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UNUSUAL CARDINAL FOOD

       One of the reasons I enjoy watching wildlife in my yard is every time I walk out the backdoor I have a chance of making a new discovery.  It does not matter whether or not anybody else has made this discovery elsewhere.  The important thing is it is new to me.  Finding it in my own yard makes it extra special. 

       I would like to take a moment to tell you about my most recent discovery.

       Each year my wife scatters globe amaranth seeds in large containers sitting on our deck.  She grows globe amaranth because it bears beautiful flowers that attract a bevy of different wild pollinators such as butterflies.  In addition, the plant does not require a lot of water, plant pests rarely bother it, and it blooms profusely from summer into autumn.

       For weeks, we have been noticing the papery remains of tiny amaranth blooms littering the deck and nearby rail alongside one of our pots containing globe amaranth plants.  We suspected that birds were the responsible for the scattered flowers.  Our suspicion proved to be correct.  Recently while I was drinking my second cup of coffee and gazing out the window over the kitchen sink, I saw a group of globe amaranth plants violently shaking.  When I focused my attention on those particular plants I realized a female cardinal had landed on them and was pulling apart their globe shaped flower heads.  After tearing apart several blossoms to reach the tiny seeds hidden inside, the bird snipped off an entire flower head and flew away.  Shortly thereafter a male cardinal arrived and ate his fare share of the globe amaranth seeds.

       Wow!  To say the least, we are elated to find that a container full of globe amaranth plants provides foods for butterflies, bees, butterflies, and cardinals.  Who knows what else is visiting our globe amaranth plants?  What I do know is we are going continue watching the plants in hopes of discovering if anything else is benefitting from them.

A SUMMER TANAGER’S ODD CHOICE OF FOOD

       Being a dedicated backyard bird watching enthusiast, there is nothing that compares with looking out my window and spotting a bird I have never seen before seen at my feeders dining on my food offerings.  Less than a week ago, I had the opportunity to enjoy one of these rare occurrences.

       As is always the case, the sighting was totally unexpected.  In this instance, while working at my computer, I paused for a moment to collect my thoughts and glanced out my office window to see what, if any, birds were feeding.  Immediately I spotted what I thought was a male northern cardinal standing atop a wire basket containing a cake of suet.  However, when I looked at the bird through a pair of binoculars I was stunned to see it was instead an adult male summer tanager.

       It would be an understatement to say I was surprised.  I have been feeding birds since I was a child and never once spotted a summer tanager eating suet.  I have read about others seeing summer tanagers eating suet, but I never thought I would do so in my own backyard.

       I quickly grabbed my camera and took a few photos of the bird before it left.  Later the tanager returned and briefly shared suet with a downy woodpecker.  When it flew away, it l left me with an image that is forever forged in my memory.

SAYING GOOD-BYE FOR ANOTHER YEAR

       Currently our backyards are abuzz with hummingbirds.  The birds we are now seeing are a combination of ruby-throated hummingbirds that have already begun their migration and local birds that are preparing to embark on their fall migration.

       The first birds to leave are the adult males.  Some males that that breed north of Georgia actually begin flying south during the first couple of weeks in July.  In comparison, males that spent the spring and summer in Georgia often do not commence their migration until late July or early August.  However, it is still possible to see a few males at our feeders right now.

       Adult females migrate next.  The vast majority of the birds that are now gorging themselves on the nectar provided by our flowers such as scarlet sage and feeders are a combination of adult females, immature females, and immature males.  As I have discussed in former blogs (check the archive), it is easy to tell the immature males from the females.  However, it is often next to impossible to distinguish an adult female from a female hatched this year from afar.  In fact, the only sure way to do this is capture them and closely examine their bills.  However, in some cases, at this time of the year adult females are often larger than immature females.

       While the migration of the adult females is already underway, some will be feeding in our yards for a few more weeks.

       The last to leave are immature hummers.  They will be devouring as much nectar as they can consume for a few more weeks.  Ideally, an immature that weighed only about three grams a few weeks ago will try to store enough fuel (fat) to bring its weight up to around five grams before leaving.

       My wife and I have enjoyed feeding more hummingbirds this year than ever before.  We have been feeding them around twenty cups of nectar a day for weeks.  In addition, we have thoroughly enjoyed watching the birds visiting scarlet sage, zinnias, Turk’s cap, trumpet creeper, and a host of other plants.  We have also seen the birds apparently gleaning tiny insects and spiders from foliage and flowers that do not produce an abundance of nectar.  We realize the protein these small animals provide is an essential part of the hummingbird’s diet.

       Much to our chagrin hummingbird numbers have dropped off in recent days.  We know that they have to leave, but that we also realize we will miss them.  As such, even though we are still hosting lots of hummingbirds, we are already looking forward to their return next spring.

       If you are an avid fan of rubythroats, I am sure you understand why we feel this way.

A SIMPLE TIP THAT WILL HELP AVOID BEES AT HUMMER FEEDERS

        There are a number tactics folks employ to deter bees, yellow jackets, and wasps from their feeders.  Here is one you may not have considered: avoid using feeders decorated with yellow features. 

       Most often, yellow is used to decorate the artificial flowers surrounding feeding portals.  I am not sure why manufacturers go to so much trouble to include yellow in the color scheme of a feeder.  Perhaps they feel yellow flowers look more realistic, or attractive.  Who knows?  One thing we do know is hummingbirds are attracted to the color red found on such places as the feeder base and top.  As such, using yellow on a feeder does not enhance the chances that hummingbirds will use it.            

       When yellow is used to decorate a feeder, it simply makes the feeder more appealing to bees, yellow jackets, and wasps.  The reason for this is honeybees, wasps, and yellow jackets are attracted to the color yellow.  Consequently, in theory, feeders that do not feature the color yellow should not be visited by these insects as often as feeders without the bright color.

       However, if red feeders are coated with sugar water that has sloshed out of feeder portals, squadrons of these stinging insects will most assuredly show up.  In addition, these flying insects are capable of finding a source of food regardless of whether it has any yellow on it or not.  I know this is true as just last week I was stung by a yellow jacket as I tried to refill one of my red feeders.

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       Using feeders without yellow will not solve the problem of hummingbirds having to share nectar with hornets, honeybees, and yellow jackets.  However, it just might help alleviate the problem.

FEEDING BROWN THRASHERS

       Attracting brown thrashers to feeders is a difficult proposition.  However, as tough as it is nowadays, during the early 20th century, sighting brown thrashers eating at feeders was an extremely rare event.

       One of the difficulties we face trying to entice the birds to our feeders is brown thrashers prefer to feed on the ground.  In fact, they rarely visit hanging feeders at all.  However, they will sometimes feed on feeding tables and platform feeders.

       The birds that do show up at our feeders seem to prefer dining on mixed seed and millet scattered on the ground.  Occasionally they will also dine on the likes of black-oil sunflower seeds, cracked corn, millet, and wheat.  Recently I saw a brown thrasher fly off with a small piece of bread.

           BROWN TRASHER AT BIRD PUDDING

       The one food that the brown thrashers in my yard favor above all others is a bird pudding laced with peanuts and peanut butter.  In fact, I would so far as to say that well more 90 percent of the times I have watched brown thrashers visiting my bird feeding area they fed on this greasy food. 

DO AMERICAN GOLDFINCHES PREFER UPSIDE DOWN FEEDERS?

 

       One of the benefits of feeding birds during the summer is that it enhances our chances of seeing male American goldfinches decked out in their striking black and yellow breeding plumage.  If you feed these beautiful birds at this time of the year, do you offer them nyger (thistle) seeds in a traditional upright feeder or one that requires them to feed while hanging upside down?

       Over the years, I have fed nyger seeds to goldfinches in feeders that require them to display their considerable acrobatic skills to pluck the seeds from the feeders by clinging to the feeders above the feeding portals.  More frequently, however, I employ feeders that allow them to feed while they are perched upright.  American goldfinches have used both feeder designs.

       However, I have often wondered whether American goldfinches prefer feeding from one type of feeder or the other.  Apparently, others think about such issues too since research has focused on this very subject.  According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, these studies have found that, when given a choice they prefer to feed while standing upright.

       The whole idea behind suet and nyger feeders designing feeders to be accessed while bird hang upside  down is to discourage unwanted birds such as starlings, grackles, and blackbirds from gorging on the food.  Fortunately, I have never found the need to thwart them from eating this luxury menu item.  Consequently, since I now know American goldfinches prefer feeders that allow them to stand upright as they feed, I am going use only nyger feeders that permit them to do so.  Perhaps this will encourage a few more American goldfinches to visit my backyard this summer.  If it doesn’t, I can always pull the feeders that require the birds to hang upside down feed out of storage and once again offer the goldfinches a choice as to where they want to dine.

BACKYARD SECRET–HUMMINGBIRD FEEDERS CAN HELP SUPPLY SUGAR BUT NOT REPLACE FLOWER NECTAR

       According to some reports, in backyard settings, hummingbird feeders are capable of daily supplying hummingbirds with the same amount of sugar produced by 2,000-5,000 flowers.  While this is indeed amazing, hummingbird fanciers should not lose sight of the fact the sugar water offered in feeders cannot replace nectar produced by flowers.  This is because naturally manufactured nectar is laden with nutrients and minerals needed by these tiny birds to stay in top physical condition.

       Attempts to maintain captive hummingbirds on sugar water alone have not been successful.

FEEDING SUET IN HOT WEATHER

     Suet has long been considered a food that should only be fed to our bird neighbors in the winter.  The reasons for this are during hot weather suet easily melts creating quite a mess, turns rancid, and when smeared on a bird’s feathers harm their ability to repel water.  In addition, when it melts, its aroma has a tendency to attract unwanted visitors.  Nowadays, however, if you know what you are doing, it is possible feed birds suet throughout the year.

       Suet’s reputation of being only winter food offering surfaced back in the day when the only suet available to bird enthusiasts was animal fat preferably trimmed off the carcasses of cattle.  Folks either would buy raw suet from the local butcher as feed it as is or render it themselves.  Today suet is difficult purchase at the grocery store.  Consequently, most of us buy blocks of rendered suet at stores that sell bird products.   

       Pure suet is an outstanding bird food.  However, since it does melt when temperatures reach 90˚F and above, it should be avoided in hot weather.  With that in mind, if you want to offer suet to birds in warm weather, turn your attention to suet labeled no-melt or no-drip suet.  The only suets of this type that I have found are not what you can technically call pure suet since they contain a variety of other foods.  One term that is often used to describe them is bird pudding.

       For a number of years, I have fed a bird pudding containing peanut butter and peanuts.  The birds are so fond of it I offer it to them throughout the year.  Consequently, in addition to attracting a wide variety of winter residents, feeding it to them during the spring and summer has provided me some fantastic viewing opportunities that I would have otherwise missed had I limited using it only during the colder months.

       For example, one afternoon last week the bird activity around a wire feeder containing suet laced with peanut butter and peanuts was exceptionally high.  In roughly an hour, the feeder was visited by two hairy woodpeckers, a brown-headed nuthatch, gray catbird, cardinals, house finches, northern mockingbird, brown thrasher, chipping sparrow, and Carolina chickadees.

       I particularly enjoyed the visits of the hairy woodpeckers and Carolina chickadees.  Since I do not often see hairy woodpeckers in my yard, spotting two was quite a treat.  First, an adult arrived and ate for quite some time.  While it was dining, an immature hairy woodpecker suddenly landed on the Shepherd’s hook holding up the feeder.  The youngster landed near the top of the long metal pole and immediately slid down about a foot before flying up to the top of the rod for another try.  As expected, he slid down the post again.  It was amusing to watch as the bird vainly tried several times to hold on to the slim metal pole. Finally, it gave up and flew directly to the wire feeder and began feeding.

       As for the Carolina chickadees, as well as I can remember, I have never seen four of them converge on a feeder at one time.  All that changed when four flew in and ate suet together.  They would peck at the food for a few minutes and fly off only to return in a few minutes. 

       I am convinced this was probably a family group.

       If you try, feeding suet from now through summer, use no-melt or no-drip suet.  Place your feeder in the shade and monitor the food very closely.  If you notice it is melting or turning rancid, remove it.  The safety and health of our feathered neighbors should always be your paramount concern.

IS HUMMINGBIRD FOOD MADE IN A MICROWAVE SAFE FOR THE BIRDS?

       Recently, reports have surfaced claiming hummingbird nectar prepared in a microwave is harmful to the health of the hummingbirds that consume it.  Is this claim true?

       The internet sites making this allegation provide little information to substantiate the allegation.  One site alleges that when a sugar solution is heated in a microwave the chemical composition of the sugar molecule is altered.  This, in turn, has a deleterious effect on sugar’s nutritional value to hummingbirds.

       This belief may stem from the fact that it has been widely reported that food heated in a microwave can reduce the levels of such things as vitamin C, some antioxidants, and omega fatty acids.

       I have checked a number of sources trying to run down the source of this allegation.  To date, I have not been able to uncover a single study that substantiates the claim.  In fact, as of this posting, even the prestigious Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology’s website does not warn hummingbird enthusiasts of any danger associated with boiling hummingbird nectar in a microwave.

      Until this issue is resolved, if you are among the folks that use a microwave to prepare hummingbird food, you might want to use the microwave to heat the water you are going to use to make nectar.  Then remove the water before adding the sugar to create the food.  This eliminates any possibility that the food value of the nectar is compromised by the boiling process.

       As you probably already know, you need to use extreme caution when adding the sugar to the boiling water.  Water heated in a microwave to this temperature has a tendency to “explode” when touched with a foreign object.  This extremely hot water can burn the preparer’s hands.

        Whenever I am able to determine whether this claim is true or false, I will let you know.

LITTLE KNOWN CHOKEBERRY OFFERS WILDLIFE NECTAR AND FRUIT

       Few people have made an acquaintance with the chokeberry.  I am sure this is probably because this Georgia native often goes unnoticed unless people are looking for it.  However, in the right garden setting, this shrub provide homeowners with a splash of color in spring and autumn, as well as a source of nectar for native pollinators and fruit for wildlife.

       When trying to purchase chokeberry plants at a nursery, you might find red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia), black chokeberry (A. melanocarpa), as well as a hybrid (A. prunifolia).  Cultivars are also available, however, having had no experience with them, I cannot attest to their value to wildlife.

       Chokeberries are deciduous shrubs that can attain heights ranging from 6-12 feet.  In the spring, the plants produce 2-3-inch clusters of white blossoms.  These blooms provide pollinators such as butterflies and bees with nectar at a time of the year when it is often extremely scarce.  Retired teacher and conservation educator Betty Esco reports that on her property during early spring the chokeberry’s snow white blooms attract Henry’s elfins and falcate orangetips.

       From midsummer into fall and winter chokeberry shrubs display their small astringent fruits.  Birds such as cedar waxwings, chickadees, and even eastern meadowlarks eat these fruits.  Small mammals will also dine on chokeberries. 

       I should also mention that chokeberries are not rated as a top wildlife food plant.  However, this may be because it is rarely found in large enough numbers to provide large quantities of food.

       Unfortunately, white-tailed deer will browse on the plant.

       In autumn, the shrubs’ leaves are painted with lavender, red and orange hues.

       The shrub will tolerate a wide range of soils even those that are extremely moist. However, as you might expect, they prefer damp, rich soils with a ph of 6.8.

       Chokeberries will grow in moderate shade as well as direct sunlight.  Although, if you are looking to maximize plant’s growth and fruit production, plant it a well-drained location that receives full sunlight and features slightly moist soil.

       As is the case with many plants, these shrubs have their greatest impact when grown in mass plantings.  Such stands can be achieved by setting out a small number of plants. This is due to chokeberry’s propensity for producing numerous shoots.