About Jo Ann Abell

My husband and I moved to our small farm in southwest Virginia in 2011. We decided to let the fields grow up to create a more diverse habitat for the wildlife that was already living here before we came along. We share our land with three dogs, four hens, and a couple hundred thousand honey bees, and try to live in peace with wildlife as much as we can.

Why so red, Mr. Cardinal?

The flamboyant male Northern cardinal sings from high perches when courting, and unlike many other birds, when fall rolls around, doesn’t trade in his red breeding plumes for a drab winter coat. While this might seem to make him an obvious target for a hawk looking for a meal, there’s a scientific basis for both his bright coloring and enthusiastic singing: to advertise what a good mate he will make.

Mr. Red

According to Birds of America Online, brighter males have a higher rate of reproductive success, hold better territories, and offer more parental care. By responding to the male’s redness in her mate selection, females encourage the evolution of bright coloring in males. At the same time, the female’s muted colors provide her and her nest with a protective camouflage that the male lacks.

Despite its low rate of nesting success (typically, fewer than 40 percent of nests fledge at least one young), their long breeding season (often producing two broods), the fact that they are adaptable and can live almost anywhere, and do not migrate (which is risky business, at best), cardinals are a successful and common species—so it’s safe to assume that Nature knows what she’s doing with the male’s bright red plumage!

Mourning doves all winter

In years past, we’ve always had a couple of mourning doves that were regular visitors, eating the sunflower seeds off the ground that fell from the feeders. We see and hear them during the rest of the year, but this is the first time they came to feed as a flock and stayed all winter.

Mourning doves_mar2018

Earlier in the season, they were very flighty. taking off into the woods at the slightest sound. But as the weeks went by, they grew more trusting, flying into the nearby trees when we went outside, returning to feed after only a brief time away.

Maybe since they found a reliable food source, they’ll return next winter. Meanwhile, I look forward to hearing their soft cooing when breeding season rolls around…which should be soon!

Mockingbird and staghorn sumac

A few days ago while walking on my neighbor’s farm on an unseasonably warm day, I came across a northern mockingbird perched atop a plume of staghorn sumac. What a pleasant surprise. This animated songster is one of my favorite birds!

Since males and females look alike, I couldn’t determine the sex, but this one that I shall refer to as a “he” was surrounded by a tangle of shrubs and vines. Mockingbird heaven. I figured he would fly as soon as I raised my camera, but he was a very obliging fellow and let me snap several pictures.

I know that game birds like grouse, pheasants, quail, and wild turkeys eat sumac berries, but often wondered what other birds do. Turns out, a whopping 300 species of birds including mockingbirds, robins, crows, and bluebirds incorporate the fruit of staghorn sumac into their diet. It’s very fast growing and forms “thicket colonies” in the wild via self-seeding and root suckering. These sumac “tree colonies” also provide nesting and shelter sites for many bird species.

What many people don’t know about staghorn sumac is the tiny greenish-yellow flowers which bloom in the spring are a very important source of nectar for several butterfly species, including banded and striped hairstreaks. It is also a larval host of the spring azure butterfly. Rated as a plant of “Special Value to Native Bees,” it is recognized by pollination ecologists as attracting large numbers of native bees for its pollen and nectar.

The things you learn by doing something as simple as taking a walk!

Longing for the dawn chorus

As I get older, it seems that winters get longer and colder. I know that’s not true, but sometimes it sure seems that way! Each year, a little earlier, I start thinking about spring and longing to hear the dawn chorus of the birds waking up from winter.

In North America, the American robin is one of the most audible and common participants in the dawn chorus, with many other singers joining in the concert. They sing to attract a mate and also to establish breeding territories. The chorus may start as early as 4 a.m. and extend several hours until the sun has risen and temperatures begin to warm.

There are several reasons why birds choose to sing early in the day:

Showing off one’s vocal prowess early in the morning demonstrates that the singer is strong and healthy enough to survive a night of dipping temperatures and active predators, helping to attract a mate.

Other competing sounds like insect buzzing, car traffic, or construction are less common in the early morning hours so their song is less likely to be drowned out by ambient noise.

Lower morning temps and fewer air currents permit a bird’s song to travel farther without as much interference or losing strength, helping the bird to use its song to claim or defend a territory or advertise its presence to prospective mates.

Early morning light levels are too low for foraging and insects are not yet active for feeding. With fewer other activities to choose from, early morning is an excellent opportunity for birds to sing.

These are all good reasons for the birds to sing in the morning.

Me, I just enjoy listening.

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.

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.