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Join the crowd to count backyard birds

WILDLIFE WATCHING — Birders are signing up to contribute 15 minutes of their favorite hobby to science.

The Great Backyard Bird Count, Feb.13-16, involves birders of all levels of experience to count the number of birds they see in a 15-minute period and enter their tally, by species,online.

Participants can conduct their count in their own backyards, in a neighborhood park or anywhere they choose.

Check it out. 

BTW, kids can really get into this. Grab a field guide to birds or Google what you see and feed the brain for natural science.

Winter tips for feeding birds

WILDLIFE WATCHING — Feeding wild birds is one of the most popular outdoor activities in the U.S. While a handout can help birds find the calories needed to survive the winter, improper feeding can spread disease or increase birds' exposure to predators.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game encourages bird enthusiasts to keep a few things in mind to help assure successful bird feeding.

"The location of your feeder and what food it offers is very important for attracting birds," said Deniz Aygen, IDFG wildlife program coordinator. "To attract a variety of birds, many bird watchers use a variety of feeders and foods in several different locations."

Additional suggestions for successful bird feeding include:

  • Place feeders near cover to protect feeding birds from weather and predators. Move feeders if you notice birds striking windows.
  • Birds can be particular about what and where they eat. Sparrows, juncos and doves typically feed on the ground or on a flat platform, while other birds prefer an elevated feeder. Some ground-feeding birds prefer corn, milo or millet, but sunflower seeds are also a popular food. Adding finch or thistle seed can attract pine siskins, goldfinches and house finches. Insect-eating birds, such as woodpeckers, chickadees and nuthatches feed on suet or peanut butter mixtures.
  • If possible, provide water nearby. Specially designed heaters are available to prevent freezing. Once water and food are offered, try to continue through the winter, but don't be concerned if you miss a few days, since feeding birds are mobile and are probably visiting other feeding stations besides yours.
  • Keep feeders and feeding areas clean. Clean feeders regularly by scrubbing with soapy water, followed by a quick rinse in water diluted with a small amount of bleach. Store seed in tight, waterproof containers to prevent mold and to deter rodents.

Birds a lot of hot air when temperatures dip

WILDLIFE WATCHING — For being light a fragile, birds are incredible at surviving cold that drives humans indoors.

Birds are warm blooded, which means their bodies maintain a constant temperature, often around 106 degrees Fahrenheit. Since they can't just throw a log on the fire, birds have several ways of coping with bitter-cold temperatures.

Puff up: The Hungarian partridges featured above in an image by Montana outdoor photographer Jaimie Johnson have fluffed out their under-feathers to trap warm insulating air that acts like a thick down coat that can be quickly streamlined for flight if needed.

Take cover: Many birds also seek shelter from the elements, whether it's in thick brush or possibly — as in the case of a nuthatch or chickadee, perhaps — in the cavity of a tree or a bird box.

Huddle up: Some flocking birds will huddle, bunching together to share warmth, and try to minimize their total surface area by tucking in their head and feet and sticking up their feathers.

Fatten up:  "Big birds, like geese and grouse, do what we do," says physiologist David Swanson at the University of South Dakota. "They put on insulation." Their insulation often involves growing an extra set of insulating downy feathers. Birds can also put on fat as both an insulator and energy source: More than 10 percent of winter body weight may be fat in certain species, including chickadees and finches. As a result, some birds spend the vast majority of their daylight hours seeking fatty food sources, making feeder food even more precious for surviving a frosty night.

Shake it: Small birds that can't clope with putting on extra weight simply shiver. Chickadees are masters at shivering — but not the tremble that mammals use to generate heat.  According to a story in Audubon Magazine, birds shiver by activating opposing muscle groups, creating muscle contractions without all of the jiggling typical when humans shiver. This form of shaking is better at retaining the bird's heat.

Down time: Some winter bird species undergo a more moderate version of the torpor hummingbirds use to survive through the night. Black-capped chickadees reduce their body temperature as much as 22 degrees Fahrenheit from their daytime level in a process called regulated hypothermia.

Hummingbirds giving up secrets to researchers

WILDLIFE WATCHING — As researchers perfect the methods of placing tiny numbered bands on the legs of hummingbirds, the diminutive birds have been revealing new information about their lives.

For instance:

  • Hummingbirds can live longer than 10 years as opposed to the two or three once thought likely.
  • Astonishing migrations have been found, with one bird caught in Florida showing up a few months later and more than 3,500 miles away in Alaska.

About 225 hummingbird banders work in the United States. The skill is unique, requiring years of apprenticeship.

Their steady stream of capture and recapture data is offering new insights into what for many is a delightful backyard visitor with an overabundance of personality.

Video: Eastern blue jays have taste for West

WILDLIFE WATCHING — Eastern blue jays have been trickling across the Rockies to the West for years.  Birders are resigned to the invasion, saving them driving miles for an addition to their life list.

Montana outdoor photographer Jaimie Johnson captured the feeding ways of this pair of blue jays on video near at his home feeder near Lincoln, Mont.

Campers find creative ways to feed hummingbirds

WILDLIFE WATCHING — People camping and fishing in North Idaho are taking note and enjoying what appears to be a good population of colorful hummingbirds in the region.

The photos above where shot and compiled by Hal Blegen of Spokane, who was in the field for fishing last week, but equally fascinated by the creative ways campers were tending to the hummers.  Here's his report:

The hummingbird population up and down the North Fork of the Clearwater and Kelly Creek was thriving (during my recent fishing trip).  I found that a number of campsites had make-shift feeders. They were made from whiskey bottles,  plastic drink containers, empty fruit trays, and bottle caps,  patched together with tie wraps, duct tape and coat hangers. 

The curious thing was that they all seemed to work just fine.  There was no shortage of ideas or hummers, but finding enough sugar to keep them filled was a challenge. 

Area’s first hummingbirds can arrive in April — hungry

WILDLIFE WATCHING — Hummingbirds have been known to begin trickling into the Spokane-Coeur d'Alene area as mid-April.

If you're gearing up to feed the hummers this season, the Audubon Society, American Bird Conservancy and Cornell Lab of Ornithology offer this advice:
 
Maintaining a backyard hummingbird feeder can help provide the birds with nectar critical to their survival, especially in early spring when natural food can be in short supply, and during fall when they need to double their body mass before migration.
 
To ensure your yard is a safe and nutritious stopover for hummingbirds:
  • Fill the feeders with sugar water, made by combining four parts hot water to one part white sugar, boiled for one to two minutes. NEVER use honey, which promotes the growth of harmful bacteria, or artificial sweeteners, which have no nutritional value. Also avoid red food coloring.
  • Clean the feeders with a solution of one part white vinegar to four parts water about once a week. If your feeder has become dirty, try adding some grains of dry rice to the vinegar solution and shake vigorously. The grains act as a good abrasive. Rinse your feeder well with warm water three times before refilling with sugar solution.

Should you be feeding hummingbirds this winter?

WILDLIFE WATCHING — Supposing you could keep it from freezing, would leaving a nectar feeder out in your yard in late fall tempt hummingbirds into staying around when they should head south for winter?
 
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists say most research on whether feeders of any kind keep birds from migrating indicates that the impact is insignificant.
 
It's possible that a few individuals might linger longer, maybe even be stranded in winter conditions when they should be someplace else. The photo above shows an Anna's humming bird hanging around this area in December 2011. But for the most part, birds that migrate seasonally will do so, even if feeders are left out.
 
The agency says biologists agree that a greater long-term impact on bird migration is probably climate change and associated changes in available natural habitat across the landscape. Birds have many triggers that drive them to migrate, not the least of which is changing daylight hours.
 
Biologists also agree that feeders of any kind are not necessary for any birds, they simply make viewing birds easier for us. For most birds, feeders are bonus food troughs but not necessarily food traps.
 
"We need to support natural winter processes," said WDFW biologist Chris Anderson of Mill Creek, "and that includes shifts in foraging areas for migrating species like hummingbirds. Taking nectar feeders down at this time of year is probably more natural and avoids the potential for keeping birds dependent on them when they should be moving on. Wild birds are not pets that need to be taken care of through feeding. But if you want to maintain feeders, be responsible and committed to it. Keep those feeders clean, filled, and heated with lights if necessary."

Insecticide-tainted bird seed is case for better monitoring

BIRDWATCHING — Responsible bird enthusiasts regularly clean their feeders to help prevent the spread of disease that can kill masses of birds. But even the most conscientious feeders can be deadly if the seed they buy is poisonous.

Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. recently admitted guilt in charges of distributing insecticide-tainted bird seed, potentially subjecting itself to $4.5 in fines to be approved by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio.

See news story here.

The American Bird Conservancy is spotlighting this case as an example of the need for regular monitoring to assure the safety of the nation's bird seed supply.

The stakes are high. U.S. Fish and Wildlife surveys indicate that one in five Americans considers themselves among the birdwatchers who spend a total of $36 billion dollars a year on bird food, equipment and birding related travel.

The bottom line: With tons of bird seed put out each year to make birding convenient, huge numbers of wild birds are at risk if bird seed isn't safe.

The ABC did its own tests and found that most bird seed from popular outlet is pesticide free.

But read on for the conservancy's release of details on the shortfalls of EPA rules and the chilling disregard for bird safety by Scott officials.