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!

The Eyes Have It

A pair of Carolina WrensThryothorus ludovicianus, live near my garden and most days, I see at least one of the pair.  Often, I observe both wrens in the garden as they flit through underbrush picking plant lice from limbs and hop through leaf matter, tossing bits–hither and thither–in their endless search for yummy insects and spiders.  More delightful–and easier to observe–I’m witness to their landing on the sunflower or suet feeders, both placed outside the big kitchen window.  The Carolinas snatch tasty morsels, then zoom to safety on a low branch to enjoy their chosen treat.  These gregarious little wrens are (almost) effortless photographic catches, as they perch on fences, or on the multitudes of spots where they survey the landscape, watching for predators and planning the flight path to their next adventure–or meal.

I snapped this shot a few weeks ago as this adult rested on my back fence, looking this way and that, chirping all the while.  As I watched him or her (going forward, wrens will be “its,” as I can’t tell gender), something looked amiss.

Once I downloaded the photos, it was clear that the wren’s right eye was closed, or mostly so.

For this spunky Carolina Wren (they’re all spunky–that’s a descriptor of Carolina Wrens), one of the eyes has it, and one, apparently, doesn’t.

I perused bird sites for any information on eye diseases in wrens, specifically wondering if wrens are vulnerable to the same eye disease that House Finches and American Goldfinches suffer.  I haven’t found any information that suggests that particular connection, and finches and wrens aren’t related species of birds, except that they’re both, well, birds.

Ahem.

As I’ve observed backyard bird business over the last few weeks, I’ve paid special attention to the wrens, and with some good luck (and clean windows), have taken some closer shots of the currently one-eye bird.

The right eye is completely closed.

 

For comparison, this shot of the mate shows a darling adult wren with two healthy eyes.

In the last two weeks, it appeared that the wren’s eye improved.

The eye is clearly swollen, but you can see a bit of wary eyeball peeking through the lids.

In this photo, taken a few days after the one above, the wren in on the ground below the suet feeder and the eye looks better.

Again, up on the suet feeder.

Injury or disease?  It’s impossible for me to say.  Except when the wren turns its head where I can clearly see the injured eye and identify the disfigured wren, I haven’t observed any difference in behavior of one wren from another:  they both fly normally, work, with verve, through the garden for insects and other snacks, and alight gracefully on the feeders for sunflower seeds or suet.  Perhaps the injured wren looks around more readily and nervously than the other, but I’m not sure that’s the case as Carolina wrens are busy birds who aren’t still or placid in their routine behavior.  As I anthropomorphize the wren situation, I wonder if the mate assists the impaired partner, who obviously has limitations of sight, or, is the disabled bird on its own for food?   Has the semi-blind bird learned to compensate for its eye problem by faster flying or furtive movements?  Is the eye healing, or is this a permanent situation? Should I fashion a tiny, wren eye patch and offer it as a gift, and would the wren accept it?

 

While it seemed like the wren’s eye was improving, in this distance shot of a few days ago, the eye looks closed again.

The mate landed on the branch just after I took the photo and the couple perched for a time, enjoying one another’s company for several minutes before flitting to a different tree in the distance.

The wren on the left is the one with the bum eye.

I assume this is the same pair who raised two chicks last spring and what a sweet show that was. I’m sorry for the wren’s injury, but there’s nothing I can do to help the bird–it’s wild, and by all appearances, has adapted to its eye problem.  Its actions seem wren-normal and it’s clearly able to feed and fly, and those two skills are the foundations of a healthy bird life.  But I do hope the little bird will enjoy restored vision, and will continue its wren ways, and further, that this couple can successfully raise another clutch of Carolina Wren cuties in spring.

I’ll be keeping my eye out for them.

 

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.