Now that the nesting season is in full swing, the birds nesting in our backyards face formidable odds trying to fledge their young. As we all know, many nesting attempts end in failure due the fact predators eat both eggs and young.
A list of the better-known nest predators includes crows, blue jays, raccoons, rat snakes, and opossums. However, there are a number of other animals that also eat eggs and/or nestlings. For example, would you believe deer mice, flying squirrels, and eastern chipmunks also raid bird nests?
I find it amazing that cardinals, mockingbirds, bluebirds, and other backyard nesters are able to raise as many young as they do.
Up until a few decades ago, biologists believed that as many as 93 percent of songbird families practiced monogamy. However, since the development of DNA fingerprinting in the 1980s, we now know some birds that appear to be devoted mates will stray.
This earth-shattering realization came about quickly. For example, by 2002, researchers discovered that up until that time a meager 14 percent of the songbirds tested were truly monogamous. Research has shown 19 percent of the nests of supposed monogamous birds are home to at least one nestling that was sired by a father different from the rest of its nest mates.
A few of the backyard birds that are promiscuous are the eastern bluebird, ruby-throated hummingbird, house finch, and red-winged blackbird.
It would appear that some of our backyard feathered neighbors live soap opera lives.
Have you ever given any thought of trying to provide nesting hummingbirds with a source of nesting material? I must admit while I have placed pieces of cotton in a wire suet feeder in the spring hoping it might be used by nesting birds, I never considered the possibility the white fibers might be used by a ruby-throated hummingbird. However, three events have caused me to change my mind.
Several years ago, I presented a hummingbird program to a garden club in southwest Georgia that met in the home of one of its members. While I was setting up my projector and screen, the host asked me if I ever heard of a hummingbird using cotton to build a nest. I told her although I had not, I could see how hummingbirds might incorporate cotton in a nest.
She then went on the explain that she had seen a female hummer collect cotton in her backyard. It seems she planted a cotton seed in a pot that sat near her house. The seed germinated and grew into a healthy plant festooned with balls of cotton. Since the plant looked attractive, she left it in pot throughout the winter.
The following spring while she was standing in her living room, looking out across her patio a female hummingbird flew down, plucked some cotton fibers from a cotton ball, and flew up to a nearby tree. The bird repeated this behavior several times. Although she never actually saw the bird using the cotton to build a nest, she surmised that is what the little bird was doing.
I was reminded of this homeowner’s experience last week when I received an email from a man relating that he had witnessed a female hummingbird collect a bit of cotton from a suet feeder filled with cotton batting. This prompted him to search for a nest. Remarkably, his efforts paid off and he discovered a hummingbird nest close by.
Earlier this week I mentioned this event to a cousin. He was so intrigued by the story he went out and bought a wire suet feeder, filled it with cotton, and hung it out near his home. Unbelievably before the sun set he spotted a female hummer pulling strands of cotton from the feeder. Now he is looking for a nest.
With this kind of success, perhaps this is something we should all try. Even though a hummingbird might not avail itself of the cotton we offer, chances are other nesting birds will.
Since you are a wildlife enthusiast, at this time of the year you are probably spending a lot of time gardening for wildlife. With that in mind, I would like to suggest that you consider adding spotted horsemint (Monarda punctata) to your home landscape. In addition, to producing a bevy of gorgeous purple-spotted blossoms that are accompanied by creamy to pink bracts framing each cluster of blossoms, this native perennial is also a butterfly and hummingbird favorite.
The spotted horsemint (also known as spotted beebalm) grows up to three feet tall. It prefers sand, and well-drained soil types although it will set its roots in other soils too. Plants seem to do best when planted in full sun. In addition, spotted horsemint can withstand dry conditions.
This plant produces a multitude of stems and spreads via rhizomes. As such, I find it is best to plant it in spots where it will not compete with other plants.
I should also mention this native wildflower is resistant to deer browsing. This is a real bonus as many homeowners are faced with the problem of hungry whitetails devouring their favorite flowering plants and shrubs.
Planting spotted horsemint in your garden is an excellent way to enhance the wild plant diversity in your backyard.
One of the most abundant birds visiting my feeders right now is the brown-headed cowbird. I find it remarkable this bird is so common since it does not build a nest or raise its own young; these tasks are left to others. Indeed, it is the epitome of a nest parasite.
Biologists tell us the brown-headed cowbird has been documented laying its eggs in the nests of more than 220 species of birds. This includes the likes of the northern cardinal, warblers, brown thrasher, eastern phoebe, sparrows, tanagers, gray catbird, northern mockingbird, and even hummingbirds. In addition, 140+ species of birds are known to have raised young cowbirds.
During the nesting season, a female brown-headed cowbird lays an egg per day over a period spanning forty days. Rarely does she lay more than one egg in a nest.
One the average only three percent of the young cowbirds will successfully fledge. While this may not sound like many, at this rate a cowbird population can double itself every eight years.
If the number of cowbirds currently visiting my feeders is any indication of the numbers of cowbirds that have successfully fledged during the past few years, the brown-headed cowbird population is definitely on the rise in my corner of the world.
Dragonflies are beginning to make their appearance in our backyards. These aerial predators are on the prowl looking for mosquitoes and other small insects.
The first species to show up in my backyard this spring was the common whitetail (Plathemis lydia). The male of the species (depicted here) is not difficult to identify. Its body varies from white to pale blue. This dragonfly’s eyes are brown. The insect’s clear wings are marked with wide bands about halfway between the tips of its wings and body. The leading edge of this bands display slender streaks that project toward the tip of the wings. The insect measures roughly 1.5 – 1.9 inches in length.
The bodies of immatures and females are brown and marked with white lateral stripes. The wings of immature males resemble those of adult males. In comparison, one of the main differences between the pattern of the female’s wings and those of the adult male is they are tipped in brown and black. Since immatures and females are sometimes tricky to separate from other similar species, it is always best to consult a field guide when trying to identify them.
It is possible to see common whitetails in yards across the state, however, chances are best if you live near water.
Here in the Peach State common whitetails fly from March into early November.
April is a great time to see spring migrants in your backyard. However, many homeowners see few of these beautiful birds as they pass through their yards en route to their breeding grounds simply because they are not looking for them at the right times. However, by closely watching changes in the weather, you can predict when to focus your search efforts for these often-elusive birds.
Throughout the month of April, birds are streaming home from their wintering grounds south of our borders; some of the birds pass over your yard nightly. As such, you have the opportunity of spotting some of these birds in your backyard, if you have the right habitat. For example, many migratory warblers prefer to set down in forests. If you yard has the most mature trees in your area, you are really in luck as migrants sometimes congregate there in large numbers.
Northbound migrants prefer to fly with warm, southerly tailwinds.
In comparison, if a cold front suddenly brings chilly winds out of the north accompanied by either dry or rainy weather, migrants will often drop down from the skies and wait for more suitable flying weather.
Another great time to see migrants occurs when your yard is located along the southern edge of a low system bearing rain.
Migrants will also interrupt their migration when faced with poor visibility brought about by clouds, rain, and foggy weather.
When a large number of migrating songbirds suddenly appears in a small area the event is called fallout. During these special times you sometimes have the opportunity to see a dozen or more species that otherwise would fly over your property.
Unfortunately, these amazing assemblages of birds do not last long. As soon as the weather changes, they are on the wing again. With that in mind, if any of weather conditions I have mention occur in your corner of the world this month, take the time to search the treetops in your yard before heading out to work. If you do, you just might be lucky enough to witness every birder’s dream– a fallout.
The spring bird migration is in full swing. During the past few days, I have heard orchard orioles singing from the trees surrounding my house, watched a male indigo bunting at a feeder stocked with white millet, and even spotted rose-breasted grosbeaks feeding on sunflower seeds. These are but a few of the birds winging their way back home from their exotic winter residences. Although some of these birds will visit your seed feeders, others such as warblers and vireos will remain hidden in the treetops foraging for insects. If you want to catch a glimpse of them, you will need a powerful incentive to entice them away from their leafy feeding areas. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to install a dripper in your birdbath.
For reasons we do not fully understand, birds are almost magically drawn to the sight and sound of moving water. When you equip a birdbath with a mister or dripper you greatly enhance the chance it will attract the attention of birds that otherwise be difficult to see. I know folks that have spotted six or more species of warblers sharing a birdbath equipped with mister.
I have personally witnessed the drawing power of moving water in my yard. Late one summer I installed a dripper on one of my birdbaths. Up until that time, I had seen birds such as northern cardinals, tufted titmice, eastern bluebirds, northern mockingbird, eastern towhees, and others make forays to the birdbath to bathe and drink. However, I was amazed how much the frequency of their visits increased when I began using the dripper. In addition, later in the year I spotted birds that I not seen previously at the birdbath became regular visitors.
There are several ways you can create the sight and sound of dripping water. I use a device made just for the purpose. It hangs on the edge of the birdbath. A small hose runs from the device to an outside spigot. Water is regulated with a tiny valve located near the birdbath. This allows you to adjust the water flow ranging from a fine mist to a steady drip.
A dripper can also be made by simply hanging a hose over a branch above the birdbath. Adjust the water flow so that a very slow steady drip falls into the water below.
A dripper can also be fashioned from a plastic milk or soft drink bottle. Simply hang the bottle over the water. Poke a small hole in the bottom of the container. The size of the hole and the tightness of the bottle cap determine the rate of flow. The device works best if the bottle cap is loosened or removed.
Georgians love hummingbirds. Each year residents from Woodbine to West Point, Bainbridge to Helen and countless cities and towns in between Peach State hummingbird enthusiasts spend hours enjoying the beauty and aerial acrobatics of the bird John James Audubon called “glittering fragments of the rainbow.”
Remarkably, although these tiny dynamos enjoy immense popularity, Georgians are not doing all they can to provide habitat for these tiny dynamos. Realizing this Garden Club of Georgia and the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Section (formerly known as the Nongame Wildlife Conservation Section) and The Environmental Resources Network (TERN) have launched an ambitious initiative named the Hummingbird Haven Certification Program.
The goal of the effort is to encourage homeowners to combine hummingbird feeders with an abundance of nectar-bearing plants in yards. Hummingbird experts agree that the folks that attract the most hummingbirds to their yards are those that combine offering both feeders and an abundance of nectar-bearing plants.
The initiative is part of the more than two decades old award-winning Community Wildlife Project (CWP). This program has successfully promoted the concept that wildlife is a very important part of the communities in which we live. It has shown Georgians that, with a little planning and effort, we can provide our wildlife neighbors with the food, water and cover they need to prosper while at the same time beautify the communities in which we live.
Over the years, thousands of certifications have been awarded for areas large and small. Habitats have ranged backyards, neighborhoods, assisted living facilities, cities, towns, and even a county. These efforts have benefitted a wide variety of birds, mammals, butterflies and other wildlife species.
As the name suggests, the Hummingbird Haven certification is designed to encourage and recognize those Georgians that are doing outstanding jobs providing hummingbirds and abundance of food and cover throughout the entire year.
While the ruby-throated hummingbird is the only species of hummingbird that nests in the Peach State, eleven other species have been reported here. This list includes the rufous, Allen’s, Anna’s, broad-billed, broad-tailed, black-chinned, magnificent, calliope, green-breasted mango, buff-bellied and green violet-ear. Most of these birds are only seen in Georgia during the winter, which has been called Georgia’s second hummingbird season.
The focal point of the program is to provide hummingbirds with a dependable supply of nectar supplied by plants throughout as much of the year as possible. The plants that provide this natural food include a long list of trees, shrubs, perennials, biennials, annuals and vines.
However, not all flowering plants are good nectar plants. For example, although popular plants such as daffodils, forsythia and crepe myrtle, are beautiful they offer hummingbirds and other nectar-feeders little food. As such, the initiative encourages homeowners to plant excellent hummingbird nectar plants alongside garden favorites that provide little or no nectar.
Since hummingbirds are found in Georgia throughout the entire year, The Garden Club of Georgia, Georgia Wildlife Conservation Section and TERN Nongame Wildlife Conservation are asking folks to plant a variety of plants that provide nectar throughout as much of the year as possible. Believe it or not, there are actually nectar plants blooming in Georgia in the winter.
As for hummingbird feeders, homeowners are asked to maintain at least one feeder in their yards throughout the year. These feeders provide a dependable source of food when little is blooming nearby. Feeders also allow hummingbirds that are preparing to migrate to consume a large amount of food in a short period of time with little effort. They also provide migrating hummingbirds with food-rich rest stops along their migration pathway. Then when the migration is over, they offer wintering hummingbirds with much-needed food during the time of the year when natural nectar is scarcest.
If you would like to see if your yard qualifies as a true Hummingbird Haven, there are three ways to do so. You can send a stamped, self-addressed size 10 envelope to Hummingbird Haven, Georgia Wildlife Conservation Section, and 116 Rum Creek Drive, Forsyth, Georgia 31029. You will be sent a Hummingbird Haven application for certification. You can call Melissa Hayes at 478-994-1438 and request an application. In addition, the application can also be obtained by emailing Melissa Hayes at Melissa.Hayes@dnr.gov. Once you complete your application and return it to the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Section, it will be carefully evaluated. If you qualify, you will receive a certificate that acknowledges all that you are doing for the tiny birds. In addition, you will be eligible to buy an attractive metal Community Wildlife Project sign from the Garden Club of Georgia.
If your application is rejected, you will be advised what you need to do to earn certification.