Sweet ‘Lil Bird

I have no idea if this little fella is actually sweet, but he’s definitely cute.

Really cute.

This is a Black-crested TitmouseBaeolophus atricristatus, and these charming birds are residents in Central Texas;  several are daily visitors to my garden.  Black-crested Titmice range from Central Texas to northern Mexico and are comfortable and common in urban settings.  Tiny song birds with loud and melodious voices, their diet consists of insects, especially caterpillars, but they’ll also favor feeders.

Titmice in my garden enjoy the black-oiled sunflowers, but recently I purchased a peanut feeder and it’s become the premier dining choice of titmice customers.

You’ll notice that the bird in this photo looks slightly different from the one in the previous photos; notably, this titmouse doesn’t have a black crest.  As there’s some color differentiations between the two and that I’ve observed courting behavior, I assume the two are mates.  I figured that this not black-crested titmouse is female and the other one–sporting the jaunty, black crest–is male.  After researching both Audubon and Cornell Lab of Ornithology sources, I now think that the presumed female is in fact, a Tufted TitmouseBaeolophus bicolor, or possibly a hybrid between the Black-crested and Tufted. The Tufted Titmice spans a greater range in North America than does the more geographically limited Black-crested Titmice, but these two distinct species share overlapping territory in Texas and breed successfully, creating hybrid offspring.  In past years, the titmice in my neighborhood that I’ve observed have all been of the Black-crested sort, so I think that this bit of Tufted Titmouse is a new thing in my garden.

Aside from the lack of black crest, the Tufted also show black coloring above their beaks, whereas on the Black-crested, the same area is white to cream-colored.  In this series of shots, the female is a bit darker above the beak than is her male partner.

What’s not to love about that face?

Even without the black crest, she’s darling!  In these shots, she was resting in a shrub just above where the black-oiled sunflower feeder hangs, biding her time and keeping watch for a safe foray to pop down and snatch a seed.

Success! She flew to the feeder, grabbed a seed, and flew back again to foliaged safety, pounding the seed open, then gobbling the meat inside.

Aside from partaking of seeds and peanuts, titmice hop along the branches of trees–right side up and upside down–eating a variety of insects.  When I spot that, I usually forgo the camera and grab the binoculars, as their acrobatics are quite fun to watch, even when they are partly hidden by foliage.

Last spring, I wrote about a pair of Titmice who built a nest in a nest box in my front garden.  Alas, the local House Sparrows bullied and harassed them until they abandoned that nest.  Late in spring, I cleaned out the nest box and there were three little speckled eggs.  Sniff.

A rare, quiet moment for this titmouse. They’re always on the move–hopping and fluttering from place to place. They are busy birds.

A puff of wind ruffles the crest, but it’s still a good feather day!

This spring, I haven’t witnessed any birds who are interested in that nest box, but I’m sure the pair who visit my garden are nesting somewhere in the neighborhood.  They typically choose tree holes, or empty woodpecker holes, as well as settling in nest boxes–except mine, it seems.  Grrr!

One of the hallmarks of titmice nests is that they use animal fur for lining.  There are videos of titmice pulling fur from wild animals and dogs and it’s adorable to watch these wee scamps raiding mammals’ coats!  Relatives of the Titmice, Black-capped Chickadees and Carolina Chickadees, also use fur in their nests.  Many backyard birders, myself included, place pets’ fur in our gardens (I use a suet feeder filled with some of my cats’ fur) for songbird nest-building.

Consider the irony of a cat’s fur serving as a nursery bed for a baby bird!

Only use animal fur though; never, ever put out human hair or yarn for birds’ nest-building.  The hair and yarn can wrap around birds’ legs, tangling the afflicted in trees or shrubbery.  Yarn and human hair have are also blamed for causing accidental amputation of birds’ legs, with obviously poor outcomes for the victims.

The adult titmice and their offspring are year-round residents and in the coming weeks and months, I’ll see the parents and juveniles engage in how-to-be-a-titmouse lessons.  By autumn, the babies will be grown and off on their own, searching for a mate to usher in the next generation.

Black-crested, Tufted, or hybrid, I’m glad these darling birds are around.  Their morning songs are often the first thing I hear upon waking and their beauty graces my garden.

Native, Invasive: Wildlife Wednesday, April 2019

Looking out the kitchen window recently, I noticed that my little female cat, Astrud, was staring intently at something.  I assumed that what she was concerned about was the neighbor’s big tom cat who, at times, sneaks into my garden, so I went outdoors to shoo him away.  Well, it wasn’t the neighbor’s tom cat that Astrud communed with, but instead, this juvenile Virginia OpossumDedelphis virginiana.

The two of them engaged in a relaxed standoff, neither seemingly fussed about one another’s presence.  I sat down about 10 feet away to observe; Astrud casually glanced at me, while the opossum snuffled and sniffed.  Opossums have poor eyesight, but a refined sense of smell and I’m sure he/she was assessing the situation with the nose.  Within a couple of minutes, Astrud lost interest in the opossum, trotting away to investigate something new and different.  The opossum, on cue, bundled under a gate, waddling off to unknown places.

Am I staring at you or are you staring at me?

It was a cute encounter and fascinating to observe.

I take a benign view of opossums.  They amble through my garden during the night, sometimes I see them early in the morning. When I dump the day’s veggie remains in the compost (usually after dark and I always forget to bring a flashlight), I jump when I realize there’s a marsupial munching on a meal.  I fret when one moves into the owl house, but otherwise, I consider opossums as part of the garden and local environment.  Opossums bother no one and eat a variety of foods, which, upon expulsion of the seeds, helps the spread of native plants.  They sometime eat rats and mice and I’m all for that.

I’ve come across people who are creeped-out by opossums.   I think their squeamishness results from wariness about opossum behavior.  Opossums are shy and mostly active at night. They’re secretive, skulking, and mostly unseen; nighttime activity is intrinsically uncomfortable for some folks.  Opossums also have that bare tail and lots of pointy teeth, and they’ll hiss to be scary if cornered, though generally, they’re not aggressive critters.  And–let’s be honest here–in the looks department, they’re not pretty.  They’re certainly not as pretty as the average cat; Astrud would win a beauty contest, hands-down.  But why do most people favor their cute kitties, who are outdoor, invasive killing machines, over a less-than-gorgeous native critter, one who has a place in the ecosystem, who evolved here and belongs here?  Opossums are some of the oldest mammals inhabiting North America.

I wouldn’t dream of installing an invasive plant in my garden–not for a minute–and I have tut-tutted when others, who, usually in ignorance or in response to poor advice, planted something that is invasive.  I’m always (okay, usually) polite in correcting information about native plants versus invasive plants, employing a teachable moment policyUsing well-adapted non-natives in the garden?  Sure, I have plenty of those and encourage others to use them, but I’m careful not to promote or utilize recognized invasives in my garden and encourage others to go native or use non-invasive, non-natives.

However, my go native self-righteousness doesn’t apparently extend to preventing my cats from roaming the garden.  I allow my cats (I have two) outdoors, and they’re not a native species to North America, though there’s certainly a good argument that they’re well-adapted.

Astrud is primarily an indoor cat.  She ventures into the back garden for brief visits:  she loves to go out first thing in the morning for a few minutes, and then again near sundown for an hour or so.  My other cat, Nuri, is a true indoor/outdoor cat, though is spending more time indoors as he ages and since he was diagnosed with heart disease.  Originally, I’d planned to keep Nuri indoors only, but that one time that I let him out, well, he decided outdoors was a great place to be a cat.  Of course all cats, mine included, might catch birds, but until the past few years I wasn’t aware of just how much damage outdoor domestic cats inflict on native birds.  Using information from 2013, it’s estimated that the “free-ranging” domestic cat population kill 1.3-4 billion birds each year in the US.

That’s a lot of birds.  As well, these same cats kill a variety of  small mammals and other wildlife.

So why let them out at all if I’m so concerned about preserving native habitat in my urban environment?  Why the inconsistency? I guess it comes down to the oh-so-human practice of hypocrisy–and like most humans, I am a practitioner thereof.

Wild things have many obstacles to their survival: loss of habitat, agricultural and home garden chemical use, increasing urbanization…and domestic cats.  My cats have hunted and killed native wildlife in my garden; fortunately, only a few have fallen to their skills.  Still, some small snakes, lizards, and yes–birds have been killed by my pets and I’m ashamed that I allowed them outside to inflict harm to endemic species.  That said,  as I’ve learned more about our native fauna, I’ve worked hard to provide a safe haven for wildlife in my garden and my cats are only out when I’m home and can keep my eyes on their actions.

What to do?  Well, the best thing is to keep cats indoors.  They’ll live longer and wildlife will be safer.  Going forward, any cat I adopt will be an indoor cat, but my two are older and daily habits are tough to break. Astrud is basically an indoor cat, with a few minutes outside most days.  With Nuri, it’s more complicated, because he’s always been indoor/outdoor fella and it’s hard to teach an old cat new tricks–or something to that effect.

I limit the cats’ outside time–especially during spring and autumn bird migration, and when the resident baby birds fledge–to early nighttime and when I’m in the garden supervising their feline affairs.  Most of the time, both cats wear a BirdsBeSafe collar, which is made by good folks to help birds be safe from cats.   Doesn’t Nuri look handsome in his BirdsBeSafe collar?  And his bird companions don’t seem to mind him at all!

The theory behind the collar is that it’s not a bell on a collar (ahem–the dinner bell) which will protect a bird from a stalking cat, but the bright colors on the collar, which (specifically) song birds discern.   Cats are good predators in part because their coloring serves as camouflage and they move stealthily, so that a bell probably won’t sound in time for a bird to escape.  But with the BirdsBeSafe collar, songbirds are alerted by movement and bright colors, and will fly to safety.

For more information on this collar, check out this 2015 article from Science Direct about the effectiveness of the BirdsBeSafe collar.

While birds might be safer with a cat wearing the collar, the collar won’t help butterflies or amphibians from becoming victims.  The collar on the cats is only a partial solution to allowing my purry invasives out in the garden, but for now, it works: my fuzzy-butts have some outdoor time (with supervision) and wildlife is generally safe in my garden.

What wild critters are in your garden? Do you have workaround to make your garden safe for wildlife, while allowing pets some outdoor time?  Please leave your link when you comment here and happy wildlife gardening!

Good Morning, Sunshine

Golden groundsel, Packera obovata,  is a yellow-flowered perennial.

Its blooms are not orange-yellow, nor are they yellow-green.

Golden groundsel flowers are yellow.

There’s no ambiguity or ambivalence with these blooms: they are yellow, yellow, yellow.

One of the earliest of the spring bloomers here in the Austin area, this perennial pretty delivers a dab of sunshine to shady spots, and for the remainder of the year, carpets those same shady spots as a hardy ground cover.

I like the foliage.  The base foliage–the leaves that you see for 10 months of the year–are composed of oval, serrated-edged leaves which form a dense mat along the ground.  In late January, early February, the plant sends up slender stems along which grow more deeply lobed leaves.    In essence, the plant produces two styles of foliage.

It’s a plant with a two-for-one set of leaves!

As groundsel gears up for its spring show,  the slender flower stems develop clusters of buds which eventually open with radiant yellow blooms.  Viewing these beauties first thing in the morning is as good a wake-up as any strong cup of coffee.  In a garden or along a trail, you can’t miss these shards of sunshine–they demand attention.  Even before my own little patch of groundsel flowered-up, I’d spied a number of groundsels blooming along some urban trails where I hike.

These flowers are not shy and will not be ignored.

While Golden groundsel isn’t host to any particular insect, the flowers are good nectar sources for native bees and butterflies.  Somehow, I didn’t get any photos of the pollinators on my groundsel blooms, though I observed some tiny native Perdita bees.  In early March, I spotted this hairstreak on a groundsel flower at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

On a petal of the flower just below where  the hairstreak nectars, sits another insect. Bee, beetle, or bug, I can’t discern.

The patch of groundsel was growing in full sun and bloomed much earlier than mine.  On that early March day, the blooms appeared to be nearing the end of their cycle.

Just this week, some of my groundsel flowers have begun to seed out.

Snowy, fuzzy seedheads, clearly designed for wind dispersal, have replaced some of the sunny flowers, and many more will follow in similar fashion.  Golden groundsels are in the Asteraceae family of plants and demonstrate the pappus structure of seed development.  The delicate, hairy attachments carry the actual seed aloft on wind, planting themselves in other places and other gardens for future groundsel goodness.

Many of the native Texas plants that I grow seed out prolifically, but not the Golden groundsel.  Even though I allow mine to seed out, I’ve never found any groundsel seedlings in other parts of my garden.  What I have noticed is that my patch is leaning toward its neighbor, a group of iris, as the groundcover part of the plant is steadily creeping into their space.

Or perhaps, it’s the iris which are marching toward the groundsel.  Either way, I plan to expand the range of my groundsel. The groundsel leaves, presumably with roots attached, are outgrowing the original area that I devoted to it.  In late summer or early fall–once we’re out of our tough Texas summer–I’ll remove several of the abutting iris to make room for the groundsel plants.  I love my iris and they bloom for a longer time, but I have plenty of iris in my garden and not nearly enough Golden groundsel.  By transplanting a few more groundsel plants, I’ll welcome to more in my garden.

Native to Central Texas, Golden groundsel enjoys a wide distribution throughout North America.  As long as you can find seeds or plants, there’s no reason not to enjoy this lovely plant.  It’s a tough, easy-to-grow perennial with a bright disposition.

Just remember to don your sunglasses when they start blooming.