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

Friday, March 16, 2018

Free access this month to Birds of North America

Eastern Kingbird   Photo from Cornell Lab

 Want detailed information on your backyard birds?

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is offering free access to Birds of North America through March 31. Check out the newly revised Eastern Kingbird section.

Go to BNA.

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!

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?