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START PLANNING FOR SPRING GARDENS

      With spring just weeks away, there is no better time than now to decide which plants you are going to introduce into your home landscape this growing season. With that in mind, if you are looking for a native plant that is beautiful and is a used by pollinators such as ruby-throated hummingbirds, butterflies and others, consider planting beebalm. Here is some information that you should consider when deciding whether or not you want this native wildflower in your yard.

       Wild Bergamot (Beebalm) – Monarda fistula – Type of Plant – perennial; Height – 1 to 5 feet: Blooms – June to September; Soil – moist to well drained; Light – full sun to partial shade; Wildlife Use – butterflies, songbirds, hummingbirds.

UNWANTED NIGHTTIME VISITORS TO BIRD FEEDERS

       My wife and I have noticed the last birds to our seed feeders are typically cardinals.  Long after the chipping sparrows, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees and house finches have gone to roost male northern cardinals seem to glow in the fading light of the day.  Once the cardinals finally call it quits for the day, as much as we probably don’t like to think about it, a number of unwanted guests are apt to visit our feeders under the cloak of darkness.

       To some extent, which animals will visit our feeders depends on where you live in the Peach State.  For example, if you reside in North Georgia or a handful of other locations scattered around the rest of the state where black bears make their home, during the warmer months of the year you might have a visit from a black bear.

       For the rest of us, our feeders are more likely to be visited by rodents, raccoons, opossums, and white-tailed deer.  Believe it or not, coyotes and foxes are also known to frequent feeders at night.  In most cases, these animals are attracted to seeds that have been flipped out of feeders or scattered on the ground. That being the case, one of the best ways to discourage nocturnal visits by these furry critters is to clean up any seed left on the ground.  This task can be made less daunting by putting out only as much seed as your think the birds will eat during the day.

       Deer can often be thwarted by not feeding inexpensive seed mixtures that often contain corn.  Corn is a favorite deer food.

       If marauding bears are a problem, you will have to take your feeders down before sunset.  If you don’t, you stand the very real chance of having feeders destroyed our hauled off into the woods.

      Should you want to get some idea what is actually visiting your bird feeding area at night, install a motion-activated trail camera aimed at your feeders.  If you do, you may be amazed at what is going bump in the night just outside your backdoor.

QUESTIONS CONCERNING CREPE MYRTLE

       When I posted a blog concerning the value of crepe myrtle to wildlife, a blogger posed her concern that I had wrongfully maligned this popular ornamental, and wondered what the basis of my opinion was.

       It seems when crepe myrtle is blooming in her yard bees converge on the plant’s colorful flowers. She went on the say that when she deadheads the first crop of blooms to encourage a second blooming, when a new crop of blossoms bursts forth the bees return to once again feast.

       To say the least, I was surprised to learn that the bees in her backyard are drawn to crepe myrtle blossoms in large numbers. The crepe myrtles that grow in my neck of the woods are rarely visited by bees. This could be explained by the fact that she grows varieties such as Lipan, Tuscarora, and Dynamite. I am not familiar with them; they may produce an abundance of pollen and/or nectar. I do not know the name of the crepe myrtle rooted in my yard; however, I am sure it does not produce much of value to pollinators. I have seen wild pollinators feeding on the honeydew secreted by the aphids that live on the plants.

       I should also mention I have seen American goldfinches eat crepe myrtle seeds.

       In addition to producing little food, crepe myrtle is an exotic plant is invasive in many sections of Georgia. When it “walks away” from the place where it is planted, it can usurp habitat originally occupied by native plants. Typically, the native plants it supplants are of more value to wildlife than exotics.

       I am not the only wildlife biologist that does not consider crepe myrtle to be a great wildlife plant. Here is what Dr. Doug Tallamy, professor and chair of the University of Delaware’s Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology, has to say about crepe myrtle, “Crepe myrtle is an enormously popular landscape plant because it has a nice habit, beautiful flowers, and lovely bark. But it contribute almost nothing to the food webs in your garden. If every plant is your yard were a crepe myrtle, you would have no food webs, and, thus, no birds, butterflies or other beneficial wildlife”

       If you enjoy the beauty offered by crepe myrtles in your yard, and the varieties you plant provide bees and other wildlife with food, continue to cultivate them. Meanwhile, plant some native plants that evolved alongside the native pollinators and other wildlife in your area. If you do, I think you will find they will be of great value to your backyard wildlife neighbors. In addition, you will be contributing to restoring the natural ecology of your yard.

THERE IS A SNAKE ON MY HUMMINGBIRD FEEDER!

       How would like to look out your window and spot a snake wrapped around your hummingbird feeder?  This is just what recently happened to Upson County blogger Wanda Granitz.

       Needless to say, the rat snake dangling from her feeder was not visiting to partake in a sip of nectar.  It was attempting to grab a hummingbird or two. 

       Like most predators, snakes are very opportunistic.  Whenever they locate a concentration of prey, they will try to take advantage of the situation whether they find an abundance of frogs, insects, mice, or hummingbirds.

       There are many other critters that capture hummingbirds.  These predators include bullfrogs, hawks, shrikes, cats, praying mantises, spiders, and others.  However, aside from cats we rarely see hummingbirds capture one of these flying jewels.

       Fortunately, for hummingbirds and their devoted fans, the unnerving sight of a snake curled around a feeder is not common.  If you are like me, you have never witnessed anything like this in your yard.  In fact, in all the years I worked as a wildlife biologist, I received only a handful of reports of snakes trying to feed on hummingbirds visiting a feeder.

       However, if you do happen to spot a rat snake on your hummingbird feeder, one of the best things you can do to protect the hummers is capture the snake and move it some distance from your home.  Do not simply release it elsewhere in your yard.  If you do, chances are it will return to dine on these flying delicacies at a later time.

DO NOT FORGET TO DEADHEAD MEXICAN SUNFLOWERS

        Humans and butterflies alike are drawn to the bold orange blossoms of the Mexican sunflower.  The problem is by the middle of August the blooms displayed by this tall plant are often quickly fading.  This is unfortunate for those of us that enjoy its stunning beauty and the butterflies and other pollinators that feed at its showy flowers.

       With this in mind, if you deadhead the spent blossoms displayed by your Mexican sunflower plants, they will produce a new crop of flowers that will continue to contribute their beauty to our gardens and be a source of nectar for butterflies such as monarchs later in the year when nectar will be less abundant than it is right now.

BACKYARD SECRET: RED-BANDED HAIRSTREAKS NECTAR ON BRONZE FENNEL

        For quite some time I have been documenting butterflies nectaring on a wide range of cultivated and native plants.  This effort has helped me gain a better appreciation of which species of butterflies use which plants.  Every so often, I encounter a butterfly nectaring on a plant I never realized they visited. 

       For example, a few days ago my wife and I checked our bronze fennel for black swallowtail eggs and/or eggs.  Much to our chagrin, we did not find either.  However, my wife did make a fascinating discovery. When she called me over to look at what she had found, I was surprised to see six red-banded hairstreaks nectaring on a bronze fennel’s pale yellow blossoms.

       Although we have been growing bronze fennel in our garden for a number of years, we never considered the well-known black swallowtail host plant a source of nectar for butterflies.  Oh sure, we routinely see the blossoms routinely visited by sweat bees and other native pollinators, but never a red-banded hairstreak other butterfly.  Yet, here were half a dozen beautiful red-banded hairstreaks so engrossed in sipping nectar they never attempted to fly away in spite of the fact we were standing only a few feet away from them.

       A quick check of the literature and Internet failed to uncover any mention of red-banded hairstreaks using the plant as a source of nectar.  In fact, most authors simply mentioned it was visited by a number of pollinators; however, none said it was source of nectar for butterflies.

       While my wife’s sighting may not be an

important scientific find, it was important to us.  It

advanced our understanding of the unbelievably

complex relationships that exist between the plants

and animals that live just outside our backdoor.  

BACKYARD SECRET: GRAY SQUIRRELS HAVE A UNIQUE WAY TO SHADE THEMSELVES FROM THE HOT SUN

          The gray squirrel uses its tail to help to help balance itself as it climbs and jumps from limb to limb, an even break its fall when is tumbles from a limb high above the ground.  Unbelievably on bright sunny days, the gray squirrel flips its bushy tail over its back and utilizes it as a parasol to keep the rays of the sun from overheating its body.

BABY SNAKES OR SOMETHING REALLY WEIRD

 What do you think is the weirdest animal that lives in your yard?  Perhaps it is a spider, millipede, scorpion, or beetle.  Then again, it may be a land planarian.  Among the other names given this bizarre critter are soil planarian and arrowhead flatworm.

       Once you spot a land planarian, you can readily see why these critters are often mistaken for snakes.  They are shaped like a snake, have triangular heads, display broad dark lines that run down the length of their bodies, and can grow upwards of ten inches long.  However, if you examine them closely you will see they are covered with mucous, don’t have any eyes and are not covered in scales.

       The land planarian’s mouth is located about half way down the underside of its body.  Instead of eyes, this animal has eyespots that can only detect light.

       The body is covered with a heavy layer of mucous.  This mucous enables the flatworm to keep its body moist.  A flatworm will die if it loses water that amounts to more than 45 percent of its body weight.  As such, land planarians live in cool, moist spots such as under logs, rocks, and forest litter.  Around our homes, we most often find them under potted plants, or beneath objects stored on the ground like tarps and lumber.  Other than that, we occasionally see them on the surface of the ground when heavy rain saturates the soil.

       The land planarian eats a variety of invertebrates such as insect larvae, slugs, and earthworms.  While gardeners appreciate the fact they destroy plant pests, they don’t like them eating earthworms as they help aerate the soil.  In addition, anglers trying to keep a worm bed or folks that raise earthworms commercially hate them because they have been known to wipe out earthworm populations. 

       Oh, by the way, if they cannot find enough prey, they will cannibalize one another.

       This flatworm feeds by restraining its prey with a coat of slimy mucous.  Once it is subdued, the planarian extends its pharynx out of its mouth and into its victim and sucks out its body fluids.

       This odd critter employs two forms of reproduction.  It can lay eggs in a small cocoon (the eggs hatch in 21 days); however, it primarily multiplies by the process of fragmentation.  The process takes place once or twice a month. 

       Fragmentation occurs when a planarian attaches the tip of its tail to an object and simply pulls away.  Remarkably, the detached piece of tail is capable of moving about and will actually grow a new head within only 10 days!

       The planarian’s amazing ability to regenerate has long been of interest to biology students and medical researchers alike.  Unbelievably, a piece of a planarian, amounting to as little as 1/279th of its body, is capable of regenerating a totally new planarian in a matter of weeks.  You can cut a planarian’s head and half and the animal goes about its business sporting two complete heads. 

       Years ago, planarians were carried to the International Space Station to determine what effects, if any, the environment has on such things as their power of regeneration.  In one experiment, after an astronaut sliced a planarian’s head in half, the animal regenerated two heads in only five weeks time.

       Planarians are currently being employed by researchers involved in biomedical research studies focus everything from human aging, memory, and diseases to genetics.

       You can add the ground planarian to the list of exotic plants and animals that have been inadvertently brought to the United States.  In this case, it is believed this native of Indo-China they were shipped around the world during the 19th century hidden in soil accompanying nursery stock.

       Since the beginning to the 20th century, the flatworm has been located living in greenhouses across the country.  It has since been found in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, North and South Carolina, Tennessee and a number of other states.  It is thought the worms were introduced to these locations in potted plants sold in the nursery trade.

        While it is clear we could easily live without this critter, like it or not, there is little chance we will ever rid ourselves of the odd introduced animal.  In the meantime, countless folks will continue to be shocked when they lift up a pot and see what looks like a bunch of baby poisonous snakes poised to strike.  Just remember, if these weird animals are slimy and lack eyes, they will not bite.

BACKYARD SECRET: THE CATERPILLAR’S AMAZING GROWTH RATE

Some caterpillars exhibit an unbelievable growth rate.  Believe it or not, the caterpillars of some butterflies actually double their weight every two days.  If a human baby had a similar rate of growth, it would weigh a ton in just 14 days!

BE ON THE LOOK OUT FOR CLUES THAT SQUIRRELS ARE EATING MUSHROOMS

        The gray squirrel is one of the most common animals found in backyards across Georgia.  Indeed, it has proven to be able to coexist with humans. 

        One reason they flourish in our backyards is linked to the fact they are omnivores.  In other words, they can eat both animals and plants.  In fact, studies have shown they can consume upwards of 60 species of plants alone.  We all know they will eat anything from tomatoes to various nuts, berries, buds and the like.  In addition, they will also eat mushrooms.

        Recently while walking about my backyard on an unseasonably balmy winter afternoon, I happened across evidence that a gray squirrel had recently been dining of a mushroom.  The mushroom had been knocked over and pieces of the fragile plant were strewn about.  When I looked closely at the pieces, I could actually see tooth marks left by the hungry squirrel.  Then next day I found, since the last time I visited the feeding site, a squirrel had eaten even more of the mushroom. Prudent homeowners would never try to eat a mushroom without being sure the mushroom was not poisonous.  Even then, you cannot be sure what you are eating.  I have a friend that fancied himself as being a mushroom expert.  One on fateful occasion, his misidentification of a mushroom landed him and his family in the hospital.

        Eating a poison mushroom is not a concern for the gray squirrel.  Remarkably, they seem to be able to eat any mushroom without risking becoming sick or killed.  In fact, researchers have found gray squirrels have the ability to eat mushrooms containing deadly amanita (deathcap) toxins with impunity.  The gray squirrel is one of only a handful of animals capable of this gastronomic fete.

        Who would have ever thought that the animal that eats our vegetables, destroys our bird nesting boxes, eats more than its fair share of seeds at our feeders, and even invades our attics is a uniquely special animal?  I know I didn’t.