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LYRELEAF SAGE PROVIDES NECTAR FOR HUMMERS AND OTHERS

        Those of us who try to stock our gardens with a variety hummingbird nectar plants are constantly on the lookout for something new.  Too often, this quest leads us to nonnative plants while overlooking native plants.  One of these  native plants, the lyreleaf sage (Salvia lyrata), may actually be blooming in your yard.  In fact, I found a few lyreleaf sage plants blooming in my yard.

        The lyreleaf sage grows in a wide variety of locations. It can be found anywhere from open woods, roadsides, lawns, damp meadows to dry waste sites. In spite of the fact that the plant displays beautiful lavender blossoms on a slender stalk (1-2 feet tall) it is often overlooked. In fact, many homeowners consider it a weed and mow it down.

        Lyreleaf sage begins blooming as early in February in some parts of Georgia and will continue blooming into May.  One of the reasons I am so fond of this plant is it provides hummingbirds with a source of nectar early in the spring when nectar is often scarce.   The plant also attracts butterflies and bees to its nectar-laden showy blooms.  

        The plant readily reseeds often forming robust colonies.  However, as with many roadside  and pasture plants, mowing often hinders its ability to reproduce.

        If you are fond of salvias, you will love this native salvia. Although its blossoms are small, they are every bit as beautiful as the salvias the grace our gardens.

        Although you can purchase lyreleaf sage seeds, they are often pricey.  I have seen 20 seeds cost more than six dollars.  Before you go out and buy some lyreleaf salvia seeds, explore your yard, there is a chance it has been hiding there in plain sight.  If you  do not locate it, I honestly believe it would be worthwhile spending a little money to get it established.

BEE BALM IS A GREAT NATIVE HUMMINGBIRD NECTAR PLANT

    Soon hummingbirds will be en route to Georgia.  As such, there is no better time than now to begin planning what to plant for the feathered dynamos that bring us so much please.  With that in mind, I would like to suggest that you consider planting bee balm.

        Bee balm (Monarda didyma), also known as Oswego tea) is a native perennial.  This hummingbird favorite grows anywhere from one to five feet tall.  It grows best in moist to well drained soil types.  The plant blooms best when grown in sites that vary from partial shade to full sun.  Bee balm blooms from March to May.

WHY DO CROWS DIP THEIR FOOD IN WATER?

         If American crows frequent your backyard, chances are you have witnessed them dipping food into a birdbath.  Whenever we witness such behavior, we cannot help but wonder why a bird would go to the trouble of soaking a piece of food in water before gulping it down.

        The truth of the matter is we are not absolutely sure fully understand the reason behind this behavior or why they do not do it all of the time.  The most widely held theory is it is done to soften their food.  This theory explains why they might dunk a hard, dry chunk of dog food or stale bread in water.  However, for the life of me, I cannot see how this explanation explains why American crows also place dead animals such as birds and mice, animal bones, snails and even bits and pieces of roadkill in birdbaths. 

        Others suggest nesting crows dip bakery products and pet food in water prior to subsequently feeding them to their nestlings for a couple of reasons.  First of all, it makes the food more palatable for their young.  It is also is an easy way for adult birds to provide their youngsters with water.

        Regardless, it is always a good idea to clean a birdbath that has been used as a “dipping” station by crows.  Invariably, whenever crows are dipping their food in our birdbaths, it is very likely they are leaving behind bacteria and fungi that were clinging to the food.  These microorganisms could be harmful to the birds that will later use the water to bathe and drink.  

DISEASES OFTEN PLAGUE BIRD FEEDERS DURING WARM WINTERS

         Although the periods of warm weather we have experienced this winter have reduced our home heating bills and provided the opportunity for us to spend more time outside, it has increased the chances that the birds visiting our feeders can contract a life-threatening disease.  As such, reports of sick and dying birds are beginning to crop up.

        The two main culprits in these die-offs are typically salmonella and aspergillosis.  These diseases are extremely deadly and can decimate the birds feeding in our backyards unless steps are taken to stem their spread.

        Aspergillosis is caused by a fungus.  Aspergillosis spores are produced by a green mold found naturally throughout the state.  Quail, turkeys, cardinals, sparrows, finches and other birds are highly susceptible to the disease.  The organism kills by infecting its victim’s throat and lungs.  Animals contract the disease by eating food infected with the spores.

        Salmonella is bacterial disease that attacks birds, mammals as well as reptiles and amphibians.  Salmonella bacteria are spread by animals eating food that has been contaminate by the droppings of animals infected with the disease. 

        Since both diseases flourish during any season of the year, as long as the weather is warm and wet, our abnormally warm winter will continue to promote conditions that encourage the harmful bacteria and mold to thrive on bird feeders and the waste seed and hulls found on the ground beneath them.

        Fortunately, you can greatly reduce the chances of birds contracting the diseases by taking a few simple steps.

        Periodically clean feeders and birdbaths with a cleaning solution composed of two ounces of bleach mixed with a gallon of water.   Thoroughly scrub each feeder and birdbath and then rinse with clean water.  Allow feeders to dry in the sun before refilling them with seed.

        Over time, both seeds and seed hulls build up beneath feeders.  Consequently, during periods of wet, warm weather you should rake up the seeds and hulls and dispose of them in the trash.  Periodically changing the locations of your feeders also helps thwart the spread of the diseases.  After cleaning the area, I also treat the ground with a solution of bleach and water.

        Researches have discovered sunflower hulls contain a play growth inhibitor.  By removing the hulls, you are ensuring that the grass or ornamental plants growing beneath the feeders will not be affected by the growth inhibitors.

        Keep all seed dry.  Avoid using feeding trays with solid floors.  If you scatter seed on the ground, during warm, damp weather only put out enough food to feed the birds for a single day.  Hopper-type feeders, feeding trays covered by roofs or feeding trays with screen bottoms help prevent the development of mold and bacteria.

        Your quick action can save the lives of countless birds and guarantee you will be able to watch a parade of birds throughout the entire year.

DO HAWKS POSE A REAL THREAT TO BIRDS VISITING FEEDERS?

          If you feed birds in your backyard, eventually you will either see or find evidence that one or more of the birds drawn to your backyard bird cafe fell victim to a hawk.  Thanks to the data collected by thousands of volunteers that have participated in Project FeederWatch since 1987, ornithologists are now able to provide us with a better understanding of this activity.        

         The ongoing Project FeederWatch study is sponsored by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Bird Studies Canada, National Audubon Society and the Canadian Nature Federation.

         You might find it surprising to learn the leading cause of death in and around bird feeders is actually window strikes.  In fact, birds being killed when they fly into windows is estimated to less than one percent of the birds that fly south in the fall.  Roughly, half of all deaths documented by Project FeederWatch volunteers were attributed to window strikes.

         In comparison, cats were responsible for 30 percent of the reported mortality.  Hawks were involved in roughly a third of the bird deaths tallied.  Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks were linked if some 50 percent of these cases.

         Although sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks are similar in appearance, they have different feeding preferences.  The diet of the sharp-shinned hawk consists primarily (95%) of small birds.  During the study, sharp-shinned hawks were reported to feed on 28 species of birds.  The six birds most commonly caught were European starlings, house sparrows, house finches, dark-eyed juncos, pine siskins and mourning doves.  It is interesting to note, three of these birds (the European starling, house finch and house sparrow) are not native to Georgia.

         For some reason, during the reporting period, sharp-shinned hawks were most often seen hunting in suburban yards than those located in urban or rural areas.

         On the other hand, birds comprise only about fifty percent of the diet of the Cooper’s hawk.  Out of the 22 birds captured at feeders by this hawk, by far, its favorite food was the mourning dove.  Other birds preferred by the Cooper’s hawk were house sparrows, European starlings and dark-eyed juncos.

         The study emphasized hawk predation was not a common occurrence.

In fact, an analysis of the data collected found each winter during the study period neither of the hawks was ever seen in most of backyards.

SOME WILD BIRDS WILL EAT DRY DOGFOOD

         There seems to be little information available on which wild birds will eat dry dog food.  However, I suspect the list of birds that dine on dry dog food is longer than we may realize. The problem is few people have experimented offering this food to their feathered neighbors.   

         I have rarely intentionally fed dog food to birds. However, on a number of occasions I have seen American crows and common grackles toting off chunks of dog food left behind by our family dogs.  In some cases, the birds carried the food to a nearby birdbath where they thoroughly doused the chunks of food in water before trying to eat them.

        Others have reported house sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, common ground doves, eastern bluebirds, blue jays, and European starlings will eat dry dog food. 

American Crow feeding on dog food.

        I honestly believe if dry dog food were offered more often in feeders, the list of birds known to eat this unusual food offering would be considerably longer. 

       When you think about it, there is no reason why dry dog food should not be popular with wild birds.  Major brands of dog food contain protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals.  In fact, some dog foods are probably more nutritionally balanced than some of the food they typically consume.   

        Why don’t you join me in this mini experiment?  Perhaps we will learn something about the merits of feeding dry dog food to birds. 

 

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.