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BACKYARD SECRET — WHERE DOES THE DOWNY WOODPECKER GET ITS NAME?

        There are at least two different explanations as to why our smallest woodpecker is named the downy woodpecker. 

       Some say the bird’s name refers to the downy white feathers that run down its back.  These feathers contrast with the thicker, dark feathers that cover the rest of the bird’s back.

       Others suggest that the bird is named for the downy nasal feathers seen around the base of the bird’s bill.

BACKYARD SECRET — THE RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD IS A MIGRATION CHAMPION

      Each winter a smattering of rufous hummingbirds spend the winter in backyards throughout Georgia.  In fact, the rufous has the distinction of being our most common hummingbird during this time of the year. That being the case, I thought you would like to know that this tiny bird also holds title of being the North American bird migration champion.

       Each year the rufous hummingbird’s annual migration takes it from its breeding range along the Pacific Coast of North America as far north as southeastern Alaska, to its winter home in Mexico and back again.  Scientists have estimated that, in order to accomplish this phenomenal athletic fete, the rufous hummingbird flies approximately 49 million times its body length (3.75″).  When this figure is compared to the distances flown by other North American birds relative to their body lengths, it turns out that the rufous hummingbird makes the longest migration of any North American bird.

BACKYARD SECRET – MOST RUBY-CROWNED KINGLETS THAT WINTER IN GEORGIA ARE LIKELY MALES

      Remarkably, close to three-fourths of the ruby-crowned kinglets captured during banding operations conducted in Florida throughout the years have been females.  This has lead ornithologists to suggest that more than likely male ruby-crowned kinglets winter farther north than do females.

       Consequently, there is a good chance most of the ruby-crowned kinglets we see in our backyards here in Georgia during the winter months are males.  Unfortunately, the only safe way for us to tell which is which is to see the scarlet red crest found only on the males.  The problem is the male only displays his flashy, colorful crown when he is agitated. This apparently does not happen very often since many birders have told me they have never seen the male’s crown.  It defies the laws or probability that they are only looking at females.

       Until banding studies reveal the sex ratio of the ruby-crowned kinglets wintering in Georgia, the majority of the times we see this sprite of a bird we are going to have to be content in not knowing whether we are looking at a male or female.  That will not bother me, as I am always pleased to just being fortunate enough to host this winter guest in my backyard.

AN EARLY CHRISTMAS PRESENT

       When I took our dog out for a brief walk a little after noon December 14, the last thing I thought I would see is a butterfly.  Earlier in the month on successive nights overnight temperatures dropped into the 20s.  For all practical purposes, this ended our 2020 Butterfly Season.  However, as I watched Sassy take care of business, the sight of a medium-sized butterfly fluttering about a large camellia bush caught my eye. 

       At first, I thought I was looking at a gulf fritillary.  I sometimes see a few of these butterflies after a frost.  However, when the butterfly landed, I was amazed when it turned out to be a question mark.  Wow, what a surprise; it was my first question mark of the year.  This was due, in large part to my having sheltered in place throughout the spring and summer and not butterflying away from my little corner of the world.  

 Consequently, the question mark is one of a handful of butterflies that is capable of wintering as an adult in Georgia.  When it gets extremely cold adult question marks roost in holes in a tree, behind shutters or any number of other protected locations.  Then when temperatures get warm enough for them to fly again they take to the air. 

       The air temperature when I saw this beautiful butterfly was 58˚F.  Its rapid flight told me its body temperature was high enough to permit it to fly normally.  However, since the butterfly was obviously looking for a suitable place to bask to further warm its flight muscles in the afternoon sun.

       The lack of nectar plants poses no problem for this species as it feeds on plant juices, rotting fruit, dung, and carrion. 

       Who would have thought that my early Christmas present did not come in the form of a package wrapped in red and white?  Instead, it proved to be a gossamer-winged flying jewel borne on orange and black jagged-edged wings trimmed in lavender.

       I must admit that, for a brief period, I lost track of our little dog as I gazed upon this unexpected treat.  Eventually, I was reminded of the reason I had gone outside in the first place when my dog barked to let me know she was ready to go back into the house.  After I brought the dog back inside I quickly returned for a another look at the late season gift only to find it had flown off.  However, I was left with a mental image I will long remember.

       Keep your eyes peeled, you too may receive an early Christmas present.  If you do, and it proves to be a question mark, I am sure you will not be disappointed.   

BACKYARD SECRET — BLUE JAYS ARE NOISIER IN THE FALL AND WINTER

      Have you ever taken a walk through the woods on a crisp fall or winter day and found that you were constantly assailed by the loud, raucous calls of blue jays?  If you have, chances are you wondered if it was your imagination that these large, handsome birds seem to call more frequently at this time of the year than in spring and summer.  The truth of the matter is blue jays do indeed call more often during autumn and winter.

       I have long been aware of this fact.  I first became aware of this when I found a blue jay nest near my home.  Throughout their entire nesting period, I never heard a sound made by the nesting birds.  However, during the fall, long after the blue jays had fledged their young, the jays living in that neck of the woods frequently called. 

       The reason for this is, if the jays regularly called near their nest, predators might be alerted to the fact that the birds are nesting somewhere close.  This might prompt an avian or mammalian predator that might hunt for food elsewhere to focus its attention on the area where it frequently hears blue jays calling.

       However, during the fall and winter when blue jays are spending most of their time roaming the woodlands looking for food, they routinely communicate with one another and other animals via their loud calls.  In addition, during these feeding forays, should they encounter a hawk or other predator, they are quick to sound the alarm to any critter living nearby.  

GEORGIA’S SECOND HUMMINGBIRD SEASON IS IN FULL SWING

       Georgia’s second hummingbird season is now in full swing.  This season runs from November 1 through the end of February. Although fewer hummingbirds visit our feeders during this time of the year, far more species of hummingbirds are seen in the Peach State during these four months than at any other time of the year.

       While a few ruby-throated hummingbirds winter in the Peach State each year, the hummingbird most often seen at Peach State feeders during the winter is the rufous.  The rufous hummingbird breeds throughout the Pacific Northwest as far north as southern Alaska.  This hummingbird traditionally winters in central Mexico.  However, over the past several decades some of these migrants have been wintering every winter across the Southeast.

       Today, while I was working in my home office, I spotted my first rufous of the year feeding at a feeder hanging just outside my office window.

       If you want to give yourself a chance to see a rufous or one of the other hummingbirds that visit Georgia in the winter, maintain a hummingbird feeder in your yard throughout the winter.  Chances are you will not see one of these special birds.  However, if one of these birds does make an appearance, it will be something you will not soon forget.

A FEW OF THE PILEATED WOODPECKER’S SECRETS ARE REVEALED

Have you ever stopped to think about how little you know about woodpeckers? I know I have.  For most of us, our knowledge of them is based largely on fleeting sightings of the woodpeckers foraging for food on our backyard trees, hearing their loud calls reverberate through our neighborhoods and their incessant drumming on trees far out in the woods behind our houses.  This is especially true of the pileated woodpecker. Even though it is our largest woodpecker, it does not visit our feeders as often as its smaller kin do.  Fortunately, for those of us that ponder such things, biologists have unlocked some the secrets that have shrouded the private life of the pileated woodpecker.  Let’s take a look at the fascinating winter roosting behavior of this impressive bird.

            As a rule, pileated woodpeckers do not roost in their nesting cavity.  Instead, like many of Georgia’s woodpeckers, pileated woodpeckers usually chisel out roughly four cavities that they use solely for roosting.  Each is excavated in a dead tree.  However, in one study, as many as 12 roosting cavities were documented being used by a single bird.  These hollows are critical to their survival during extremely cold winter weather.  The reason for this is good roosting cavities provide the birds with places to sleep out of sight of nighttime predators, as well as protection from the deleterious effects of frigid winds and temperatures.  The insulating affect of a roosting site can be so significant and can ultimately determine whether or not a woodpecker will survive an extremely cold night.

            Biologists have learned that roosting pileated woodpeckers do not sleep on the bottoms of their roosting sites.  To the contrary, they sleep perched upright clutching on to the interior side of the roost site with their bills neatly tucked beneath a wing.

            For reasons that are not fully understood, pileated woodpeckers might roost of up to four consecutive days and they suddenly begin roosting in another cavity.  Alternate roosting sites are often located quite some distance away.

            I will probably never witness a pileated woodpecker going to roost late on a winter afternoon just before my neighborhood is cloaked in darkness.  However, even though I know a smidgeon about the roosting behavior of this remarkable bird, I simply cannot imagine how challenging it is for this impressive bird to weather the bone-chilling cold on a crisp, clear, frigid winter night.  However, I am glad they are up to the challenge.

DO YOU FIND IT DIFFICULT TO ATTRACT WHITE-THROATED SPARROWS TO YOUR FEEDERS?

       If you have trouble attracting white-throated sparrows to your feeding area this winter, here are a couple of tips that might solve your problem.

       First, keep in mind white-throated sparrows spend much of their time on close to the ground deep within shrubby, overgrown areas.  If your yard does not possess such a spot, chances are slim white-throated sparrows will winter there.

       If you do have a shrubby spot or two, place food near these areas.  The reason for this is, as a rule white-throated sparrow are reluctant to venture far from these safe havens.

       It is also a good idea to scatter millet or other small seeds on the ground.  Although the birds will feed from elevated feeders, they seem to prefer to dining on or very close to the ground. 

WHAT AND HOW MUCH FOOD DO PEOPLE FEED BIRDS EACH WINTER?

       For decades, Project FeederWatch has been surveying bird feeding activities throughout the United States and Canada.  The data collected has provided biologists with valuable insights into the habits of people that feed birds as well as the possible impacts of bird feeding on bird populations.  Here are a few of the findings of this monumental study.

       On the average, participants in the FeederWatch Project feed in excess of 300 pounds of seeds and 20 pounds of suet and bird “pudding” each winter. 

       By far, the most common offering proved to be mixed seed.  In addition to mixed seed, the foods fed most often were suet, black-oil sunflower, and niger seed.

       The study also found the feeders most popular among FeederWatch participants were hanging feeders (98%), suet holders (83%), and raised platforms (68%). 

       How does your own bird feeding activities compare to the results of this survey?

ATTRACTING PILEATED WOODPECKERS TO A FEEDER IS A CHALLENGE

              It is truly a challenge to attract a pileated woodpecker to a feeder.  I have been feeding birds for more than a half a century and have never fed a morsel of food to a pileated woodpecker.   However, pileated woodpeckers do visit backyard bird feeders.  According to data collected in Project FeederWatch, less than a quarter of the people that feed birds in the Southeast host pileated woodpeckers.

            Personally, I can count on one hand the number of people that have told me they have been able to attract our largest woodpecker to their feeders.  However, several years ago Leon and Julie Neel told me that pileated woodpeckers visited a  homemade suet feeder outside their home near Thomasville.  This feeder was truly unique and beautiful.  The feeder was a large cypress knee.  Suet was packed into a number of large holes drilled around the knee.  This feeder was both functional and beautiful.

            If you want to meet the challenge of trying to attract a pileated woodpecker to your feeders, there are a few facts you need to know.  First,

The pileated woodpecker was not considered a feeder bird until the 1950s.  Since that time, pileated woodpeckers have visited feeders more frequently.

            If a pileated woodpecker begins visiting your feeder, it will typically be extremely cautious.  However, its trepidation will somewhat diminish with time.

            Initially, only one bird will visit a feeder.  However, don’t be surprised if the bird’s mate visits later.  The reason for this is the members of  a  pair of pileated woodpeckers maintain a bond with one another throughout the entire year.  In addition, they occupy  the same territory throughout all seasons.  However, they are more tolerant of other pileated woodpeckers that might enter their territory during the winter.

            The best food to use to attract pileated woodpeckers is suet.  You can use either plain or peanut butter suet. 

            Suet should be offered in a large feeder.  Large feeders attached to the trunk of a tree work well.  Suet can also be smeared into the bark of  a tree.  Some folks have been successful in attracting  the birds to large log suet feeders suspended on  poles.  Others smear a layer of suet between two slabs of wood, which are attached to a tree.

            If you are going to try to meet the pileated woodpecker challenge this winter, go into it with realistic expectations.  Chances are you will not be successful.  However, if are patient, you just may be rewarded with the rare opportunity of being able to see pileated woodpeckers on a regular basis.