BACKYARD SUET PREFERENCE TEST
Surveys have shown that some 54 percent of those folks that feed birds feed suet. Consequently, it is obvious that we are spending a lot of money on this greasy treat. With that in mind, this past summer, I decided to conduct an informal test to see which of two flavors the birds in my backyard preferred.
During the study, the birds that most often visited my suet feeders were hairy and downy woodpeckers, brown thrashers, mockingbirds, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees, brown-headed nuthatches, house finches, and northern cardinals.
I compared peanut butter flavored suet to one labelled as berry-flavored. I placed the suet cakes in wire suet feeders hung on a single Shepherd’s hook. Initially I planned to conduct the test over several months. However, after several weeks I ended the test after it became obvious that peanut butter suet was overwhelming preferred to berry-flavored suet. Remarkably, I fed a total of 17 peanut butter-flavored suet cakes before the cake of berry-flavored suet was finally eaten. Since then, I have purchased only peanut-butter flavored suet.
It would be interesting to know if results would have been different if I ran the same test at other times of the year.
However, before I expand by informal survey efforts, I am going to be feeding my backyard bird neighbors peanut butter-flavored suet.
WHERE ARE THE FEEDER BIRDS?
These days one of the main questions being raised by folks that feed birds in their backyards is, “Where are the birds?” We all know that late fall into winter is a great time to feed our feathered neighbors. However, many of us are currently seeing few winter migrants at our feeders.
In my case, those only migrants I have seen are one white-throated sparrow, two dark-eyed juncos, and a handful of yellow-rumped warblers. Other bird enthusiasts have told me similar stories. They also go on to say, the same thing has been going on for a number of years.
There are undoubtedly many reasons why we are seeing fewer birds during the late fall and winter than we once did. For example, weather has a great influence on the timing of the fall migration. The milder the weather to the north of Georgia, the later migrants seems to arrive in the Peach State. However, there is more to it than that.
In addition, since seeds produced by wild plants are more abundant now than at any time of the year, many birds prefer to dine on them while they last.
There is also a much more significant reason behind what we are seeing. A study conducted by the National Audubon Society has found that the winter ranges of many birds have dramatically changed. When the researchers compared data collected on Christmas Bird Counts for the past 90 years, they discovered that the winter ranges of scores of birds have changed in an apparent response to global warming-related changes such as both temperature and precipitation.
These conclusions are based on an analysis of data concerning 89 different species of birds that were collected in
119 different count circles. The biologist found birds are wintering further north than ever before. The same is true for woodpeckers, as well as passerines, and others. This trend appears consistent for species that live in forests, grasslands, mixed habitats, shrublands, and other habitat types.
In other words, if this trend holds true, many of our favorite winter feathered guests will winter far north of Georgia. I suspect we will still see some northern migrants. For example, I was delighted that two dark-eyed juncos are currently feeding in my backyard. While they were once a common sight around my Middle Georgia home, the birds that arrived this year are the first I have seen in my yard in a number of years.
Another species that has been affected by these changes is the evening grosbeak. I have not seen an evening grosbeak in my yard for decades. However, at one time each winner I banded many of these showy, noisy birds in my backyard.
I have heard many say that change is good. However, I think you will agree that this is a change that is definitely far from good.
SNAKE CATCHES HUMMINGBIRD AT FEEDER
Ruby-throated hummingbirds face a host of perils. One of these is being caught by a snake. Over the years, hummingbird fanciers have sent me pictures of snakes coiled around feeders seemingly patiently waiting to pluck an unsuspecting hummingbird out of the air as it flies in to catch a quick meal. Since this unsettling scene is rarely reported, I suspect it does not happen very often. In our case, during the decades my wife and I have been feeding hummingbirds we had never seen it until this past week. Not only did I find a rat snake hanging onto one of our feeders, it was also clutching a hapless hummingbird in its gaping mouth. None of the photos I have received in the past ever captured this.
All of this changed when I stepped out on to on our deck on a quiet late summer morning less than a week ago and spotted what appeared to be a dark lump on the far side of one of our hummingbird feeders. I immediately stopped and tried to figure out what I was looking at. When I advanced closer to the feeder, I could see that the unknown object was a young rat snake. It was so small (three feet long) that it did not have to wrap itself around the feeder.
Once I realized what I was looking at, I turned around and went back into the house to tell my wife to grab her camera and hurry outside to see what was taking place. On the way back outside, I picked up my camera too.
When we returned, we realized that the best view of the snake was from the yard. When we found just the right spot to record the event, we started snapping pictures. All of this time the snake remained motionless. Finally, the snake moved its head away from the perch that encircled the feeding ports enough for us to realize it was just not waiting for a bird—it had already caught one and was in the process of swallowing it headfirst. Initially all we could see of the hummingbird was its emerald green back, wings, tail, and legs.
As we stood, transfixed, the snake began making swallowing motions that consisted of moving its head forward and opening and closing it mouth. As it did so, the bird slowly slipped deeper into the snake’s mouth and throat. Remarkably, in only five to 10 minutes the bird disappeared.
I then removed the feeder from the shepherd’s hook on which it was hung, and slowly walked to the far back of our spacious backyard and set the feeder on the ground. Throughout the whole process, the snake showed no signs of fear. However, when I placed the feeder on the grass the snake slowly slithered off.
Of course, we are disappointed that we lost a hummingbird to a rat snake. However, we realize that each year an untold number of hummingbirds succumb to predators, being caught in spider webs, accidents, and disease. At the same time, it will not hurt of feelings if we never witness it again.
FEEDING NYGER SEED IN SUMMER
Although nyger seed is fed to birds throughout all seasons, many backyard bird feeding enthusiasts shy away from offering the tiny, black seeds to their feathered dining patrons during the summer. Is there some basis for this concern? Most definitely, however, here is how and why I do.
Nyger seeds are typically relished by a small number of the birds that visit our feeders. American goldfinches and pine siskins are especially fond of them. Other birds that consume nyger seeds are mourning doves, purple and house finches, dark-eyed juncos and indigo buntings, to name a few. However, during the summer, in my yard, the vast majority of the nyger seeds are eaten by American goldfinches.
That is fine with me, since I would rarely have a chance to regularly enjoy gazing across my yard at splendor of a male goldfinch in full breeding plumage if they did not come to my feeders to feed. To me, it is worth the money I spend on nyger seed to enjoy this pleasure. As anybody that feeds birds knows, nyger is the most expensive seed we offer in our feeders.
The reason for this is it is raised overseas. Most of the 70 million pounds of it that is imported into the United States is raised in India and Ethiopia. The cost of shipping the seed that far jacks up the price. On top of that, the United States Department of Agriculture requires that all nyger seed undergo costly heat sterilization. This is done in attempt to keep potential invasive weeds that might contaminate the nyger seeds from entering the United States. As a result, we can pay $60 or more for a 20-pound sack of nyger seed. This is definitely not a seed you want to waste.
Since nyger seed contains 40 percent fat, it spoils easily. In addition, nyger seeds have very thin coats. With that in mind, they can spoil in the matter of a few days in the hot summer sun.
Consequently, during the summer I fill my nyger seed feeders with a small amount of seed. I also store nyger seed in a cool place. If I have room in my freezer, I will often store it there.
I also buy small amounts of the seed. The reason for this is once it becomes rancid the birds shy away from it.
The bottom line is throughout the summer the birds will dine on nyger seed in your backyard can get along very nicely without it. If, however, you live within the American goldfinch’s breeding range in Georgia (throughout the state except in the southeastern counties), and you want to enhance your chances of seeing American goldfinches when they are most beautiful, nyger just might help you accomplish that goal.
UPDATE ON THE AVIAN FLU IN GEORGIA
Several weeks ago, I posted a blog regarding the presence of avian flu in Georgia and its possible impact on the birds that visit our feeders. At that time, I promised to provide you with any new information that becomes available. A May 17 news release issued by the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division updated the status of the disease in Georgia.
According to the Division’s wildlife biologists, data regarding the incidence of avian flu suggests that the vast majority of Georgia’s songbirds are not at risk of catching the dreaded disease. The songbirds that are at the highest risk are those living near domestic poultry flocks that have become infected with the disease. However, the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division emphasizes that the only birds share an elevated risk of catching the disease are scavengers such as vultures and crow.
Fortunately, to date, avian flu has not been detected in any domestic poultry flocks in Georgia.
The short list of birds that have been infected by the disease in the Peach State is restricted to waterfowl and eagles.
For those of us that feed birds in our yards, the bottom line is we can continue to feed birds at our feeders without the fear that our efforts are helping spread the disease.
However, Wildlife Biologist Todd Schneider emphasizes that feeders and feeding areas should be kept as clean as possible. This will ensure our feathered friends will not suffer from house finch disease, or one of a host of other fatal or debilitating diseases spread by organisms that thrive on wet, and moldy seeds.
AVIAN FLUE AND BIRD FEEDING IN GEORGIA
Recent reports that a new virulent strain of avian influenza (HPAI) has been found in wild birds in Georgia and more than 29 other states have raised concerns that feeding backyard birds might play a role in the spread of this deadly disease in the Peach State.
To date, the only species affected by the disease in Georgia have been lesser scaup, gadwall, and bald eagle. However, avian flu has been detected in at least 100 species of wild birds and other animals.
Avian influenza also infects chickens, wild and domestic waterfowl (ducks, geese and swans), quail, pheasants, and other domestic birds,
The disease is spread in the droppings and nasal secretions of infected birds. It has also been reported healthy birds can also catch the disease when they walk across surfaces contaminated by infected birds.
While it is possible for wild birds to contract the disease form domestic poultry, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has found that, in every case they have investigated this year, domestic flocks were infected by wild birds.
Fortunately, as of March 30, no commercial or backyard flocks of poultry have been infected in Georgia. However, such is not the case in 23 other states. Most of these outbreaks have occurred in the Midwest and East. This has resulted in the slaughter of 27 million chickens.
If you enjoy feeding birds in your yard, you are probably wondering if you should cease feeding bird in your backyard until the disease subsided. So far, the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Section has not recommended that people stop birds in their yards.
However, the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Section urges the public to report dead or sick eagles to their office in Forsyth (478-994-1438). (Three bald eagles were found killed by the disease along the Georgia Coast.)
In comparison, the USDA suggests that homeowners can continue feeding birds unless they keep domestic birds. On the other hand, extension specialists at Cornell University recommend that the public cease feeding “until the threat of the disease has passed.”
I will let you know if the outbreak becomes more serious in Georgia and if Georgia officials issue any recommendations concerning feeding wild birds. Those bloggers that live in other states should check with their state wildlife agencies to see if they recommend that feeding birds be discontinued in their states.
DOES RAIN DILUTE NECTAR IN HUMMINGBIRD FEEDERS?
Recently severe weather has been sweeping across the Peach State dropping heavy rain in our backyards. The last front that passed over my home dropped almost three inches of rain in just a few hours. When such an event occurs, you cannot help but wonder if heavy rain dilutes the sugar water in our hummingbird feeders.
Although many hummingbird fanciers are convinced that heavy rainfall can dilute the concentration of sugar in a feeder, I do not know of any studies that corroborate this claim. However, enough people believe this to be the case that some manufacturers of hummingbird feeders offer feeders that are less susceptible to rain flowing into the food reservoirs on their feeders. In an effort to hinder rain draining through feeding portals, some hummingbird fans place a plastic dome over their feeders. Others simply shroud their feeders with plastic plates. Others address the problem by purchasing feeders featuring very small feeding portals. If water pouring into a feeder is a problem, it makes sense to use feeders equipped with small feeding ports.
If you find that hummingbird use of your feeder drops off significantly after heavy rain, this could be an indication that your hummer food is diluted. It has been shown that when given a choice hummingbirds prefer flowers that produce nectar with the a high sugar content. Since that is the case, it is understandable that they would also prefer hummingbird food with at least a 25 percent concentration of sugar.
The best advice I can offer is until we know for sure if rainfall can dilute hummingbird food, if feel your food is diluted, go ahead and replace it.
HOMEGROWN BUTTERFLY FEEDER
Recently, a hard freeze brought an abrupt end to the growing season of many of our nectar plants. The next morning when my wife and I walked outside and looked around the yard, it was not a pretty sight. Mexican sunflower, cosmos and other plants were drooping and their flowers withered. It was obvious that the butterflies that were still flying about our yard were in for some hard times.
Later in the morning when we noticed a cloudless sulphur was trying to nectar at a dead Mexican sunflower blossom, we decided try to come to the aid this and any other hardy survivor of the freeze. Since we have not enjoyed great success attracting butterflies to commercial butterfly feeders, we decided to set out a couple of homegrown butterfly feeders.
We immediately moved a pot containing several pineapple sage plants in full bloom to a spot near the dead Mexican sunflowers. Talk about immediate gratification–within minutes a cloudless sulphur appeared and began nectaring on the pineapple sages’ long, scarlet blossoms.
Encouraged by our success we later positioned a couple of containers containing scarlet sage to spots around the yard. Since we have not experienced another frost since that time, we have enjoyed watching cloudless sulphurs and gulf fritillaries visiting our homegrown feeders every day.
Our ability to take this action was due to the fact that we grow a number of nectar plants in large containers. Once we heard of the impending, hard freeze we moved pots containing pineapple and scarlet sage either up against the side of the house or inside our sunroom.
We realize that providing food for a handful of butterflies after a frost killed most of their food supply means little to the populations of gulf fritillaries and cloudless sulphurs. However, it means a lot to handful of butterflies that are benefitting from our efforts. In addition, it has made us feel good.
MY FIRST WINTER BIRD OF THE FALL–A RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET
For weeks, I have been eagerly awaiting the appearance of my first winter bird of the fall. By that, I mean the migratory birds that winter in my backyard typically arrive well before winter actually begins. Well, my wait is finally over as this week I spotted a ruby-crowned kinglet eating bird butter laced with peanuts.
I find it interesting that, although the ruby-crowned kinglet is one of the last insectivorous birds to leave its northern breeding grounds, it was the first to arrive in my yard located in Middle Georgia. I cannot help but wonder if the bird I saw will indeed winter here, or, was a migrant using my yard as a stopover to refuel before moving on southward to its winter home is south Georgia or Florida.
Since I never see more than one ruby-crowned kinglet at a time, I would like to know if only one of these tiny passerines establishes a territory in my yard each winter. Since there is evidence that these small birds set up winter territories, perhaps more kinglets actually inhabit my three acres of land than I realize. If such is the case, it could be possible that I host more than one ruby-crowned kinglet and the only one I see is the bird that claims the portion of the yard where my feeders are located.
Overwhelmingly, when a ruby-crowned kinglet makes an appearance in my bird feeding area it dines on bird butter. However, in one instance, I watched a kinglet sifting through white millet offered in a small feeder.
If you would like to attempt to attract a ruby-crowned kinglet to your yard this winter, make sure suet or bird butter are on the menu of your backyard bird cafe. Other foods known attract ruby-crowned kinglets are peanut butter, mixed seed, finely cracked nuts, peanut hearts, cornbread, and doughnuts. They will even visit hummingbird feeders from time to time.
I have never seen a ruby-crowned kinglet drink at my birdbath. However, there are numerous reports of them doing so.
If you are successful in attracting a ruby-crowned kinglet to your yard for the first time, you will quickly learn they are a joy to watch. They are full of energy and are constantly on the move. Some might even say they get tired just seeing them constantly flit about in search of food.