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

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!

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Love is in the air

Mourning doves display courtship behaviors. Photo by J.J. Meyer 

             Valentine’s Day cards often feature doves, a symbol of love since ancient times.  Lovers are said to be cooing when they talk sweetly to each other. And when they express affection, they’re acting “lovey dovey.”
             Mourning doves have recently started to coo, which means mating season has begun. The call, referred to as an “advertising coo,” is a two-syllable coo followed by two or three louder coos. Unmated males generally coo from a conspicuous perch in an attempt to attract a mate.
            “The call of a mourning dove sounds mournful, which is where they get their name,” said Sylvia Gallagher, chairperson of bird information for Sea and Sage Audubon, Orange County’s local chapter.
            This species has a courtship ritual that begins with males performing an aerial display with vigorous and noisy wing flapping.  After they select a potential mate, “males bow, pump their heads and coo to the female,” she said.  
Preening and nibbling of the head and neck precede mating. This courtship behavior gives way to “billing,” which refers to the male opening his beak to the female. If interested, she inserts her beak into his and they briefly pump their heads up and down.  The female crouches as an invitation to mate.
Naturalists agree that mourning doves are seasonally monogamous and there are indications birds may pair up again in subsequent breeding seasons.
“They’re prolific nesters,” Gallagher said.  “But they build super sloppy nests.”
These loose flimsy nests are made of pine needles, twigs and grass. Unlined nests provide little insulation for nestlings, but the shoddy construction works for the species. Mourning doves generally lay two eggs per clutch and with up to six broods or hatchings per year, a pair can produce up to a dozen offspring. Estimates of their population range from 100 to 475 million in North America.
Both sexes participate in building the nest, incubating the eggs and caring for the young. One parent is usually on the nest at all times. Babies fledge at 15-18 days. Parents continue to feed the young until 25-27 days old.
            Mourning doves are common year-round residents in Southern California.  Both sexes are similar with plump bodies, long tails and short legs. Feathers are mostly gray with black-bordered white tips on tail and black spots on the upper wings. Males are slightly larger and more colorful than females with their pale rosy breasts and bluish crowns and necks.
            Mourning doves are ground feeders. Attract these birds by offering white millet, black oil sunflower seeds and cracked corn.   

Happy Birding!

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Birds are preparing for spring

A male Western bluebird scouts an available nestbox. Photo by J.J. Meyer
             Around this time of year, birds are looking for potential nest sites. Western bluebirds are known to go house shopping. The male shows his mate several nest sites, but the female is the one who makes the choice. She then places a small twig in the cavity or nestbox to stake her claim.
If you have a nestbox, make sure it's cleaned out and ready for spring. 
Read more at Boxes serve as home to birds in the Orange County Register.
Happy birding!

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Hang nesting material for hummingbirds

Find nesting material at Wild Birds Unlimited stores.
It's time to put out nesting material for hummingbirds, which have already begun the process in Southern California. Here breeding season runs late October through early June.

It's best to purchase material from a nature store. Household items such as yarn, string and dryer lint are not suitable for bird nests. Dryer lint holds moisture, and when it does dry out, it becomes hard and crumbly. It can also contain human hair, which acts like string or fishing line to trap birds.

Female hummingbirds build the nest, sit on the eggs and care for the chicks without assistance from the male. And this hard-working mother has four or five clutches a season. She typically lays two eggs per clutch, though not all eggs are viable and many chicks do not survive. The eggs hatch within 16-18 days. The babies fledge approximately 21-28 days from the date of hatching.

Please comment if you've already seen a nest this season.
Happy Birding!

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Are you seeing fewer nutmeg mannikins?

The scaly-breasted munia is also known as nutmeg mannikin or spice finch. Photo by J.J. Meyer
I used to see large flocks of these gregarious birds at my feeder in Mission Viejo. During the past year, they have been scarce. In fact, I haven't seen any in recent months.

Have you noticed a decline?


Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Wild turkeys terrorize neighborhoods -- Should we cancel Thanksgiving?

Wild turkeys roamed this month in San Rafael, Calif. (Bill Disbrow/SF Gate/AP)

 From: The Washington Post 

Wild turkeys are causing troubles across the American suburbs.

The birds of late have been accused of cracking roof tiles outside Sacramento, dangerously disrupting traffic in western New York and “terrorizing” residents near Akron, Ohio. Reports of turkey aggression in the Boston area have spiked in the past three years, forcing authorities to use lethal force at least five times, the Associated Press found. When the Cambridge, Mass., city council took up the matter recently, one member told of a turkey that chased a child and her dog outside church, and another recounted coming face-to-beak with a bird outside a community gathering where the large fowl had been discussed.

“It was like the turkey was waiting for me,” Councillor Dennis Carlone said from the dais. “They’re clearly strategizing.”

But at the same time, the National Wild Turkey Federation and researchers say the U.S. wild turkey population is gradually declining, probably due to development that is carving up their habitats while also making life easier for predators, such as foxes and raccoons. In 2004, the federation says, wild turkeys numbered nearly 7 million; in 2014, that had dipped to as low as 6 million.

So which is it? Are turkeys trailing off — or taking over?
It turns out that both trends are true, to a degree. And both are related to the fact that wild turkeys in America exist mostly so that people can hunt them.

First, some history. European settlers who arrived on these shores centuries ago probably found a land brimming with wild turkeys, though the migrants almost certainly did not dine on the birds at the first Thanksgiving. At that time, these ground-nesting birds were likely gobbling up nuts, berries and snails across what are now 39 of the Lower 48 states. Soon, however, the colonists were gobbling up turkeys and razing their landscapes. By the early 20th century, the birds had vanished from 18 of those 39 states, and their population had dropped to about 200,000 animals found mostly in remote areas, according to the turkey federation.

Things changed after World War II, and wild turkeys are now viewed as one of the nation’s big conservation successes. Wildlife managers, alarmed at the near disappearance of a popular game animal, worked over decades with the National Wild Turkey Federation to bring back the birds, mostly by trapping more than 200,000 of them and releasing them in spots with turkey deficits. The birds are now found and hunted in every state except Alaska, proof of their ability to thrive in various landscapes and climates.

But the wild turkey population — which state agencies usually track by counting young birds, called poults, or by counting turkeys bagged by hunters — has dipped over the past decade. Mark Hatfield, director of conservation administration for the turkey federation, said his organization and state agencies are now “working collectively to try and figure this out, because we never want to go back to a restoration effort.”

The decline has been most pronounced in the Midwest, Northeast and Southeast, said Michael Chamberlain, a University of Georgia wildlife ecology and management professor who’s involved in studies that track wild turkeys in five states, most in the Southeast. The researchers, who strap little GPS backpacks on turkeys, are seeing what he called very poor “nest success”: Only about 30 percent of eggs hatch, and then only about 25 percent of chicks survive.

“The data very clearly show there’s been a long-term, well over a decade, decline in production across the Southeast,” Chamberlain said. The likely reason, he added, is that “in the last 20, 30, 40 years, we’ve taken broad expanses of forest and fragmented it and chopped it up into little pieces.”

How do those suburban turkey gangs fit into this? They don’t.
They’re not counted in wild turkey censuses, Chamberlain said, because wildlife agencies monitor rural turkeys — the kind that are hunted and help fund state budgets. Turkeys like the ones that recently stalked a police car in Bridgewater, Mass., aren’t hunted and are instead viewed as “nuisance birds,” he said.

“They’re really two different populations,” Chamberlain said. “I don’t know of any states that actually monitor the status of nuisance birds, except to deal with the problem . . . their interest is from hunters who are using rural, public lands, not subdivisions.”

If turkey-human conflicts seem to be increasing, Chamberlain and Hatfield argue, it’s because urban and suburban birds are not hunted and so do not view humans as threats. Also, turkeys are generalists that can get by quite nicely so long as they have trees to roost in at night and space to strut — particularly in the spring, when males woo females with a show that requires a sizable stage.

“They want open areas. Well, lawns and golf courses? All of these are great open spots for wild turkeys,” Hatfield said. “Suburban areas are pretty good habitat.”

Problems can bubble up in the fall, when hens return from a summer raising poults and reunite with their families, Hatfield said. But relations with people are most tense during spring breeding season, when toms are amped up on testosterone, ready to challenge any perceived competitor and often travel in sibling groups that include a few males. A bird gobbling in the back yard is “gobbling to establish dominance,” Hatfield said. A turkey that charges a car — or crashes through the window of a Rhode Island orthodontics office — might be charging its own reflection.

“I would say, to get into a turkey’s brain, you’ve got to think very simple,” Hatfield said. “More than likely, these birds are trying to biologically exist, and we are somehow in their way.”

So if you’re a turkey hunter concerned about the overall population, you might consider advocating for more large wild spaces. If you’re a suburbanite worried about rogue turkeys on your turf, make sure you’re not feeding them — remove or clean up bird feeders, and definitely do not offer handouts. (Montana recently passed a statewide ban on feeding turkeys.) The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, which receives many calls about problem turkeys, also suggests removing shiny objects in which birds might spot their reflections, and scaring turkeys with yelling, brooms, hoses and even leashed dogs.

“Don’t let turkeys intimidate you,” a Massachusetts Wildlife handout says. “You can harass turkeys searching for food in your gardens.”

Not that everyone would be willing to do so. Wild turkeys, for the record, do have some fans.
Nicolas Gonzalez, a National Audubon Society spokesman, insists that birdwatchers enjoy spotting them and “submit lots of photos of gorgeous displaying males and groups doing interesting things like roosting together” during the society’s annual Great Backyard Bird Count. The traffic-stopping turkey in western New York has his own Facebook page, as does Kevin, a Colorado turkey who hung out in the parking lot of a King Soopers grocery store until recently. Kevin, it seems, was being fed, and he was in danger of becoming more nuisance bird than wild bird. Earlier this month, wildlife officials trapped him and released him in the woods, adding one more turkey to the rural population.

Happy Thanksgiving from the Backyard Birder!