WILL ANY NEW BIRDS VISIT YOUR YARD FEEDERS THIS WINTER?

       We backyard wildlife watchers have good idea what birds we will likely see at our feeders each winter.  For example, the lineup of resident birds that I expect to see at my feeders includes year round residents such as chipping sparrows, downy woodpeckers, house finches, Carolina wrens, tufted titmice, eastern towhees, northern cardinals, and mockingbirds.  In addition, the winter residents that typically make an appearance at my feeders are ruby-crowned kinglets, as well as both song and white-throated sparrows.  Most years I never see a pine siskin or purple finches.  During those times when large numbers of pine siskin’s and purple finches invade the south, I might see them every day. 

       However, if you are like me, you are always on the lookout for a visitor that you have never seen in your backyard.  I know my chance of spotting one of these rare birds is slim.  However, according to an analysis of the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count data, if this trend continues, our chances of seeing a rare winter warbler in the southeastern states might be increasing.

       For example, during last year’s Christmas Bird Count, a number of warblers that typically spend the winter outside our borders never left the United States.  This list of warblers these unusual winter residents includes the prothonotary, chestnut-sided, blue-winged, American redstart, yellow and Tennessee.

       This report has bolstered my hopes that one of these neotropical migrants will decide to spend some time in my yard.  However, even if one does not show up, I know I am going to have a great time watching the regular diners at my backyard bird smorgasbord.

BACKYARD SECRET–RUBY-CROWNED KINGLETS DON’T REQUIRE MANY CALORIES TO SURVIVE

       Although I have studied wildlife my entire life, I find that my thirst for knowledge regarding these fascinating animals is far from being slaked.  In fact, I honestly believe it has increased.  One reason for this is that the nuggets of information I uncover constantly amaze me.  For example, I recently stumbled across a fact concerning the ruby-crowned kinglet that is nothing short of unbelievable.

       The ruby-crowned kinglet is a winter resident in Georgia.  However, due to the habitat it occupies while it is spending the winter here, unless you went out looking for the bird, you might not realize that it is one of your backyard neighbors.  

       The ruby-crowned kinglet spends its time foraging for food among the limbs, branches, and foliage found from the tops of trees to thick shrubs looking for its favorite winter foods such as tiny insects and other invertebrates as well as their eggs.  They also dine small berries and seeds.    These tiny birds seem to be full of energy, constantly flitting about from spot to spot on their endless quest for food.  As such, you would think that they are constantly burning up huge amounts of energy. 

       According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, such is not the case.  Studies of the ruby-crowned kinglet’s metabolism have revealed these remarkable birds suggest that it may only use approximately 10 calories a day.  This is unbelievable!  I do not know of any other backyard bird that burns up so few calories per day.

       I am now determined to learn more about this astounding claim.

    

HOMEGROWN BUTTERFLY FEEDER

       Recently, a hard freeze brought an abrupt end to the growing season of many of our nectar plants.  The next morning when my wife and I walked outside and looked around the yard, it was not a pretty sight.  Mexican sunflower, cosmos and other plants were drooping and their flowers withered.  It was obvious that the butterflies that were still flying about our yard were in for some hard times. 

       Later in the morning when we noticed a cloudless sulphur was trying to nectar at a dead Mexican sunflower blossom, we decided try to come to the aid this and any other hardy survivor of the freeze.  Since we have not enjoyed great success attracting butterflies to commercial butterfly feeders, we decided to set out a couple of homegrown butterfly feeders.

        We immediately moved a pot containing several pineapple sage plants in full bloom to a spot near the dead Mexican sunflowers.  Talk about immediate gratification–within minutes a cloudless sulphur appeared and began nectaring on the pineapple sages’ long, scarlet blossoms.

       Encouraged by our success we later positioned a couple of containers containing scarlet sage to spots around the yard.  Since we have not experienced another frost since that time, we have enjoyed watching cloudless sulphurs and gulf fritillaries visiting our homegrown feeders every day.

       Our ability to take this action was due to the fact that we grow a number of nectar plants in large containers.  Once we heard of the impending, hard freeze we moved pots containing pineapple and scarlet sage either up against the side of the house or inside our sunroom.

       We realize that providing food for a handful of butterflies after a frost killed most of their food supply means little to the populations of gulf fritillaries and cloudless sulphurs.  However, it means a lot to handful of butterflies that are benefitting from our efforts.  In addition, it has made us feel good.

EATING FIRE ANTS MAY HELP FENCE LIZARDS DEVELOP AN IMMUNITY AGAINST FIRE ANT VENOM

        Since fire ants were accidentally introduced into the United States during the twentieth century, they have plagued both humans and native wildlife.  However, findings of research conducted by biologists at Pennsylvania State University suggest that fence lizards that eat fire ants increase their immunity to the fire ant venom. 

       The researchers found that blood tests of the fence lizards that consumed dead fire ants three times a week developed three different types of increased immunity against the fire ant venom.

       It is interesting to note that being stung by the fire ants did increase the lizards’ immunity against future stings.

MISTLETOE IS FAR MORE THAN A SYMBOL OF CHRISTMAS

       With our preoccupation with attracting backyard wildlife with supplemental foods such as suet and seeds, it is easy to overlook the fact that those backyards that often attract the greatest variety of numbers of backyard wildlife are also home to a variety of native plants.  One of the most underappreciated plants that inhabit the yards of many of us is American mistletoe.

       Whenever the subject of the mistletoe arises, more often than not one thing comes to mind; most people regard the plant as one of the treasured symbols of Christmas.  Supposedly, if a couple passes through a door adorned with a sprig of mistletoe bearing berries, it is permissible for them to share a kiss.  At the end of the kiss, the couple is supposed to remove one of the berries.  However, it is out of place for a couple to steal a kiss beneath a berryless frond of mistletoe.

       Although this popular legend has been around for centuries, few realize that mistletoe is also an important food plant for many forms of wildlife ranging from insects to birds and mammals.  This very different side to the mistletoe should further endear the plant to everyone that shares an interest in wildlife.  Let me explain.

       This widespread parasitic plant is the host for the great purple hairstreak.  This beauty is the only Georgia butterfly that lays its eggs on the mistletoe. 

       Mistletoe also produces both pollen and nectar that feed countless insects.  Bees frequently avail themselves of the food offered by mistletoes.  Ants, native bees, honeybees, flies, also visit the plant’s tiny flowers.

       Mammals such as white-tailed deer, gray squirrels, and eastern chipmunks eat mistletoe.  Deer are particularly fond of the mistletoe’s protein-rich foliage.

       Many species of birds eat mistletoe’s white almost translucent berries.  Each berry contains two to three seeds that and enveloped in extremely sticky flesh.  Among the birds that gobble up mistletoe berries are cedar waxwings, eastern bluebirds, eastern meadowlarks, American robins, northern flickers, purple finches, blue jays, dark-eyed junco, white-breasted nuthatches, American goldfinches, and eastern towhees.

       Now that you know that mistletoe is a valued wildlife food plant, are you willing to say mistletoe is far more than a magical Christmas plant?  I am.

SEEING A RARE BIRD AT YOUR BIRD FEEDERS IS ALWAYS EXCITING

      Now that we are on the doorstep to winter, activity around our bird feeders is going to increase.  In fact, during the winter our feeders will be visited by more birds than at any other time of the year.  When this occurs, we are always on the lookout for a rare bird.  Some rare visitors to our feeders, such as the yellow-headed blackbird, are easy to spot.  However, others such as hybrids are much more difficult to identify.  One such hybrid is a cross between a white-throated sparrow and a dark-eyed junco.

       The white-throated sparrow winters throughout Georgia.  On the other hand, the dark-eyed junco commonly winters across the entire state, with the exception of extreme southeast Georgia.  However, in New England and Canada portions of their individual breeding ranges overlap.

       For reasons that are not fully understood, these birds will occasionally interbreed and produce offspring.  The resulting hybrids will display traits of both parents.  Since the combinations of these plumage patterns vary widely from bird to bird, trying to figure out what you are looking at is often perplexing.  For example, in the case of dark-eyed junco/white-throated sparrow hybrids, observers have reported birds with the wing pattern of a white-throated sparrow and the head pattern of a dark-eyed junco. Other birds look much like white-throated sparrows but sport the white outer tail feathers of dark-eyed junco.

       In order to spot one of these hybrids, you must carefully study the flocks of sparrows that converge on your feeding area.  With a little luck, you will spot any bird that just does not seem to to look right. 

       If you see a bird that is a potential hybrid, take lots of pictures of it and share them with others (please include me on this list).  Sometimes it takes many people to reveal the true identify of a hybrid.  

       White-throated sparrow/dark-eyed junco crosses are more common than you might think.  Such birds have been seen in many states such as Minnesota, Arkansas, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, Virginia, Connecticut, and even Georgia.  Who knows?  There is no reason why the next sighting of this fascinating bird may occur in your backyard.

PINEAPPLE SAGE IS GREAT FOR LATE SEASON HUMMERS AND MORE

        There are at least 60 species of salvias.  In addition, more than 50 cultivars of these popular plants are also available.  There are so many varieties of salvias available it is difficult for Georgia gardeners to decide which are best for their gardens.  If you are looking for salvia that blooms late from late summer into fall and provides nectar for hummingbirds, butterflies, native bees and other pollinators, I recommend you plant pineapple sage (Salvia elegans).

       This plant is native in Central America.  Here in Georgia it is  either a tender perennial or annual.  While it is susceptible to cold weather, some gardeners report that when mulched it can survive winter temperatures that plummet as low as 5˚F.

       One of the things I like about pineapple sage is that it begins blooming late in the summer and will continue producing blooms until the frost ends its growing season.  Consequently, in autumn, it is providing nectar when it is often a scarce commodity.

       Although ruby-throated hummingbirds have been gone from our yard for weeks, they did nectar at the plants long tubular-shaped blooms before they left.  However, the main beneficiaries of its nectar are now cloudless sulphur and sleepy orange butterflies, and native bees.

       Over the years, many folks that have been lucky enough to attract wintering hummingbirds have told me that rufous hummingbirds frequent the pineapple sage’s striking red blossoms.

       Pineapple sage grows to be 3-4 feet tall and 3-4′ wide.  It seems to prosper in spots bathed in both morning and afternoon sunshine.  Pineapple sage also needs frequent watering. In addition, they do best in rich, well-drained soil.

       The plants are easily propagated from cuttings.  Young plants should be transplanted as soon as the threat of frost has passed in your neck of the woods.

       As you might expect, the blooming period in the southern half of the state is considerably long that it is in Middle and North Georgia.  However, regardless of how long is blooms, when it is blooming it provides pollinators with a valuable source of food while at the same time adding beauty to our yards.

                 Cloudless Sulphur on Pineapple Sage

       My wife and I bring our potted plants inside in the winter.  The pineapple sage growing in our yard is mulched during the winter.

       With the freezing weather forecast during the next several days, it is time for us to protect our pineapple sage before it is too late: This is one plant we do not want to lose.

BACKYARD SECRET–FEEDER BIRDS CAN TASTE THEIR FOOD

      One of the joys of eating is that we can taste our food.  As such, it is one of the reasons why we prefer some foods to others.  In the not too distant past, few folks held the belief that birds also have a sense of taste.  We now know this is not the case.

       Whereas we have about 9,000 taste buds, the birds that visit our feeders possess only 50.  Consequently, they must rely heavily on sight and touch to select foods.  Instead of being located on its tongue, a bird’s taste buds are located near the tip of its bill as well as the floor and roof of its mouth.

A BEAUTIFUL PLACE FOR BUMBLEBEES TO SPEND A COOL FALL NIGHT

       The Confederate rose brings spectacular beauty to yards across Georgia.  However, my wife, Donna, and I have found that its showy blossoms are also used as places for bumblebees to escape the cold on chilly autumn nights.

       This large multi-stemmed shrub or small tree was brought to North America in the 1600s.  Since then it has been widely planted throughout the Southeast.  It popularity stems from the fact that, from late summer until frost, it bears scores of white blossoms that measure up to six inches in diameter.  These flowers eventually turn light pink before finally becoming rose-colored.

       While my wife and I thoroughly enjoy the beauty the flowers bring to our yard, our discovery that these stunning blooms provide bumblebees with warm refuges on chilly fall nights has heightened our appreciation for the plant.

       For quite some time, I had not given any thought to this interesting behavior until late one afternoon this past week.  Late one afternoon I noticed that my wife, was looking deep into the one of the blossoms adorning a Confederate rose growing alongside our driveway.  I walked up to find out what had caught her attention.  When she said she was looking at a bumblebee that had settled in for the night deep inside a Confederate rose bloom, I peered down into the throat of the flower and spotted the insect.  As we stood nearby discussing her find, a couple of other bumblebees flew into other blossoms.

       When I returned to the flowers well after dark, sure enough, the bumblebees were still there awaiting morning when temperatures warmed to the point where they could utilize the muscles that control their wings and fly away.

       A number of animals seek cover on chilly nights.  Many birds and mammals retreat to natural cavities, nesting boxes, thick vegetation, and other places.  However, I doubt that many spend cold nights nestled in cover as beautiful a Confederate rose blossom.

       If you have a Confederate rose growing in your yard, before the blossoms nipped by a frost, as the sun is setting check them out.  If bumblebees are still flying about in your neck of the woods, chances are one or more might be using some of gorgeous blooms for nighttime cover also.

IS IT A GOOD IDEA TO FEED BIRDS IN AUTUMN?

        Back in the day, most bird enthusiasts never fed seeds to birds during the autumn months.  Nowadays fall bird feeding is quite popular.  However, if you are currently offering sunflower seeds, millet and other delicacies to birds in your backyard, have you ever wondered if this causes more harm than good?

       The truth of the matter is it appears fall bird feeding is more beneficial than harmful.  Some go so far to say that fall feeding discourages birds from migrating.  However, the truth of the matter is it appears fall bird feeding can actually benefit birds.  Here are a few reasons why this is the case.

       Seed eating migrants actually benefit from your efforts.  The reason for this is during migration they deplete the stored fat that fuels their flight south.  An abundant supply of seeds offered at feeders allows them to quickly refuel and continue on to the winter homes.

       An abundant supply of seeds also allows resident birds to build up the fat reserves they need to survive cold weather.  This is especially important during those years when acorns and other seeds hard are hard to come by.

       While it is true, that, for many birds, autumn is a time of plenty–food seems to be everywhere.  However, as the year moves on into December and beyond, these food supplies will be exhausted.  Consequently, the seeds provided by your feeders become increasingly more important to seed-eating birds.

       Finally, feeding birds in the fall provides you with some great wildlife watching opportunities.  Not only do you enjoy tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees and others permanent residents making endless trips to and from you feeders, but you also get to see southbound birds that might have passed over your yard on their way south.  This year, for example, this fall backyard wildlife watchers were able to catch glimpses of rose-breasted grosbeaks.  For many, they only see this bird in the spring.

       The bottom line is, if you keeping your feeding area clean, fall feeding can benefit wild birds.