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AMERICAN GOLDFINCHES ARE LATE NESTERS

         For the last several weeks, American goldfinches have been mighty scarce around my feeders.  However, last week I was surprised to see a male American Goldfinch sharing sunflower seeds with a small group of house finches.  Seeing the bird in full breeding plumage was a reminder that, unlike many birds, the American goldfinch waits until spring to undergo a complete body molt.  Many ornithologists believe this may be linked to the fact that The American goldfinch nest far later than most other Georgia songbirds.

       According to this theory, since such a molt requires the bird to expend a huge amount of energy, it lessens its ability to nest until later in the year after their energy reserves have been replenished.  In the case of Georgia American goldfinches, it is just about time for them to begin nesting.

       The American goldfinch nesting season in the Peach State commences in late June, however, it reaches its peak in July and August.  Some females will even be nesting as late as September.

       These nesting habits will affect the numbers of goldfinches we will see at our feeders.  Once nesting begins, during the 12-14 days the females are incubating their eggs they will have little time to feed.  Consequently, during period we are likely to see males more often at our feeders than females.

HERE IS WHAT YOU SHOULD DO IF YOU FIND A YOUNG BIRD ON THE GROUND

      Every year countless Georgia homeowners find helpless young birds on the ground beneath trees and shrubs.  In some cases, the young birds and their nests are torn out of a tree by an intense storm.  In other cases, a young bird simply accidentally falls from its nest.  If you happen across such a bird, do you know what to do?

       If you find a hatchling, look about and see if you can locate its nest.  If you do locate it, simply place the young bird back in the nest.  More than likely, parents are perched nearby and will resume raising the youngster.

       On the other hand, if you find a whole or partial nest containing young, place the nest or its remains and young birds in something like a hanging basket.  If the container is much larger than the nest, place the nest atop some mulch (choose mulch that will not get soggy when wet).  Then hang it in the tree as close as you can to its original location.

       After you have replaced the nest and young birds all you can do is wait.  In the best-case scenario, the parents will return to the young.  However, after a reasonable length of time, if the parents have not returned to claim their hatchlings, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

       A list of Georgia’s licensed wildlife rehabilitators can be found at www.gadnrle.org.  Once you open the site scroll down the subject list to Wildlife rehabilitators.  These dedicated, skilled individuals are listed by county and the types of wildlife they are qualified to treat.

IT’S MULBERRY TIME!

       One of my favorite times of the year is when the mulberries begin to ripen on my backyard mulberry tree.  While my wife and I enjoy eating the sweet juicy berries, what I enjoy even more is watching the parade of birds that flock to the devour every berry in sight.

       Yesterday, my long wait for this special event ended when I noticed the tree is festooned with berries.  Although most of the berries are not ripe, I have learned that the hungry birds begin devouring the berries well before they are fully ripe.

       The birds that flock to mulberries are all card-carrying members of the bird world’s Who’s Who List.  While I am not a usually a name-dropper, the list of a few of the birds that eat mulberries includes bird royalty such as the eastern bluebird, rose-breasted grosbeak, great crested flycatcher, scarlet and summer tanagers, wood thrush, red-eyed vireo, northern bobwhite and wild turkey. 

   

CEDAR WAXWING EATING A MULBERRY

       One of the neatest things about the watching birds feeding in a mulberry tree is you are very likely to see multiple species of birds feeding at the same time.  It is not impossible to a dozen more species of birds gorging on mulberries during a feeding orgy.

       If you have a mulberry growing in your yard, you have probably witnessed the spring invasions of birds seeking mulberries.  However, if your yard is not blessed with this magical tree, and is large (the tree can grow to a height of 60-70′ or more) enough to accommodate this fast-growing tree, plant one.  While several introduced species of mulberries of mulberries grow in Georgia, the one you should buy is the red mulberry (Morus rubra) since it is the only mulberry native to Georgia.

       This investment will pay dividends for decades to come.

BACKYARD SECRET–INVERTEBRATES COMPRISE MOST OF THE CAROLINA WREN’S DIET

      The Carolina wren is one of our favorite backyard birds.  Most of us are likely to either see or hear one in our yards every day of the year.  In my case, I hear the bird’s loud tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle from early morning until dark.  Although Carolina wrens will occasionally visit our feeders (especially in winter), we rarely see them feeding away from our feeders.  That being the case, have you ever wondered what these hyperactive active birds eat throughout the year?

       The answer to that question is a wide variety of invertebrates such as insects, spiders, caterpillars, and millipedes.  These small animals comprise a whopping ninety-five percent of the Carolina wren’s diet.  Since a Carolina wren must eat slightly less than half an ounce of these critters, each day just to meet its body’s metabolic needs that means this wren is eating a lot of insects.  To put this in perspective, each month each of the Carolina wrens that inhabit your yards eats roughly a pound of some of the smallest and least revered members of our backyard animal community.

       I guess this explains why we rarely see a Carolina wren just resting. They must continually hunt to survive.  When we do catch a glimpse of one, it is hopping through our shrubs and gardens, or checking out the eaves of our houses, barns other spots where spiders and insects lurk. 

       They truly lead a very busy life away from our bird feeders.

FEEDING SUET IN HOT WEATHER

     Suet has long been considered a food that should only be fed to our bird neighbors in the winter.  The reasons for this are during hot weather suet easily melts creating quite a mess, turns rancid, and when smeared on a bird’s feathers harm their ability to repel water.  In addition, when it melts, its aroma has a tendency to attract unwanted visitors.  Nowadays, however, if you know what you are doing, it is possible feed birds suet throughout the year.

       Suet’s reputation of being only winter food offering surfaced back in the day when the only suet available to bird enthusiasts was animal fat preferably trimmed off the carcasses of cattle.  Folks either would buy raw suet from the local butcher as feed it as is or render it themselves.  Today suet is difficult purchase at the grocery store.  Consequently, most of us buy blocks of rendered suet at stores that sell bird products.   

       Pure suet is an outstanding bird food.  However, since it does melt when temperatures reach 90˚F and above, it should be avoided in hot weather.  With that in mind, if you want to offer suet to birds in warm weather, turn your attention to suet labeled no-melt or no-drip suet.  The only suets of this type that I have found are not what you can technically call pure suet since they contain a variety of other foods.  One term that is often used to describe them is bird pudding.

       For a number of years, I have fed a bird pudding containing peanut butter and peanuts.  The birds are so fond of it I offer it to them throughout the year.  Consequently, in addition to attracting a wide variety of winter residents, feeding it to them during the spring and summer has provided me some fantastic viewing opportunities that I would have otherwise missed had I limited using it only during the colder months.

       For example, one afternoon last week the bird activity around a wire feeder containing suet laced with peanut butter and peanuts was exceptionally high.  In roughly an hour, the feeder was visited by two hairy woodpeckers, a brown-headed nuthatch, gray catbird, cardinals, house finches, northern mockingbird, brown thrasher, chipping sparrow, and Carolina chickadees.

       I particularly enjoyed the visits of the hairy woodpeckers and Carolina chickadees.  Since I do not often see hairy woodpeckers in my yard, spotting two was quite a treat.  First, an adult arrived and ate for quite some time.  While it was dining, an immature hairy woodpecker suddenly landed on the Shepherd’s hook holding up the feeder.  The youngster landed near the top of the long metal pole and immediately slid down about a foot before flying up to the top of the rod for another try.  As expected, he slid down the post again.  It was amusing to watch as the bird vainly tried several times to hold on to the slim metal pole. Finally, it gave up and flew directly to the wire feeder and began feeding.

       As for the Carolina chickadees, as well as I can remember, I have never seen four of them converge on a feeder at one time.  All that changed when four flew in and ate suet together.  They would peck at the food for a few minutes and fly off only to return in a few minutes. 

       I am convinced this was probably a family group.

       If you try, feeding suet from now through summer, use no-melt or no-drip suet.  Place your feeder in the shade and monitor the food very closely.  If you notice it is melting or turning rancid, remove it.  The safety and health of our feathered neighbors should always be your paramount concern.

IS HUMMINGBIRD FOOD MADE IN A MICROWAVE SAFE FOR THE BIRDS?

       Recently, reports have surfaced claiming hummingbird nectar prepared in a microwave is harmful to the health of the hummingbirds that consume it.  Is this claim true?

       The internet sites making this allegation provide little information to substantiate the allegation.  One site alleges that when a sugar solution is heated in a microwave the chemical composition of the sugar molecule is altered.  This, in turn, has a deleterious effect on sugar’s nutritional value to hummingbirds.

       This belief may stem from the fact that it has been widely reported that food heated in a microwave can reduce the levels of such things as vitamin C, some antioxidants, and omega fatty acids.

       I have checked a number of sources trying to run down the source of this allegation.  To date, I have not been able to uncover a single study that substantiates the claim.  In fact, as of this posting, even the prestigious Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology’s website does not warn hummingbird enthusiasts of any danger associated with boiling hummingbird nectar in a microwave.

      Until this issue is resolved, if you are among the folks that use a microwave to prepare hummingbird food, you might want to use the microwave to heat the water you are going to use to make nectar.  Then remove the water before adding the sugar to create the food.  This eliminates any possibility that the food value of the nectar is compromised by the boiling process.

       As you probably already know, you need to use extreme caution when adding the sugar to the boiling water.  Water heated in a microwave to this temperature has a tendency to “explode” when touched with a foreign object.  This extremely hot water can burn the preparer’s hands.

        Whenever I am able to determine whether this claim is true or false, I will let you know.

BACKYARD SECRET – THE RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD CANNOT WALK

       There are many reasons why the ruby-throated hummingbird is such an amazing bird.  For example, no other backyard bird is capable of performing the aerial fetes routinely carried out by this master of flight.  In spite of its performance in the air, it simply cannot walk a step.  At best, the bird can only shuffle its feet sideways.

       The ruby-throated hummingbird’s legs and feet are both extremely small.  In fact they are so small, the only time the vast majority of us ever seen them is when a hummingbird is perched on a hummingbird feeder.

       A retired elementary school teacher told me that many of her young students did not believe hummingbirds possessed legs and feet.  She went on to say the only way she was able to convince them otherwise was to show them the mummified body of a hummingbird that flew into her garage and died before it could be rescued.

       It might seem that not being able to walk would be a hindrance.  Obviously, that is not the case with rubythroats.  These aerial dynamos feed primarily while remaining airborne.  The only exceptions of this seem to be when they are perched at a feeder or flower petal eating nectar.

       If fact, if hummingbirds were burdened with legs and feet large enough to enable them to walk or run, the added weight of the bones and muscles would undoubtedly prevent them from being true masters of the air.

CORAL BEAN IS A FAVORITE OF RUBYTHROATS & BUTTERFLIES

       The coral bean (Erythrina herbacea) is a Georgia native that has made the transition from the wild to Georgia gardens particularly along the coast and across the Coastal Plain.

       Coral bean (also known cardinal spear and Cherokee bean) is a perennial, thorny shrub.  In the wild, a plant is most often found growing in the sandy soils of open woods, forest openings, and disturbed areas.

       Although coral bean will grow in zones 7-10, it is often found growing in gardens in the South Georgia than other parts of the state.  Actually, I am surprised this perennial native shrub it is not planted in more gardens.  Each spring dark (almost black) stalks emerge from the ground and display a bouquet of bright red blossoms. The contrast of coral bean’s red flowers borne on dark stalks is truly stunning.

       The floral show will continue into summer. During this time, plant’s tubular flowers are favorite sources of nectar for ruby-throated hummingbirds and butterflies. Since the plant begins blooming in spring, in many gardens, it is sometimes the only source of nectar available to these nectar feeders.

   Coral bean (also known cardinal spear and Cherokee bean) is a perennial, thorny shrub. 

       Once the blooming period has ended each plant produces a crop of 4-6″ seedpods. When the pods open, they reveal bright red seeds, which offer a splash of color to fall gardens. The seeds are eaten by both birds and small mammals; however, the seeds very poisonous to humans.  For that reason, children should be kept away from them.

       Coral bean is susceptible to frost. However, unless the plant’s roots succumb to freezing weather, new shoots should emerge the following spring.

       Interestingly, plants growing, in locales where freezing weather is a rarity such as South Florida, can grow to be 15 feet tall.

THE ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK MIGRATION HAS BEGUN

       The spring migration of the rose-breasted grosbeak has begun.  Like many of our songbirds, rose-breasted grosbeaks migrate at night in small flocks.  These flocks can be composed of upwards of 50 individuals.

       The birds that are now arriving in our yards wintered in Central and South America.  After spending some time refueling in our backyards they will continue on northward to the summer homes.  Here in the Peach State rose-breasted grosbeaks only nest in the extreme northeastern corner of the state.  Consequently, the vast majority of the birds that pass through Georgia backyards breed in the Appalachian Mountains, Mideast, Northeast, and southern Canada.

       Like ruby-throated hummingbirds, male rose-breasted grosbeaks are the first to migrate.  A few weeks later, the females make their first appearance at our feeders.

       The best way to attract rose-breasted grosbeaks to your yard is to offer the hungry birds a generous supply of black oil sunflower seeds.  Providing the birds with a place to bathe and drink is also helpful.

YOU MAY NOT HAVE TO LEAVE YOUR YARD TO SEE SPRING MIGRANTS

      I suspect that most folks that enjoy birding would like to make the trek to Texas’ High Island to witness the spring songbird migration.  If you catch conditions just right, in a single day, you can get up close and personal to 30 species of warblers and literally scores of vireos tanagers and other birds.  While this small island is the one of the very best places to see spring migrations, if you have the right habitat, you can see a kaleidoscope of songbirds from March into May pass through your own yard.

       As migratory songbirds move northward, they make a number of stops before they reach their breeding grounds.  These bits of critical habitat are referred to as stopover areas.  Songbirds rest and refuel at these locations.  Backyards offering the birds the proper food, water, and cover can serve as stopover sites.

       The vast majority of migratory songbirds rarely visit feeders stocked with seeds and suet.  However, can you attract them if you offer them the foods that will help fuel their spring migration flights.  By far, the most important foods eaten by spring migrants are insects.  However, the bulk of the insects consumed by the birds are the larvae of moths and butterflies (commonly referred to as caterpillars).

       Most of these caterpillars feed on tree leaves.  Therefore, if one or more of the trees that serve as hosts for moths and butterflies is growing in your yard, the better are your chances of attracting spring migrants.

       When it comes to hosting moths and butterflies not all trees are created equal.  The worst trees are introduced ornamentals.  Some of these trees do not host any moths and butterflies.  Studies have shown ornamentals produce 35 times less caterpillar biomass than native trees.

       Here is a short list of some of the native trees that host the most species of moths and butterflies.  The numbers of species of moths and butterflies that each tree hosts are found in parentheses.  This list was developed by Dr. Doug Tallamy. 

       In Georgia, oaks (557) serve as host plants for more butterflies and moths than any other group of trees.  Other important hosts to lepidopterans are cherries (456), willows (455), birches (411), poplars (367) crabapples (308), maples (297), alders (255), hickories (235), elms (215), pines (201), hawthorns (168), beeches (127), dogwoods (118), and sweetgum (35).

       Should you find that none of these trees are in your yard, if you want to have your yard serve as a spring songbird stopover site, consider planting one or more trees found on this list.  The small investment in time and labor this requires will pay huge dividends for decades to come.

       If you already have one or more of the caterpillar producers growing in your yard, from now into May, periodically scan the tree foliage for migrants.  How long the migrants stay is largely dependent on the amount of food they find.  If your trees don’t harbor many caterpillars, migrants might stay and feed for only a day.  Conversely, if caterpillars are abundant, migrants may linger for three or more days before moving on.

       If you are lucky, one morning you may walk outside and see your trees alive with a dozen or more warblers gleaning insects for your trees’ foliage.  While you might see far more species at High Island, the fact that you spotted these birds in your yard will make the experience extra special.