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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.

CEDAR WAXWINGS EAT FLORAL TREATS

     The major portion (70%) of the cedar waxwing’s diet consists of fruits, berries and other fruit-related items such as sap. In fact, the bird’s name reflects its fondness for cedar berries. However, cedar waxwings also dine on buds, flowers and young leaves. In fact, cedar waxwings seem to eat blossoms most often during their spring migration back to their breeding grounds.  In fact, spring-blooming plants are more apt to be eaten by the birds that flowers that bloom later in the year.

     Some of the flowers most often eaten by blossom- eating birds such as the cedar waxwing include pear, apple, plum, crabapple, cherry, and red maple.

     You might be wondering why in the world cedar waxwings would even want to eat buds and blossoms.  The answer is simple – They are nutritious.  In fact, some experts claim that flowers have more food value than buds.

     Another reason is, by this time of the year, birds that dine on fruits and berries have an extremely hard time finding anything to eat.

     With that in mind, should you spot a flock of cedar waxwings eating flowers and buds in your yard this spring, I hope you won’t mind sacrificing some blossoms to the cedar waxwings whose beauty adds so much to the colorful spring pageant being played out in your yard.

BACKYARD SECRET—RUBYTHROATS MIGRATE CLOSE TO THE GROUND OR SEA

      There is much we do not know about the ruby-throated hummingbird.  For example, most of what we know about how high rubythroats fly when they are migrating is based on anecdotal evidence.  With that in mind, it appears that ruby-throated hummingbirds migrate much closer to the earth than many other feathered migrants.

       What sketchy information available suggests ruby-throated hummingbirds migrate close to the land.  In fact, many appear to migrate very close to the tops of trees.  It is believed that this enables the tiny migrants to spot places where they can refuel before resuming their journey.

       This is not to say that some hummingbirds don’t fly much higher.  Hot air balloonists have reported seeing rubythroats cruising along upwards of 500 feet above the ground.

       Once rubythroats reach the Gulf of Mexico, they appear to wing their way along just above the tops of the waves.  This conclusion is based on sightings made by men and women working on oil and gas platforms far from shore in the Gulf of Mexico and fishermen seeing these tiny, feathered dynamos zipping along close to the waters of the Gulf.  These sightings appear to indicate ruby-throated hummingbirds migrate closer to the earth than many other migrants.

       Most small birds migrate at altitudes ranging from 500 to 1,000 feet. Raptors migrate anywhere from 700-4000 feet up whereas waterfowl migrate to and from their breeding grounds at altitudes of 200-1450 feet high.

       However, a mallard was once struck by an airplane flying 21,000 feet above the earth.

IN SPRING, REDBUD TREES FEED MORE THAN POLLINATORS

       The redbud trees growing around my home are now in full bloom.   These native trees are pleasing to the eye and are currently feeding a surprising number of my backyard neighbors.

       One thing that is impossible to notice is that redbud blossoms attract an amazing number of bees and other pollinators.  In fact, on a warm late winter or early spring day my largest redbud seems to buzz.  The buzzing sound is made by the countless numbers of bees foraging among the dark pink blossoms that cover the tree’s branches.

       If the redbud blossoms do not fall before the year’s first ruby-throated hummingbirds arrive, I will have a chance of spotting a hummer or two visiting the trees flowers.  Although redbud blooms are not the greatest source of nectar for the birds, when it is one of the few nectar plants that are blooming at this time of the year, they will make feeding forays to the tree.

       Birds such as northern cardinals and cedar waxwings sometimes visit redbud trees in full bloom.  They are not there seeking nectar or pollen.  To the contrary, they actually eat the redbud’s buds and flowers.  Although these birds might seem to eat more than their share of these tasty morsels, there are more than enough blossoms to feed the birds and pollinators.

       Since the redbud’s blooms appear before its leaves, while I am admiring the tree’s floral show, from time to time I sometimes spot tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees and downy woodpeckers hunting for insects and their eggs hidden on the bark of the tree.  Once the leaves appear, it is far more difficult to see these birds foraging for food.

       My only regret is that the redbud’s floral show is way too short. When redbud blossoms litter the ground, I know I must wait 12 months to enjoy its next stunning floral show and the wide variety of animals drawn to it.