Backyard Habitat

New York Owls

by cathym on March 25, 2017

by Liz Magnanti

Great horned owl. Photo courtesy Flickr: Nigel

Great horned owl. Photo courtesy Flickr: Nigel

Last winter offered some great opportunities to see many of the owl species we have here in Upstate New York. Owls are birds of prey that are primarily nocturnal. They are characterized by their large, forward facing eyes, circular flat faces, and sharp beaks and talons. Owls’ eyes are so large that they cannot move them in their sockets. In order to see in all directions, owls have specially adapted vertebrae that allow them to rotate their head 270 degrees.

Although owls will swallow their prey whole, they cannot digest the whole animal. The bones and fur of their prey are regurgitated as “pellets” that can often be found under the tree the owl is using as a roost. Owls are mostly nocturnal, solitary hunters. Their feathers are specialized to minimize the noise they make while flying. If you look at the tips of an owl feather, you will see that they are fringed, which cuts down noise when flying. Owls do not build nests, but instead take over nests and nesting cavities of other birds. During the day you are most likely to see an owl perched in a tree overseeing its hunting grounds.

There are eight different owl species that are commonly found in New York State. Some of these species are migratory and are only around seasonally, while others can be found here year round.

The smallest of the owls found in New York is the saw-whet owl. At seven inches in length, they are about the size of a soda can. Although small, these owls are fierce and dine on mice and other small rodents. Saw-whet owls are migratory, and can be found here in the early spring. They are known to roost in conifer trees and will nest in tree and man-made cavities. When searching for owls, look for their signature droppings, or “whitewash” on the trunk of trees. Usually this is easier to spot and the owl won’t be far away.

The eastern screech owl is the most common owl in our area. They can be either gray or brown, but in our area they are most commonly gray. Brown morphs are more common out west where they blend in better with the reddish-colored trees. Screech owls are eight to ten inches in length and will roost during the day in hollow trees or screech owl boxes. You may have head a screech owl and not even known it. Their call sounds like a horse’s whinny, not the traditional “hooo.”

The barred owl has populations that are expanding nationwide. They are large, with a length up to 24 inches and deep brown eyes. Their brownish-gray coloration gives them great camouflage in old growth forests, where they are most common. Their signature “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” call can be heard through forests at night, and sometimes during daylight hours.

Short-eared owls are migratory owls you may find here in the winter. They are most commonly seen in February at dusk flying low over farm fields where they hunt for small mammals. The short-eared owl is one of the most widespread owls you will find and can be found all over the world. Here in New York, however, this bird is endangered due to habitat loss.

Snowy owls have been widespread in our area this winter. Food scarcities bring them south where they hunt for small mammals and birds. These “interruptions,” when animals appear in large numbers outside their normal range, happen sporadically some winters. The best places to look for snowy owls are around the lakeshore, where they stop to rest after crossing Lake Ontario, and airports.

Long-eared owls are very secretive and hard to find. They roost high up in evergreen trees and blend in very well with the trunks. These migratory birds are mostly here seasonally, when they pass through in March and April. They rarely nest here but when they do they tend to take over crow nests.

The barn owl is a species rarely found upstate. They will inhabit and nest in barns, as their name implies, but are a more southern species. They tend to prefer an agricultural setting or field, which makes them prone to nesting in barns. Barn owls have pale feathers, long wings, and dark eyes. They are widespread throughout the world but, just as short-eared owls, they are declining due to habitat loss.

Great horned owls are perhaps the most distinct-looking owl we have. With a length of 25 inches and a wingspan of 55 inches, it’s no wonder how this owl got its name. Their ear tufts, or “horns,” are actually feathers and not ears at all. The call of the great horned owl is five distinct hoots that sound like “You awake? Me too.” This large owl is known to attack prey larger than itself and is one of the only natural predators of the bald eagle.

At any time of year you may be lucky enough to have an encounter with one of these amazing birds. The great horned owl nests early in the year and will already have nestlings at this time. Other species do not nest until April or May. As the weather gets warmer, listen for their calls late into the night as they search for mates.

 

Liz Magnanti is manager of The Bird House in Brighton.

{ 0 comments }

Creature Comforts

by Megan Frank on November 11, 2016

by Liz Magnanti

It’s inevitable: snow, ice, sleet, and cold. Winter will be here before we know it. The days become short and the nights are long. Sometimes I think of how rough we have it here in Upstate New York, but in the winter I take one look out the window and see all the life we have outside. While we are snug in our homes drinking hot tea and curling up next to the fire, birds are exposed to the elements every day to find water, food and shelter. There are some species of birds that are here only for the winter as they have migrated from further north. There are a few ways you can make their lives a little easier this winter, and you’ll get a great view of wildlife from the comfort of your home.

One of the most difficult things for birds and wildlife to find in the winter is a source of water. While we have many large bodies of water here, small songbirds need a shallow, unfrozen patch of water to bathe and drink from. Cleaning feathers is very important for birds. Having clean feathers keeps parasites off, and more importantly, allows birds to remain warm. Feathers insulate the warm air trapped in between the bird’s body and feathers. One way to provide birds with water this winter is with a heated birdbath. Heated birdbaths operate on a thermostat and keep water just warm enough so it doesn’t freeze over. You can also get just the heater to put in a birdbath you already have. You will be amazed how many birds will flock to a heated birdbath in the winter!

Providing high fat food to birds and wildlife in the cold months of the year is a great way to attract them to your yard. Throughout the year, and especially in the fall, birds and wildlife will cache away seeds and nuts for the winter. They have a surprisingly high rate of success in finding this food again. Some of these food items, however, is lost or stolen by other animals. An additional source of food can help relieve some of the stresses put on wildlife from lack of sustenance. Black oil sunflower seed or a mix containing a majority of black oil seed will always be a big hit in any yard. Black oil sunflower is a favorite of cardinals and will bring in the most bird diversity of any seed. Look for dark-eyed juncos, one of our winter birds, feeding on sunflower seeds that have dropped to the ground at your feeders. Nyjer seed, with its high oil content, is another great food for birds in the winter. Buy fresh seed. If your nyjer seed is more than a few months old you may want to throw it out and get some new. Because nyjer has such a high moisture content, it can dry out quickly. Goldfinches, who turn a drab yellowish/green in the winter, will feast on nyjer all year long. Pine siskins and redpolls that are here only for the winter, will feed from nyjer feeders as well.

High in fat and calories, suet will bring flocks of birds to your yard. These square blocks of animal or vegetable fat are favorites of woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees and titmice. Suet helps plump up birds, giving them the fat they need to stay warm. Peanuts are another great option for the winter. Blue jays, nuthatches and woodpeckers will absolutely love this treat.

Plant cover, bird houses and roosting houses can be great sources of shelter for birds. Make sure any nest boxes you leave out over the winter are clean to avoid nest parasites. Roosting houses are similar to bird houses but inside have perches for birds to sit on. Multiple species will use these at one time to stay out of the elements. Roosting pockets, which are made of woven fibers, are also a great option. These are small hanging huts that birds will fly inside of to stay warm and dry.

There are very few things more beautiful than a bright red male cardinal on a backdrop of freshly fallen snow. It is amazing that wildlife can survive so well in such harsh conditions. By providing some “creature comforts” in your yard this winter you will be amazed how much wildlife you can attract! And they just may reward you by staying long enough to get a great photo for this year’s holiday cards.

Liz Magnanti is the manager of the Bird House on Monroe Avenue in Pittsford. She has a degree in wildlife conservation and has worked as a naturalist at various nature centers.

{ 0 comments }

Fall Birding News

by Megan Frank on September 19, 2016

by Liz Magnanti

As the days grow shorter and the temperatures begin to subside, birds are preparing for the winter months ahead. You may have noticed an abundance of birds recently at your feeders. Some of these birds are nestlings that have recently fledged. They usually appear clumsy, not sure about how to land on the feeder. Their feathers are ruffled, not yet in their adult plumage and sometimes they still accompany their parents, begging to be fed an easy meal. Goldfinches are a good example as they nest late in the season and their young will be some of the last fledglings you will see at your feeders.

The first year is the toughest for fledglings as they learn to find their own food and avoid predators. Some of these young will also migrate south for the winter. In order to make the journey successfully, they must store up enough fat to make the trip. If you are currently seeing flocks of grackles and red-winged blackbirds gorging themselves at your feeders, this is almost certainly the reason why. In contrast, hummingbirds will continue to visit feeders through the end of September. Their breeding range stretches north into Canada and as those hummingbirds travel south through our area, they will visit feeders like yours along the way.

That said; don’t ever be concerned about over-feeding this time of year. Keeping seed and nectar feeders out will not stop birds from migrating. Feeders are only a small supplement to their natural diets. Birds use light cues as a signal for when to migrate, and feeders can actually be important stopover sites for them, an important place to rest and refuel for their continued journey.

For the many birds that stay here all year, fall is an important time for scouting out food sources. Nuthatches and Blue jays are often seen taking seeds from feeders only to cache them away under leaves or in the bark of trees. They will seek out the cached food again once the natural food supply becomes scarce in winter. As temperatures fall and insect populations start to decrease birds will begin to switch their diet to mostly seeds and fruits. The colder the temperatures get the more you will find birds going to suet feeders to get the fat they need to keep their body temperatures warm.

So what does all this mean for you? It means that now is a great time to check feeders for wear. Make sure they are clean and the seed inside them is fresh. Most feeders can be taken apart for cleaning and should be cleaned thoroughly twice a year. Any mold or seed buildup in the feeder can be harmful to birds so maintenance is a must. Feeders can be cleaned in hot water with dish soap. Dunk them in a light bleach solution of 10 parts water 1 part bleach and rinse well. Once dry they can go back out for the birds to enjoy. Keeping your feeders clean and seed fresh is the key to having birds flock to your feeders all year long!

 

Liz Magnanti is the manager of the Bird House on Monroe Avenue in Pittsford. She has a degree in wildlife conservation and has worked as a naturalist at various nature centers.

{ 0 comments }

The Amazing Bat

by Megan Frank on July 10, 2016

by Liz Magnanti

With recent mosquito-borne illnesses making headlines, I have been getting a lot of questions about ways of controlling pests naturally without using harsh chemicals or pesticides. Attracting wildlife to your yard can help with insect issues. While birds will eat a lot of insects during the day, another winged creature, bats, will take care of insect issues at night. Because bats are out at the same time mosquitoes are, they can make a huge difference in controlling this pest. Just one bat alone can eat anywhere from 2,000 to 6,000 insects each night. This is the equivalent of 20-50% of their own body weight! Certain species of bats can be attracted to your yard by providing a bat house. This provides space for bats to roost, and females to raise their young safely.

In New York we have 9 species of bats who call our state home. They are all insectivores, relying exclusively on insects for their diet. Three of these bats are classified as tree bats, who spend their days hanging from trees, camouflaged by their wings and tail membranes which they can wrap around themselves for warmth and protection. Tree bats tend to be solitary, and do not form large communal groups. They can be common, we just don’t see them due to their great camouflage. Many look like dead leaves hanging from trees during the day. The other six species of bats we have are cave bats, those who spend the winter in caves where they hibernate. Some of these cave bats, such as the Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifugus), Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus), and Tri-colored Bat (Perimyotis subflavus) are known for roosting in bat houses.

Bat houses come in many sizes and styles. In general, the more chambers the bat house has the better. The larger houses are able to provide more temperature fluctuation, which is best to accommodate a large nursery colony. Bats require a warm area to roost in. In our climate the bat house should be painted black or a dark color in order to absorb heat from the light. An outdoor, water-based, non-toxic latex paint is safe to use on the house. Bat houses can be mounted on poles or on the side of buildings and ideally by a water source. Houses can be mounted on trees. However, this usually does not provide them with the light they need to warm the house, and it leaves the house vulnerable to predators who may climb the tree to raid it. Houses mounted on poles and the side of buildings often become occupied more quickly than houses mounted on trees. Make sure the house is mounted at least 15 feet high, with the area underneath it clear, as bats need to be able to drop out of the bottom of the house for flight.

A bat house can be put up any time of the year. Bats will begin using them in early spring as they return to our area from their hibernation or migration sites. At any point in the year, however, bat houses may become occupied. Especially if a colony has been removed from a house, barn, or their roost has been destroyed in another way. Once a bat house has been put up, it requires little maintenance. It should be checked every year for evidence of wasps building a hive inside.

There are many myths about bats that have vilified them. The most common myths being all bats have rabies, they are blind, and they will fly into and get tangled in your hair. These just are not true. While bats, like all mammals, are susceptible to rabies, less than 1% of their population ever has it. Bats can see, almost as well as we can, but rely on their amazing sense of echolocation to navigate and find their prey at night. This also makes it possible for them to avoid running into structures, or getting too close to humans or predators in complete darkness.

Little Brown Bat confirmed with white-nose syndrome. Photo courtesy Flickr: Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS).

Little Brown Bat confirmed with white-nose syndrome. Photo courtesy Flickr: Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS).

 

Recently, millions of bats have fallen victim to a disease called white-nose syndrome. White-nose syndrome causes hibernating bats to wake up more frequently during their hibernation, which burn off the fat reserves they need to survive the winter. Many end up dying as they leave their hibernation site too early in the winter in search of food. The disease is named for the white fungus that is visible on the face and wings of the affected bats. It is estimated that there has been an 80% decline in the population of bats since the introduction of this fungal disease to the Northeast. This disease, combined with habitat loss, has made it increasing difficult for bats to find a safe place to roost and raise young. Most bats only have one pup a year so these spots are critical for their survival.

Not only are bats fascinating creatures, they are amazing to watch! Set up your bat house this summer and soon you may be entertained nightly by these fuzzy, aerodynamic insect eaters.

Liz Magnanti is the manager of the Bird House on Monroe Avenue in Pittsford. She has a degree in wildlife conservation and has worked as a naturalist at various nature centers.

{ 0 comments }

Home Tweet Home

by cathym on May 19, 2016

The days are growing longer and warmer weather is on its way. This means one thing: love is in the air! For birds at least. Spring means it’s nesting time for the majority of birds in our area. Birds are actively seeking out nesting sites to build nests, lay eggs and raise their young.

Some of the most common songbirds nest in bird houses. Bluebirds, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, tree swallows, house sparrows, house finches and wrens all look for the safety of an enclosed house to raise their young. Woodpeckers, screech owls and wood ducks will also nest in houses, if the houses are big enough!

When selecting a bird house, it is important to look for specific features. First, and most importantly, make sure the bird house has a way to be cleaned out. Most of the time there is a small door in the back of the house that can be opened. This feature is made to clean out the old nest once the young have fledged, or “flown the coop”,. Some birds will have more than one brood a year and if they do, they will build a new nest. Cleaning out the bird house is important because it reduces the amount of mold and parasites that can otherwise accumulate in and under the nest. Also be sure to check your bird house for ventilation. Usually, there are small spaces in the upper or lower corners of the house that are cut out for air to flow. Having ventilation in the house also lowers the risk of mold building up in the house.

The size of the entrance hole of a house will dictate who can nest in it. The smaller the size of the hole, the more limited you are in what type of birds can fit in it. Wrens, for example, only need a house with an entrance hole of 1” in diameter. Chickadees only need a hole 1 1/8” in diameter. This size is also small enough to keep house sparrows out. Anything larger than 1 1/8” is big enough for them to fit through. If bluebirds are what you are after, get a nest box with a 1 ½” opening. To keep sparrows at bay, find a house that is sparrow-resistant. These often have innovative entry options or “sun-roofs” that discourage sparrows from nesting in them.

If your interest extends to even larger nesting birds, you might want to consider screech owls. Screech owls are a year-round resident of this area and when full grown are less than 10” tall. Many people have luck with attracting screech owls to their yards with a screech owl nesting box. These houses have a 2” diameter and should be placed at least 10 feet high.

Sparrow

Sparrow in bird house. Photo courtesy Flickr: the1pony

When mounting a bird house, remember that most birds like their house to be secure. If it is moving around in the wind, many birds will not nest in it. Wrens, house sparrows, and chickadees will nest in houses that are hanging, but many other species will not. Bird houses should be mounted at least 5 feet off the ground in order to keep them protected from predators like cats who can catch birds mid-air. Baffles can be mounted on a bird house pole to keep squirrels and raccoons from climbing up the pole to raid the box of the eggs or young inside it. Bird house “guardians”, tubular extensions to bird house entrances, are another item that will keep squirrels and raccoons from reaching inside the nest box.

Keep in mind that not all birds will nest in a house. Robins, cardinals, mourning doves and barn swallows will nest on nesting perches, a semi-enclosed platform that shields them from the elements and provides protection. Hummingbirds, orioles and goldfinches build their nests in trees and can be enticed to nest in your yard by offering a nesting ball full of natural cotton and string. Scraps of yarn, pet hair, and feathers can be left outside for birds to use as nesting material, but do not use dryer lint, as the chemicals in it that are used to launder clothes can be harmful to birds.

Finally, it is worth remembering that caring for our feathered friends is often as much an art as it is a science, and that results will vary. Have faith, have fun, and use the advice in this article to give yourself a great start. And most importantly, don’t forget that love really is in the air, so now is the perfect time to be a match-maker by putting out your bird houses, cleaning out your old ones, and maintain a steady watch for all the little (and not so little) ones that will call them home!

Liz Magnanti is the manager of the Bird House on Monroe Avenue in Pittsford. She has a degree in wildlife conservation and has worked as a naturalist at various nature centers.

{ 0 comments }

Google+