to fashion her nest. The building materials range from bud scales, to the down from dandelions and thistles. The nest is held together with spider webs. She then plucks lichens from nearby branches and uses them to adorn the nest’s exterior.

    After the nest is completed, she then lays two eggs and subsequently begins incubation. During the 12-14 days it takes to incubate the eggs, she will spend anywhere from 60%-80% of her time keeping her eggs warm.

       Once the young hatch, she then dedicates the next 18-22 days of her life to feeding the voracious youngsters. This may require her to visit up to 1,500 flowers a day to collect nectar. In addition, she must also capture thousands of small insects and spiders and feed them to her rapidly growing youngsters.

       If all goes well, the two young hummingbirds will take to their air and begin feeding themselves. However, in places like Georgia, the female may repeat the whole process again before leaving on her fall migration.

       I am sure that as we celebrate Mother’s Day, thousands of female rubythroats proving they are indeed special moms too.

ATTRACTING THE PINE WARBLER TO YOUR BACKYARD

      The pine warbler is a permanent resident in all of Georgia’s 159 counties. As such, chances are it is a bird that can be seen in practically any backyard in the state. This is especially true if pines are growing either in or nearby your yard. Pines are used by the bird for both nesting and feeding. However, since many of these activities take place high above the ground in the trees’ dense canopy, the bird is often a stranger to some backyard wildlife enthusiasts.

       I hear the pine warbler more often than I see it. The song is easy to remember since it is a musical one-pitch trill. To me the bird’s song reminds me of a louder, more musical rendition of the song of the chipping sparrow.

       The male pine warbler begins singing in earnest in late winter. Here it is May and it is still singing. In fact, I heard one loudly singing this morning.

       The pine warbler’s diet consists mostly of invertebrates, such as ants, cockroach eggs, small flying insects, bees, beetles, and even spiders.

       However, the pine warbler holds the distinction of being our only warbler that regularly dines on seeds. For this reason, it visits our backyard seed feeders more than any other warbler.

       As you might expect the pine warbler dines on pine seeds, it also eats the seeds of a variety of other plants.

       The pine warbler is also fond of fruits and berries. That being the case, if you are interested in providing the pine warblers living in your neck of the woods with fruits and berries, here are a few native plants that fit the bill: persimmon, Virginia creeper, muscadine, wax myrtle, sumac and flowering dogwood.

       Most pine warblers are seen visiting feeders. Such is the case in my backyard. The bird will dine on a variety of seeds such as the crushed meats of pecans and other nuts, millet, scratch feed, and peanuts. However, by far, the pine warblers that visit my yard prefer sunflower seeds far and above all other seeds.

       Pine warblers also dine on suet and peanut butter. Although most folks offer suet only during the colder months of the year, pine warblers will eat suet at any time of the year.

       Don’t forget to maintain a clean birdbath throughout the year. The pine warbler will both bathe and drink at a birdbath.

       Well, I hope this brief piece will help you attract a pine warbler to your yard. The beauty of these suggestions is that, if you incorporate these tips into your backyard wildlife plan and, for some reason, never see a pine warbler, all is not lost. This is because many other birds will benefit from your efforts.

ATTRACTING THE WOOD THRUSH TO YOUR BACKYARD IN SPRING

      Although the wood thrush nests throughout most of Georgia, the only realistic chance of seeing or hearing one in our backyards is when the birds are migrating. Let’s look at what it takes to have a wood thrush encounter in the spring.

       A major reason why they are so difficult to attract in spring is they migrate northward two to six times faster than they do heading toward to their winter residence is the fall. This means they don’t dally long when they do make a stop in the Peach State.

       When they do make a stop in Georgia backyards at this time of the year they are apt to select areas where they have the best chance of finding natural foods. They seem to prefer yards surrounded with hardwood and mixed forests that are characterized by trees 50+ feet in height, and a well-developed understory of native plants standing above a fairly open moist forest floor blanketed with leaf litter. When they are fortunate enough to locate such places, they will forage among the rotting leaves that litter the ground for a variety of invertebrates such as spiders, beetles, ants, and other animal foods.

       The wood thrush is typically hesitant to visit a feeder. However, folks that have the best luck attracting this master songster to their yards feed them directly on the ground or on feeding tables and platform feeders placed close to the earth near native woody cover.

       The menu items the birds seem most fond of include small pieces of white bread, tiny chunks of suet, raisins, hulled sunflower seeds, and peanut butter mixed with cornmeal. On rare occasions, they will also eat mixed seed from an elevated feeder.

       In many cases, the wood thrush seems more inclined to visit a birdbath than a feeder. This is especially true if the birdbath is placed near or on the ground near native shrubs. Some have reported they entice the wood thrush to their feeding/watering area by scattering raisins around the rim of a birdbath.

       If you are successful in luring this magnificent forest dweller to your yard, you may step outside your backdoor on a spring morning to the sounds of the flutelike notes of what many consider the most beautiful song uttered by a North American bird, “echo-lay.” Once you hear it, you will quickly realize that your efforts to attract a wood thrush to your yard were well worth it.

      

      

      

INDIGO BUNTINGS ARE SHOWING UP AT GEORGIA FEEDERS

       One of the advantages of stocking backyard bird feeders with seeds throughout the year is that you give yourself the opportunity of enjoying the beauty of birds that do not winter in Georgia. During the last couple of weeks, many bird enthusiasts have been treated to the sight of rose-breasted grosbeaks dining at their feeders. Meanwhile, a much smaller number homeowners are currently also feeding indigo buntings.

       Although the indigo bunting nests across the entire state, it is rarely seen at our bird feeders. However, those that are seen are often spotted during the spring and fall migrations.

       According to John James Audubon early in our history, southerners commonly called this bird the indigo-bird. To this day, it is sometimes also referred to as the blue canary. When you see an adult male, you quickly understand why it could easily be mistaken for a canary dipped in blue paint.

       During the spring, you have a chance of seeing adult males, immature males, and females. The adult male is truly a stunning bird. It is our only all blue bird. However, adult males often appear in several shades of blue. An adult male’s color is dependent on the direction and intensity of the sunlight bathing its feathers.

       An immature male is a bird that hatched the previous year. In the spring, it is cloaked in brown plumage highlighted with patches of blue. They do not develop their indigo plumage until their second year of life.

       Females (both adult and immature birds) will appear brown.

       The males are the first to arrive at our feeders. Thereafter they are shortly joined by the females.

       Typically, the indigo buntings that make their way to our backyards in the spring are loners. In fact, I have never seen more than one indigo bunting at time in my feeding area at this time of the year. However, others have reported small flocks of buntings feeding in their yards.

       While indigo buntings will feed at elevated feeders, I have always had the best luck attracting them by scattering seed on the ground.

       Indigo buntings feed on a number of small seeds such as white millet and canary seed. On occasion, they will also dine on fresh fruit. They will also eat pecan chips and peanut hearts.

       If you have never tried to attract northbound indigo buntings to your yard, why not try to do so this year. Just think you just might have both rose-breasted grosbeaks and indigo buntings feeding in your backyard at the same time. Now that would be something you would long remember!

      

BACKYARD SECRET–WHIP-POOR-WILLS WILL FEED ON THE GROUND

     The whip-poor-will’s ability to snatch large flying insects such as moths and beetles from the air with its extremely large mouth is legendary. However, it is a lesser-known fact that this accomplished aerial predator will also dine on food captured on the ground. Among the delicacies eaten by the birds while standing on the ground are worms, ants and a variety of other invertebrates.

IT’S POSSIBLE TO TELL ONE MALE ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK FROM ANOTHER

       Currently, rose-breasted grosbeaks are passing through Georgia on their spring migration home to their breeding grounds. During this special time of the year, we are treated with the opportunity to see what is perhaps the most beautiful bird that graces our feeders—the male rose-breasted grosbeak.

       The bird is adorned with bold black and white plumage. The undersides of its wings are rose pink. If that isn’t enough to dazzle your eyes, he also sports a brilliant red triangle emblazoned on its white breast.

       At first glance, all adult male rose-breasted grosbeaks appear to be identical. However, if you look more closely, you will realize that you can actually tell one from another.

     In order to accomplish this seemingly impossible task, focus your attention on the red triangle emblazoned on the breast of each male. It will quickly become apparent that each marking varies in size, shape, and brightness.

       This will enable you to determine how many males are using your backyard as well as how long individual birds linger before resuming their migration.

WHY NOT PLANT A LIVING SUNFLOWER FEEDER?

       Everyone that feeds birds is very familiar with sunflower seeds. In fact, I would venture to say it is the seed most often fed at seed feeders. Literally tons of sunflower seeds are sold specifically as birdseed. Typically, we offer sunflower seeds to our bird neighbors in variety of traditional types of feeders ranging from feeding tables to hoppers. If you want to add a new facet to your feeding regime, why not plant a living sunflower feeder?

       Last year my wife and I stumbled across this idea when she planted a strip of ornamental sunflowers in our backyard. She sowed a strip of sunflowers along the inner edge of a long meandering flowerbed that snaked its way across a small portion of our yard. The mixture she planted included five varieties of sunflowers that were purported to represent a kaleidoscope of autumn colors and sizes. The mixture lived up to its billing. Some of the plants attained a height of only two to three feet. Others grew to be seven to eight feet tall. The sunflower blooms ranged in color from pale yellow, orange, and burgundy to red. To tell you the truth, I had no idea sunflowers came in some many attractive colors.

       Our initial plan was to let the seed heads dry at they finished blooming. During the winter, we intended to offer the seed heads to the birds visiting our feeders. As it turned out, the birds had other plans for our attractive strip of sunflowers. Before the sunflower seeds (technically called fruit) had a chance to dry, birds began plucking them from form the plants’ large seed heads. This transformed the sunflower patch into a living sunflower feeder.

      

       By far American goldfinches ate more ate more seeds than any other birds. However, house finches and northern cardinals also ate their share.

       To say the least, we were not disappointed with the way things turned out. The sunflowers were simply gorgeous and the birds seemed to relish extracting unripe kernels from the seed heads.

       We particularly enjoyed watching male American goldfinches, in full breeding plumage, visiting the sunflower seed heads on a daily basis. What a treat! Like most of you, most of the American goldfinches we typically see dine at our feeders in winter. At that time of the year, they are a drab yellowish-green.

       If you decide to plant a living sunflower feeder in your backyard this summer, we suggest that you dedicate a patch of ground solely to sunflowers. The sunflowers are easy to grow, however planting them in close proximity to a variety of other much shorter plants proved to be a mistake. By the time the sunflowers were blooming the shorter plants were shrouded out by the taller sunflowers.

       If you decide to plant a living sunflower feeder, I hope it will bring you as much enjoyment as the one we planted last year brought us.

ODD FACET OF THE GRAY CATBIRD’S RELATIONSHIP WITH THE BROWN THRASHER

       One of the many fascinating relationships that exist between the birds that inhabit our backyards is one that exists between the gray catbird and the brown thrasher.

       During the spring and summer, these secretive birds often share backyards that feature an abundance of dense shrubs, vines, and small trees. Both of their birds feed and nesting with this labyrinth of vegetation. Often the birds compete with one another for the same nesting habitat. They are also known for their fearless assaults on any human or animal that appears to be a threat a nest containing eggs or young.

       However, the gray catbird exhibits a behavior during the nesting season that baffles ornithologists. It seems occasionally gray catbirds will visit thrasher nests and actually break, and eat eggs. Several theories have been developed to explain this activity. Some experts are of the opinion catbirds are trying to discourage much larger brown thrashers from nesting in that location. Others suggest that catbirds consider thrasher eggs to be a source of food. Who knows?

       Meanwhile this is just one more example how little we know about the fascinating lives of our backyard neighbors.