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.
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.
For the past several weeks, rose-breasted grosbeaks have been migrating back to their breeding grounds. Whenever some of these birds stop and refuel in our backyards it is a real treat.
The male rose-breasted grosbeak is particularly striking. Indeed, the black and white male, adorned with a bright red chevron on its breast, is among the most striking birds that visit our feeders.
If you have been fortunate enough to host rose-breasted grosbeaks, you know that its food of choice is sunflower seeds. In fact, more often than not it is the only offering it will eat.
However, when you take a look at the overall diet of the rose-breasted grosbeak you quickly realize this long distant migrant eats much more than sunflower seeds. In fact, the principal food on their menu is invertebrates; these animals comprise 52% of its diet. Rose-breasted grosbeaks favor beetles above all other invertebrate, however they also dine on everything from ants to butterflies and moths.
Other foods gobbled up by rose-breasted grosbeaks include; wild fruits such as blackberries, raspberries, and mulberries; they make up 19.3% of the food they consume. Other food items important to the birds include wild seeds (15.7%), cultivated fruits and plants (6.5%) including corn and peas), as well as tree buds and flowers (6.5%).
These revelations once again prove that we only catch brief glimpses of the private lives of many of the wildlife that inhabit our backyards.
If you have been fortunate enough to host pine siskins at your feeders this past winter, the small, sparrow-like birds probably fed on thistle (Niger) or sunflower seeds. Although I did not see a pine siskin at my feeders this year until today, it has been my experience when the birds do appear, they rarely feed on anything else.
However, after feeding birds for decades I have also learned that birds will surprise you. For some unknown reason, they will suddenly eat something you never expected they would touch.
This lesson was reinforced today. Throughout the winter, I have watched tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees, Carolina wrens, northern mockingbirds, and even American goldfinches regularly chisel out bits of peanuts from the feeder.
For some reason, today a pine siskin joined a female American goldfinch pecking away on peanuts. What made the bird’s choice even more unusual was the fact the bird did not visit one of the two nearby feeders stocked with black oil sunflower seeds.
Perhaps the bird tried the peanuts and did not like them and I will never see it again.. Who knows? One thing I do know is, if a siskin shows up at my peanut feeder again, I will be ready to photograph the event.
More than 350 species of birds are known to visit backyard feeders in North America. Some 170 species regularly dine at feeders.
These astounding numbers were derived from data collected by the thousands of citizen scientists that have participated in Project FeederWatch.
This ongoing study is sponsored by The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Bird Studies Canada, The National Audubon Society, and The Canadian Nature Federation.
How many species of birds do you feed at your feeders?
You have probably noticed some of the birds that feed in your backyard rarely dine above ground. They seem perfectly content to feed on the seeds tossed or scratched out of elevated feeders. These birds are part of the backyard cleanup crew. One of my favorite members of this the crew is the eastern towhee. The eastern towhee is a bird that spends much of its life close to terra firma. During the winter, the towhees that inhabit my yard can routinely be heard uttering their familiar “towhee” or “joree” call from the thick shrubs that border the north and south sides of my property. Even then, the birds are calling within less than ten feet of the earth.
While quietly walking about my yard in winter, I often hear them scratching through the leaf litter that accumulates beneath the shrubs. At times, I have been lucky enough to witness this fascinating behavior as they searched for seeds hidden beneath the leaves. It is truly amazing how much energy the birds put into this activity. If you see it, you will be surprised how high and far they can toss dead leaves.
During the winter seeds, berries and other plant material comprise 80 percent of their diet. Most of these seeds are found away from our feeders. These foods include loblolly pine and sweetgum seeds, acorns, yaupon, red cedar, honeysuckle, waxmyrtle, and yaupon berries, as well as the meats of pecans and hickory nuts.
Beneath my feeders, in addition to white millet and sunflower seeds, eastern towhees also dine on a variety of seeds including corn, canary and thistle seed.
Since eastern towhees are ground feeders, it is important that we keep the hulls and seeds that accumulate beneath our feeders from becoming contaminated with fungi and bacteria. Each year untold numbers of birds that frequent bird feeding areas die from eating contaminated seeds. If you regularly remove large accumulations of seeds and hulls and toss them into the garbage, you will be helping keep your yard disease free and ensuring towhees and other members of the cleanup crew will be eating healthy foods.