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

Monday, February 7, 2022

Hummingbird Wars

A male Allen's hummingbird claims a feeder after running off the competition.

 

           Here's my latest column scheduled to run in the Southern California News Group newspapers, including The Orange County Register, Los Angeles Daily News, Long Beach Press Telegram, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Pasadena Star-News, The Daily Breeze, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin and the Riverside Press-Enterprise on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022.

 

            It’s all-out war when a tiny tyrant decides to claim a nectar feeder.

Gail O’Connell has a resident bully bird on her patio in Laguna Niguel. “He sits near our feeder and swoops down anytime another hummingbird shows up,” she said. “Though occasionally he’ll let a female drink.”

While the antics of this miniature brute may be fascinating to watch, it can be frustrating when he chases all the other birds away, she said.

Bullies are a common problem for bird enthusiasts with flowering gardens and hummingbird feeders. Some people have even nicknamed these ruffians Rambo, Brutus, Spike, or the name of the current enforcer on their favorite hockey team. And these little birds earn their titles; male hummingbirds are fierce fighters and rarely play nice.

These birds are not only mean, but sneaky as well, generally hiding in a spot where they can secretly monitor their personal food supply. Then these feisty fliers use their aerial skills to launch an attack on unsuspecting would-be nectar thieves.

As with most creatures in the wild, fights are all about food, territory and breeding rights.

            “Most animals are territorial, but male hummingbirds are especially territorial,” said Terry Masear, a licensed hummingbird rehabilitator and author of “Fastest Things on Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood,” published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2015.

“They’re doing what they’re programmed to do,” Masear said. “His only purpose in life is to breed. They’re individualists; they don’t mate for life like ducks and ravens. So, they claim a territory where they can breed with as many females as possible.”

Hummingbirds appear tiny and delicate: the average weight of most Southern California species is about three grams, she said. Despite their size, they are hardy and resilient with some species migrating as much as 3,000 miles.

Though Masear now lives in Portland, Oregon, she still monitors the telephone rescue line based in West Hollywood and plans to return to Los Angeles to participate in a documentary based on her book, which will be filmed by the Australian company Wildbear Entertainment in April. 

She’s learned a lot about hummingbirds during her 15 years providing rehabilitation.

            “Just like people, hummingbirds have different personalities,” she said. “Some are sweet like little puppies. And some are so wild, if they were big enough, they’d take you out.”

            Male aggressors can be brutal. “These winged warriors are hardwired to fight to the death,” she said. They can use their bills like swords to skewer their opponent. And because they can fly 50-60 miles per hour in a downward arch, males can use their speed to impale a competitor. “When this happens, the other bird has no chance,” she said.

            As a rehabber, Masear has seen plenty of these casualties of war. She recently received a call about a female hummingbird covered in blood. It was clear from the photo sent by rescuers that the bird had a hole in her neck and back. “Sometimes if they sit on a feeder too long, they become a target for these brutal attacks.”

Some hummingbird species such as the Allen’s and rufous, can be especially belligerent, she said. “Rufous hummingbirds are monstrous.”  

“Bullies get hurt too and tend to end up in rehab a lot themselves.” Their constant battles also shorten their longevity. “It’s a tough world out there.”

            Females can also be aggressive when they’re nesting, she said. “Babies are their reason for living.”

            But there are moments of peace in the garden. Just before dark, or before a heavy rain, there’s something Masear calls the “the law of the jungle.” The birds don’t fight as much during these times. They won’t waste energy on sparing because they need to eat as much as they can, this is especially true in winter when nights are longer, she said.  

            If you want to keep peace at your feeder, Masear has a simple solution: add more feeders. First, determine the bully’s hiding place, then install clusters of feeders out of his line of vision, so they’re too far apart for him to dominate; it’s too much work, she said.  

            Kristi Stowell Cole of Laguna Hills hung 18 feeders around the perimeter of her house to stop the constant battles. Her feeders attract so many birds that often the ports are not only filled, but birds are sharing ports with additional birds waiting in the wings.  

            We have a few territorial bullies, but with multiple feeders, they usually lose out on their attempt to monopolize them,” Cole said. Even so, she’s witnessed fights, such as the juvenile male that was knocked to the ground by a particularly angry Anna’s.

            When she attempted to pick up the bird on the ground, the attacker flew to her hand to continue the fight, gripping the young bird’s head with its feet and stabbing it in the back, she said.

            The little guy didn’t survive. She buried him in her backyard memorial garden where the mosaic stepping stone she created honors the little jewels of her garden.

 

 

 

Contact the writer: Jennifer J. Meyer is a freelance writer from Mission Viejo.  Write to her at jjthebackyardbirder@gmail.com or visit her blog at jjthebackyardbirder.com.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Orange County Bird of Prey release

 

A red-tailed hawk

A Cooper's hawk

A great-horned owl

Setting the owl free


I released a great-horned owl at the Orange County Bird of Prey Center's new facility near Oso Lake on Saturday. I was a bit overwhelmed looking eye-to-eye with that owl before I set him free. 

Thirty-five raptors, which included Cooper's, red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks and great-horned and barn owls were released on Saturday, Aug. 14th. The injured birds had been treated then rehabilitated in mews or flight cages on the property. This release was the first at the center's new location. 

 If you'd like to be part of a future release, go to Orange County Bird of Prey Center

The OCBPC is a volunteer-run organization. Your donations go directly to the care and feeding of these magnificent birds.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Help birds during the summer heat

 


 

Here's my latest column that ran today in the Southern California News Group newspapers including the Orange County Register, Los Angeles Daily News, Long Beach Press-Telegram, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Pasadena Star-News, The Daily Breeze,Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, and the Riverside Press-Enterprise.

 

 Summer means family time for birds. It’s the transitional period between the frenzy of spring breeding and their preparation for fall migration. But that doesn’t mean birds are just kicking back for the season. There’s still plenty going on in the avian world.

“Many birds are still actively nesting and taking care of their little ones,” said Diann Tomb, assistant manager at Wild Birds Unlimited in Mission Viejo. “I heard a mockingbird singing near my house recently, which meant he was still in the breeding stage.”

Musical territory

Male Northern Mockingbirds sing to reinforce the bond with their mates and defend their territories, she said. Their songs are a warning to other males to stay away. These all-night songfests continue through their nesting cycle, which generally extends through July.

Male mourning doves could recently be heard cooing from rooftops as well, which is their advertising call for a mate. Because these birds have a long breeding season with up to six broods per year, they nest into late summer.

And then there are the American and lesser goldfinches, which are typically the last birds to breed in Southern California. “They generally wait until late summer when thistle is blooming and food is plentiful,” said owner Alan Barry, of Wild Birds Unlimited in Mission Viejo. “Though this year, they left a little earlier than previous years.”

Barry tracks them through the sales of nyjer seed, a favorite of the goldfinches. “The birds are known to nest in the foothills, where there is an abundance of food,” he said. “When they’re gone, customers stop feeding nyjer and sales of the seed drop dramatically.”

In general, mid-to-late summer tends to be a quieter period in bird land. People often report fewer birds visiting backyard feeders. Summer is prime time for natural food. Insects and berries are at their peak. During this time, birds are feasting on insects to feed their young. As the juveniles grow, they will often accompany their parents back to the feeders.

Beating the heat

Bird behavior tends to change when temperatures skyrocket.

“I’ve noticed birds disappear from my yard midday when it’s hot,” Barry said. Like many other species, birds become less active in the heat, retreating to the shade where they can hide and cool off, he said.

Homeowners can help birds through the drought and scorching heat by keeping birdbaths clean and filled with fresh water, he said. “Even putting out a plate of water will help. I’ve noticed birds in the street gutters, trying to get a drink from sprinkler runoff.”

Birds are attracted to moving water. And a birdbath or fountain in the yard will attract species that don’t normally visit seed feeders, he said.

“Be sure to keep hummingbird feeders clean and filled,” he said. “A general rule of thumb is to replace the nectar every one to three days when temperatures are over 80 degrees.”

In extreme heat, nectar can spoil in as little as one day. If the liquid becomes cloudy, it’s time to replace. Adding red dye is unnecessary, he said.

Time to molt

Customers have already reported seeing a few species of songbirds in molt, Barry said. “Black phoebes and Bewick’s wrens are among the birds showing signs of molt.”

Because molting requires a lot of energy, it generally begins after breeding. Every bird from the smallest hummingbird to the largest eagle goes through a systematic process of replacing their feathers. Birds in molt can look bald, scruffy and bedraggled.

The way they molt differs among species. Many birds undergo a complete molt near their breeding grounds, which allows them to migrate south with a new set of feathers. Some have a partial molt before fall migration. Typically, birds shed feathers in regular patterns, though it may take weeks or months for them to complete the molting cycle. However, birds are not normally in a full molt when flying long distances.

Birds tend to become secretive during this time, vocalizing infrequently and hiding in the vegetation, Barry said. “They’re more vulnerable to predators during molt, especially when growing new flight feathers.”

Help our fine feathered friends by offering quality sunflower seeds to help boost the protein and fat in their diets needed to grow new feathers, he said. Suet also provides great nutritional value.

If you’re visiting lakes and ponds this summer, Barry suggests bringing along cracked corn if you’re allowed to feed the ducks. Pieces of torn lettuce and thawed frozen peas are also acceptable.

Just leave the bread at home. “It’s difficult for the birds to digest and bread has also been linked to avian botulism,” he said. The disease can cause paralysis and death in birds.

 

 

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Happy Father's Day from the Backyard Birder

                   Black Phoebes are monomorphic, so it's tough to say which adult is the male. 

    In some bird species, such as hummingbirds, females are solely responsible for nesting and caring for the young. In other species, males share equally in the tasks. Various species that work hard for the family include house finches, bluebirds, Nuttall's woodpeckers, Canada geese, bald eagles and brown pelicans. Read more about Daddy Birds and see a slideshow in The Orange County Register.
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Happy Birding!
J.J.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

When a bird flies into your home

Here's my latest column, scheduled to run Saturday, March 13, 2021 in the Southern California News Group newspapers including the Orange County Register, Los Angeles Daily News, Long Beach Press-Telegram, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Pasadena Star-News, The Daily Breeze,Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, and the Riverside Press-Enterprise

Interior designers have popularized the notion of bringing the outside in. Folding and disappearing doors can create a seamless transition to the great outdoors. The connection to nature adds a sense of calm and serenity to the home, they say.

But what happens when the connection gets a little too close and nature actually comes inside?

Tony Capparelli recalled the day nature flew in. He and his wife, Pam, had enjoyed a warm day in the backyard of their Lake Forest home. The family room doors had been open for several hours. When it got close to sunset, they went inside. That’s when Pam heard a noise in their second-story master bedroom. She discovered a hummingbird frantically flying around the room. Neither of them had seen it fly in, so they were unsure how long it had been in the house.

“The poor thing was bouncing off the walls and ceiling,” he said. “We were afraid it was going to hurt itself.”

When it finally landed on the ceiling fan, he could see it was a juvenile Anna’s hummingbird and decided to name it Wrongway.

They opened the door to the balcony, hoping the little bird would go out on its own. When it stubbornly stayed put, they attempted to coax it out of the house by hanging a hummingbird feeder on the curtain rod over the door.

“But the bird was having none of it and it was getting way too dark,” he said. “It was clear, Wrongway was going to have to stay the night in the Capparelli B&B for wayward hummingbirds.”

The couple found it necessary to keep the room completely dark until morning. Even the smallest light from a cell phone would agitate the bird, he said. Early the next morning, he opened the door. Wrongway flew to the feeder and drank without lifting its head for minutes not seconds, he said. Then it buzzed out the door.

“Just like that. Poof! No Wrongway,” he said.

Not all situations like this have a happy ending for the bird.

“Often people panic,” said Starlyn Howard, a volunteer with the International Bird Rescue in San Pedro and the Songbird Care and Education Center in Fountain Valley. When people scream, flail their arms and chase the bird around, it stresses the bird, she said.

“And birds can die from stress.”

When a bird gets into the house, the easiest solution is to lower window shades and close the curtains. Then open a door to the outside. “Birds will naturally go to the light,” she said.

Sometimes it helps to hold up a sheet with another person to create a wall to the rest of the home. Walking together toward an open door with the sheet held high, can help coax the bird out.

Without food, a trapped hummingbird can end up on the floor or windowsill completely exhausted. If a bird is injured or exhausted to the point where it can no longer fly, it needs to be taken to a rehabilitator. Call the nearest wildlife rehabilitation center or animal control services for instructions.

“Keep the bird warm, dark and quiet,” she said. A small box or paper bag with ventilation works to contain it. Use paper towels, instead of cloth, as a liner. Little toes can get caught on terrycloth loops, she said.

Rescuing birds of prey requires the assistance of animal control. “They’re not the easiest thing to catch,” said John Welsh, spokesman for Riverside County Animal Services. “And people will get hurt by their sharp talons.”

He recalled an incident where officers were called out to assist homeowners who heard pecking on the glass fireplace doors in their living room. Using a flashlight, they had discovered the wide eyes of a great-horned owl looking back at them. It had been pecking on the glass like an SOS. Animal services were able to rescue the owl. It was taken to a rehabilitation facility and later released.

Calls about birds getting trapped in chimneys is common, he said. It’s completely preventable by having a chimney cap installed.

As for Wrongway, the little bird may be gone, but he’s not forgotten.

“I sort of miss the little guy,” said Capparelli.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Get ready for the orioles!


Migrant hooded orioles generally start arriving in Southern California in early March to breed 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.

Oriole feeders are often orange because manufacturers know the birds are attracted to the color. Nectar feeders made especially for orioles can better accommodate the larger birds by providing longer perches and bigger feeding ports than are typically seen on hummingbird feeders.

Orioles have a sweet tooth with an affinity for grape jelly and cut oranges.

Insects are also an important part of their diet. Attract orioles by planting native shrubs with berries or flowering plants that invite caterpillars, one of their favorite foods. And encourage nesting by delaying trimming dead palm fronds until fall.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Salmonellosis outbreak may be spreading to Southern California

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is asking the public’s help to stop the spread of salmonellosis among songbirds by removing seed feeders until after spring migration. Pine siskins, which are winter visitors to Southern California, are most affected by the disease followed by a smaller number of lesser and American goldfinches.

The disease was first reported in California’s Central Coast, the San Francisco Bay Area and Sierra Nevada communities.

“We have been receiving reports of suspected Salmonellosis recently from Southern California,” said CDFW’s Krysta Rogers, Senior Environmental Scientist and Avian Specialist, via email. “Sick birds often act lethargic with ruffled or puffed-up feathers and die relatively quickly once infected.”

“These outbreaks typically last until March or April,” she says, “when pine siskins usually start migrating north, back to their breeding grounds.

Infected birds can transfer the illness, caused by the Salmonella bacteria, through their droppings at feeders. Therefore, the agency recommends bird feeders/baths be removed to help reduce mortality. After the outbreak has subsided, it’s generally recommended that bird feeders and bird baths are thoroughly cleaned and sterilized with bleach at least once a week, and more often if there is heavy use by birds.

Report dead birds to CDFW’s Wildlife Investigations Laboratory using the mortality reporting form, which helps biologists monitor the outbreak at: https://wildlife.ca.gov/conservation/laboratories/wildlife-investigations/monitoring/mortality-report

The agency suggests using disposable gloves and wash hands thoroughly after disposing of dead birds or handling of bird feeders and bird baths.

The agency has not reported the outbreak affecting hummingbirds, therefore, it appears safe to keep nectars feeders up as long as they are kept clean.