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BACKYARD SECRET: BROWN THRASHERS CAN BE ATTRACTED TO FEEDING SITES

       The brown thrasher is a bird that rarely visits feeders. When it does appear in a feeding area, it prefers to feed on the ground.

       If a brown thrasher takes up residence in your backyard this winter, here is a tip that just might allow you to see the bird more often. Although, this technique does not always work, it has proven successful for others.

       Scatter a small amount of scratch feed on the ground close the shrubby cover near your wild bird feeding area. Although thrashers will sometimes venture away from such cover to feed, they definitely do most of their feeding in or nearby shrubby spots.

BLOGGERS SHARE EXPERIENCES WITH BIRDS EATING DOG AND CAT FOOD

       Some months ago, I posted a blog regarding backyard birds eating dry dog food (the blog can be found by using the blog’s Search feature).  Since that time four backyard wildlife enthusiasts have shared their experiences concerning birds eating both dog and cat food. 

       One woman reported that, on a couple of occasions, she has seen sparrows venturing into her carport to dine on cat food.

       Another blogger said he successfully raised a young crow feeding the bird a mash consisting of water and Purina Puppy Chow.  The bird eventually fledged and remained flying about his neighborhood where it was remained throughout the summer before finally disappearing.

       Another backyard birder wrote that she pours regular dog kibble into a sunflower feeder.  This unusual offering has attracted dark-eyed juncos, Carolina chickadees, and tufted titmice.

      Yet another fan of backyard wildlife shared his experience with an American robin.  It seems several years ago he was surprised to see an American robin feeding on dry dog food served in a shallow pan sitting on his deck.  For three consecutive days, the robin flew in, nestled in the dog food, and leisurely feed on the chunks of food while his Eskimo Spitz calmly watched nearby.

       If you would like to share your experiences regarding birds eating pet food, please send them to me.  I am sure other folks would like to read about them.

WHAT NATIVE PLANT SEEDS ARE IN THE TUFTED TITMOUSE’S WINTER DIET?

       Throughout the winter one of the most frequent visitors to our backyard feeders is the tufted titmouse.   Invariable these birds fly in snatch a single sunflower seed and then fly off to either cache it away for another day or chisel it open with their sharp black beak. As such, it is easy to believe sunflower seeds are the only seeds consumed by this feisty songbird. The truth of the matter is these permanent residents eat a surprising variety of wild seeds.

       Studies have shown that plant material (mainly seeds) comprise anywhere from 70 to 75 percent of the tufted titmouse’s winter diet. In addition to the sunflower seeds we enthusiatically provide them they also gobble up the seeds of American beech, locust, loblolly and longleaf pine, hickory and oak (such as water, live, post, turkey willow).

       It should be noted they also dine on the seeds of the pecan (not native to Georgia).

SCARLET SAGE IS PRETTY SPECIAL

        If you are a wildlife gardener, you realize there is no such thing as a perfect plant.  That being said, I have found plants that exceed my expectations.  One such plant is scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea).

       My wife and I have grown scarlet sage in our home gardens and containers sitting on our deck for a number of years.  As expected, it has done well in our gardens.  However, its performance in containers has been truly remarkable.

       During the spring of 2018, my wife scattered scarlet sage seeds in several large containers.  In some instances, she planted it alone; in others, she mixed the seeds with black-eyed-Susans and zinnias. 

       As hoped, the plants did well and soon the bright red color of the plants’ blossoms could be seen from afar.  In addition, we were pleased to find that with regular watering, the plants flourished throughout a dry, hot summer.  Eventually after they finished blooming, they produced an abundance of seedpods, which soon dropped countless seeds onto the deck and into the containers where they were raised as well in nearby pots.  Many of these seeds, in turn, sprouted and produced a crop of new plants that displayed blossoms from late summer into fall.  In fact, the second blooming did not end until frost claimed them.

       This spring as my wife was preparing to replant our container gardens she noticed that, in each pot that contained scarlet sage in 2018 sage plants were sprouting.  In addition, young sage plants were appearing in pots adjacent to those dedicated solely to scarlet sage.  It was obvious, that enough young seedlings were taking root to eliminate the need to replant them.

       These third generation plants eventually bloomed profusely throughout what turned out to be one of the hottest on record.  The plants’ blossoms were pleasing to the eye and were a source of nectar for wild pollinators such as butterflies (particularly cloudless sulphurs), bumblebees, and carpenter bees as well as a host of other wild pollinators.  As was the case in 2018, the seeds daily attracted hungry beautiful American goldfinches.

       As was the case last year, the majority of the seeds fell into the containers in which they were grown.  Some weeks ago, they sprouted and are now producing blossoms.  This bloom could not come at a better time as from now into fall nectar is more difficult for butterflies and others to find.  Both migratory cloudless sulphurs and ruby-throated hummingbirds heavily feed on scarlet sage nectar at this time of year.  In addition, I am sure that the monarchs that will be passing through my yard in a few weeks will seek out scarlet sage nectar as they did last year.

       Oh, I should also mention more scarlet sage seedlings have emerged in each of our containers–this plant does not stop giving.

       I will never know how many nectar feeders these plants have already fed this year, or the number of American goldfinches that dined on the scarlet sage’s tiny dark seeds.  However, I am certain wildlife watching in our backyard would have paled without their presence.

       Is the scarlet sage a perfect wildlife plant?  No, but this hardy native has become a valued member of our backyard wild community.

BACKYARD SECRET: HUMMINGBIRDS PREFER NECTAR WITH PLENTY OF SUGAR

   

    RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD FEEDING

       Ruby-throated hummingbirds do not feed at flowers containing small amounts of nectar.  In fact, they refuse to feed at flowers harboring less than 12 percent sugar.

       Studies have found that they prefer to dine on nectar that contains anywhere from twenty to twenty-five percent sugar.

       With that in mind, is it any wonder the recommended ratio of sugar to water in the sugar water we most often feed hummingbirds dining at our backyard feeders is one part sugar to four parts water?

HUMMINGBIRD HAVENS

       Georgians love hummingbirds.  Each year residents from Woodbine to West Point, Bainbridge to Helen and countless cities and towns in between Peach State hummingbird enthusiasts spend hours enjoying the beauty and aerial acrobatics of the bird John James Audubon called “glittering fragments of the rainbow.”  

       Remarkably, although these tiny dynamos enjoy immense popularity, Georgians are not doing all they can to provide habitat for these tiny dynamos.  Realizing this Garden Club of Georgia and the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Section (formerly known as the Nongame Wildlife Conservation Section) and The Environmental Resources Network (TERN) have launched an ambitious initiative named the Hummingbird Haven Certification Program.

       The goal of the effort is to encourage homeowners to combine hummingbird feeders with an abundance of nectar-bearing plants in yards.  Hummingbird experts agree that the folks that attract the most hummingbirds to their yards are those that combine offering both feeders and an abundance of nectar-bearing plants.

       The initiative is part of the more than two decades old award-winning Community Wildlife Project (CWP).  This program has successfully promoted the concept that wildlife is a very important part of the communities in which we live.  It has shown Georgians that, with a little planning and effort, we can provide our wildlife neighbors with the food, water and cover they need to prosper while at the same time beautify the communities in which we live.

       Over the years, thousands of certifications have been awarded for areas large and small. Habitats have ranged backyards, neighborhoods, assisted living facilities, cities, towns, and even a county.  These efforts have benefitted a wide variety of birds, mammals, butterflies and other wildlife species.

       As the name suggests, the Hummingbird Haven certification is designed to encourage and recognize those Georgians that are doing outstanding jobs providing hummingbirds and abundance of food and cover throughout the entire year.

       While the ruby-throated hummingbird is the only species of hummingbird that nests in the Peach State, eleven other species have been reported here.  This list includes the rufous, Allen’s, Anna’s, broad-billed, broad-tailed, black-chinned, magnificent, calliope, green-breasted mango, buff-bellied and green violet-ear.  Most of these birds are only seen in Georgia during the winter, which has been called Georgia’s second hummingbird season.

       The focal point of the program is to provide hummingbirds with a dependable supply of nectar supplied by plants throughout as much of the year as possible.  The plants that provide this natural food include a long list of trees, shrubs, perennials, biennials, annuals and vines.

       However, not all flowering plants are good nectar plants. For example, although popular plants such as daffodils, forsythia and crepe myrtle, are beautiful they offer hummingbirds and other nectar-feeders little food.  As such, the initiative encourages homeowners to plant excellent hummingbird nectar plants alongside garden favorites that provide little or no nectar.

       Since hummingbirds are found in Georgia throughout the entire year, The Garden Club of Georgia, Georgia Wildlife Conservation Section and TERN Nongame Wildlife Conservation are asking folks to plant a variety of plants that provide nectar throughout as much of the year as possible.  Believe it or not, there are actually nectar plants blooming in Georgia in the winter. 

       As for hummingbird feeders, homeowners are asked to maintain at least one feeder in their yards throughout the year. These feeders provide a dependable source of food when little is blooming nearby.  Feeders also allow hummingbirds that are preparing to migrate to consume a large amount of food in a short period of time with little effort.  They also provide migrating hummingbirds with food-rich rest stops along their migration pathway. Then when the migration is over, they offer wintering hummingbirds with much-needed food during the time of the year when natural nectar is scarcest.

       If you would like to see if your yard qualifies as a true Hummingbird Haven, there are three ways to do so. You can send a stamped, self-addressed size 10 envelope to Hummingbird Haven, Georgia Wildlife Conservation Section, and 116 Rum Creek Drive, Forsyth, Georgia 31029.  You will be sent a Hummingbird Haven application for certification. You can call Melissa Hayes at 478-994-1438 and request an application. In addition, the application can also be obtained by emailing Melissa Hayes at Melissa.Hayes@dnr.gov. Once you complete your application and return it to the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Section, it will be carefully evaluated. If you qualify, you will receive a certificate that acknowledges all that you are doing for the tiny birds. In addition, you will be eligible to buy an attractive metal Community Wildlife Project sign from the Garden Club of Georgia.

       If your application is rejected, you will be advised what you need to do to earn certification.

TALK ABOUT FUEL EFFICIENCY!

         Nowadays whenever we purchase a new vehicle, we want to know its fuel efficiency.  While current models are amazingly more efficient than they were 20 to 30 years ago, they do not even come close to being as fuel- efficient as the ruby-throated hummingbird.

Those ruby-throated hummingbirds that are returning to the United States this spring have to fly anywhere from 500-600 miles across the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  Remarkably, these tiny birds can make this journey using but 3/40th of an ounce of fuel (fat). To put this in perspective, if a 170-pound man or woman could fly like a hummingbird, it would require storing 85 pounds of fat! Now that is fuel efficiency!

LYRELEAF SAGE PROVIDES NECTAR FOR HUMMERS AND OTHERS

        Those of us who try to stock our gardens with a variety hummingbird nectar plants are constantly on the lookout for something new.  Too often, this quest leads us to nonnative plants while overlooking native plants.  One of these  native plants, the lyreleaf sage (Salvia lyrata), may actually be blooming in your yard.  In fact, I found a few lyreleaf sage plants blooming in my yard.

        The lyreleaf sage grows in a wide variety of locations. It can be found anywhere from open woods, roadsides, lawns, damp meadows to dry waste sites. In spite of the fact that the plant displays beautiful lavender blossoms on a slender stalk (1-2 feet tall) it is often overlooked. In fact, many homeowners consider it a weed and mow it down.

        Lyreleaf sage begins blooming as early in February in some parts of Georgia and will continue blooming into May.  One of the reasons I am so fond of this plant is it provides hummingbirds with a source of nectar early in the spring when nectar is often scarce.   The plant also attracts butterflies and bees to its nectar-laden showy blooms.  

        The plant readily reseeds often forming robust colonies.  However, as with many roadside  and pasture plants, mowing often hinders its ability to reproduce.

        If you are fond of salvias, you will love this native salvia. Although its blossoms are small, they are every bit as beautiful as the salvias the grace our gardens.

        Although you can purchase lyreleaf sage seeds, they are often pricey.  I have seen 20 seeds cost more than six dollars.  Before you go out and buy some lyreleaf salvia seeds, explore your yard, there is a chance it has been hiding there in plain sight.  If you  do not locate it, I honestly believe it would be worthwhile spending a little money to get it established.

WHY DO CROWS DIP THEIR FOOD IN WATER?

         If American crows frequent your backyard, chances are you have witnessed them dipping food into a birdbath.  Whenever we witness such behavior, we cannot help but wonder why a bird would go to the trouble of soaking a piece of food in water before gulping it down.

        The truth of the matter is we are not absolutely sure fully understand the reason behind this behavior or why they do not do it all of the time.  The most widely held theory is it is done to soften their food.  This theory explains why they might dunk a hard, dry chunk of dog food or stale bread in water.  However, for the life of me, I cannot see how this explanation explains why American crows also place dead animals such as birds and mice, animal bones, snails and even bits and pieces of roadkill in birdbaths. 

        Others suggest nesting crows dip bakery products and pet food in water prior to subsequently feeding them to their nestlings for a couple of reasons.  First of all, it makes the food more palatable for their young.  It is also is an easy way for adult birds to provide their youngsters with water.

        Regardless, it is always a good idea to clean a birdbath that has been used as a “dipping” station by crows.  Invariably, whenever crows are dipping their food in our birdbaths, it is very likely they are leaving behind bacteria and fungi that were clinging to the food.  These microorganisms could be harmful to the birds that will later use the water to bathe and drink.  

SOME WILD BIRDS WILL EAT DRY DOGFOOD

         There seems to be little information available on which wild birds will eat dry dog food.  However, I suspect the list of birds that dine on dry dog food is longer than we may realize. The problem is few people have experimented offering this food to their feathered neighbors.   

         I have rarely intentionally fed dog food to birds. However, on a number of occasions I have seen American crows and common grackles toting off chunks of dog food left behind by our family dogs.  In some cases, the birds carried the food to a nearby birdbath where they thoroughly doused the chunks of food in water before trying to eat them.

        Others have reported house sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, common ground doves, eastern bluebirds, blue jays, and European starlings will eat dry dog food. 

American Crow feeding on dog food.

        I honestly believe if dry dog food were offered more often in feeders, the list of birds known to eat this unusual food offering would be considerably longer. 

       When you think about it, there is no reason why dry dog food should not be popular with wild birds.  Major brands of dog food contain protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals.  In fact, some dog foods are probably more nutritionally balanced than some of the food they typically consume.   

        Why don’t you join me in this mini experiment?  Perhaps we will learn something about the merits of feeding dry dog food to birds.