"I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven."
Emily Dickinson

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Suet, it's what's for dinner

A male Nuttall's woodpecker snacks on suet. J.J. Meyer
I've been offering Naturally Nuts suet cylinders from Wild Birds Unlimited for months. Suet is packed with fat and protein, which makes it a good cold weather food. During the winter, I had several types of warblers come daily for this nutritious snack. A few brave white-crowned sparrows even dined at the suet feeder.

Lately, I've had migrants such as black-headed grosbeaks. And it's also good for nesting birds.
My year-round regulars such as the Northern mockingbirds, scrub jays, house finches and a pair of woodpeckers visit daily. They often show up in pairs, fill their bills and fly off to feed their young. Check the previous blog post to see a pair of bushtits on the suet feeder. They often come in large flocks, sometimes hanging upside down, to grab a suet snack. 

Happy Birding!

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Flocks of lively bushtits are good for the garden

Bushtits will visit suet feeders. Photo by J.J. Meyer

Bushtits are year-round residents of Southern California. They are sprightly, social songbirds that twitter as they fly from bush to bush.  Almost always found in gregarious flocks, they move constantly, often hanging upside down to pick at insects or spiders on the undersides of leaves.

Flocks of these tiny songbirds sometimes mix with warblers, chickadees, and kinglets while foraging.

They weave a very unusual hanging nest, shaped like a soft pouch or sock, from moss, spider webs, and grasses.

Happy Birding!

Friday, April 22, 2016

Birds attack their reflections in windows during breeding season

Song sparrows are among the birds that commonly attack their reflections.  Photo by J.J. Meyer
 Here's my latest column, scheduled to run in Saturday's Orange County Register.     

        Audubon volunteers and staff members cover the side mirrors on their cars with plastic grocery bags when they park at the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine this time of year.
      “Every spring we get California towhees and song sparrows attacking the side mirrors on our cars,” said Trude Hurd, project director of education for Sea and Sage Audubon. “Males are feeling very territorial, so they try to drive the intruder in the mirror away.”
      It’s a case of mistaken identity; they perceive their own reflection as a competitor, she said. This is the time of year when most birds establish their territories, find a mate, nest and raise their young.   To ensure success, they defend their territory aggressively and will attempt to drive away any bird they view as a possible rival or a threat to their young. When they see their reflection in glass, they believe they're seeing an interloper in their territory and attack the image.
      The solution is simple: Remove the reflection and the behavior will stop.
      “We don’t want a bird wasting its energy,” Hurd said. “That energy needs to be spent on nesting.   It’s never going to be able to drive that bird in the mirror away.”
      These attacks commonly occur in spring and summer and will decrease as the breeding season progresses, she said. But there is a brief resurgence of the activity in the fall when a change in daylight triggers a false spring reaction in the birds.
       Birds can attack their reflections with enough force to leave their imprint on the glass, but it’s not usually fatal. This behavior is different from deadly window strikes that happen when birds crash into glass in an attempt to fly through it.
      Western bluebirds, Northern mockingbirds, American robins, song sparrows and California and spotted towhees are among the birds commonly known to attack their reflections.
      Homeowners can discourage this activity by covering the outside of the window being attacked with newspaper, netting or soap to block the reflection temporarily. In addition, a couple of helium-filled Mylar balloons or just a few hanging strips of ribbon that sparkle and move in the breeze are enough to frighten away most birds.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Change your hummingbird nectar!

When did you last clean and refill your hummingbird feeders?

       The nectar in your hummingbird feeders could have spoiled in the recent hot weather. So make sure you get out and change it. The hummingbirds will love you.

Here's a passage from my recent column on keeping feeders clean:
       Being vigilant about cleanliness is particularly important when it comes to hummingbird feeders. Hummingbirds can pick up a deadly fungal infection called Hummers Candidiasis from dirty feeders. The infection causes a swollen tongue, which causes the birds to suffocate or starve. An infected bird can pass this disease to birds at other feeders.
       A sugar solution, or nectar, can ferment in direct sunlight in two days and in as little as five days in the shade. If the nectar solution is cloudy or moldy, take it down and clean it thoroughly with a 10 percent solution of white vinegar and hot water. Rise thoroughly and replace with fresh nectar.

Happy Birding!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

White-crowned sparrows are migrating

Bathing helps keep feathers in good shape for long flights.  Photo by J.J. Meyer
The flock of white-crowned sparrows that spend the winter with us are officially gone for the season. Only two stragglers remained in our yard on April 10. The next day, there were none. They migrated two days earlier than last year.

You may still see white-crown sparrows migrating through Orange County as they make their way north to their summer breeding grounds in the northwestern part of the United States, Canada, and Alaska. And there are pockets along the California coast where these birds live year-round.

I hope my little friends have a safe flight. I'll look for them again in September.

Happy Birding!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Keep birdfeeders clean to prevent disease

Feeders should be sanitized once a week with a bleach solution.  Photo by J.J. Meyer

Here's my latest column, which is scheduled to run in the Orange County Register on April 9. 

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has already received more than a dozen reports of the avian eye disease called mycoplasmal conjunctivitis this season. The deadly disease typically affects house finches and goldfinches during spring and summer.

“So far the disease has been confirmed in Sacramento and El Dorado counties, but we’re likely to see it cropping up in new areas,” said Krysta Rogers, senior environmental scientist for the department. “It’s looking like this could be a bad year for the disease.”

Birds infected with conjunctivitis have red, swollen, runny or crusty eyes. In extreme cases the eyes become swollen shut. Infected birds can become blind, and therefore unable to feed. These birds may also appear puffed up and lethargic. While some infected birds recover, many die from starvation, exposure, or predation.

These reports follow on the heels of a salmonellosis outbreak that killed hundreds of songbirds, mostly pine siskins, in Northern California over the recent winter months. Only seven of these dead birds were found in Orange County from the end of December to mid-March, Rogers said.

Vicki Andersen, a licensed songbird rehabilitator from Fountain Valley, took in two of these birds, both pine siskins, which were retrieved from Silverado Canyon. “The birds that came in were very, very sick,” she said. “They appeared emaciated, weak, fluffed up and unresponsive. Both died within a couple of hours.” Because of these symptoms, Andersen attributed the deaths to salmonellosis, though there was no necropsy done on the birds. Pine siskins tend to be particularly susceptible to the disease, she said. Though other species may also develop the disease from close contact with infected pine siskins.

“This was the first time I’ve ever taken in a pine siskin,” said Andersen, who has had a license to rehabilitate songbirds for 15 years at her Songbird Care and Education Center. Pine siskins are small songbirds from the finch family. They are gregarious birds that tend to flock with goldfinches. They are migrants, or winter visitors, to our area. Most have begun their spring migration north, she said.

Because salmonellosis is a bacterial infection spread through food and water contaminated with feces, it has been associated with bird feeders. After this recent outbreak, Rogers said that ideally she’d like to see all bird feeders be taken down permanently. “But since that isn’t likely, at the very least it’s recommended that bird feeders and bird baths be removed for at least three to four weeks and cleaned well.”

The National Wildlife Health Center states that it is possible to prevent or minimize disease problems at bird feeders and recommends the following steps:

1. Give them space – Avoid crowding by providing ample feeder space. Lots of birds using a single feeder looks wonderful, but crowding is a key factor in spreading disease. If birds have to jostle each other to reach the food, they are crowded. This crowding also creates stress, which may make birds more vulnerable to disease.
2. Clean up wastes – Keep the feeder area clean of waste food and droppings. A broom and shovel can accomplish a lot of good, but a vacuum such as you might use in your garage or workshop will help even more.
3. Make feeders safe – Provide safe feeders without sharp points or edges. Even small scratches and cuts will allow bacteria and viruses to enter otherwise healthy birds.
4. Keep feeders clean – Clean and disinfect feeders regularly. Use one part liquid chlorine household bleach in nine parts of tepid water (a 10 percent solution) to disinfect. Make enough solution to immerse an empty, cleaned feeder completely for two to three minutes. Allow to air dry. Once or twice a month should do, but weekly could help more if you notice sick birds at your feeders.
5. Use good food – Discard any food that smells musty, is wet, looks moldy or has fungus growing on it. Disinfect any storage container that holds spoiled food and the scoop used to fill feeders from it.
6. Prevent contamination – Keep rodents out of stored food. Mice can carry and spread some bird diseases.
7. Act early – Don’t wait to act until you see sick or dead birds. With good prevention you’ll seldom find sick or dead birds at your feeders.
8. Spread the word - Encourage your neighbors who feed birds to follow the same precautions. Birds normally move among feeders and can spread diseases as they go. The safest bird feeders will be those in communities where neighbors cooperate with equal concern for the birds.
For more information, go to: www.nwhc.usgs.gov, and wildlife.ca.gov.

Being vigilant about cleanliness is particularly important when it comes to hummingbird feeders. Hummingbirds can pick up a deadly fungal infection called Hummers Candidiasis from dirty feeders. The infection causes a swollen tongue, which causes the birds to suffocate or starve. An infected bird can pass this disease to birds at other feeders. A sugar solution, or nectar, can ferment in direct sunlight in two days and in as little as five days in the shade. If the nectar solution is cloudy or moldy, take it down and clean it thoroughly with a 10 percent solution of white vinegar and hot water. Rise thoroughly and replace with fresh nectar.

Happy Birding!

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Put up a nest box to help cavity-nesting birds

A pair of House Wrens started building a nest in this box on March 27.  Photo by J.J. Meyer
It's not too late to put up a nest box, though many birds have already started the breeding cycle. 

Western bluebirds, Bewick's wrens and house wrens are among the most common cavity-nesting songbirds in Orange County. Other cavity nesting species include tree swallows, purple martins, wood ducks, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, woodpeckers, flickers, American kestrels, barn owls and screech owls.

Installing a nest box can be beneficial. Bluebirds were on the decline until the Southern California Bluebird Club, a local conservation group, began hanging boxes in parks, cemeteries and other open spaces across the county. With limited natural cavities, such as woodpecker holes, bluebirds adapted quickly to the man-made boxes.

Although a nest box can be considered a birdhouse, not all birdhouses are functional nest boxes. Cute and whimsical appeals only to humans, so most colorful birdhouses are little more than garden ornaments.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a nest box needs specific features to be functional and safe for the birds. The box needs to be the right size for the species you're trying to attract. For example, wrens are happy with an 8-inch-tall house and a 4-by-6-inch base. Wrens also need a 11/4-inch hole, which is large enough for them but small enough to keep out any larger uninvited guests. Perches are unnecessary and may attract larger predatory birds. The box should be made of untreated, unpainted wood with adequate ventilation and drainage holes. Grooved interior walls are necessary for the birds to climb out.

A box should always have a door that opens for cleaning it out at the end of the season. It also needs an extended, sloped roof to prevent raccoons and other predators from standing on top and reaching in. And the roof should be constructed of wood instead of metal, which can cause the birds to overheat inside.

Get more information about nesting birds and boxes at: Nest Watch.
Happy Birding!