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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.

 

AMERICAN BEAUTYBERRY FRUITS CATCH YOUR EYE

       You cannot help but notice the American beautyberry in late summer and fall.  Although this deciduous shrub is inconspicuous throughout most of the year, when its fruits are ripe, they are impossible to ignore.

       The beautyberry’s fruits (actually drupes) are unlike anything else that you might find displayed in your backyard and beyond.  The plant’s showy fruits appear in clusters around the multitude of stems that characterize this native plant.  The berries are round and bright violet.  The color is so unique, I cannot think of another plant that produces similar fruit.

                   I have a number of American beautyberries growing in my yard.          Since I did not transplant all of them, I am certain they were planted by any one of a number of birds the relish their fruit as much as I enjoy gazing at the berries.  I will never know which of my avian neighbors planted these shrubs since more than 40 species of birds gobble up the fruit.  The list of potential culprits includes the northern mockingbird, northern cardinal, gray catbird, brown thrasher, northern bobwhite, eastern towhee, and American robin.

       When given a chance, the opossum, armadillo, raccoon, and others will also eat their share of the gaudy berry-like fruits.

       The American beautyberry will grow in partial shade and full sun.  It grows in a wide range of soil types and does not require a lot of water; however, it does best in moist soil.

       I learned long ago, there is no perfect plant.  Such is the case with the American beautyberry.  This hardy plant has a tendency to spread even without the assistance of my wildlife neighbors.

       If you do not already have American beautyberry growing in your yard, you might want to try it.  It will add to the plant diversity of your wildlife haven, provide food to the wildlife living in your backyard, and add a swash of unique color to your landscape.

SMALL TREES THAT WILL BRING FALL COLORS TO BACKYARDS

We Georgians know the fall foliage show in north Georgia far and away surpasses anything seen elsewhere in the Peach State.  However, there are a number of small native trees that grow throughout the state that display breathtaking fall foliage.  With that in mind, when planted in yard settings they can provide you and your family with a taste of fall color without making the trek to the mountains. 
FLOWERING DOGWOOD FALL FOLIAGE & BERRIES
Here is a short list of some of the small to medium-sized trees that you might want to consider will produce bright splotches in your backyard.
        Flowering Dogwood – Although this tree is well known for its beautiful spring blossoms, its fall foliage is stunning.  In autumn, the tree’s elliptical leaves vary from red to maroon.  Its bright red berries add immeasurably to the flowering dogwood’s autumn portrait.
        Sourwood – The fall color of this tree is bright red, and accented with clusters of green.
        Redbud – The redbud is plant more often for its purplish pink early spring flowers that its foliage.  However, in autumn, the tree’s heart-shaped leaves turn greenish yellow.
        Sassafras – The leaves of this small tree father either one or two lobes.  The two-lobed leaves look much like mittens.  Regardless of their shape, their red, yellow, or orange color rivals anything we see in the state.
        Blackgum – In addition to bearing bright red foliage in fall, this tree is a great source of food for many species of wildlife.

CORAL HONEYSUCKLE BERRIES PROVIDE FOOD FOR BACKYARD BIRDS

Most homeowners are familiar with the coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens).  This honeysuckle is often referred to as the “good” honeysuckle.  It is so named because folks want to make sure it is not confused with the highly invasive Japanese honeysuckle.

       Coral honeysuckle is a native evergreen vine that  bears long, bright red tubular-shaped flowers throughout much of the year.  These nectar-laden flowers are visited by ruby-throated hummingbirds and butterflies such as the cloudless sulphur.

       What is less known is the plant also produces red berries that are eaten by songbirds and other wildlife. 

While this hardy vine does not produce an abundance of berries, they sometimes provide much needed food  during times when berries are often scarce such as during late fall and winter.      

THE GRANCY GRAYBEARD DESERVES A PLACE IN YOUR YARD

 

The Grancy Graybeard, also known as the fringe tree, grandfather graybeard, snow flower tree, old man’s beard and a number of other colorful names is a perfect addition to both large and small yards across the state.

The grancy graybeard is one of the last flowering trees to bloom each spring in the Peach State.  For the past couple of weeks, my wife and I have been enjoying both the tree’s strikingly beautiful blossoms and aroma produced by a myriad of flowers.

This small native tree grows only ten to thirty feet tall.  I personally have never seen one more than fifteen feet tall.

       Before the tree’s oblong leaves appear, a riot of snow-white flowers erupt on its bare branches.  This startlingly beautiful floral show is created by literally thousands of slender flowers (up to an inch long and 1/16th of an inch wide).  Oddly, the male flowers are larger than the female blooms.

       If that isn’t enough to catch your attention, the delicate, sweet, clean perfume given off by these flowers will.  When in full bloom, the delicate sweet scent of the blossoms will waft many yards away from the tree.

       These unique blooms attract nectar feeders such as small beetles, bees and others.

       Later in the year female trees, bear a crop of blackish-blue fruit that are gobbled up by mockingbirds, cardinals, blue jays and other wildlife.

       In addition, this demure tree is a host plant for both rustic and laurel sphinx moths.

       This tree requires little, if any care.  Although it does best in moist, rich soils, once established it will grow in dry areas too.  The tree’s ability to live in both partial shade and full sun is another plus.

       With that in mind, I hope you will consider adding it to your landscape.  This tree is definitely a keeper.