Backyard Habitat

Winter birds

by cathym on November 1, 2019

by Liz Magnanti

Dark-eyed junco Photo courtesty Flickr: DaPugle

Every year, as the days grow shorter and the nights get colder, it amazes me how animals can survive the winters we have here. Although weather conditions are changing, the main elements needed for survival remain the same for all animals, including birds.

In the winter there are three major things birds need for survival: food, water, and shelter. Some birds, like chickadees, nuthatches, jays, and woodpeckers will cache food away throughout the year to survive the winter. Other birds, such as cardinals, doves, and finches, do not. All birds must rely on finding food in the winter to survive. Seeds, nuts, fruit, and dormant insects and larvae are major sources of food for birds in the winter. Although birds will visit feeders in the winter, the food they get from it is just a supplement of what they find naturally. Providing highfat foods like peanuts, suet, sunflower, and nyjer seed give birds the calories they need to stay plump and warm in the winter.

Finding water can be a challenge in the winter. It’s not uncommon to see birds drinking from melting icicles to get some water! Shallow bodies of water that birds can bathe in and drink from can be hard to find in the winter. Providing birds with a heated birdbath will give them that source of water all winter long. These sources of water are extremely important though, because birds will use them to clean their feathers. Clean feathers allow birds to trap air between their warm body and feathers, providing insulation. This is why you so often see fluffed up birds in the winter! They’re using their down coats to keep warm.

Birds find shelter in many places. Shrubs, trees, tree cavities, and man-made structures are all places birds will go to stay out of the elements. Roosting pockets are great for birds to take refuge in during harsh weather conditions. These woven pockets are not designed for nesting, but to provide birds with a place to stay out of the snow, rain, and wind. Roosting houses are even bigger and have perches inside of them for multiple birds to sit on while they take shelter. Multiple species will use roosting houses and pockets at the same time. If you keep your birdhouses out all year you may see birds flying in and out of them in the cold months. They provide a space for the bird to hunker down and rest. Don’t be surprised if you see something furry in your nest box! Mice, and if the box is big enough, squirrels will also use them to stay out of the elements. At night in the winter many birds undergo a process called “torpor.” Their body temperature drops, their metabolism slows down, and their physiological functions slow down. It is almost like a mini hibernation. Their body doesn’t use as many resources as they would normally need when they are in this state. This does make the animal very susceptible to predators however, so providing places for the birds to roost is important!

This time of year be on the lookout for new birds in your yard. Dark-eyed juncos are here only in the winter and early spring. They are dark gray with a white belly and pink beak. Look for them hopping on the ground under your birdfeeders. White-crowned and white-throated sparrows may also visit your yard this time of year. They both have white stripes on their heads but the white-throated sparrows also have a white patch on their throat. They are also most often seen on the ground foraging under feeders. Pine siskins and the occasional redpoll may come to your nyjer feeders. Pine siskins look similar in size to goldfinches, but they are very striped. Redpolls are small chickadee-sized birds that have a raspberry colored mark on the top of their heads. Some years there are huge influxes of these birds, other years they are scarce.

It is amazing how many birds you can get in your yard throughout the winter by providing them with their main staples for survival: food, water and shelter. There is nothing more beautiful than a tree full of cardinals on a snowy winter’s day. Entice them and our other hardy winter birds with some creature comforts and you will have beautiful birds all season!

Liz Magnanti is the manager of the Bird House in Pittsford.

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The Marvel of Migration

by cathym on October 15, 2019

by Liz Magnanti

The four major migration routes in North America. Image courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The days are getting shorter, the temperatures are getting cooler, and insect populations are becoming increasingly scarce. For many birds that means one thing—it’s migration time! More than half (about 350 of the 650+ species) of the birds in North America are migratory. Migration is defined as a large-scale movement of a population of animals. Birds migrate to their breeding grounds in the spring and summer from their non-breeding winter grounds, and vice versa. The main reasons birds migrate is to “breed and feed.” They will travel to locations that have a larger breeding and foraging area as compared to their overwintering sites. As the fall approaches many species of birds are getting ready to make their epic trip south.

Migration has evolved over millions of years. Scientists believe that as glaciers in North America retreated, birds moved further north where nesting sites and food were seasonally more prolific. With this expanded habitat they most likely had better breeding success Over time the offspring of these birds would have increased success with breeding and continue the migration process northward. 

There are different types of migration. Some birds don’t migrate at all. They are known as resident or non-migrating species. Many of the birds you see at your feeders in the winter are resident birds. Cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, goldfinches, and most woodpeckers fit into this category. Partial migrants are birds that migrate short distances, sometimes only spanning a state or two. Blue Jays, Red-tailed Hawks, Robins and Bluebirds are birds that make this kind of migration. The Blue Jays you have at your feeders in the spring are probably different from the individuals that will be there in the winter. As fall approaches, be on the lookout for flocks of blue jays and robins making their medium-distance migration. Irruptive migrators are birds that have unpredictable migration events that don’t always follow the rules. Their movement can be attributed to food shortages or food abundance in an area, or can be seemingly at random! Typically this type of migration is found in northern birds that will venture further south than normal. Great gray owls, snowy owls and redpolls are examples of irruptive migrators. And then there are the long-distance migrants. The long-distance migrants we are most familiar with are the neotropical migrants that will travel all the way to Central and South America to spend the winter. They stick to a schedule and will arrive to their breeding grounds north at the same time each year. Orioles, hummingbirds, grackles and warblers will make this type of migration. The tiny ruby-throated hummingbird will make the trek by flying completely over the Gulf of Mexico on a 25-hour nonstop flight!

In North America there are four major migration routes birds will take. These are the Pacific Flyway on the west coast, the Central Flyway in the Midwest, the Mississippi Flyway, and the Atlantic Flyway. Lake Erie and Lake Ontario are popular local stopover points for birds migrating along the Atlantic Flyway. In the fall, look for waterfowl in bodies of water and along the lakeshore where birds fuel up on berries, seeds, and remaining insects. 

You may see more birds coming to your feeders this time of the year. Birds that are making a migration of any type will begin to fuel up for the journey. Don’t be surprised if you see more hummingbirds drinking nectar, and a large array of species visiting mealworm feeders. Species like grackles, red-winged blackbirds, and rose-breasted grosbeaks will eat a large amount of seeds to bulk up for the journey. Birds will typically increase feeding by 25 to 30 percent this time of year in a process called hyperphagia. 

No one is quite sure what ultimately prompts birds to leave their breeding range, but there are several factors that have been linked to the urge to migrate. The shortening of daylight, food availability, and changes in the weather cause a transformation in a bird’s endocrine system, which changes their hormones. Birds, even some kept as pets, will undergo a migratory restlessness in the spring and fall named zugunruhe, which makes them more active and less likely to sleep. Many birds, like ducks and birds of prey, will migrate during the day, while most songbirds migrate overnight. 

How birds find their way to their destination is still a mystery. Studies have found that some species of birds have a navigation system coded into their DNA so they can find their way even when blown off course by a storm or other natural disaster. Other studies show some species learn their migratory route from their parents, and once they have completed the route they can perform it with accuracy year after year. The whooping crane is an example of a bird that has this type of navigation system. Birds are also known to be sensitive to the earth’s magnetic poles, and may use them in some way to navigate. Visual cues are also important. Birds will use the stars and land formations as guides when they are migrating. 

All in all, the process of migration is an amazing feat. Although it’s sad to see that some of our favorite backyard birds have flown the coop for the winter, it’s impressive to know that we can rely on them to show up at almost the same exact time each spring!

Liz Magnanti is the manager of the Bird House in Pittsford.

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Gardening for Butterflies

by cathym on July 26, 2019

by Liz Magnanti

As the weather warms up, insects, including butterflies, begin to grow in numbers. Now is a great time to add plants to your landscape to encourage these beautiful creatures! Along with butterflies, certain plants can also attract hummingbirds and other beneficial pollinators to your garden!

When gardening for butterflies it is important to plant for all stages of their lifecycle. Butterflies, like all insects, start their life cycle out as an egg. That egg hatches into a caterpillar, then the caterpillar eats and eats until it pupates and forms a chrysalis. Out of that chrysalis hatches the adult butterfly. Nectar plants are important for the adults, but what’s also important is having plants that the butterflies will lay their eggs on and the caterpillars will eat. These plants are called host plants, and every butterfly garden should have them. 

Black swallowtail. Photo courtesy Flickr: Joshua Mayer

Herbs like dill, fennel, and parsley, along with Queen Anne’s lace, are host plants for the black swallowtail. This butterfly lays a small orange egg on these plants and the caterpillar hatches out about a week later. The caterpillar starts out small and black but will eventually grow to be a beautiful green color with black stripes and yellow polka dots. If you have an herb garden be on the lookout for the eggs and caterpillars before harvesting. Other swallowtail species in the area include the tiger swallowtail, which will lay its eggs on magnolia and poplar trees, and the spicebush swallowtail, which will lay its eggs on spicebush and sassafras trees. 

Cabbage white. Photo courtesy Flickr: Robb Hannawacker

If you grow lettuce, cabbage, or broccoli you may find the leaves being eaten by a small green caterpillar that blends in very well with the leaves. This is the caterpillar of the cabbage white butterfly. This is one of the most common butterflies you will find in our area, and that is because the caterpillar will feed on a variety of host plants, many of which are very common. This butterfly was introduced from Europe in the 1860s and has spread ever since. You can identify males from females in this species: Males have a single black spot on their wings, and females have two.

Monarch. Photo courtesy Flickr: Anthony Sokolik

Milkweeds are probably the most commonly planted butterfly plants. Not only do their blooms produce nectar for grown butterflies, but the monarch butterfly relies on milkweed plants, and milkweed plants alone, for survival. Common milkweed, swamp milkweed, and butterfly weed are all milkweed species found in our area. The common milkweed can spread very easily, so butterfly weed and swamp milkweed are the best choices for a backyard. Be on the lookout in your garden for black swallowwort, which occupies the same habitat as milkweed. Monarchs sometimes lay their eggs on it, but the plant gives no nutrition to the caterpillars, so they do not survive. This plant is highly invasive and should be removed if you find it in your garden. It is so invasive that it should be bagged up in a garbage bag and thrown away, never composted. 

There are some butterfly host plants that are quite inconspicuous. You may have them already and not know it. False nettle and hops are host plants to the eastern comma and question mark butterflies. These butterflies get their names from a small white marking on their wings which either looks like a question mark or comma depending on the species. Plantain, commonly found among lawns, is a host plant to the common buckeye. Violets, which can grow rampant in gardens, are a host plant to fritillary butterflies, and clover is a host to the clouded sulphur. Oak and willow trees are also common host plants for butterflies, and the very impressive giant silk moths. 

Mourning cloak. Photo courtesy Flickr: Robb Hannawacker
Red admiral. Photo courtesy Wikipedia: Didier Descouens

Butterfly feeders, houses, and puddlers are also available to help attract butterflies to a garden. Butterfly feeders hold nectar and fruit. They sometimes look similar to a hummingbird feeder, but the nectar is provided to the butterfly with a wick that goes from the nectar reservoir to the outside of the feeder. Because butterflies have a delicate proboscis, they can’t always dip it straight into a nectar feeder but instead need to dap at a wick or sponge. Butterflies will also eat rotting fruit which can be put on the top of these feeders. Butterfly houses don’t attract butterflies like a bird house would, instead they are used to house hibernating butterflies. Some butterflies, like the mourning cloak, will hibernate as an adult butterfly. This is why on a warm winter day you may see one flying, even with snow covering the ground. These butterflies look for small cervices to wedge into for the winter. A butterfly house can provide this habitat, especially if it is filled with grasses and sticks. Butterfly puddlers probably the best way to attract butterflies to a garden. They can be as simple as a small birdbath or dish, filled with small pebbles, rocks, sand and dirt. They should be kept moist. Butterflies, especially male butterflies, will land on the dish and siphon up minerals from the dirt, sand or rocks. The red admiral, a common migratory butterfly, can often be found exhibiting this behavior. 

Nectar-producing plants will attract adult butterflies, bees and also hummingbirds! Some great nectar-producing plants for butterflies include Joe Pye weed, butterfly bush, iron weed, phlox, milkweeds, goldenrod, asters, lantana and coneflowers. Hummingbirds and butterflies will both actively come to blazing star, columbine, cardinal flower, bee balm and salvias. 

When planting for butterflies, native plants are always best, plus they require less upkeep. Remember to stay away from pesticides, as they will kill all insects, not just the ones you are trying to get rid of. And, ultimately, messy is good! Gardens that are allowed to grow a little wild are often the best places for butterflies to lay their eggs, pupate and nectar on flowers.

Liz Magnanti is the manager of the Bird House in Pittsford.
 

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