Birds Go Buggy!

WE are in the middle of Summer on the coast which means it’s time to go to the beach, have cookouts in the backyard, enjoy outdoor festivals, dabble in gardening and make all kinds of outside fun we’ve been chomping at the bit to do, but it also means dealing with lots of pesky bugs! Summer becomes very buggy for most of us, so we need all the help we can get to stave off menacing insects that annoy, frustrate or bite us! The nursery volunteers at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport are currently helping raise and staff the Army of birds we call insectivores who will eagerly and proactively keep those nasty bugs away from us! A great many birds eat a great many bugs; bugs that do harm to our plant life, as well as, annoy the crap out of us, but we should consider ourselves lucky that numerous birds come to our rescue as they feast on the great flood of insects and other cold-blooded vertebrates that become active during the summer months. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers, Warblers, and other “canopy” birds feed on caterpillars that eat the leaves of trees. As soon as tiny insects hatch, the bugs begin feeding on the tiny soft leaves as they begin opening, and migrating birds and eventually, our annual hatchlings that fledge or songbird “raise & releases” from the shelter, will arrive just in time to recognize those bugs as dinner! Birds feed on big caterpillars, beetles, grubs, and other medium and large insects and spiders they find near the ground. Blackbirds, bluebirds, sparrows, crows, wrens, and other birds get a lot of protein by hunting and catching these same bugs. Red-winged Blackbirds eat both seeds and insects. Some birds, such as swallows, swifts, nighthawks, flycatchers, some warblers, and Cedar Waxwings scoop up insects flying in the air. Swallows, swifts and nighthawks will fly for hours at a time to catch insects on the wing. Flycatchers, warblers, and waxwings flutter out from branches when they spot a succulent insect and gobble it up! (There, that’s a few mosquitoes or flies that will not be landing on you!) Chickadees, nuthatches, creepers, woodpeckers and the Black-and-white Warbler find insect eggs, larvae or pupae in the crevices of tree bark. Woodpeckers can hear bugs chewing within the wood and dig them out! Those insects can do major damage to our trees. We usually think of hummingbirds as miniature, buzzing birds we provide sugar water or nectar for in our window feeder, but the truth is Hummingbirds get most of their nutrition and proteins by picking tiny aphids and other chewing insects from the surfaces of flowers and leaves and by snatching very tiny flying insects such as gnats in midair. Some people feed hummingbirds and small fly-catching birds by setting out chunks of banana and melon in a small mesh bag because they notice the immediate interest hummingbirds show, but it’s really the tiny fruit flies that swarm the fruit that they really want. Some birds, called generalists, eat a wider variety of insects than others. The Yellow-Rumped Warbler is an example of a generalist. Watch out bug, whatever you are, YRWs will not discriminate, and they will eat you! The top songbird insectivores in our coastal North Carolina airspace who help humans de-bug immensely are the petite Chickadees and Carolina Wrens and medium-size birds; American Robins, Northern Mockingbirds, Purple Martins, Chimney Swifts and Flycatchers. The Chickadee’s favorite snacks are beetles and caterpillars, flies and wasps. Wrens prey on ants, millipedes, beetles and grasshoppers. Our American Robins eat a wide variety of insects but are usually noticed most when tugging earthworms out of the ground. Mockingbirds are quite territorial and aggressive when it comes to hunting and prey mostly on grasshoppers, beetles and tree ants. You may see Purple Martins zooming through the sky during early morning or at dusk. They feed mainly on flying insects and occasionally, fire ants. Also, high in the sky, you may hear the chattering of Chimney Swifts who are putting a huge dent in your mosquito population. A group of Swifts in your area will eat up to 12,000 mosquitoes, termites, flies and other insects every day. Although omnivores, Flycatchers and Brown Thrashers add a huge portion of flies, spiders, moths, beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers, crickets, cicadas, sow bugs, bees and wasps to their diet that includes fruits, nuts and berries. If you have any of these birds nearby, you can be sure they are helping lessen the pest populations near you and your home. If you are a gardener, maintaining your garden won’t be as great a chore due to the natural and most perfect pest control you can ever have, insect-eating birds. These birds are of vital importance to our ecosystem and must be protected. Scientific research and resulting data show that the total biomass of wild bird-consumed insects amounts to between 400 and 500 million tons. Wow! On the average, individual birds consume more than 100 times their own body weight in bugs. That figure is amazing because it’s roughly equivalent to the weight of meat and fish consumed each year by humans. Many of our insect-eating bird species are declining or endangered due to habitat loss, widespread pesticide use, hunting, infrastructure mortality and predation by free-roaming cats. If we can not arrest the threats to these birds, the invaluable ecosystem services they provide will be lost forever. We need more near-natural forested areas for many songbird species, rather than tree plantations that only support a few species. It can be overwhelming to look at the global picture of this dilemma, but we each can do something where we are with what we have. Protect and value your backyard birds. The young songbird insectivores being raised at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter now, will be coming to help you soon and rid your yard of damaging and pesky bugs. Please, welcome and cheer on these little bug zappers!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

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“Goslings In The Road!”

Wildlife babies are everywhere! Some are where they should be, in the wild, some are being raised by wildlife rehabilitators until their release into the wild, such is the case at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport right now because it is infamous “Baby Season” and some, unfortunately, are in the most dangerous, precarious and inappropriate places they can be, such as ‘IN THE ROAD,’ especially Canada Geese! Yes, Canada Geese are here and very familiar to us because they are the most widely distributed geese in North America. They are easy to spot by their size and their grayish-brown plumage except for their stately black head, long black neck and whitish chest which extends to their underbelly. They sport characteristic white patches on the cheeks that run under its chin like a strap, which is commonly referred to in fact as a “chin strap.” Their large webbed feet and wide, flat bill are also, black. The bill has lamellae which are miniature ridges inside the bills of water-feeding birds or “teeth” around the outside edges of the bill that are used as a cutting tool. These big boys and girls have a wingspan up to 70 inches and weigh between 7 to 14 pounds with the female being about 10% lighter. Geese are grazers, and they walk as they graze. Of course, they are capable of flight, but walking uses far less energy and conserving energy is what wild animals do whenever possible. When geese fly short distances, it’s like a human sprinting. Yes, they can move fast but tire quickly. Saving flight for longer distances is more energy efficient. Also consider that geese practically need a runway to take off. If they have recently given birth to a clutch of goslings, flying is out of the question. Goslings can’t fly yet and their parents, who are extremely protective, would never leave them behind. Hatchlings are covered with yellowish down, their eyes are open, and they will be walking and swimming within 2 days of birth. They will follow their parents, usually in a straight line, wherever they go. Canada Geese, our goose friends from the north, come to North Carolina to have their babies and have become accustomed to road traffic. They are intelligent, although we question that when we see them in the road, but they know it’s just silly to go further away from the road to get a running start to fly over a road. The length of their run for take-off is longer than the width of a road. Geese have keen hearing and acute vision. They are big, strong, can be aggressive and are less susceptible to predation than most other waterfowl. Hawks and Owls are airborne dangers for goslings, but you won’t see those predators coming down into traffic. Juveniles are also at great risk of predation by other birds such as crows and gulls, fox, raccoons, coyotes, minks, bears, dogs and snapping turtles, but we don’t usually see them in traffic either. Geese have come to know that, and geese can easily avoid traffic, if the traffic is accommodating. However, it’s the drivers on the road who become a problem for the geese when they don’t stop or make way for them, as well as creating a major problem for every compassionate human who cares about the safety and security of the parents and their brood. Spring has sprung when we see so many geese and goslings along our roadways, in the medians and crossing the road. It’s freaky to be sure to see them there, close to or in the road, but let’s be real; there are some good grasses and insects off the shoulders of roads, near retention ponds and in the very grassy and food-plenty medians the cities maintain. Although many animals can’t digest grass, a goose’s digestive system is made for exactly that food item! Canada Geese are highly social creatures and outside the breeding season are usually seen in groups, and because they are flocking animals, they demonstrate their strong compulsion to remain bunched together as a defensive strategy. During breeding season, it’s usually Mom and Dad with their gaggle of young ones, but there might be quite a few parent couples with their children in one area. That’s what we see along the roadways on the coast of North Carolina. While grazing, goose parents take on a lookout’s role to scout for predators and keep danger at bay, but they can’t stop a moving car. So, we the drivers, must be careful, considerate and diligent enough to drive slowly in their presence just in case we need to come to a complete stop if the family decides the grass is greener on the other side of the road. There are, of course, stories of uncaring and reckless drivers plowing through an entire geese family and wiping them out. No one wants to hear that. No one wants to see that, and no compassionate human being and especially a wildlife rehabilitator wants those incidents to happen. Sad to say, but we have orphan goslings at the shelter now who have traumatically experienced such horror. Please watch out for them and allow them to be. Once the goslings become flighted, the whole family will graze elsewhere. The young will stay with their parents, who mate for life, for at least a year and although they reach reproductive maturity around age two, most will not breed until they are four years old. Since geese have become so accustomed to cars and traffic, we humans who drive, should also become accustomed to the presence of geese families, especially during this time of year. Let’s all, including our geese, have a great Coastal Summer!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All