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.
For some reason, I have heard more folks complain they are having a tough time attracting birds to their feeders than I have in years. If you are in this camp, here is a tip that sometimes solves the problem. For reasons we do not understand, white bread has the ability to attract birds when nothing else will. It is particularly effective in luring birds to brand new feeders.
The birds don’t seem to care if the bread is fresh and stale, they will eat both. If you try to feed them brown bread, though, you quickly learn feeder birds much prefer white bread.
I can remember the time when feeding bread was frowned upon because it was considered a poor source of nutrition. Nowadays since the grocery store shelves are stocked with enriched bread, I do not hear these warnings anymore.
The ideal way to feed bread to your feathered guests is to break it up into small pieces. These pieces can be placed on feeding tables and trays or simply scattered on the ground.
One of the neat things about bread is most of the birds that visit our feeders will eat bread. In addition, it is even consumed by birds we rarely see at our feeders such as hermit thrushes.
As is usually the case, I cannot offer you a 100% guarantee this solution will work for you. However, it has been my experience it works more often than not. Give it a try, what have you have to lose?
There is no telling how many plastic feeders I have purchased over the years. Although the birds used them all, many lasted only a season or two. Since they were cheap, when they cracked or got cloudy, I simply bought another.
Eventually it dawned on me I could save a lot of money by spending a little money up front and buy a plastic feeder that would last for years. The problem was how I could tell if I was actually buying a better feeder or simply spending more money for a feeder that would not last very long.
When I told a friend about my dissatisfaction with plastic feeders, he recommended I purchase clear plastic feeders made of a polycarbonate named Lexan™. He told me he has been using a feeder made of the material for a couple of decades.
After hearing his praise, I did some research on Lexan™. It seems since this manmade material is transparent, impact and crack resistant and resists ultraviolet rays and clouding, it is ideal for many types of feeders.
With that in mind, if you are looking for a long-lasting feeder, before you purchase one, check the label and make sure it is constructed out of a polycarbonate such as Lexan™ Do not let its sticker price keep you for buying it. Keep in mind; it should outlast a host of far more inexpensive models and save you money in the end.
How many northern mockingbirds are wintering in your backyard? Believe it or not, whether you have none, one, two, or more is an indication of the quality of the winter bird habitat in your backyard.
Typically, a single mockingbird claims my backyard as its winter residence. However, this year I was pleasantly surprised two mockingbirds have staked out my yard as their personal domain.
Anyone that has watched mockingbirds for any length of time knows mockingbirds are territorial. They definitely do not like to share food with other birds, let alone another mockingbird. As such, unless it is a mate, a mockingbird will quickly try to discourage other mockingbirds that happen to cross over the invisible border that delineates its turf.
Each year with the approach of winter, mockingbirds carefully select their winter homes. Since sixty-five percent of the mockingbird’s winter diet is made up primarily of fruits and berries, the availability of these foods is a primary concern. Consequently, even if mockingbirds nested in your yard the previous summer, if a yard is not blessed with an abundance of winter foods, there is a good chance they will winter elsewhere.
Banding studies have shown when two mockingbirds occupy the same winter territory; invariably they are a male and female. In comparison, if one bird is present it is either a single male or a single female.
I find it satisfying to know that I am hosting a pair of mockingbirds this year. It tells me that my efforts to enhance the wildlife habitat in my yard are paying dividends.
Like most folks when I first tried to attract mockingbirds and other birds to my yard, I tried to do so by putting up a bunch of bird feeders. Nowadays feeders still play a key role in my efforts to attract backyard birds. Currently I am offering mockingbirds such comfort foods as cornbread, suet, grape jelly.
However, over the years, in addition to installing a couple of birdbaths, I have tried to plant or encourage a number of plants that bear fruit and berries throughout the winter. As a result, this winter hungry mockingbirds can also dine on the berries and of greenbrier, flowering dogwood, Callaway crabapple, American holly, persimmon, coral honeysuckle, and red cedar. Before they were gobbled up, early in the winter, mockingbirds were also dining on the berries of American beautyberry, and pokeweed.
If you would like to be the winter host for more than one mockingbird, this winter, begin planting fruits and berries that persist well into winter. Then when you somebody wants to know how many mockingbirds are wintering in your yard, you can proudly say, “TWO!”