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

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Mother hummingbirds know best

Hummingbirds generally lay two eggs, but not all are viable.  Photo by Tyler Thayer
Here's my latest column for the Orange County Register. 

 An Oceanside couple watched in awe as a mother hummingbird built its nest just outside their courtyard window.

The female hummingbird sat in the nest as she built it, working the sides up around her until the nest was about an inch tall and 1½ inches wide. The tiny bird used plant down, thistle, and bits of leaves bound by spider webs, which allows the nest to expand as the nestlings grow. Hummingbirds often cover the outside of their nests in lichen or moss. But instead, the Oceanside bird used green paint chips from a peeling patio set.

It took about a week for her to finish. Finally, she laid two eggs about the size of Tic Tac mints. She continued to sit through wind and even a cold rain, keeping the eggs warm with her little body. About two weeks later, one of the eggs hatched. The couple became concerned when the other egg failed to hatch two to three days later as expected. Eventually, the single nestling became large enough to cover the egg.

“Normally, the mother would push it out,” said Monique Rae a hummingbird rehabilitator from south Orange County. “But it’s best not to disturb the nest. The mother knows best,” she said.

Depending upon the species, hummingbirds can have up to four clutches, or nesting attempts with eggs. But not all eggs hatch and not all babies survive.

“We have a very long season here,” she said. “We’re in the second wave of babies now. Then there’s a third where we can see fledglings into July,” she said.

Female hummingbirds build the nest, incubate the eggs and raise the young without any help from the male.  “She’s the only one, so she’s very tenacious,” Rae said.

New hatchlings are fed about every 15-30 minutes. The length of time between feeding increases as they develop.  She feeds them nectar and insects by regurgitation, which is stored in her crop, a food storage sac in her throat. Hummingbirds require a large percentage of fruit flies, gnats, small spiders and other soft-bodied insects for protein as well as nectar for energy.

Generally, a mother hummingbird will not abandon her eggs or hatchlings.

“The only reason she doesn’t come back to the nest is if something happened to her,” Rae said.
Hummingbirds have a tough life. They can run into windows and get attacked by cats, predatory birds and even praying mantis.

Babies typically fledge approximately 21-28 days from hatch date. The mother continues to feed the babies out of the nest for about two weeks. If you’re lucky enough to have hummingbirds nest in your yard, don’t remove the nest when the birds are gone. Female hummingbirds often repair and reuse old ones.

For information on orphaned hummingbirds and rescue, go to hummingbirdsrescue.org.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Happy Mother's Day from the Backyard Birder

Black Phoebes    Photo by J.J. Meyer

Black phoebes are monomorphic, meaning there are no differences in the physical characteristics of males and females. So it's hard to say if the parent in the photo is the mom or the dad. Both parents are actively involved in caring for their young.
They’re very territorial and often remain year-round in an area with an established food source. They build mud nests under the eaves of buildings, bridges and other protected shelters. The female lays three to five eggs then incubates them for 15-18 days. Both parents tend the nestlings. The male often continues to feed the young after fledging while the female re-nests.  Once the babies are deemed old enough to fend for themselves, the parents will aggressively run them out of their territory.
Because black phoebes are insect eaters, they do not visit seed feeders. But you can attract them to your yard by offering live mealworms. Start by placing a few in a dish out in an open area where they can be easily seen on a flyby. Live mealworms can be purchased at many nature and pet supply stores. And don't use pesticides, if you'd like to attract insect-eating birds to your yard.  

Happy Birding!

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Prevent ducks from nesting in pools

Peacock pool float from Bed, Bath & Beyond.
 If you see a pair of mallards in your yard, they could be looking for a place to nest. Ducks generally nest near water. But in urban areas, they may choose to nest in backyards with pools, which can be problematic. It’s best to prevent the situation in the first place.
             Homeowners can try scaring them away by putting large pool floats in the water or placing a plastic owl near the water's edge. The best bet is to put a cover over the pool and keep it dry. Once a nest is made, it is illegal to disturb them. Federal law prohibits interfering with nesting birds.  
             If ducklings end up in your swimming pool, they may not be able to get out. Young ducklings aren't waterproof and need the mother for warmth. They can quickly become hypothermic and drown. A surfboard or lawn chair in the water can serve as a ramp. Cover it with a towel so the babies won't slip. Don't attempt to remove the ducklings for relocation. The mother may fly away and abandon her young.
The brood will stay near the nest site until the mother decides to move the ducklings to water, which usually happens at about four weeks. Ducklings then trail behind the mother often waddling across busy streets. Ducks don't fly until they are six to eight weeks old.

Happy Birding!

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Mealworm handouts help hungry birds

A California towhee gathers mealworms to feed its young. Photo by J.J. Meyer
It's baby bird season! That means parents are working dawn to dusk to find food for their hungry broods. Put out a plate of mealworms and they eagerly gather them, grabbing as many as they can hold. Then they take off in the direction of their nests and quickly return for more.

Offering mealworms can be entertaining, especially if you're feeding black phoebes, which can catch them on the fly.

Live mealworms can be purchased at many pet and nature stores such as Wild Birds Unlimited.

Happy Birding!

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Look who's back in town

A hooded oriole visited a hummingbird feeder in Mission Viejo, CA April 19, 2018 Photo by J.J. Meyer

Local birders have reported sightings of migrant orioles, which return to breed in Southern California during spring and summer. Hooded and Bullock’s orioles are the two most common species of orioles found in Orange County, although there have been rare sightings of Scott’s and orchard orioles in previous years.

Orioles are medium-size songbirds about 8 inches long with slender bodies and long legs and tails. They are coveted among backyard birders mostly because of their bright colors. Hooded and Bullock’s orioles are sexually dimorphic, with males being more brightly colored than females.

Hooded orioles are named for the orange hood of the male’s breeding plumage. Males have an entirely orange or orange-yellow head, nape, rump and underparts with a distinctive black bib and narrow mask. The tail is black. And wings are black with with two white wingbars. Females are mostly olive yellow with dusky gray wings and white wingbars. These birds have long, slightly curved bills.

Adult male Bullock’s are flame-orange with a neat line through the eye and a white wing patch; females are washed in gray and yellow. They have straight, pointed bills.

Only five percent of all avian families include nectar as an important part of their diet, making orioles part of an exclusive dining club. But these birds' diets includes more than nectar. Nectar-eaters must also consume essential amino acids and other nutrients. Orioles forage for spiders, caterpillars and other insects. Consider offering them mealworms in addition to orange slices and grape jelly. 

Visit local WildBird Unlimited stores, which carry a selection of feeders to keep orioles returning to your yard.

Happy Birding!

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Birds are beneficial to the garden

A California thrasher visits a birdbath in San Clemente. Photo by Jodie Cook
Here's my latest column, scheduled to run in the Orange County Register's Home and Garden section on Saturday, March 3. 

               If you see songbirds fluttering around your yard, it’s more than just a beautiful sight; it’s a sign of a healthy environment. 
 “You want to attract birds to establish a balance in the garden,” said Jodie Cook, a master gardener and owner of My Avant Garden. Her Orange County-based company partners with local water districts and the Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano to help homeowners transform their lawns into native gardens.
“The ultimate goal of a native garden is to create a place where nature is in balance and the health of each creature in it is supported,” Cook said. “Ideally, we’d like to create robust places that stay healthy with minimal interventions from us.”
Including diverse plant species supports a multitude of different insects, birds, and other organisms, which interact in a complex web where the whole is greater than the parts, she explained.
“The more diverse the garden, the healthier it generally is,” she said. “And a diverse bird population in a garden is a sign of a garden’s health.”
Birds do their part by keeping insects in check. Insect-eating birds such as wrens, warblers and towhees eat aphids, mosquitoes, spiders, caterpillars and other insects that we consider garden pests.
“Birds are the least toxic method to managing pests,” Cook said. Birds consume thousands of insects, especially in the spring when they’re feeding their young.
Seed-eating birds such as finches and sparrows contribute to a healthy garden by keeping weeds from taking over. These birds can consume great quantities of weed seeds, thus helping gardeners control unwanted plants.
When birds are present, it eliminates the need for toxic insecticides and herbicides.
And let’s not forget the many species of birds that play a role in natural plant pollination. Hummingbirds are especially important in the pollination of native wildflowers.
 “I tell people to install bird feeders and birdbaths, so that birds know it’s a safe place,” Cook said.
According to Audubon California, birds are one of the best indicators of environmental health – healthy native bird populations signal a healthy ecology.
More than 600 bird species call California home. Invite a variety of bird species to your yard by providing a source of food and water. Layering tall, medium and low plants throughout the yard provides shelter and allows birds to take cover when they need it.

Monday, February 19, 2018

How birds stay warm in chilly weather

Suet is a high-calorie, nutritious food, which helps birds survive the cold. Photo by J.J. Meyer

We're expecting temperatures to dip into the 30s at night for the next few days. So I thought I'd repost this Orange County Register column from 1/4/14.

Orange County may be experiencing a streak of beautiful weather by day, but those clear skies can make for nippy temperatures at night.  Unfortunately, birds can’t reach for a hot toddy or throw on a blanket to keep them warm.
To survive the cold, birds must rely on a variety of physiological and behavioral adaptations to survive.
            “Like humans and mammals, birds are warm-blooded and must maintain a constant body temperature between 104 and 108 degrees,” said Trude Hurd, Education Project Director for Sea and Sage Audubon. Scientists refer to the ability to regulate body temperature as thermoregulation, she said.
“When the environment is too cold, birds fluff their feathers to trap a layer of warm air against their body,” Hurd said.  “It’s common to see mourning doves sitting on a wire all puffed up when it’s cold outside.”
The concept is similar to how humans keep warm by snuggling under a pile of blankets.  It may be cold when we first get into bed, but soon the air underneath the blankets warms up from our body heat.
“Some birds also tuck their legs and feet into their breast feathers to keep heat from escaping,” she said.
Birds also have a mechanism to generate body heat that’s similar to shivering.  But it’s not the same trembling motion seen when humans are cold. Instead, birds use muscle contractions to create body heat without visible shaking.
When temperatures drop, birds need to eat more to generate heat, Hurd said. Extra calories stoke their metabolic rate and add to their fat reserves to insulate them against the cold. Many birds such as chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, woodpeckers and scrub jays plan ahead by caching seeds and nuts for the winter.
In spring and summer, insects and spiders are an abundant source of nutrition for many songbirds. But in fall and winter, many avian species shift their diets to fruits and seeds to survive.
            “Insect-eating birds have a difficult time,” Hurd said. “In winter, many types insects have either died off or become dormant.”
            Hurd offers live mealworms to a pair of black phoebes that frequent her yard. The small black and white birds are flycatchers, which rely on flying insects for food.
            Despite our cold nights, local non-migratory hummingbirds are already nesting.  Hummingbirds rely on fruit flies and small spiders for protein to feed their young, but they also need a source of nectar.   
            “Fortunately, many California native plants are still blooming,” she said. California fuchsia and various sage plants provide nectar for hummingbirds this time of year.  “That’s why planting natives is so important.”
            A simple way to help local songbirds survive the cold is to fill hanging bird feeders with black oil sunflower seeds, which are nutritious and high in fat. Woodpeckers, crows, ravens and scrub jays will appreciate high-energy nuts and suet cakes. 
Happy Birding!