Doves by the dozen

A little bit of snow and cold weather always means an increase in bird activity at the feeders. Even though our latest snow totaled less than half an inch, the birds mobbed the feeders.

In winters past, we always had a stray dove or two stay with us for the winter, but for some reason, this winter we have a flock of 20 or so birds.

Mourning doves may visit the feeder anytime during the day (they are primarily seed eaters), but they are most concentrated in the first couple of hours after sunrise. Throughout the day, the flock forages in the woods and fields around the house. They are extremely jittery, taking flight at the slightest noise or movement (no doubt because they are sometimes hunted). They are extremely fast flyers, having been clocked at 55 miles per hour, so they are rarely killed by hawks.

The numbers of all of the birds can change from year to year, depending on the success of the previous breeding season and the availability of food. This year, we have a lot of doves, but fewer juncos, blue jays, and gold finches. Each year is different; last year we had a large mob of boisterous blue jays that tended to monopolize the feeders. I don’t really miss them.

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Food for wildlife: The little-known persimmons

Except for those animals that hibernate, wild animals walk a tightrope every day in winter. They have to eat enough to produce the energy needed to get through the night without freezing to death, but time spent foraging increases their risk of themselves being a meal for a predator.

This is the first in a series of wild foods that play an important role in sustaining wildlife through winter. This post is about the persimmons, a little known and largely ignored, but magnificent fruit (actually it’s a berry) that is an important source of food and energy for birds and other wildlife.

Most persimmons live in obscurity until autumn. Once the tree begins shedding its leaves, its crop of an inch to 2-1/2-inch-long fruits look much like small, orange Christmas ornaments hanging on the tree’s naked branches.

Birds that dine on persimmons include wild turkeys, robins, cedar waxwings, catbirds, robins, pileated woodpeckers, and mockingbirds. Squirrels, opossums, and raccoons eat right from the tree, but other animals like deer, fox, bears, rodents, and skunks have to wait for the fruit to fall, which is actually when they reach their peak ripeness.

If persimmons are ripe, their flattened, reddish brown seeds will show up in the scat of the animals that eat them. The seeds easily pass through the digestive tracts of these animals and are spread to spots far from the tree where they were devoured. Some of these seeds will later germinate to produce a new generation of persimmon trees.

Common persimmons are difficult to get established. Consequently, when clearing a lot for a new home or maintaining a fence line, leave some of the persimmon trees that you find. If you have one standing on your property, don’t cut it down. The tree will provide a dependable source of fruits for your wildlife neighbors for years to come.

Albino white-tailed deer

Just came across this picture on Facebook of an albino white-tail posted by a hunter in West Virginia. No, he did not shoot it, and did not give out any specifics on the location out of fear someone not so appreciative of how rare albino deer are would kill it for a trophy. The young one was still with its mother.

According to John Bates, Wisconsin naturalist and co-author of White Deer: Ghosts of the Forest, the chances of an albino deer being born are about 1 in 20,000. Other sources say the odds are closer to 1 in 30,000.

I saw an albino white-tail about 15 years ago while walking the Appalachian Trail in Middletown, MD. I just caught a glimpse between the trees as it rain through the woods with two other deer. I was so taken by surprise that it took me a few moments to process what I had seen.

Monarch migration

Monarch butterflies started migrating through the farm about a month ago, but I saw a few still coming through as late as last week. There are very few wildflowers left for them to use for refueling. The last of the goldenrods and asters are declining and the butterfly bush, hyssop, coneflower, milkweed, bee balm, and joe pye weed that attracted so many pollinators over the summer are long-spent.

I visited my daughter in western Maryland over the weekend and was amazed at all the monarchs stopping to fuel up on her Mexican sunflowers (of course, I didn’t have my camera with me). She has a very large flower cutting garden and they mow around it so it’s like a shining beacon to hungry migrating monarchs on their way to Mexico.

Next year, I will take my camera!

A bug that looks like a twig

Many insects have evolved ways to make themselves less visible to predators by blending in with their surroundings. One of the most amazing insects able to thwart predators by “hiding” in plain sight is the walking stick.

Stick insects are so named for their effective camouflage among the woody plants where they feed. They are typically brown, black, or green, with stick-shaped bodies that help them blend in as they perch on twigs and branches. Some even have lichen-like markings to make their disguise more authentic. Still others are able to change color, like a chameleon, depending on the background where they’re at rest.

Some also wear bright colors on their wings. When a bird or other predator approaches, the insect will flash the vibrant wings, then hide them again, leaving the predator confused and unable to relocate its target.

Much like a nation of Amazons, stick bugs are able to reproduce almost entirely without males. Unmated females produce eggs that become more females. When a male does manage to mate with a female, there’s a 50/50 chance their offspring will be male. A captive female stick insect can produce hundreds of all-female offspring without ever mating.

The more you learn about insects, the more you discover how truly fascinating they are!

The bluebirds are at it again!

The same pair of Eastern bluebirds that already successfully fledged two broods from the nest box on our porch are going for another try, building their third nest in the porch rafters. The female makes dozens of trips each day, bringing leaves and pine needles, while the male keeps guard over the female and the nest building.

Yesterday I watched a house wren checking out the bluebirds’ latest nest. House wrens are known for destroying the nests of other birds to eliminate the competition for food. Sure enough, while watering the flowers this morning, I saw a pile of pine needles littering the ground below the nest. Undeterred, the female is rebuilding and if the house-wrecking wren doesn’t return, the nest will be completed soon and she will lay eggs.

The male Eastern bluebird keeps an eye out for enemies while the female completes the nest.

Amazingly, Eastern bluebirds can have up to four broods (also called clutches) per year. There are many factors that influence the number of broods each year, including the availability of a mate, location, food supply, diet, health, age, and experience.

Both birds bring food to the nestlings and as the chicks grow older, the more trips required each day to keep them fed. By the time the nestlings are ready to fledge, both parents are busy all day long fetching the high-protein insects that make up their diet. It’s a very demanding and exhausting job!

Sharing the wineberries

With all the rain last spring, wineberry vines grew unchecked in a couple of our garden beds because we didn’t tend them. This year, the vines produced a LOT of berries, so we got the idea to “cultivate” them for even better production next year. We cover them at night to keep the deer from eating them and pick the ripe ones about every three days. We eat what we want and freeze the rest.

Wineberries, also known as wine raspberries, are a delicious and slightly sour red raspberry. They originated from Asia, but are now firmly established in the eastern U.S. We have several patches in the field that get plenty of sun where both wineberries and wild blackberries grow. We used to fight the rabbits, birds, and deer for the ripe wineberries, which we prefer over the blackberries, but now there’s plenty for all!