Last May a mysterious illness that affected songbirds suddenly appeared in the eastern states. By the time the illness finally abated, it had killed thousands of birds in the District of Columbia, Delaware, New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia. This prompted state wildlife agencies and conservation groups, to urge the public to cease providing wild birds with water or food. Then, for some unknown reason, the songbird illness suddenly disappeared this past July.
The birds affected by the outbreak displayed the same symptoms: swollen, crusty eyes, paralysis, are tremors.
The birds that were most affected were young common grackles, blue jays and European starlings. However, the roster of birds that showed symptoms of the disease included Carolina wrens and chickadees, red-bellied woodpeckers, eastern bluebirds, American robins, house finches, northern cardinals, and house sparrows.
The outbreak prompted the Cornell Wildlife Health Lab and the National Wildlife Health Lab, as well as wildlife disease labs across the country, to try to diagnose the cause of the illness. Their efforts methodically ruled out all of the known wildlife illnesses. This left them at a loss to explain what was causing the problem.
However, the scientists found the sudden appearance and decline of the disease closely mirrored the Brood X cicada emergence. This leads many of the scientists to theorize that mysterious bird illness that plagued birds across a vast swath of the east this past summer is linked to the cicadas. According to this theory birds may have been affected the cicadas in a number of ways. For example, they could have eaten cicadas poisoned by homeowners trying to eliminate the insects from their yards. Some birds may have also become sick from eating the cicadas themselves. It is also possible that a toxin produced by a fungus commonly found on cicadas could have poisoned the birds.
While this theory seems plausible, more research is needed before wildlife disease experts will definitively say this was indeed the cause of the problem.
In the meantime, many states have lifted bird-feeding restrictions implemented during the outbreak. However, they are urging that homeowners keep their bird feeding areas and feeders clean. While we were fortunate that the mysterious songbird illness did not crop up in Georgia, we should all strive to keep our bird feeders and the ground around them clean.
Once every five years the United States Fish and Wildlife Service surveys the participation of American’s in hunting, fishing, and other wildlife-related activities. The latest report (2018) documents the findings from the 2016 survey. Although the report revealed that, from 2011-2016, wildlife watching increased 20% (71.8-86.0 million individuals); Americans have not fully embraced the value of managing plants for wildlife in their yards.
The survey revealed that that around-the-home participants 16 years and older jumped to 81.1 million. They accounted for 94% of all of the Americans that watched wildlife. The most popular activity of these 59.1 million folks was feeding birds and other wildlife; they represented 73% of all around-the-home participants. Thirty-eight percent said they photographed wildlife. Those that fed other wildlife accounted for 18% of around-the-home participants. However, only 10% maintained plants for wildlife in their yards. In addition, just 9% maintained and managed natural areas for the benefit of their wildlife neighbors.
It is exciting that interest in wildlife watching is on the rise. However, it is concerning that we wildlife watchers are, largely focusing our attention on simply feeding the wildlife that we enjoy living just outside our backdoors. Meanwhile, we are losing thousands of acres of wildlife habitat each year. Unless we enhance the wildlife habitat that remains, the time may come when many of the wild animals that provide us with so much enjoyment will become rare or simply disappear.
One way to ensure this does not happen is to restore and create wildlife habitats in our yards. There are so many ways that we can provide backyard wildlife with suitable places to live, the task seems impossible. One of the best ways to tackle this daunting task is to begin by selecting a species or species that you are most fond of and direct your efforts at addressing their needs. Then begin by setting just a few goals to accomplish. For example, if you are interested in butterflies, incorporate a few host plants into your landscape. If you are fond of birds, plant one or more seed, fruit or berry-producing plants. Only after you have made these changes, make the decision as to whether you are going to try to accomplish anything else this year.
Whatever you do, make planting native plants a priority. These plants are often best suited to survive in your neck of the woods and require less care. In addition, the food they often produce more food and support far more insects than ornamentals.
When you start looking for lists of these plants, as other habitat enhancement tips, begin by checking out the Archive section of this blog. It contains a treasure trove of often hard to find information relating to backyard wildlife.
We can all be better stewards of our yards. With that in mind, can you imagine how much our backyard wildlife neighbors would benefit if each one of us made a conscientious effort to enhance our property for them this year? With that in mind, I hope you will make a New Year’s resolution to enrich your home landscape for wildlife. I know I plan to do just that.
With only days remaining until Christmas, I thought you might appreciate a gift idea for someone that feeds birds. This gift is not attractive; however, it is practical, inexpensive, and will benefit both backyard wildlife enthusiasts and the birds. The gift I am referring to is a trash bag stand. Now before you dismiss this suggestion, let me explain.
One of the tasks that nobody that feeds birds enjoys is cleaning up discarded seed hulls and rotting seeds beneath seed feeders. In an earlier blog (check archive), I wrote about a couple of handy tools that make this job easier. I would like to add another tool to this list of valuable devices. This tool is a collapsible trash bag stand.
The device is little more than a metal frame. To use it, all you have to do is place a trash bag in the center of the frame and stretch the opening of the bag around the top of the frame. Once the bag is in place, the frame and bag will stand up on their own.
The reason it is so helpful because you can easily deposit the seeds, hulls, and the directly into the bag for disposal in your trash. Trying to place the waste collected in a dustpan, wheelbarrow, or shovel into a bag that you have to hold open with one hand while disposing of the waste in the bag with the other in no easy task. As far as I am concerned, this is the most difficult step in the whole process. However, when you use a trash bag stand, it is far easier and quicker to deposit the waste through the wide opening of a bag stretched open in a trash bag stand. When you have accomplished the task, simply remove the bag from the stand, tie off the top and you are ready to dispose of it and its contents in the trash.
The birds benefit because you dramatically reduce the chance they will contact any of the variety of diseases that flourish in damp, rotting seeds and their hulls.
Trash bag stands come is a variety of sizes ranging from 30-35 gallon models to those that hold 13-gallon bags. The bags are collapsible and cost as little as $11 to $25.
Since it makes the whole process of keeping a bird feeding areas clean, perhaps we would be more apt to clean our bird feeding areas more often. Now that is not a bad thing.
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.
With our preoccupation with attracting backyard wildlife with supplemental foods such as suet and seeds, it is easy to overlook the fact that those backyards that often attract the greatest variety of numbers of backyard wildlife are also home to a variety of native plants. One of the most underappreciated plants that inhabit the yards of many of us is American mistletoe.
Whenever the subject of the mistletoe arises, more often than not one thing comes to mind; most people regard the plant as one of the treasured symbols of Christmas. Supposedly, if a couple passes through a door adorned with a sprig of mistletoe bearing berries, it is permissible for them to share a kiss. At the end of the kiss, the couple is supposed to remove one of the berries. However, it is out of place for a couple to steal a kiss beneath a berryless frond of mistletoe.
Although this popular legend has been around for centuries, few realize that mistletoe is also an important food plant for many forms of wildlife ranging from insects to birds and mammals. This very different side to the mistletoe should further endear the plant to everyone that shares an interest in wildlife. Let me explain.
This widespread parasitic plant is the host for the great purple hairstreak. This beauty is the only Georgia butterfly that lays its eggs on the mistletoe.
Mistletoe also produces both pollen and nectar that feed countless insects. Bees frequently avail themselves of the food offered by mistletoes. Ants, native bees, honeybees, flies, also visit the plant’s tiny flowers.
Mammals such as white-tailed deer, gray squirrels, and eastern chipmunks eat mistletoe. Deer are particularly fond of the mistletoe’s protein-rich foliage.
Many species of birds eat mistletoe’s white almost translucent berries. Each berry contains two to three seeds that and enveloped in extremely sticky flesh. Among the birds that gobble up mistletoe berries are cedar waxwings, eastern bluebirds, eastern meadowlarks, American robins, northern flickers, purple finches, blue jays, dark-eyed junco, white-breasted nuthatches, American goldfinches, and eastern towhees.
Now that you know that mistletoe is a valued wildlife food plant, are you willing to say mistletoe is far more than a magical Christmas plant? I am.
Back in the day, most bird enthusiasts never fed seeds to birds during the autumn months. Nowadays fall bird feeding is quite popular. However, if you are currently offering sunflower seeds, millet and other delicacies to birds in your backyard, have you ever wondered if this causes more harm than good?
The truth of the matter is it appears fall bird feeding is more beneficial than harmful. Some go so far to say that fall feeding discourages birds from migrating. However, the truth of the matter is it appears fall bird feeding can actually benefit birds. Here are a few reasons why this is the case.
Seed eating migrants actually benefit from your efforts. The reason for this is during migration they deplete the stored fat that fuels their flight south. An abundant supply of seeds offered at feeders allows them to quickly refuel and continue on to the winter homes.
An abundant supply of seeds also allows resident birds to build up the fat reserves they need to survive cold weather. This is especially important during those years when acorns and other seeds hard are hard to come by.
While it is true, that, for many birds, autumn is a time of plenty–food seems to be everywhere. However, as the year moves on into December and beyond, these food supplies will be exhausted. Consequently, the seeds provided by your feeders become increasingly more important to seed-eating birds.
Finally, feeding birds in the fall provides you with some great wildlife watching opportunities. Not only do you enjoy tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees and others permanent residents making endless trips to and from you feeders, but you also get to see southbound birds that might have passed over your yard on their way south. This year, for example, this fall backyard wildlife watchers were able to catch glimpses of rose-breasted grosbeaks. For many, they only see this bird in the spring.
The bottom line is, if you keeping your feeding area clean, fall feeding can benefit wild birds.
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.