Around the Feeder

As Master Gardeners, we all enjoy every aspect of the great outdoors. For many, this includes all living creatures, not just plants. Many of the Somervell Master Gardeners are great bird lovers and have graciously offered to write numerous articles about our feathered friends. We hope you will enjoy the branching out of our Master Gardeners to all aspects of the garden.

March 2012


By Joan Orr and Nancy Hillin, Somervell County Master Gardeners

American RobinThe promise of spring comes to us in many forms, but none quite as wonderful as the arrival of these red-breasted beauties of the Thrush family.   The United States and Canada are the year round home and breeding range of the Robin.  As the weather becomes colder and food sources in the northern portion of their range become less available, the Robin will travel to the most southern parts of the United States and often venture as far as Guatemala.  So when we see the Robin return here, we know that it is finding its food source of worms, insects and fruit.  And, we know that spring is upon us.

The first item on the Robin’s meal plan for the day is worms.  They will tilt their heads with one eye on the ground hunting for worms and the other watching for predators.  Hawks, cats and large snakes will quickly make the Robin their meal for the day.  The afternoons are spent foraging for fruit.  Robins favor fruits and berries from Dogwoods, Hawthorns, Junipers, Sumacs and Chokecherries. They also like Honeysuckle and Pyracantha berries, but if they eat them at the fermented stage a drunken dance will sure to follow.

Males arrive a few days to several weeks before females to breeding grounds to establish a territory.  Females choose a mate according to his song, plumage and his ability to defend the nesting site.  The first nest of the year is often built in Evergreen trees because in some areas deciduous trees are not leafed out yet.  The female constructs a nest that is about baseball size with twigs and mud.  She uses her breast covered with mud to shape the nest to fit her body and lines it with soft grasses.   She will produce two broods, occasionally three, per season with three to four off-springs per brood.  The pale blue eggs are about the size and weight of a quarter and will hatch within two weeks.   The mother will brood the chicks while they are young and after that only at night or bad weather.  Two more weeks will pass before the young become fledglings.  Both parents feed the chicks until they become fledglings and can forage alone.  And even after achieving sustained flight the off-spring will follow their parents for a time.   After the breeding season, Robins roost in flocks by night and feed together by day.

Here are a few things you can do to help the Robin population:

  • If you find a chick on the ground with little to no down or feathers, feel free to return it to the nest if you can.  Robins will not reject a chick because of human contact.
  • Avoid using insecticides and other toxins on the ground.
  • Keep a small muddy area for the female to use in nest building.
  • Investigate trees for nests before doing any pruning.
  • Keep a bird bath full and clean.
  • Offer dried or fresh fruits from a platform feeder.
  • Plant Evergreen trees for nest building and other trees and shrubs as listed above for food sources.

Robins are fairly social creatures and will often allow you to come close for a great photo or just to watch as they search for worms or an occasional snail.   The arrival of the Robin announces the most welcomed season of the year by gardeners and all those that love the great outdoors.  It is a joy to see them again!

Source:  Birds and Blooms 2012

February 2012

Around the Feeder-Take Two-Purple Martins”
A follow-up to November 2011
By Joan Orr and Nancy Hillin, Somervell County Master Gardeners

locationLocation-location-location is definitely the key when deciding where to put a Purple Martin house or gourd.  Specific land and aerial space requirements are necessary in placing these homes.  Always pick a site that is 40-60ft. away from trees that are taller than the house.  Reason being is predators will be less likely to enter a clearing and it makes for an easy flight to home for the Martins.   If possible, keep the Martin home a minimum of 30ft. to a maximum of 120ft. from your home or other structures.  The design illustrated below is an example of placement of the house or gourd.

purple martin house  The best Purple Martin set-ups incorporate designs that easily lower and raise the house on its pole by a winch or telescoping system.  This allows for quick daily inspections of the nest to check on the brood.  The pole should be a least ten feet off the ground and set in concrete with a ground depth of 18-25 inches.   A predator guard at the bottom of the house is a must to fiend off ground predators. These can be made of stove pipe, pvc pipe or sheet metal.  Owls and crows can be predators so consider using two inch by four inch hardware cloth mesh around the house secured by clamps or bungee cords.   Paint the house or gourd white for cooler temperatures inside.  Avoid attaching wires or anything that could give access to predators to the Purple Martin dwelling.

SREHdiagramIt is best to wait until the first day of February to open up your Purple Martin houses and gourds to deter other nest-site competitors. Arrivals in previous seasons in Somervell County have been February 1-18.  To keep Starlings from invading Purple Martin homes, buy or build homes with crescent-shaped entrance holes.  These SRCH (Starling Resistant Crescent Holes) should be three inches wide and one and three sixteenth inches tall and one half an inch above the porch floor.

Purple Martins are very social birds and will give you hours of entertainment with their aerial displays and wonderful song.  They like to be near humans and a daily check on the nestlings will not bother the Purple Martin.  It is a practice among Purple Martin “Landlords” to keep daily records of the numbers of eggs and hatchlings in their Purple Martin homes.

Sources: What You Should Know About the Purple Martins by J.L. Wade


November 2011


By Joan Orr and Nancy Hillin
Somervell County Master Gardeners

Purple MartinIf you are looking for great insect control, then becoming a “landlord” for the purple martin swallow is the way to go!!   Their diet consists of nothing but insects, which they capture while in flight.   Native Americans taught the early European settlers the worth of these beautiful birds not only for devouring insects, but for their songs and aerial antics.  Gourds were offered as nesting cavities to keep the birds close to human dwellings.  This is still in practice today along with birdhouses built specifically for purple martins.  In fact, purple martins that migrate east of the Rocky Mountains are completely dependent on their human “landlords” for homes.

purple martin houseHere are some of the things you can do to entice purple martins to allow you to become their “landlord” if you choose to use a purple martin house.  Place the martin house on a pole at least 10-20 feet high and in a clearing away from trees or any object, at least the distance the height of said objects.  To fend off cats, raccoons, squirrels, snakes and other ground predators, place a guard at the bottom of the pole.  Frequent inspections of the nest will help you keep sparrows and starlings from settling in the martin house.   It is best to have a system in place to be able to move the house without endangering eggs that may be in the nest. There are telescoping poles for sale that enable you to easily bring the house down to the ground.  Just try to avoid tilting the house when you are checking on the status of the occupants. Gourds may be used as nesting cavities by hanging them from racks or any design of your choosing.  Try to follow the safe guards used for the martin house placement.

Martins are most likely to occupy a gourd or house if it is near a body of water.  They drink while in flight by scooping up the water with their lower beak.  Purple martins are not shy and prefer to be near human dwellings.  So, try to place their houses 60-100 feet near your home.

Adults will be the first martins to arrive in the spring.  They are faithful to return to previous housing if it is still in favorable condition.  Next to arrive are the second-year martins, some of which will be interested in renting a gourd or house from you.  There are many purple martin “landlords”.  These folks have formed associations to help ensure the continuation of the partnership of man and these beautiful birds.

The information for this article was approved by two members of the Glen Rose Bird Club:  Jim Cheatham and Jack Brady.  Jim is a Somervell County Master Gardener and one of the guardians of the Glen Rose Bird Sanctuary.  Jack is a research horticulturist and also a member of the Glen Rose Bird Club.  Join them and others for expert information at the Glen Rose Bird Club on the third Thursday of each month.  Meeting time is 6:30 PM at the Spirit Wind Church on Bernard Street on the southwest corner of the Glen Rose square.

Source:  Glen Rose Bird Club

July 2011

By Nancy Hillin and Joan Orr, Somervell County Master Gardeners

bluebirdThe bluebird has always been associated with happiness. We all think wonderful thoughts when listening to “Somewhere over the rainbow bluebirds fly…” Bluebirds are regarded as symbols of good health, prosperity, new birth and most importantly the renewal of the spring season.

Year round, North Texans will see the Eastern bluebird and may participate in nest box programs to help increase their population. Unlike the Mountain bluebird that is mostly blue, the Eastern bluebird carries blue only on its back and orange on its throat, ear surround, chest, sides and flanks. It can be found east of the Rockies from Canada to Mexico and Honduras. The third bluebird species is the Western bluebird that is found west of the Rocky Mountains from Canada to Mexico. The Western bluebird’s head, throat and upperparts are a deep cobalt blue; the breast is chestnut, the belly blue and varying amounts of chestnut on the back. Occasionally, the Mountain bluebird will overlap into Eastern bluebird territory where it has been seen in southern parts of Texas. The Mountain bluebird’s preferred habitat remains the American West in cooler and steeper areas.

Bluebirds make their nests in natural cavities or those abodes left behind by other species, such as woodpeckers. They will nest near your garden if you provide a properly positioned nest box and make food sources available to them. They prefer to nest in a woodland’s type atmosphere that is near clearings or meadows to make searching for food convenient. Insects and other vertebrates constitute two-thirds of the bluebird’s diet, the other third being wild berries and fruit.

The following is a list of plants, which produce seeds that will help sustain the bluebird during the months when insects are not available. Dogwood; Hackberry; Hawthorn; Sumac; Wild Grape Other favorites when available are: Bayberries; Blackberries; Eastern Juniper; Honeysuckle; Pokeberries; Virginia Creeper.

Source: Birds of Texas Field Guide- By Stan Tekiela

Printable Version BlueBirds (PDF)

May 2011

Submitted By Joan Orr and Nancy Hillin, Somervell County Master Gardeners

cardinal pairThe “Red Birds” that decorate our trees, gardens and fill the air with song are part of the order “Passeriformes”.  Their smaller relatives, the “Finches” are also a part of this order that indicate they are “perching birds”.  “Red Birds” are often referred to as the “Cardinal Finch” and sometimes called “Cardinal Grosbeak”.  They have been given the title “Songbird of the Finch Family”, having sung a documented repertoire of two dozens songs.  These birds are also famous for whistling.  Males are territorial and mark their space with a song.  Often, you can hear the female counter-sing with a male, producing an unmistakable duet.

The female’s plumage is a dull red in comparison to the bright-colored male.  The juvenile resembles the female but has shades of brown.  The juvenile’s bills are black at birth, and then change to a cream color and at full maturity turn to bright red.   Adults have red cone-shaped bills, red crests (the females being smaller), black masks and chins.

Although the Cardinal is not a migratory bird, chances are you will not see this winged favorite at your home all year long.  For the most part, the Cardinal lives its entire life within an eight square mile area.  That being said, warming temperatures play a part in the range expansion.  The life span of a Cardinal is 15 years.  They mate for life, but it is believed that a portion do stray from a mate, with a divorce rate of about 20%.

cardinal-nestFemales are in charge of nest building.  She turns twigs, leaves, vine materials and grasses into a nest by crushing them with her beak until pliable enough to use.  She weaves the materials around her with her feet into a cup shape, two to three inches tall and about three inches in diameter.  Within six days of completion of a nest, the female lays three to five eggs.  They will be green, blue, to gray with purple and brown marks.  She alone will incubate the eggs while the male brings food to her.  The eggs will hatch within 14 days.  It takes both parents to feed and care for the hatchlings.  Predators of eggs and chicks include snakes, Blue Jays, Cow Birds and squirrels.  Predators of adults are hawks, squirrels and owls.   Often Cow Birds steal Cardinal eggs, destroy them and replace them with Cow Bird eggs.  This leaves the Cardinal stuck with raising young that are not even their own.

The Cardinals diet includes insects when they are available.  Their seed preferences are millet, safflower and peanut kernels.  They will readily eat suet, apple slices and other fruits.  If you place a bird house facing a field for easy flight to food sources, Cardinals will make use of it.

The Cardinal is the state bird of six states.  Those states are Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina.

Sources:  Birds and Blooms 2009-2010-2011

March 2011

AROUND THE FEEDER: The Cute, Curious, Charismatic Carolina Chickadee
Submitted By Joan Orr and Nancy Hillin, Somervell County Master Gardeners

chickadeeThis little songbird is so curious it has been known to eat out of a lucky backyard birder’s hand.  The Carolina Chickadee is a delight to watch as it performs its antics.  This aerial acrobat has excellent balance and will often land upside-down on a feeder or branch to eat.  In the spring and summer, the Chickadee becomes one of our “wild helpers” by devouring harmful insects in our gardens.  In the off-season when insects are not readily available, we can help by providing feeders.   Favorite foods include sunflower seeds and fruits and nuts.  Hang feeders a short distance from trees or shrubs so the birds can make a quick get-away from raptors such as hawks and owls and predators like cats and snakes.   If you are plagued by squirrels, try using a squirrel-resistant feeder to keep the seed for the birds and the squirrels out.  Suet feeders are a good source of fat in the winter months and not intended to be used above 70 degrees.  Consider planting trees, shrubs and ground covers that will aid the Chickadee and all birds by providing food and shelter.   Birch, Elm, Eastern Red Cedar, Dogwood, Pine, and Red Bud would be good choices or plant any native tree.  Shrubs and vines favorites include American Beauty Bush, Carolina Jessamine, Cherry Laurel, Coral Honeysuckle, Pyracantha and Viburnum.

Chickadees are year-round residents of the Southeastern United States from South of the Great Lakes to Northern Florida and to Central Texas.  As permanent residents, they have developed the capability of lowering their body temperature in the winter months to induce an internal state of hypothermia called torpor.   It helps the chickadees to preserve energy and they have been known to spend up to 15 hours at a time in torpor.  If you should come upon a chickadee that is unresponsive, chances are it is in torpor.  They should be left alone while in this hibernation as any stress could cause death.

The sexes are similar in markings and color.  Once paired a couple may remain mated for long periods that often last as long as two or more nesting seasons.  Chickadees are the only small bird with the combinations of a black cap, black bib and white cheeks.  It’s under parts are white with rusty brown on the flanks with a gray back.  This underrated bird is the first to nest in the spring in March and April and are usually finished by the time other birds are ready to nest.  Favorite nesting spots are cavities in tree stumps and old Woodpecker nests.  The nest is cleverly constructed from plant down of milkweed, cattails, feathers, fur (most particularly rabbit fur), hair, moss and insect cocoons.  The first layer in the nest is moss and any mammal hair that can be found.  The second layer is mostly fur.  The female lays her eggs under this layer to deter any inquisitive visitor from finding an easy meal.    An average brood is 5 to 13 young annually.  Males feed their mate during courtship and incubation of the eggs.  The speckled eggs take 11-14 days to hatch.  Both parents take care of the young until the nestlings fledge, which is usually about 13-17 days bringing us more of Nature’s little miracles in flight.

Sources:  Aggie, Field Guide to the Birds of Texas

 February 2011

Submitted By Joan Orr and Nancy Hillin, Somervell County Master Gardeners


Rare Albino Hummingbird

Even though there are 18 species of Hummingbirds that make Texas their home, not all will be seen by every neighborhood.  The most common for us are the Ruby-throated, the Black-chinned, Buff-bellied, Blue-throated, Magnificent and Rufous Hummingbirds.  As guardians of nature, we can provide plants that hummingbirds prefer in addition to nectar feeders. It is necessary for their survival that these little wonders consume one-half of their body weight in sugar every day.   Flowers should have some of these characteristics to attract hummers:  bright colors, usually red and purple hues / trumpet shapes with long necks/ heavy nectar producers.  Hummers that have adapted their bills for longer flowers prefer plants such as Cross vines, Lilies and Red Yucca.  When necessary, they will feed from plants where their shorter-billed relatives find nectar.  The following is a short list of some of the plant preferences of all Hummingbirds.

Autumn Sage-Bleeding Heart-Cardinal Flower-Carolina Jessamine-Columbine-Coral Honeysuckle-Bee Balm-Clematis-Desert Willow- Fire Bush-Foxglove-Gayfeather-Hamelia-Hibiscus-Lantana-Petunia-Mexican Buckeye-Nasturtium-Obedient Plant-Pentstemon- Phlox-Pussy Willow-Salvias-Shrimp Plant-Turk’s Cap-Texas Sage

The smallest nesting bird of the United States is the Calliope, commonly called “Little Star”.   Males are larger than the female, but weigh only around 2.5 grams. They make their home in the far western United States.  The smallest hummingbird in the world is the Bee Hummingbird that is found in Cuba.   As the name implies, it is the size of a bee.  Again, the male is the larger of the sexes, but weighs only 1.95 grams.  In comparison,   one of the Hummingbirds we see here most often is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird that weighs about 3.5 grams.  On the other end of the scale is the largest Hummingbird that resides in the Andes with a hefty weight of 18-20 grams. Then there is the ghostly-white Ruby-throated Hummingbird.  It is distinguished from a true Albino Hummingbird if it lacks pink eyes and feet and retains a diluted color.

Hummers are the only bird with the ability to fly forward, straight up and down, right and left and backwards.  Their wing rotation is 180 degrees with a wing beat of 80 per second.  Hummingbirds have the highest metabolism of all animals.  When active, their heart rate is an amazing 1,260 beats per minute.  At night it slows to 50-180 beats per minute.  To conserve energy, hummers will go into a state known as “torpor”.  They will use up to 50 times less energy and lower their metabolic rate by 95%.   When in “torpor” for long periods of time during the winter, it is known as hibernation.


A steady hand and patience!

For the Hummers that frequent our area, it is best to have more than one nectar feeder, as these birds are extremely territorial, especially the males.  Larger birds tend to run the smaller ones away from a feeder.  Use the water to sugar ratio of four to one when making nectar for a feeder.  If you boil the sugar with the water, the sugar concentration will be higher and that feeder will be the first one the birds will visit.  For the next feeder add the sugar after the water boils and the smaller birds will be able to get to it without confrontation.  Nectar will remain fresh for two to four days depending on the weather.  It is not necessary to use food coloring in this recipe and never use honey or a sugar substitute. When changing the solution, wash with dish soap and rinse thoroughly.  If mold appears, soak the feeder in a diluted bleach solution and rinse thoroughly.  Pay special attention to the ports on the feeders that they remain unclogged.  Crevices and ports are easily cleaned by using one tablespoon of dry rice or popcorn kernels to half a feeder of water.  Shake the feeder and rinse thoroughly.  Play sand will do a good job, also.  Try soaking feeders in denture cleanser and water for a sparkling shine.  Just always rinse thoroughly.  If you should have trouble with ants or other creatures invading the feeder, try putting Vaseline on the top of the feeder or on the object from which it hangs.  You can purchase an “ant moat” to attach above the feeder, which will help stop invaders.  An appropriate time to stop feeding is two weeks after you no longer see any birds at the feeders.  Hummers will not eat seed, but will feed on tiny arthropods such as insects and spiders to get needed protein.  With their lower beak flexing downward, they create a perfect trap for capturing mosquitoes.  So, they are great for insect control, besides serving as wonderful pollinators.

Nesting duties are left strictly to the female.  She constructs a nest from the down of plants, the silk from spider webs and covers it with lichen (a mix of algae and fungus).  We must consider her an architectural engineer as this design is the most perfect nest for her young.  The spider silk binds the nest with an elasticity that allows the nest to expand as the hatchlings grow, the plant down makes the nest soft and the lichen keeps the rain and wind at bay.  This perfect work of nature is about the size of half a walnut shell. A clutch of 2 eggs are laid that are smaller than Lincoln’s chest on a penny, or compare to the size of a small navy bean or half the size of a jelly bean.  Incubation period is 15 to 18 days and nesting time is 18 to 21 days.  Each female usually sits two nests per season. She feeds the nestlings a diet like her own of tiny insects, spiders and nectar.  Soon after the little ones become fledglings, mother bird considers them to be her competitors and forces them from the nest and her feeding territory.  True enemies of the Hummingbird include owls, hawks, cats, lizards, snakes, spiders, and sometimes even praying mantis.

Banding studies show that hummers tend to return every year to the same place they hatched, and will even visit the same feeders.  If you should find a nest, it is best to leave it for a returning bird to use in re-building a new nest.  They travel more than 1,000 miles from Central America and Mexico to get to Texas.  If Hummingbirds survive the critical first year, they can live 3-8 years in the wild.  Texas Parks and Wildlife sponsors a citizen’s survey called the Texas Hummingbird Round-up that encourages citizens to record sightings and participate in banding efforts.  You may join by sending a small donation and your pertinent information to:
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department-4200 Smith School Road-Austin, TX  78744

Sources:  The Best of Birds and Blooms 2009 & 2010
Hummingbirds of North America – Texas A&M University Press
Peterson’s Field Guide – Hummingbirds of North America

Comments are closed.