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SULPHUR COSMOS – GREAT FOR HUMMINGBIRDS AND BUTTERFLIES

      Whenever my wife and I stumble across a plant that proves to be a great addition to our backyard wildlife gardens, we like to share our discovery with others.  One of our latest discoveries is sulphur cosmos (Cosmos sulphureous). 

       Over the years we have planted a number of different varieties of cosmos.  However, none of have proven to attract as many butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators as sulphur cosmos.  We have also found the flowers are popular with both bumblebees and carpenter bees. 

       As such, we have enjoyed watching these rotund pollinators land on cosmos blossoms and ride them downward toward the ground.

       We have planted sulphur cosmos in a couple of mass plantings.  However, it is purported to grow well in containers also.

       We have learned this annual is easy to grow.  We are growing them in moderately fertile clay soil.  However, the plant has the reputation of being able to grow in a variety of soils ranging from poor to fertile.

       The plant’s bright orange and yellow daisy like flowers are stunning.  Plants grow two to six feet tall (most of our plants reached a height of four to five feet).  The flowers last for a long time.  In addition, dead heading will prolong their bloom well into the fall.

       Our sulphur cosmos plants have been blooming for several weeks.  During that time, we have seen the blossoms visited by a host of pollinators such as ruby-throated hummingbirds, eastern tiger swallowtails, common buckeyes, checkered skippers, gulf fritillaries, cloudless sulphurs, sleepy oranges, monarchs, and others.  The most recent addition to the list of butterflies seen on the flowers was a giant swallowtail.  This butterfly is uncommon in our neck of the woods. 

       If you decide to incorporate this ornamental in your garden, I would be very surprised if doesn’t please you as much as it has us.

SOME PLANTS HELP MIGRANTS FIND FAT-RICH FOOD

       I am fascinated by the astonishing relationships that exist between some native plants and animals.  One such association links certain plants that produce fat-rich fruits and berries to migratory songbirds.

       Long before the official arrival of fall, many birds like warblers, vireos, and thrushes, begin preparing for the epic fall migration during the heat of summer.  One way in which they ready themselves for the long flight is by switching from predominantly eating insects and other invertebrates that are packed with protein to a of diet fruits and berries laden with fats. 

       This dramatic dietary change enables these migrants to store body fat using less time and effort.  This is important, as this fat is the fuel needed to fuel their long migration.  It seems foods rich in protein and carbohydrates yield twice as little energy as fatty foods.

       Obviously, it behooves birds to quickly locate these sources of food.  One way in plants that produce fruits or berries loaded with fat facilitate this endeavor is by advertising.  The list of these plants includes blackgum, flowering dogwood, Virginia creeper, muscadine, magnolia, pokeweed, and many others.  These plants advertise by bearing fruits and berries that are have bright red in color, have fall foliage that is bright yellow, red or orange, or display their fruits or berries on red stems. POKEWEED BERRIES DISPLAYED ON RED STEMS - BLOG - 23 Aug 2020 (1)

       The plants benefit from the birds widely spreading their seeds through their droppings whereas the birds are able to quickly locate food prior to and during their migration.

       If you want to extend a helping hand to these special birds, incorporate as many of these plants as possible in your yard.

THE HUMMINGBIRD’S ABILITY TO SELECT NECTAR-RICH BLOOMS

       August is a special month for both ruby-throated hummingbirds and those of us that enjoy watching them.  Throughout the entire month, the number of hummingbirds visiting our feeder swells as they voraciously feed on the nectar provided by our feeders and flowers.  The reason for this increased activity is these flying jewels must quickly eat enough food to enable them to store the fat required to fuel their long journey to their winter home.

       In order to accomplish this task, hummingbirds make frequent feeding forays to our feeders and as many flowers as possible.  Since hummingbirds have one the highest rates of metabolism known, they expend huge amounts of energy trying to prepare for their arduous migration.  Obviously, anything that makes this task more efficient greatly benefits these flying dynamos.

       One way the birds would be able to streamline their feeding binge would be to possess the ability to avoid visiting flowers that harbor little or no nectar.  Well, as amazing as it may seem, they can do just that.  Here is how it works.

       The amount of nectar produced by each nectar plant varies considerably throughout the day.  A number of variables such as soil moisture and weather conditions affect it.  When hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, wasps, and other nectar feeders consume nectar, it takes time for it to be replenished.  This time varies considerably.  For example, some flowers do so only once a day, others every half-hour, others varying amounts of time in between.

      Ruby-throated hummingbirds have the ability to learn how long it takes a flower to rejuvenate its supply of energy-rich nectar.  Consequently, when a rubythroat visits the zinnias, salvias, lantanas, bee balms, trumpet creepers, and the like growing in our hummingbird gardens they rapidly learn how long it takes each plant to produce a new crop of nectar.  Only then will they revisit a plant it fed at earlier in the day.  This eliminates the need to revisit the plant until correct amount of time has elapsed.

       This astounding ability has been demonstrated by researchers such as a team of University of Edinburg biologists.  Their experiments involved providing hummingbirds with two groups of artificial flowers laden with nectar.  One group of flowers was refilled with nectar every ten minutes.  The second group was replenished every 20 minutes.  In short order, the hummers learned when each group of flowers provided them with a source of food.

       Keep this in mind as you watch the hummingbirds visiting various flowers about your yard.  It will help you better understand why they feed at certain nectar plants when they do.  If you are like me, you will come away being even more impressed with a bird so small, ten could be mailed for the price of a first-class letter.

MOCKINGBIRDS DON’T LIKE TO SHARE

     Northern mockingbirds are common backyard residents throughout Georgia.  Unlike some of the birds, we see in our backyards, it is a permanent resident.  If you regularly see or hear a mockingbirds in your yard, it is safe to say your property is located within a mockingbird’s territory.  This means a mockingbird will try to keep other birds from its favorite food sources such as feeders.  Currently a mockingbird is defending my suet feeder.

       Consequently, the only time hairy and downy woodpeckers, cardinals, house finches, Carolina chickadees, brown headed nuthatches, tufted titmice and others an able to feed on the suet offered in a wire suet feeder is when the mockingbird is somewhere out of sight of the feeder.

       The only bird that doesn’t seem to be intimidated by the mockingbird is the brown thrasher.  I have never witnessed a mockingbird try to scare a brown thrasher away from a suet feeder; perhaps this because mockingbirds find thrashers too large and intimidating.

       Since I enjoy watching a variety of birds feeding in my feeding area, I have tried a couple of things remedy the situation. 

              MOCKINGBIRD AT SUET FEEDER

       For example, I purchased a suet feeder that was surrounded by hardware cloth cage. The suet feeder was positioned well away from the side of the cage.  While it allowed smaller birds such as brown-headed nuthatches, titmice, chickadees, and sparrows to slip through the opening in the hardware cloth and feed, it kept larger birds such as mockingbirds, cardinals, and woodpeckers away.

       My latest approach is to offer my backyard avian neighbors two suet feeders.  The theory is that it is impossible for one bird to defend more than one feeder.

       I began my experiment by placing another suet feeder within ten feet of the original feeder.  It didn’t take long for me to realize there the second feeder was positioned too close to the original feeder.  As such, the mockingbird kept other birds away from both feeders.

       I have since moved the second feeder some 30 feet away.  This seems to work fine, however, I now find it more difficult to watch and photograph birds visiting the second feeder.  That being the case, I need to begin moving the second feeder ever closer to the first feeder.  I am sure; at some point, the mockingbird will be able to defend both feeders.  Then I can move it back to a location just beyond that distance.

       Perhaps I do should go ahead a let the mockingbird defend a single suet feeder.  Since the bird cannot be near the feeder all of the time, I can enjoy seeing other birds dine to the suet during those times the mockingbird is elsewhere.  That may be best after all.   

       If you have come up with a great way to deal with an aggressive mockingbird trying to defend suet, mealworms, or fruit, I sure would like to know about it.

PLANT NOW TO FEED BUTTERFLIES AND HUMMINGBIRDS FROM LATE SUMMER INTO FALL

       If you want to ensure that butterflies, hummingbirds and other nectar feeders can find plenty of food in your backyard from late summer into fall, now is the time to sow a late crop of zinnias and Mexican sunflower seeds.

       Currently the gardens of most Georgians that plant for pollinators are awash with color and food (pollen and nectar). However, by late September and October many of these same beautiful pollinator havens will be far less colorful and offer hummingbirds, butterflies and other pollinators less food. In spite of trying to prolong the blooming period of cut-and-come-again plants, the numbers of flowers being produced will often dwindle by late summer. Other flowers will have simply ended their blooming period and will not blossom until next year.

       This situation can cause problems for all pollinators, including migrants making their way south on their fall migrations. This list of migrants includes several butterflies such as the monarch as well as ruby-throated hummingbirds.

       One way you can assist these critters this year is to plant more zinnias and Mexican sunflowers. Since both plants require somewhere from 60-70 days to go from seed to flower, you need to plant seeds for these plants right now.

       Both can be planted in beds. I can personally attest to the fact that zinnias also do extremely well in containers.

Long-tailed Skipper nectaring on Mexican Sunflower

     Since my wife and I have never planted Mexican sunflowers in containers, I don’t know how they do in that situation. I suspect because they grow so tall, they would more than likely require staking.

       Last year my wife and I enjoyed great success planting a second crop of zinnias. They attracted many butterflies, including monarchs, and hummingbirds. In addition, they added needed splotches of late color to our gardens.

       If you decide to try this practice, I think you will be pleased with the results. I know monarchs, ruby-throated hummingbirds, and scores of other pollinators will benefit from your efforts.

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.

SWEET WILLIAM CAN BE A GREAT BUTTERFLY AND HUMMINGBIRD PLANT

       My wife and I are always eager to try a plant that has the reputation of being a gorgeous ornamental as well as great hummingbird and/or butterfly plant. One such plant we have added to our gardens is Sweet William. Since Sweet William has long been a favorite of Georgia gardeners, I don’t know why we had not planted it before.

       Sweet William is a member of the carnation family. It grows from five to 36 inches tall. The flowers are arranged in tightly packed bouquet-like clusters comprised of upwards of 30 or more blooms. The plants serrated petals ranging in color from purple to white, red, pink, or variegated. On top this, the plants easily hybridize and produce a wide variety of other color variations.

       Sweet William blooms in the Peach State from late spring until the first autumn frost. During this blooming period, individual plants can be encouraged to continue producing blossoms by deadheading.

      The old-fashioned garden favorite is native to Europe. Nobody knows for sure where the plant got its name. One of the most popular theories is it is named for England’s eighteenth century Prince William. Others suggest the floral beauty is named for William Shakespeare. I guess we will never know the answer to this quandary.

       You can establish Sweet William in your garden from either seed or seedlings. If you plant seeds in spring to early summer, or set out plants in September or October, you will have to wait until the following spring to enjoy their showy blossoms. It you do not want to wait that long for the plant to blossom, you might want to consider buying plants and transplanting them to your garden soon after the spring’s last frost. In addition, if you sow seeds in the fall, they will germinate into plants that will bloom the following year.

       I should mention, if you allow Sweet William plants to go to seed, they will readily reseed themselves. That being the case, they will quickly spread throughout a garden.

       Sweet William will grow in a variety of soil types but seems to do best in well-drained, slightly alkaline soils.

       In the spring of 2019, my wife sowed Sweet William seeds around one of our birdbaths. Only one plant produced a single flower last year. However, the plants overwintered and this spring (2020) rewarded us with an abundance of pink, red, and white blossoms.

       For my wife, this floral show brought make memories of the Sweet Williams blooming in her grandmother’s garden years ago. In addition, they enabled me to take some stunning pictures of cardinals, thrashers and other birds visiting the birdbath to bathe and drink. The contrast between the birds’ plumage and the colorful flowers is stunning.

       As for pollinators, as you can see from the accompanying picture, butterflies are already partaking in the nectar found in each Sweet William blossom. Hummingbirds and native bees have also been seen visiting the plants.

       That being the case, this experimental planting seems to be a success.

HUMMINGBIRD MOMS ARE SPECIAL TOO

       On the second Sunday in May we celebrate a very special person in our lives. Yes, I am referring to our mothers. These very remarkable individuals shower us with love and devote their lives to raising us to become all that we can be. Today, while I was sitting on the deck of my home thinking about how much my mother has meant to me, a female hummingbird appeared at a backyard feeder. As the bird fed, it occurred to me that female ruby-throated hummingbirds are also special moms.

       Each spring they return from their winter homes to raise another generation of rubythroats. When you stop to think about it this is not an easy task. Without the help of her mate, each female must construct an amazingly delicate nest in one to ten days (it takes longer if she does not rebuild an old nest). This requires her to make countless trips to gather the untold numbers of items needed to fashion her nest. The building materials range from bud scales, to the down from dandelions and thistles. The nest is held together with spider webs. She then plucks lichens from nearby branches and uses them to adorn the nest’s exterior.

    After the nest is completed, she then lays two eggs and subsequently begins incubation. During the 12-14 days it takes to incubate the eggs, she will spend anywhere from 60%-80% of her time keeping her eggs warm.

       Once the young hatch, she then dedicates the next 18-22 days of her life to feeding the voracious youngsters. This may require her to visit up to 1,500 flowers a day to collect nectar. In addition, she must also capture thousands of small insects and spiders and feed them to her rapidly growing youngsters.

       If all goes well, the two young hummingbirds will take to their air and begin feeding themselves. However, in places like Georgia, the female may repeat the whole process again before leaving on her fall migration.

       I am sure that as we celebrate Mother’s Day, thousands of female rubythroats proving they are indeed special moms too.

ATTRACTING THE PINE WARBLER TO YOUR BACKYARD

      The pine warbler is a permanent resident in all of Georgia’s 159 counties. As such, chances are it is a bird that can be seen in practically any backyard in the state. This is especially true if pines are growing either in or nearby your yard. Pines are used by the bird for both nesting and feeding. However, since many of these activities take place high above the ground in the trees’ dense canopy, the bird is often a stranger to some backyard wildlife enthusiasts.

       I hear the pine warbler more often than I see it. The song is easy to remember since it is a musical one-pitch trill. To me the bird’s song reminds me of a louder, more musical rendition of the song of the chipping sparrow.

       The male pine warbler begins singing in earnest in late winter. Here it is May and it is still singing. In fact, I heard one loudly singing this morning.

       The pine warbler’s diet consists mostly of invertebrates, such as ants, cockroach eggs, small flying insects, bees, beetles, and even spiders.

       However, the pine warbler holds the distinction of being our only warbler that regularly dines on seeds. For this reason, it visits our backyard seed feeders more than any other warbler.

       As you might expect the pine warbler dines on pine seeds, it also eats the seeds of a variety of other plants.

       The pine warbler is also fond of fruits and berries. That being the case, if you are interested in providing the pine warblers living in your neck of the woods with fruits and berries, here are a few native plants that fit the bill: persimmon, Virginia creeper, muscadine, wax myrtle, sumac and flowering dogwood.

       Most pine warblers are seen visiting feeders. Such is the case in my backyard. The bird will dine on a variety of seeds such as the crushed meats of pecans and other nuts, millet, scratch feed, and peanuts. However, by far, the pine warblers that visit my yard prefer sunflower seeds far and above all other seeds.

       Pine warblers also dine on suet and peanut butter. Although most folks offer suet only during the colder months of the year, pine warblers will eat suet at any time of the year.

       Don’t forget to maintain a clean birdbath throughout the year. The pine warbler will both bathe and drink at a birdbath.

       Well, I hope this brief piece will help you attract a pine warbler to your yard. The beauty of these suggestions is that, if you incorporate these tips into your backyard wildlife plan and, for some reason, never see a pine warbler, all is not lost. This is because many other birds will benefit from your efforts.

ATTRACTING THE WOOD THRUSH TO YOUR BACKYARD IN SPRING

      Although the wood thrush nests throughout most of Georgia, the only realistic chance of seeing or hearing one in our backyards is when the birds are migrating. Let’s look at what it takes to have a wood thrush encounter in the spring.

       A major reason why they are so difficult to attract in spring is they migrate northward two to six times faster than they do heading toward to their winter residence is the fall. This means they don’t dally long when they do make a stop in the Peach State.

       When they do make a stop in Georgia backyards at this time of the year they are apt to select areas where they have the best chance of finding natural foods. They seem to prefer yards surrounded with hardwood and mixed forests that are characterized by trees 50+ feet in height, and a well-developed understory of native plants standing above a fairly open moist forest floor blanketed with leaf litter. When they are fortunate enough to locate such places, they will forage among the rotting leaves that litter the ground for a variety of invertebrates such as spiders, beetles, ants, and other animal foods.

       The wood thrush is typically hesitant to visit a feeder. However, folks that have the best luck attracting this master songster to their yards feed them directly on the ground or on feeding tables and platform feeders placed close to the earth near native woody cover.

       The menu items the birds seem most fond of include small pieces of white bread, tiny chunks of suet, raisins, hulled sunflower seeds, and peanut butter mixed with cornmeal. On rare occasions, they will also eat mixed seed from an elevated feeder.

       In many cases, the wood thrush seems more inclined to visit a birdbath than a feeder. This is especially true if the birdbath is placed near or on the ground near native shrubs. Some have reported they entice the wood thrush to their feeding/watering area by scattering raisins around the rim of a birdbath.

       If you are successful in luring this magnificent forest dweller to your yard, you may step outside your backdoor on a spring morning to the sounds of the flutelike notes of what many consider the most beautiful song uttered by a North American bird, “echo-lay.” Once you hear it, you will quickly realize that your efforts to attract a wood thrush to your yard were well worth it.