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DON’T REMOVE SPENT SEED HEADS FROM NECTAR PLANTS — BIRDS RELISH THEIR SEEDS

       Now that our days are characterized by low humidity and cool temperatures, it finally does feel like autumn.  While the weather has changed, the complexion of our gardens has been undergoing a major transformation.  Those of us that try to provide wild pollinators with food throughout as much of the year as possible still have an abundance of nectar-bearing flowers in full bloom.  However, alongside them are the dried seed heads of plants that bloomed earlier in the year.  Although our first impulse is often to remove these plants, I wish you would consider leaving at least a portion of them for birds that feed predominantly on seeds.

       The list of the flowering plants that produce seeds eaten by birds is quite long.  Here is a short list of some of the more popular plants that produce nutritious seeds for birds:  black-eyed susan, coneflower, cosmos, aster, scarlet sage, zinnia, coreopsis, and blanket flower.

       Birds will eat these seeds directly from seed heads or when the seeds fall to the ground.  In addition, it matters not whether the plants grew in containers on a deck or patio or in a traditional garden.

       My wife and I have truly enjoyed watching cardinals and American goldfinches feeding on scarlet sage and zinnia seeds produced by plants grown in large containers on our deck. 

       It never ceases to amaze me how a cardinal can pick up a tiny scarlet sage with its large beak.

       Among the birds that do not miss a chance to eat the seeds of nectar plants during the fall and winter are the northern cardinal, dark-eyed junco, chipping sparrow, and American goldfinch.

       If you want to add a new facet to bird feeding, simply resist the impulse to create a tidy garden.  Let the plants that produced the stunning floral display remain standing.

       If you do, you will be providing your autumn/winter avian visitors with a great source of food.  Meanwhile, you will enjoy watching the fascinating behavior of birds foraging for flower seeds.

AMERICAN HOLLY IS DIFFERENT

       At this time of the year, both resident and migratory birds are feasting on a variety of colorful berries such as American beautyberry and pokeberries.  However, have you noticed birds are not flocking to a native plant that produces one of the most colorful berries–the American Holly?

       Nowadays if you peer into the foliage of an American holly, you will discover that the berries that are synonymous with winter and Christmas are still green.  Even when they ripen, it will be a while before birds begin dining on these shiny red berries.  In fact, in most years, American holly berries will remain on the tree well into winter and provide birds with a valuable source of food long after the last beautyberry or pokeberry has been gobbled up.

       Among the reasons birds do not seek out holly berries when they first ripen is they are rock-hard and very bitter.  It is only after the berries have been exposed to one or more frosts do they begin to soften up.  Their exposure to cold weather also breaks down the chemicals that make the so bitter.  Even then, they are not considered a choice food.  American holly berries are not rich in many nutrients, although they are high in fats and oils.

       However, when birds have little else to eat, they will dine on dine on holly berries.  For birds that rely heavily on fruits and berries, holly berries can mean the difference between life and death. 

       A woman in Walton County once told me that, in winter, she often decorates her window boxes with branches of American holly covered with its showy red berries.  She went on the say that one-winter birds did not eat a single berry the entire winter.  However, one extremely cold March day a flock of robins descended on her yard.  Before the flock departed, the birds had eaten every single berry that had adorned the holly boughs placed in her window boxes.

       In addition to the American robin, among the more than two dozen species of birds that eat American holly berries are the northern cardinal, eastern bluebird, northern mockingbird, wild turkey, and northern bobwhite.

       This is just another example of the fact that we need to provide a wide variety of plants that provide food and cover for birds throughout the entire year. 

STRAWBERRY BUSH USHERS IN THE FALL

      Currently throughout much of the state, there are few, if any, signs that fall is ready to blanket Georgia with a quilt of reds, oranges, and yellows.  However, those of us that have strawberry bush (Euonymus americana) growing in their backyards have been granted a preview of the colorful show yet to come.

       The strawberry bush is not a plant you would ever suspect as standing out among scores of other native shrubs that grow across the state.  It is small (4-8 feet tall), often grows under the canopy of larger hardwood trees, or among a myriad of brushy plants along forest edges or in recently harvested timber tracts.  However, from late summer into fall it is transformed into a shrub of unparalleled beauty.  

       At that of the year the plant’s seed capsules (arils), which are covered with conical warts, resemble green strawberries, turn pink and then bright red.  Thereafter the leathery capsules magically open and display shiny red berries that appear suspended on thin threads.  Once you cast your eyes on them for the first time, I am sure you will agree they possess unrivaled beauty.

       The opened pods and dangling berries, reveals where the plant got some of its nicknames such as hearts-a-bustin, bursting hearts or hearts-bursting-open-with-love.

       Strawberry bush is also referred to as spindletree.  It seems that the plant’s hard wood was once used to make spindles for spinning wheels.  If you will recall, in the popular children’s story of Sleeping beauty, the fair maiden fell asleep when she pricked her finger on a sharp spindle.  It is believed this relates to the folktale that claims that the wood of the strawberry bush is poisonous and, if a person ingests the wood; he or she will fall into a coma.  While I cannot attest that eating the wood would cause a person to end up in a coma, I do know that the plant is considered poisonous to humans.

       Such is not the case with birds and mammals.  In fact, it is an ice cream-food for white-tailed deer.  Whitetails simply cannot get enough of it.  In fact, one reason strawberry bush is not found in many woodlands is it has been heavily browsed by deer.  It is interesting to note wildlife biologists often use the prevalence of strawberry bush as an indicator of the size of a deer herd.

       Although, the berries are eaten by songbirds quail and even wild turkeys, strawberry bush rarely shows up in food habit studies.  I believe this is because, in most places, very few berries are produced compared to other plants such as pokeberries, and American beautyberries.

       Two things I also like about strawberry bush are that its leaves are aromatic and turn orange in the fall.

       If your garden is not plagued by white-tailed deer, strawberry bush would be a great addition on your landscape.  It is a Georgia native that is attractive and provides food for wildlife too.

       Once you establish it, you will become one of the few people that can enjoy this harbinger of autumn long before the main show begins.

BACKYARD SECRET-AMERICAN BEAUTYBERRY IS EASY TO PROPAGATE

       Recently I wrote about the how birds are attracted to American beautyberry.  In response to this blog, one of our fellow bloggers, Elizabeth Neace, was kind enough let us know this beautiful native shrub can easily be rooted using cuttings.  This is great news for anyone wanting to incorporate this native into his or her landscape.

HOUSE FINCH EATING AMERICAN BEAUTYBERRY

       I want to thank Elizabeth for sharing her backyard secret with us.  I am sure many folks will benefit from this valuable tip.

MY BACKYARD MOCKINGBIRD IS FACING A DILEMMA

 My wife and I have made a concerted effort to incorporate a wide variety of wildlife food plants into our home landscape.  Our goal has always been to provide our wildlife neighbors with a wide variety of foods throughout the entire year.  For one reason or the other, we never set out any American beautyberry plants.  However, years ago we found one growing alongside a backyard fence.  I am certain a bird unknowingly dropped a seed there as it perched on the fence.  Since then from late summer into fall and sometimes-even winter, the plant has been festooned with bountiful crops of round, bright lavender berries (actually, they are drupes).  This forces a host of birds to make some difficult dining decisions.      

       This is particularly true of the mockingbird that patrols our backyard.  A few weeks ago, I spotted the bird, as it was swallowing pokeberries.  When I unwittingly interrupted its meal, the diner immediately flew to an American beautyberry growing some distance away.  Upon landing, while keeping a close eye on me, it commenced eating beautyberry after beautyberry.     

  Later in the day, I saw it again eating suet from a feeder hanging near my office.  Whenever it flew away from the suet, house finches, cardinals, and Carolina chickadees flew in to eat their share of the fatty food.  In just a few moments, the mockingbird reappeared and scared the interlopers away.  The mockingbird definitely did not want to share food with other birds.

       On previous occasions, I have witnessed the bird defend plants bearing pokeberries and beautyberries from the likes of thrashers, cardinals, gray catbirds, American robins, and towhees.

       Since it is impossible for a single bird to defend all three of these sources of food, throughout the entire day it is faced with the dilemma of deciding of what and when to eat.  The appearance of the American beautyberries simply acerbated this bird’s problem.  

                    Mockingbird & American Beautyberries

 

If you are like us and never got around to planting American beautyberry in your yard, don’t wait for a bird to plant it for you.  Take the initiative and plant one yourself.  This native shrub is easy to grow.  The only maintenance it requires is cutting the stems back each winter. 

       You will enjoy its strikingly colorful berries and experience the satisfaction of knowing you are helping feed a wide variety of birds and mammals.  In addition, you will find that you have created a dining dilemma for mockingbirds and other birds that relish its berries.  Believe me, that is not such a bad thing at all.

BACKYARD SECRET–BIRDS CAN GET DRUNK EATING POKEBERRIES

       Pokeberries are widely recognized as being a super food plant for birds.  Scores of birds including the likes of bluebirds, cardinals, tanagers, brown thrashers, hermit thrushes, quail, catbirds, and scores of others consume the plant’s large, juicy, purplish-black berries.  However, it is not common knowledge that birds can become intoxicated from eating the berries.

       This situation is most common late in the year when they eat pokeberries that have become fermented.  While fermented pokeberry juice will not kill them, it can definitely leave them addled enough to become susceptible to predators such as hawks and the family cat. 

       I must admit that, although each year the pokeberries growing in my yards are laden with berries, I have never seen a bird get drunk eating them.  Perhaps the reason for this is my wildlife neighbors gobble them up long before they have a chance to become fermented.

SULPHUR COSMOS – GREAT FOR HUMMINGBIRDS AND BUTTERFLIES

      Whenever my wife and I stumble across a plant that proves to be a great addition to our backyard wildlife gardens, we like to share our discovery with others.  One of our latest discoveries is sulphur cosmos (Cosmos sulphureous). 

       Over the years we have planted a number of different varieties of cosmos.  However, none of have proven to attract as many butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators as sulphur cosmos.  We have also found the flowers are popular with both bumblebees and carpenter bees. 

       As such, we have enjoyed watching these rotund pollinators land on cosmos blossoms and ride them downward toward the ground.

       We have planted sulphur cosmos in a couple of mass plantings.  However, it is purported to grow well in containers also.

       We have learned this annual is easy to grow.  We are growing them in moderately fertile clay soil.  However, the plant has the reputation of being able to grow in a variety of soils ranging from poor to fertile.

       The plant’s bright orange and yellow daisy like flowers are stunning.  Plants grow two to six feet tall (most of our plants reached a height of four to five feet).  The flowers last for a long time.  In addition, dead heading will prolong their bloom well into the fall.

       Our sulphur cosmos plants have been blooming for several weeks.  During that time, we have seen the blossoms visited by a host of pollinators such as ruby-throated hummingbirds, eastern tiger swallowtails, common buckeyes, checkered skippers, gulf fritillaries, cloudless sulphurs, sleepy oranges, monarchs, and others.  The most recent addition to the list of butterflies seen on the flowers was a giant swallowtail.  This butterfly is uncommon in our neck of the woods. 

       If you decide to incorporate this ornamental in your garden, I would be very surprised if doesn’t please you as much as it has us.

SOME PLANTS HELP MIGRANTS FIND FAT-RICH FOOD

       I am fascinated by the astonishing relationships that exist between some native plants and animals.  One such association links certain plants that produce fat-rich fruits and berries to migratory songbirds.

       Long before the official arrival of fall, many birds like warblers, vireos, and thrushes, begin preparing for the epic fall migration during the heat of summer.  One way in which they ready themselves for the long flight is by switching from predominantly eating insects and other invertebrates that are packed with protein to a of diet fruits and berries laden with fats. 

       This dramatic dietary change enables these migrants to store body fat using less time and effort.  This is important, as this fat is the fuel needed to fuel their long migration.  It seems foods rich in protein and carbohydrates yield twice as little energy as fatty foods.

       Obviously, it behooves birds to quickly locate these sources of food.  One way in plants that produce fruits or berries loaded with fat facilitate this endeavor is by advertising.  The list of these plants includes blackgum, flowering dogwood, Virginia creeper, muscadine, magnolia, pokeweed, and many others.  These plants advertise by bearing fruits and berries that are have bright red in color, have fall foliage that is bright yellow, red or orange, or display their fruits or berries on red stems. POKEWEED BERRIES DISPLAYED ON RED STEMS - BLOG - 23 Aug 2020 (1)

       The plants benefit from the birds widely spreading their seeds through their droppings whereas the birds are able to quickly locate food prior to and during their migration.

       If you want to extend a helping hand to these special birds, incorporate as many of these plants as possible in your yard.

HOW MANY WORMS CAN A ROBIN EAT?

       We are all familiar with the old tongue twister that goes something like this, “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”  When I was a young boy I often wondered how much wood that would be.  Long ago I stopped wondering the answers to such whimsical questions.  Nowadays, I am intrigued by other mysteries such as how fast can a bird fly and how much food can a wild animal consume.  For example, I have long wondered how many earthworms an American robin can devour in a single day.

       Earthworms are an important component of the American robin’s diet. In fact, roughly 40 percent of the bird’s diet is comprised of earthworms.  Many of these earthworms are captured in our yards.  In fact, seeing a robin pulling a long worm out of the ground is a familiar sight in many yards across the state.

       As it turns out, robins are exceptionally skilled at hunting earthworms.  Remarkably robins have been found to capture upwards of 20 earthworms an hour. Another way to look at the American robin’s ability to pluck these slimy critters from the ground is illustrated by the fact that a single robin can eat up to fourteen feet of earthworms per day.       Wow!  I am impressed. 

THE HUMMINGBIRD’S ABILITY TO SELECT NECTAR-RICH BLOOMS

       August is a special month for both ruby-throated hummingbirds and those of us that enjoy watching them.  Throughout the entire month, the number of hummingbirds visiting our feeder swells as they voraciously feed on the nectar provided by our feeders and flowers.  The reason for this increased activity is these flying jewels must quickly eat enough food to enable them to store the fat required to fuel their long journey to their winter home.

       In order to accomplish this task, hummingbirds make frequent feeding forays to our feeders and as many flowers as possible.  Since hummingbirds have one the highest rates of metabolism known, they expend huge amounts of energy trying to prepare for their arduous migration.  Obviously, anything that makes this task more efficient greatly benefits these flying dynamos.

       One way the birds would be able to streamline their feeding binge would be to possess the ability to avoid visiting flowers that harbor little or no nectar.  Well, as amazing as it may seem, they can do just that.  Here is how it works.

       The amount of nectar produced by each nectar plant varies considerably throughout the day.  A number of variables such as soil moisture and weather conditions affect it.  When hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, wasps, and other nectar feeders consume nectar, it takes time for it to be replenished.  This time varies considerably.  For example, some flowers do so only once a day, others every half-hour, others varying amounts of time in between.

      Ruby-throated hummingbirds have the ability to learn how long it takes a flower to rejuvenate its supply of energy-rich nectar.  Consequently, when a rubythroat visits the zinnias, salvias, lantanas, bee balms, trumpet creepers, and the like growing in our hummingbird gardens they rapidly learn how long it takes each plant to produce a new crop of nectar.  Only then will they revisit a plant it fed at earlier in the day.  This eliminates the need to revisit the plant until correct amount of time has elapsed.

       This astounding ability has been demonstrated by researchers such as a team of University of Edinburg biologists.  Their experiments involved providing hummingbirds with two groups of artificial flowers laden with nectar.  One group of flowers was refilled with nectar every ten minutes.  The second group was replenished every 20 minutes.  In short order, the hummers learned when each group of flowers provided them with a source of food.

       Keep this in mind as you watch the hummingbirds visiting various flowers about your yard.  It will help you better understand why they feed at certain nectar plants when they do.  If you are like me, you will come away being even more impressed with a bird so small, ten could be mailed for the price of a first-class letter.