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GREATER SANDHILL CRANE ALERT

       Flocks of the largest bird you are apt to see from your backyard are currently passing over Georgia.  The birds I am referring to are greater sandhill cranes.  The birds are flying NNW (North-Northwest) over the state en route to their breeding grounds in a broad breeding range that includes, but is not limited to, Ohio, Michigan, and southern Ontario.

       The greater sandhill crane can weigh anywhere from 9-15 pounds, have a six to seven-foot wing span, and stand five feet tall.

       Sandhill cranes migrate in long, meandering V-shaped formations at elevation ranging from 500-5,200 feet above the ground.  At times, flocks abandon this flight pattern and seemingly become disoriented.  Then they suddenly regroup and continue their journey.

       Often you will hear the birds approaching long before you see them.  This is because when they are aloft they are constantly communicating with one another with their loud, unmusical calls that sound something like karoo, karoo, karoo.  These notes can be heard a mile or two away.

       Often when a migratory flock of sandhill cranes is spotted, they are mistaken for Canada geese.  However, the Canada goose’s often repeated karonk call sounds nothing like the call of the greater sandhill crane.

       After hearing the birds, if you are still perplexed as to whether or not you are looking at geese or cranes, take a close look at the birds.  If you see the birds’ legs and feet protruding well behind their bodies, you are looking at a flock of sandhill cranes.  Alternately, if the birds’ legs and feet do not extend beyond their tail feathers, you are looking at Canada geese.

       I hope you have the opportunity to view one or more flocks of these magnificent birds.  Every time that I see them, I consider it a special event.  I expect you will too.

BACKYARD SECRET–WOODPECKERS HAVE SELF-SHARPENING BILLS

        Whenever I see or hear a woodpecker chiseling into a tree, I ask myself the question, “How is it possible that the bills of woodpeckers never become dull? 

        I wish I were so lucky.  Whenever I am using a wood chisel, after continued use I have to sharpen the tool’s steel cutting edge, yet woodpeckers seem to drive their bills into wood seeming without ever having to stop and sharpen their pointed bills.

Photo credit: Terry W Johnson

        Remarkably, every time a woodpecker strikes a blow against a tree it is chiseling away wood and sharpening its bill at the same time.  What happens is the tip a woodpecker’s bill is covered with special cells that constantly wear off, leaving the bill as strong and sharp as ever.

        It is as simple as that.

TUFTED TITMICE NEED PLACES TO NEST TOO

       Like all cavity nesting birds, rarely are their enough places for tufted titmice to nest in most neighborhoods.  With that in mind, if your property is predominantly wooded, why not erect a nest box for one of our favorite backyard feeder birds?

       If you think you would like to take on this project, here are a few tips that will help enhances the chances your efforts will be successful.

       I would recommend that you start putting up a single box.  If a pair of titmice uses it, consider erecting another birdhouse.  However, since tufted titmice are territorial, it is best to space your boxes at least 580 feet apart.

       The diameter of the box’s entrance hole should be at least 1 3’8″.  As you might expect, the birds will nest in cavities with larger entrance holes such as the 1 1/2-inch hole recommended for bluebird boxes.  Whatever size you use, protect the entrance hole with a metal hole guard.  This simple device prevents other birds and mammals from increasing the size of the entrance hole.  If you don’t, more often than not, their handiwork will end up destroying the box.

       Titmice will nest in cavities as high as 87 feet above the ground.  However, I recommend that your box be placed about 5 feet high.  This allows you to safely check, clean, and maintain it.

       I hope you decide to erect a tufted titmouse nesting box this year, if you do, you will help alleviate a shortage in tufted titmice nesting sites.  In addition, you will benefit by being able see tufted titmice as well as hear their pleasant peter, peter, peter call more often from spring through winter.

BIRDS EAT GOLDENROD SEEDS?

     During the past few decades, goldenrod has become recognized as being much more than a weed.  Its ascendancy to the list of valuable wildlife plants is much deserved.  Gardeners and wildlife enthusiasts alike are becoming increasingly aware that the goldenrod is a source of nectar and/or pollen for a variety of native pollinators including native bees, moths, and butterflies.  In addition, the insects found on goldenrod are an important source of food for songbirds and others.  However, the ubiquitous plant’s value to wildlife well beyond its blooming season remains largely unappreciated. 

        In truth, if you allow goldenrod plants to remain standing throughout the winter, they will provide cover for songbirds, rabbits, and small mammals.  In addition, goldenrod seeds are eaten by a number of birds and small mammals.  The American goldfinch is particularly fond of goldenrod seeds.  Among the other birds that dine on the tiny seeds are swamp sparrows, eastern towhees, pine siskins, and dark-eyed juncos.  If you live in the mountains, don’t be surprised to see ruffed grouse eating goldenrod seeds on cold winter day.

BACKYARD SECRET–PINE WARBLERS ARE MOST OFTEN SEEN IN GEORGIA DURING THE WINTER

       We Georgians are fortunate that, since the pine warbler is a permanent resident throughout the state, we have the opportunity to see and hear it throughout the entire year.  However, it is not a coincidence that we see more pine warblers in the winter than at any other time of the year.

       One of the reasons for this is practically all of the pine warblers in the entire continent winter in the South.  Consequently, at this time of the year our resident birds are joined by untold numbers of pine warblers that nested outside the Peach State.  As such, the mere fact pine warbler populations are much higher the Peach State in the winter enhances the chances that we will see one.

       This warbler was named the pine warbler because of its long recognized affinity to pines.  This relationship was even known by John James Audubon.  Audubon dubbed the bird the pine creeping warbler. 

       During the breeding season pine warblers rarely venture far from pine trees.  In addition, they spend the vast majority of their time foraging for food in the canopy of pine trees.  Even when we hear a male loudly singing in the springtime, often we cannot see him since he is hidden in a dark green maze of pine needles.

       During the winter, things change dramatically.  During this harsh season, the invertebrates and their eggs that pine warblers relish are far more difficult to find than they are during the warmer months.  In addition, pine seeds are more difficult to locate.  This forces the birds to forage on or near the ground.  This makes them easier for us to spot them.

       Since the pine warbler is our only warbler that regularly eats seeds, during the winter it can also supplement its diet with grass, shrub, and forb seeds.  It is also true that when this warbler can find them, it will also eat berries.  In addition, during the winter insects and other invertebrates are often more abundant on or near the ground than atop pine trees.

       On a number of occasions, I have found pine warblers feeding in South Georgia far from pines in harvested crop fields.  Closer to home, it is not uncommon for me to find pine warblers looking for food in brushy field borders.

       Also, during this harsh season the pine warbler will abandon pinelands and venture into hardwoods and even cypress swamps.

       The bottom line is whereas those among us that have pines growing in our yards or nearby have a better chance of seeing a pine warbler throughout much of the year than those who live areas devoid of pine.  However, in the winter, when the bird is found in a wider range of habitats, and pine warbler populations are at a peak, almost everyone has a legitimate chance of seeing one of these birds.

       Of course, you will greatly enhance your chances of seeing this bird if your stock your feeders with foods that the birds prefer.  A list of these foods can be found in previous blog.  To access this post, simply go to the search feature on the right side of the blog and type in pine warbler.  When you press the return key, all of the previous columns dealing with pine warblers will appear.

BACKYARD SECRET–THE STARLING IS ALSO CALLED THE RICE BIRD

       Are you surprised to know the European starling is known as the rice bird?

       The name rice bird stems from the fact that during the winter the bird’s glossy white plumage is covered with feathers adorned with white or buffy tips.  These flecks of white are thought to resemble grains of rice.  As time passes, the white tips of the feathers gradually wear off so that by summer they are completely gone.

HAVE CEDAR WAXWINGS EVER FED AT YOUR FEEDERS?

       Like many of you, I try to attract as many different species of birds to my feeders as possible.  However, in spite of repeated efforts, I have yet to see a cedar waxwing dine at my feeders.

       It is often said that coming close only counts when you play horseshoes.  If that is the case, several years ago when a cedar waxing visited a birdbath located close by my feeders, I should be able to place it on my list of feeder birds.  Right?  Whom am I kidding? You know as well as I do, to add a cedar waxwing this prestigious list would totally delegitimize it.

       Other people report that they have coaxed cedar waxwings to their feeders by placing currents, raisins, and chopped apples in a platform feeder.  I have heard once they recognize your feeders as a place to dine, they will regularly appear and gorge themselves on your food offerings.

       With that in mind, I have decided to adopt a new strategy to attract these enigmatic birds to my feeders.  I am going to concentrate my feeding efforts during those times when flocks of cedar waxwings visit the large red cedar trees growing in our yard are loaded with berries.  When that occurs, it might be best if my wife hides the raisins and apples since they just might find their way to a platform feeder perched in front of my office. 

       I will let you know how things turn out.

       In the meantime, I would like know if you have ever been successful in attracting cedar waxwings to your feeders.

NOT ALL SPARROW-LIKE BIRDS ARE ACTUALLY SPARROWS

       Chipping sparrows far outnumber any other sparrow that I see on or beneath my feeders.  However, if I take the time to examine a flock of sparrows foraging for seeds in my bird feeding area, I sometimes discover a white-throated sparrow sparrow or two.  This week, when I perused what I thought was a small flock of sparrows, I was pleasantly surprised that I to learn I was actually looking at a flock of pine siskins.  For weeks, pine siskins have been seen across much of the northern portion of the state, but they had not reached my Middle Georgia yard until a few days ago.

       Pine siskins are often mistaken for sparrows.  It is small (4.3-5.5 inches long), brown and covered my streaks much like some of the sparrows.  However, the bill of the pine siskin is very sharp and pointed whereas the bills of sparrows are more conical and blunt.  Two white wing bars highlight bird’s wings.  Splashes of yellow can also been seen on their wings and forked tail.  Often these yellow feathers are most easily seen when the bird is fluttering its  pointed wings.

       Another thing that I have noticed is the pine siskins are full of energy and move about much more than sparrows. In addition, when they visit feeders they often fuss with one another as well as other birds.  If you are in a position to hear their harsh, soft calls, you will find that they are constantly communicating with each other as they dine.

       They are also extremely tame.  Often they allow me to walk within 10-15 of them while they are feeding. 

       More often than not, they travel about in flocks.  Currently I am feeding 10-15 birds each day.  However, flocks of 20+ are not uncommon.

     Unfortunately, I only see pine siskins every few years or so.  When flights of siskins are seen deep into the Southeast it is a sign that there is a shortage of seeds produced by a variety of conifer trees that provide their favorite food.

       If you want to attract pine siskins to your feeders, provide these migrants with plenty of nyger and sunflower seeds.

       One word of caution:  keep your bird feeding area clean.  Mounting evidence suggests they are highly vulnerable to salmonella.  This is one of the common diseases transmitted to birds feeding on the wet, deteriorating food that often collects beneath bird feeders.

       Sadly, it is becoming more difficult to enjoy the sight of a flock of pine siskins feeding in our backyards.  It seems that according to Partner’s In Flight pine siskins numbers have dropped 80% since 1970.  Let’s all hope this alarming trend will soon be reversed so that the sights and sounds pine siskins will never disappear.

IT IS ALMOST TIME FOR THE GREAT BACKYARD BIRD COUNT

       Each year during a brief four-day period in February, literally thousands of folks throughout the world take time away from their busy schedules to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC).  During this brief time period were are given the opportunity to serve as citizen scientists dedicated to collecting data that enables biologists better monitor the winter distributions and movements of literally thousands of birds.  This year the count dates are February 12-15, 2021.

       Since the count began in 1998, the GBBC has experienced astounding growth.  These figures demonstrated its size and scope.  In 2020, the count was conducted in 194 countries.  An estimated 268,674 people participated in the event.  The citizen scientists tallied 27,270,156 individual birds representing an amazing 6,942 species.

       The list of the ten most frequently reported species contains birds that are native to the United States. This figure reflects the number of checklists reporting these species.  This is not surprising when you consider that the USA led the world in the number of checklists submitted (169,234).  This total was far above the numbers of submitted by any other country.  This is demonstrated by the fact that India finished a distant second with 26,979 checklists submitted.

  1. Northern Cardinal (70,168)
  2. Dark-eyed Junco (59,318)
  3. Mourning Dove (58,361)
  4. Downy Woodpecker (52,276)
  5. Blue Jay – (50,808)
  6. House Sparrow (49,180)
  7. House Finch (48,796)
  8. American Crow (48,639)
  9. Black-capped Chickadee (43,775)
  10. Red-bellied Woodpecker (40,826)

       Three of the great things about this count are you don’t have to be an expert to take part.  Just report those species you can identify.  Each count requires a minimum of 15 minutes of your time.  Finally, you select where you want hold a count.  If you do not want count the birds in your backyard, pick any other place you want (e.g. park, schoolyard, your entire neighborhood or simply a small wetland near your home.)

       For more details, go to the Great Backyard Bird Count website. www.birdcount.org

AMERICAN CROWS ARE FASCINATING TO WATCH

       Recently my daughter and granddaughter made their first attempt to feed crows .  What they did not know as they scattered sugarcoated popcorn on their lawn, was that they would soon have front row seats watching a crow do something they never imagined they would ever see.   

       Remarkably, 15-30 minutes after they returned to the house after setting the table for the crow banquet, two American crows showed up and slowly walked up to the food offerings.  The birds fed for a short while and then departed leaving a small amount of  popcorn  here and there across the lawn.

       Later that same day three crows flew in to the feeding area.  While the birds were feeding on the remaining food, one of the crows picked up some popcorn, carried it to another part of the lawn, and pushed the food down into the dry two to three-inch tall grass.  It then placed grass clippings atop the stash of food.  This behavior was repeated a few more times before the birds left.  They thought it was odd that the bird tilted its head sideways each time it hide popcorn.

   

       The next morning two crows reappeared at the recently- opened crow diner.  During this visit, one of crows walked over to some of the spots where popcorn had been hidden the day before and retrieved the food hidden there.

       Clearly, what my daughter and granddaughter witnessed was a behavior often referred to as short-term hoarding.  The bits of grass arranged above each stash served as a marker.  In addition,  it is believed that when the crow tilted its head sideways at each location of a stash it was forming a mental image of the marker with one eye, as well as the general locale with the other.

       After the crows left, my daughter and granddaughter were left with the unforgettable memory of a remarkable example of  bird feeding behavior that far exceeded their expectations.

       The next time American crows fly into your feeding area, keep a close eye on them.  Who knows what you will see?