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HALLOWEEN AND WILDLIFE FOLKLORE

        Unfortunately, folktales link many of our backyard wildlife neighbors such as owls, toads, snakes, and bats to Halloween.  That being the case, with Halloween only a few weeks away, there is no better time to dispel one of the tall tales regarding one of these unfortunate animals — the toad.

        The animals associated with Halloween have a number of things in common.  For example, many are creatures of the night.  This is a time when folktales tell us these animals consort with witches and goblins.  Such associations are enough to malign any animal.  As such, it is not surprising that people fear the toad.  Although we are not afraid toads will bite us, many people honestly believe that, if you touch a toad, you will get warts.  Apparently, toads also infect witches with warts as they are often depicted with warts on their noses.  Let’s do a fact check and see if this bit of folklore is actually true.

        The origin of this belief was long ago lost in the mists of history.  However, it is widely believed this notion originated from the fact that the skins of toads are covered with lots of oddly shaped warts.  Since medical knowledge was rudimentary at that time in history, this conclusion was not disputed and took on a life of its own.  Who among us has not heard our father or mother tell us not to pick up that toad, because will give your warts?  

        The truth of the matter is warts are caused by something called a human papillion virus.  There are 150 or so viruses of this type.  They most often infect humans through a cut or scratch.  It has been suggested that one of the reasons children seem to develop warts more than adults is their roughhousing make them more prone to get scratches and cuts.  In addition, the fact that their immune systems have not yet fully developed makes them more susceptible to many infections like warts.

        I can personally attest to the fact that toads do not cause warts.  When my granddaughter was a youngster, I often accompanied her on forays into the dark to see how many toads she could capture in a single night.  On a good night, she might catch a dozen or more of the “warty” critters.  After examining and photographing them, she released them where they were captured.  During these unforgettable adventures, she never developed any warts.  However, I was left with a wealth of priceless memories.

        I hope that I have dispelled this folktale.  Unfortunately, I suspect that the belief that toads can infect us with warts will be around for many Halloweens to come.

IDENTIFYING ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAKS IN FALL CAN BE TRICKY

       Whenever male rose-breasted grosbeaks magically appear at our feeders in the spring, it is difficult to mistake them for any other bird.  No other birds are cloaked in striking black-and-white plumage and also display bright crimson red chevrons on their breasts.  However, when they pass through Georgia in the fall, identifying them can be a challenge.

       The reason for this is the adults are in their nonbreeding plumage when they arrive at our feeders.  In addition, they are accompanied by adult and immature females, as well as immature males.  Whereas immature females are difficult to separate from adult females, the still look pretty much alike.

       Things are a bit trickier when it comes to distinguishing immature males from adult males.  However, the best way to describe an adult male is that it appears to be a washed out version of an adult male in breeding plumage.  In addition, there are subtle differences between adult and immature males that are often difficult to separate in the field.  Immature males will look much like the females, however they will sport varying amount of a rose wash on their breasts that is buffier than the breasts of the females. 

       Most years I only see rose-breasted grosbeaks in the spring.  However, others, like Ron Lee, entertain the birds during both seasons.  Such has been the case again this year.  Whereas Ron has been seeing these stunning migrants for quite some time this autumn, they have avoided my feeders.

       Ron has been kind enough to share with us the accompanying photo of a male rose-breasted grosbeak.  Ron took the picture taken October 10, 2020.

       With time running out on their fall migration schedule I suspect Ron’s photo is the only rose-breasted grosbeak I am likely to see this autumn.

BACKYARD SECRET-AMERICAN BEAUTYBERRY IS EASY TO PROPAGATE

       Recently I wrote about the how birds are attracted to American beautyberry.  In response to this blog, one of our fellow bloggers, Elizabeth Neace, was kind enough let us know this beautiful native shrub can easily be rooted using cuttings.  This is great news for anyone wanting to incorporate this native into his or her landscape.

HOUSE FINCH EATING AMERICAN BEAUTYBERRY

       I want to thank Elizabeth for sharing her backyard secret with us.  I am sure many folks will benefit from this valuable tip.

SPOTTING MIGRATING WARBLERS IN YOUR YARD CAN BE CHALLENGING

       As surprising as it may seem, late August and September can be a rewarding time to watch birds in your yard.  However, because it can be challenging the vast majority of the migrants that visit our yards on their fall migration are unnoticed.

       There are many reasons why this is true.  To begin with, most days it is sometimes difficult leave our cool houses and venture outside to look for them when more often than not the temperature hovers above 90 degrees and the humidity is so high the heat index soars well above 100.  It is also a hard to become motivated to go birding when throughout most of the day bird activity is well below what it was earlier in the year. 

       In addition, most of the warblers that visit our yards at this time of the year look nothing like the brilliantly colored warblers that pass through in the spring.  They have replaced their resplendent plumage with a cloak of drab feathers has prompted birders to refer to them as confusing fall warblers.

       To top it all off, those that make a rest stop in our yards rarely visit traditional bird feeders.  In fact, they are more apt to use a birdbath than a feeder.

       In spite of all of these obstacles, the folks that do venture outside to look for these long distance migrants are often rewarded with catching glimpses of an amazing array of warblers, vireos, and other songbirds.  If you want to join this group of hardy bird enthusiasts, you need to known when and where to look for them.

       The best time to search for these special birds is during the first couple of hours after the sun rises above the horizon.  The reason for this is they migrate at night and then rest and feed during the daylight hours.  Once they drop down in your yard, they begin foraging for food among the foliage that cloaks your shrubs and trees.  In essence, they are using our yards as rest stops in the same manner we pull off the highway and pull in to a gas station to refuel our cars and grab a bite to eat whenever we make a long distance trip.

       How long these feathered travelers stay is dependent on a number of factors such as the weather and the availability of food.  If food is abundant and the weather is suitable for flying, they may stay but a day or so.

       For the next several weeks, warblers and other songbirds will be passing through seemingly in waves.  As such, a yard might be full of migrants one day and devoid of them for the next several days.  Keep this in mind and do not become discouraged if you don’t see any migrants on your first effort.  During the next several weeks, untold numbers of these birds will be passing through backyards across the entire length of the state.

HELPING BOX TURTLES CROSS THE ROAD

     Whenever you see a box turtle attempting to cross a busy highway, I am sure you cannot help but be concerned the reptile can safely complete its perilous journey.  Indeed, with traffic volume increasing every year, box turtle treks across the black asphalt ribbons that crisscross the state are becoming ever more dangerous.  Not wanting to see a box turtle struck by a vehicle, whenever possible, drivers often stop and try to help turtle avoid being crushed by a car or truck.  Once a turtle is retrieved, a driver must decide where to place it in order to keep it out of harm’s way.

       I have asked two herpetologists what they would recommend in this situation.  Both agreed it is best to place the turtle on the side of the road it was headed.  While there is always a chance the turtle will turn around and walk back onto the highway, in most instances, this is not the case.

       The experts also stressed it is not a good idea to move a turtle  a mile or two down the road to a place that appears to be safer.  When released some distance from its home range, box turtles often find it difficult to find enough food to survive.  This can result in the turtles wandering about.

       If you decide to come to the aid of a box turtle trying to plod across a busy highway, please make sure you have a safe place to pull off the road.  In addition, do not walk out into the highway to retrieve a box turtle until you are absolutely certain you can do so well before a oncoming vehicle reaches you.

BALTIMORE ORIOLE SIGHTINGS

        Just when it appeared Baltimore orioles would not make an appearance at Georgia feeders this winter, within the past two weeks, two bird enthusiasts reported they are hosting orioles at their backyard feeders.  Up until then the only Baltimore oriole report I had received this winter came from a woman the feeds birds in her backyard in Tennessee.

       The first report originating from the Peach State came from a woman that describes herself as an amateur birdwatcher living in the Virginia Highlands area of Atlanta.  She first saw a female Baltimore oriole January 21.  The bird was seen inspecting Hot Meats sunflower seeds at one of her seed feeders.

         As soon as the bird flew away, she immediately put out half of an orange.  Much to her delight a couple of hours later, the bird returned.  The oriole has revisited the orange several times a day since it first dined on the citrus.

       On January 27, she sent me an update on the status of the bird.  Accompanying the message was a fabulous picture of the oriole eating grape jelly.  She wrote that the bird had been coming to feed in her backyard frequently since her initial sighting on the 21st.  She went on to say the bird was eating grape jelly from an oriole feeder she bought a year ago.  Although neither a hummingbird nor oriole ever used the feeder before, her new winter guest visits it regularly.  She fills the feeder with grape jelly water instead of nectar.

       The second report that I received was sent January 26.  This message came from a wild bird enthusiast that resides in Warner Robins.  She reported spotting two Baltimore orioles.  The homeowner wrote, “Yesterday I saw a bright orange and black bird at my suet feeder.”  The next morning she observed what appeared to be the same bird dining on suet.  However, in the brief time it took her to grab her camera and return to the window, the bird disappeared.  Much to her delight, in a few minutes, a second Baltimore oriole appeared.  The plumage of this bird was much duller.

       Wow! I wish a Baltimore oriole would show up at my home this winter.  Although I have a small container of grape jelly waiting for them in the corner of one of my platform feeders, nothing resembling an oriole has visited it.  However, the fact three orioles have recently shown up at two locales this late in the winter, gives those of us that have not seen an oriole in our backyards hope one may still make an appearance before spring arrives.

      

HELP NEEDED WITH CLIMATE WATCH

       Over the years, volunteers have played important roles in a number of bird surveys such as the Christmas Bird Count, Project Feeder Watch, The Hummingbird Helper Survey, Breeding Bird Survey, and The Great Backyard Bird Count. Now The National Audubon Society has put out the call for help with a new project called Climate Watch.

       The survey seeks to determine how certain birds are possibly being affected by climate change. The National Audubon Society has developed a climate model. Specifically Climate Watch is designed to learn whether certain birds are moving in accordance to the projections made by their model.

       Six of the species that are targeted in the survey are found in Georgia. These birds are the eastern bluebird, white-breasted nuthatch, brown-headed nuthatch, American goldfinch, painted bunting, and eastern towhee.

       The Audubon Society emphasizes that you do not have to be an expert birder to take part in the study. You simply have to be able to identify these species by sight and sound.

       The survey will be conducted during two separate times. These segments are January 15-February 15 and May 15-June 15.

       For information regarding the survey, simply Google Climate Watch. If you think you might like to take part in this effort, don’t procrastinate as the start of the survey is just days away.

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.

BLOGGER OBSERVES WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCH CACHING FOOD

In a recent blog, I noted that one of the great joys of backyard wildlife watching is sharing your observations with others. This prompted Debbie Menard to report one of her most interesting recent wildlife sightings. I found her report so interesting I thought I would share it with you.

       Debbie is one of the few folks I know that offers safflower seeds on her menu of food offerings at her backyard bird cafe. Since gray squirrels do not relish the oily seed, it is sometimes used as an alternative to sunflower seeds. For some reason, gray squirrels seem to shy away from this odd seed.

       In fact, it is a seed that only a handful of backyard birds will routinely eat. The seed appears to be eaten most often by the northern cardinal. The short list of other species that will eat safflower seeds includes the likes of downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, tufted titmouse, mourning dove, Carolina chickadee, blue jay, finch and the white-breasted nuthatch.

       One day this summer Debbie watched a white-breasted nuthatch pluck a safflower seed from a feeder and characteristically fly off with it in its bill. The bird landed on the trunk of a large white oak tree. Once there, the bird made a few modifications to the bark of the tree. Once the bird was satisfied with its handiwork, it wedged the seed in the cavity it had created and flew away.

       This was the first time Debbie have ever seen a white-breasted nuthatch engage in this fascinating behavior.

       What a great sighting!

       Keep your eyes peeled, a white-breasted nuthatch, or some other bird, may be caching seeds in your backyard right now.

ODD RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD BEHAVIOR

       Recently I had the honor of speaking at the Spring Garden Symposium in Plains.  Plains Chautauqua, the Magnolia District of the Garden Club of Georgia, Inc., and the Rosalyn Carter Butterfly Trail sponsored this wonderful event.

       One of the reasons I thoroughly enjoy making presentations such as this is that it gives me the opportunity to meet fantastic people that enjoy and appreciate nature.  In addition, over the years, I have learned volumes about wildlife and plants from the folks that I meet at these events.  Such was the case in Plains.

       This time, a woman from Oglethorpe recounted to me something she witnessed taking place just outside her window that added to my knowledge about ruby-throated hummingbirds.

It seems that she just happened to notice a rubythroat fly up to a planter filled with various plants, including a cotton plant festooned with balls of cotton.  As she watched, the hummingbird flew up to a cotton ball, dislodged a snippet of cotton fibers and fly off.  She said she could not believe what she saw until the bird returned again and again for bits of cotton.  I told her that I had never heard of a ruby-throated hummingbird collecting bits of cotton.  I also said that I believe there is a good chance the bird was using the soft, white cotton fibers to line its nest.

       A quick check of the literature revealed that rubythroats are known to line their nests with down collected from a number of plants such as milkweed, thistle, and ferns, but not cotton.

       I am convinced that people throughout the state are harboring a wealth of information about wild plants and animals that is unknown to the scientific community.  In this case, the woman that reported a hummingbird collecting cotton fibers may be the first or only person that has ever witnessed and reported this odd behavior.

       I find it exciting to know that, even though we are living in the early twenty-first century, there are so many unsolved mysteries swirling around the natural world.

       If you have ever seen something unusual such as this, please let me know.  The knowledge you possess may help us better understand and appreciate the plants and animals with whom with share the world.