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BACKYARD SECRET–RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD EAT LOTS OF INSECTS AND SPIDERS

       Most hummingbird enthusiasts believe plant nectar is the primary food of the ruby-throated hummingbird.  At the same time, they recognize small insects and spiders are essential to the rubythroat’s diet.  However, according to entomologist Dr. Doug Tallamy, renowned native plant proponent, and a growing number of hummingbird experts, hummingbirds are actually insectivorous birds that also consume nectar.  In fact, Dr. Tallamy has stated, Hummingbirds like and need nectar but 80 percent of their diet is insects and spiders.”

       Research conducted by biologists at Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology seem to corroborate this claim.  When the researchers trapped and followed the movements of a female hummingbird for two weeks never once did she eat any nectar.

                       

IT’S MULBERRY TIME!

       One of my favorite times of the year is when the mulberries begin to ripen on my backyard mulberry tree.  While my wife and I enjoy eating the sweet juicy berries, what I enjoy even more is watching the parade of birds that flock to the devour every berry in sight.

       Yesterday, my long wait for this special event ended when I noticed the tree is festooned with berries.  Although most of the berries are not ripe, I have learned that the hungry birds begin devouring the berries well before they are fully ripe.

       The birds that flock to mulberries are all card-carrying members of the bird world’s Who’s Who List.  While I am not a usually a name-dropper, the list of a few of the birds that eat mulberries includes bird royalty such as the eastern bluebird, rose-breasted grosbeak, great crested flycatcher, scarlet and summer tanagers, wood thrush, red-eyed vireo, northern bobwhite and wild turkey. 

   

CEDAR WAXWING EATING A MULBERRY

       One of the neatest things about the watching birds feeding in a mulberry tree is you are very likely to see multiple species of birds feeding at the same time.  It is not impossible to a dozen more species of birds gorging on mulberries during a feeding orgy.

       If you have a mulberry growing in your yard, you have probably witnessed the spring invasions of birds seeking mulberries.  However, if your yard is not blessed with this magical tree, and is large (the tree can grow to a height of 60-70′ or more) enough to accommodate this fast-growing tree, plant one.  While several introduced species of mulberries of mulberries grow in Georgia, the one you should buy is the red mulberry (Morus rubra) since it is the only mulberry native to Georgia.

       This investment will pay dividends for decades to come.

BACKYARD SECRET–INVERTEBRATES COMPRISE MOST OF THE CAROLINA WREN’S DIET

      The Carolina wren is one of our favorite backyard birds.  Most of us are likely to either see or hear one in our yards every day of the year.  In my case, I hear the bird’s loud tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle from early morning until dark.  Although Carolina wrens will occasionally visit our feeders (especially in winter), we rarely see them feeding away from our feeders.  That being the case, have you ever wondered what these hyperactive active birds eat throughout the year?

       The answer to that question is a wide variety of invertebrates such as insects, spiders, caterpillars, and millipedes.  These small animals comprise a whopping ninety-five percent of the Carolina wren’s diet.  Since a Carolina wren must eat slightly less than half an ounce of these critters, each day just to meet its body’s metabolic needs that means this wren is eating a lot of insects.  To put this in perspective, each month each of the Carolina wrens that inhabit your yards eats roughly a pound of some of the smallest and least revered members of our backyard animal community.

       I guess this explains why we rarely see a Carolina wren just resting. They must continually hunt to survive.  When we do catch a glimpse of one, it is hopping through our shrubs and gardens, or checking out the eaves of our houses, barns other spots where spiders and insects lurk. 

       They truly lead a very busy life away from our bird feeders.

FEEDING SUET IN HOT WEATHER

     Suet has long been considered a food that should only be fed to our bird neighbors in the winter.  The reasons for this are during hot weather suet easily melts creating quite a mess, turns rancid, and when smeared on a bird’s feathers harm their ability to repel water.  In addition, when it melts, its aroma has a tendency to attract unwanted visitors.  Nowadays, however, if you know what you are doing, it is possible feed birds suet throughout the year.

       Suet’s reputation of being only winter food offering surfaced back in the day when the only suet available to bird enthusiasts was animal fat preferably trimmed off the carcasses of cattle.  Folks either would buy raw suet from the local butcher as feed it as is or render it themselves.  Today suet is difficult purchase at the grocery store.  Consequently, most of us buy blocks of rendered suet at stores that sell bird products.   

       Pure suet is an outstanding bird food.  However, since it does melt when temperatures reach 90˚F and above, it should be avoided in hot weather.  With that in mind, if you want to offer suet to birds in warm weather, turn your attention to suet labeled no-melt or no-drip suet.  The only suets of this type that I have found are not what you can technically call pure suet since they contain a variety of other foods.  One term that is often used to describe them is bird pudding.

       For a number of years, I have fed a bird pudding containing peanut butter and peanuts.  The birds are so fond of it I offer it to them throughout the year.  Consequently, in addition to attracting a wide variety of winter residents, feeding it to them during the spring and summer has provided me some fantastic viewing opportunities that I would have otherwise missed had I limited using it only during the colder months.

       For example, one afternoon last week the bird activity around a wire feeder containing suet laced with peanut butter and peanuts was exceptionally high.  In roughly an hour, the feeder was visited by two hairy woodpeckers, a brown-headed nuthatch, gray catbird, cardinals, house finches, northern mockingbird, brown thrasher, chipping sparrow, and Carolina chickadees.

       I particularly enjoyed the visits of the hairy woodpeckers and Carolina chickadees.  Since I do not often see hairy woodpeckers in my yard, spotting two was quite a treat.  First, an adult arrived and ate for quite some time.  While it was dining, an immature hairy woodpecker suddenly landed on the Shepherd’s hook holding up the feeder.  The youngster landed near the top of the long metal pole and immediately slid down about a foot before flying up to the top of the rod for another try.  As expected, he slid down the post again.  It was amusing to watch as the bird vainly tried several times to hold on to the slim metal pole. Finally, it gave up and flew directly to the wire feeder and began feeding.

       As for the Carolina chickadees, as well as I can remember, I have never seen four of them converge on a feeder at one time.  All that changed when four flew in and ate suet together.  They would peck at the food for a few minutes and fly off only to return in a few minutes. 

       I am convinced this was probably a family group.

       If you try, feeding suet from now through summer, use no-melt or no-drip suet.  Place your feeder in the shade and monitor the food very closely.  If you notice it is melting or turning rancid, remove it.  The safety and health of our feathered neighbors should always be your paramount concern.

IS HUMMINGBIRD FOOD MADE IN A MICROWAVE SAFE FOR THE BIRDS?

       Recently, reports have surfaced claiming hummingbird nectar prepared in a microwave is harmful to the health of the hummingbirds that consume it.  Is this claim true?

       The internet sites making this allegation provide little information to substantiate the allegation.  One site alleges that when a sugar solution is heated in a microwave the chemical composition of the sugar molecule is altered.  This, in turn, has a deleterious effect on sugar’s nutritional value to hummingbirds.

       This belief may stem from the fact that it has been widely reported that food heated in a microwave can reduce the levels of such things as vitamin C, some antioxidants, and omega fatty acids.

       I have checked a number of sources trying to run down the source of this allegation.  To date, I have not been able to uncover a single study that substantiates the claim.  In fact, as of this posting, even the prestigious Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology’s website does not warn hummingbird enthusiasts of any danger associated with boiling hummingbird nectar in a microwave.

      Until this issue is resolved, if you are among the folks that use a microwave to prepare hummingbird food, you might want to use the microwave to heat the water you are going to use to make nectar.  Then remove the water before adding the sugar to create the food.  This eliminates any possibility that the food value of the nectar is compromised by the boiling process.

       As you probably already know, you need to use extreme caution when adding the sugar to the boiling water.  Water heated in a microwave to this temperature has a tendency to “explode” when touched with a foreign object.  This extremely hot water can burn the preparer’s hands.

        Whenever I am able to determine whether this claim is true or false, I will let you know.

CORAL BEAN IS A FAVORITE OF RUBYTHROATS & BUTTERFLIES

       The coral bean (Erythrina herbacea) is a Georgia native that has made the transition from the wild to Georgia gardens particularly along the coast and across the Coastal Plain.

       Coral bean (also known cardinal spear and Cherokee bean) is a perennial, thorny shrub.  In the wild, a plant is most often found growing in the sandy soils of open woods, forest openings, and disturbed areas.

       Although coral bean will grow in zones 7-10, it is often found growing in gardens in the South Georgia than other parts of the state.  Actually, I am surprised this perennial native shrub it is not planted in more gardens.  Each spring dark (almost black) stalks emerge from the ground and display a bouquet of bright red blossoms. The contrast of coral bean’s red flowers borne on dark stalks is truly stunning.

       The floral show will continue into summer. During this time, plant’s tubular flowers are favorite sources of nectar for ruby-throated hummingbirds and butterflies. Since the plant begins blooming in spring, in many gardens, it is sometimes the only source of nectar available to these nectar feeders.

   Coral bean (also known cardinal spear and Cherokee bean) is a perennial, thorny shrub. 

       Once the blooming period has ended each plant produces a crop of 4-6″ seedpods. When the pods open, they reveal bright red seeds, which offer a splash of color to fall gardens. The seeds are eaten by both birds and small mammals; however, the seeds very poisonous to humans.  For that reason, children should be kept away from them.

       Coral bean is susceptible to frost. However, unless the plant’s roots succumb to freezing weather, new shoots should emerge the following spring.

       Interestingly, plants growing, in locales where freezing weather is a rarity such as South Florida, can grow to be 15 feet tall.

LITTLE KNOWN CHOKEBERRY OFFERS WILDLIFE NECTAR AND FRUIT

       Few people have made an acquaintance with the chokeberry.  I am sure this is probably because this Georgia native often goes unnoticed unless people are looking for it.  However, in the right garden setting, this shrub provide homeowners with a splash of color in spring and autumn, as well as a source of nectar for native pollinators and fruit for wildlife.

       When trying to purchase chokeberry plants at a nursery, you might find red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia), black chokeberry (A. melanocarpa), as well as a hybrid (A. prunifolia).  Cultivars are also available, however, having had no experience with them, I cannot attest to their value to wildlife.

       Chokeberries are deciduous shrubs that can attain heights ranging from 6-12 feet.  In the spring, the plants produce 2-3-inch clusters of white blossoms.  These blooms provide pollinators such as butterflies and bees with nectar at a time of the year when it is often extremely scarce.  Retired teacher and conservation educator Betty Esco reports that on her property during early spring the chokeberry’s snow white blooms attract Henry’s elfins and falcate orangetips.

       From midsummer into fall and winter chokeberry shrubs display their small astringent fruits.  Birds such as cedar waxwings, chickadees, and even eastern meadowlarks eat these fruits.  Small mammals will also dine on chokeberries. 

       I should also mention that chokeberries are not rated as a top wildlife food plant.  However, this may be because it is rarely found in large enough numbers to provide large quantities of food.

       Unfortunately, white-tailed deer will browse on the plant.

       In autumn, the shrubs’ leaves are painted with lavender, red and orange hues.

       The shrub will tolerate a wide range of soils even those that are extremely moist. However, as you might expect, they prefer damp, rich soils with a ph of 6.8.

       Chokeberries will grow in moderate shade as well as direct sunlight.  Although, if you are looking to maximize plant’s growth and fruit production, plant it a well-drained location that receives full sunlight and features slightly moist soil.

       As is the case with many plants, these shrubs have their greatest impact when grown in mass plantings.  Such stands can be achieved by setting out a small number of plants. This is due to chokeberry’s propensity for producing numerous shoots.

TOOLS TO EASE CLEANING UP FEEDING AREAS

      Although we know, it is imperative that we keep the ground below bird feeders free from seed hulls, droppings, and wet seeds; we don’t always do something about it.  One reason for this is it is not an easy task, especially when you have to dig out seeds and hulls imbedded in thick grass.  With that in mind, I want to tell you about two tools that I have found really help make completing this necessary task a whole lot easier.

       I use a small garden rake and an industrial long-handled dustpan.  Being only seven inches wide, the rake’s spring steel teeth make it easy for me to rake out the droppings, seeds, and hulls hidden beneath the grass growing beneath my feeders.  I then simply rake them into the long-handled, large capacity dustpan and pour them in a cardboard box of plastic trash bag.

       These two simple tools have eliminated my having to bend over.  In addition, I am able to clean my two bird feeding areas in a fraction of the time I once devoted to this task.

       If you have been putting off cleaning your feeding areas, now is the time to change your ways.  This need is been amplified by the fact regular rainfall and daytime temperatures that have been are soaring into the 70s and low 8os have created perfect conditions for the growth of the bacteria, fungi, and protozoan parasites that cause the majority of the disease outbreaks among our backyard birds.  

       As a result, reports of sick and dying birds at feeders are on the rise.  Using the two tools, I have just mentioned, spending a few minutes cleaning up the area beneath your feeders will help ensure that the birds feeding in your yard will not be the next site of an outbreak of salmonella, aspergillosis, avian pox, conjunctivitis (finch disease), or trichomoniasis.

TUFTED TITMICE NEED PLACES TO NEST TOO

       Like all cavity nesting birds, rarely are their enough places for tufted titmice to nest in most neighborhoods.  With that in mind, if your property is predominantly wooded, why not erect a nest box for one of our favorite backyard feeder birds?

       If you think you would like to take on this project, here are a few tips that will help enhances the chances your efforts will be successful.

       I would recommend that you start putting up a single box.  If a pair of titmice uses it, consider erecting another birdhouse.  However, since tufted titmice are territorial, it is best to space your boxes at least 580 feet apart.

       The diameter of the box’s entrance hole should be at least 1 3’8″.  As you might expect, the birds will nest in cavities with larger entrance holes such as the 1 1/2-inch hole recommended for bluebird boxes.  Whatever size you use, protect the entrance hole with a metal hole guard.  This simple device prevents other birds and mammals from increasing the size of the entrance hole.  If you don’t, more often than not, their handiwork will end up destroying the box.

       Titmice will nest in cavities as high as 87 feet above the ground.  However, I recommend that your box be placed about 5 feet high.  This allows you to safely check, clean, and maintain it.

       I hope you decide to erect a tufted titmouse nesting box this year, if you do, you will help alleviate a shortage in tufted titmice nesting sites.  In addition, you will benefit by being able see tufted titmice as well as hear their pleasant peter, peter, peter call more often from spring through winter.

BIRDS EAT GOLDENROD SEEDS?

     During the past few decades, goldenrod has become recognized as being much more than a weed.  Its ascendancy to the list of valuable wildlife plants is much deserved.  Gardeners and wildlife enthusiasts alike are becoming increasingly aware that the goldenrod is a source of nectar and/or pollen for a variety of native pollinators including native bees, moths, and butterflies.  In addition, the insects found on goldenrod are an important source of food for songbirds and others.  However, the ubiquitous plant’s value to wildlife well beyond its blooming season remains largely unappreciated. 

        In truth, if you allow goldenrod plants to remain standing throughout the winter, they will provide cover for songbirds, rabbits, and small mammals.  In addition, goldenrod seeds are eaten by a number of birds and small mammals.  The American goldfinch is particularly fond of goldenrod seeds.  Among the other birds that dine on the tiny seeds are swamp sparrows, eastern towhees, pine siskins, and dark-eyed juncos.  If you live in the mountains, don’t be surprised to see ruffed grouse eating goldenrod seeds on cold winter day.