The last thing we needed was extremely cold weather during the second weekend in March. It would not have been so bad if one of the coldest days of the winter had not followed days upon days of temperatures hovering in the 70s and 80s. However, when I awoke on the morning of Sunday, March 13 the thermometer at my house read 24º F. Not only did the late winter freeze threaten plants that had already begun blooming and/or sprouting leaves, it also endangered the lives of many birds.
When the nighttime temperature drops this low untold numbers of birds face a life and death struggle to survive. A factor that often determines whether a bird survives to see the light of dawn is whether it is able to spend the night in a site that offers insulation from cold winds and low temperatures. The warmer the site, the less energy it needs to burn simply to stay warm.
For example, one of our common winter residents is the American goldfinch. This gregarious bird roosts in dense vegetation. If they are fortunate enough to roost is a location where the foliage and branches form a thick barrier against the wind and cold, they will burn about a third less energy than they would have expended had they been forced to roost in a more open site.
All to frequently during extremely cold, windy weather birds roosting in unsuitable roost sites will literally starve to death during the night. For this reason, when you are trying to transform your yard into a haven for wildlife, do not overlook supplying your feathered backyard neighbors an abundance of suitable winter cover.
Cavity nesting birds such as woodpeckers, nuthatches, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, and eastern bluebirds roost in natural cavities, nesting boxes, and roosting boxes. The problem is, in most locales, the demand for these precious sites far outstrips their availability.
The situation is often more dire for birds that roost in dense vegetation and brush piles. The roster of these birds includes mockingbirds, yellow-rumped, and pine warblers, kinglets, sparrows, cardinals, dark-eyed juncos, blue jays and many others. These birds roost in places such as evergreen shrubs and trees, as well as dense thickets and even brush piles. Such sites are either woefully missing or in short supply in many neighborhoods. Just a handful of these plants serve as safe havens for dozens of roosting birds.
Facing a paucity of places to escape the cold, birds will often attempt to find refuge in some odd places. For example, when my daughter took the dog out a few hours after midnight on the 13th, she flushed a yellow-rumped warbler that had found refuge in the welcome wreath hanging on her front door. Birds have been found roosting in other places such as inside open garages, barns and other buildings, above security lights, and on the limbs of Christmas trees.
A few of the native plants that address this need are red cedar, viburnums, wax myrtle, American holly and pines.
With that in mind, if your yard lacks enough roosting cavities and/or evergreen trees and shrubs, make a point to add them to your landscape before our next cold front sweeps down from the north bringing with it freezing temperatures. Hopefully, that will not happen until next winter.
If you are looking for plans for a roost or nesting box, contact Melissa Hayes at the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Section (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Remarkably, our backyards are home to untold wild inhabitants. I don’t think there is anybody that can identify all of them. However, the fact is we do not know the correct name of them to appreciate their beauty and the role they play in wild communities. One group of organisms most of us are largely unfamiliar with is known as the tree bracket (also called shelf) fungi.
As their name suggests, tree bracket fungi grow on trees (both dead and alive). The shelf-like structures were see growing on the sides of trees are the fungi’s fruiting bodies. Each species of bracket fungi has its own distinctive appearance.
Kim Walton (this blog’s webmaster) submitted the attractive fungi depicted in the accompanying photo growing on the side of a tree near her home in Monroe County.
Shelf fungi are more than just pleasing to the eye. Throughout history, some species have been used as folk remedies. In addition, these fungi provide cover for spiders, songbirds, insects, and a variety of other critters.
If you know the name of this type of bracket fungi, I would appreciate it if you would share its identity with me.
With cold weather lurking just around the corner, the thoughts of many backyard wildlife enthusiasts have turned to providing winter roosting sites for their backyard bird neighbors. As such, some are winterizing nesting boxes or erecting roosting boxes. These measures help birds that roost in cavities such residents as Carolina chickadees, brown-headed nuthatches, and eastern bluebirds. However, little thought is given to providing winter roosts for birds that do not use natural or manmade cavities as nighttime roosts.
The truth of the matter is most backyards such as sparrows, finches, robins, mockingbirds, cardinals, doves, and a host of others roost in vegetation. One such bird is the American goldfinch.
The American goldfinch roosts in dense vegetation. The birds often roost among the needles of conifers. When they cannot locate such a roost site and are forced to spend the night in an open spot, their risk of succumbing to the cold dramatically increases. In fact, when they roost in thick leafy vegetation, they can use one-third less energy to survive a frigid night than they would if they roosted in a more exposed spot. The energy saved can mean the difference between life and death.
Do you have any thick shrubs or trees in your yard that goldfinches and other birds could roost for a winter roost site this winter?
One of the things that you will find that I often mention in this blog is that all wildlife need food, water, and cover to survive. However, often seems we homeowners tend to overlook the importance of cover. This is unfortunate as an argument can be made that it is perhaps the most important element of all. Perhaps this is so because many folks do not understand what constitutes cover.
As far a backyard birds are concerned, cover refers to places where animals can find shelter from harsh weather, escape from predators, nest, feed, and roost.
At this time of year, providing backyard birds with winter cover is extremely important.
In winter, birds must routinely cope with low temperatures (often subfreezing), bitter winds, rain, ice, and snow. The need for this type of cover is especially acute at night when they go to roost. As such, birds simply cannot survive without areas where they can escape the ravages of the harshest season of the year.
Trees and shrubs that do not lose their leaves in winter provide many birds with a safe refuge during these trying times. All of these cover plants have tick foliage. Two native woody plants that best provide birds with this invaluable type of cover are wax myrtle and eastern red cedar. Both plants are hardy and easy to grow.
With that in mind, if you want to make sure that your feathered neighbors have places to roost on frigid winter nights, as well as throughout the rest of the year, make sure your have provided them with plants that are blanketed with thick foliage.
If you are going address this need with shrubs, plant them in bunches—don’t set out a leafy shrub as a standalone plant. Birds seem to prefer large patches of cover.
If you adopt this simple suggestion, you might be pleasantly surprised just how many birds will benefit from your thoughtfulness.