Birds busy with other things to do

Birds busy with other things to do
John C. Lorson

Readers asked that I remind them now is the time of year when wild hops can be seen growing throughout the region. Many pockets of the plant spring up along the northern reaches of the Holmes County Trail. Look for a low growing, viny-looking plant with thumb-sized, lantern-shaped fruits.

                        

One of my dedicated readers emailed me the other day to ask why it appears all the birds seem to have left the area around her home. The hummingbird feeders that had been “humming” with activity for most of the summer are largely deserted. Even the woodpeckers that seem to find special joy in making sure she is awake each morning by rapping on every hollow branch in the neighborhood seem to have flown the coop.

An avid observer of wildlife, Ricky writes often with such questions, and our correspondence has led to a delightful and interesting relationship. The self-described “crazy old lady out in the woods” keeps me on my toes, and I fully appreciate the challenge.

As usual, her question came with a hypothesis that was pretty much right on target.

“Is it because there is so much natural food available at this time of year that they don’t need to hang around places like mine for the easy pickings?” she asked.

That’s definitely a large part of the answer. Yes, this time of year is a veritable cornucopia of insects, seeds and caterpillars. Nearly anything a songbird would love to eat is readily available in the greater world beyond our lawns and gardens at this time of year. That’s fortunate timing for our yard birds, considering earlier this summer many of us dutifully decommissioned our feeders in an effort to thwart the mysterious bird disease that has been making its way through the region this season.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has done a great job of raising the alarm on the as yet unidentified disease that seems to affect American robins, blue jays, European starlings, house sparrows and common grackles most frequently. Compromised eyesight and disorientation are the leading observable symptoms in live birds, and crusted, bulging or sunken eyes are often found in deceased birds.

ODNR asks that you report affected birds, whether dead or alive, through the division’s website. Google "ODNR diseased bird reporting" for the quickest path to the site. ODNR continues to update its website weekly on the matter and has promised to give everyone an “all clear” when we can resume filling our feeders — after a thorough cleansing with a 10% bleach solution, that is. I’ll do my best to relay any new information through this column as well.

Back to Ricky’s question. Another reason it seems her birds have all but abandoned her place at this time of year is they’ve simply got other things to do. Migratory birds are through with nesting now, and broods are fledged and on their own. There’s nothing to hold an individual bird to its place. Many species that have spent the summer scattered from their brethren all across the countryside to avoid competition as they’ve raised their families are now once again flocking together in anticipation of the big move south.

Beginning in early August and seemingly growing ever larger as the season progresses, great groupings of black birds known as murmurations can be seen crossing the sky oftentimes from one horizon to the other. As a kid we used to call these miles-long mixed flocks of starlings, grackles, red-winged blackbirds and brown-headed cowbirds “bird weddings.”

I was never entirely sure whether the bride and groom were leading the procession or following. I’m also not so sure the term wasn’t just a weird colloquialism created by my older sisters and used only in my own little neighborhood.

In later years I’ve come to realize those murmurations are a daily workout in preparation for migration. The birds leave a common roosting area in the morning to disperse to sometimes quite distant feeding areas to forage during the day. In the afternoon and evening, they return to the roost once again. Doing so builds fitness and primes the pump of metabolism for the long journey to fair skies, reasonable temperatures and readily available food sources when temperatures begin to dive here in the north.

In a final and totally unrelated note for this week, after I wrote about wild hops last year, a number of readers asked me to point out when and where they might see the plant for themselves. The time is now, and the place is along the Holmes County Rail Trail in the stretch between Fredericksburg and Holmesville. Look in the tangled growth on the west side of the trail for a low-growing, viny-looking plant with thumb-sized, lantern-shaped fruits. Once found, you can join me in marveling how someone long ago figured out these would make their beer taste better.

Remember, if you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email jlorson@alonovus.com. You also can follow along on Instagram @railtrailnaturalist.


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