Tag Archive | Backyard Secrets

BACKYARD SECRET–RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD EAT LOTS OF INSECTS AND SPIDERS

       Most hummingbird enthusiasts believe plant nectar is the primary food of the ruby-throated hummingbird.  At the same time, they recognize small insects and spiders are essential to the rubythroat’s diet.  However, according to entomologist Dr. Doug Tallamy, renowned native plant proponent, and a growing number of hummingbird experts, hummingbirds are actually insectivorous birds that also consume nectar.  In fact, Dr. Tallamy has stated, Hummingbirds like and need nectar but 80 percent of their diet is insects and spiders.”

       Research conducted by biologists at Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology seem to corroborate this claim.  When the researchers trapped and followed the movements of a female hummingbird for two weeks never once did she eat any nectar.

                       

BACKYARD SECRET–NATIVE BEES ARE OFTEN MORE EFFICIENT POLLINATORS THAN HONEY BEES

       As odd as it may sound, many of our native bees are at least three times more efficient pollinators as the introduced honeybee.

       Take for example the bumblebee: many of us grow blueberries in our yards.  Many pollinators including honeybees and bumblebees visit the blueberry plant’s creamy white flowers.  Studies have demonstrated that a honeybee would have to visit a blueberry flower four times to deposit the same amount of pollen as a bumblebee can in only one visit. 

       In addition, native bees are more common than honeybees in many of our yards.  Unfortunately, few honey bees visit the flowers in my yard.  Luckily, tiny solitary, bumble, and carpenter bees are routinely seen visiting a wide range of flowers found there.

       This summer, as you walk around your flower and vegetable gardens take note of the bees you find pollinating your flowers.  If you do, don’t be surprised if you see very few honeybees and an abundance of native bees hard at work pollinating the plants that provide you with food and a cascade of beautiful flowers.

       I am convinced that we are guilty of underestimating the value of the 532 species of native bees that can be found flying throughout Georgia.

BACKYARD SECRET–INVERTEBRATES COMPRISE MOST OF THE CAROLINA WREN’S DIET

      The Carolina wren is one of our favorite backyard birds.  Most of us are likely to either see or hear one in our yards every day of the year.  In my case, I hear the bird’s loud tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle from early morning until dark.  Although Carolina wrens will occasionally visit our feeders (especially in winter), we rarely see them feeding away from our feeders.  That being the case, have you ever wondered what these hyperactive active birds eat throughout the year?

       The answer to that question is a wide variety of invertebrates such as insects, spiders, caterpillars, and millipedes.  These small animals comprise a whopping ninety-five percent of the Carolina wren’s diet.  Since a Carolina wren must eat slightly less than half an ounce of these critters, each day just to meet its body’s metabolic needs that means this wren is eating a lot of insects.  To put this in perspective, each month each of the Carolina wrens that inhabit your yards eats roughly a pound of some of the smallest and least revered members of our backyard animal community.

       I guess this explains why we rarely see a Carolina wren just resting. They must continually hunt to survive.  When we do catch a glimpse of one, it is hopping through our shrubs and gardens, or checking out the eaves of our houses, barns other spots where spiders and insects lurk. 

       They truly lead a very busy life away from our bird feeders.

BACKYARD SECRET – THE RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD CANNOT WALK

       There are many reasons why the ruby-throated hummingbird is such an amazing bird.  For example, no other backyard bird is capable of performing the aerial fetes routinely carried out by this master of flight.  In spite of its performance in the air, it simply cannot walk a step.  At best, the bird can only shuffle its feet sideways.

       The ruby-throated hummingbird’s legs and feet are both extremely small.  In fact they are so small, the only time the vast majority of us ever seen them is when a hummingbird is perched on a hummingbird feeder.

       A retired elementary school teacher told me that many of her young students did not believe hummingbirds possessed legs and feet.  She went on to say the only way she was able to convince them otherwise was to show them the mummified body of a hummingbird that flew into her garage and died before it could be rescued.

       It might seem that not being able to walk would be a hindrance.  Obviously, that is not the case with rubythroats.  These aerial dynamos feed primarily while remaining airborne.  The only exceptions of this seem to be when they are perched at a feeder or flower petal eating nectar.

       If fact, if hummingbirds were burdened with legs and feet large enough to enable them to walk or run, the added weight of the bones and muscles would undoubtedly prevent them from being true masters of the air.

BACKYARD SECRET — IT IS POSSIBLE TO TELL ONE DOWNY WOODPECKER FROM ANOTHER

       It is common knowledge that the male downy woodpecker has a red patch on the back of its head.  Female downies lack such a patch.  Knowing this, you can easily tell a male from a female downy woodpecker.

       However, did you know that you could distinguish between individual downy woodpeckers?  Remarkably, this is possible.  It seems that the black and white pattern displayed on the back of the head of each downy woodpecker is slightly different from that displayed by any other downy.  

       With that in mind, if you photograph or sketch the patterns displayed on the napes of each downy woodpeckers seen at your feeders, you can learn all sorts of neat things regarding the downy woodpeckers that feed in your yard.  You can determine how many individuals use your feeders.  It would also be possible to discover if some birds are more dominant.  You name it.

       This technique is similar to the one used by biologists to differentiate between individual zebras.  In the case of zebras, each animal has its own distinctive pattern of black and white stripes.

BACKYARD SECRET–THE HUMMINGBIRD HAS THE FEWEST FEATHERS OUT OF ANY OF OUR BACKYARD BIRDS

As remarkable as it may seem, the hummingbird is cloaked with fewer feathers than any other bird in the entire world.  Depending on the species, a hummingbird’s plumage is comprised of only 1,000 – 1,500 feathers.  In comparison, the emperor penguin is covered with 80,000 feathers.

BACKYARD SECRET–WOODPECKERS HAVE SELF-SHARPENING BILLS

        Whenever I see or hear a woodpecker chiseling into a tree, I ask myself the question, “How is it possible that the bills of woodpeckers never become dull? 

        I wish I were so lucky.  Whenever I am using a wood chisel, after continued use I have to sharpen the tool’s steel cutting edge, yet woodpeckers seem to drive their bills into wood seeming without ever having to stop and sharpen their pointed bills.

Photo credit: Terry W Johnson

        Remarkably, every time a woodpecker strikes a blow against a tree it is chiseling away wood and sharpening its bill at the same time.  What happens is the tip a woodpecker’s bill is covered with special cells that constantly wear off, leaving the bill as strong and sharp as ever.

        It is as simple as that.

BACKYARD SECRET–PINE WARBLERS ARE MOST OFTEN SEEN IN GEORGIA DURING THE WINTER

       We Georgians are fortunate that, since the pine warbler is a permanent resident throughout the state, we have the opportunity to see and hear it throughout the entire year.  However, it is not a coincidence that we see more pine warblers in the winter than at any other time of the year.

       One of the reasons for this is practically all of the pine warblers in the entire continent winter in the South.  Consequently, at this time of the year our resident birds are joined by untold numbers of pine warblers that nested outside the Peach State.  As such, the mere fact pine warbler populations are much higher the Peach State in the winter enhances the chances that we will see one.

       This warbler was named the pine warbler because of its long recognized affinity to pines.  This relationship was even known by John James Audubon.  Audubon dubbed the bird the pine creeping warbler. 

       During the breeding season pine warblers rarely venture far from pine trees.  In addition, they spend the vast majority of their time foraging for food in the canopy of pine trees.  Even when we hear a male loudly singing in the springtime, often we cannot see him since he is hidden in a dark green maze of pine needles.

       During the winter, things change dramatically.  During this harsh season, the invertebrates and their eggs that pine warblers relish are far more difficult to find than they are during the warmer months.  In addition, pine seeds are more difficult to locate.  This forces the birds to forage on or near the ground.  This makes them easier for us to spot them.

       Since the pine warbler is our only warbler that regularly eats seeds, during the winter it can also supplement its diet with grass, shrub, and forb seeds.  It is also true that when this warbler can find them, it will also eat berries.  In addition, during the winter insects and other invertebrates are often more abundant on or near the ground than atop pine trees.

       On a number of occasions, I have found pine warblers feeding in South Georgia far from pines in harvested crop fields.  Closer to home, it is not uncommon for me to find pine warblers looking for food in brushy field borders.

       Also, during this harsh season the pine warbler will abandon pinelands and venture into hardwoods and even cypress swamps.

       The bottom line is whereas those among us that have pines growing in our yards or nearby have a better chance of seeing a pine warbler throughout much of the year than those who live areas devoid of pine.  However, in the winter, when the bird is found in a wider range of habitats, and pine warbler populations are at a peak, almost everyone has a legitimate chance of seeing one of these birds.

       Of course, you will greatly enhance your chances of seeing this bird if your stock your feeders with foods that the birds prefer.  A list of these foods can be found in previous blog.  To access this post, simply go to the search feature on the right side of the blog and type in pine warbler.  When you press the return key, all of the previous columns dealing with pine warblers will appear.

BACKYARD SECRET–THE STARLING IS ALSO CALLED THE RICE BIRD

       Are you surprised to know the European starling is known as the rice bird?

       The name rice bird stems from the fact that during the winter the bird’s glossy white plumage is covered with feathers adorned with white or buffy tips.  These flecks of white are thought to resemble grains of rice.  As time passes, the white tips of the feathers gradually wear off so that by summer they are completely gone.

BACKYARD SECRET — BLUE JAYS HOARD CHIPS OF PAINT

       It is a well-known fact that many birds, including blue jays, hoard food.  However, some blue jays take hoarding to a new level.  It seems that at times blue jays will actually hoard chips of paint plucked from the sides of houses and other buildings.

       Nobody knows for sure why these large, handsome birds would ever want to hoard paint chips.  However, some suggest they use the chips as a source of calcium.  Who knows?