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BEST TIME TO CLEAN BARN OWL BOXES

         If you erect and maintain nesting boxes for birds in your yard, you realize the need to annually repair and clean them during a time when birds are not nesting.  This is easy to do because the nesting dates of most birds that nest in our backyards are well known.  However, if you have a barn owl nest box on your property, you have a problem.  It seems that biologists know surprisingly little about when barn owls nest in Georgia.  

       Such is not the case in California.  Researchers at the University of California, Davis combed through almost 100 years of banding and other records to determine when barn owls nest in California.

       The biologists found that the median egg laying date in California is February 20.  Consequently, the lead author of the study Ryan Bourbour says, “We want to reduce disturbances to breeding pairs prior to egg laying.”  Based on the findings the researchers recommend boxes need to be erected, repaired, and cleaned in the fall.

       Unfortunately, the only nesting records for Peach State barn owls are largely anecdotal.  Only a dozen barn owl breeding records surfaced during The Breeding Bird Atlas of Georgia Project.  Although most records came from central Georgia, breeding was corroborated from the mountains to the coast. Undoubtedly, barn owl nesting is more common and widespread in all parts of the state.

       In Thomas Burleigh’s book Georgia Birds, the author noted that nests have been located from March to December.  However, biologists do not have enough data to develop a median egg laying date for Georgia.

      Since we know there is a need to provide more nesting sites for barn owls in Georgia, we all need to check our barn owl boxes during each season of the year.  When we conduct a check, if no nesting is currently going on, we need to repair and clean it.  If nesting has or is taking place since the last check, record it too.  Over time, we should be able to determine when nesting takes occurs in our part of the state.

       If you don’t have any barn owl nesting boxes on your property, consider erecting one.  Once you have one in place, follow the procedure outlined above.

       It would be great if landowners knew when it is the best time to conduct an annual barn owl nest box check.

       Let me know what you find.  I will forward your information on to the Wildlife Conservation Section biologists trying to restore nongame wildlife throughout Georgia.  Hopefully, your information will enable them to establish a median egg laying date for Georgia and recommend the best time to check barn owl nesting boxes.

BACKYARD SECRET – AN ASTOUNDING NUMBER OF BIRDS DIE FROM STRIKING WINDOWS EACH YEAR

     Researchers have found that up to 74 percent of the birds that fly into windows die.  In the United States, this translates into as many as a billion birds.

     Although this type of mortality takes place throughout the year, many of these mortalities occur during the birds’ spring and migrations.

     The list of birds killed includes thrushes, warblers, juncos, raptors, sparrows, tanagers, grosbeaks, hummingbirds, and scores of others.

MOCKINGBIRDS ARE DINING ON POKEBERRIES

               I try to keep abreast of what the wildlife eats throughout the year.  This exercise has allowed me to watch how the food habits of a number of my backyard residents change throughout the year.  Recently I was reminded of this fact as I watched a northern mockingbird dine on pokeberries.

              Throughout the spring and much of the summer mockingbirds I watched them dining on suet, insects, blackberries, and other delicacies.   Then seemingly, overnight birds seemed to abandon the places where they had been feeding.  Last week they reappeared at pokeweeds that have colonized my property.  The birds were dining on the plants’ juicy, purplish-black berries.  While I have only seen mockingbirds eating the berries so far this summer, I suspect they have to share them with other backyard residents such as brown thrashers, eastern bluebirds, cardinals and even red-bellied woodpeckers.

              The first time I witnessed a mockingbird eating pokeberries a couple of weeks ago the bird was having a difficult time plucking them from a cluster of fruit dangling from a droopy branch.  Since it was seemingly impossible for the bird to perch on the flimsy branch and dine of the berries at the same time, it was forced to attempt to hover close to the berries.  It immediately became obvious that the mockingbird’s ability to hover will never be favorably compared with that of a hummingbird. In spite of this, after several tries grab the berries, the cluster of berries eventually disappeared into the mouth of the determined bird.

              If you find pokeberry plants sprouting in an out-of-the-way spot in your yard, let them grow.  If you do, you will be rewarded with an attractive plant, and a great source of food for birds and other wildlife.  In addition, you will be offered with some great wildlife viewing opportunities and the chance to learn more about the feeding habits of wildlife without having to leave your home.

SNAKE CATCHES HUMMINGBIRD AT FEEDER

         Ruby-throated hummingbirds face a host of perils. One of these is being caught by a snake.  Over the years, hummingbird fanciers have sent me pictures of snakes coiled around feeders seemingly patiently waiting to pluck an unsuspecting hummingbird out of the air as it flies in to catch a quick meal. Since this unsettling scene is rarely reported, I suspect it does not happen very often.  In our case, during the decades my wife and I have been feeding hummingbirds we had never seen it until this past week.  Not only did I find a rat snake hanging onto one of our feeders, it was also clutching a hapless hummingbird in its gaping mouth.  None of the photos I have received in the past ever captured this.

        All of this changed when I stepped out on to on our deck on a quiet late summer morning less than a week ago and spotted what appeared to be a dark lump on the far side of one of our hummingbird feeders. I immediately stopped and tried to figure out what I was looking at.  When I advanced closer to the feeder, I could see that the unknown object was a young rat snake.  It was so small (three feet long) that it did not have to wrap itself around the feeder.

       Once I realized what I was looking at, I turned around and went back into the house to tell my wife to grab her camera and hurry outside to see what was taking place.  On the way back outside, I picked up my camera too.

       When we returned, we realized that the best view of the snake was from the yard.  When we found just the right spot to record the event, we started snapping pictures. All of this time the snake remained motionless.  Finally, the snake moved its head away from the perch that encircled the feeding ports enough for us to realize it was just not waiting for a bird—it had already caught one and was in the process of swallowing it headfirst.  Initially all we could see of the hummingbird was its emerald green back, wings, tail, and legs.

 

 

       As we stood, transfixed, the snake began making swallowing motions that consisted of moving its head forward and opening and closing it mouth.  As it did so, the bird slowly slipped deeper into the snake’s mouth and throat.  Remarkably, in only five to 10 minutes the bird disappeared. 

       I then removed the feeder from the shepherd’s hook on which it was hung, and slowly walked to the far back of our spacious backyard and set the feeder on the ground.  Throughout the whole process, the snake showed no signs of fear. However, when I placed the feeder on the grass the snake slowly slithered off.

       Of course, we are disappointed that we lost a hummingbird to a rat snake. However, we realize that each year an untold number of hummingbirds succumb to predators, being caught in spider webs, accidents, and disease. At the same time, it will not hurt of feelings if we never witness it again.

BACKYARD SECRET—THE FALL MIGRATION IS LARGER THAN THE SPRING MIGRATION

       Trying to estimate how many birds migrate through North America twice each year seems like an impossible task.  However, Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology has taken on this task.  Using data from 143 weather stations scattered across the contiguous United States the lab has come up with the best estimates to date.

       These data indicate that an average of 4 billion birds fly south out of Canada into the United States each fall.  Some 4.7 billion leave the country heading on to their wintering grounds.

       Far fewer birds return in the spring.  According to Edward W. Rose, a postdoctoral fellow at the Laboratory of Ornithology, “in the spring, 3.5 billion birds cross back into the U.S. from points south, and 2.6 billion birds return to Canada across the northern U.S. border.”

BACKYARD SECRET—HUMMINGBIRDS MIGRATE ALONE

        During the past few days, the number of ruby-throated hummingbirds visiting our feeders has noticeably decreased.  Whereas less than a week ago clouds hummingbirds were constantly swirling about backyard feeders, now a handful of birds are visiting them. Indeed, the hummingbird migration is in full swing.

       When most of the birds vanish at the same time, it is easy to believe they migrate in flocks like robins, ducks, geese, and a host of other species.  However, the truth of the matter is each bird migrates on its own.  This means a rubythroat raised in your backyard this year does not have an older and more experienced bird to guide it on its first migration flight to its wintering ground in southern Mexico and Panama.

       How is this possible?  Biologists have still not unlocked this secret.  Consequently, the best way to explain it is that hummingbirds migrate by instinct.

 

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!