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MYSTERIOUS WILD BIRD DISEASE SEEMS TO HAVE VANISHED

       Last May a mysterious illness that affected songbirds suddenly appeared in the eastern states.  By the time the illness finally abated, it had killed thousands of birds in the District of Columbia, Delaware, New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia.  This prompted state wildlife agencies and conservation groups, to urge the public to cease providing wild birds with water or food.  Then, for some unknown reason, the songbird illness suddenly disappeared this past July.

       The birds affected by the outbreak displayed the same symptoms: swollen, crusty eyes, paralysis, are tremors.  

       The birds that were most affected were young common grackles, blue jays and European starlings.  However, the roster of birds that showed symptoms of the disease included Carolina wrens and chickadees, red-bellied woodpeckers, eastern bluebirds, American robins, house finches, northern cardinals, and house sparrows.

       The outbreak prompted the Cornell Wildlife Health Lab and the National Wildlife Health Lab, as well as wildlife disease labs across the country, to try to diagnose the cause of the illness.  Their efforts methodically ruled out all of the known wildlife illnesses.  This left them at a loss to explain what was causing the problem.

       However, the scientists found the sudden appearance and decline of the disease closely mirrored the Brood X cicada emergence. This leads many of the scientists to theorize that mysterious bird illness that plagued birds across a vast swath of the east this past summer is linked to the cicadas.  According to this theory birds may have been affected the cicadas in a number of ways.  For example, they could have eaten cicadas poisoned by homeowners trying to eliminate the insects from their yards.  Some birds may have also become sick from eating the cicadas themselves.  It is also possible that a toxin produced by a fungus commonly found on cicadas could have poisoned the birds.

       While this theory seems plausible, more research is needed before wildlife disease experts will definitively say this was indeed the cause of the problem.

       In the meantime, many states have lifted bird-feeding restrictions implemented during the outbreak.  However, they are urging that homeowners keep their bird feeding areas and feeders clean.  While we were fortunate that the mysterious songbird illness did not crop up in Georgia, we should all strive to keep our bird feeders and the ground around them clean.

BACKYARD SECRET–A CHEMICAL IN AMERICAN BEAUTYBERRY CAN HELP REPEL MOSQUITOES

       American beautyberry is a native shrub that is gaining popularity among Georgia backyard wildlife enthusiasts.  Sometimes called French mulberry, clusters of round magenta berries festoon the plant from late summer into winter.  The berries are not only beautiful, but also serve as food for hungry gray catbirds, northern mockingbirds, cardinals as well as other birds and mammals.

       Now it seems we have another reason to admire American beautyberry.  Researchers with the United States Department of Agriculture have discovered that the beautyberry’s leaves contain a chemical that repels mosquitoes.

American Beautyberries

       This remarkable finding is due to a conversation Charles Bryson, a botanist that works for the Southern Weed Science Program in Stoneville, had with researchers with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Products Utilization Unit at Oxford, Mississippi.  Bryson told the researchers that his grandfather, John Rives Crumpton, related to him that back in the day farmers in Northeast Mississippi were able to keep worrisome biting insects away from mules and horses by placing crushed beautyberry leaves beneath the leather harnesses of their animals.  This led folks to crumple beautyberry leaves and rub them on their own skin.

       This fascinating story led chemists to attempt to isolate the chemical that seemingly had the remarkable ability to repel pesky insects.  One of the chemicals they were able to isolate was callicarpenal.  When the efficaciousness of the chemical was tested, it was found to be just as effective in repelling mosquitoes as the popular repellent DEET.

       Indeed the American beautyberry is more than an attractive native food plant.

WHY DO BLUE JAYS MIMIC HAWKS?

       One of the first things beginning birders learn is when they hear what they are sure is a red-shouldered hawk, they cannot be certain the call is that of a red-shouldered hawk.  The reason for this is blue jays often mimic the call of this well-known predator.

       Recent research has revealed much about the mimicry practiced by the blue Jay.  For example, we now know blue jays do not just mimic red-shouldered hawks.  The truth of the matter is they also mimic other predators such as the osprey and Cooper’s hawk.

       It is apparent that blue jays mimic the call of the red-shouldered hawk in an effort to warn other jays living nearby that a predator is in the neighborhood.  However, some ornithologists believe that blue jays may also mimic the call of a hawk in an effort to scare other birds such as grackles enough that they drop their food as they make a hasty flight to cover.  Once the bird leaves, the blue jay can fly down and consume the acorns or other food left behind by the startled birds.

       If you have a theory that helps explain why blue jays mimic hawk calls, I would love to hear it.

BACKYARD SECRET–RUBY-CROWNED KINGLETS DON’T REQUIRE MANY CALORIES TO SURVIVE

       Although I have studied wildlife my entire life, I find that my thirst for knowledge regarding these fascinating animals is far from being slaked.  In fact, I honestly believe it has increased.  One reason for this is that the nuggets of information I uncover constantly amaze me.  For example, I recently stumbled across a fact concerning the ruby-crowned kinglet that is nothing short of unbelievable.

       The ruby-crowned kinglet is a winter resident in Georgia.  However, due to the habitat it occupies while it is spending the winter here, unless you went out looking for the bird, you might not realize that it is one of your backyard neighbors.  

       The ruby-crowned kinglet spends its time foraging for food among the limbs, branches, and foliage found from the tops of trees to thick shrubs looking for its favorite winter foods such as tiny insects and other invertebrates as well as their eggs.  They also dine small berries and seeds.    These tiny birds seem to be full of energy, constantly flitting about from spot to spot on their endless quest for food.  As such, you would think that they are constantly burning up huge amounts of energy. 

       According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, such is not the case.  Studies of the ruby-crowned kinglet’s metabolism have revealed these remarkable birds suggest that it may only use approximately 10 calories a day.  This is unbelievable!  I do not know of any other backyard bird that burns up so few calories per day.

       I am now determined to learn more about this astounding claim.

    

HOMEGROWN BUTTERFLY FEEDER

       Recently, a hard freeze brought an abrupt end to the growing season of many of our nectar plants.  The next morning when my wife and I walked outside and looked around the yard, it was not a pretty sight.  Mexican sunflower, cosmos and other plants were drooping and their flowers withered.  It was obvious that the butterflies that were still flying about our yard were in for some hard times. 

       Later in the morning when we noticed a cloudless sulphur was trying to nectar at a dead Mexican sunflower blossom, we decided try to come to the aid this and any other hardy survivor of the freeze.  Since we have not enjoyed great success attracting butterflies to commercial butterfly feeders, we decided to set out a couple of homegrown butterfly feeders.

        We immediately moved a pot containing several pineapple sage plants in full bloom to a spot near the dead Mexican sunflowers.  Talk about immediate gratification–within minutes a cloudless sulphur appeared and began nectaring on the pineapple sages’ long, scarlet blossoms.

       Encouraged by our success we later positioned a couple of containers containing scarlet sage to spots around the yard.  Since we have not experienced another frost since that time, we have enjoyed watching cloudless sulphurs and gulf fritillaries visiting our homegrown feeders every day.

       Our ability to take this action was due to the fact that we grow a number of nectar plants in large containers.  Once we heard of the impending, hard freeze we moved pots containing pineapple and scarlet sage either up against the side of the house or inside our sunroom.

       We realize that providing food for a handful of butterflies after a frost killed most of their food supply means little to the populations of gulf fritillaries and cloudless sulphurs.  However, it means a lot to handful of butterflies that are benefitting from our efforts.  In addition, it has made us feel good.

MISTLETOE IS FAR MORE THAN A SYMBOL OF CHRISTMAS

       With our preoccupation with attracting backyard wildlife with supplemental foods such as suet and seeds, it is easy to overlook the fact that those backyards that often attract the greatest variety of numbers of backyard wildlife are also home to a variety of native plants.  One of the most underappreciated plants that inhabit the yards of many of us is American mistletoe.

       Whenever the subject of the mistletoe arises, more often than not one thing comes to mind; most people regard the plant as one of the treasured symbols of Christmas.  Supposedly, if a couple passes through a door adorned with a sprig of mistletoe bearing berries, it is permissible for them to share a kiss.  At the end of the kiss, the couple is supposed to remove one of the berries.  However, it is out of place for a couple to steal a kiss beneath a berryless frond of mistletoe.

       Although this popular legend has been around for centuries, few realize that mistletoe is also an important food plant for many forms of wildlife ranging from insects to birds and mammals.  This very different side to the mistletoe should further endear the plant to everyone that shares an interest in wildlife.  Let me explain.

       This widespread parasitic plant is the host for the great purple hairstreak.  This beauty is the only Georgia butterfly that lays its eggs on the mistletoe. 

       Mistletoe also produces both pollen and nectar that feed countless insects.  Bees frequently avail themselves of the food offered by mistletoes.  Ants, native bees, honeybees, flies, also visit the plant’s tiny flowers.

       Mammals such as white-tailed deer, gray squirrels, and eastern chipmunks eat mistletoe.  Deer are particularly fond of the mistletoe’s protein-rich foliage.

       Many species of birds eat mistletoe’s white almost translucent berries.  Each berry contains two to three seeds that and enveloped in extremely sticky flesh.  Among the birds that gobble up mistletoe berries are cedar waxwings, eastern bluebirds, eastern meadowlarks, American robins, northern flickers, purple finches, blue jays, dark-eyed junco, white-breasted nuthatches, American goldfinches, and eastern towhees.

       Now that you know that mistletoe is a valued wildlife food plant, are you willing to say mistletoe is far more than a magical Christmas plant?  I am.

PINEAPPLE SAGE IS GREAT FOR LATE SEASON HUMMERS AND MORE

        There are at least 60 species of salvias.  In addition, more than 50 cultivars of these popular plants are also available.  There are so many varieties of salvias available it is difficult for Georgia gardeners to decide which are best for their gardens.  If you are looking for salvia that blooms late from late summer into fall and provides nectar for hummingbirds, butterflies, native bees and other pollinators, I recommend you plant pineapple sage (Salvia elegans).

       This plant is native in Central America.  Here in Georgia it is  either a tender perennial or annual.  While it is susceptible to cold weather, some gardeners report that when mulched it can survive winter temperatures that plummet as low as 5˚F.

       One of the things I like about pineapple sage is that it begins blooming late in the summer and will continue producing blooms until the frost ends its growing season.  Consequently, in autumn, it is providing nectar when it is often a scarce commodity.

       Although ruby-throated hummingbirds have been gone from our yard for weeks, they did nectar at the plants long tubular-shaped blooms before they left.  However, the main beneficiaries of its nectar are now cloudless sulphur and sleepy orange butterflies, and native bees.

       Over the years, many folks that have been lucky enough to attract wintering hummingbirds have told me that rufous hummingbirds frequent the pineapple sage’s striking red blossoms.

       Pineapple sage grows to be 3-4 feet tall and 3-4′ wide.  It seems to prosper in spots bathed in both morning and afternoon sunshine.  Pineapple sage also needs frequent watering. In addition, they do best in rich, well-drained soil.

       The plants are easily propagated from cuttings.  Young plants should be transplanted as soon as the threat of frost has passed in your neck of the woods.

       As you might expect, the blooming period in the southern half of the state is considerably long that it is in Middle and North Georgia.  However, regardless of how long is blooms, when it is blooming it provides pollinators with a valuable source of food while at the same time adding beauty to our yards.

                 Cloudless Sulphur on Pineapple Sage

       My wife and I bring our potted plants inside in the winter.  The pineapple sage growing in our yard is mulched during the winter.

       With the freezing weather forecast during the next several days, it is time for us to protect our pineapple sage before it is too late: This is one plant we do not want to lose.

BACKYARD SECRET–FEEDER BIRDS CAN TASTE THEIR FOOD

      One of the joys of eating is that we can taste our food.  As such, it is one of the reasons why we prefer some foods to others.  In the not too distant past, few folks held the belief that birds also have a sense of taste.  We now know this is not the case.

       Whereas we have about 9,000 taste buds, the birds that visit our feeders possess only 50.  Consequently, they must rely heavily on sight and touch to select foods.  Instead of being located on its tongue, a bird’s taste buds are located near the tip of its bill as well as the floor and roof of its mouth.

IS IT A GOOD IDEA TO FEED BIRDS IN AUTUMN?

        Back in the day, most bird enthusiasts never fed seeds to birds during the autumn months.  Nowadays fall bird feeding is quite popular.  However, if you are currently offering sunflower seeds, millet and other delicacies to birds in your backyard, have you ever wondered if this causes more harm than good?

       The truth of the matter is it appears fall bird feeding is more beneficial than harmful.  Some go so far to say that fall feeding discourages birds from migrating.  However, the truth of the matter is it appears fall bird feeding can actually benefit birds.  Here are a few reasons why this is the case.

       Seed eating migrants actually benefit from your efforts.  The reason for this is during migration they deplete the stored fat that fuels their flight south.  An abundant supply of seeds offered at feeders allows them to quickly refuel and continue on to the winter homes.

       An abundant supply of seeds also allows resident birds to build up the fat reserves they need to survive cold weather.  This is especially important during those years when acorns and other seeds hard are hard to come by.

       While it is true, that, for many birds, autumn is a time of plenty–food seems to be everywhere.  However, as the year moves on into December and beyond, these food supplies will be exhausted.  Consequently, the seeds provided by your feeders become increasingly more important to seed-eating birds.

       Finally, feeding birds in the fall provides you with some great wildlife watching opportunities.  Not only do you enjoy tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees and others permanent residents making endless trips to and from you feeders, but you also get to see southbound birds that might have passed over your yard on their way south.  This year, for example, this fall backyard wildlife watchers were able to catch glimpses of rose-breasted grosbeaks.  For many, they only see this bird in the spring.

       The bottom line is, if you keeping your feeding area clean, fall feeding can benefit wild birds.

BACKYARD SECRET–BLUE JAYS DON’T RELOCATE MOST OF THE ACORNS THEY HOARD

       Blue jays are currently busy hoarding acorns.  Whereas some birds and mammals store acorns in a single spot, such is not the case with blue jays.  These handsome birds hide each acorn they gather in a separate spot throughout the territory they will occupy throughout the winter.  It is hard to believe that a blue jay might bury an acorn it plucked from your lawn at a spot more than a mile away.

       Since a single blue jay can hoard up to 107 acorns per day, you might wonder how in the world it remembers every spot where it has buried an acorn.  The truth of the matter is it doesn’t.  Studies have found that a blue jay only retrieves roughly a quarter of the acorns it stashes away each fall.

       In other words, each day that a blue jay is collecting and hiding acorns it is potentially planting 75 acorns.  Obviously, some of these acorns will rot; other critters will consume some of them.  The rest could potentially germinate and develop into new oak trees.

       One might say that blue jays are playing a key role in replanting our precious forests.  Looking at it another way, a single blue jay plants vastly more trees than any of us in a week than most of us do in a lifetime.