We have certainly come a long way in our understanding of bird migration. For example, it is hard to believe that during the early days of the founding of the United States it was popularly believed with the onset of winter, hummingbirds “migrated” only as far as a nearby tree and impaled its bill in the plant’s trunk. Here it remained immobile until the land thawed the following spring.
Nowadays, through the hard work of many ornithologists, we have a far better understanding of how birds fly from their breeding grounds to their winter homes and back with unbelievable accuracy. This research has reveal birds employ a number of environmental clues such as polarized light, the stars, the sun and even magnetic fields to steer the their course on their epic migratory journeys.
Have we answered all of the mysteries of bird migration? Many of us believe we have much more to learn. I, for one, cannot wait to see what future research will reveal.
If you live in Georgia, it is next to impossible not to hear the cheery vocalizations of the Carolina wren. I hear them throughout the year. In fact, the song of a Carolina wren is often the first sound I hear when I step outside in the morning. This has made me wonder how often a wren calls in day.
Recently while conducting research on backyard wildlife I found an answer to this perplexing question. It seems that it has been documented that a captive male Carolina wren actually sang 3,000 times in a single day!
I must admit, I had no idea a Carolina wren could accomplish such an impressive fete.
We are all concerned about the health of the hummingbirds that we host at our hummingbird feeders. Consequently we try to keep our feeders as clean as possible in hopes that microbes living on our feeders and the nectar we offer are not going to cause a health problem for our hummingbird neighbors. For the first time, researchers have focused on what microscopic critters dwell in backyard feeders.
Scientists at the University of California, Davis, conducted the research. The research team carried out their study in a backyard located in Winter, California. Both Anna’s and black-chinned hummingbirds frequented the feeders in this yard.
During the study, the microbe communities living in the sugar water offered in feeders, on nearby flowers producing nectar, as well as on the hummingbirds themselves were compared.
The results of the research project indicated that the majority of the bacteria growing in the hummingbird food offered in feeders did not pose a significant health threat to hummingbirds or humans. However, also present were much smaller populations of bacteria and fungi that could potentially have a harmful effect on humans and hummers.
It should be noted the scientists found deionized water harbored the most fungi. In comparison, bacteria were most abundant in tap and bottled water.
The research team recommended that cleaning hummingbird feeders away from locations where food is prepared. This would minimize the risk of a potentially harmful pathogen would be spread to humans.
I think it is abundantly clear we should make every effort to keep our hummingbird feeders as clean as possible.
Now that September has arrived it is hard not to turn our thoughts toward fall and migration. Invariably we associate migration with birds. However, the plight of the monarch has heightened our interest in the migration of insects such as the monarch butterfly.
Each fall these amazing insects make their way south to their winter home in Mexico. While this is truly an amazing fete, we know very little about how these butterflies accomplish this seemingly impossible task. Recently the results of research conducted by Samantha Knight of the Nature Conservancy of Canada and others filled in another piece of the jigsaw puzzle of monarch migration.
The research team captured and placed tiny transmitters weighing only 300 milligrams on 43 monarch captured near the Canadian shore of Lake Huron. The devices were mounted on the insects in an attempt to track their southbound migration. Fortunately, the biologists were able to retrieve data from six of these butterflies. One of the most interesting findings was one of the monarchs flew 89 miles in a single day. They were also able to determine the monarchs winged their way south at a speed on 7.5 miles per hour. Knight later stated, “[It] was a lot faster than anyone had ever really anticipated.” She went on to comment, “They could likely go even faster without the heavy tags on them.”
The biologists also learned the butterflies flew faster when they were pushed along by a tailwind. This was demonstrated by one butterfly that was clocked flying at a bit under 18.5 miles per hour with the aid of a tailwind.
It was also discovered that monarchs flew faster in warm weather. However, the butterflies were not able to fly until the temperature reached 50˚F and flight speed dropped when the air temperature reached 73˚F.
It is definitely true the more we learn about these stunning insects the more we realize why they are so special.
Blue jays and eastern bluebirds are undoubtedly the two most common blue birds seen in Georgia backyards. In addition, from time to time we also spot indigo buntings, blue grosbeaks, and other birds that display varying amounts of blue feathers just outside our backdoors.
Since we regularly see birds that display the color blue you might be surprised to learn only two percent of all of the species of birds found in North America have blue feathers.
With daily temperatures soaring into the 90s and above, we Georgians have been spending as much time as possible inside our comfortable air-conditioned homes. Without the luxury of having a cool refuge to escape to when the hot sun is beating down, our backyard wildlife neighbors have to employ other means to beat the heat. Recently my wife spotted a Halloween pennant dragonfly doing just that.
A couple of weeks ago while watering the flowers on our deck she noticed a Halloween pennant dragonfly perched on the dead branch of a red salvia plant. Instead of perching with its wings parallel to the ground, the beautiful gold dragonfly had arranged its body so that its tail was pointing upwards toward the heavens. At first, she thought the insect just happened to land in the awkward position. However, several times during the next few minutes the dragonfly flew off and then returned to the same spot. Each time it landed in the normal manner and then quickly rearranged its body so its abdomen faced upward like an obelisk. This made it look much like a miniature Washington Monument.
It seems the Halloween pennant was employing an odd strategy to keep cool. By positioning itself with its abdomen pointing skyward, it was reducing the surface area of its body exposed that was exposed to the sun’s ray. With less direct sunlight striking its body, it kept itself cooler than it would have been if it perched in a normal position.
Some of our most fascinating and important backyard wildlife neighbors are pollinating insects. Unfortunately, populations of many of these critters are declining. In an effort of assess the number of these pollinators across the state, the University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension is conducting the first Georgia statewide pollinator census. The count will be held August 23 and 24, 2019.
Becky Griffin, UGA Extension school garden and pollinator census coordinator is inviting private citizens, families, clubs, school classes and other groups to cooperate.
The count is fashioned after the highly successful Great Backyard Bird Count. Consequently, whereas you do not have to be an expert in bird identification take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, you don’t have to be able to identify the insect pollinators that visit your garden. Participants are simply asked to separate pollinators into eight groups (carpenter bees, bumble bees, honey bees, small bees, wasps, flies, butterflies/moths, and other insects. An easy to understand online guide to these insects can be downloaded from the Great Georgia Pollinator Census website (GGaPC.org).
Here is what you need to do to participate:
Visit the Great Georgia Pollinator Census website and download the GGPC Observation Sheet. The sheet can be used to record your sightings.
Select a single plant growing in your yard that you know attracts pollinators.
Count the pollinators landing on the plant during a 15-minute period.
Visit the website once more and upload the results of your count.
I sincerely hope that you become citizen scientist and participate in the state’s first-of-its-kind pollinator count. If you do, you will be helping conserve these valuable insects.
Have you ever stopped to wonder how many birds migrate in North America each fall? If so, chances are more birds are on the move each fall than you ever imagined. Those folks that make their living studying birds estimate that some five billion birds migrate across our continent each autumn.
Some of these birds nest, feed, or pass through our yards. With that in mind, keep your eyes peeled for the appearance of some of these long-distance travelers in your yard. One way that you can attract these birds is by operating a mister. Misters have the reputation of attracting a wide assortment of birds that are otherwise rarely seen in backyard settings.
Since the migration is well underway, now is a great time to set up a mister in your yard.
Having studied hummingbirds for decades, I have learned the folks that usually attract the most birds to their yards are those that plant a wide variety of flowering plants that offer the birds plenty of food from spring through fall; supplemented with sugar water served in feeders. There is no better time to witness this than August.
I say this because hummingbirds are more abundant in our yards right now than they have been at any time earlier this year. As such, if you have planted a wide variety of nectar-laden plants, this is a great time to see which of these plants these tiny-feathered jewels favor during the heat of summer. The abundance of hummingbirds gives you the opportunity to assess their food preferences in a very short period.
For years, my wife and I have been planting a host of different plants for hummingbirds. Right now, by far, the plant most often visited by hummingbirds is scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea). This Georgia native produces an abundance of scarlet red one-inch long tubular-shaped flowers.
We are growing scarlet sage in flowerbeds with companion plants such as black-eyed Susans, purple coneflower, zinnia, blanket flower, and cosmos. We also have it planted in containers on our deck. Some containers contain nothing other than scarlet sage. However, since it produces an abundance of seed, some of the seeds dropped last year somehow found their way into nearby pots where my wife is rooting buddleia and roses. Additionally, scarlet sage has volunteered in containers where she scattered the seeds of zinnias, blanket flowers, and black-eyed Susans this spring. Scarlet sage is growing well there too.
From morning to dusk, hummingbirds repeatedly visit the scarlet sage blooms more often than those of lantana, zinnia, trumpet creeper, Turk’s cap, purple salvia, hosta, Mexican sunflower, and other hummingbird favorites. This plant has literally become a hummingbird magnet.
While I thoroughly enjoy watching rubythroats feeding at scarlet sage blooms planted about the yard, I especially enjoy those growing in containers on our deck. Regardless of whether I am working on the deck or sitting nearby the plants enjoying a cup of coffee and having the birds feed a few feet away.
If you do not have as much hummingbird activity around the flowering plants blooming in your yard right now, I suggest you begin planting hummingbird food plants. By including them in your gardens, next year your yard will be more beautiful, hummingbirds will have more food choices and the numbers of hummers using your yard should increase. Now that is called a win, win, win situation.
Can you name the plant that displays flowers that contain the greatest volume of nectar? It is not Mexican cigar, red hot poker, Turk’s cap or one of the scores of other alien plants we plant in our gardens to attract hummingbirds and butterflies. You might be surprised to learn it is a native woody vine known as trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans).
The woody vine’s orange blossoms are so popular with hummingbirds it is often sold in the nursery trade as hummingbird vine.
This plant commonly grows in yards across the state. However, in many cases it is considered a weed and not recognized as a valuable hummingbird food plant. The reason for this is it will climb on houses and other manmade structures. However, if you plant it alongside an arbor, trellis, or fence away from a building, it can be an asset instead of a liability. Trumpet creep can also be trained to take on the form of a small tree.