THE WILDLIFE CHRISTMAS TREE

If you were asked to name four plants that are associated with Christmas, what would you say?  You could not go wrong if you listed the holly, poinsettia, mistletoe, and the Christmas tree.  All of these plants will always be inexorably linked to this special holiday.  However, in the hearts and minds of most Americans, the plant that symbolizes Christmas more than any other is the Christmas tree.

       Each year millions of Americans center their celebration of this special holiday around the Christmas tree.  A number of different kinds of trees are used as Christmas trees.  According to The National Christmas Tree Foundation, the ten most popular Christmas trees are, in descending order of popularity,  the Frazer fir, Douglas fir, Colorado blue spruce, Scotch pine, eastern red-cedar, white spruce, eastern white pine and Virginia pine.

       However, throughout much of the 20th century, for most Georgians, the Christmas tree of choice was the eastern red cedar.  Most of us refer to this evergreen tree as simply cedar.  The tree is abundant, has a natural “Christmas tree” shape, and fills a room with the pleasant aroma of cedar.

       Nowadays, the popularity of the cedar has waned.  Some folks are buying artificial numbers fabricated from aluminum or plastic.  The majority of those that still use a natural tree are choosing firs, spruces, pines, or Leyland cypresses over the cedar.   

       Fortunately, for our backyard wildlife neighbors, eastern red cedars are showing up in home landscapes with increasing regularity.  This is due in large part to tree’s attractive conical shape, resistance to disease and drought and low maintenance.  It should not be overlooked that it is also so valuable to wildlife and deserves the title of The Wildlife Christmas Tree.  

       Unfortunately, in spite of the fact that the eastern red cedar provides wildlife with food, nesting sites and protection from the elements and predators, its importance to wildlife is rarely appreciated.

       This native cedar can be found growing throughout most of the eastern United States.  It ranges across 37 states from as far north as New England south to Georgia and west to Texas.  It is a common tree throughout most of Georgia, with the exception of our coastal counties.

       This is the cedar commonly found growing around abandoned house sites, vintage homes, and old cemeteries and along fence lines.

       The eastern red cedar is an extremely adaptable plant.  It can be found with its roots sunk into the damp flood plains that hug our rivers all the way to dry, red clay hilltops.  About the only place is does not do well is under a heavy forest canopy.

       More often than not, the cedars we see growing in fencerows have been unknowingly planted by birds.  Cedar seeds are very hard and often pass unscathed through a bird’s digestive system.  When a bird perches on a fence and leaves behind a dropping containing cedar seeds, the hard seeds often germinate and eventually become a young tree.

       Eastern red cedar trees are ideally suited for most yards.  These long-lived (300+ years), slow-growing evergreen trees can reach a height of 60 feet or more and measure two feet in diameter.

       Here in the Peach State, eastern red cedars bloom in February and March.  Small (1/4″) fleshy, greenish, blue berry-like cones mature from October to December.  Each cone usually contains two hard seeds.  The cones often persist until the following March.  This is extremely important as they provide food for wildlife throughout the winter when food is often hard to come by.

       One of the great things about red cedars is that they can be relied upon to fruit annually.  Bumper crops are produced every second or third year.

       Hosts of animals eat eastern red cedar foliage and fruits.  For example, both rabbits and deer will consume the foliage.

       More than two dozen birds dine on eastern red cedar fruits.  This impressive list includes such backyard favorites as the American robin, northern mockingbird, brown thrasher, mourning dove, eastern bluebird, and cedar waxwing.  As you might expect, cedar waxwings are extremely fond of this winter food.  The berry-like cones are also eaten by wild turkeys and quail.  Coyotes, opossums, chipmunks, and even armadillos consume them.

       The tree is also the host plant for the beautiful, petite juniper hairstreak butterfly.  This often-elusive butterfly spends its entire life in close proximity to cedar trees.  Females lay their eggs on the cedars.  Upon hatching, the caterpillars eat cedar foliage.

       Even the adults are invariably found on the trees.  Often the only way that you can hope to see a juniper hairstreak is to tap on the trunk of a cedar tree.  If the butterflies are present, they will briefly fly upwards before settling back into the thick, green foliage again.

       A number of birds build their nests in cedar trees including northern cardinals, brown thrashers, northern mockingbirds, American robins, and common grackles.

       The tree’s dense foliage makes it ideally suited for escape cover.  Birds will often fly into cedars to escape pursuing hawks.  Also, cedar trees provide protection against rain, snow, and sleet.  In fact, during the winter, the interior of a cedar tree provides an ideal roosting spot on cold, blustery winter nights.  At least 21 species of birds use the trees as roosting sites.

       Some of the birds known to roost there are chipping sparrows, northern cardinals, wild turkeys, and eastern screech owls.

       I strongly suspect wintering hummingbirds such as the rufous hummingbird also roosts in these trees since I often find that they are frequently the only good roosting sites available in yards frequented by these western migrants.

       It appears that the eastern red cedar may never again be the most popular Christmas tree in the Georgia.  However, the fact it is prospering throughout the state and is even becoming an integral part of backyard landscapes insures that this tree will remain an important wildlife plant well into the future.

       On Christmas eve, when I look at the my Christmas tree surrounded by lovingly wrapped presents, I will find it comforting to know that not too far from my backdoor stands my large wildlife Christmas tree.  Although no colored lights hang from its spreading boughs, on the ground beneath it, there will be untold numbers of tiny blue nutrient-rich presents ready to be discovered on Christmas day by my hungry wildlife neighbors.  And when I pull up the covers and drift off into sleep, I will know that the birds roosting in the tree are protected from the harshest winter weather.

       If you are planning to build a new home on a site where one or more eastern red cedars are growing, leave them standing.  On the other hand, if no cedars are growing in your yard, plant one or more.  In either case, you will be giving your wildlife neighbors gifts that never stop giving.

 

  As such, by offering our backyard neighbors with a dependable source of food, nesting sites, and cover, it deserves to be called the wildlife Christmas tree.

© Terry W. Johnson originally published in “The Out My Backdoor” column featured in Georgia Wild E-Newsletter

georgiawildlife.com/archive

A PERFECT CHRISTMAS GIFT

If you are searching for a gift for someone on your Christmas list that shares your passion for the natural world, a good choice would be my latest book entitled,

A Journey of Discovery.  

 

This 267-page volume covers a wide range of plants and animals that are part of the fabric of Georgia’s natural heritage.

       Here is a brief list of a few of the more than 70 chapters contained in the book:

America’s Long Love Affair With The Hummingbird

Counting Hummingbirds Is No Easy Task

Black Bluebirds And Other Backyard Oddities

A Buffet For Wood Ducks

How Do I Deal With An Angry Bird?                                             

Water Moccasin or Watersnake—That Is the Question                

Luna Moths—Nighttime Beauties                                            

Fox Squirrels—The Forgotten Ones                                           

Our Fascination With Antlers                                              

Zinnias And I Go Back a Long Way                                    

Redbuds Are Stealing The Show                                           

Owls, Folklore And Halloween                                                 

The Origin Of Thanksgiving                                                     

The Basics Of Winter Bird Feeding                                       

Butter—Kids And Birds Love It                                 

Taking Time To Watch                                                          

How Wildlife Copes With The Heat                                          

Can Local Birds And Plants Predict The Weather?                        

The Backyard Olympics                                                           

Do Released Bass Live To Fight Another Day?

The book can be purchased at your local bookstore or at The Monroe County Reporter in Forsyth, The Bird Store in Macon or online at Amazon and other booksellers.

BACKYARD SECRET: WHAT ACCOUNTS FOR THE MOST DEATHS AROUND BACKYARD BIRD FEEDERS?

 According the  a study of bird feeding in the United States and Canada called ProjectFeederWatch, window strikes are  responsible for more deaths at feeders than cats, hawks or any other factor.

       This conclusion is based more than 2,000 deaths reported during the study.  According to the analysis of these data, nearly half of all deaths are caused by birds striking windows. If these data are correct, the study leaders estimate that one in ten birds might be killed by flying into buildings annually.

       While this is indeed a cause of concern to those of us that feed birds in our backyards, these deaths might represent only two or less percent of North America’s fall bird population.   

       This conclusion is based on volumes of data collected by literally thousands of citizen scientists that submitted detailed logs a wide range of subjects relating to their bird feeding programs.

       This monumental study was sponsored by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Bird Studies Canada, National Audubon Society, and the Canadian Nature Federation.

FEEDER TREATS FOR DOWNY WOODPECKERS

For most of us, the downy woodpecker is the most common woodpecker that visits our feeder.  This tiny woodpecker is only about the size of a house sparrow (6 1/2 – 6 3/4″ long).  Indeed, it is so small that it holds the title of being the smallest woodpecker in North America.  However, what it lacks in size, it makes up with being one of the most energetic birds to grace our backyards.  It seems to always foraging for food.

       If you would see downy woodpeckers more often at your feeders this winter, here is a list of some of their favorite feeder foods.

       While the downy woodpecker will eat plant material, it primarily feeds on animals such as both adult and immature insects.  As such, one of the first foods should offer at your feeder is suet.  As we all know this insect substitute is made from animal fat.

       Unfortunately, the very best suet is hard to come by.  This suet is suet rendered from the hard, opaque fat that surrounds beef kidneys.  The very best way to obtain this suet is to buy it directly from a butcher.  Sadly, most of us do not know a butcher.

       This means that we have to buy suet cakes.  These cakes are made from animal fats. These fats are soft and can come from anywhere on an animal carcass.  Whereas beef suet does not melt when the temperatures rises, suet cakes typically do.  Fortunately, for us, downy woodpeckers will eat suet cakes.

       The best way to feed suet cakes is to offer them in inexpensive mesh suet feeders. 

       Downy woodpeckers are also fond of sunflower seeds.  For reasons that I cannot explain, downy woodpeckers seem to eat sunflower seeds more often in some locales than others.  In my neck of the woods, they seem prefer suet and whole, peanuts to sunflower seeds.

       Hulled peanuts are a great downy woodpecker food, however, sometimes hard to come by.  However, if a store that specializes in birding-related items is located nearby, you are in luck.  The peanuts are best offered to the birds in special cylindrical whole peanut feeders.

       Downy woodpeckers are also known to eat cracked corn as well as a wide variety of dairy products and baked goods.  The list of these foods includes doughnuts, American cheese, coconut, and bread.

       If downy woodpeckers eat other food items at your feeders, please let me know.

GREAT LATE SEASON NECTAR PLANT

        If you are like me, in spite of the fact it is late November, butterflies are still flying about your backyard.  During the past few days I have seen or have had heard of zebra heliconians, cloudless sulphurs, sleepy oranges, fiery skippers, common buckeyes, common checkered skippers, pearly crescents and both American and painted ladies feeding in backyards in Middle Georgia.

       Remarkably, I still have a few plants that are still providing these butterflies and other wild pollinators with food.  However, one of the plants that has proven to be one of the best sources of late season nectar and pollen is a butterfly bush named sky blue (Buddlea davidii).

       This is a miniature butterfly bush that anywhere from three to four feet tall and three feet in diameter.  This makes it ideal for large and small gardens as well as large pots.

       In my area, the plant has extended blooming season from late spring well into late fall.  In fact, right now it has as many blooms on it as it has displayed all year.

       The purple flowers are both beautiful and fragrant.  In fact, the blossoms’ fragrant honey scent is especially pleasing.

       It grows in zones 5-9 and does well in a variety of soil types ranging from loam to the clay-type soils found in my yard.  It does best in soils with a pH ranging from 5.5-7.0.

       This small butterfly bush has been a pollinator magnet for weeks on end.  However, its nectar and pollen are perhaps more important to the wild pollinators right now than at any other time this year.

       Try sky blue and let me know how it does in your backyard.

 

A WEALTH OF INFORMATION IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR FINGERTIPS

When you visit the blog, are you experiencing difficulty finding information about a particular backyard animal or plant?  If so, whenever you log on and follow the simple procedure described below, you will be surprised how much information regarding a myriad of subjects is ferreted away in the blog’s rapidly expanding files.

       Instead of scrolling through the scores of blogs that have been posted on the blog so far, all you have to do to locate information about any subject covered by the blog is go to the search bubble on the right side of the current blog.  Once there, type a word the best describes your area of interest. 

       For example, if you want to know what has been written about bluebirds, type in the word bluebirds.  After a brief wait, all of the blogs that mention bluebirds will appear in the left column.

       I think you will agree it would be difficult to make a search any simpler.

      And if you ever have a question or interest that you would like for me to blog on, send your email request to backyardwildlife@yahoo.com

BACKYARD SECRET: EARTHWORMS

Would you believe that most of the earthworms found in the United States are not native to North America?  It is true.  Most of these invaders hail from Europe and began wiggling their way through our soils as early as 1620.  It is thought that they either inadvertently hitchhiked they way in the ballast of ships or in the soil the accompanied plants brought to the New World.