My wife and I enjoy gardening for hummingbirds. In an effort to provide them with a source of nectar throughout as much of the year as possible, we provide them a multitude of plants. The list of nectar plants includes such hummingbird favorites as zinnia, Turk’s cap, trumpet creeper, lantana, coral honeysuckle, scarlet sage, lyre leaf sage, red buckeye, hollyhock, columbine and many more. These plants provide us with an ever-changing mosaic composed of different colors. Often when I gaze at this gorgeous setting, I cannot help but wonder what these plants look like through the eyes of the ruby-throated hummingbirds that visit these flowers countless times.
Research conducted by researchers representing the Princeton University Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard, University of Maryland, Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory and the University of British Columbia has revealed our ability to see colors pales in comparison with that of hummingbirds. Princeton University Assistant Professor Mary Caswell put it this way, “Humans are color blind compared to birds and many other animals.”
The research discovered hummingbirds appear to be able to detect pure ultra-violet from a combination of colors such as ultra-violet plus red and red as well as ultra-violet plus green from pure green. Ultra-violet plus red and ultra-violet plus green were undetectable to the researchers.
Many scientists believe the reason why hummingbirds are able to see far more colors than us is linked to the fact that a hummingbird’s eye contains four different types of cones whereas humans have but three. The fourth type of cones detect near ultra-violet light (UV). Ultraviolet light is invisible to the human eye.
The ability to detect near UV light is beneficial to hummingbirds because many nectar plants display colors in the near UV light range. Consequently, such plants stand out more to hummingbirds than they do to humans.
I am certain that this research represents another step toward our greater understanding of the hummingbird’s ability to see colors. Wouldn’t it great to catch a glimpse at the colors of the natural world through the eyes of a hummingbird?
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.
Whenever my wife and I stumble across a plant that proves to be a great addition to our backyard wildlife gardens, we like to share our discovery with others. One of our latest discoveries is sulphur cosmos (Cosmos sulphureous).
Over the years we have planted a number of different varieties of cosmos. However, none of have proven to attract as many butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators as sulphur cosmos. We have also found the flowers are popular with both bumblebees and carpenter bees.
As such, we have enjoyed watching these rotund pollinators land on cosmos blossoms and ride them downward toward the ground.
We have planted sulphur cosmos in a couple of mass plantings. However, it is purported to grow well in containers also.
We have learned this annual is easy to grow. We are growing them in moderately fertile clay soil. However, the plant has the reputation of being able to grow in a variety of soils ranging from poor to fertile.
The plant’s bright orange and yellow daisy like flowers are stunning. Plants grow two to six feet tall (most of our plants reached a height of four to five feet). The flowers last for a long time. In addition, dead heading will prolong their bloom well into the fall.
Our sulphur cosmos plants have been blooming for several weeks. During that time, we have seen the blossoms visited by a host of pollinators such as ruby-throated hummingbirds, eastern tiger swallowtails, common buckeyes, checkered skippers, gulf fritillaries, cloudless sulphurs, sleepy oranges, monarchs, and others. The most recent addition to the list of butterflies seen on the flowers was a giant swallowtail. This butterfly is uncommon in our neck of the woods.
If you decide to incorporate this ornamental in your garden, I would be very surprised if doesn’t please you as much as it has us.
Our backyards are home to an amazing variety of butterflies and moths. In recent years, homeowners have been trying to provide these fascinating insects with a variety of plants that serve as host plants. Most of these efforts have focused on establishing herbaceous host plants. Ironically woody plants such and shrubs are trees are rarely recognized for their value as host plants even though, they often host more butterflies and moths than any other plants found in an average yard. Leading the list of trees that serve as host plants for moths and butterflies in Georgia are native oaks.
Throughout the country, native oaks host at least 557 species of moths and butterflies. More than 20 species of oaks are native to the Peach State. Many of these oaks commonly grow in our backyards.
Here is a short list of some of the butterflies and moths that use oaks as host plants: red-spotted purple, Horace’s and Juvenal’s duskywing, banded hairstreak, white M hairstreak, clymene moth, imperial moth, cecropia moth, rosy maple moth, and polyphemus moth.
If you are interested in providing host plants for a wide variety of moths and butterflies make sure, your home landscape includes one or more species of native oaks. With that in mind, do an inventory of the trees growing in your yard. If you already have willow, water, white, live, or other species of native oaks in your yard, you already providing a wide variety of butterflies with a place to lay their eggs. If not, when you are planning additions to your yard add a native oak to the list. This one investment will yield dividends for years to come.
Like a growing number of other backyard wildlife enthusiasts I am incorporating native plants into my home landscape. To date, I have been pleased with native plants I have introduced that produce seeds, fruits, berries and/or nectar for my wildlife neighbors. I wish I could say the same for two caterpillar host plants—passionflower and spicebush. My problem with them is two of the butterflies that lay their eggs on them do so long before the plants can become established.
This problem first cropped up several years ago when I tried to grow passionflower in my yard. After vainly trying to grow the plants from seeds, I planted young plants. Much to my delight the plants did well and soon slender passionflower vines inched their way up a nearby fence.
One day when I went out to look at my rapidly growing vines I spotted a number of spike-covered orange and black gulf fritillary caterpillars munching on the vines’ tender leaves. At first I was thrilled that gulf fritillaries were using my plants as hosts for their caterpillars.
My delight soon changed to concern when it became the insatiable caterpillars quickly devoured every single leaf on the vines. They then proceeded to eat the vines down to the ground.
Although my crop of passionflower leaves was exhausted for that growing season, I was hoping the plants would come back the following year.
The next spring I kept looking for the passionflower vines to emerge from the ground. When this did not happen I realized the caterpillars had destroyed the plants the previous year.
This problem resurfaced when I transplanted a healthy four-foot tall spicebush in my backyard last year. Aided by frequent watering, the small shrub grew well. Much to my surprise, in 2017 I did not see a single spicebush swallowtail caterpillar on the plant.
This spring the tree sprouted a meager crop of fresh green leaves. Eventually, I notice a number of folded-over leaf shelters on the leaves. This was a sure sign tiny spicebush swallowtail caterpillars were hiding beneath their green leaf shelters. In a matter of days, these voracious caterpillars ate every single leaf on my spicebush. I was hoping I was not facing a replay of my experience with passionflowers.
My fear that caterpillars had once again destroyed a host plant in my yard was alleviated when I noticed small green buds had appeared at the shrub’s woody base. Perhaps I still had a chance to save the plant.
I decided the best thing I could do to save the shrub was to somehow prevent female spicebush swallowtails from laying their eggs on the few newly-sprouted leaves. With that in mind, I have wrapped a small piece of bird netting around the base of the plant in hopes spicebush swallowtails will not be able to extend the tips of her abdomens through the netting far enough to lay their eggs on the new leaves; only time will tell whether or not my efforts will prove successful.
In the meantime I am checking the shrub daily to see if my efforts prove to be successful. I also want to make sure a snake doesn’t become entangled in the netting.
If it works, I might just try to plant passionflower again. In the meantime, I just wish butterflies would be a little more patient.
If you have discovered a solution to this dilemma, please let me know.
Interest in butterfly gardening is at an all time high throughout the Peach State. At one time, his activity was one-dimensional. If a homeowner wanted to attract butterflies to their yard, they planted flowers that produced an abundance of nectar. However, in recent years butterfly gardening has taken on a new dimension. Nowadays people that are serious butterfly gardeners also incorporate butterfly larval host plants into their landscape designs.
However, many homeowners do not realize that some of the trees growing in their yards are also butterfly host plants. Here is a list of ten such trees and the butterflies that use them as hosts.
Yellow Poplar – Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Hackberry – Hackberry Emperor, Tawny Emperor, Question Mark, Mourning Cloak, American Snout
Sassafras – Spicebush Swallowtail, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Palamedes Swallowtail
Redbud – Henry’s Elfin
Flowering Dogwood – Spring Azure
Willow – Viceroy
Winged Elm – Question Mark
Water Oak – White M Hairstreak
Black Cherry – Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Red-spotted Purple
This is the time of year when backyard wildlife enthusiasts are hard at work gardening for wildlife. If you enjoy butterflies, you are probably sowing seeds or setting out plants that will attract these flying flowers.
For years, the goal of these efforts has been providing adult butterflies with dependable sources of nectar throughout as much of the year as possible. Nowadays butterfly gardeners are also planting host plants for these beautiful insects.
Host (also called caterpillar) plants are the plants that provide food butterfly caterpillars. While as a general rule, butterflies will eat nectar from a wide variety of sources, they only lay their eggs one a small number of plants. If a butterfly’s host plant(s) are not available in your yard or neighborhood, they will not lay their eggs there and your chances of seeing that particular species is reduced.
With that in mind, savvy butterfly gardeners are incorporating host plants into their gardens. Fortunately, it is extremely easy to provide the host plants used by the black swallowtail.
Black swallowtails lay their eggs on plants that are members of the Apiaceae family, which includes Queen Anne’s lace, carrots, fennel, parsley, and celery.
If you go ahead and plant any of these species in your yard right now, you have an excellent chance of having them used by black swallowtails this year.
Here is a planting tip: plant a bunch of whatever plants you choose. If you don’t, should a female black swallowtail lay her eggs on your plantings, the voracious caterpillars could easily eat the plants up before they become established.
One of our most beautiful and reviled plants is Chinese wisteria. Each spring this introduced woody vine produces large grape-like clusters of fragrant, violet-blue blossoms. In many places throughout the state, Chinese wisteria vines climb to the tops of the trees. When in bloom, these sinewy vines create cascades of flowers that can literally take your breath away.
When you gaze at the Chinese wisteria’s flora extravaganza, it is hard to believe that this plant has a dark side. The truth of the matter is that the vine that has become part of the tapestry of spring in Georgia is so invasive that the harm it causes overshadows the delicate beauty of its flowers.
In many parts of the Peach State has become a serious pest since it is extremely prolific, hardy, and able to grow in a wide range of soil types. Once it becomes established, it can literally smother the native plants growing nearby. As a result, landowners spend thousands of dollars each year trying to eradicate this showy invader.
If you enjoy wisteria, but do not want to encourage such an unrelenting noxious plant in your yard, this native vine is a plant you should consider incorporating in your home landscape. The plant I am referring to is American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens). This native woody vine is not invasive although it will climb on fences, small trees, and shrubs. From April through August, it produces clusters of purple blossoms. While they are not as large as those of the Chinese wisteria, American wisteria flowers are still beautiful.
If you are interested in butterflies, you will be pleased to know that it is the host plant for the zarucco duskywing, long-tailed, and silver-spotted skipper.
The zebra I am referring to are not the four-legged animals that live on the African plains. The zebras I am talking about has six legs and can fly–the zebra swallowtail butterfly.
You would be hard pressed to mistake this butterfly with any other that inhabits the Peach State. The zebra swallowtail’s wings displays a pattern of alternating distinctive black and white stripes.
The zebras I see at this time of the year are, on the average, smaller and have shorter tails than those I spot later in the year.
The zebra swallowtail can be seen throughout the state. Depending on the weather, it can be seen somewhere in the Georgia from late February to early November. I especially enjoy watching them in the springtime flying through leafless hardwood forests seeking pawpaws. The pawpaw is the host plant for this beautiful butterfly. Once a female find a pawpaw she will lay a single egg on the plant before moving on looking for another pawpaw.
I personally see more zebra swallowtails in early spring than at any other time of the year. At that time of the year, few other butterflies are on the wing. However, for some reason, over the past few years I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen this butterfly during an entire calendar year.
Zebra swallowtails will nectar on a variety of flowers; however, they tend to shy away from tubular flowers such as coral honeysuckle. This is because they have a short proboscis and cannot reach nectar at the far end of a long, trumpet-shaped bloom. In addition, they favor white flowers above all others.
If you have not seen a zebra swallowtail in your yard, it could very likely be because no pawpaws are growing nearby. If that is the case, you can easily remedy the situation by planting a few native pawpaws. If you do, with a little luck, zebras will indeed be seen flying about your backyard.