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DO BACKYARD BIRDS PRACTICE MONOGAMY?

        Up until a few decades ago, biologists believed that as many as 93 percent of songbird families practiced monogamy.  However, since the development of DNA fingerprinting in the 1980s, we now know some birds that appear to be devoted mates will stray.

        This earth-shattering realization came about quickly.  For example, by 2002, researchers discovered that up until that time a meager 14 percent of the songbirds tested were truly monogamous.  Research has shown 19 percent of the nests of supposed monogamous birds are home to at least one nestling that was sired by a father different from the rest of its nest mates.

        A few of the backyard birds that are promiscuous are the eastern bluebird, ruby-throated hummingbird, house finch, and red-winged blackbird.

        It would appear that some of our backyard feathered neighbors live soap opera lives.

PROVIDING NESTING MATERIAL FOR HUMMERS

       Have you ever given any thought of trying to provide nesting hummingbirds with a source of nesting material?  I must admit while I have placed pieces of cotton in a wire suet feeder in the spring hoping it might be used by nesting birds, I never considered the possibility the white fibers might be used by a ruby-throated hummingbird.  However, three events have caused me to change my mind.

        Several years ago, I presented a hummingbird program to a garden club in southwest Georgia that met in the home of one of its members.  While I was setting up my projector and screen, the host asked me if I ever heard of a hummingbird using cotton to build a nest.  I told her although I had not, I could see how hummingbirds might incorporate cotton in a nest. 

        She then went on the explain that she had seen a female hummer collect cotton in her backyard.  It seems she planted a cotton seed in a pot that sat near her house.  The seed germinated and grew into a healthy plant festooned with balls of cotton.  Since the plant looked attractive, she left it in pot throughout the winter.

        The following spring while she was standing in her living room, looking out across her patio a female hummingbird flew down, plucked some cotton fibers from a cotton ball, and flew up to a nearby tree.  The bird repeated this behavior several times.  Although she never actually saw the bird using the cotton to build a nest, she surmised that is what the little bird was doing.

        I was reminded of this homeowner’s experience last week when I received an email from a man relating that he had witnessed a female hummingbird collect a bit of cotton from a suet feeder filled with cotton batting.  This prompted him to search for a nest.  Remarkably, his efforts paid off and he discovered a hummingbird nest close by.

        Earlier this week I mentioned this event to a cousin.  He was so intrigued by the story he went out and bought a wire suet feeder, filled it with cotton, and hung it out near his home.  Unbelievably before the sun set he spotted a female hummer pulling strands of cotton from the  feeder.  Now he is looking for a nest.

        With this kind of success, perhaps this is something we should all try.  Even though a hummingbird might not avail itself of the cotton we offer, chances are other nesting birds will.  

TALK ABOUT FUEL EFFICIENCY!

         Nowadays whenever we purchase a new vehicle, we want to know its fuel efficiency.  While current models are amazingly more efficient than they were 20 to 30 years ago, they do not even come close to being as fuel- efficient as the ruby-throated hummingbird.

Those ruby-throated hummingbirds that are returning to the United States this spring have to fly anywhere from 500-600 miles across the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  Remarkably, these tiny birds can make this journey using but 3/40th of an ounce of fuel (fat). To put this in perspective, if a 170-pound man or woman could fly like a hummingbird, it would require storing 85 pounds of fat! Now that is fuel efficiency!

LEAD CAN AFFECT MOCKINGBIRD AGGRESSION

          We Georgia homeowners are well aware of the fact the northern mockingbird is one of our most aggressive backyard birds.  In fact, if you are like me, it is hard to believe you would want them to be any more aggressive.  However, the results of a study published by Stephanie McClelland in the journal Science of the Total Environment suggest that the amount of lead found in the soil within a mockingbird’s territory can affect its aggressiveness.

    The study was conducted in neighborhoods scattered across New Orleans, Louisiana.  The data collected during the study found mockingbirds living in areas where high levels of lead are present in the soil are more aggressive than those inhabiting neighborhoods where soils are not contaminated with this pollutant.

         Now that I know lead can affect the level of aggressiveness displayed by mockingbirds, I cannot help but wonder if this element is affecting the mockingbirds living in my yard.  I hope that is not the case.

BE ON THE LOOK OUT FOR CLUES THAT SQUIRRELS ARE EATING MUSHROOMS

        The gray squirrel is one of the most common animals found in backyards across Georgia.  Indeed, it has proven to be able to coexist with humans. 

        One reason they flourish in our backyards is linked to the fact they are omnivores.  In other words, they can eat both animals and plants.  In fact, studies have shown they can consume upwards of 60 species of plants alone.  We all know they will eat anything from tomatoes to various nuts, berries, buds and the like.  In addition, they will also eat mushrooms.

        Recently while walking about my backyard on an unseasonably balmy winter afternoon, I happened across evidence that a gray squirrel had recently been dining of a mushroom.  The mushroom had been knocked over and pieces of the fragile plant were strewn about.  When I looked closely at the pieces, I could actually see tooth marks left by the hungry squirrel.  Then next day I found, since the last time I visited the feeding site, a squirrel had eaten even more of the mushroom. Prudent homeowners would never try to eat a mushroom without being sure the mushroom was not poisonous.  Even then, you cannot be sure what you are eating.  I have a friend that fancied himself as being a mushroom expert.  One on fateful occasion, his misidentification of a mushroom landed him and his family in the hospital.

        Eating a poison mushroom is not a concern for the gray squirrel.  Remarkably, they seem to be able to eat any mushroom without risking becoming sick or killed.  In fact, researchers have found gray squirrels have the ability to eat mushrooms containing deadly amanita (deathcap) toxins with impunity.  The gray squirrel is one of only a handful of animals capable of this gastronomic fete.

        Who would have ever thought that the animal that eats our vegetables, destroys our bird nesting boxes, eats more than its fair share of seeds at our feeders, and even invades our attics is a uniquely special animal?  I know I didn’t.  

BEE BALM IS A GREAT NATIVE HUMMINGBIRD NECTAR PLANT

    Soon hummingbirds will be en route to Georgia.  As such, there is no better time than now to begin planning what to plant for the feathered dynamos that bring us so much please.  With that in mind, I would like to suggest that you consider planting bee balm.

        Bee balm (Monarda didyma), also known as Oswego tea) is a native perennial.  This hummingbird favorite grows anywhere from one to five feet tall.  It grows best in moist to well drained soil types.  The plant blooms best when grown in sites that vary from partial shade to full sun.  Bee balm blooms from March to May.