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DON’T REMOVE SPENT SEED HEADS FROM NECTAR PLANTS — BIRDS RELISH THEIR SEEDS

       Now that our days are characterized by low humidity and cool temperatures, it finally does feel like autumn.  While the weather has changed, the complexion of our gardens has been undergoing a major transformation.  Those of us that try to provide wild pollinators with food throughout as much of the year as possible still have an abundance of nectar-bearing flowers in full bloom.  However, alongside them are the dried seed heads of plants that bloomed earlier in the year.  Although our first impulse is often to remove these plants, I wish you would consider leaving at least a portion of them for birds that feed predominantly on seeds.

       The list of the flowering plants that produce seeds eaten by birds is quite long.  Here is a short list of some of the more popular plants that produce nutritious seeds for birds:  black-eyed susan, coneflower, cosmos, aster, scarlet sage, zinnia, coreopsis, and blanket flower.

       Birds will eat these seeds directly from seed heads or when the seeds fall to the ground.  In addition, it matters not whether the plants grew in containers on a deck or patio or in a traditional garden.

       My wife and I have truly enjoyed watching cardinals and American goldfinches feeding on scarlet sage and zinnia seeds produced by plants grown in large containers on our deck. 

       It never ceases to amaze me how a cardinal can pick up a tiny scarlet sage with its large beak.

       Among the birds that do not miss a chance to eat the seeds of nectar plants during the fall and winter are the northern cardinal, dark-eyed junco, chipping sparrow, and American goldfinch.

       If you want to add a new facet to bird feeding, simply resist the impulse to create a tidy garden.  Let the plants that produced the stunning floral display remain standing.

       If you do, you will be providing your autumn/winter avian visitors with a great source of food.  Meanwhile, you will enjoy watching the fascinating behavior of birds foraging for flower seeds.

AMERICAN HOLLY IS DIFFERENT

       At this time of the year, both resident and migratory birds are feasting on a variety of colorful berries such as American beautyberry and pokeberries.  However, have you noticed birds are not flocking to a native plant that produces one of the most colorful berries–the American Holly?

       Nowadays if you peer into the foliage of an American holly, you will discover that the berries that are synonymous with winter and Christmas are still green.  Even when they ripen, it will be a while before birds begin dining on these shiny red berries.  In fact, in most years, American holly berries will remain on the tree well into winter and provide birds with a valuable source of food long after the last beautyberry or pokeberry has been gobbled up.

       Among the reasons birds do not seek out holly berries when they first ripen is they are rock-hard and very bitter.  It is only after the berries have been exposed to one or more frosts do they begin to soften up.  Their exposure to cold weather also breaks down the chemicals that make the so bitter.  Even then, they are not considered a choice food.  American holly berries are not rich in many nutrients, although they are high in fats and oils.

       However, when birds have little else to eat, they will dine on dine on holly berries.  For birds that rely heavily on fruits and berries, holly berries can mean the difference between life and death. 

       A woman in Walton County once told me that, in winter, she often decorates her window boxes with branches of American holly covered with its showy red berries.  She went on the say that one-winter birds did not eat a single berry the entire winter.  However, one extremely cold March day a flock of robins descended on her yard.  Before the flock departed, the birds had eaten every single berry that had adorned the holly boughs placed in her window boxes.

       In addition to the American robin, among the more than two dozen species of birds that eat American holly berries are the northern cardinal, eastern bluebird, northern mockingbird, wild turkey, and northern bobwhite.

       This is just another example of the fact that we need to provide a wide variety of plants that provide food and cover for birds throughout the entire year. 

STRAWBERRY BUSH USHERS IN THE FALL

      Currently throughout much of the state, there are few, if any, signs that fall is ready to blanket Georgia with a quilt of reds, oranges, and yellows.  However, those of us that have strawberry bush (Euonymus americana) growing in their backyards have been granted a preview of the colorful show yet to come.

       The strawberry bush is not a plant you would ever suspect as standing out among scores of other native shrubs that grow across the state.  It is small (4-8 feet tall), often grows under the canopy of larger hardwood trees, or among a myriad of brushy plants along forest edges or in recently harvested timber tracts.  However, from late summer into fall it is transformed into a shrub of unparalleled beauty.  

       At that of the year the plant’s seed capsules (arils), which are covered with conical warts, resemble green strawberries, turn pink and then bright red.  Thereafter the leathery capsules magically open and display shiny red berries that appear suspended on thin threads.  Once you cast your eyes on them for the first time, I am sure you will agree they possess unrivaled beauty.

       The opened pods and dangling berries, reveals where the plant got some of its nicknames such as hearts-a-bustin, bursting hearts or hearts-bursting-open-with-love.

       Strawberry bush is also referred to as spindletree.  It seems that the plant’s hard wood was once used to make spindles for spinning wheels.  If you will recall, in the popular children’s story of Sleeping beauty, the fair maiden fell asleep when she pricked her finger on a sharp spindle.  It is believed this relates to the folktale that claims that the wood of the strawberry bush is poisonous and, if a person ingests the wood; he or she will fall into a coma.  While I cannot attest that eating the wood would cause a person to end up in a coma, I do know that the plant is considered poisonous to humans.

       Such is not the case with birds and mammals.  In fact, it is an ice cream-food for white-tailed deer.  Whitetails simply cannot get enough of it.  In fact, one reason strawberry bush is not found in many woodlands is it has been heavily browsed by deer.  It is interesting to note wildlife biologists often use the prevalence of strawberry bush as an indicator of the size of a deer herd.

       Although, the berries are eaten by songbirds quail and even wild turkeys, strawberry bush rarely shows up in food habit studies.  I believe this is because, in most places, very few berries are produced compared to other plants such as pokeberries, and American beautyberries.

       Two things I also like about strawberry bush are that its leaves are aromatic and turn orange in the fall.

       If your garden is not plagued by white-tailed deer, strawberry bush would be a great addition on your landscape.  It is a Georgia native that is attractive and provides food for wildlife too.

       Once you establish it, you will become one of the few people that can enjoy this harbinger of autumn long before the main show begins.

BACKYARD SECRET-AMERICAN BEAUTYBERRY IS EASY TO PROPAGATE

       Recently I wrote about the how birds are attracted to American beautyberry.  In response to this blog, one of our fellow bloggers, Elizabeth Neace, was kind enough let us know this beautiful native shrub can easily be rooted using cuttings.  This is great news for anyone wanting to incorporate this native into his or her landscape.

HOUSE FINCH EATING AMERICAN BEAUTYBERRY

       I want to thank Elizabeth for sharing her backyard secret with us.  I am sure many folks will benefit from this valuable tip.

MY BACKYARD MOCKINGBIRD IS FACING A DILEMMA

 My wife and I have made a concerted effort to incorporate a wide variety of wildlife food plants into our home landscape.  Our goal has always been to provide our wildlife neighbors with a wide variety of foods throughout the entire year.  For one reason or the other, we never set out any American beautyberry plants.  However, years ago we found one growing alongside a backyard fence.  I am certain a bird unknowingly dropped a seed there as it perched on the fence.  Since then from late summer into fall and sometimes-even winter, the plant has been festooned with bountiful crops of round, bright lavender berries (actually, they are drupes).  This forces a host of birds to make some difficult dining decisions.      

       This is particularly true of the mockingbird that patrols our backyard.  A few weeks ago, I spotted the bird, as it was swallowing pokeberries.  When I unwittingly interrupted its meal, the diner immediately flew to an American beautyberry growing some distance away.  Upon landing, while keeping a close eye on me, it commenced eating beautyberry after beautyberry.     

  Later in the day, I saw it again eating suet from a feeder hanging near my office.  Whenever it flew away from the suet, house finches, cardinals, and Carolina chickadees flew in to eat their share of the fatty food.  In just a few moments, the mockingbird reappeared and scared the interlopers away.  The mockingbird definitely did not want to share food with other birds.

       On previous occasions, I have witnessed the bird defend plants bearing pokeberries and beautyberries from the likes of thrashers, cardinals, gray catbirds, American robins, and towhees.

       Since it is impossible for a single bird to defend all three of these sources of food, throughout the entire day it is faced with the dilemma of deciding of what and when to eat.  The appearance of the American beautyberries simply acerbated this bird’s problem.  

                    Mockingbird & American Beautyberries

 

If you are like us and never got around to planting American beautyberry in your yard, don’t wait for a bird to plant it for you.  Take the initiative and plant one yourself.  This native shrub is easy to grow.  The only maintenance it requires is cutting the stems back each winter. 

       You will enjoy its strikingly colorful berries and experience the satisfaction of knowing you are helping feed a wide variety of birds and mammals.  In addition, you will find that you have created a dining dilemma for mockingbirds and other birds that relish its berries.  Believe me, that is not such a bad thing at all.

BACKYARD SECRET–BIRDS CAN GET DRUNK EATING POKEBERRIES

       Pokeberries are widely recognized as being a super food plant for birds.  Scores of birds including the likes of bluebirds, cardinals, tanagers, brown thrashers, hermit thrushes, quail, catbirds, and scores of others consume the plant’s large, juicy, purplish-black berries.  However, it is not common knowledge that birds can become intoxicated from eating the berries.

       This situation is most common late in the year when they eat pokeberries that have become fermented.  While fermented pokeberry juice will not kill them, it can definitely leave them addled enough to become susceptible to predators such as hawks and the family cat. 

       I must admit that, although each year the pokeberries growing in my yards are laden with berries, I have never seen a bird get drunk eating them.  Perhaps the reason for this is my wildlife neighbors gobble them up long before they have a chance to become fermented.

SOME PLANTS HELP MIGRANTS FIND FAT-RICH FOOD

       I am fascinated by the astonishing relationships that exist between some native plants and animals.  One such association links certain plants that produce fat-rich fruits and berries to migratory songbirds.

       Long before the official arrival of fall, many birds like warblers, vireos, and thrushes, begin preparing for the epic fall migration during the heat of summer.  One way in which they ready themselves for the long flight is by switching from predominantly eating insects and other invertebrates that are packed with protein to a of diet fruits and berries laden with fats. 

       This dramatic dietary change enables these migrants to store body fat using less time and effort.  This is important, as this fat is the fuel needed to fuel their long migration.  It seems foods rich in protein and carbohydrates yield twice as little energy as fatty foods.

       Obviously, it behooves birds to quickly locate these sources of food.  One way in plants that produce fruits or berries loaded with fat facilitate this endeavor is by advertising.  The list of these plants includes blackgum, flowering dogwood, Virginia creeper, muscadine, magnolia, pokeweed, and many others.  These plants advertise by bearing fruits and berries that are have bright red in color, have fall foliage that is bright yellow, red or orange, or display their fruits or berries on red stems. POKEWEED BERRIES DISPLAYED ON RED STEMS - BLOG - 23 Aug 2020 (1)

       The plants benefit from the birds widely spreading their seeds through their droppings whereas the birds are able to quickly locate food prior to and during their migration.

       If you want to extend a helping hand to these special birds, incorporate as many of these plants as possible in your yard.

AMERICAN GOLDFINCHES FEED ON SCARLET SAGE SEEDS

       One lesson I learned many years ago is some of the most fascinating wildlife sightings take place when you least expect it. Such was the case last Sunday. My wife and I had just finished dinner when she called out, “Come here, you have got to see this.”

       As soon as I heard her entreaty, I rousted myself out of my favorite chair and walked to the doorway leading to our sunroom. Once there she directed my gaze to a planter full of potted plants standing alongside the rail bordering the far side of the deck.

       As soon as I was able to locate what my wife was pointing at, I was surprised to see a female American goldfinch pulling apart the seed heads of a scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea). As we watched, the bird expertly extracted each unripe seed and immediately devoured it.

       Once I saw what was going on, I retreated to the house, grabbed my camera, and returned. Since this was the first time I had ever witnessed this behavior, I desperately wanted to photograph the event. Knowing that the bird would fly away if I opened the sunroom door, I slowly moved as close to the windows as I could and took several pictures through the sunroom’s windows. Knowing full well how difficult it is to photograph birds through window glass, I realized my chances of being able to take decent pictures were low. Remarkably, when I later reviewed the photos, I was surprised to find the photographs exceeded my expectations.

       A few minutes later a male American goldfinch flew in to enjoy the feast taking place no more than 10 feet away from us. This provided me with the opportunity to photo both birds from the comfort of my sunroom. What a treat!

       As we watched the birds feed, I could not help but wonder why they chose to feed on the scarlet sage’s tiny, green seeds when a feeder stocked with black oil sunflower seeds was no more than 20 feet away.

       We watched this fascinating drama play out for several more minutes before something scared the birds away. As the goldfinches flew to a stand of trees, we were left with several super photos and memories of how a pair of goldfinches made a Sunday afternoon extra special.

       I am so glad my wife just happened to notice what was taking place just outside our backdoor.

       Keep your eyes peeled as natural dramas are taking place in your backyard every day. However, you will never see them unless you take the time to look for these special happenings.

       One final note: if you will type the words “scarlet sage” in the search engine bubble located in the upper right corner of the blog and hit return key, two other blogs I have written about wildlife use of scarlet sage will pop up.

MISTLETOE IS FOR LOVERS AND BIRDS ALIKE

Everyone is familiar with the Christmas tradition of kissing beneath a sprig of mistletoe.  However, what is less known is the fact the waxy berries produced by this parasitic plant are eaten by a wide variety of wild birds.

       This popular custom apparently originated in Europe during the 1500s.  The first mention of the holiday tradition in America appeared in the writings of the famous early American Writer, Washington Irving.

       According to legend, couples that share a kiss beneath sprig of mistletoe are bestowed with good luck when it comes to affairs of the heart.  However, this blessing is only enjoyed by couples that also pluck a berry from the mistletoe branch .  Those that do not share a kiss will suffer bad luck.  In addition, once the last berry is removed, the mistletoe’s magical power is lost.

       Mistletoe berries are loved by many birds.  For example, both cedar waxwings and eastern bluebirds relish the small berries.  The seemingly translucent, white berries are also gobbled up by American and fish crows, hermit thrushes, American robins, evening grosbeaks and chickadees.

       Although the magical powers of the mistletoe can be disputed, there is no question that the ubiquitous plant provides our backyard bird neighbors with an important source of food during a time of the year when food is at a premium.

THE POKEWEED IS A GREAT SOURCE OF FOOD FOR BIRDS

                Whenever we discuss feeding birds in a backyard setting invariably the discussion centers around offering birds seeds, suet, and other offerings in feeders hung outside our homes.  While supplemental feeding is important, the foods provided by native plants is often far more valuable to our feathered neighbors.  One of these native food plants is the common pokeweed.

                One of the reasons it is rarely mentioned is because few people are inclined to plant pokeweed in a garden.  Although it possesses colorful stems and berries, I suspect most homeowners deem this large, gangly perennial plant unworthy of growing alongside a bed of zinnias, or towering above their roses.  However, the plant’s reputation of being a weed belies its value as a plant that produces food relished by a host of birds.

                For this reason, my wife and I permit pokeberries to grow in idle spots around the perimeter of our property.  These are places we where we allow native vegetation to flourish.  These areas are occasionally mowed to prevent the intrusion of tree saplings.  We also remove any foreign invasive plants that happen to appear.

                If you decide to encourage pokeweed plants to grow in an idle corner of your property, you will have the opportunity to view scores of hungry birds dining on plant’s dark purple, juicy berries.  The birds you are most likely to see are year-round residents such as northern mockingbirds, brown thrashers, eastern bluebirds, European starlings, mourning doves, American crows, red-bellied woodpeckers, and northern cardinals.  In preparation for, and during their fall migrations, birds that nest here and elsewhere in North America, also gobble up pokeberries to help fuel their hazardous journey to their wintering grounds.  The list of neotropical migrants that dine on pokeberries includes the gray catbird, eastern kingbird, wood thrush, Swainson’s thrush, veery, summer tanager, and hooded warbler.  Later when the migratory birds that winter in the Peach state arrive, they rarely pass up the opportunity to feed on what pokeberries remain.  These birds include the likes of the hermit thrush, cedar waxwing as well as fox and white-throated sparrows.

                Chances are you have never seen some of these birds in your backyard.  With that in mind, if you want to enhance your chances of catching glimpses of these birds without leaving the confines or your property, while providing a nutrient-rich source of food for birds and other wildlife, find a place for common pokeweed on your land.