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MOCKINGBIRD EXPANDS ITS DIET

        I cannot remember a time when my wife and I have not hosted mockingbirds in our yard.  During this time, we have learned mockingbirds dine on a wide variety of foods.  In fact, after watching these fascinating birds for more than four decades, we thought we had a pretty good understanding of what mockingbirds will and will not eat. 

        Each spring we compete with these vocal birds for blueberries.  Later in the year, we always enjoy watching them defend our berry-laden dogwood trees, refusing to allow other birds to feed on the trees’ shiny red berries.  We have observed them feast on pokeberries as well as the berries of the American beautyberry.  We have also seen them devour all kinds of insects, earthworms and even a small lizard or two.  Much to our chagrin, they seem to relish plucking black swallowtail caterpillars from bronze fennel plants.

        In winter, we have watched them dining on slices of apples and oranges.  They also seem to eat more than their share of suet laced with peanuts and peanut butter.  While we frequently see mockingbird land on seed feeders, never had we seen one eat a single seed at these feeding stations.  That all changed earlier this week when I watched a mockingbird feed on white millet for several minutes.  This particular bird landed on a platform feeder filled with white millet seed.  Upon landing, it began feeding by thrusting its bill forward scooping up several seeds at a time.  Time after time, it repeated the process until it suddenly flew away.

        If it is indeed true that mockingbirds rarely eat white millet seed at backyard feeders, I cannot help but wonder why this bird chose to partake in the shiny, round seeds.  It will be interesting to see if the bird returns to dine on millet again.  If not, perhaps this adventuresome mocker quickly learned why generations of its kin chose to ignore this common backyard bird food.

TRY FEEDING PECANS – MANY BIRDS LOVE ‘EM

          In spite of the fact that there are dozens of wild bird foods to choose from, the vast majority Georgians feed their feathered neighbors mixed seed, or black oil sunflower seeds.  If you want to expand your feeder menu, consider pecans.

          Since pecan meats are loaded with calories, and laden with fat, they are a great alternative food for birds, especially during the winter.  In addition, they are popular with many feeder birds.  In one study conducted in the Peach State, the nutmeats from a wide variety of nuts were tested to determine which were preferred by birds.  The study revealed pecan meats were the second most preferred nutmeats tested.  Surprisingly, black walnut meats topped the list.

          Pecans can be fed to birds in a number of ways.       

          Suet containing bits and pieces of suet can be purchased from your favorite bird supply store. 

          While you can place whole pecans in your feeder, it has been my experience that, if you do so, crows and large birds as well as squirrels will be the only diners that will avail themselves of the nuts. 

          In an effort to let birds know the nuts are a source of food, some folks crack a large hole in the shell of each pecan.  This allows smaller birds access to the meats.    However, most folks either simply crush pecan meats into small pieces or buy nutmeats that have already been crushed.  If cracked pecan meats are not available at your bird supply shore, they can be purchased at any grocery store.  Better yet, if you live near a pecan processing plant, check and see if you can buy either rejected nuts or bit and pieces of nuts there.

          As you probably know, pecan meats will get rancid.  This problem is particularly acute in warm weather.  With this in mind, it is a good idea to store your supply of pecan meats in a freezer.

          If you offer your feeder visitors pecan meats the birds most likely to dine of them are Carolina chickadees, nuthatches, blue jays, and woodpeckers.   

WILL FEEDER BIRDS SURVIVE IF THEY ARE NOT FED WHILE YOU ARE AWAY ON A HOLIDAY TRIP?

       If you are one of the many of folks that take a trip during the Christmas holiday season, you might be wondering whether you should be concerned that the birds that have been visiting your backyard feeders will have enough to eat while you are away.

       In most cases, your feathered backyard diners will not suffer greatly if they are not fed for a few days.  The primary reason for this is studies have revealed that most of the birds that visit our backyard diners obtain only about 25 percent of their daily food from feeders.  This is especially true for birds that are members of a wide-ranging flock such as mourning doves, and chipping sparrows.  Each day these birds forage for food across a feeding territory that is many acres in size.

       However, if your feeders represent the primary source of food for stay-at-home birds such as the eastern towhee, your absence may create a problem.  This situation would be especially dire if a heavy snow falls and/or temperatures plummet below freezing.  This has been borne out by reports of juncos and finches that were suffering from a lack of food actually dying during extremely cold nights.

       With that in mind, if you are at all concerned about the fate of your birds while you are away on a holiday trip, arrange for a neighbor or friend to feed your backyard neighbors while you are away.

BACKYARD SECRET: CAROLINA CHICKADEE WINTER FOOD

       During the winter, a Carolina chickadee must eat an average of 150 black oil sunflower seeds per day just to survive the bitter cold. 

       The birds rarely depend solely on our food offerings to survive.  However, our feeders offer the birds a dependable source of food when natural foods cannot always provide the tiny birds with enough food to meet their nutritional needs.

       Although the birds prefer sunflower seeds to all other feeder offerings, they will also dine on suet and pieces of various nuts.

MIGRATING MONARCHS NEED OUR HELP TOO

       From the reports I received this week, a wave of monarchs was apparently migrating through Middle Georgia.  In addition, it was encouraging to hear that most of those reporting the appearance of these large orange and black butterflies were seeing more monarch than they had seen in years. 

       For example, my wife and I saw no fewer than seven monarchs at one time in our yard.  While that might not seem remarkable, during the fall, in recent years, we have not seen more than two or three at time visiting our flowers. A friend that lives in Lamar County said she was thrilled to discover 15 monarchs nectaring on ageratum late one afternoon.  She went on to say this was far more than she had seen on her property in years.  In another instance, a friend that lives in McDonough reported seeing many monarchs flying along the highway while driving from his home to Jonesboro.  He was excited that this was more monarchs that he had seen in long time.  Yet another friend reported larger than normal numbers of monarchs showing up in his Monroe County yard. 

       The appearance of monarchs in Georgia backyards in autumn points out the need for all of us to ensure that these iconic butterflies have plenty to eat on their epic journey to the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico.  This extremely long migration can take as long as two months.  During this flight, monarchs touchdown in many places as they travel anywhere from 25 to 100 miles a day.  At each stop they need to be able find enough food (nectar) to restore their fat reserves that fuel their long journey to their winter home, survive the winter, and then return to the United States.

       Some researchers feel that the ability of monarchs to find enough nectar along the fall migration pathway is extremely critical to the survival of the species.  As such, we all need to put out the welcome mat to America’s favorite butterfly as it moves south.  The best way this goal can be accomplished is to grow a variety of fall-blooming nectar plants in our backyards.  If we all offer a helping hand, we can create a series of stepping stones monarchs can use as they cross the state each autumn.

       The problem is the nectar plants in many backyard gardens across the state are pretty ragged by this time of the year.  As such, they do not provide monarchs with nearly as much nectar as they could.

       When the monarchs arrived in my yard this year they were greeted to a mix of flowers including butterfly bush, zinnia, cosmos, scarlet sage, Turk’s cap, mountain mint, liatris, ageratum, goldenrod, and lantana.  By far, the monarchs most often fed at butterfly bush blossoms.  The next most popular plant visited was lantana.  Interestingly, while monarchs preferred ageratum at my friend’s house in Lamar County, they never visited it in my yard.  In addition, while they have fed at Georgia mint growing in my yard in past years, they did not visit it this year.

       This points out the fact that we need to provide migrating monarchs with a variety of nectar plants.  When this is done, chances are the butterflies will find one or more plants in just the right stage of blooming to provide them with much-needed nectar.

       If you are interested in adding some autumn bloomers to your landscape to help southbound migrating monarchs, here are a few of the other nectar plants reported to attract monarchs in fall: Mexican sunflower, ironweed, aster, marigold, blanket flower, and petunia.

       If you have noticed monarchs feeding at other flowers in your yard at this time of the year, I would appreciate knowing about it.

THE POKEWEED IS A GREAT SOURCE OF FOOD FOR BIRDS

                Whenever we discuss feeding birds in a backyard setting invariably the discussion centers around offering birds seeds, suet, and other offerings in feeders hung outside our homes.  While supplemental feeding is important, the foods provided by native plants is often far more valuable to our feathered neighbors.  One of these native food plants is the common pokeweed.

                One of the reasons it is rarely mentioned is because few people are inclined to plant pokeweed in a garden.  Although it possesses colorful stems and berries, I suspect most homeowners deem this large, gangly perennial plant unworthy of growing alongside a bed of zinnias, or towering above their roses.  However, the plant’s reputation of being a weed belies its value as a plant that produces food relished by a host of birds.

                For this reason, my wife and I permit pokeberries to grow in idle spots around the perimeter of our property.  These are places we where we allow native vegetation to flourish.  These areas are occasionally mowed to prevent the intrusion of tree saplings.  We also remove any foreign invasive plants that happen to appear.

                If you decide to encourage pokeweed plants to grow in an idle corner of your property, you will have the opportunity to view scores of hungry birds dining on plant’s dark purple, juicy berries.  The birds you are most likely to see are year-round residents such as northern mockingbirds, brown thrashers, eastern bluebirds, European starlings, mourning doves, American crows, red-bellied woodpeckers, and northern cardinals.  In preparation for, and during their fall migrations, birds that nest here and elsewhere in North America, also gobble up pokeberries to help fuel their hazardous journey to their wintering grounds.  The list of neotropical migrants that dine on pokeberries includes the gray catbird, eastern kingbird, wood thrush, Swainson’s thrush, veery, summer tanager, and hooded warbler.  Later when the migratory birds that winter in the Peach state arrive, they rarely pass up the opportunity to feed on what pokeberries remain.  These birds include the likes of the hermit thrush, cedar waxwing as well as fox and white-throated sparrows.

                Chances are you have never seen some of these birds in your backyard.  With that in mind, if you want to enhance your chances of catching glimpses of these birds without leaving the confines or your property, while providing a nutrient-rich source of food for birds and other wildlife, find a place for common pokeweed on your land.

 

GREAT CRESTED FLYCATCHER SAMPLES SUET

If you are lucky, each spring a pair of great crested flycatchers will choose to nest in your backyard.  During their brief time with you they will dine on a protein-rich diet of spiders, grasshoppers, crickets, dragonflies, butterflies, moths and other assorted invertebrates.  These critters are so important to these large, loud flycatchers they comprise more than ninety-five percent of their diet.  About the only other food they consume is a smattering of fruits and berries.

In spite of the fact these birds often live within sight of your feeders, they rarely drop in and sample the cuisine you offer at your backyard bird cafe. In fact, until recently I had personally never heard of a great crested flycatcher feeding at a feeder.

That changed recently when Ron Lee, a Henry County backyard wildlife enthusiast, reported he witnessed a great crested flycatcher feeding on suet.  The bird did not dine on suet offered in a mesh suet feeder.  Instead the hungry ate bits of suet littering the ground beneath the feeder. 

Wow! I wish that I had witnessed this rare event.

It will be interesting to see if this proves to be a onetime event or the bird will continue to take advantage of this new food.

I think it would be great if this great crested flycatcher is a trend setter and other members of its feathered clan will follow its lead and begin feeding at our feeders too.