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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

North Texas hosts more birds in cool weather than in warm months


 Forgive me if I led you in the wrong direction a while back. What with all the talk of Hummingbirds leaving and other birds migrating to warmer climates, you may have gotten the impression that this area is empty of birds until spring. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and a look out your window may be enlightening. Without a doubt, there are more birds in north Texas in the fall and winter, than in the spring and summer.

True, some birds (like Hummingbirds, Buntings and Swallows) have left for their annual winter haunts in South and Central America. Other birds (like Goldfinches, true Sparrows, Juncos and Kinglets) that spent last summer in northern regions, however, are arriving in north Texas as we speak. To them, this IS south – our comparatively mild winters agree with them.

Mockingbird / Yaupon Holly
Many, many other birds stay right here. These include Cardinals, Chickadees, Mockingbirds, Bluebirds, Titmice and Woodpeckers. Of these some are what’s called “partial migrators”. They may travel only a short distance to where food or shelter is better. Out to the country, where food is more plentiful, for instance. Robins for another example. The ones that live here stay right here. But the Robins that were in, for instance, Michigan last summer, come down here for the winter. So populations of some species actually swell, although they’re less active in cool weather.

In actuality, many of the cool weather birds are already arriving here. Even at this early date, a few Juncos, Kinglets and Goldfinches have been seen. Depending on weather, however, the bulk of them may arrive late November. Cedar Waxwings normally arrive here a week or so after that. True Sparrows, like the White-throated or Chipping Sparrows, are already here in throngs.

Sadly, wild birds have a high mortality in cool weather – it varies among species, but can be as high as 70% of the first-year birds. This is mainly from exposure to the winds and weather, coupled with a lack of fresh, energy-producing food. That's why birdfeeding in cool weather is so important. Birds, like us, also want to get out of the weather, especially at night . They seek out “roosts” for the night. Roosts can be almost any warm, protective space. Some species, Chickadees are one, huddle together in a mass, sharing body heat. Birds need birdbaths in cold weather too. At first, this seemed odd to me too, but not after discovering why they fluff up their feathers. The fluffing creates tiny air pockets, which insulate birds’ bodies quite well. Dirty feathers, however, won’t fluff up. So birds need to bathe in the winter (the actual bath takes only about a second).

Bathing, warm roosts and fresh food are what birds need in cool weather. North Texans have been doing a good job of providing these basics, so we continue to have more birds here in cool weather, than the spring and summer.

 



OWEN YOST, in addition to being a blogger, is a licensed Landscape Architect emeritus who has lived and worked in north Texas for over 30 years. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award of the Native Plant Society of Texas, and is a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Federation of Landscape Architects, National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society. His office is at Yost87@charter.net in Denton.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Now is the time to start attracting Bluebirds

Eastern Bluebird

Bluebirds are here in Texas year-‘round, but are mainly active in the spring*. Recently they were almost wiped out, but are now on the comeback trail. They still need your help, however.

During the middle of the 20th century, Bluebirds (all 3 species) nearly became extinct in North America. Pesticide use, habitat destruction and heavy competition from imported bird species decimated Bluebird populations.

This drew the attention of concerned individuals and groups who started an effort to provide human-made nesting sites (birdhouses) in the remaining suitable habitat. These became known as “Bluebird Trails”. At the same time, such nasty pesticides as DDT were banned and Bluebirds made a comeback from the brink.

Since Bluebirds like grassland habitat, you can put up a Bluebird house or two on the edge of your lawn (at least 100 ft. apart though). Do it now, and in the spring you may see them raise little Bluebirds. They’re here all winter, scoping out potential nest sites for when it warms up.

*Bluebirds living in Texas do not migrate in the typical sense that they fly to South America for the winter. They are what are called “partial migrators”. The ones spending summers up north (roughly north of the Mason-Dixon line) fly a little to the south for the winter (Texas is part of “the south”). The ones that are here in the summer stay here all winter, but usually fly a few miles to less developed land where the food supply is more predictable.


 

Eastern Bluebirds
Bluebirds insist on having grassland in front of their home, since it promises an adequate supply of insects. For this reason the homes must be at least 100 ft. apart – to ensure that each residence has its own territory. I’d mount the birdhouse on a pole, set right on the edge of the grassland – facing any direction but west.

They hunt from a perch on top of the birdhouse, so I recommend adding a perch a foot or so above the house, where an adult can scan the territory for insect activity (unless there’s a well-placed tree branch within about 3 ft. of the birdhouse).

Though it may go without saying to most of you, sharply limit the use of pesticides - they kill Bluebirds' food (although they treat mealworms like candy, and it's almost all nestlings will eat). Even then, never spread pesticides over your whole lawn.  Local use, like on a fire ant mound, is okay.

 

 



OWEN YOST, in addition to being a blogger, is a licensed Landscape Architect emeritus who has lived and worked in north Texas for over 30 years. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award of the Native Plant Society of Texas, and is a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Federation of Landscape Architects, National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society. His office is at Yost87@charter.net in Denton.