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Thursday, April 24, 2014

My (new) Favourite Hummer Feeders

To feed or not to feed? It's a question we need to take to heart. Today I'm going to talk just about hummingbirds but the question applies all species of birds. 

I started feeding Rufous hummingbirds six or seven years ago. Since then, they've provided me with untold hours of amusement and fascination every spring and summer in return for my keeping the feeders stocked and clean.

Rufous hummingbirds trying their darnedest to share

Then, two years ago, an Anna's showed up. That changed things. No more just 'fair weather feeding'. Believing that Anna's (we have a pair now) rely on human-supplied nectar to get them through the coldest days of winter, my responsibilities increased. Now, when the temperatures plummet, I monitor the feeders to make sure the nectar doesn't freeze before I get outside (sometimes donned in boots and snow gear) to replace it with fresh nectar. For weeks this winter my days revolved around the status of the hummingbird feeders. (Good thing I'm officially retired!) 

Female Anna's

I'm more than willing to continue this routine, and even to call on my wonderfully obliging friends and neighbours to take over for me during the winter when I have to be off-island for a while. BUT ... and this is a big BUT ... I don't want my penchant for feeding the hummers to put them at risk. One of the risks is disease, especially a fungal infection known as 'hummingbird tongue'. An Oregon blogger wrote about this infection here: Sick hummer

What to do? It seems to me there are two options:

1. Stop feeding the hummers entirely. Let nature take its course. Maybe plant more hummingbird-attractive native plants in the garden.

2. Keep feeding them (or just feed the Anna's in the winter) but be VIGILANT about keeping feeders CLEAN and EDUCATE neighbours to do the same.

For now, I'm choosing the second option. To make it easier, I've bought two new feeders that are much easier to keep clean. The base of these comes apart. No more fiddling with Q-tips!! Here are my two new feeders:

I bought this feeder, by Perky Pet, at Cultivate Garden & Gift in Parksville.
They had LOTS of styles, many of which were easy-to-clean.

I like the size of the feeder above for the spring and summer when there are so many Rufous around. The top holds 32 ounces and the top is a Mason Jar that can be replaced by any same-size Mason jar if it should break. It did take the hummers a few hours to get used to their new feeder (the other one had a red base) but they're fast learners, obviously!

Although slightly smaller, the base comes apart easily for easy cleaning.
Note: the glass is red. The nectar inside is clear - just water and sugar. No dye!!
Also by Perky Pet. 

The hummers went for this one right away! Red is clearly their favourite colour.

There are lots of other issues to explore in the "to feed or not to feed" debate: the increased risk of predation, window strikes, feeding hummers Rogers sugar that may be GMO ... and the list goes on. More another day. Thanks for visiting.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Sex Life of Crows

By Sharon McInnes

If the title of today’s column made you sit right up and take notice (that was, I admit, my goal), I should warn you that for crows, getting to sex isn’t simple. It involves a lot of planning, preparation, and patience. As Kevin McGowan explained in the webinar “The Secret Life of Crows”, before a crow can land a mate, he has to find a suitable breeding territory. (Scientists call this ‘acquiring breeding status’.) That can be a big job.

American Crow
Photo by Kevin McGowan

Here’s how it works. Let’s say you are, for example, a male crow and you live in the city. Unlike most other species of birds, you could stay home for up to six years, helping to raise your brothers and sisters. Your tasks would include helping with nest-building, feeding, and chasing predators away. (A lot of male crows do this; females tend to leave home much earlier.) Called ‘cooperative breeding’, this strategy is almost as advantageous to your extended family – and to crows in general – as having your own offspring. McGowan says of crows that practice cooperative breeding: “Some of these families are amazing. One marvellously successful crow family lives at St. Catherine’s Church in Ithaca – a breeding pair and up to seven generations of siblings live on or next to the home territory there.

A Family of Crows
Making dinner plans? Discussing a territorial dispute? Gossiping about a neighbour?
Photo by Junior Libby - CC license. 

And there are substantial rewards for staying home to help. One is that you’re more likely to inherit your parents’ territory when they die. In the meantime, they might allow you to use part of their breeding territory to raise your own family. But don’t get excited too quickly. You won’t be getting started in that venture for a while: the average age of initial breeding in McGowan’s study was 4.9 years.

If the ‘one big happy family’ scenario doesn’t turn you on, you have options! One is to find your own territory. Since you live in the city you’ll need about 10 acres. (Country crows tend to have much larger estates.) Of course it needs certain attributes. For one thing, it has to be available. You don’t want to have to battle another crow that’s already set up house there. And it must have plenty of food nearby. (I know – you’re a ‘city crow’ and you’ll eat anything. But your babies need nutritious food – the same kind they’d be getting if you lived in the country.) 

No? Well, if trying to establish your own territory sounds risky, you could join an already established group. This has potential, especially down the road. For example, when the male adult of the mated pair you join dies, you could simply replace him. No need for the widow to go hunting for a new guy when you’re there, ready, willing, and able, right? Or, in another scenario, they might both die, and you could inherit their territory.

Or maybe one of your older siblings has already struck out on his own and would welcome your help?  Or maybe a friendly neighbourhood crow? However be aware that neighbours – especially helpful ones – are known to be philanderers. So if you decide to share the territory of a neighbour, there’s a chance (up to 20 per cent) that at least one of your babies might look more like him than you. Then again, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the same hanky-panky is known to happen between relatives. So you can’t necessarily trust your woman with your brother or cousin or uncle either.  And I hate to even bring this up, but if you and your lady stay together for a few years, and have a few babies, there is a chance that she and one of your sons will get together one night. BUT of all the philandering that goes on amongst crows (scientists refer to this behaviour as ‘extra-pair copulation’) only 3.5 per cent of it is between mother and son. That’s heartening, right?

Still, there’s a good reason for sticking close to home to raise your family: crows that do are more ‘successful breeders’. Compared to robins, for example, which have a 25 per cent nest success rate, the American Crows that McGowan studied had a 60 per cent success rate. Those are pretty good odds, for a bird.

This article was first published in The Flying Shingle ( on April 7 2014

Big Clean Windows, Little Dead Birds

Most of us know about the "Bird Strike" problem. A bird sees reflected scenery (in a window) and flies into it. Hits the glass. Thunk. Broken neck, dead bird.

Sometimes the bird is "just stunned" and eventually "recovers" but often dies later of internal injuries or other injuries that render it less able to survive in the wild.

There ARE solutions! One is BirdTape from the American Bird Conservancy. I just ordered some to install on the windows of our new Garden Room. It's inexpensive and research-based.

To read about ABC Bird Tape (and order it) click here

For more on the seriousness of the problem, check out this article in the Birds on the Brain blog. Even though this piece is about Duke University in the States, the problem exists EVERYWHERE, even here on little old Gabriola Island!