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HOW MANY WORMS CAN A ROBIN EAT?

       We are all familiar with the old tongue twister that goes something like this, “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”  When I was a young boy I often wondered how much wood that would be.  Long ago I stopped wondering the answers to such whimsical questions.  Nowadays, I am intrigued by other mysteries such as how fast can a bird fly and how much food can a wild animal consume.  For example, I have long wondered how many earthworms an American robin can devour in a single day.

       Earthworms are an important component of the American robin’s diet. In fact, roughly 40 percent of the bird’s diet is comprised of earthworms.  Many of these earthworms are captured in our yards.  In fact, seeing a robin pulling a long worm out of the ground is a familiar sight in many yards across the state.

       As it turns out, robins are exceptionally skilled at hunting earthworms.  Remarkably robins have been found to capture upwards of 20 earthworms an hour. Another way to look at the American robin’s ability to pluck these slimy critters from the ground is illustrated by the fact that a single robin can eat up to fourteen feet of earthworms per day.       Wow!  I am impressed. 

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.

SOME ANTS PRACTICE SOCIAL DISTANCING

      The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered our lives in many ways.  It now appears that our lives will not return to normal until scientists develop a vaccine to protect us from the ravages of this unforgiving disease.  Meanwhile, aside from wearing masks and frequently washing our hands, the only way we can reduce our chances of contracting the disease is to practice social distancing.  This behavior is totally alien to us.  However, Austrian and Swiss biologists have discovered that black garden ants have long practiced social distancing to prevent the spread of disease within their colonies.

       As we all know, ants are social insects.  It seems the worker caste of black garden ant colonies is divided into nurses and foragers.  The foragers are charged with the responsibility of gathering food for the colony.  In comparison, nurses stay within the colony and care for developing broods of new ants.

       When the scientists exposed the foragers with a disease-causing fungus, they witnessed remarkable changes in the behaviors of both the foragers and nurses.  Those foragers that became infected with the fungus increased the amount of time they spent away from the colony.  By so doing they reduced the time they came in contact with other workers.  Their change in behavior coincided with the nurse ants transporting the broods deeper into the recesses of the colony.  The biologists theorize these behavioral changes helped minimize the spread of the disease throughout the entire colony.  The scientists went to say their research might suggest the ants have the ability to detect spores on themselves and other ants.

       Who would have ever believed something like this is going in the insect world?

IN SUMMER, YOUNG BIRDS ARE OFTEN TOUGH TO INDENTIFY

        Now that we are well into summer our backyards are inhabited by birds that either breed locally and their newly fledged young. We are all familiar with the adult cardinals, robins, bluebirds, and towhees that we see every day. However, when their young begin visiting our birdbaths and feeders, it is often difficult to identify them. As such, some of these birds make us wonder if we are looking at a new addition to our backyard bird list or the young of a one of our summer residents. Below you will find some tips that can be used to recognize the young of some of our common backyard residents.

Eastern Towhee – Young towhees have the characteristic towhee shape. However, these youngsters have a definite brownish plumage. Unlike their parents, though, their undersides are streaked. This gives them the appearance of a large sparrow. In spite of this, they will be adorned with the same white feather pattern on their wings and corners of their tails seen on their parents.

 

American Robin – Juvenile American robins look like faded versions of the adult female robin. They differ, though by featuring white teardrop spots on their backs. The breasts of young robins seem to be bathed in reddish-brown and covered with distinctive dark speckles.

Northern Cardinal – Whenever I see an immature cardinal, it seems it has a bedraggled appearance. They too resemble their mothers; however, their plumage is dull brown. Often their tails and breasts will seem as if they have a faint reddish wash. Their bills are always blackish.

Eastern Bluebird – Young eastern bluebirds are not blue. Instead, they are light brown in color. The topside of their bodies will display pale white spots. The young birds’ breasts are covered in speckles that give them a scaly appearance.

       I hope these tips will help you identify some of the birds you are currently seeing. Keep in mind, as fall approaches, bird identification will become much more worrisome when the confusing fall warblers and other Neotropical migrants begin stopping in our backyards en route to the winter homes.

BACKYARD SECRET — THE CHIMNEY SWIFT HAS A VARIED DIET

       The chimney swift eats a large variety of insects and other invertebrates. Its diet includes the likes of ants, caddisflies, bees, wasps, and beetles. Some of the more unusual critters regularly consumed by what some folks call “flying cigars” are fleas, airborne spiders, termites, and even fire ants.

       It has been estimated that a pair of chimney swifts feeding three nestlings captures the equivalent of 5000 to 6000 fly-sized invertebrates per day.

BACKYARD SECRET–PURPLE MARTINS HELP CONTROL FIRE ANTS

       Purple martins are known to eat at least 79 species of insects including dragonflies, flies, bees, moths, and butterflies. However, I would be willing to guess you did not know they also dine on fire ants.

       It seems purple martins target mating male and queen fire ants. One group of researchers studying the feeding habits of purple martins found fire ants were captured during 32 percent of the birds foraging trips. The ants accounted for 31 percent of the insects taken. In addition, fire ants comprised 27 percent of the biomass consumed by the birds and their young.

       Based on these data, the scientists estimated purple martins consume some 1.7 billion fire ants annually across the United States.

MOUNTAIN MINT IS A GREAT PLANT FOR POLLINATORS

       Over the years, my wife and I have been planting a diversity of nectar/pollen-producing plants in our gardens. This has been done in an effort to provide our backyard pollinators with sources of food throughout the year. This approach has offered us the opportunity to watch pollinators feed at a parade of plants from week to week as well as season to season. As the blossoms of one plant wither and die, pollinators redirect their attention to plants that are currently blooming. Right now, many of these pollinators are visiting mountain mint (Pycnanthemum sp.), one of the more recent additions to our landscape.

       Mountain mint is a native perennial herb that grows two to three feet tall. Eight species of this hardy plant are found in the Southeast. Plants grow two to three tall. They exist in a variety of soil conditions, including the dry clay soil found in our yard. While the plant does best in moist soil types, it is drought tolerant. Mountain mint will grow in partial shade as well as full sun.

    Mountain mint has a unique, eye-catching appearance. What makes this plant stand out is the fact that the leaves growing just below its flowers look like they have received a dusting of powdered sugar. In fact, to me, this foliage is far more attractive than the plant’s small white-purple blooms. In fact, these blossoms or so small you might overlook them if they were not arranged in clusters.

       However, though mountain mint plants won’t win any awards for beauty, the fact that it blooms from June into October makes it an important source of food for wild pollinators.

       Speaking of awards, in 2013 the Penn State Extension Service evaluated 88 pollinator-rewarding perennial plants for their importance to pollinators. At the end of the trial, mountain mint (P. muticum) received the highest rating for longevity of flowers, diversity of pollinators that use the plants, and the most insects attracted during the trials. In one trial, 76 insects visited the plants in just two minutes.

       I am not surprised at these findings. When my wife and daughter found our mountain mint blooming a few days ago, they saw a stand of mint being visited by three species of butterflies (juniper hairstreak, red-banded hairstreak, and pearl crescent). They competed with the likes of thread-waisted wasps, hornets, and bumblebees.

       One thing I like about mountain mint is that it is easy to grow. A friend gave us some mountain mint plants two summers ago. We set them out and kept them watered. The very next year the plants produced a crop of flowers.

       If you like to create dried arrangements, you will love mountain mint. Each fall after the flowers have disappeared, you are left with scores of unique prickly, round, brown seed heads displayed on long stems.

       Mountain mint is a plant that definitely deserves a place in your flower gardens.

HOVER FLIES–OFTEN MISTAKEN FOR STINGING INSECTS

      The hover fly (also commonly called the flower fly) is one of our most often misidentified backyard residents. When one suddenly appears out of nowhere and hovers close to our face while making a buzzing sound, many panic and begin swatting at it fearing it is a bee or yellowjacket. Actually, the hover fly is not a bee, not a yellowjacket, nor hornet or wasp. Instead, it is a fly and is harmless to humans.

       Here is how you can tell if you have encountered a stinging insect or a hover fly. All you have to do is remember this brief saying, “Two wings fun, four wings run.” In other words, flower flies possess only one pair of wings, whereas yellowjackets and their relatives have two sets of wings. In addition, while the flower fly will not sting or bite, as we all know, bees, yellowjackets, wasps, and their kin are armed with a stinger that they will use to inflict a painful sting.

       In addition, most of the flower flies we encounter in our backyards look much like yellowjackets. However, if you will look closely, you will notice the hover abdomens of flower flies look deflated and flat. The abdomens of yellowjackets, on the other hand, appear inflated.

       Also, hover flies can both hover and fly backwards, whereas, yellowjackets do not possess this mastery of the air.

THE SUMMER TANAGER’S ODD FOOD CHOICE

       One of the many birds that inhabit our backyards during the spring and summer is the summer tanager. Although it is one of our most beautiful backyard residents, it is a bird that lives there in relative anonymity. This is because it rarely visits our feeders and regularly feeds out of our sight within the thick canopies of tall, leafy trees. If we were able to peel away the leaves and watch a summer tanager feed, we would be soon discover that this striking bird has an odd food preference.

       Like a number of our other summer avian residents, the summer tanager dines on a wide variety of foods. Its varied diet includes fruits and berries in addition to a host of various invertebrates such as grasshoppers, cicadas, spiders, moths, and butterflies. However, the thing that separates the tanager from many birds is its affinity for bees, hornets, and wasps. In fact, it is so fond of them it is sometimes called the bee bird.

       Remarkably one of the bird’s favorite foods is the paper wasp. Summer tanagers are known to eat the adult wasps and also rip open their nests and feast on the wasps’ larvae.

       More often than not, we rarely catch a glimpse of a summer tanager hunting for insects that can deliver a painful sting to bird or man alike. From time to time though, summer tanagers can be seen perched closer to the ground near a beehive waiting for the chance to snatch a worker honeybee flying to or from the hive.

       The summer tanager is able to avoid being stung by grabbing hold its prey and flying back to a nearby perch. Once there it pounds the hapless insect against the branch until it is dead. It then proceeds to wipe the lifeless insect on the branch. This removes the bee’s stinger and other body parts that are inedible. Once this food preparation is completed, it swallows the bee whole and awaits the chance to feed again.

BLACK BEARS AND BIRD FEEDERS — A RECIPE FOR TROUBLE

        Some 5,100 black bears live in the state of Georgia. While they are not what you would call backyard wildlife, during the warm months of the year, they are known to make forays into backyards in search of food. When this happens, it does not bode well for the bears or us.

       Although black bears are seen throughout the state, biologists have discovered Georgia is home to three distinct bear populations. One population calls the north Georgia mountains its home. A second population lives in central Georgia in the Ocmulgee River drainage. Another population roams in and around the vast Okefenokee Swamp in the southeast corner of the state.

       Naturally, those Georgians that live in or nearby any one of these populations has the greatest chance of having a bear show up in their yards. However, they can be seen in some unexpected locales such as urban areas like Atlanta and Macon. With that in mind, it is a good idea to know what you should do to discourage bears from visiting your yard.

       Most black bears appear in backyards looking for food. Being an omnivore a black bear can eat just about anything. Since the animal cam possess an excellent sense of smell, thoroughly clean outdoor grills after they have been used. Also, refrain from storing household garbage outside. Bears are drawn to the intoxicating scents of cooked meat and garbage.

       Bears are fond of pet food too. Consequently, if you feed your pets outside, don’t leave any uneaten food in the yard overnight.

       Bears also love birdseed and suet. It is understandable why they are drawn to these delicacies. Both foods contain lots of protein and fat. In areas where folks are regularly plagued with visits from hungry bears, it is recommended that feeders be taken in at night. If you face such a problem, it is a good idea to clean up all uneaten food that collects below the feeders. Some people even go to the trouble of spraying the ground beneath feeders with ammonia in hopes it will help eliminate the scent of the seeds.

       Once a bear locates a backyard that features bird feeders, it has found a bonanza. Where else can a bear gorge itself on a bounty of easily accessible food with little effort? Consequently, the bear will return as long as the food is available. The only way you can counter these feeding forays is to remove all potential food from your backyard. Even then, it may take some time before a bear moves on in its relentless search food. In its wake, it will likely leave you with damaged or missing feeders and bent poles that simply could not withstand the onslaught of a hungry bear.

       If you do happen to see a bear in your backyard, do not try to approach it. Bears are much stronger and faster than you are. On top of that, why in the world would you want to approach a wild animal that can weigh as much as 300 to 500 pounds anyway? If a bear feels threatened, you stand a chance of being hurt. Fortunately, there have only been two verified cases of bears attacking humans in the Southeast, and to my knowledge, they did not take place in a backyard.

       While the chances of a bear showing up in your yard are slim, many backyard bear encounters take place every year. If one does show up, make every effort to ensure this wild experience safe for you and the bear.

              For more information concerning bears, email the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division at http://www.georgiawildlife.com or BearWise at http://www.bearwise.org. BearWise is an educational program designed by bear biologists from all of the 15 state wildlife agencies in the Southeast.