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BACKYARD SECRET— AMERICAN CROWS RARELY LIVE ALONE

        It is no coincidence that we rarely find an American crow living alone.  This reason for this is American crows are social animals. 

       American crows live typically live together in small groups consisting of a breeding pair and their offspring. 

       My wife and I feed crows.  This enables us to watch their behavior.  One thing we have learned that the family of crows that visits our home consists of a male and female and their three young.   As such, when the crows arrive, we always see five birds.

       My daughter also feeds crows.  Until recently, like clockwork four crows show up every day to dine on her food offerings.  One of the birds has a damaged wing.  Apparently, something happened to that bird, as it has not appeared to dine with its family during the past few weeks.

MOCKINGBIRDS ARE DINING ON POKEBERRIES

               I try to keep abreast of what the wildlife eats throughout the year.  This exercise has allowed me to watch how the food habits of a number of my backyard residents change throughout the year.  Recently I was reminded of this fact as I watched a northern mockingbird dine on pokeberries.

              Throughout the spring and much of the summer mockingbirds I watched them dining on suet, insects, blackberries, and other delicacies.   Then seemingly, overnight birds seemed to abandon the places where they had been feeding.  Last week they reappeared at pokeweeds that have colonized my property.  The birds were dining on the plants’ juicy, purplish-black berries.  While I have only seen mockingbirds eating the berries so far this summer, I suspect they have to share them with other backyard residents such as brown thrashers, eastern bluebirds, cardinals and even red-bellied woodpeckers.

              The first time I witnessed a mockingbird eating pokeberries a couple of weeks ago the bird was having a difficult time plucking them from a cluster of fruit dangling from a droopy branch.  Since it was seemingly impossible for the bird to perch on the flimsy branch and dine of the berries at the same time, it was forced to attempt to hover close to the berries.  It immediately became obvious that the mockingbird’s ability to hover will never be favorably compared with that of a hummingbird. In spite of this, after several tries grab the berries, the cluster of berries eventually disappeared into the mouth of the determined bird.

              If you find pokeberry plants sprouting in an out-of-the-way spot in your yard, let them grow.  If you do, you will be rewarded with an attractive plant, and a great source of food for birds and other wildlife.  In addition, you will be offered with some great wildlife viewing opportunities and the chance to learn more about the feeding habits of wildlife without having to leave your home.

HOW MUCH ARE WE SPENDING ON BIRDSEED AND FEEDERS?

        Few of us keep records of how much we spend annually on wild birdseed and feeders.  However, the Wild Bird Feeding Industry Research Foundation closely monitors our bird feeding habits.

       According to their 2015 report on our purchasing activity, the average American household that feeds birds annually spends an average of $59.73 on food and $39.52 on feeders.

       Although I do not keep a record of my bird feeding expenditures, I am confident I spend much more than this.  How much are you spending on this pastime?

BREAKING NEWS – HUMMINGBIRDS DO HAVE A SENSE OF SMELL

        We have long been aware that hummingbirds have great eyesight and hearing.  However, biologists have unable to demonstrate that hummingbirds could smell.  However, recent studies conducted by researchers at the University of California Riverside have revealed for the first time that hummingbirds can smell insects that pose a danger to them while they are visiting flowers bearing nectar.  The findings also suggest that this ability helps them avoid danger while feeding.

       According to Erin Wilson Rankin, associate entomology professor and coauthor author of the paper that was published in   the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, “This is pretty exciting, as it is the first clear demonstration of hummingbirds using their sense of smell alone to make foraging decisions and avoid contact with potentially dangerous insects at a flower or feeder.”

       The experiment was deceptively simple.  They provided more than 100 hummingbirds the option of feeding at two feeders.  One feeder contained sugar water and another filled with sugar water and additives that indicated that an insect was present.  One additive was formic acid which is produced by some Formica ants.  This chemical is known to be harmful to humans and mammals alike. The other was an ant attraction chemical. Another chemical tested was a chemical left behind when a European honeybee visits flowers. 

       The hummingbirds seemed oblivious to the honeybee-generated chemical.  However, the birds avoided food laced with both of the ant-based chemicals.

       Since all of the feeders were identical, the only way that the birds could differentiate between the feeders was through their sense of smell.

       It seems like every few years we learn something new and fascinating about hummingbirds.  As such, it begs the question, “What will researchers discover next about these amazing birds?”

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.

A SHORT LIST OF PLANTS THAT HELP FEED POLLINATORS IN HOT, DRY CONDITIONS

    For weeks, much of Georgia has been suffering drought conditions.  If that was not enough, this past week, temperatures soared above 100ºF, and heat indexes topped out at 122ºF at my Middle Georgia home. When this occurs, it is extremely difficult for pollinators such as butterflies, bees, wasps, beetles, and others to collect enough nectar to meet their needs.  One of the reasons for this is it is a struggle for nectar plants to stay alive in our backyards and elsewhere. Even if they are successful stay alive, they often either don’t bloom or produce little nectar. Here is a short list of the plants growing in my backyard that have not been phased by this year’s extreme growing conditions and have done the best job of providing the pollinators with nectar.

   Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) – This low-growing, hardy perennial bears clusters of white flowers.  The pollinators that visit this plant are native bees, butterflies and others.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) – My wife and I are fond of this plant because it is easy grow, beautiful, its blooms last a long time, and it is a super source of nectar for a variety of insects.  Although it is often touted as a good butterfly plant, we have noticed, in our yard, it is more often visited by tiny bees, flies, wasps, and other pollinators.

   BUTTERFLY BUSH (Buddleia davidii) – This introduced deciduous shrub a veritable butterfly magnet. This past week I spotted five butterflies on one of our butterfly bushes feeding at the same time.  This was notable because it marked the first time I had spotted that many butterflies feeding together this year.   From spring into the fall, it consistently draws more butterflies than anything else we grow.  The plant feeds butterflies, moths, bumblebees and other pollinators.

   Red-hot Poker (Kniphofia) – This large herbaceous perennial sends up an abundance of large spikes topped with clusters of long tubular flowers.  We find the blooms are more often visited by hummingbirds than bees and other pollinators.

       I hope you will share with me your list of nectar/pollen producing plants that have done well this year.

BIRDS LOVE BLACK CHERRIES

       Many birds are so fond of berries and fruits they will travel some distance to eat them.  Even birds they we do not associate with such foods will go out of their way to find and eat them whenever they are in season.  My daughter Angela recently learned that one of these birds in the great crested flycatcher.

       Birds living in most subdivisions find wild foods hard to come by.   However, Angela has a black cherry (Prunus serotina) tree growing alongside the fence that separates her and her neighbor’s backyards. Somehow the tree escaped the bull dozer, or perhaps sprouted from a seed left behind by a bird that dined on black cherry sometime in the past. It is now old enough to annually produce a crop of pea-sized, shiny red to almost black fruits.

Black Cherry Tree || Photo credit: Angela Dupree

       Angela has seen many different species of birds descend on the tree in May and June to chow down on the juicy fruits.  However, recently she heard an unfamiliar bird call coming for the tree.  She immediately pulled up her Merlin bird identification app.  The app identified the bird as a great crested flycatcher.  She could not believe it!  She had never seen a great crested flycatcher in her yard before.  Needless to say, you would not expect to find this bird in a subdivision.

       Wanting to make sure Merlin had correctly identified her visitor; she sat down and waited for the bird to appear.  In a matter of minutes, the bird came into view—it was indeed a great crested flycatcher.  The bird was plucking black cherries hanging from the tree’s slender branches.

       Knowing that the great crested flycatcher primarily eats insects and other invertebrates she went online to see if black cherries are also consumed.  She learned that Georgia’s only flycatcher that nests in a cavity does indeed eat black cherries.

       Angela also learned that more than 40 other birds also eat the fruit of the black cherry tree.  Among the other birds that also dine on the juicy fruit are the summer tanager, eastern bluebird, woodpeckers, mockingbird, brown thrasher, and gray catbird. 

       My daughter is convinced that she would probably have never seen a great crested flycatcher in her yard if it wasn’t for the fact that a cherry tree was not there.  With that in mind she plans on keeping closer tabs on the birds that visit this great native tree.

       Angela realizes she will never know if the hungry great crested flycatcher flew in from the woods hugging a stream at the base of the hill well away from her home or elsewhere.  I guess it really doesn’t really matter from whence the bird came.  The important thing is it that it found this special tree and provided her with an unforgettable memory that prompted her to embark on a journey of discovery that led to her having greater appreciation for a tree that is too often considered to be nothing more than a weed.

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.

SHOULD I HELP BLUEBIRDS FEED THEIR YOUNG?

 

   

       I am sure you have wondered if eastern bluebirds have difficulty feeding their young in the spring when temperatures are low a rainy weather dominates the weather for days on end.  Actually, bluebird parents can sometimes find it hard to find enough insects and other invertebrates to feed their seemingly insatiable nestlings during times when these important food items are not moving about.

       If you suspect this is happening in your yard, you can offer the adult bluebirds a number of supplemental foods.  Here are some of the food items you might try:  mealworms, fruits and berries, sunflower hearts and suet.   Some bluebird enthusiasts even feed bluebirds scrambled eggs during these trying times.

     Experiment with different foods until you determine which delicacies are favored by your bluebirds and then focus on feeding the bluebirds only their preferred foods. 

     Your feeding efforts can actually save the lives of many young bluebirds. However, even if the parents don’t actually need additional food to meet the demands of their young, the extra food you provide will most likely be gobbled up by other birds.  In the meantime, you will sleep better knowing that you did all you could to ensure a new generation of bluebirds lived through a potential food shortage.