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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.

MORE NEST BOX INFORMATION

        In response to the recent blog regarding the placement on birdhouses in backyard settings, one of our fellow bloggers requested information concerning the minimum size of entrance holes recommended for the species mentioned.  Realizing many others might have the same question, below you will find this information.  In addition, I have included the recommended  minimum height a box should be placed above the ground for each of these eight species.

Species Minimum Hole Size Height Above Ground
Eastern Bluebird 1.5″ 5′
Carolina Chickadee 1 1/8″ 5′
Tree Swallow 1 3/8″ 5′
Tufted Titmouse 1 1/8″ 5′
Carolina Wren 1.5″ 5′
House Wren 1 1/8″ 5′
Great Crested Flycatcher 1.5″ 6′
Brown-headed Nuthatch 1 5′

TOOLS TO EASE CLEANING UP FEEDING AREAS

      Although we know, it is imperative that we keep the ground below bird feeders free from seed hulls, droppings, and wet seeds; we don’t always do something about it.  One reason for this is it is not an easy task, especially when you have to dig out seeds and hulls imbedded in thick grass.  With that in mind, I want to tell you about two tools that I have found really help make completing this necessary task a whole lot easier.

       I use a small garden rake and an industrial long-handled dustpan.  Being only seven inches wide, the rake’s spring steel teeth make it easy for me to rake out the droppings, seeds, and hulls hidden beneath the grass growing beneath my feeders.  I then simply rake them into the long-handled, large capacity dustpan and pour them in a cardboard box of plastic trash bag.

       These two simple tools have eliminated my having to bend over.  In addition, I am able to clean my two bird feeding areas in a fraction of the time I once devoted to this task.

       If you have been putting off cleaning your feeding areas, now is the time to change your ways.  This need is been amplified by the fact regular rainfall and daytime temperatures that have been are soaring into the 70s and low 8os have created perfect conditions for the growth of the bacteria, fungi, and protozoan parasites that cause the majority of the disease outbreaks among our backyard birds.  

       As a result, reports of sick and dying birds at feeders are on the rise.  Using the two tools, I have just mentioned, spending a few minutes cleaning up the area beneath your feeders will help ensure that the birds feeding in your yard will not be the next site of an outbreak of salmonella, aspergillosis, avian pox, conjunctivitis (finch disease), or trichomoniasis.

HAVE CEDAR WAXWINGS EVER FED AT YOUR FEEDERS?

       Like many of you, I try to attract as many different species of birds to my feeders as possible.  However, in spite of repeated efforts, I have yet to see a cedar waxwing dine at my feeders.

       It is often said that coming close only counts when you play horseshoes.  If that is the case, several years ago when a cedar waxing visited a birdbath located close by my feeders, I should be able to place it on my list of feeder birds.  Right?  Whom am I kidding? You know as well as I do, to add a cedar waxwing this prestigious list would totally delegitimize it.

       Other people report that they have coaxed cedar waxwings to their feeders by placing currents, raisins, and chopped apples in a platform feeder.  I have heard once they recognize your feeders as a place to dine, they will regularly appear and gorge themselves on your food offerings.

       With that in mind, I have decided to adopt a new strategy to attract these enigmatic birds to my feeders.  I am going to concentrate my feeding efforts during those times when flocks of cedar waxwings visit the large red cedar trees growing in our yard are loaded with berries.  When that occurs, it might be best if my wife hides the raisins and apples since they just might find their way to a platform feeder perched in front of my office. 

       I will let you know how things turn out.

       In the meantime, I would like know if you have ever been successful in attracting cedar waxwings to your feeders.

NOT ALL SPARROW-LIKE BIRDS ARE ACTUALLY SPARROWS

       Chipping sparrows far outnumber any other sparrow that I see on or beneath my feeders.  However, if I take the time to examine a flock of sparrows foraging for seeds in my bird feeding area, I sometimes discover a white-throated sparrow sparrow or two.  This week, when I perused what I thought was a small flock of sparrows, I was pleasantly surprised that I to learn I was actually looking at a flock of pine siskins.  For weeks, pine siskins have been seen across much of the northern portion of the state, but they had not reached my Middle Georgia yard until a few days ago.

       Pine siskins are often mistaken for sparrows.  It is small (4.3-5.5 inches long), brown and covered my streaks much like some of the sparrows.  However, the bill of the pine siskin is very sharp and pointed whereas the bills of sparrows are more conical and blunt.  Two white wing bars highlight bird’s wings.  Splashes of yellow can also been seen on their wings and forked tail.  Often these yellow feathers are most easily seen when the bird is fluttering its  pointed wings.

       Another thing that I have noticed is the pine siskins are full of energy and move about much more than sparrows. In addition, when they visit feeders they often fuss with one another as well as other birds.  If you are in a position to hear their harsh, soft calls, you will find that they are constantly communicating with each other as they dine.

       They are also extremely tame.  Often they allow me to walk within 10-15 of them while they are feeding. 

       More often than not, they travel about in flocks.  Currently I am feeding 10-15 birds each day.  However, flocks of 20+ are not uncommon.

     Unfortunately, I only see pine siskins every few years or so.  When flights of siskins are seen deep into the Southeast it is a sign that there is a shortage of seeds produced by a variety of conifer trees that provide their favorite food.

       If you want to attract pine siskins to your feeders, provide these migrants with plenty of nyger and sunflower seeds.

       One word of caution:  keep your bird feeding area clean.  Mounting evidence suggests they are highly vulnerable to salmonella.  This is one of the common diseases transmitted to birds feeding on the wet, deteriorating food that often collects beneath bird feeders.

       Sadly, it is becoming more difficult to enjoy the sight of a flock of pine siskins feeding in our backyards.  It seems that according to Partner’s In Flight pine siskins numbers have dropped 80% since 1970.  Let’s all hope this alarming trend will soon be reversed so that the sights and sounds pine siskins will never disappear.

AMERICAN CROWS ARE FASCINATING TO WATCH

       Recently my daughter and granddaughter made their first attempt to feed crows .  What they did not know as they scattered sugarcoated popcorn on their lawn, was that they would soon have front row seats watching a crow do something they never imagined they would ever see.   

       Remarkably, 15-30 minutes after they returned to the house after setting the table for the crow banquet, two American crows showed up and slowly walked up to the food offerings.  The birds fed for a short while and then departed leaving a small amount of  popcorn  here and there across the lawn.

       Later that same day three crows flew in to the feeding area.  While the birds were feeding on the remaining food, one of the crows picked up some popcorn, carried it to another part of the lawn, and pushed the food down into the dry two to three-inch tall grass.  It then placed grass clippings atop the stash of food.  This behavior was repeated a few more times before the birds left.  They thought it was odd that the bird tilted its head sideways each time it hide popcorn.

   

       The next morning two crows reappeared at the recently- opened crow diner.  During this visit, one of crows walked over to some of the spots where popcorn had been hidden the day before and retrieved the food hidden there.

       Clearly, what my daughter and granddaughter witnessed was a behavior often referred to as short-term hoarding.  The bits of grass arranged above each stash served as a marker.  In addition,  it is believed that when the crow tilted its head sideways at each location of a stash it was forming a mental image of the marker with one eye, as well as the general locale with the other.

       After the crows left, my daughter and granddaughter were left with the unforgettable memory of a remarkable example of  bird feeding behavior that far exceeded their expectations.

       The next time American crows fly into your feeding area, keep a close eye on them.  Who knows what you will see?

COMMON GRACKLES ARE NOT ALWAYS WELCOMED AT OUR FEEDERS

        Most of us enjoy hosting a variety of birds at our feeders.  However, the common grackle one bird that is not always a welcomed guest in our backyards.

       The common grackle is one of the larger birds that frequent our feeders.  Common grackles measure anywhere from 12-12.5 inches in length.  This makes them three to four times larger than a finch.  I often hear people say the common grackle uses its large size and threatening bill to bully other smaller birds away from feeding nearby.  This does not endear it to people that enjoy watching other birds partake in their feeder offerings.

       If that is not enough to turn public opinion against them, the bird has an appetite that matches its size.  A single grackle can eat a huge amount of food in a very short period to time.  This problem is especially acute when a flock of wintering grackles descends on our feeders.  As anybody that feeds birds knows, a flock of grackles can wipe out a feeder full of black oil sunflower seeds in a matter of minutes. 

       They also love suet.  I personally have seen them devour a cake of suet in a single afternoon.

       Whenever I make presentations dealing with bird feeding people often ask, “How can I deal with this problem?”

       Although there is no perfect solution to this dilemma, here is a list of a few of the ways in which you can deal with common grackles devouring too much food are your feeders.

       When grackles arrive, stop feeding birds on feeding trays and hoppers.  Grackles seem to prefer feeding at flat, open feeders and feeders equipped with large perches.  Replace them with tube feeders with short perches.  You can also purchase feeders with removable perches, which prevent larger birds from using them.  Feeders surrounded with wire cages are also available.  These wire barriers prevent larger birds from taking seeds from the feeder standing in the middle of the cage.

       During times when grackles are a problem, begin offering foods that grackles do not like.  For example, avoid feeding scratch feed or mixed seed containing a high percentage of cracked corn, milo, wheat, and oats.  Since grackles avoid nyger and safflower seeds, feature them at your feeders.

       There are a couple of ways to deal with suet.  I simply remove suet when grackles become a problem.  However, suet can also be placed in feeders suspended in wire cages, or use feeders that require birds to feed while hanging upside down.

       Fortunately, in my neck of the woods, common grackles do not pose a problem until the first couple of weeks in February roll around.  When the birds do make their annual appearance, I activate my grackle action plan.  If everything goes well, grackles do not hang around too long and I can resume my regular feeding regime.

             

DON’T GIVE UP ON AMERICAN HOLLY BERRIES

       If you are fortunate enough to have an American holly (Ilex opaca) growing in your yard, you might wonder if this tree really does live up to its reputation of being an outstanding wildlife food plant.  This is because countless bright red berries can still be seen hanging among the thorny leaves of this native evergreen.  It seems as if birds and other wildlife simply do not eat them. 

 

       The truth of the matter is the tree’s berries are eaten by a variety of birds.  In fact, they are considered an important source of food for a long list of birds that includes, but is not limited to, the eastern bluebird, yellow-bellied sapsucker, cedar waxwing, American robin, northern mockingbird, northern flicker, and northern cardinal.

       The reason these berries are often seen on a holly tree in early January is, in order for the berries to be more palatable to birds and other wildlife, they have to go through a number of freeze-thaw cycles.  This helps guarantee that birds and other wildlife will have a source of food well after many berries and seeds have disappeared.

       Since this is the case, late in the winter or early spring, it is not uncommon for a flock of robins, cedar waxwings or other birds to devour all of the berries found on a small holly tree in a single morning or afternoon.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES ARE HERE RIGHT NOW!

       Not too long ago, I would never have believed that Baltimore orioles would become regular winter residents in Georgia.  However, if they offer the right food Georgia bird-feeding enthusiasts can honestly say they now have a legitimate chance of enticing a Baltimore oriole to their yard during the coldest months of the year.

       This is truly remarkable, considering that Baltimore orioles have historically wintered from southern Mexico southward to Columbia.  If you have any question that the Baltimore oriole is expanding its winter range, simply look at recent data collected during the Great Backyard Bird Count.  During the 2020 edition of the count 302 reports of wintering Baltimore orioles involving 976 individuals were received.  The vast majority of these reports (95%) were submitted from volunteers living in a broad band of coastal states ranging from Virginia to Texas.

       This year I have received reports of Baltimore orioles feeding in backyards from College Park to Glynn County.  I am certain many more birds are going unreported. 

       While Baltimore orioles eat a wide variety of foods during the winter, you probably stand your best chance of attracting one these birds if you begin offering grape jelly at your feeders.  This recommendation is based on scores of reports I have received over the years from individuals that successfully hosted orioles in their yards.

       I might also add that most of these fortunate folks highly recommend that you use Welch’s grape jelly.  This belief is based on their contention that less expansive jellies do not contain as much fruit juice as Welch’s.  I might add that I personally cannot attest to the validity of this claim.

       If you decide to try to attract a Baltimore oriole to your yard with jelly, you can display it in any number of ways such as in a feeder specially designed for this purpose.  You can also place the jelly in small plastic containers.  I use the small containers used by restaurants to serve sauces.  I simply fill the containers with jelly and place them in the corners of a hanging platform seed feeder.

       If you are successful, instead of briefly glimpsing these birds as the pass through your yard on migration, you will be able to see one of our most colorful birds on a regular basis.  What a treat!