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BACKYARD SECRET–WOODPECKERS HAVE SELF-SHARPENING BILLS

        Whenever I see or hear a woodpecker chiseling into a tree, I ask myself the question, “How is it possible that the bills of woodpeckers never become dull? 

        I wish I were so lucky.  Whenever I am using a wood chisel, after continued use I have to sharpen the tool’s steel cutting edge, yet woodpeckers seem to drive their bills into wood seeming without ever having to stop and sharpen their pointed bills.

Photo credit: Terry W Johnson

        Remarkably, every time a woodpecker strikes a blow against a tree it is chiseling away wood and sharpening its bill at the same time.  What happens is the tip a woodpecker’s bill is covered with special cells that constantly wear off, leaving the bill as strong and sharp as ever.

        It is as simple as that.

BACKYARD SECRET–PINE WARBLERS ARE MOST OFTEN SEEN IN GEORGIA DURING THE WINTER

       We Georgians are fortunate that, since the pine warbler is a permanent resident throughout the state, we have the opportunity to see and hear it throughout the entire year.  However, it is not a coincidence that we see more pine warblers in the winter than at any other time of the year.

       One of the reasons for this is practically all of the pine warblers in the entire continent winter in the South.  Consequently, at this time of the year our resident birds are joined by untold numbers of pine warblers that nested outside the Peach State.  As such, the mere fact pine warbler populations are much higher the Peach State in the winter enhances the chances that we will see one.

       This warbler was named the pine warbler because of its long recognized affinity to pines.  This relationship was even known by John James Audubon.  Audubon dubbed the bird the pine creeping warbler. 

       During the breeding season pine warblers rarely venture far from pine trees.  In addition, they spend the vast majority of their time foraging for food in the canopy of pine trees.  Even when we hear a male loudly singing in the springtime, often we cannot see him since he is hidden in a dark green maze of pine needles.

       During the winter, things change dramatically.  During this harsh season, the invertebrates and their eggs that pine warblers relish are far more difficult to find than they are during the warmer months.  In addition, pine seeds are more difficult to locate.  This forces the birds to forage on or near the ground.  This makes them easier for us to spot them.

       Since the pine warbler is our only warbler that regularly eats seeds, during the winter it can also supplement its diet with grass, shrub, and forb seeds.  It is also true that when this warbler can find them, it will also eat berries.  In addition, during the winter insects and other invertebrates are often more abundant on or near the ground than atop pine trees.

       On a number of occasions, I have found pine warblers feeding in South Georgia far from pines in harvested crop fields.  Closer to home, it is not uncommon for me to find pine warblers looking for food in brushy field borders.

       Also, during this harsh season the pine warbler will abandon pinelands and venture into hardwoods and even cypress swamps.

       The bottom line is whereas those among us that have pines growing in our yards or nearby have a better chance of seeing a pine warbler throughout much of the year than those who live areas devoid of pine.  However, in the winter, when the bird is found in a wider range of habitats, and pine warbler populations are at a peak, almost everyone has a legitimate chance of seeing one of these birds.

       Of course, you will greatly enhance your chances of seeing this bird if your stock your feeders with foods that the birds prefer.  A list of these foods can be found in previous blog.  To access this post, simply go to the search feature on the right side of the blog and type in pine warbler.  When you press the return key, all of the previous columns dealing with pine warblers will appear.

BACKYARD SECRET–THE STARLING IS ALSO CALLED THE RICE BIRD

       Are you surprised to know the European starling is known as the rice bird?

       The name rice bird stems from the fact that during the winter the bird’s glossy white plumage is covered with feathers adorned with white or buffy tips.  These flecks of white are thought to resemble grains of rice.  As time passes, the white tips of the feathers gradually wear off so that by summer they are completely gone.

NOT ALL SPARROW-LIKE BIRDS ARE ACTUALLY SPARROWS

       Chipping sparrows far outnumber any other sparrow that I see on or beneath my feeders.  However, if I take the time to examine a flock of sparrows foraging for seeds in my bird feeding area, I sometimes discover a white-throated sparrow sparrow or two.  This week, when I perused what I thought was a small flock of sparrows, I was pleasantly surprised that I to learn I was actually looking at a flock of pine siskins.  For weeks, pine siskins have been seen across much of the northern portion of the state, but they had not reached my Middle Georgia yard until a few days ago.

       Pine siskins are often mistaken for sparrows.  It is small (4.3-5.5 inches long), brown and covered my streaks much like some of the sparrows.  However, the bill of the pine siskin is very sharp and pointed whereas the bills of sparrows are more conical and blunt.  Two white wing bars highlight bird’s wings.  Splashes of yellow can also been seen on their wings and forked tail.  Often these yellow feathers are most easily seen when the bird is fluttering its  pointed wings.

       Another thing that I have noticed is the pine siskins are full of energy and move about much more than sparrows. In addition, when they visit feeders they often fuss with one another as well as other birds.  If you are in a position to hear their harsh, soft calls, you will find that they are constantly communicating with each other as they dine.

       They are also extremely tame.  Often they allow me to walk within 10-15 of them while they are feeding. 

       More often than not, they travel about in flocks.  Currently I am feeding 10-15 birds each day.  However, flocks of 20+ are not uncommon.

     Unfortunately, I only see pine siskins every few years or so.  When flights of siskins are seen deep into the Southeast it is a sign that there is a shortage of seeds produced by a variety of conifer trees that provide their favorite food.

       If you want to attract pine siskins to your feeders, provide these migrants with plenty of nyger and sunflower seeds.

       One word of caution:  keep your bird feeding area clean.  Mounting evidence suggests they are highly vulnerable to salmonella.  This is one of the common diseases transmitted to birds feeding on the wet, deteriorating food that often collects beneath bird feeders.

       Sadly, it is becoming more difficult to enjoy the sight of a flock of pine siskins feeding in our backyards.  It seems that according to Partner’s In Flight pine siskins numbers have dropped 80% since 1970.  Let’s all hope this alarming trend will soon be reversed so that the sights and sounds pine siskins will never disappear.

BACKYARD SECRET — BLUE JAYS HOARD CHIPS OF PAINT

       It is a well-known fact that many birds, including blue jays, hoard food.  However, some blue jays take hoarding to a new level.  It seems that at times blue jays will actually hoard chips of paint plucked from the sides of houses and other buildings.

       Nobody knows for sure why these large, handsome birds would ever want to hoard paint chips.  However, some suggest they use the chips as a source of calcium.  Who knows?

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.