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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Vultures: designated as nature's "clean-up" bird, is extremely good at the job

Turkey Vulture soaring

   Almost everyone has seen a Turkey Vulture; a very common bird here in north Texas. Probably the bird was soaring gracefully, high in the sky. Less common here is the Black Vulture. Most of the vultures’ time is spent effortlessly riding on air currents, or “thermals”. They hardly ever flap their wings. They efficiently scan several square miles at a time. With their keen eyesight, they’re looking for their next meal, from high above.

   Their meals are decomposing carcasses such as roadkill, or some animal dead of natural causes…it could even be household garbage. It has never been proven that vultures (including the Caracara or “Mexican Eagle”) ever kill their prey, they just get rid of already-dead things that need getting rid of…like squished squirrels.
Black Vulture (l.) and Turkey Vulture (r.)

The vultures' long, bare necks enable them to get deep into the dead carcass without picking up stray flecks of flesh or blood, which could carry disease. Their slightly recurved (hooked) beaks are good for deep probing and tearing rotten flesh.


Home, sweet underbrush            Many, many birds in north Texas, about two-thirds of them, depend on “underbrush” for things like shelter, food and protection. This is the name commonly given to any mass of vegetation that’s more than a foot tall, but less than 6 feet above the ground – including shrubs. Remove this underbrush and about two-thirds of north Texas birds will not be attracted to your lot, and will go elsewhere to find shade, nest and eat.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

When it's super-hot out, what do north Texas birds do for water?

Since birds can’t turn on a faucet or escape to air conditioning during our summers, where do they drink, bathe and cool off? After all, just like us, they need water to stay alive. Considering the summer weather around here, they have to be truly ingenious.

They find it everywhere!  Street gutters. Ditches and tire ruts by the road.  Low spots in a field or yard. Leaking water faucets.  Drainage ditches. Run-off from sprinklers. Birds find water all over!  Some even drink the dewdrops from leaves.

For most birds, however, it’s the sparkling surface of a pond, stream, puddle or birdbath that signals the presence of water. Then, depending on the species, dozens may appear.  When a bird isn’t actually drinking or bathing, he’ll probably secret himself among some leaves or tall grasses nearby.
Wild birds do this, of course, to get in the somewhat-cooler shade. Not only is it cooler, but the water they just got on themselves isn’t quickly lost to evaporation in the hot, Texas sun.

The amount of water required varies from species to species. Hummingbirds, whose diet is high in nectar, rarely need to supplement with plain water. Nectar, whether from flowers or a feeder, is mostly water anyway. Birds that eat insects also get a lot of water in their normal diet. Bugs, worms and other crawly things have a high moisture-content, so eating a bug puts a little water into the bird.  Many birds will eat berries, getting some water from the berry’s watery pulp. In north-central Texas the berries could be from
hollies, agarita, beautyberry, native plums, soapberry and several others.

Birds that live in dry areas (very generally west of I-35W) make use of moisture released as a by-product of the normal metabolic process (a form of recycling, you could say). This lets them go long periods between drinks. Even fresh seed has some moisture in it, to keep their internal systems in balance. Most birds can tell the moisture-content of a seed just by picking it up with their beaks. If it’s no good, they’ll just throw it on the ground and keep looking for any good seeds.  This is why a lot of birdseed gets tossed on the ground beneath feeders.

As for bathing, most birds need relatively shallow watering sites, or they simply won’t get in. North Texas’ small songbirds (like chickadees, finches and titmice) prefer water about an inch deep. Our larger birds (like jays and doves) don’t like bathing in water more than 2 or 3 inches deep. Keep this in mind if you’re looking for a birdbath (or a “lawn decoration” as most should be called).

 Once located, visiting a water source usually becomes part of a bird’s daily routine. Especially since they lose so much water-weight during a typical summer day here. Birds have to replenish this water every day just to survive.

One of the best ways to bring water and birds together is with moving water. The sound of moving water is like the bell on an ice cream truck. And just about any birdbath can be modified to move water. [Mosquitoes can’t lay eggs in moving water either.]

The water in a birdbath can be made to recirculate, or cascade down a rock, with a tiny pump. A tiny pump can also spray a fine mist. The pump can be powered by your home’s electricity or by a solar panel.  The technology of small solar panels has been greatly improved in the last year. The cordless solar panels can now power a recirculating birdbath or fountain with just sunlight – something we have plenty of in Texas.

Every person reading this can do a little bit to help our birds get the water they need to stay alive. Plant the plants that provide water via berries, or that hold rainwater in their leaves. Feed fresh birdseed. Create lots of cooling shade by planting tall, bushy things and reducing the size of your lawn. And be sure to provide at least one safe, usable water-source.