Feeding birds is a fun winter pastime


Birds will visit a feeder any time of the year, but winter is when we notice them most. Maybe it’s because they have less available food. Maybe it’s because there’s less leaf canopy to conceal them. Maybe it’s because we have fewer diversions ourselves, so we watch the birds.

My grandfather probably fed at least 300 pounds of bird seed and another 40 pounds of suet each winter. I realize Maine winters are harsher than North Carolina winters, but that’s still a lot of bird feed.

His favorite birds were black capped chickadees and he had them eating out of his hand. He also loved nuthatches, goldfinches, downy woodpeckers and mourning doves. He wasn’t crazy over evening grosbeaks or blue jays but he had plenty of them too.

Most bird lovers have their favorites. Our state bird, the cardinal, is very conspicuous because of its bright red color. Other birds like finches and bluebirds are popular too. Some folks like nuthatches and Carolina wrens. Very few people wish to attract starlings, grackles and pigeons.

The problem most bird enthusiasts face is luring desired birds and discouraging ones that bully others or are just plain messy. This can be a complicated problem. It’s difficult to attract birds not living near your feeder already. Feeders also need to be filled with the right kind of feed.

Generally speaking, inexpensive feeds containing corn, millet, sorghum, wheat and sunflower seeds will attract birds most people don’t want. Also, feeding seeds that generate trash like whole sunflower seeds can draw rats and mice. Hulled sunflower seeds won’t do this but they are more expensive. Regular cleaning under feeders usually eliminates the problem too.

Many desired birds enjoy sunflower seeds and these seeds are very available. Cardinals, nuthatches, finches, woodpeckers, Carolina chickadees, titmice and blue jays hit them hard.

Blue jays often hit other songbirds hard too, so many bird enthusiasts discourage them. Jays don’t like black oil sunflower seeds as much as they do the large striped ones, so these smaller ones might be a better choice.

Safflower seeds are often a good feed selection. They attract popular birds like cardinals, white-throated sparrows, finches and doves. Squirrels and starlings don’t really like them.

Nyjer, commonly called thistle seed is a popular choice for finches and other small birds. These seeds are not related to thistles but they look a little like thistle seeds. They are dark colored, slender and about a quarter inch long. Cardinals and larger songbirds usually leave them alone.

Suet feeders are popular for attracting wrens, nuthatches and woodpeckers. Cardinals, finches, titmice, chickadees and doves like suet too.

My biggest problem with feeding suet is that many undesired guests appear. It’s a magnet for starlings, grackles and red-winged blackbirds. Even worse, rodents, possums, skunks and raccoons love that greasy stuff which often becomes rancid.

Numerous options abound for feeding birds. Watching birds at a feeder is almost like having pets without all that responsibility. Sure, they don’t respond to you like a dog or cat, but you can gradually gain their trust.

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

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Cast iron plant is tough inside and out


I run into so many people who love houseplants but just don’t have enough light for them. It’s also difficult to find plants that will truly thrive in the shade outdoors. Cast iron plant is one that can do both year-round.

Hardy to zone 7, cast iron plant is tough and versatile. It survives a wide temperature range. Its only weakness is too much sun, which will result in leaf scorch. This is rarely a problem indoors, but outside plants must grow in full shade.

Cast iron plants belong to the genus Aspidistra. There are about 100 different species in the genus but the most common is Aspidistra elatior. Most commonly encountered cast iron plants are of this species.

This species is a slow grower, but it lives a long time. For that reason cast iron plant is not common in nurseries, since

rapid reproduction usually means more profit. This is one of those plants often passed down from generation to generation.

While these plants grow slowly they are very easy to propagate. Plants produce many rhizomes and making divisions from them is easy.

Also, since cast iron plant is a slow grower it requires little water or fertilizer. Too much of either will not make it grow faster. In fact, too much fertilizer will make variegated types turn totally green.

This is a perfect plant for a college dorm room. They flourish from neglect and won’t suffer from being left on a cold dry window sill in between semesters. They tolerate it much better than that goldfish does.

Also, unlike many houseplants this one isn’t toxic to humans or animals, so it’s safe in any interior situation. Though not poisonous, it’s not edible either. Several sources state it has medicinal properties, but it isn’t a widely used medicinal plant.

Plants aren’t flashy. Leaves are dark green and have a rough textured appearance. Some types are variegated. Leaves look a little like peace lily foliage. However, plants rarely flower and when they do the flowers are often unnoticed.

If you’re lucky enough to see them, the flowers are really cool looking. They are usually purple or red and have very short stalks. Most flowers are eight pointed. Being borne close to the ground, flowers are pollinated by slugs and crawling insects.

Cast iron plants have few problems with insects or diseases. Spider mites and mealybugs are common pests but they usually don’t harm these tough guys as much as they do most plants.

If cast iron plants become infested you can take them outside and spray them with a water hose. This is a good way to whisk the dust off too. These plants can take the beating.

When planted outdoors cast iron plants are perfect under the dense shade of oak trees. Plants tolerate the light early in the season before the tree canopy develops. After that they require very little care and don’t need to be divided very often.

Plants thrive in well-drained soil but will tolerate soggy clay soil too. Extended periods of flooding can cause their downfall though.

Cast iron plants in above ground pots after several nights in the single digits

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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The white-throated sparrow has always been special to me


I could listen to the call of the white throated sparrow all day. A while ago one of these tiny songbirds was serenading me and it brought back childhood memories. Most were summer memories as these little guys migrate.

White-throated sparrows generally migrate at night. Usually they forage during the day and travel when the stars are out. Generally, the southward journey takes longer than the northward one.

Here in eastern North Carolina we only can enjoy them in winter. They usually arrive in eastern North Carolina around the first of October and hang around until about the first of May. Take a walk near the edge of woods on a sunny winter day and they will treat you to a song.

Back in eastern Maine they were more common in summer, but some stuck around all year. They sang their familiar “John P. Peabody Peabody Peabody.” Some folks said it sounded like “Pure Sweet Canada Canada Canada.” Either way they’re not bashful at singing their song and I often whistled back at them.

Sparrows generally stay close to the ground and this species is no exception. They nest in thick cover, usually at the edges of forest post-harvest regrowth.

Their diet varies from season to season. In summer they are largely insectivores, while they rely on seeds to carry them through the winter months. They also eat berries, often in that period between summer and winter.

Color can vary quite a lot, but generally these birds are striped with a combination of black, white, tan, brown and gray. Usually individual birds are white or tan striped but not both They also have a distinctive yellow color between the eye and beak. Additionally, as the name indicates they have a bright white throat.

Around here we can lure them to our feeders by providing millet and black oil sunflower seeds. They aren’t shy and will sometimes eat out of your hand. They also back away from aggressive birds like blue jays, evening grosbeaks, cardinals and nuthatches. More birds will find your feeder if they don’t have to travel a great distance from their cover.

White-throated Sparrows are considered to be monogamous. They usually rear one brood per year, but occasionally produce two. Generally females construct the nest on the edge of a thicket. White-throated sparrows conceal their nests well.

Females lay 4-5 greenish-white eggs, usually spotted with brown. Generally only females incubate the eggs, which hatch in a little less than two weeks. Hatchlings are totally helpless for their first several days. Both males and females care for the young chicks. In a few days they begin to venture out and fly. It’s a shame we can’t see that. They don’t breed here.

Nearly every outdoors person has a favorite songbird. Most like bright colored species like cardinals, warblers, fiches or blue jays. I prefer the sweet sounds of the somewhat camouflaged white-throated sparrow. When I hear that sound I almost feel like I’m standing in a brook throwing a fly.

This little sparrow sneaked inside during a harsh winter storm. It’s nasty outside.

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

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Loons are southern winter visitors few people notice


I like to spend a few weeks in the summer on Big Lake in down east Maine. At night intermingled with the ring of hungry mosquitoes, loons call to each other. I love that eerie sound.

Loons are migratory waterfowl that look somewhat like large ducks. They have pointed bills, bright red eyes and black and white plumage in exquisite speckled patterns. They’re beautiful birds and can be seen in modest numbers near the North Carolina coast in the winter. Winter feathers are not as bright and contrasting. They have more of a gray cast. Eyes turn gray in winter too.

The eerie call is only heard in their summer range. I’ve seen them but never heard them call around here. Young loons usually stay in their southern range for at least another year.

Often they may stay for two or three years, so we do have a few loons around here in summer. They don’t develop that characteristic contrasting plumage until they are mature which may take as much as six years.

Loons are truly unique. Most birds have hollow bones that make it easier for them to fly. Loons have solid bones like we do. This makes them excellent divers. They have been known to reach depths exceeding 200 feet. They also can hold their breath for several minutes.

Because of their solid bones they sometimes take a long time achieving flight. I’ve seen them run on top of the water for 200 yards or more before becoming airborne. Once in the air they are fast flyers. Loons have been clocked at over 80 mph.

Being heavy birds, they are unable to soar or glide. Consequently they must look for bodies of water and they can’t afford to land some place where there is not good water for takeoff. Wind can be critical too.

Feather preening is very important for loons. If only a few feathers are damaged, birds may have trouble staying aloft. Loons usually completely molt in winter, hence the different color. When they reach their summer home they will change colors again and become that characteristic black and white.

They are also spectacular fishermen. I always look for them when I’m bass fishing up in Maine. Where there are loons there will be fish.

Unfortunately, sometimes they will attack lures. I caught a loon several years ago and had quite a time freeing it while still managing to keep all but the hook of my lure. The poor guy beat the daylights out of me with his wings, but I managed to cut the hook as well as tangled line and free him. I thought for a minute that sharp pointed beak might get me, but he bolted as soon as the hook snapped.

Loons usually hatch two chicks and carry their young on their backs. Both parents play active roles raising the chicks. It’s fun to watch them teach their babies how to fish. Both parents make quite a team.

Eagle pairs make great hunting teams too. Two years ago I watched a pair of loons try to defend their family against a pair of bald eagles. Though the adults weren’t hurt, both loon babies were taken. It was sad to watch, but that’s how nature is sometimes.

Loon in Clark Cove stretching his wings

Same loon looking for fish

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

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Turkey vultures are an important part of our ecosystem


Most people consider them nasty birds. Some call them disgusting buzzards. I love them and think they are one of the most remarkable birds in our world.

They’re large docile birds that clean up roadkill and other carrion littering our roadsides, forests and fields. They slow the spread of disease and generally make the environment smell better.

Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) have the potential to be fierce predators like other raptors, but they aren’t. They use their formidable claws to tear apart dead animals instead.

Most birds have keen eyesight and these large black raptors are no exception. One thing they possess that most other birds don’t is a fabulous sense of smell. They can detect the odor of rotting flesh in minute concentrations, and they can do it while soaring at high altitudes.

I love to watch them glide. They can fly while barely flapping their wings at all. They merely adjust the angle to make the most of the available convection currents.

Sure, they aren’t much to look at, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. They have a bald red head. This is actually helpful. Were their head covered with feathers it would collect far more disgusting rotting flesh when these birds dig food from body cavities.

They also have another unique adaptation. To keep cool they do something called urohydrosis. This means they pee on their legs. Since birds don’t sweat, evaporating liquid cools them off. Their urine also is antimicrobial, so it can kill bacteria they might have picked up during feeding.

People call them buzzards, but from a taxonomical point of view they really aren’t. Most birds we commonly called hawks are actually buzzards. The red tailed hawk is really a type of buzzard. I still call them hawks.

Turkey vultures sometimes suffer from pesticide damage. Poisoned animals occasionally become their food and this can be problematic. People sympathized with DDT’s effect on the bald eagle, but the turkey vulture faced the same problem. In general, they encounter fewer problems now than in previous years.

Both parents help with raising young. Males and females work together to build nests, incubate eggs and feed chicks. Nests are crude but both parents contribute.

Usually females only lay two eggs and these take at least 34 days to hatch. Therefore, reproduction is not prolific. Generally the young begin to fly at about two months of age.

Turkey vultures don’t have a distinctive call like most birds. They don’t possess a voice box suitable for making loud noises, so their sounds are limited to hisses and grunts.

Another related species is often seen among turkey vultures. It is the black vulture (Coragyps atratus) and these guys aren’t quite so docile. I’ve been around them and have never been threatened, but I have heard numerous reports of their attacking livestock. Some folks say they even attack people. I’ve never witnessed it.

Years ago, when I lived in West Virginia I did witness an unusual and unfortunate event involving a turkey vulture. It was during fall turkey season, when beards were not required for a legal kill. Back then turkeys had to be taken to a checking station.

To make a long story short, this inept hunter brought in a dead turkey vulture. My father-in-law, who truly had the gift of gab talked to the guy until the warden showed up. I just stood there and smiled. I have no regrets.

Tree full of vultures, mostly immature ones.

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

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Spanish moss is a natural fixture in southeastern landscapes


Now that leaves have fallen, Spanish moss has become more noticeable. Long strands of gray hang from trees like tinsel near our abundant swamplands.

Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) isn’t a moss at all. It’s not even from Spain. It’s a member of the pineapple family, just like the colorful bromeliads and other air plants from the tropical rainforests. While this epiphyte may be kin to pineapple it has no nutritive value, so you won’t see it on the menu in any restaurant.

Many people think that Spanish moss harms trees like mistletoe does. This isn’t true. Spanish moss only uses trees for support and doesn’t invade their insides. It gets its nutrients and moisture solely from the atmosphere.

One reason I think people feel that way is that heavy infestations are usually on older trees which are nearing the end of their lives anyway. I’ve heard people make the same accusations about lichens. Fungi are another matter, and they definitely hasten the demise of trees.

Does the Spanish moss detract from the beauty of our landscape? That’s a personal decision. If it’s growing on trees naturalized on the periphery of the property I would leave it. If it’s growing in my fruit trees or on formal landscaping I’d remove it.

Removing one plant growing on another can be tricky. Most herbicides would be harmful to the plant you’re trying to save. Around here normally we are talking about oak trees. My recommendations are to wait until the desired tree is dormant. Now is fine.

First, strip the bulk of Spanish moss trees by hand. Next, treat the remaining moss with a solution of baking soda or Bordeaux mixture. Bordeaux mixture is an old fungicide used on grapes that is made from hydrated lime and copper sulfate. Many garden centers still carry it. These are relatively safe treatments for your trees.

If Spanish moss is not objectionable, it can still be harvested and used to cover the soil in your houseplants. I suggest treating it first to eliminate insects and other critters that might be living in it. Placing your harvest in a sealed plastic bag in the sun for a day or two usually does the trick, especially on hot days.

I remember collecting a bunch of it for decoration purposes years ago on Mill Creek in Perquimans County. I was busily yanking it out of the trees into my boat when a six or seven foot snake wound up on me. I almost leaped from the boat until I realized the serpent was just a black rat snake.

Spanish moss has a history of other uses too. Furniture builders used it for insulation and padding in chairs and mattresses. Birds and other wildlife use it to make nests.

It has even been used medicinally to lower blood sugar. The compound in question is called HMC. Japanese researchers have isolated compounds they say slows skin aging. Herbal medicinal use hasn’t been approved by the FDA yet. Research it more and talk to your medical professional before consuming any.

Crape Myrtle loaded with Spanish moss

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

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Modern farmers must possess many skills


Occasionally I hear someone refer to an individual as a dumb farmer. It really irks me. Farmers of today must be on the cutting edge of technology, proficient in math and experienced in marketing.

In our area we have farmers with degrees from Duke and NC State. Most folks could never gain entrance to those institutions. These people could have pursued other professional careers but farming was their passion.

Farming large acreages means managing huge sums of money. Calculating fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals must be efficient. Farmers must know their algebra to apply proper rates. For that matter they must be proficient in geometry to know how big the field is in the first place. Probably most important is that farmers use math to manage their time.

That’s just the beginning. Modern machinery is so technologically advanced that it’s mindboggling. The cab looks like something out of the space program. The average person couldn’t even start a modern combine let alone run it without significant training.

Reading the land is a skill not often appreciated. How wet is too wet? Farmers might not be able to explain it to you but they know.

They also know how to interpret pest damage data and make cost analyses. Sometimes insect or disease damage will cost them less than treatment will. Again, math skills weigh heavy here. They won’t spray if pests will depress yields by about fifty dollars per acre and treatment will cost more than that. However, they know what the breaking point is.

Farmers understand the concept of growing degree days. They keep track of the weather and know when crops should be ready for harvest based upon how much favorable weather we’ve had. That’s why sometimes you see a field of corn harvested in August and in other years in late September.

Precision agriculture is a term foreign to farmers years ago. Now many of them can break down a large field into different management zones to derive the most production possible.

Livestock farmers have special skills too. Knowledge of animal nutrition is critical to healthy herds and flocks. It’s not a one size fits all approach either. Various stages of growth have different nutritional requirements.

Estrus synchronization is also something livestock farmers might discuss. They want all their calves, lambs or kids born at the same time, so they can manage them better. This is especially true in the dairy industry or any time artificial insemination is employed.

Using their brains to solve problems and make money benefits farmers. It also benefits everyone. Every time we take land out of production to build a housing development, shopping center or solar farm we cut down on our ability to feed the world’s people.

Farming is the backbone of our local economy. Our farmers deserve our respect and I think often times they don’t get it. They keep clothes on our backs and food in our bellies.

I’ve seen farmers design modifications to equipment that make it work better and last longer. On the other end of the scale I’ve seen them use wire and duct tape to keep something together and get through the day and back to the shop in one piece. Both cases represent innovation at its finest.

In short, farmers aren’t dumb. To paraphrase a monologue by Paul Harvey, “the world had a need, so God made a farmer.”

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

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