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

Advertisements

“Summer Bird Feeding”

There’s always the big debate whether bird enthusiasts should feed wild birds in the Summer, mainly because some folks believe the birds will become dependent on handouts, too lazy to look for natural food sources and supplemental feeding could alter their migration behaviors. Research has proven that three-fold theory to be untrue. Studies show that wild birds typically receive no more than 25 percent of their daily food from feeders, and for numerous backyard species the percent is even lower. We, at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter (OWLS) in Newport, believe, as well as other professionals in wildlife fields, summertime is a perfect time to feed wild birds for a variety of reasons. Of course, at OWLS, we release many birds on our property that are raised and rehabilitated during baby season, therefore we keep the feeders plentiful for the young birds to take advantage of the food offered until they feel confident to wing away on their own or have met up with bird elders who show them the way. Feeding backyard birds is beneficial to the birds and rewarding for the home owners who enjoy seeing and listening to gorgeous birds and observing their interesting behaviors. Although, if we choose to feed, it is important to understand the needs birds have in the summer and how we can provide a suitable birdie buffet. In the summer the days are long, so there is ample time for bird watching where we can identify and appreciate different species in their more colorful breeding plumage. If convenient food is present, bird families may choose your yard for nesting and raising their young. Watching nestlings mature is extremely joyful for most birders. There is a bounty of natural foods, such as fruits, insects and seeds, in the summer, so birds may only visit a feeder briefly, especially if they have hatchlings in their nest. However, stocking your feeders with nutritional bird diet favorites will attract a variety of summer bird species. The best foods to have on hand are seeds, especially black oil sunflower seeds, mixed seed (millet, corn, thistle, safflower and sunflower) and Nyjer, which attracts Finches, Sparrows, Buntings and Mourning Doves. Cardinals, Catbirds and Tanagers will eat grains and seeds, but they also love fruit such as apple chunks, banana slices and orange halves that can be presented on a platform feeder or stuffed into a hanging suet feeder. Wrens, Grosbeaks, Warblers, Bluebirds, Mockingbirds, Robins and Brown Thrashers, who are all insect-eating birds, will appreciate a dish of mealworms and although fresh is best, they will not snub dried meal worms added to seed mixes. Raw peanuts, shelled or whole, gets Blue-Jays, Chickadees, Titmice and Nuthatches very excited, but don’t offer coated or seasoned nuts which are dangerous for wild birds. No-melt suet is appetizing for Woodpeckers, Jays, Chickadees, Starlings, Thrashers and Grackles, as well as, a great source of energy and convenience if they are caring for hungry nestlings. Some birders put jelly out as a treat, which Robins, Gray Catbirds and Orioles enjoy, but as with any “sweet” thing, jelly could put ants on the march and in the heat, jelly can go rancid. So, if you decide to provide this sweet treat, it should be offered early morning in a small amount and the dish removed before the day gets too hot or the ants arrive. We all love our little jets, the hummingbirds, who draw nectar from flowers. To supplement their feedings we can offer sugar water (1 part sugar to 4 parts water, i.e. ¼ cup sugar and 1 cup water) in a special hummingbird feeder which will entice them to stop by. It’s important not to put too much sugar in the mixture to protect their liver and kidneys. Hummingbird feeders need to be changed out and cleaned every 4 – 5 days to prevent fungus which will cause infection, tongue swelling, starvation and death. You might also find orioles, woodpeckers and nuthatches taking sips from this feeder or resident bats who discover the feeder at night! Some foods that should not be offered would be in the category of kitchen scraps such as bread and rice (which is considered junk food because they provide no nutritional value and would be a death sentence for nestlings), peanut butter (which is ok in the winter but will melt in the summer becoming a hazard to a bird’s feathering) also spoils on hot days due to the high oil content). Soft suet blends will breakdown in the heat too and grow mold and bacteria that can be dangerous to birds. The down side to Summer Bird Feeding doesn’t involve the birds at all. It’s our responsibility to keep the feeders clean to ensure the food remains mold and bacteria free. Clean feeders will prevent diseases the birds could contract such as an eye condition called conjunctivitis, which is an affliction birds are admitted to our wildlife shelter with every summer. Their eyes are infected and crusted over which renders them blind until we can treat and clear that up. We know the bird has been eating at a dirty feeder. Also problematic are the other animals that could be attracted to your feeders, the largest being a bear! Bears in the backyard puts pets and property at risk, so to make your yard less appealing to bears, you could take your feeders down each evening, or as this author does, put out a rationed amount of seed mix and other food items in the morning and when it’s gone, it’s gone until tomorrow. That way, the night roaming critters will not be enticed to come into your yard and eat your backyard birds’ food. A few tips to also be mindful of if you choose to feed are: a) position your feeders away from windows or make your windows more visible by using anti-reflective techniques to prevent bird strikes, b) choose shaded areas for your feeders to minimize spoilage, c) use mesh or open feeders to allow seed to dry out if it gets wet, d) keep your cats indoors and discourage feral or free roaming cats from trekking through your yard, e) view feeders as only supplements to a bird’s natural foods and f) always CLEAN YOUR FEEDERS routinely to avoid mold, bacteria or fungal growth. NO FUNGUS AMONGUS! If you consider yourself to be an avid bird watcher and you are going to feed backyard birds, you might as well go all the way and provide a bird bath to keep them hydrated with fresh water, clean and full of summer fun (for you and them)! Overworked bird parents will enjoy a dip at their spa to cool off! Backyard birding is a pleasure and an honor. Those fragile little beings chose your yard to visit, eat, sing, play and raise their babies because you made healthy and compassionate choices for them. Many people agree, especially birders, that there is no better way to enjoy a Summer day than sitting on your deck or patio while watching a variety of adult and fledged birds at feeders and birdbaths! Spectacular!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

“Son of the Sun!”

Blog_2015Jun_EasternBluebird-27527-2EEastern Bluebirds have been enjoyed and respected throughout history as legends within many cultures. Native Americans believe Bluebirds are the symbol of Spring. The Cherokee believed they predicted or even controlled the weather. Navajo and Pueblo tribes associated bluebirds with the sun and refer to them as “Son of the Sun,” but no matter what anyone calls them, bird enthusiasts enjoy watching these brilliant, royal blue song birds flit through the sky up to 17 miles per hour doing their Spring things. At the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter, we recently admitted a nest of Eastern Bluebirds after a home owner found the nest on the ground with four newborns in it. No one knows the back story, but that happens quite often when rescued Spring babies are brought through our door at 100 Wildlife Way in Newport. The very clean, tiny bluebirds were immediately examined and found injury free. They were immediately placed in a nursery incubator, hydrated and fed a diet of mealworms. Two thirds of a bluebird’s diet consists of caterpillars, beetles, crickets, grasshoppers and spiders in the wild, so mealworms substitute nicely in place of what Mom or Dad would have brought home for them. On rare occasions Eastern Bluebirds have been recorded eating salamanders, shrews, snakes, lizards and tree frogs. In fall and winter, bluebirds eat large amounts of fruit including mistletoe, sumac, blueberries, black cherry, tupelo, currants, wild holly, dogwood berries, hackberries, honeysuckle, bay, pokeweed and juniper berries. Male Eastern Bluebirds are vivid, deep blue above and rusty or brick-red on their throat and breast. Blog_2015Jun_bluebird_LT_2733EThe blue in birds always depends on light sources, and males often look plain gray-brown from a distance. Duller but elegant in color females are bluish-gray above and tail with a subdued orange-brown breast. The Eastern Bluebird is a small thrush with a big, rounded head, large eyes, plump body and very alert posture. The flight wings are long, but their tail feathers and legs are fairly short. The black bill is short and straight. You will see Eastern Bluebirds perched very erect on telephone wires, posts and low branches in open country where they scan the ground for prey. They feed by swooping down to the ground onto insects which they can spy from 60 feet or more away. Blog_2015Jun_A_LT_2775_EThey can also snatch an insect in mid air. Bluebirds commonly use nest boxes humans provide (4 to 6 inches square with a 1.75 inch entrance hole) as well as old woodpecker holes that are several feet above the ground. Eastern Bluebirds live in meadows and openings surrounded by trees that offer suitable nest cavities. With the proliferation of nest boxes and bluebird trails, bluebirds are now a common sight along roads, field edges, golf courses and other open areas. If bluebirds remain in a region for the winter, they usually group and seek cover in heavy thickets, orchards or other areas in which adequate food, water and cover resources are available. Mating occurs in the spring and summer. As a courtship display, the male may sing and flutter his wings in front of the female with tail partly spread, and while perched close together, pairs may preen each other’s feathers. The male may even feed his chosen female and bring her nesting materials. Eastern Bluebirds are usually monogamous and the pair will return to the same nesting area each year. A mature female typically raises two broods each season with the first brood staying close by to continue learning bluebird ways, help raise the new youngsters and to occasionally beg for supplemental feedings. Blog_ 2015Jun_Bluebird eatingEEastern bluebirds are very social birds, and at times they gather in flocks of a hundred or more, but they are territorial during breeding season and will defend their feeding and nesting area by attacking (grabbing at the other bird’s feet, pulling at feathers with their beak and hitting them with their wings) to drive them away. Construction of a nest is done primarily by the female and takes around 10 days to complete. The nests are small, cup-like structures lined with grass, feathers, pine needles, stems and hair. The female incubates the 3 to 7 light blue or, rarely, white eggs, which hatch after 13 to 16 days. Although the male is quite the vocalist, he will refrain from singing during incubation to prevent predators from finding the nest location. Bluebirds are born naked except for sparse tufts of dingy gray down, their eyes are closed and they are a bobbing mess of clumsy, so the young cannot care for themselves after hatching. The female broods the chicks for up to seven days. Both parents are very neat housekeepers who remove the infants’ fecal sacs and continually refresh the nest with new nesting materials. Fledglings are grayish in color, with speckled breasts. The blue color becomes more prominent and the speckles on their breasts disappear as they mature. Fledglings then leave the nest 15 to 20 days after hatching. Both parents cooperate in raising the young, which they feed a diet consisting almost entirely of insects. Bluebirds may begin breeding the summer after they are hatched. Bluebird numbers declined significantly during the 60’s due to loss of habitat and predation but have bounced back due the initiatives of human intervention to include the mounting of Bluebird boxes and the creation of birding trails. The global breeding population number has now been placed at 22 million, with 86 percent of bluebirds spending part of the year in the United States. Eastern Bluebirds don’t visit feeders often, if at all, but they are a great prospect for nest boxes if you have the space to put one up in your yard, and if your yard isn’t too hemmed in by trees or houses. And remember, they do eat insects, so a few bluebirds in your area will help keep those pesky critters at bay. Maybe that’s one of the reasons Bluebirds are also a symbol of happiness! Blog_2015Jun_bluebirdEConsider putting up a nest box to attract a breeding pair. Make sure it’s up well before breeding season and attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young. Natural predators of eggs and nestlings include flying squirrels, black bears, fire ants, raccoons, snakes and chipmunks. Adult bluebirds have to be on the lookout for owls, falcons, domestic cats and most varieties of hawk. An Eastern Bluebird’s longevity is 6 to 10 years if they beat the odds of predation, extremely cold weather or starvation. The oldest recorded Eastern Bluebird was 10 years and 5 months. So, binoculars up, everyone! We don’t want to miss that streak of vibrant blue happiness jetting through the sky and across the sun!

Happy Summer, Everyone!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse, author of  “Save Them All