Tag Archive | Backyard Secrets

BACKYARD SECRET–NOT ALL EASTERN TOWHEES HAVE RED EYES

       When we are watching the birds living in our backyards, are we REALLY looking at them?  For example, the eastern towhee is a common backyard resident throughout the state of Georgia.  In spite of the fact that we are likely to see the bird scores of times over the course of a year, more than likely most of us do not know the color of an eastern towhee’s eyes.  This is because we rarely take the time to look at a common bird long enough to note any of its subtle features.

       The truth of the matter is throughout most of Georgia eastern towhees have red eyes.  In comparison, those towhees that reside in extreme south Georgia have white eyes (sometimes referred to as yellow eyes).  In fact, white-eyed eastern towhees also abound in Florida and south Alabama.  Towhees displaying both red and white eyes inhabit the vast area between south Alabama and southeastern North Carolina.

EASTERN TOWHEE with red eyes

       Ornithologists believe that the first white-eyed towhees originated in Florida during the Pleistocene era. At that time, Florida was a large island.  When the seas began to retreat Florida was no longer an island.  This allowed populations of towhees with white eyes to move northward.

       If you live in extreme south Georgia, or in that portion of Georgia located between south Alabama and southeastern North Carolina, take a closer look at the towhees feeding on the ground beneath your feeders.  Who knows, towhees with white eyes may have been dining on your food offerings for quite some time and you did not even know it.  If you live elsewhere in the state, there is always a chance to you might see a towhee with white eyes too.

       As for me, I live in an area where I have a reasonable chance for seeing a towhee with white eyes.  Although I have been looking such a bird for decades, I have only seen towhees with red eyes.  Perhaps 2022 with be the year I will spot both. I hope so.

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.

    

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.

BACKYARD SECRET–BLUE JAYS DON’T RELOCATE MOST OF THE ACORNS THEY HOARD

       Blue jays are currently busy hoarding acorns.  Whereas some birds and mammals store acorns in a single spot, such is not the case with blue jays.  These handsome birds hide each acorn they gather in a separate spot throughout the territory they will occupy throughout the winter.  It is hard to believe that a blue jay might bury an acorn it plucked from your lawn at a spot more than a mile away.

       Since a single blue jay can hoard up to 107 acorns per day, you might wonder how in the world it remembers every spot where it has buried an acorn.  The truth of the matter is it doesn’t.  Studies have found that a blue jay only retrieves roughly a quarter of the acorns it stashes away each fall.

       In other words, each day that a blue jay is collecting and hiding acorns it is potentially planting 75 acorns.  Obviously, some of these acorns will rot; other critters will consume some of them.  The rest could potentially germinate and develop into new oak trees.

       One might say that blue jays are playing a key role in replanting our precious forests.  Looking at it another way, a single blue jay plants vastly more trees than any of us in a week than most of us do in a lifetime.

BACKYARD SECRET – MALE AMERICAN GOLDFINCHES OUTNUMBER FEMALES

        It has been estimated male American goldfinches outnumber females.  The ratio of this imbalance is three males to every two females.

       Researchers have not determined why this is the case.  One theory is it is due to the fact males live longer than females.

       Do you see more male American goldfinches than females in your yard?  I am certain I do not know if the ratio holds true in my backyard.  However, I am going to find out.

BACKYARD SECRET–BUTTERFLY WINGS ARE ACTUALLY TRANSPARENT

       It is hard to believe that the colorful insects that are often called flying flowers possess wings that are actually transparent.  Let me explain.

       It seems that butterfly wings are composed of a rugged material called chitin.  This same substance comprises the exoskeletons of all butterflies.  The thin layers of chitin found in a butterfly wing is actually transparent.  The colors seen in a butterfly’s wings stem from literally thousands of loosely attached tiny scales covering each wing.  Some 600 scales/sq. millimeter blanket the surfaces of the wings of some butterflies.  These scales contain pigments that reflect light.  The colors we see on the wings of the butterflies we spot flitting around our yards are the result of the types of scales and the amount and kinds of pigments they possess.

       Butterflies constantly lose scales as they age.  Consequently, some of the individuals of the same species we spot are less colorful than others.  When we see pale versions of species, we know these individuals are much older than those that display more iridescence and color.  In some cases, butterflies lose so many scales it is difficult or even impossible to identify them.

      

BACKYARD SECRET–TUFTED TITMICE ARE HOARDERS TOO

       There are a number of animals that hoard seeds in our backyards.  This list includes eastern chipmunks, gray squirrels, Carolina chickadees, and blue jays.  There is another bird you can add to this list of animals that prepare of the winter by storing up supplies of food. 

       It might come as a surprise to know that the tufted titmouse is yet another bird that hoards sunflower seeds and other foods to help it to survive lean times that are common during winter.

BACKYARD SECRET–SOME BROWN THRASHERS MIGRATE

       Since the brown thrasher lives in Georgia throughout the entire year, it is easy to believe it does not migrate.  However, banding studies have revealed some brown thrashers migrate while others stay at home.  Consequently, ornithologists classify this master songster as a partial migrant.

       Banding studies have revealed that some brown thrashers that breed in New England make their way to the Carolinas and Georgia in the winter.  By the same token, brown thrashers that breed east of the Mississippi are often regular winter residents across a broad swath of the South from Arkansas to Georgia.

       Consequently, when you see a brown thrasher scratching away the leaves beneath one of your shrubs this winter,  you have no way of knowing whether it has been living in your backyard throughout the year or recently made the flight to Georgia from Massachusetts, Ohio or other state far to the north of the Peach Strata. 

       As for me, I care not whether the thrashers I host in the winter are permanent residents or not.  I am just glad they chose to winter close to my home.

BACKYARD SECRET–SPIDERS ARE BIG EATERS

        Remarkably, spiders annually eat more insects than bats and birds combined.  In spite of this, they are one of the least appreciated animals that inhabit our yards. 

       With that in mind, the next time that you spot a spider in your garden, don’t kill it.  Spiders play a key role in the ecology of our yards.  As such, they help control all sorts of insects and other invertebrates.  In addition, they are important sources of protein for scores of animals such as birds.  For example, tiny ruby-throated hummingbirds and great crested flycatchers are just two of the birds that dine on spiders.

BACKYARD SECRET–THE BILLS, FEET & LEGS OF AMERICAN GOLDFINCHES CHANGE COLOR

     The American goldfinches that we see at our feeders right now (August) are in their breeding plumage.  However, as we all know, the American goldfinches that visit our backyards in the winter appear to be totally different birds.  This is because after the close of the breeding season the birds undergo a feather molt.  As a result, a dull and somber winter plumage replaces their bright and beautiful breeding plumage.  However, it is not commonly known that the color of the goldfinches bill, feet and legs change along with the feather molt.

       At this time of the year, they are pale yellow.  However, outside of the breeding season they are grayish brown.  This change can best be appreciated if you compare the color of the feet, legs and bills of the American goldfinches you are currently seeing, with those of the bird in the photo (taken in winter) that accompanies this blog.  The difference is truly remarkable.