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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.

MOCKINGBIRDS DON’T LIKE TO SHARE

     Northern mockingbirds are common backyard residents throughout Georgia.  Unlike some of the birds, we see in our backyards, it is a permanent resident.  If you regularly see or hear a mockingbirds in your yard, it is safe to say your property is located within a mockingbird’s territory.  This means a mockingbird will try to keep other birds from its favorite food sources such as feeders.  Currently a mockingbird is defending my suet feeder.

       Consequently, the only time hairy and downy woodpeckers, cardinals, house finches, Carolina chickadees, brown headed nuthatches, tufted titmice and others an able to feed on the suet offered in a wire suet feeder is when the mockingbird is somewhere out of sight of the feeder.

       The only bird that doesn’t seem to be intimidated by the mockingbird is the brown thrasher.  I have never witnessed a mockingbird try to scare a brown thrasher away from a suet feeder; perhaps this because mockingbirds find thrashers too large and intimidating.

       Since I enjoy watching a variety of birds feeding in my feeding area, I have tried a couple of things remedy the situation. 

              MOCKINGBIRD AT SUET FEEDER

       For example, I purchased a suet feeder that was surrounded by hardware cloth cage. The suet feeder was positioned well away from the side of the cage.  While it allowed smaller birds such as brown-headed nuthatches, titmice, chickadees, and sparrows to slip through the opening in the hardware cloth and feed, it kept larger birds such as mockingbirds, cardinals, and woodpeckers away.

       My latest approach is to offer my backyard avian neighbors two suet feeders.  The theory is that it is impossible for one bird to defend more than one feeder.

       I began my experiment by placing another suet feeder within ten feet of the original feeder.  It didn’t take long for me to realize there the second feeder was positioned too close to the original feeder.  As such, the mockingbird kept other birds away from both feeders.

       I have since moved the second feeder some 30 feet away.  This seems to work fine, however, I now find it more difficult to watch and photograph birds visiting the second feeder.  That being the case, I need to begin moving the second feeder ever closer to the first feeder.  I am sure; at some point, the mockingbird will be able to defend both feeders.  Then I can move it back to a location just beyond that distance.

       Perhaps I do should go ahead a let the mockingbird defend a single suet feeder.  Since the bird cannot be near the feeder all of the time, I can enjoy seeing other birds dine to the suet during those times the mockingbird is elsewhere.  That may be best after all.   

       If you have come up with a great way to deal with an aggressive mockingbird trying to defend suet, mealworms, or fruit, I sure would like to know about it.

PLANT NOW TO FEED BUTTERFLIES AND HUMMINGBIRDS FROM LATE SUMMER INTO FALL

       If you want to ensure that butterflies, hummingbirds and other nectar feeders can find plenty of food in your backyard from late summer into fall, now is the time to sow a late crop of zinnias and Mexican sunflower seeds.

       Currently the gardens of most Georgians that plant for pollinators are awash with color and food (pollen and nectar). However, by late September and October many of these same beautiful pollinator havens will be far less colorful and offer hummingbirds, butterflies and other pollinators less food. In spite of trying to prolong the blooming period of cut-and-come-again plants, the numbers of flowers being produced will often dwindle by late summer. Other flowers will have simply ended their blooming period and will not blossom until next year.

       This situation can cause problems for all pollinators, including migrants making their way south on their fall migrations. This list of migrants includes several butterflies such as the monarch as well as ruby-throated hummingbirds.

       One way you can assist these critters this year is to plant more zinnias and Mexican sunflowers. Since both plants require somewhere from 60-70 days to go from seed to flower, you need to plant seeds for these plants right now.

       Both can be planted in beds. I can personally attest to the fact that zinnias also do extremely well in containers.

Long-tailed Skipper nectaring on Mexican Sunflower

     Since my wife and I have never planted Mexican sunflowers in containers, I don’t know how they do in that situation. I suspect because they grow so tall, they would more than likely require staking.

       Last year my wife and I enjoyed great success planting a second crop of zinnias. They attracted many butterflies, including monarchs, and hummingbirds. In addition, they added needed splotches of late color to our gardens.

       If you decide to try this practice, I think you will be pleased with the results. I know monarchs, ruby-throated hummingbirds, and scores of other pollinators will benefit from your efforts.

BACKYARD SECRET — THE CHIMNEY SWIFT HAS A VARIED DIET

       The chimney swift eats a large variety of insects and other invertebrates. Its diet includes the likes of ants, caddisflies, bees, wasps, and beetles. Some of the more unusual critters regularly consumed by what some folks call “flying cigars” are fleas, airborne spiders, termites, and even fire ants.

       It has been estimated that a pair of chimney swifts feeding three nestlings captures the equivalent of 5000 to 6000 fly-sized invertebrates per day.

THE SUMMER TANAGER’S ODD FOOD CHOICE

       One of the many birds that inhabit our backyards during the spring and summer is the summer tanager. Although it is one of our most beautiful backyard residents, it is a bird that lives there in relative anonymity. This is because it rarely visits our feeders and regularly feeds out of our sight within the thick canopies of tall, leafy trees. If we were able to peel away the leaves and watch a summer tanager feed, we would be soon discover that this striking bird has an odd food preference.

       Like a number of our other summer avian residents, the summer tanager dines on a wide variety of foods. Its varied diet includes fruits and berries in addition to a host of various invertebrates such as grasshoppers, cicadas, spiders, moths, and butterflies. However, the thing that separates the tanager from many birds is its affinity for bees, hornets, and wasps. In fact, it is so fond of them it is sometimes called the bee bird.

       Remarkably one of the bird’s favorite foods is the paper wasp. Summer tanagers are known to eat the adult wasps and also rip open their nests and feast on the wasps’ larvae.

       More often than not, we rarely catch a glimpse of a summer tanager hunting for insects that can deliver a painful sting to bird or man alike. From time to time though, summer tanagers can be seen perched closer to the ground near a beehive waiting for the chance to snatch a worker honeybee flying to or from the hive.

       The summer tanager is able to avoid being stung by grabbing hold its prey and flying back to a nearby perch. Once there it pounds the hapless insect against the branch until it is dead. It then proceeds to wipe the lifeless insect on the branch. This removes the bee’s stinger and other body parts that are inedible. Once this food preparation is completed, it swallows the bee whole and awaits the chance to feed again.

BLACK BEARS AND BIRD FEEDERS — A RECIPE FOR TROUBLE

        Some 5,100 black bears live in the state of Georgia. While they are not what you would call backyard wildlife, during the warm months of the year, they are known to make forays into backyards in search of food. When this happens, it does not bode well for the bears or us.

       Although black bears are seen throughout the state, biologists have discovered Georgia is home to three distinct bear populations. One population calls the north Georgia mountains its home. A second population lives in central Georgia in the Ocmulgee River drainage. Another population roams in and around the vast Okefenokee Swamp in the southeast corner of the state.

       Naturally, those Georgians that live in or nearby any one of these populations has the greatest chance of having a bear show up in their yards. However, they can be seen in some unexpected locales such as urban areas like Atlanta and Macon. With that in mind, it is a good idea to know what you should do to discourage bears from visiting your yard.

       Most black bears appear in backyards looking for food. Being an omnivore a black bear can eat just about anything. Since the animal cam possess an excellent sense of smell, thoroughly clean outdoor grills after they have been used. Also, refrain from storing household garbage outside. Bears are drawn to the intoxicating scents of cooked meat and garbage.

       Bears are fond of pet food too. Consequently, if you feed your pets outside, don’t leave any uneaten food in the yard overnight.

       Bears also love birdseed and suet. It is understandable why they are drawn to these delicacies. Both foods contain lots of protein and fat. In areas where folks are regularly plagued with visits from hungry bears, it is recommended that feeders be taken in at night. If you face such a problem, it is a good idea to clean up all uneaten food that collects below the feeders. Some people even go to the trouble of spraying the ground beneath feeders with ammonia in hopes it will help eliminate the scent of the seeds.

       Once a bear locates a backyard that features bird feeders, it has found a bonanza. Where else can a bear gorge itself on a bounty of easily accessible food with little effort? Consequently, the bear will return as long as the food is available. The only way you can counter these feeding forays is to remove all potential food from your backyard. Even then, it may take some time before a bear moves on in its relentless search food. In its wake, it will likely leave you with damaged or missing feeders and bent poles that simply could not withstand the onslaught of a hungry bear.

       If you do happen to see a bear in your backyard, do not try to approach it. Bears are much stronger and faster than you are. On top of that, why in the world would you want to approach a wild animal that can weigh as much as 300 to 500 pounds anyway? If a bear feels threatened, you stand a chance of being hurt. Fortunately, there have only been two verified cases of bears attacking humans in the Southeast, and to my knowledge, they did not take place in a backyard.

       While the chances of a bear showing up in your yard are slim, many backyard bear encounters take place every year. If one does show up, make every effort to ensure this wild experience safe for you and the bear.

              For more information concerning bears, email the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division at http://www.georgiawildlife.com or BearWise at http://www.bearwise.org. BearWise is an educational program designed by bear biologists from all of the 15 state wildlife agencies in the Southeast.

SWEET WILLIAM CAN BE A GREAT BUTTERFLY AND HUMMINGBIRD PLANT

       My wife and I are always eager to try a plant that has the reputation of being a gorgeous ornamental as well as great hummingbird and/or butterfly plant. One such plant we have added to our gardens is Sweet William. Since Sweet William has long been a favorite of Georgia gardeners, I don’t know why we had not planted it before.

       Sweet William is a member of the carnation family. It grows from five to 36 inches tall. The flowers are arranged in tightly packed bouquet-like clusters comprised of upwards of 30 or more blooms. The plants serrated petals ranging in color from purple to white, red, pink, or variegated. On top this, the plants easily hybridize and produce a wide variety of other color variations.

       Sweet William blooms in the Peach State from late spring until the first autumn frost. During this blooming period, individual plants can be encouraged to continue producing blossoms by deadheading.

      The old-fashioned garden favorite is native to Europe. Nobody knows for sure where the plant got its name. One of the most popular theories is it is named for England’s eighteenth century Prince William. Others suggest the floral beauty is named for William Shakespeare. I guess we will never know the answer to this quandary.

       You can establish Sweet William in your garden from either seed or seedlings. If you plant seeds in spring to early summer, or set out plants in September or October, you will have to wait until the following spring to enjoy their showy blossoms. It you do not want to wait that long for the plant to blossom, you might want to consider buying plants and transplanting them to your garden soon after the spring’s last frost. In addition, if you sow seeds in the fall, they will germinate into plants that will bloom the following year.

       I should mention, if you allow Sweet William plants to go to seed, they will readily reseed themselves. That being the case, they will quickly spread throughout a garden.

       Sweet William will grow in a variety of soil types but seems to do best in well-drained, slightly alkaline soils.

       In the spring of 2019, my wife sowed Sweet William seeds around one of our birdbaths. Only one plant produced a single flower last year. However, the plants overwintered and this spring (2020) rewarded us with an abundance of pink, red, and white blossoms.

       For my wife, this floral show brought make memories of the Sweet Williams blooming in her grandmother’s garden years ago. In addition, they enabled me to take some stunning pictures of cardinals, thrashers and other birds visiting the birdbath to bathe and drink. The contrast between the birds’ plumage and the colorful flowers is stunning.

       As for pollinators, as you can see from the accompanying picture, butterflies are already partaking in the nectar found in each Sweet William blossom. Hummingbirds and native bees have also been seen visiting the plants.

       That being the case, this experimental planting seems to be a success.

HUMMINGBIRD MOMS ARE SPECIAL TOO

       On the second Sunday in May we celebrate a very special person in our lives. Yes, I am referring to our mothers. These very remarkable individuals shower us with love and devote their lives to raising us to become all that we can be. Today, while I was sitting on the deck of my home thinking about how much my mother has meant to me, a female hummingbird appeared at a backyard feeder. As the bird fed, it occurred to me that female ruby-throated hummingbirds are also special moms.

       Each spring they return from their winter homes to raise another generation of rubythroats. When you stop to think about it this is not an easy task. Without the help of her mate, each female must construct an amazingly delicate nest in one to ten days (it takes longer if she does not rebuild an old nest). This requires her to make countless trips to gather the untold numbers of items needed to fashion her nest. The building materials range from bud scales, to the down from dandelions and thistles. The nest is held together with spider webs. She then plucks lichens from nearby branches and uses them to adorn the nest’s exterior.

    After the nest is completed, she then lays two eggs and subsequently begins incubation. During the 12-14 days it takes to incubate the eggs, she will spend anywhere from 60%-80% of her time keeping her eggs warm.

       Once the young hatch, she then dedicates the next 18-22 days of her life to feeding the voracious youngsters. This may require her to visit up to 1,500 flowers a day to collect nectar. In addition, she must also capture thousands of small insects and spiders and feed them to her rapidly growing youngsters.

       If all goes well, the two young hummingbirds will take to their air and begin feeding themselves. However, in places like Georgia, the female may repeat the whole process again before leaving on her fall migration.

       I am sure that as we celebrate Mother’s Day, thousands of female rubythroats proving they are indeed special moms too.

WHY NOT PLANT A LIVING SUNFLOWER FEEDER?

       Everyone that feeds birds is very familiar with sunflower seeds. In fact, I would venture to say it is the seed most often fed at seed feeders. Literally tons of sunflower seeds are sold specifically as birdseed. Typically, we offer sunflower seeds to our bird neighbors in variety of traditional types of feeders ranging from feeding tables to hoppers. If you want to add a new facet to your feeding regime, why not plant a living sunflower feeder?

       Last year my wife and I stumbled across this idea when she planted a strip of ornamental sunflowers in our backyard. She sowed a strip of sunflowers along the inner edge of a long meandering flowerbed that snaked its way across a small portion of our yard. The mixture she planted included five varieties of sunflowers that were purported to represent a kaleidoscope of autumn colors and sizes. The mixture lived up to its billing. Some of the plants attained a height of only two to three feet. Others grew to be seven to eight feet tall. The sunflower blooms ranged in color from pale yellow, orange, and burgundy to red. To tell you the truth, I had no idea sunflowers came in some many attractive colors.

       Our initial plan was to let the seed heads dry at they finished blooming. During the winter, we intended to offer the seed heads to the birds visiting our feeders. As it turned out, the birds had other plans for our attractive strip of sunflowers. Before the sunflower seeds (technically called fruit) had a chance to dry, birds began plucking them from form the plants’ large seed heads. This transformed the sunflower patch into a living sunflower feeder.

      

       By far American goldfinches ate more ate more seeds than any other birds. However, house finches and northern cardinals also ate their share.

       To say the least, we were not disappointed with the way things turned out. The sunflowers were simply gorgeous and the birds seemed to relish extracting unripe kernels from the seed heads.

       We particularly enjoyed watching male American goldfinches, in full breeding plumage, visiting the sunflower seed heads on a daily basis. What a treat! Like most of you, most of the American goldfinches we typically see dine at our feeders in winter. At that time of the year, they are a drab yellowish-green.

       If you decide to plant a living sunflower feeder in your backyard this summer, we suggest that you dedicate a patch of ground solely to sunflowers. The sunflowers are easy to grow, however planting them in close proximity to a variety of other much shorter plants proved to be a mistake. By the time the sunflowers were blooming the shorter plants were shrouded out by the taller sunflowers.

       If you decide to plant a living sunflower feeder, I hope it will bring you as much enjoyment as the one we planted last year brought us.

SAPSUCKERS HELP FEED HUMMERS IN EARLY SPRING

       When the very first ruby-throated hummingbirds begin arriving in backyards across the state food is at a premium.  This is because most of the flowers at that are blooming in early spring do not produce an abundance of nectar.  As such, rubythroats must find other sources of food.  In addition to our feeders, many hummingbirds rely on the sugary sap that collects in holes drilled in 246 species of native trees by the yellow-bellied sapsucker.

       In case you are not familiar with this winter migrant, it is a woodpecker best known for drilling shallow holes in live trees.  Often these holes are arranged in circles surrounding the trunk of a tree.  Sap flowing through the tree collects in these cavities.  In fact, in some cases, you can actually see where it oozed out of the cavities and dripped down the trunk of the tree.

      The sap is a major source of food for the woodpecker.  The sapsucker is able to dine on the sap because its tongue is equipped with an odd brush-like structure that it uses to collect the sticky liquid and bring it into its body.

       Although sapsuckers often vainly try to discourage other wildlife from robbing their tiny sap-filled reservoirs, wildlife such as Carolina chickadees, squirrels, butterflies, moths, and ruby-throated hummingbirds often avail themselves of the food.  Since the sap contains amino acids and sucrose, it is an ideal food for hungry hummingbirds.

       It appears the food provided by the yellow-bellied sapsucker is more important to hummingbirds than we once thought.  For example, rubythroats have been observed tailing sapsuckers through wooded areas seemingly to learn the location of active sapsucker wells.  In addition, hummingbirds have been recorded actually trying to thwart other birds from feeding on trees containing sapsucker sucker holes.

       It has also been demonstrated the northward migration of the yellow-bellied sapsucker closely mirrors that of the ruby-throated hummingbird.  It should also be noted that when the rubythroats that nests in the northern limits of their breeding range, few nectar plants are blooming.  This necessitates the birds to rely heavily on the sap collected in sapsucker wells to survive until nectar-bearing plants begin to bloom.

       Chances are, if you have fruit or other hardwood trees growing in your backyard, they have been visited by the yellow-bellied sapsucker. 

       I guess you could say that when it comes to feeding hummingbirds early in the spring, yellow-bellied sapsuckers and we are the ruby-throated hummingbird’s best friends.