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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Why do birds puff up in cold weather?

Carolina Chickadee, puffed up
In cold weather they can look like tennis balls with wings sometimes! It just means they’re trying to keep warm. When a bird puffs up, or plumps up, he’s actually conserving warmth by raising up his feathers, fluffing and separating them, then bringing them back into place - except with lots of tiny air pockets between the feathers and the bird’s body.  This trapped air increases insulation for extra warmth, and the trapped air is is kept warm by the bird's body heat.

If you have a birdbath, remember that only clean feathers fluff up properly. If a bird has dirty feathers, inclement weather affects him greatly. So, even in winter, birds need a clean, handy birdbath. In very cold weather, the actual bath only takes only a second or two.

Lots of birds, however, hang around a birdbath a lot, to get multiple baths and sips of water. In freezing weather I'll pour hot water in ours to keep it from icing over.



Fox Sparrow
Double-scratching birds     In the winter, many birds forage for food by scratching through the leaf litter on the ground. In north Texas, you’ll see Juncos, Towhees, most blackbirds, many kinds of native Sparrows, and others doing this. Watch closely; actually the birds hop forward by moving both legs forward at the same time, then backwards a little if there’s snow covering the ground. This double-scratching does an excellent job of locating food.



Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Squirrels v. your birdfeeders

A hungry squirrel is an athletic squirrel.  It can leap about 8 feet horizontally - from standing still on a nearby branch or roof. Also a squirrel can jump about 4.5 feet vertically - possibly from the ground to a birdfeeder.  So merely hanging a typical birdfeeder from any old tree branch is often asking for trouble.

no seed for you!
There are two reasonable solutions that don't involve traps, firearms or hanging a feeder from a far-away branch.  1.  Fill a feeder with safflower. Most birds like it, but squirrels hate it. One taste of safflower seed and that particular squirrel won't be a problem any more.  2.  Use a squirrel-proof feeder; I suggest a Squirrel-Buster by Brome (pictured). Several feeders claim to be squirrel proof, but the Squirrel-Buster is the only one I know of that actually is. It costs a bit extra, but you'll save the extra cost in a year or two.
We have two at our house. They try, but no squirrel has ever gotten a single seed from them.

A few desperate friends of mine trap them and relocate them. When the "removed" squirrel is gone, however, several nearby ones will fight noisily over the now-vacant territory (a huge headache). The original squirrel usually finds its way back, anyway.

We use the other method too; filling feeders with safflower seed, at our house - in very vulnerably located feeders. Safflower is available at most good birding stores.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Caribou is the same thing as a Reindeer.

in North America it's called a "Caribou"
A Caribou IS a Reindeer. The confusion may have arisen because the use of reindeer as a Christmas symbol originated in northern Europe, where almost nobody uses the word "Caribou". If the tradition had started in Alaska, Santa's sleigh might have been pulled by eight Caribou.

The Caribou is a member of the deer family, living in the northern regions (like the North Pole). Unlike other deer, Caribou of both sexes have antlers. Like other deer, they are herbivores - meaning they eat plants. They have extraordinarily thick and buoyant coats, enabling them to live in extremely cold weather, and actually sleep while floating in water.

There are millions of Caribou/Reindeer in the world. Almost all species
migrate twice a year, following safe and trusted routes they've taken every spring and fall for centuries that are about 600 to 800 miles long. (They walk or run, not fly) .  On migratory trips, the adult females leave about two weeks before the rest. The males and juveniles leave later.

Merry Christmas!!
Partidge in a perdrix?       The Christmas quote about a “partridge in a pear tree” could possibly have been a simile, pun or mistranslation, according to John Riutta, in Backyard Birds Newsletter.  The tale, having wound itself through many languages and cultures may have borrowed from the French.  The French word for partridge is “perdrix” (pronounced something like “pear-dree”).  This sounds suspiciously like “pear tree” in English.  Maybe the long-forgotten author of the song was focusing on a single partridge in a tree full of partridges. Who knows?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

two trees provide oxygen for your lungs

Any project that plants trees is far, far more than just a "do-good" project with dreams of making a neighborhood or street look prettier.  Planting trees is absolutely crucial to the continuation of life as we know it on this planet.

You see, there are a lot more people on the planet every day; and we're killing trees to the point where we have just a small fraction of the trees we once had. The crucial point we often forget is that it takes roughly two mature trees to produce the amount of oxygen needed by one human being. (This happens through "photosynthesis", where a tree takes carbon dioxide from the air and converts it into oxygen.)

Trees still vastly outnumber people so we're not in immediate danger of suffocating. But it could happen, theoretically, in the distant future. So now is the time to plant all those little trees. In so doing, we can look toward the faraway future, when that tree (or its descendants) puts a substantial amount of oxygen into our air.

By the way, in Texas, now is by far the best time to plant trees (unlike up north)

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Plant a Wax Myrtle to have a "bird magnet"

Wax Myrtle

North Texas' underplanted, “ideal for warblers” evergreen shrub

When garden or birding magazines suggest planting a “winterberry”, what they’re really recommending for north Texas is a Wax Myrtle. It's an evergreen that’s native to this area, unlike the winterberry – which is likely to die here. What’s more, the Yellow-rumped Warbler (common in north Texas) is the only warbler species that can digest the waxy, blue-black berries. these berries (only found on the female plants)  give the shrub its name. When seed, from plants or from feeders, is unavailable to birds they can exist off the berries alone, especially when they have water (a birdbath?) nearby.

Left to its own in nature, Wax Myrtle can grow to 20' tall. Typically, however, the evergreen shrub is kept to 6 or 7 feet in most residential landscapes.  It grows in almost any decent, loose soil, requiring very little water.

WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT? :    (I first wrote this after hearing of the tragedy in Connecticut. Then, fearing I would put too much emotion into it and not enough reason, I re-wrote it the next day.)

  After we grieve for the victims and their families of the latest school shooting, let’s collectively do something about our country’s rabid gun mentality. That’s the proper memorial and legacy.

I don’t advocate making target-shooting or hunting illegal, nor do I want to restrict reasonable self-protection. So let’s start with a logical step of making guns less available – especially to all the felons, mentally ill and the irresponsible among us. Then let’s ban the sale of weapons that have no logical role in our civilization except to kill other humans.

Someday, we’ll admit to ourselves that “a well-regulated militia” in 2012 means Police Departments and the National Guard, not an informal conglomeration of unorganized citizens. Maybe the Supreme Court will agree, but probably not in my lifetime.

If you have children or grandchildren, you’ll probably agree right now. If someone out there wants to gun me down for what I think, go for it.  I’m in the phonebook.




Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Some leaf litter is good for your yard

At this time of year, many homeowners rake up withered plants and fallen leaves out of habit. But nature puts those dead leaves and withered plants there for a very good reason. A moderate amount should stay right where it is. They're a natural source of carbon and other nutrients.

Bare, exposed ground actually encourages “weeds”.  Normal plant debris, left on the ground, becomes an organic humus, resulting in looser soil and giving your soil an ability to hold more water and nutrients, and resist weedy growth. Plant debris also acts like mulch. Water doesn’t evaporate as fast, so your water bill should be lower. Your plants will grow bigger and better. You can buy humus in plastic bags every year, or let it accumulate naturally for free.  It’s your choice.
Please keep in mind that I’m talking about a “normal” amount of plant debris and leaves. If they pile up by an outside wall or on a sidewalk, by all means clean up. (If you own a rake, which I don't)

For years, I’ve shredded excess plant debris into tiny pieces, and put it right back on the landscape, using my lawn mower. Birds, butterflies and small animals utilize this plant debris. Harmless insects do too!  They serve as food (remember the food chain?) for the aforementioned birds as well as encouraging frequent visits by migrating species.
A word of advice:  be sensitive to your neighbors’ preferences. Take some time to explain why your landscape is “natural”, not manicured. Even if they don’t agree with you, they should know that you have a long-term plan. Your landscape won’t be blamed on laziness or neglect. It’s very ecology-minded too. 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Should I call it a Cardinal, or something else?

Cardinal; juvenile
maybe they're Virginia Redbirds?

We all know what a Cardinal is...or do we?? The Texas Ornithological Society, and most birdwatchers, know it as a Northern Cardinal. But many people (understandably) call it a Redbird (forgetting about the females and juveniles). In Virginia it's a Virginia Redbird or Virginia Nightingale. A few birders call it a Cardinal Redbird. They're all right in a way! Many years ago John James Audubon even knew it as a Cardinal Grosbeak. The only universally-correct name is the cumbersome Latin name Cardinalis cardinalis, but that sounds snobbish.

                           How dangerous is a Coyote...really? According to Audubon Magazine, there has been only one reported coyote-related death in the U.S. That was over 30 years ago! Typically, Coyotes try hard to avoid people, but we're seeing more and more as we expand into their natural range, and Coyotes have less and less territory in which to hunt.

Those are the facts!  I'm not worried, but if I were a rabbit or housecat I would be.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Why are birds not visiting my yard right now?

It's absolutely normal. It's nothing you've done, or are not doing. In a week or two it'll be totally different.

Chickadee on sumac
Starting around the end of September and continuing right now, plants are setting seed in dozens and dozens of forms.  You see native grasses producing "plumes", acorns and pecans litter landscapes everywhere, and all our native flowers have "gone to seed". This cornucopia of fresh seed is more enticing to wild birds than anything you could buy in a store. It's as fresh as it can get! So this is where the birds are, not at feeders.

When we get a hard freeze in north Texas (and/or ice storm or snowfall) they'll flock to your feeders enthusiastically. It's important to be ready now, since wild birds will need seed instantly, and won't wait around a day or two - they'll just go to somebody else's feeder.

The leaves on the ground also attract birds, insectivores mainly. The dead leaves harbor millions of tiny bugs. Birds pick through them endlessly for food.

In ensuing years you might want to keep birds in your area by planting what I call "birdscape" plants in your yard.  These plants produce seed reliably and in abundance, and provide totally fresh food for birds throughout the fall. The plants are native to this part of Texas, so the very best time to plant them is now (of course you won't see any top-growth until spring, but the roots will be growing like crazy). I'd be glad to send you a list of these plants if you send me your e-mail address.

[Actually, the above is in response to a question I got recently from a friend.  I thought many of you might have the same worry}

Saturday, December 1, 2012

A simple change in thinking attracts Chickadees to your yard

Chickadee eggs in stump

North Texas' kind of Chickadees (Carolina Chickadee) like to nest in old trees. Right now is not nesting season, but it's a time when lots of trees are taken down. You can remove trees in such a way as to make them inviting for nesting Chickadees in the future (as well as several other native species).

Chickadees really like the exposed inner core of fallen trees. This core is soft and decomposes faster than the rest of the tree. So it makes a slight depression. In nature, this may be result of a windstorm, forest fire or equivalent. In your yard, if you plan on felling a tree, consider leaving a tall stump (4 to 10 feet) to attract Chickadees.

 IT SAYS ITS OWN NAME    The American common name "Chickadee" is "onomotopoetic". It's what the early settlers heard the bird saying, so that's what they called it. It says "chick-a-dee-dee"

There may be one or more "dee"s at the end of a Chickadee's call. Some research says that the number of "dee"s indicates to other birds the proximity of danger, and its nearness.



Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Who among us mistakenly killed a bird recently?

      The same sort of thing goes for rubber bands, bread wrapper "twisties", gift ribbons, packing peanuts and the like. Use your head - we share this world.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Boreal birds could visit us again

Red-breasted Nuthatch

A few years ago, north Texas was treated to an influx of Red-breasted Nuthatches. It happens every few years. These were from the vast evergreen forests of Canada and the northern U.S. known as the Boreal Forest, a huge forest that's home to over 300 species of birds, including Nuthatches. You can usually identify them climbing headfirst down tree trunks, probing the bark for bugs.


Nobody knows precisely why some species fly to more southern areas for the winter; and why Nuthatches sometimes winter here, versus (for instance) Arkansas.  But be prepared for more visits from several “boreal” species this coming fall.


Can you breathe and sing at the same time?
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Birds can.  Birds sing through a branched organ called a “syrinx”. Each branch can be controlled independently. So birds can produce two different sounds at the same time. Birds also have a specialized breathing system. They can inhale and exhale (perhaps through the syrinx) since they can manipulate air sacs and lungs independently.



Wednesday, November 21, 2012

calling them "buzzards" might be because you watched a lot of old movies

Black Vulture & Turkey Vulture  (not "buzzards")
      In North America, the vulture is purely a scavenger (road kill and such), never killing a healthy, live animal. A similar word grew out of European mythology. The word “buzzard” originated (improperly) from “busart” in French, and “buteo” – a Latin term for a hawk; a large bird which happens to soar like many other birds. The early settlers of this continent (being largely uneducated) knew only the improper term “buzzard” and applied it to any large soaring bird, including the Red-tailed Hawk, Condor and Turkey Vulture (which certainly isn’t a “buzzard”) merely because they scavenged meat. The only true buzzard is a type of hawk native to Europe. However, many Hollywood films imprinted this error onto audiences, and the improper use of “buzzard” persists in everyday speech.

If we didn't have Vultures around we'd be up to our ankles in roadkill. To my way of thinking, calling these birds "buzzards" is an insult to these gracefully-flying and necessary birds.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Here comes the Eurasian Collared Dove

Eurasian Collared Dove
A bird that’s rapidly becoming at home in north Texas is the Eurasian Collared Dove.  Prior to the mid ‘80s, it wasn’t even in most field guides. But after it was introduced to the Bahamas in the ‘70s, it quickly spread out and is now one of the most frequently-seen birds in the southeast, and is expanding its range westward. It was first reported in the U.S. in 1982 - just north of Miami. Interestingly, there is actually an increase in the native dove populations when this non-native dove takes up residence.  In north Texas, that includes the Mourning Doves.

A Mocker’s diet     About half the diet of a Northern Mockingbird (our state bird!)  is fruits and berries. The other half is insects (including insect-flavored suet, sometimes). The Mockingbird won’t ever eat at a seed feeder, although it may hang around the same area. As a practicing Landscape Architect in Texas, I’ve seen that they’re partial to native hollies, beautyberry, agarita, soapberry and Mexican plum.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Seen any of these "urban birds" lately?

House Finch

There are more birds living in and around north Texas cities than you may think. Especially since there is far less "rural" land now, and more and more built-up land. Of course all of these species won’t be in all yards. And some birds (like Goldfinches & Juncos) are winter-only, while others (like Orioles & Swallows) are summer-only. These are the most numerous year-‘round urban birds; 

House Finch Sometimes called a red-headed “Hollywood Finch”

Red-winged Blackbird Travels and feeds in large flocks

American Crow Extremely intelligent, for a bird

American Robin Actually lives here year-‘round

European Starling Not a native bird; imported from Europe 

House Sparrow Not a true North American sparrow

Dove Several species, all with memorable songs

Killdeer Likes to nest on ground, near pavement

Rock Pigeon Well-adapted to city life

Carolina Chickadee Small, inquisitive bird

Tufted Titmouse Takes readily to birdhouses

Grackle Their range is expanding northward

Wren Several species of this active, loud bird

Northern Mockingbird Official state bird of Texas;  eats bugs

Blue Jay Large, noisy bird that loves nuts


While it's certainly not winter here yet, a few of north Texas' "winter birds" have already arrived. Readers tell me they've seen Juncos, Flickers, Chipping Sparrows, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Orange-crowned Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets.         In my own yard I've seen some of these plus several White-throated Sparrows.


Saturday, November 10, 2012

The bird we all love to hate; Starlings

Starling (winter)
Starling (most of the time)
Starlings are interesting birds, found here in north Texas and in all continental U.S. states. Curiously, they are not native birds (the full name is "European Starling "). They were first brought to New York in 1890-91 by a group that wanted to import ALL animals mentioned in Shakespeare's work.

Now that there are so many of them, they often flock together with other birds such as Grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds, Crows and Cowbirds. A flock can encompass 100,000 birds.

An important thing to remember; they are extremely aggressive and often return, the following year, to nest in the same place. You should never allow one to use a birdhouse in your yard, since they will aggressively evict native birds and each other; even killing others' newborns and destroying eggs. A pair of Starlings can build a nest in 1 to 3 days.

After molting, Starlings often show spots (this happens in the winter). Most of the time, however, they are a glossy black. They live anywhere there's food and water except dense forests (this may be because there's too much competition).The jaw/beak, unlike most other living things, is stronger when opening than when closing. So it can pry open tiny cracks (like in tree bark or eggshells).

THE DANGER ZONE.      Many birds are killed by crashing into windows. There are situations, however, where it's OK to put a birdfeeder near a window. A feeder closer to a window than 2 feet (including on the window itself) is safe. This is where the bird is in "a landing pattern"  and is fully aware of the surroundings. A feeder farther away than 7 feet is OK too.

The "danger zone" of between 2 and 7 feet should be avoided. You may still have a few bird strikes on windows, however, when a bird just isn't paying attention. Like if it's being chased by a hawk, and is looking behind him.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Attracting birds to bare trees with Tree Goop

A tree without leaves looks gloomy and uninviting, but a simple trick can liven things up and attract birds. Modify the trick and you can even attract birds this fall and winter if you have NO trees in your yard.

Just mix up what I call tree goop" from peanut butter and bird seeds. I use cheap (often store brand) peanut butter - crunchy seems to work best. Into it I blend (with a sturdy utensil) a bunch of fresh birdseed containing black-oil sunflower seeds. The ratio is unimportant, except the more seed there is, the more it attracts birds.

Now, visit your bare trees and liberally spread a glop of the mixture on a patch of bark. (In north Texas most leafless trees are Post Oak and Cedar Elm). With the addition of some "tree goop", however, hungry birds should bring some life to your yard.

If you have no trees, try a section of log (pictured). It's simply a log about 3 to 5 inches in diameter.  Screw an I-hook into the top, spread some "tree goop" on it and hang it outside. That's all!

You could spend a lot of money buying some costly, pre-packaged mixtures where four or five companies take a percentage of the cost. If you choose to mix your own "tree goop", however, the results will be the same.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Birdfeeders do NOT create "dependent" birds

         Lots of people still buy into the old belief that providing wild birds with food gets them "hooked" on seed/suet from birdfeeders.    Not true!

The reality is this; food that wild birds get from feeders is less than 10% of their diet. Seed from feeders is not only convenient, it's often a matter of life or death - especially in bad weather when natural food is scarce.

Birds always prefer the absolute freshest food around. That's certainly seed from native plants growing in their vicinity.The seed these plants produce is totally fresh, of course, when birds get it. That's why the vast majority of a bird's diet is from live, healthy plants. It's also why I recommend that you plant "birdscape" plants in your yard right now.  In north Texas, now is the very best time to plant, even though you won't see any above-ground growth until spring.
    (For a list of "birdscape" plants native to this area, email me at )

WHERE DO THEY CARRY PASSPORTS?   The fall migration of Monarch butterflies is underway. Every fall they travel southward to fir forests in the Oyamel Mountains of central Mexico, funneling through north Texas. One particular butterfly may make it all the way from start to finish, but it's almost impossible for one particular Monarch to go on two migrations. They have short life spans, so when a Monarch dies during migratory flight, newborn ones (from eggs laid along the way) continue the flight - instinctively knowing where to go. These children, or the childrens' descendants will take part in the next annual migration.


Wednesday, October 31, 2012

ALL things in nature are interdependent. Including humans

John Muir
Everything in nature is affected to some degree by everything else in nature. Perhaps the naturalist John Muir said it best back in 1890-something: "There is a common thread winding through every part of nature.  Fiddle with one part and all the other parts are troubled".

Humans are a big part of nature. Bird migration is another good example. When it gets cold where birds are, and the snow or frozen ground cuts off the normal food supply, birds fly to wherever they can find food. It's a matter of survival - affected by a changing climate. Maybe that means flying all the way to South America or to north Texas  (depending largely on their diet) from a place that has no food available, like Canada or Minnesota.

Diet is important not just for a plant's yield, but for timing. Our native plants go to seed or make berries precisely when our native or migrating birds are looking for these things (exotic plants may look nice to you and me, but they produce food when our native birds aren't "in the market". Also, our native trees drop their leaves on schedule each fall, providing millions of protected hiding places for tiny bugs, which birds eat.

Also, all those fallen leaves, as they decompose they loosen the soil and add nutrients; making for more fruit/seed production in the following season.

See how every piece of nature works together with every other piece!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Robins have moved northward: 206 miles at last count

American Robin
There are Robins ("American Robins" technically) in north Texas all year long. But their population center is gradually shifting northward as the weather up north warms up and food is available all winter long.

Robins are so widespread that most of us haven't noticed, but Cornell's Lab of Ornithology has. In a 40-year study they proved that the center of the robin population is now in southern Kansas. The center 40 years ago was north of Gainesville - on the banks of the Red River.
So the Robins' reputation as the "first harbinger of spring" only applies, now, to northern states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and the Dakotas. In Texas, Robins are here all year; just more active and likely to be seen in the spring mating season.

PIGEONS AND DOVES ARE BIRDS OF A FEATHER.   They're pretty much the same; both members of the Columbida family. But the label "dove" implies a more refined, better mannered and less germy bird. Doves are also more slender. In common usage, the farther the bird is removed, genetically, from the pigeons we've all seen in parking lots, around dumpsters and on street lights, the more apt it is to be called a "dove".

Ages and ages ago, the wild pigeon was primarily dark blue and/or dark gray. Much of this coloration has been "bred away" in doves - the Mourning Dove, for example, is beige and light gray.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

North Texas hosts more birds in cool weather than warm

Forgive me if I misled you, with all my talk recently of hummingbirds leaving, fall migration and so on. You may have gotten the impression that north Texas is empty of birds until spring. Not so!  A look out your  window may be enlightening. Clearly, there are more birds in this area in the fall and winter than in the spring and summer.

Some birds (like Hummingbirds and Buntings)have left us, and gone to their winter homes in South and Central America. Many other birds (like Juncos, Kinglets, true Sparrows, Towhees, Sapsuckers and Goldfinches) will be arriving in north Texas as the leaves fall from the trees; to spend the winter. After all, this IS the South - and our comparatively mild winters agree with them.

Many other birds stay right around here in north Texas, including Cardinals, Mockingbirds, Chickadees, Robins and most woodpeckers.

Sadly, wild birds have a high mortality in cool weather. This is mainly from exposure to weather, coupled with a lack of fresh, energy-producing foods. To combat this, they seek out "roosts" for the night - places to get out of the wind and weather. This can be almost anything; an evergreen tree or even an unused birdhouse. Provide plenty of good food too. And leave your birdbath out so the birds can get clean (helps them stay warm).

North Texans have been doing a good job of providing these basics, so we continue to have more birds here in cool weather, than in spring and summer. 

(Incidentally, other birds that usually come here for the cool weather include Cedar Waxwings, Pine Siskins, Nuthatches, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Orange-crowned Warblers and Northern Flickers.)

Sunday, October 21, 2012

How birds check out an unfamiliar bird feeder

Red-bellied Woodpecker
Before landing on a feeder that's not totally familiar to them (like a new one), a bird will land on a nearby branch (within about 5 - 8 feet), and watch it for a while, taking a good look. Some things that tell birds to go elsewhere are if the feeder's empty (OBVIOUSLY), if it's exposed to aerial attack by another bird (like a hawk), if a cat is hanging around, or if there's no escape route within a foot or so (if a predator suddenly appears the bird must escape quickly into dense vegetation), or if there's a lot of noise and human activity.

If there's no nearby branch to land on, the feeder won't be thought of as "safe" until next season when the bird will go through the very same inspection process.

Owen Yost & Nancy Collins
PROPER BIRDWATCHING ATTIRE   Small birds are scared away by even the slightest hint of danger. So wearing certain clothing is a tactic to see more birds, not to look stylish. Many birds of prey (hawks for instance) have white stomachs and/or breasts. So a smaller bird quickly leaves the area when he sees anything that's moving and white. Maybe you could be a huge hawk!

Try wearing dark green, blue, black, brown or grey instead. (Of course if you're inside, looking through a window, color doesn't matter. But glare does.)


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

North Texas birds, water and attracting owls

I ran across short videos by "Bird Man Mel". Unlike a lot of YouTube contributors, this guy seems knowledgeable, sane (and enthusiastic). Remember, though, that we live in north Texas, where birdbath heaters aren't needed and the seasons present slightly different situations than shown.


Sunday, October 14, 2012

Foreign birdwatchers want to see WHAT while here??

Blue Jay

A survey of casual birdwatchers visiting here from other parts of the world was taken recently. They were asked which American bird they most wanted to see. For its striking appearance, unusual behavior and raucous songs, the winner (by quite a big margin) was the Blue Jay.

Blue Jays are throughout north Texas, and as Texans know, Blue Jays are particularly fond of acorns (we live in a "post oak savanna). This fondness is mostly responsible for the rapid spread of oak trees after the last ice age. They are able to hold several acorns at once, while flying.
Blue Jays

Do north Texas woodpeckers migrate?    Some do -- some don't. Muddy answer I know (but true). Of the 22 woodpecker species north of Mexico, only 15 migrate long distances.The others don't migrate at all, or are "partial migrators" - just moving into a nearby valley, or something like that. Non-migrators include the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, and the Red-bellied Woodpecker. On the other hand, our local species of Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (a member of the woodpecker family) spends summers and breeds up north and migrates here for the winters.


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Save lots of money on fall lawn feeding by doing it naturally

Yes, your lawn needs to be fed in the fall - just like that guy with the strange accent says on TV commercials.  There's no advantage, however, to feeding your lawn with the synthetic product he recommends (except to the retailer that sells it to you). The same results for your lawn can be achieved for far less of your money - probably even for free.

For many, many years I've not fed my lawn with stuff from a bag, and my grass is doing quite well.  I'm no chemist or botanist, but the results speak well for feeding your lawn naturally in the fall. The health of my lawn, and of my clients' lawns, attest to it.

For years I've mowed my lawn, leaves and all, a couple of times each winter.   Basically, this shreds the dead, fallen leaves into tiny pieces (about the size of a dime), which decompose more rapidly into organic matter and add a lot a carbon and other nutrients back into your soil.  An added advantage is that the decomposing matter will attract birds like crazy;  to pick through the leaf-bits in search of food.

In a very short time the tiny pieces of decomposing leaves will disappear from view, as they filter down between the blades of grass and become part of the soil. This replicates the process that happens naturally in a forest; but does it in a lot less time. This eliminates a lot of leaf-raking too.

(if you're worried about "thatch" - don't be.  Thatch, a very rare occurrence, is almost always a fable told by people who want to sell you something)

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Listen for north Texas' most common owl.

Screech Owls
Listen carefully, and you may hear the call of north Texas' most common owl - the Eastern Screech Owl. If it's nightime, and you're in or near woods, listen for a tremulous horse whinney sound. Some call it a "screech", and others speculate it's the sound of heard by the rider in Washington Irving's tale, "Headless Horseman". Whatever it sounds like, it's not the "hoot-hoot" so often associated with owls. 

Eastern Screech Owl
Actually, the only owl in north Texas that "hoots" is the Great-horned Owl.  An adult Great-horned Owl may be 2-feet tall. On the other hand the Screech Owl is about 9 or 10 inches long, relying largely on excellent camoflage during the day, when it sleeps.

Other owls common here in north Texas are the Barn Owl and the Barred Owl.

You and your kids can look for bats when they're flying around - in the dark of night hunting bugs (The tiny animals are harmless to humans). Simply fasten a
piece of tracing paper over a normal flashlight lens. The light will then be dim enough to not be seen as troublesome to bats. Bats will still be able to detect tiny objects, very accurately, in the dark. And you'll be able to see them.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The "sparrow" that's not a true sparrow

As you may have discovered, the House Sparrow is an undesireable little bird, and is not really a "sparrow". It has given the true Sparrows (which arrive here in about a month) a bad name. The House Sparrow (sometimes called an English Sparrow) was originally called a "sparrow" only because it looks somewhat like true sparrows. It is not a native North American bird, beung brought to this country against its will in the late 1800s because of its agressiveness and dominating habits.  House Sparrows are still mean, agressive birds that will kill other birds, take over other's nests or chase them away.

Harris' Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow
All true sparrows spend the warmer months up north, and migrate to this area only with the advent of cooler weather. (House Sparrows, conversely,  are here all year long).  In north Texas, the true sparrows include Chipping Sparrow, Harris' Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Olive Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Black-Throated Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow and Savannah Sparrow. But NOT what's called a "House Sparrow".

Savannah Sparrow
It may take centuries of evolution but a common backyard bird in north Texas is gradually learning to outcompete the ubiquitous House Sparrow.   The native House Finch is learning how to get and keep the best nesting sites, the best food, etcetera.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The upside of fire is that it can be good for birds

Scientists at Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology say that a decrease in birds is linked to, among other things, human's urge to put out all forest fires, right away. Even those fires that don't endanger humans. They cite several situations where forest fires actually led to large increases in bird populations.

Pluses for birds are that forest fires consume dead logs, clearing spaces for new, native vegetation. Fires get rid of competing (and often invasive) vegetation, and cause several tree species to release seeds of new trees. Forest fires (which are predominantly a natural occurrence) add lots of carbon to the soil.  All this allows dense, new vegetation to grow, adding many, many new nesting sites and food sources.

Most birds migrate at night.  At night, the winds are calmer, making flight easier. At night, most predators aren't active, and the temperature is cooler. Most songbirds, however, are normally active during daylight only. So for a short period just prior to and during migratory flight, songbirds' bodies are adjusted naturally - an activity called "nocturnal restlessness".

In north Texas, we may see it as our hummingbirds migrate south for the winter. That's why I advise leaving nectar feeders up through the first week of October.  This helps feed stragglers from up north; and you may see your feeder a lot emptier each morning.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Dead trees are home to "cavity nesting" birds

A dead tree is somebody's home
The term "cavity nesters" is used for bird species that nest in old, probably-dead, trees. In north Texas that includes Chickadees, Titmice, Wrens and Bluebirds. These arborial homes were, probably, originally made by Woodpeckers, who lived there and raised a family. But all these birds are having a harder and harder time finding homes, because of humans' proclivity for cutting down all dead trees, and trees that just look sick.
                                    A dead tree left in place boosts the number of creatures dramatically. Watch this video.


Saturday, September 22, 2012

Why don't birds fall off their perches?

Belted Kingfisher
When birds sleep or rest, they may perch on a branch and remain there, motionless, for a long time. But, even in sleep, they won't lose their grip and fall off.

You see, their legs are not constructed the same as ours. The arrangement of the leg bones, muscles, tendons and feet is roughly opposite of ours, having sort of a ratchet-type operation. When awake, birds can adjust the leg/foot movement, but when asleep the feet clench tightly, like they're glued to the perch. This happens automatically.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

All fall migration flights aren't to the south. Actually, most north Texas birds don't migrate at all. The Grey Bat, however, is a tiny harmless creature that flies north. It lives in warm, dark caves, like south Texas and Florida. But when it wants a place to hibernate each winter, it seeks out relatively cooler areas, perhaps Arkansas or Tennessee.

During this wintertime hibernation in cool areas, its heart rate drops from several hundred beats per minute to twenty or thirty.