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LOOK FOR SANDHILL CRANES HEADING PASSING OVER YOUR YARD

        For the past couple of weeks, I have been hearing a smattering of reports of greater sandhill cranes heading north.  However, the large, gray, long-legged birds had eluded me until a couple of days ago when I spotted six flocks passing over my home.  Two days later, I saw another flock.  All of the birds were flying northwest.

        Seeing the large birds flying north in late winter is always a special event for folks like me that are not fond of winter.  This is because the sandhill crane is a true harbinger of spring.     

        If you would like to see sandhill cranes passing over your yard, here are a some tips you should find helpful. 

        First of all, it has been my experience that you will hear the birds before you ever spot them.  The call of the sandhill crane sounds something like a rolling Garoo a-a-a  interspersed with cacophony of shrill, almost bell-like rattles and croaks.  If you hear these sound coming from upon high, look in that direction.

        Flocks of sandhill cranes constantly change their shape.  They can be flying in an undulating V formation one moment and suddenly appear to be totally disoriented and flying about in broad circles the next.

        If you have a pair of binoculars, take a close look at the birds.  If the large birds are gray and flying with outstretched necks and have long legs extending beyond their tails, you are looking at sandhill cranes and not geese.

        Nowadays, since efforts are underway to establish a breeding population of whooping cranes  in the Midwest, it is possible to see a whooping crane or two interspersed with the sandhill cranes.  The birds migrate and winter together. 

        During the past two winters whooping cranes are been seen wintering with sandhill cranes here in the Peach State.

        It is easy to separate a whooping crane from a sandhill.  Whooping cranes  are white and sport black wingtips.  If you are lucky enough to see a whooping crane, that would truly be something special.

        At any rate, take the time to look and listen for sandhill cranes.  If you are lucky enough to spot them migrating north, you will be witnessing an event that ornithologists tell us has been going for well more than two million years.

THE GREAT BACKYARD BIRD COUNT BEGINS NEXT WEEKEND

   If you are looking for a great way for you and your family to become citizen scientists without leaving your home, take part in the 2019 edition of the Great Christmas Bird Count. All you have to do is record the birds you see in as little as 15 minutes at least once during the four-day count period.   This year the Great Backyard Bird Count begins Friday February 15 and runs through Tuesday February 19.

        The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, National Audubon Society, and Bird Studies Canada sponsor the count.

        The count enables biologists to monitor the status of bird populations in the United State and abroad. These data are also proving invaluable in assessing the impacts of weather and habitat change on bird populations.

        The scope of this survey has changed dramatically since its inception in 1998. What was initially a survey conducted in North America, the project has gone global. This past year 214,018 volunteers from more than 100 countries took part in the count.

        As you might expect, most of the checklists (108,921) submitted in 2018 were sent in from the United States. However checklists were turned in from countries such as Columbia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, Costa Rica, and Mexico to name but a few.

        When to checklists were tallied it was determined 6,310 species of birds were seen. Remarkably, these birds represent more than half of the species of birds in the entire world.

        Here is the list of the ten species whose names appeared most often on checklists in 2018: northern cardinal (48,956), dark-eyed junco (43,742), mourning dove (43,412), American crow (40,959), blue jay (37,549), downy woodpecker (36,495), house finch (34,766), black-capped chickadee (21,942), and house sparrow (31,884), and European starling (28, 683).

        Interestingly, the most numerous species seen last year was the snow goose. Some 4,957,118 of the large white and black waterfowl were sighted.

        If you would like to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count, the first thing you need to do is decide how many areas you want to survey. It is totally up to you where and how many areas you wish to conduct your count efforts. Most folks simply count the birds they see in their backyards. Others survey several areas. Next, go online and register for this year’s count. I should note the count is free.

        The only stipulation is you survey a spot for a minimum of 15 minutes. A count can be conducted at a location only once or every day during the four-day count period.

        After you complete a count, you simply submit your data online (birdcount.org). After I submit my data, I like to pull up the map that displays the data collected throughout the state in real-time.

        Since you only submit data for the birds you can identify, practically anybody can take part in the survey.

        For details concerning how to register and conduct your count(s) visit the Great Backyard Bird Count website.

        I sincerely hope you will take part in this year’s count. If you do, you will be birding with a purpose and have a lot of fun along the way.

YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERS VISIT OUR BACKYARDS IN WINTER

       One of a handful of wood warblers that can be found in the Georgia in the winter is the yellow-rumped warbler.  Fortunately, for those of us that enjoy seeing warblers, yellowrumps do winter in our backyards.  However, attracting them to feeders on a regular basis can be a challenge.     One reason why most wood warblers do not regularly winter in Georgia is that they feed almost exclusively on insects throughout the entire year.  As we all know, throughout most of our winters this food is in short supply.  Although the yellowrump’s spring and summer diet is principally insects (80%), in winter 90 percent of their diet consists of a variety of plant materials such as fruits, berries, and seeds.

        Some of the foods this warbler prefers while wintering far from its breeding grounds that extend throughout the vast Canadian forests, as far south as the northern tier of the United States, are the berries of poison ivy, Virginia creeper, and wax myrtle.  In fact, when I was learning to identify birds several decades ago, the yellow-rumped warbler fondness for wax myrtle berries earned it the name myrtle warbler.  Other choice foods eaten by the bird include red cedar and smooth sumac berries as well as the meats of such nut-bearing trees like hickory, pecan, and black walnut.

        Although yellow-rumped warblers winter annually throughout the state, they are often irregular visitors at our feeders.  This may be perhaps related to the abundance of food.  When their preferred native foods are abundant they seem to have little inclination to partake in our food offerings.  One-year decades ago yellow-rumped warblers arrived in the Thomasville, Georgia area only to find wax myrtle berries were far and few between.  Faced with a food shortage, the birds sought alternative sources of nourishment.  Interestingly, Thomasville residents later reported that year yellowrumps flocked to their feeders in numbers far exceeding anything they had ever seen before.

        There are a number of foods yellow-rumped warblers will eat at feeders.  The birds are fond of suet (check an earlier blog for the recipe for a suet I have used for years), cornbread, both peanut butter and hearts, white bread, orange halves, and pecan chips.  They will also rarely eat sunflower seeds.

        By far, over the years I have attracted more yellowrumps with water than anything else.  For that reason, I highly recommend that you maintain birdbath throughout the winter.  Keep in mind all of your backyard feathered visitors need water throughout the entire year.

        If you want to attract yellow-rumped warblers to your yard, I would also recommend that you set out a few wax myrtle plants.  Wax myrtle offers food for yellow-rumped warblers and other birds.  It also provides nesting and winter cover for a host of birds.

 

 

DO HAWKS POSE A REAL THREAT TO BIRDS VISITING FEEDERS?

          If you feed birds in your backyard, eventually you will either see or find evidence that one or more of the birds drawn to your backyard bird cafe fell victim to a hawk.  Thanks to the data collected by thousands of volunteers that have participated in Project FeederWatch since 1987, ornithologists are now able to provide us with a better understanding of this activity.        

         The ongoing Project FeederWatch study is sponsored by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Bird Studies Canada, National Audubon Society and the Canadian Nature Federation.

         You might find it surprising to learn the leading cause of death in and around bird feeders is actually window strikes.  In fact, birds being killed when they fly into windows is estimated to less than one percent of the birds that fly south in the fall.  Roughly, half of all deaths documented by Project FeederWatch volunteers were attributed to window strikes.

         In comparison, cats were responsible for 30 percent of the reported mortality.  Hawks were involved in roughly a third of the bird deaths tallied.  Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks were linked if some 50 percent of these cases.

         Although sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks are similar in appearance, they have different feeding preferences.  The diet of the sharp-shinned hawk consists primarily (95%) of small birds.  During the study, sharp-shinned hawks were reported to feed on 28 species of birds.  The six birds most commonly caught were European starlings, house sparrows, house finches, dark-eyed juncos, pine siskins and mourning doves.  It is interesting to note, three of these birds (the European starling, house finch and house sparrow) are not native to Georgia.

         For some reason, during the reporting period, sharp-shinned hawks were most often seen hunting in suburban yards than those located in urban or rural areas.

         On the other hand, birds comprise only about fifty percent of the diet of the Cooper’s hawk.  Out of the 22 birds captured at feeders by this hawk, by far, its favorite food was the mourning dove.  Other birds preferred by the Cooper’s hawk were house sparrows, European starlings and dark-eyed juncos.

         The study emphasized hawk predation was not a common occurrence.

In fact, an analysis of the data collected found each winter during the study period neither of the hawks was ever seen in most of backyards.

SOME WILD BIRDS WILL EAT DRY DOGFOOD

         There seems to be little information available on which wild birds will eat dry dog food.  However, I suspect the list of birds that dine on dry dog food is longer than we may realize. The problem is few people have experimented offering this food to their feathered neighbors.   

         I have rarely intentionally fed dog food to birds. However, on a number of occasions I have seen American crows and common grackles toting off chunks of dog food left behind by our family dogs.  In some cases, the birds carried the food to a nearby birdbath where they thoroughly doused the chunks of food in water before trying to eat them.

        Others have reported house sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, common ground doves, eastern bluebirds, blue jays, and European starlings will eat dry dog food. 

American Crow feeding on dog food.

        I honestly believe if dry dog food were offered more often in feeders, the list of birds known to eat this unusual food offering would be considerably longer. 

       When you think about it, there is no reason why dry dog food should not be popular with wild birds.  Major brands of dog food contain protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals.  In fact, some dog foods are probably more nutritionally balanced than some of the food they typically consume.   

        Why don’t you join me in this mini experiment?  Perhaps we will learn something about the merits of feeding dry dog food to birds. 

 

BLUE JAYS ARE OFTEN MORE COMMON AT FEEDERS IN WINTER THAN SUMMER

        Do you have the feeling you see more blue jays feeding in your yard during the winter than summer?  If so, it is probably not your imagination.  In fact, it is very likely you do see more blue jays in winter than summer.

        This is because, for reasons biologists do not fully understand, some blue jays migrate while other remain homebodies throughout the year.  In one study involving tracking the movements of over 100,000 blue jays living in the Northeast, researchers found 89 percent of the blue jays studied did not migrate.  However, one of the remarkable things the biologists also learned was birds that migrate do not always do so every year.  In truth, some stay home one year, migrate the next, and they ride out the winter at home the following year.

        The biologists also discovered older birds are less likely to embark on an arduous migration than young blue jays.

        Since untold numbers of migrating blue jays winter throughout Georgia, we are more apt to see them at our feeders at that time of year.  In addition, when the migrants arrive they often form flock of anywhere from 15-50 birds.  These birds will move about looking for food.  If your feeders are located in a flock’s feeding territory, these winter visitors are likely to return to gorge themselves day after day.

        Oddly, it has also been reported that blue jays will often feed almost exclusively at some feeders while totally ignoring feeders located close by in another yard. 

Blue Jay

        Banding studies have revealed that blue jays are creatures of habit and will often return to the same neighborhood and feeders year after year.

        I am certain my yard is in the feeding area of a flock of blue jays.  While I have no idea how many are using my yard, every day I see many of them feeding on sunflower seeds as well as drinking water and bathing in my birdbaths.

        I once heard Roger Tory Peterson say the blue jay was one of his favorite birds.  Although some folks are not particularly fond of the blue jay, like our most renowned birder, I like them too.  Do you welcome this large, handsome bird at your feeders?  I hope so.

CLIMATE CHANGE APPEARS TO BE AFFECTING HOUSE FINCH NESTING

 

        Have you ever wondered if climate change is affecting the birds that visit our backyards?  A recently completed study of house finch nests has shed some light on how the warming of the globe is affecting this common backyard resident.

       Biologists found house finches appear to be nesting earlier in California in response to climate change. 

       This conclusion is based on an analysis of museum records of house finch nests collected over more than 100 years (1895 to 2007).  When these data were compared to the spring temperatures recorded in the areas where the nests were collected, it was found the finches were nesting four and a half days earlier for every degree Celsius the spring temperature has increased in the locales were the house finch nests were collected.    If you would like to know if house finches in the Peach State are altering their nesting dates in a similar manner, you should consider becoming a citizen scientist and conduct your own study based on house finch nesting records collected in your backyard, neighborhood, or county.