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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The “Regal” Purple Martin!

She was built like a race car; smooth, sleek and shiny black with an aerodynamic head. From the beginning, the adult Purple Martin did not enjoy her stay at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport and probably couldn’t figure out why she was there, but a day earlier she had a moment of stillness on the ground long enough for a human to pick her up, place her in a box and transport her to our shelter. For an individual to be able to do that with a wild bird is evidence that something isn’t right. A thorough examination revealed no injuries or illness, so theories were shared that she may have been knocked out or stunned by running into something or maybe because of the heat, dehydration occurred. We didn’t know how long she’d been on the ground without food or water, so keeping her with us for a couple days while providing hydration and a steady diet of mealworms and crickets would ensure she wasn’t malnourished when returned to the wild, but she wasn’t having any of it! She refused to eat, even though nestlings were chirping and gaping all around her in the nursery while being fed every 30 minutes. She watched them eat, but she was not a baby and would not be doing that. She hid behind a basket of youngsters when feeding time began and would not accept mealworms offered her by tweezers or allow a wildlife rehabilitator to open her mouth to drop a few worms in. That was not going to happen; how undignified!! With no food or water, she would only get weaker, so this could not continue. She was removed from the enclosure with the young birds, even though there were a few juvenile Purple Martins present we thought she could relate to and placed in a transport bin by herself. A pile of mealworms and crickets were dropped into the bin, and the bin was covered so she could not see us, and we could not see her. In a half hour, she was checked on, and although Purple Martins eat on the wing, most of the mealworms and all the crickets were gone. Good Girl! How about some more? She ate to her tummy’s content, and that evening she was assimilated with a well-known flock of Purple Martins living in a wetlands area that provides three, man-made Purple Martin condos. When the lid of her transport carrier lifted, she rapidly flew to join her kind, who were vacuuming the sky of insects for their evening meal, and we could tell she was one much relieved bird. The Queen was happy and where she needed to be. The Purple Martin is North America’s largest, broad-chested swallow. They have stout, slightly hooked bills, short-forked tails and long, streamlined and tapered wings. Their wingspan is between 15 – 16 inches, and they fly gracefully and swiftly with a mix of flapping and gliding. Adult males are black and lustrously shiny. When the light catches that shine, they look dark blue-purple. Females and immature Purple Martins are black on the top side but have splotches of gray around the throat and sport light gray feathering on their chest and belly. Purple Martins like to talk to each other in chortles, rattles, gurgling and croaks. Purple Martins are aerial insectivores which means they catch insects such as dragon flies, house flies, wasps, moths and butterflies in midair, as well as, drink and bathe during flight. The birds are alert and nimble hunters and do eat a variety of winged insects but not mosquitos. We must leave that task to the Chimney Swifts and Fly Catchers who hunt at a lower level. Rarely, will a Purple Martin come to the ground to eat insects because they usually fly higher than most insectivores when they hunt. However, recent research has found Purple Martins occasionally feeding on invasive fire ants. Purple Martins are colonial, therefore feed and roost in flocks, often with other species of swallows mixed in. They feed in open areas, especially near water and in our area of the east coast, nest exclusively in boxes and martin houses provided by humans who appreciate their value. That human initiative goes back to the Native Americans, who once hung empty gourds to attract Purple Martins. Martins do very well near caring humans, but it’s a look but don’t touch relationship. Purple Martin condos should be monitored because very aggressive and non-native species birds such as Starlings and House Sparrows are known to invade a Martin condo in a take-over and possibly kill their nestlings. Advocates for Purple Martins are extremely concerned that the Purple Martin will simply disappear from eastern North America if human condo security is not provided. In the west Purple Martins search out natural cavities for nesting. The nest inside the cavity, condo or gourd is made of twigs, mud and small stones, then lined with grasses and leaves. Three to six white eggs are laid, and the female is the main incubator for 15 – 18 days. A pair of martins will generally raise only one brood per year, with both male and female alternating the feedings of the nestlings. Fledging occurs in about a month after birth, but the parents continue to feed them while teaching them to hunt. Purple Martins are highly social birds and migrate in large, noisy flocks to winter in South America at the Amazon Basin or the Barba Azul Reserve. They show up in Eastern North Carolina to breed in the Spring during March and April, depending upon weather warm enough to produce insects. Males arrive at the nesting area, which is usually the same site year after year, before the females. They stay until breeding season is over, then head back during July through October, also, depending upon the weather, to South America. Purple Martins have shown a steep population decline over the past two decades and as a result have been placed on ‘The Watch List of Special Concern.’ Factors that contribute to the loss of PM’s include pesticide use, colliding with buildings and bridges, unseasonably cold or wet weather (wipes out insects which causes food source loss), aerial predators such as hawks and owls, ground predators such as raccoons and snakes and, those invaders mentioned earlier; Starlings and Sparrows. With every subsequent Purple Martin admitted to our shelter for care from here on out, we will think of our regal PM girl who knew herself all to well and wanted absolutely nothing to do with us! We hope our sassy girl is still flying high and appreciating the precious freedom she proved to hold dear.

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All