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MOCKINGBIRDS ARE DINING ON POKEBERRIES

               I try to keep abreast of what the wildlife eats throughout the year.  This exercise has allowed me to watch how the food habits of a number of my backyard residents change throughout the year.  Recently I was reminded of this fact as I watched a northern mockingbird dine on pokeberries.

              Throughout the spring and much of the summer mockingbirds I watched them dining on suet, insects, blackberries, and other delicacies.   Then seemingly, overnight birds seemed to abandon the places where they had been feeding.  Last week they reappeared at pokeweeds that have colonized my property.  The birds were dining on the plants’ juicy, purplish-black berries.  While I have only seen mockingbirds eating the berries so far this summer, I suspect they have to share them with other backyard residents such as brown thrashers, eastern bluebirds, cardinals and even red-bellied woodpeckers.

              The first time I witnessed a mockingbird eating pokeberries a couple of weeks ago the bird was having a difficult time plucking them from a cluster of fruit dangling from a droopy branch.  Since it was seemingly impossible for the bird to perch on the flimsy branch and dine of the berries at the same time, it was forced to attempt to hover close to the berries.  It immediately became obvious that the mockingbird’s ability to hover will never be favorably compared with that of a hummingbird. In spite of this, after several tries grab the berries, the cluster of berries eventually disappeared into the mouth of the determined bird.

              If you find pokeberry plants sprouting in an out-of-the-way spot in your yard, let them grow.  If you do, you will be rewarded with an attractive plant, and a great source of food for birds and other wildlife.  In addition, you will be offered with some great wildlife viewing opportunities and the chance to learn more about the feeding habits of wildlife without having to leave your home.

SNAKE CATCHES HUMMINGBIRD AT FEEDER

         Ruby-throated hummingbirds face a host of perils. One of these is being caught by a snake.  Over the years, hummingbird fanciers have sent me pictures of snakes coiled around feeders seemingly patiently waiting to pluck an unsuspecting hummingbird out of the air as it flies in to catch a quick meal. Since this unsettling scene is rarely reported, I suspect it does not happen very often.  In our case, during the decades my wife and I have been feeding hummingbirds we had never seen it until this past week.  Not only did I find a rat snake hanging onto one of our feeders, it was also clutching a hapless hummingbird in its gaping mouth.  None of the photos I have received in the past ever captured this.

        All of this changed when I stepped out on to on our deck on a quiet late summer morning less than a week ago and spotted what appeared to be a dark lump on the far side of one of our hummingbird feeders. I immediately stopped and tried to figure out what I was looking at.  When I advanced closer to the feeder, I could see that the unknown object was a young rat snake.  It was so small (three feet long) that it did not have to wrap itself around the feeder.

       Once I realized what I was looking at, I turned around and went back into the house to tell my wife to grab her camera and hurry outside to see what was taking place.  On the way back outside, I picked up my camera too.

       When we returned, we realized that the best view of the snake was from the yard.  When we found just the right spot to record the event, we started snapping pictures. All of this time the snake remained motionless.  Finally, the snake moved its head away from the perch that encircled the feeding ports enough for us to realize it was just not waiting for a bird—it had already caught one and was in the process of swallowing it headfirst.  Initially all we could see of the hummingbird was its emerald green back, wings, tail, and legs.

 

 

       As we stood, transfixed, the snake began making swallowing motions that consisted of moving its head forward and opening and closing it mouth.  As it did so, the bird slowly slipped deeper into the snake’s mouth and throat.  Remarkably, in only five to 10 minutes the bird disappeared. 

       I then removed the feeder from the shepherd’s hook on which it was hung, and slowly walked to the far back of our spacious backyard and set the feeder on the ground.  Throughout the whole process, the snake showed no signs of fear. However, when I placed the feeder on the grass the snake slowly slithered off.

       Of course, we are disappointed that we lost a hummingbird to a rat snake. However, we realize that each year an untold number of hummingbirds succumb to predators, being caught in spider webs, accidents, and disease. At the same time, it will not hurt of feelings if we never witness it again.

HOW MUCH ARE WE SPENDING ON BIRDSEED AND FEEDERS?

        Few of us keep records of how much we spend annually on wild birdseed and feeders.  However, the Wild Bird Feeding Industry Research Foundation closely monitors our bird feeding habits.

       According to their 2015 report on our purchasing activity, the average American household that feeds birds annually spends an average of $59.73 on food and $39.52 on feeders.

       Although I do not keep a record of my bird feeding expenditures, I am confident I spend much more than this.  How much are you spending on this pastime?

BREAKING NEWS – HUMMINGBIRDS DO HAVE A SENSE OF SMELL

        We have long been aware that hummingbirds have great eyesight and hearing.  However, biologists have unable to demonstrate that hummingbirds could smell.  However, recent studies conducted by researchers at the University of California Riverside have revealed for the first time that hummingbirds can smell insects that pose a danger to them while they are visiting flowers bearing nectar.  The findings also suggest that this ability helps them avoid danger while feeding.

       According to Erin Wilson Rankin, associate entomology professor and coauthor author of the paper that was published in   the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, “This is pretty exciting, as it is the first clear demonstration of hummingbirds using their sense of smell alone to make foraging decisions and avoid contact with potentially dangerous insects at a flower or feeder.”

       The experiment was deceptively simple.  They provided more than 100 hummingbirds the option of feeding at two feeders.  One feeder contained sugar water and another filled with sugar water and additives that indicated that an insect was present.  One additive was formic acid which is produced by some Formica ants.  This chemical is known to be harmful to humans and mammals alike. The other was an ant attraction chemical. Another chemical tested was a chemical left behind when a European honeybee visits flowers. 

       The hummingbirds seemed oblivious to the honeybee-generated chemical.  However, the birds avoided food laced with both of the ant-based chemicals.

       Since all of the feeders were identical, the only way that the birds could differentiate between the feeders was through their sense of smell.

       It seems like every few years we learn something new and fascinating about hummingbirds.  As such, it begs the question, “What will researchers discover next about these amazing birds?”

A SHORT LIST OF PLANTS THAT HELP FEED POLLINATORS IN HOT, DRY CONDITIONS

    For weeks, much of Georgia has been suffering drought conditions.  If that was not enough, this past week, temperatures soared above 100ºF, and heat indexes topped out at 122ºF at my Middle Georgia home. When this occurs, it is extremely difficult for pollinators such as butterflies, bees, wasps, beetles, and others to collect enough nectar to meet their needs.  One of the reasons for this is it is a struggle for nectar plants to stay alive in our backyards and elsewhere. Even if they are successful stay alive, they often either don’t bloom or produce little nectar. Here is a short list of the plants growing in my backyard that have not been phased by this year’s extreme growing conditions and have done the best job of providing the pollinators with nectar.

   Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) – This low-growing, hardy perennial bears clusters of white flowers.  The pollinators that visit this plant are native bees, butterflies and others.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) – My wife and I are fond of this plant because it is easy grow, beautiful, its blooms last a long time, and it is a super source of nectar for a variety of insects.  Although it is often touted as a good butterfly plant, we have noticed, in our yard, it is more often visited by tiny bees, flies, wasps, and other pollinators.

   BUTTERFLY BUSH (Buddleia davidii) – This introduced deciduous shrub a veritable butterfly magnet. This past week I spotted five butterflies on one of our butterfly bushes feeding at the same time.  This was notable because it marked the first time I had spotted that many butterflies feeding together this year.   From spring into the fall, it consistently draws more butterflies than anything else we grow.  The plant feeds butterflies, moths, bumblebees and other pollinators.

   Red-hot Poker (Kniphofia) – This large herbaceous perennial sends up an abundance of large spikes topped with clusters of long tubular flowers.  We find the blooms are more often visited by hummingbirds than bees and other pollinators.

       I hope you will share with me your list of nectar/pollen producing plants that have done well this year.

UPDATE ON THE AVIAN FLU IN GEORGIA

        Several weeks ago, I posted a blog regarding the presence of avian flu in Georgia and its possible impact on the birds that visit our feeders. At that time, I promised to provide you with any new information that becomes available.  A May 17 news release issued by the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division updated the status of the disease in Georgia.

       According to the Division’s wildlife biologists, data regarding the incidence of avian flu suggests that the vast majority of Georgia’s songbirds are not at risk of catching the dreaded disease. The songbirds that are at the highest risk are those living near domestic poultry flocks that have become infected with the disease.  However, the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division emphasizes that the only birds share an elevated risk of catching the disease are scavengers such as vultures and crow.

       Fortunately, to date, avian flu has not been detected in any domestic poultry flocks in Georgia.

       The short list of birds that have been infected by the disease in the Peach State is restricted to waterfowl and eagles.    

       For those of us that feed birds in our yards, the bottom line is we can continue to feed birds at our feeders without the fear that our efforts are helping spread the disease.

      However, Wildlife Biologist Todd Schneider emphasizes that feeders and feeding areas should be kept as clean as possible.  This will ensure our feathered friends will not suffer from house finch disease, or one of a host of other fatal or debilitating diseases spread by organisms that thrive on wet, and moldy seeds.

AVIAN FLUE AND BIRD FEEDING IN GEORGIA

       Recent reports that a new virulent strain of avian influenza (HPAI) has been found in wild birds in Georgia and more than 29 other states have raised concerns that feeding backyard birds might play a role in the spread of this deadly disease in the Peach State.

       To date, the only species affected by the disease in Georgia have been lesser scaup, gadwall, and bald eagle.  However, avian flu has been detected in at least 100 species of wild birds and other animals.

       Avian influenza also infects chickens, wild and domestic waterfowl (ducks, geese and swans), quail, pheasants, and other domestic birds,

       The disease is spread in the droppings and nasal secretions of infected birds.  It has also been reported healthy birds can also catch the disease when they walk across surfaces contaminated by infected birds.

       While it is possible for wild birds to contract the disease form domestic poultry, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has found that, in every case they have investigated this year, domestic flocks were infected by wild birds.

       Fortunately, as of March 30, no commercial or backyard flocks of poultry have been infected in Georgia.  However, such is not the case in 23 other states. Most of these outbreaks have occurred in the Midwest and East.   This has resulted in the slaughter of 27 million chickens.

       If you enjoy feeding birds in your yard, you are probably wondering if you should cease feeding bird in your backyard until the disease subsided.   So far, the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Section has not recommended that people stop birds in their yards.

      However, the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Section urges the public to report dead or sick eagles to their office in Forsyth (478-994-1438). (Three bald eagles were found killed by the disease along the Georgia Coast.)

      In comparison, the USDA suggests that homeowners can continue feeding birds unless they keep domestic birds.  On the other hand, extension specialists at Cornell University recommend that the public cease feeding “until the threat of the disease has passed.”

      I will let you know if the outbreak becomes more serious in Georgia and if Georgia officials issue any recommendations concerning feeding wild birds.  Those bloggers that live in other states should check with their state wildlife agencies to see if they recommend that feeding birds be discontinued in their states.

SHOULD I HELP BLUEBIRDS FEED THEIR YOUNG?

 

   

       I am sure you have wondered if eastern bluebirds have difficulty feeding their young in the spring when temperatures are low a rainy weather dominates the weather for days on end.  Actually, bluebird parents can sometimes find it hard to find enough insects and other invertebrates to feed their seemingly insatiable nestlings during times when these important food items are not moving about.

       If you suspect this is happening in your yard, you can offer the adult bluebirds a number of supplemental foods.  Here are some of the food items you might try:  mealworms, fruits and berries, sunflower hearts and suet.   Some bluebird enthusiasts even feed bluebirds scrambled eggs during these trying times.

     Experiment with different foods until you determine which delicacies are favored by your bluebirds and then focus on feeding the bluebirds only their preferred foods. 

     Your feeding efforts can actually save the lives of many young bluebirds. However, even if the parents don’t actually need additional food to meet the demands of their young, the extra food you provide will most likely be gobbled up by other birds.  In the meantime, you will sleep better knowing that you did all you could to ensure a new generation of bluebirds lived through a potential food shortage.

        

BACKYARD SECRET—GEORGIA IS HOME TO THE SMALLEST ORIOLE IN NORTH AMERICA

       The orchard oriole is the smallest oriole in North America. Since the bird nests throughout the entire state, we get to enjoy it in our backyards from spring into the summer.

       Orchard orioles are early migrants.  My first orchard oriole of the year arrived in my yard just a couple of days ago. Unfortunately for those of us that enjoy watching the colorful birds, many begin migrating southward as early as late July.

       Due to its small size, orchard orioles are sometimes mistaken for large warblers. Orchard orioles measure 7.25-7.5 in length.  A photograph of an adult female accompanies this blog.  The adult male has a totally different plumage.  Its plumage features a black back, hood and chest and chestnut-colored underparts.

       One thing I really like about the orchard oriole is that it sings a lot.  I cannot adequately describe the song. However, the Father of Bird Watching, Roger Tory Peterson, described the song as, “… a fast-moving outburst interspersed with piping whistles and guttural notes.”  Once you see and hear an orchard oriole singing it is easy to identify from then on.

       Although the bird’s primary foods are nectar, berries, fruit, and seeds, it will also consume white bread, cut fruit, and suet.  It also often drinks nectar from trumpet creeper flowers.  In addition, it also feeds at hummingbird feeders.

       I have been fortunate to have orchard orioles nest in my yard a number of times. Whenever this happens I get see them on a daily basis.  I hope a pair decides to nest in your yard so that you can become better acquainted with this fascinating bird.

DOES RAIN DILUTE NECTAR IN HUMMINGBIRD FEEDERS?

       Recently severe weather has been sweeping across the Peach State dropping heavy rain in our backyards.  The last front that passed over my home dropped almost three inches of rain in just a few hours.  When such an event occurs, you cannot help but wonder if heavy rain dilutes the sugar water in our hummingbird feeders.

      Although many hummingbird fanciers are convinced that heavy rainfall can dilute the concentration of sugar in a feeder, I do not know of any studies that corroborate this claim. However, enough people believe this to be the case that some manufacturers of hummingbird feeders offer feeders that are less susceptible to rain flowing into the food reservoirs on their feeders.  In an effort to hinder rain draining through feeding portals, some hummingbird fans place a plastic dome over their feeders.  Others simply shroud their feeders with plastic plates. Others address the problem by purchasing feeders featuring very small feeding portals.  If water pouring into a feeder is a problem, it makes sense to use feeders equipped with small feeding ports.

       If you find that hummingbird use of your feeder drops off significantly after heavy rain, this could be an indication that your hummer food is diluted.  It has been shown that when given a choice hummingbirds prefer flowers that produce nectar with the a high sugar content.  Since that is the case, it is understandable that they would also prefer hummingbird food with at least a 25 percent concentration of sugar.

       The best advice I can offer is until we know for sure if rainfall can dilute hummingbird food, if feel your food is diluted, go ahead and replace it.