Tag Archive | Birds

Flying Jewels of the Garden – the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

Ruby-throated HummingbirdThis year has been an incredible year for hummingbirds in my yard. I’ve always put out a feeder for them and have enjoyed their acrobatic aerial displays, but this year there seem to be many more than usual fighting over the sweet nectar I put out for them. It’s now towards the end of summer and I have to fill some of my feeders twice a day to keep up with their voracious appetites.

But it makes sense that they would be seeking a sugar high and trying to fatten up their tiny bodies to nearly twice their normal weight: the usual 3-4 grams (about the weight of a nickel). They’ve got a long journey ahead of them. It’s hard to believe that these tiny creatures, measuring about 3.5” from the tip of their long beaks to the end of their tails, will soon make the long trip to another country. For those birds in Wisconsin and Canada, that may mean more than a 2,500-mile trip back to Central America, where they will spend their winters until next spring when they make the long haul back to our yards. Consider also, that many of them will need to fly the more than 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico without stopping. The non-stop trip across the big pond alone will take approximately 20 hours.

It’s a small miracle to imagine the journey of these delicate beauties. The metabolism of a hummingbird is so incredibly high that it needs to consume several hundred calories per day and several ounces of nectar and insects. By comparison, if a human used as much energy as a hummingbird, that person would need to consume twice their body weight each day just to stay alive.

There are dozens of hummingbird species in the world, but Wisconsin and the United States east of the Mississippi River is host to only one, the Ruby Throated Hummingbird. They arrive in late April or early May and stay until late September and October. Hummingbirds fly. Sounds strange to say that, but consider this: that’s all they do. They do not walk. They will not even pivot on a perch. If they want to move a ¼” or turn around and face another direction, they fly to get there. The hummingbird species is the only bird able to fly backwards, sideways, hover in one spot for up to 50 minutes, even fly upside down.

I’m always amazed at how fearless they are, zooming past me at 25 miles per hour as I walk in the garden or fill the feeders. If I stand still, I’ve even had them land to take a drink while standing only inches away.

The female Ruby Throated Hummingbird is slightly larger than the male and lacks the characteristic iridescent brilliant ruby red throat patch that the male has. Sometimes the male’s throat appears black in low light, but once you see it catch the light, there’s no denying the similarity to its namesake jewel. The backs of both the male and female are a brilliant emerald green, while their stomachs are a soft white to light gray.

Though I’ve searched through the years, I have yet to see a hummingbird nest first hand. ruby-throated-hummingbird-nest-wallpaper-3It’s no wonder, since it measures only 2” wide and is concealed with lichens to blend into the small angled branch it is built on. I do enjoy seeing the female hummingbirds gathering nesting materials: soft plant parts and silk from spider webs. Their plain white eggs, usually 2, are said to resemble small jelly beans. They hatch in 16-18 days, revealing tiny, naked babies who will double their size each day for the first few days, and leave the nest after three weeks.

I’ve spoken to many friends who’ve expressed disappointment that they couldn’t attract hummingbirds to their yard because they live in the city. But hummingbirds will gladly visit most yards in urban or rural areas, as long as you provide what they need: food and habitat. So, here are several of their favorite flowers that you can include in your garden to attract these beauties. In addition, a homemade nectar recipe is included to help supplement their diet and further attract them to your yard.

FAVORITE PERENNIALS:

  • Monarda (Bee Balm)
  • Heuchera (Coral Bells)
  • Phlox
  • Hosta
  • Delphinium
  • Foxglove
  • Russian Sage
  • Columbine
  • Milkweed
  • Butterfly Bush
  • Honeysuckle
  • Trumpet Vine
  • Weigela (shrub)

FAVORITE ANNUALS:

  • Fuschia
  • Zinnia
  • Petunias
  • Verbena
  • Geranium
  • Lantana
  • Salvia
  • Nicotiana
  • Four O’Clocks
  • Morning Glory

While hummingbirds are attracted to brightly colored flowers, they will gladly sip nectar from a wide variety. Consider plants with tubular shaped flowers, allowing for their long beak and monofilament-like tongue to extract nectar from deep within.

HOMEMADE NECTAR

1 part white sugar

4 parts water

Boil water and completely dissolve sugar. Keep in refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Note: Do NOT add red food coloring to your mixture. While they are attracted to the bright color, the added chemicals are unnecessary. Most feeders already have colorful components and will suffice. It is important to clean your feeders. Never let the nectar spoil or get cloudy, meaning you should change it every few days in hot, humid weather. Do not use honey in your feeders because it ferments easily and can lead to a fungus that will harm the birds.

The hummingbird is among my favorite garden friends. I hope you will be able to enjoy them more bountifully as well with these tips.

 

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Sunflowers for Birds

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Mammoth Grey Stripe Sunflower

Time to start planning that flower garden for this summer. Sunflowers are one of the best plants you can have in your garden. You can attract the following bird species: cardinals, chickadees, house finches, titmice, grosbeaks, nuthatches, goldfinches, red-bellied woodpeckers, and pine siskins.

Pick the Right Variety

You can find many sunflower options on the market today, but not all of them are suitable food sources for birds. When selecting sunflowers, make sure they produce a good supply of seeds. Some of experts’ top picks include Mammoth Grey Stripe, Paul Bunyan, and Aztec Gold.

Growing Tips

Sunflowers are truly one of the easiest plants to grow, but they do have a few requirements. They need at least six hours of sunlight per day and well-drained soil. They benefit from organic matter, and also keep the area under sunflowers mulched for better results.main-qimg-5977490348a0e3209b5297e1e5303e06-c

Ready for Seeds

Sunflowers have the best seed buffet in late summer to early fall. For longer harvest time, stagger your planting, early spring to midsummer. This way, you can attract birds for months.

Harvest Tip

Gather your sunflower heads, and put them in a dry place to dehydrate. You can then hang them out by your feeders, extending the sunflower season all the way into fall.

 

Snow Birds

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

Winter is here. That means that most Ruby-throated hummingbirds have flown south to another whole continent, along with Baltimore Orioles, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings and a host of other feathered friends we won’t see until Spring or early Summer. But that doesn’t mean we can’t longingly peer out our kitchen window in hopes of seeing some other feathered delights!

Winter Visitors

Dark-eyed_Junco-27527

Dark-eyed Junco

Believe it or not, Wisconsin winters are a “retreat” for some birds. There are several species of birds that migrate for the winter south to Wisconsin from Canada. One of these birds is the very common Dark-Eyed Junco. It is a beautiful small gray bird with a white belly. They are easily recognizable at bird feeders, feeding on thistle, cracked sunflower, and other smaller seeds. They are more often ground feeders. They love snow. I have seen them practically playing in a blizzard.

Another winter visitor is the Redpoll, a member of the finch family. Redpolls will not visit every winter. In fact, I only saw them for one season about ten years ago when Canada was experiencing an unusually harsh & frigid winter. In these cases, Redpolls will migrate south to Wisconsin in search of food. When they appear it’s called an irruption. It is almost like they are refugees in a foreign land.

White Throated Sparrows are another favorite sight on a dreary winter’s day. They are

white-throated-sparrow-942064_960_720

White-throated Sparrow

commonly seen in winter in Wisconsin and at first glance may look like a plain old house sparrow. But not so! Look closely and you will see the white throat, yellow patches near its beak and the black and white stripes on its head. They prefer foraging on the ground rather than sitting on a feeder, so be sure to scatter some seed at the base of your bird feeder.

Goldfinches … “What?” you say. Many people believe that those “wild canaries” leave for the winter and are replaced with brown sparrows. Goldfinches remain in Wisconsin for the winter but lose their summer plumage. Continue to put out thistle seed for goldfinches and come spring, you will have a backyard of sunshine.

WATER

Rule number one: all living things need water, and providing a source for birds is critical in the winter months. Many heated bird baths are available from various retailers and can range anywhere from around $30 to over $100 depending on how fancy you want to get. The key if you get a bird bath heater is to make sure it is thermostatically controlled. This will help save on energy bills and only heat the water when temperatures are freezing. I have often looked out my kitchen window on a freezing morning to see birds perched all the way around my bird bath. It’s a wonderful sight to see.

FOOD

Birds in winter need to maintain as much body fat as possible. So it’s important to provide food that will help keep a bird’s metabolism up to keep warm. One of the best sources of fat and protein for birds is suet. Keep lots on hand in the winter. Woodpeckers love it and their stark plumage adds color to your life.

As far as birdseed is concerned, I recommend not purchasing inexpensive bird seed mix. Check the ingredients! Many mixes contain filler seeds like Milo and millet. A small amount of millet is okay, but Milo is a seed with an extremely hard shell that is almost impossible for most birds to open. Some cheap birdseed mixes contain up to 35% Milo, which is practically all waste material. In addition, it has very poor nutritional value. Personally, I just purchase plain old black sunflower seed for my larger feeder, and thistle seed for my tube feeder. These basics have worked well for me. I have also purchased some nicer mixes and combined them with a larger bag of sunflower seeds to offer some variety.

Remember to shovel away or press down the snow underneath feeders to help ground-feeding birds. Scatter some additional seed on the ground.

COVER

black-capped-chickadee-in-cedar

Black-capped Chickadee

An important aspect of birding in the winter is to provide protection. Small birds are more vulnerable to hawks and predators in the winter because there is less cover. Some of this may require planning ahead by planting dense shrubs, evergreens and wind breaks. However, a simple way for those who use real Christmas trees is to simply place your tree about 10-15 feet from your feeder after the holidays are over. Another way to provide protection is to make or purchase a roosting box. Smaller birds like chickadees will use them to huddle together at night when resting and to escape the winds. Other possible cover includes wood or brush piles.

Don’t forget your feathered friends this winter! I’ve generally found that the more birds you have, the more birds you’ll get! By feeding them through the winter you’ll have a better chance in the spring of seeing new species dropping in to see what all the chirping is about!

Life Lessons from the Garden: Guided Home

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

Migration is a mysterious thing. For us humans, it’s somewhat easier to explain our tendency to want to venture away from the familiar. But what about those birds? Surely they are the masters of migration. Not all birds migrate: cardinals, woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, goldfinches and blue jays are examples. Scientists aren’t quite sure why birds migrate, and how they migrate is almost as much a mystery too. For example, I have bluebirds in my yard each year. As I’ve done some research on bluebirds, I’ve learned that it’s very common for a family of birds to return to the exact same nesting box year after year. This is despite migrating hundreds of miles to get there. However, several birds that we see each summer travel much farther than bluebirds, which spend their winters in southern US states.

Consider the Ruby Throated Hummingbird. It weighs the equivalent of a nickel, yet it flies thousands of miles from Central and South America, across the Gulf of Mexico, and as far north as Canada. The Baltimore Oriole, Rose Breasted Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting and many warblers also come as far. Like bluebirds, they will often return to the same neighborhood each year. Think about it; there’s no mini GPS units strapped to their backs telling them to turn left in X mile, at which time they’ll arrive at their destination of the little brown ranch house on the edge of the woods. It’s a mystery. Something draws them home. Something compels them to keep going, to not be persuaded to go off course, despite the storms and blowing winds. It’s as if they are fixed like a laser beam on their final destination. They are not influenced, swayed or convinced to follow a different path. There is an unseen force guiding them and they know where they belong.

Oh, how I wish I were as compelled. I confess that I often begin many journeys of life with my eyes fixed on the prize and determined to follow the right path. It may be something as simple as a commitment to exercise, or something of a more serious matter like a promise from the heart. I sincerely long to make the right choices, but as storms come and the winds of life blow, I’m often discouraged to give up or settle for less than the goal, less than home. Temptations and tangents can easily come. I’ve made many mistakes in my life, and through them I’ve learned, quite honestly, that left to myself I can be led astray and settle for less than what I know was intended for my life. I can’t navigate life… by myself. My depth of sincerity isn’t enough. My will power isn’t enough. Even my best isn’t enough … by myself. I long to be like the bluebird who returns to my yard each spring, guided by an unseen force, a force greater than my flawed self. My heart treasures those times, when taking the right path is an effortless journey, one where I’m guided by that unseen force to where I belong. Left to my own defenses, my own efforts, and my own limited wisdom, I’d never find home. I’m so thankful that in the end, it’s really not up to me to get there, and that I can rely on a mysterious power and strength greater than my own to guide me home.

Tammy is a regular contributor to our quarterly member newsletter, and her articles will now be a monthly addition to our blog.

Birdseed Treats

birdseed5Our feathered friends sometimes struggle to find food when snow covers everything. You can help with a few ingredients and cookie cutters. All you need are unflavored gelatin, water and seed mix. Combine the ingredients, spread the mixture onto a cookie sheet, chill and use cookie cutters to make the shapes. Let dry before putting outside or wrapping.

Birdseed Treat Recipe

  • 1/3 cup gelatin6a6c8f56-69f4-40c6-a4f1-ba5d05c345c1
  • 1-1/2 cups water
  • 8 cups of birdseed

Mix gelatin and water on low until gelatin is melted and clear. Remove from heat and stir in 8 cups of birdseed. Stir until it is well mixed and there is no dry seed. Fill cookie cutters with the seed mixture and pack tightly. Then refrigerate for 2 to 4 hours. Dry on baking rack for 3 days. Recipe courtesy of Angie Dixon.

Birdseed Wreath

To make a wreath, combine the same ingredients used to make the birdseed treats. But instead of using cookie cutters, press the mixture into a miniature Bundt cake pan or another rounded mold. Refrigerate for 4 hours, then carefully remove from the mold. Let it dry overnight, then decorate it with edibles. Or dress it up with raffia, large accents, ribbon or bows.

Garden Clean-Up: How Much is Too Much?

Here in Wisconsin we’re having incredibly wonderful weather for so late in the year. As a result, you may be tempted to just continually clean away the plants in your garden thinking “it will save time in the spring.” The question is not whether or not you can clean away all of the debris from your garden in the fall, but should you.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser explains in her “Savvy Gardening” blog why you should consider leaving the debris in your garden over the winter:

“Twenty-some years ago, fresh out of college with a horticulture degree in-hand, I started teaching adult education classes at a local botanic garden. For many years, I taught a class called Preparing Your Garden for the Winter. I would show slides (remember those?) of how well-kept gardens should look in January. In the images, every plant was cut to the nub, except for the ornamental grasses and butterfly bushes, and the whole garden was snug under a thick layer of mushroom soil mulch. The roses were neatly trimmed to two feet and wrapped in a blanket of burlap, folded and stapled closed to keep them protected from freezing winds. There was nary a fallen leaf in sight; everything was raked up and hauled off.

You see, that’s how we gardeners used to roll in the early ’90s, before we knew better. We’d cut everything down and “clean up” the garden until there was no shred of nature left behind. We’d turn the place into a tidied, controlled, and only slightly dirtier version of our living room. Everything was tucked and trimmed and in its place. Most of us weren’t interested in supporting wildlife much beyond hanging up a bird feeder, and the phrase “wildlife habitat” was only used in places like zoos and national parks.

Unfortunately, many gardeners still think of this kind of hack-it-all-down and rake-it-all-up fall clean up as good gardening, but in case you haven’t already noticed, I’m here to tell you times have changed. Preparing Your Garden for the Winter is a completely different class these days. We now understand how our yards can become havens for creatures, large and small, depending on what we plant in them and how we tend to our cultivated spaces. Thanks to books like Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home, we now know how important native plants are for insects, birds, amphibians, and even people. Our gardens play an important role in supporting wildlife and what we do in them every autumn can either enhance or inhibit that role.

To that end, I offer you these six very important reasons NOT to clean up your garden in the fall.

1. The Native Bees: Many of North America’s 3500-plus species of native bees need a place to spend the winter that’s protected from cold and predators. They may hunker down under a piece of peeling tree bark, or they may stay tucked away in the hollow stem of a bee balm plant or an ornamental grass. Some spend the winter as an egg or larvae in a burrow in the ground. All native bees are important pollinators, and when we remove every last overwintering site by cutting everything down, we’re doing ourselves no favor. We need these bees, and our gardens can provide them with much-needed winter habitat.

2. The Butterflies: While the monarch flies south to overwinter in Mexico, most other butterflies stay put and take shelter somewhere dry and safe until spring. Some butterflies, like the mourning cloak, comma, question mark, and Milbert’s tortoise shell, overwinter as adults. They nestle into rock fissures, under tree bark, or in leaf litter until the days grow longer again and spring arrives. Butterflies that overwinter in a chrysalis include the swallowtail family, the cabbage whites and the sulphurs. Many of these chrysalises can be found either hanging from dead plant stems or tucked into the soil or leaf litter. And still other butterfly species, such as the red-spotted purple, the viceroy, and the meadow fritillary, spend the winter as a caterpillar rolled into a fallen leaf or inside the seed pod of a host plant. If we cut down and clean up our gardens, we are quite possibly eliminating overwintering sites for many of these beautiful pollinators (and perhaps even eliminating the insects themselves!).

3. The Ladybugs: North America is home to over 400 different ladybug species, many of which are not red with black polka-dots. While the introduced Asian multicolored ladybug comes into our homes for the winter and becomes quite a nuisance, none of our native ladybug species have any interest in spending the winter inside of your house. Most of them enter the insect world’s version of hibernation soon after the temperatures drop and spend the colder months tucked under a pile of leaves, nestled at the base of a plant, or hidden under a rock. Most overwinter in groups of anywhere from a few individuals to thousands of adults. Ladybugs are notorious pest eaters, each one consuming dozens of soft-bodied pest insects and insect eggs every day. Leaving the garden intact for the winter means you’ll get a jump start on controlling pests in the spring.

4. The Birds: Insect-eating birds, like chickadees, wrens, titmice, nuthatches, pheobes, and bluebirds, are very welcome in the garden because they consume thousands of caterpillars and other pest insects as they raise their young every gardening season. Leaving the garden intact through the winter months means there will be more protein-rich insects available to them during the coldest part of the year. These birds are quite good at gleaning “hibernating” insects off of dead plant stems and branches, and out of leaf litter. The more insect-nurturing habitat you have, the greater the bird population will be. Your feathered friends will also appreciate feasting on the seeds and berries they can collect from intact perennial, annual, and shrub stems.

5. The Predatory Insects: Ladybugs aren’t the only predatory insects who spend the winter in an intact garden. Assassin bugs, lacewings, big-eyed bugs, minute pirate bugs, damsel bugs, ground beetles, and scores of other pest-munching predatory insects spend the winter “sleeping” in your garden as either adults, eggs, or pupae. To have a balanced population of these predatory insects, you have to have winter habitat; when spring arrives, they’ll be better able to keep early-emerging pests in check if they’ve spent the winter on-site, instead of over in the neighbor’s yard.

6. The People: If the previous five reasons aren’t enough to inspire you to hold off on cleaning up the garden, I’ll add one final reason to the list: You. There is so much beauty to be found in a winter garden. Snow resting on dried seed pods, berries clinging to bare branches, goldfinches flitting around spent sunflowers, juncos hopping beneath old goldenrod fronds, frost kissing the autumn leaves collected at the base of a plant, and ice collected on blades of ornamental grasses. Winter is a lovely time in the garden, if you let it be so.

Delaying your garden’s clean up until the spring is a boon for all the creatures living there. Instead of heading out to the garden with a pair of pruning shears and a rake this fall, wait until next April. By then, all the critters living there will be emerging from their long winter nap. And even if they haven’t managed to get out of bed by the time you head out to the garden, most of them will still manage to find their way out of a loosely layered compost pile before it begins to decompose.”

Posted by Vicki

My Garden is ‘for the birds’!

Beautiful Cedar Waxwings love the berries from trees and shrubs

Beautiful Cedar Waxwings love the berries from trees and shrubs

Not sure why that phrase ‘for the birds’ denotes a negative connotation; I absolutely love the birds that come to visit my garden.  For that reason, I have bird feeders and bird baths at various locations throughout my garden and I make sure to plant things that will bring them in. Year before last, I was lucky to be visited during Spring migration by a huge flock of Cedar Waxwings — probably 50-60 of them were sitting in one of the Silver Maple trees in my front lawn and flying back and forth to visit the Mountain Ash tree across the street. The birds would fly back and forth, gathering and eating the berries that had been fermenting all winter. How amazingly funny to watch them getting tipsy as they gorged themselves on the berries (dropping them all over my driveway in the process)! A wonderfully enjoyable day where I got nothing done but watching the birds!

If, like me, you want to bring in the birds, you might want to consider planting some of the following:

  • Winterberry – not only will the birds love it, you’ll get lovely branches to combine with evergreens for winter containers
  • Juniper – remember: juniper berries are a basic ingredient in gin. No wonder the birds love them!
  • Serviceberry – berries are edible for people, too
  • Hawthorn – thornless varieties are available to protect both yourself and children
  • Crabapple – almost an endless array of choices in size, style, and color
  • Mountain Ash – requires a little care, but it’s such a favorite of birds
  • Elderberry – the flowers add a lovely aroma to your garden, while the berries are delicious for both birds and people. Elderberry jam or wine is absolutely delicious.

Better to avoid planting these wildly aggressive invasive plants if you can:

  • Bayberry – I have two of these (one purple / one yellow) in my garden, but recent studies question whether these shrubs are a threat to public health.  20 states have named the Japanese Barberry as an invasive species and a restricted plant in Wisconsin by the DNR. If you have these shrubs, as I do, it’s important to keep them contained. The branches have thorns, making it a perfect hiding place for small birds, and the berries provide sustenance in the winter but, unfortunately, allow the spread of the seeds of this aggressive shrub. The smart thing is to eventually replace them with something more environmentally friendly.
  • Buckthorn
  • European cranberry bush vibernum
  • Mulberry
  • Smooth sumac

Want some additional ideas to help our feathered friends, the environment, and your garden? Visit this article at EcoSystem Gardening to learn more: http://www.ecosystemgardening.com/native-alternatives-to-invasive-plants.html

Posted by Vicki