Bird Feeders: Widlife Wednesday, February 2019

This is a bird feeder.

Left, American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis); right, House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

This is also a bird feeder.

Lesser Goldfinch (Spinus psaltria)

The first feeder, purchased at Wild Birds Unlimited, is filled with black oiled sunflowers, and many birds, not just the two in the photo, love the seeds.  It’s a popular dining establishment in my back garden.  The second feeder is courtesy of two native plants (Frostweed, Verbesina virginica, and Plateau goldeneye, Viguiera dentata), both of which bloomed during summer and autumn, and have since been rendered dormant by a couple of light freezes.  I’ve pruned neither this winter because these plants, and others in my garden, are currently providing meals, cover, and (eventually) nesting material for a number of bird species.

In the past 50-70 years, the paradigm for home garden beauty has been the swath of green turf, augmented with hedged, tidy, and typically non-native, evergreen shrubs lining the foundation of a home. Additionally, spots of decorative flowers, dictated by season, are popped into designated beds.  At the end of a season, those flowers are unceremoniously ripped out and replaced by a new batch of bloomers.  The bedding flowers, often sterile, are cultivars which are mass-produced for their beauty to the human eye, rather than for any importance to pollinators, birds, and other endemic wildlife.  This garden model is high maintenance, requiring frequent irrigation and chemical intervention to feed the thirsty and hungry plants. Herbicides and pesticides often partner with the chosen plants because problematic insects thrive in landscapes which rely on non-native plants. This garden mode certainly enjoys a kind of beauty:  it’s neat, with colors and textures that are controlled, expected, and predictable.

But I find this–a native plant, post-freeze, crinkly of leaves and tawny in color, providing a wintering American Goldfinch food and cover–an exemplar of garden beauty.

I know many people prefer the neat hedge, loud bedding colors, and trim lawn over the bare bramble of limbs, “dead” foliage, and spiky seed heads that define native plants in winter.  But wildlife–birds, insects, reptiles, and mammals–require native seeds and decaying plant material that nature provides; it’s a process that is part of the seasonal norm and is how living, self-sustaining environments evolved.  The symbiotic relationship between a plant and its animal or insect mark both biological balance and eternal beauty.

While growing wildflowers, and native trees, shrubs, and perennials never entirely disappeared from home garden practices, the native plants movement has enjoyed a renaissance in recent decades.  This back-to-native plants movement has bolstered wildlife in urban areas.  As urban areas encroach into and limit wild spaces, native plant additions to home and commercial gardens serve as a respite for wildlife.  Yes, non-native plants can provide food, but fauna benefits most when the flora it evolved alongside is present.

Not a great photo, but I like the stair step of the three male Lesser Goldfinches.  They and several buddies were all over this collection of dormant Frostweed and Plateau goldeneye.

While it may look “messy” to the human eye, dormant plants, with their prickly sticks and complex seeds, are a boon to birds.  I don’t prune my garden messy until late in winter, the exact wacking-back dependent on the unique the weather pattern of a particular winter-into-spring.  I also pay close attention to whether there are any birds feeding at the plants.  Once the plants are bird-free and days have lengthened and warmed, pruning time in my garden has arrived.

Both the American and Lesser Goldfinches are migrants who overwinter here in Austin, Zone 8b.  They travel in groups from available seeds source to available seed source, in a sort of avian progressive meal train.  Flocks will flit and nosh in my garden one day, and be gone to another gardening establishment the next.  Some stick around to snip insects from the trees and shrubs, bathe in the pond’s bog or bird baths, and eat seeds, either from the feeder or the plants.

Other wintering birds, like this Orange-crowned WarblerOreothlypis celata,  are daily visitors to a variety of plants in my garden.  This female (I think!) enjoys the seed from a dormant Frostweed.  During the blooming seasons, it serves as a rich buffet for many kinds of pollinators; in winter the seedheads splay on strong limbs, high enough to protect tiny bird diners.

The Orange-crowned also regularly stops at the suet feeder.  Purchased suet (like mine) or the homemade kind is nutritious for birds in winter, as it provides needed fat.

It’s not only migratory birds who enjoy plants or suet, but also residents.  The year-rounders, like this Carolina ChickadeePoecile carolinensis, regularly partake of the suet offering.  In my warm climate, I only hang the suet feeder from late October to April, or at the latest, early May.  Central Texas summers are far too hot for suet–it becomes rancid quickly.

I’m not against feeding birds, but I aim to plant at least some of what they’ve been eating for millenia, and pair that with supplementary sources.  I’m pleased to offer both.

Achieving a wildlife friendly garden doesn’t require radical changes, nor does it have to be all wild. With relatively simple modifications, gardeners can easily transform their gardens to wildlife habitats;  even a formal garden can serve as a wildlife habitat, with some thoughtful plant choices and particular plant practices.   Choosing native plants (when available) over introduced species, and leaving plants to their natural state are key drivers to the goal of a wildscape.   Birds and mammals nibble from natives and utilize limbs and leaves for nesting and cover, so deadheading and over-pruning should be limited.  Available water sources, some leaves and limbs left in discreet areas to decay naturally over time, and eliminating chemicals from the garden are all equal good wildlife gardening for restoring a healthy ecosystem for our wild brethren–and ourselves.  The National Wildlife Federation and your local Native Plant Society are great resources in the how-tos of creating a wildlife habitat.

Roughly 40% of Americans feed birds and we do it for a variety of reasons.  Those who study birds suggest that for people, feeding birds is a simple and satisfying way to connect with the natural world.  Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology both suggest that bird lovers exercise caution in what they feed birds and where feeders are placed.  Development of aggressive behaviors, deformities caused by poor nutrition, diseases passed through contaminated feeders, and dependence on humans as food sources are all serious concerns in the long-range interests for birds.  Because the plight of birds is precarious, certainly for some more than others, it’s wise to learn about the birds who live in or travel through your region, and then make appropriate food choices.  For interesting information about how feeding birds impacts their populations, read these two articles, one by the Audubon Society  and the other by Cornell Lab.

All that said, it is fun to watch birds and part of the watching is the feeding.

“Three little finches, sittin’ on a feeder….”  Okay, it doesn’t quite have the same ring as the original ditty.

Share, and share alike! Three wintering male American Goldfinches dine with a resident female House Finch.

For myself, it was a love of Texas native plants that led to an appreciation of the wildlife that followed those plants.

If you plant them, they will come. 

Minor tweaks to the traditional 20th century better-living-through-chemicals garden practices will change your garden, your perspective on your part of the Earth, and will lead to new learning and adventures in the garden.

I like birds, so much so that I’ve added a section to my menu bar which will link you, dear reader, to past (and future!) articles about birds in my garden.  Enjoy!

What’s in your wild February garden?  Please leave a link to your Wildlife Wednesday post when you comment, and happy wildlife gardening!

Juxtaposition

A White-winged DoveZenaida asiatica, looms over a House FinchHaemorhous mexicanus.       .

Considered a medium-sized dove, this member of the bird family Columbidae, looks huge when paired against the smaller finch.  Both bird species are common here in Texas, especially as backyard birds regularly visiting feeders.  The dove’s gender is unknown to me, though I’m sure other doves can tell whether its male or female.  Proliferation of dove babies will be proof of the gender identification and the spring and summer socialization that will follow.   The finch is male in winter breeding colors.

There was no purposeful looming by the dove.  It was just two birds hanging out in winter-barren tree, each awaiting its turn at the sunflower feeder or water feature.

 

Sometimes They Land in Trees: Wildlife Wednesday, January 2018

Happy 2018 and welcome  to the first Wildlife Wednesday celebration of this new year.  Winter arrived in Austin in the last several days with an ice-numbing grip of below freezing temperatures.

I heard that snort and saw those eyes a’rolling!  I understand that compared to much of continental North America, my goose-bump inspired whining won’t win much sympathy, but darn it, it’s cold!  Truthfully, I’m just fine-n-dandy with the hard freeze, in great hopes that every mosquito in Texas is dead, dead, dead (not likely, though).  Also, with the frigid temps, my autumnally hued and interminably foliaged trees have finally let loose their leaves.

In the last couple of days, Red oak leaves blanketed the entirety of my back garden.

Maybe now I’ll be better able to observe the variety of birds who visit my garden, as the winter avian Texans (especially the tiny ones) prefer to flit among the bare limbs, in search of whatever they search for.  With the leaves as camouflage, that’s been hard to do.

This shot was taken on Sunday, just before the temperatures plummeted and the tree dumped most (but not all!) its leaves.

That said, for most of this past month, critter watching has mostly involved the birds at the feeders, with the random pitter-patting of maddening mammals and the skulking about of bothersome marsupials.

I’m tickled at the early appearance of two examples of the stunning American GoldfinchSpinus tristis.  American Goldfinches usually show up later in winter, so it’s a treat to see them now.

This handsome fella is wearing his non-breeding colors.

Do you need something?

Pretty boy!

In addition to that obvious and gorgeous adult male, is this female or juvenile male.

The coloring–both dark and light–are muted in this bird.

Wonderful wing bars!

Sweet face!

American Goldfinches belong to the same Family and Order as the House Finch, and House Finch eye disease, Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, which I wrote about here, also affects American Goldfinch populations.  Fortunately, the two Americans who noshed at my feeder appeared free of the disease, the good news of which I reported on Project FeederWatch.  I still see a female House Finch with one infected eye which is completely closed due to the infection.  She feeds by searching for seeds on the ground, but she struggles to land when she flies and is vulnerable to predators with only one good eye.  All other House Finches who are in my garden–and there are quite a few– appear healthy.   The House FinchHaemorhous mexicanus, is a year-round resident, becoming more active as winter settles in.  Most bird feeders are designed with multiple perching stations, and birds share the stations with varying degrees of camaraderie.  Here, the House Finch clan dominates, with a red-accented male perching at the left and the more drab females completing the feeder trio.

Hey birds, over here!

Another duo feeding a the food bar is a second male House Finch sharing a meal with a Black-crested TitmouseBaeolophus atricristatus.

I’m not sure if the Black-crested is a male or female, but I’m confident that the House Finch is a young male.

The House Finch  poses nicely, the Black-crested snarfs seeds.

A Northern CardinalCardinalis cardinalis,  couple nests each year in a neighbor’s shrubbery,  but make daily forays into my garden to feed and bathe.    No photo this month of the scarlet feathered male, but the female is a head-turner in her own right!

A common Texas wintering songbird is the Orange-crowned WarblerOreothlypis celata, and I’m fortunate to have at least one who is regularly visiting.

Song birds love suet and it’s a good thing to feed them in winter.  I can’t provide suet for 7 or 8 months because Austin’s warm climate causes the suet to turn rancid quickly.  It’s a perfect winter/early spring food though and provides fat, which birds need.

This little Orange-crowned also enjoys the occaisional bath in the pond bog.

About to take the plunge!

I provide a commercial suet for my avian friends, but there are many recipes for homemade suet.  Check out these recipes if you’re so inclined

Facing the camera!

The pair of  Carolina WrensThryothorus ludovicianus, also visit more than just the feeders.   A favorite perch is a metal sculpture where each of the pair takes turns surveying the landscape.

Check out my profile!

The 360 degree view requires a look-see at the backside!

This favorite perching place is just below a little house built for the wrens, which they’ve inspected, but haven’t yet used for chick rearing.  Fingers-crossed that this spring, they’ll decide the neighborhood is worthy of their chicks.

Wrens forage on the ground, scavenging for insects and small seeds; they also enjoy the suet.

Eyeing something in the fallen leaves!

 

Finally, a bird who lands in a tree!  

Giving me the stink-eye is this immature Cooper’s HawkAccipiter cooperii. He/she had scattered the neighborhood doves, with no meal as a reward, and was resting in a neighbor’s tree, no doubt annoyed with missing lunch.  The beauty loped off just after this shot.  Cooper’s Hawks are year-round residents here, but easier to observe once winter’s  chill render some trees bare.

There are always plenty of squirrels (stealing birdseed and digging in plant containers) who become meals for neighborhood raptors, though perhaps not as often as some might wish.  This squirrel was safe on the ground and near the house, munching away at fallen sunflower seeds and generally behaving well.

Eastern Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger)

The Virginia OpossumDidelphis virginiana, is still around too, sometimes mosying through the garden during daylight, but not sleeping in the owl house–for now.

There are no Eastern Screech Owls in the owl house either, nor have I heard the adults’ signature trill at night.  I’m concerned that no couple is interested in the owl real estate in my garden and if there are no takers, that will be disappointing.  There’s still time for some owl action and owls are remarkably elusive; I won’t begin the no-owls-in-my-garden lamentation just yet.

So begins another year of garden wildlife drama.  Let’s celebrate lots of life in the garden during 2018. Please share your wildlife stories and remember to leave your link when you comment.

Good wildlife gardening to you!