When do Birds Fly South?

Swapping Birds

All summer we’ve watched and listened to wren couples who built nests and raised young in our yard.  An Indigo Bunting welcomed each summer morning with his song and serenaded the evening until dark.  Early this spring, we marveled at the brilliantly colored orioles and grosbeaks who visited. During warm months, hummingbirds flitted up and down and all around outside our windows.

When a long-absent bird suddenly makes its springtime appearance in full breeding color, it’s exciting and easy to spot. We greet spring’s migrants after their long journey north with a hearty, “Welcome Home!” and some seed.

With fall now in the air, our vivacious summer bird friends are drifting away, pushed southward by vigorous north winds. Departure is different from arrival. When they appear in spring, birds are in their glorious mating colors and sing with gusto. They’ve been absent for months until one morning we look out the window – and there they are!  It’s magical.

Indigo Buntings and Wrens Leave…

Arrivals are easy to mark. No so departures. By fall many birds have molted into their more subtle nonbreeding colors and just seem to evaporate. No singing marks their departure and figuring out just when they leave is challenging. More often we just say, “Gee, I haven’t heard the indigo buntings for a few days. I bet they’ve gone.”

…and Juncos Arrive

We wish we could help migrants on their departure evening by saying, “Have a safe trip and pleasant winter. See you next spring!” Since we don’t know exactly when they’ll be winging south, they depart without our good wishes. The parting is sad, but we know we’ll soon look out the window and almost miraculously spot the fall’s first juncos nosing around on the ground looking for a few seeds to enjoy for breakfast.

Orioles and grosbeaks drift south starting in late summer and our bunting was gone by August 20. Hummingbirds and wrens disappear by late September. Juncos usually appear from northern breeding grounds in October and stick around until April. Then they seem to vanish overnight. But, that’s just before spring’s colorful songsters arrive

Are You in a Knot Over Japanese Knotweed?

Sometimes the best of intentions turn into a nightmare. A plant down the road from Winding Pathways is proof.

Flowers of knotweed

Beware the beauty of Japanese Knotweed.

In the 1840s Philipp Franz von Siebold was in Nagasaki, Japan, and believed a common native plant was so useful and interesting that it should be shared with the world. He shipped cuttings to the Netherlands. The plant thrived and soon gardeners were planting it because of its attractive reddish young leaves, hollow stems somewhat like bamboo, and its showy white flowers that bloom in September. Young shoots are even edible somewhat like asparagus in early spring.

Von Siebold thought he was doing a good thing by bringing this plant to Europe, but soon gardeners realized it was a rapidly spreading monster that crowded out more valuable vegetation. The World Conservation Union calls it one of the worst of the invasives.

It arrived in the United States in the late 1800s as a desirable garden plant, and soon it was found wild in at least 39 states. It’s an invasive problem in England, New Zealand, the United States, and many other countries.

Knotweed along roadside

Knotweed forms dense patches and spreads with rhizomes.

Japanese knotweed forms colonies so dense they crowd out all other plants. Rhizomes spread horizontally under the soil surface and soon new plants pop up from them.  Early spring shoots have a reddish cast. Leaves are triangular, and the plants quickly grow to four or five feet tall. They are amazingly abundant along streams and lakes. In Iowa, we often see them along roads. They are especially easy to spot when their showy white blooms form in late August and continue into September.

Knotweed is an edible plant in early spring, but anyone with a garden or natural area should be cautious about bringing it home. Drop a node on the ground and it will soon sprout and grow and grow and spread and spread.

Once established Knotweed is hard to control, although continuous mowing should knock it back. It’s something to keep out of the yard, and so far, we’ve been successful at Winding Pathways.

Where Do Bats and Bugs Go to Rest?

On a  sunny, warm, late summer day we watched countless bees and butterflies foraging on prairie plants, hummingbirds sipping nectar from Cardinal flowers, and small birds pausing to drink water on the cup plants. That evening, bats swooped across the sky as clouds gathered. Then, came the downpour.

So, we wondered, where do birds and bees and bats go during storms or just to rest? A bit of Internet searching yielded some fascinating information.

Bees

seeking shelter from the rain

Bees are active in the day and need sleep just like humans do.  How they sleep is quite different.  Bees and many insects do not have eyelids. They relax the body and antennae and sometimes fall over.  Sometimes, the other bees in a honeybee colony prop up the “sleeping” bee. As we see in this video, and similar to human babies, they sleep in shorter bursts. This sleep helps their memory.  Remember, bees, especially honeybees explore new foraging spots, return to the hive, communicate through a “dance” telling other bees where the source of nectar is.  As with people, good sleep helps them perform better.  Look for bees on the underside of leaves and grass blades after a rain or in the early morning.

Butterflies

Butterflies also seek shelter on the underside of leaves or grass blades. This vegetation protects them from furious winds and debilitating raindrops.  Think about it! How delicate a butterfly’s wings are and how a large raindrop can punish it. A Scientific American article gave a great comparison to us humans – being whacked by a water balloon twice the mass of a bowling ball!

Birds and Bats

One hummingbird fell into a torpor on the feeder!

To rest, Hummingbirds go into torpor – a sleep-like state where the body temperature drops to conserve energy. They sometimes hang upside down as we see in this video. When the temperatures rise, they  “wake up”.  They can fly in moderate rains.

Some larger birds, like turkeys, actually come out in rainstorms and forage on insects that are slowed down by the cooler temperatures.  At night, turkeys roost in trees.  Watching them navigate through dense forests into the tops of sturdy trees is amazing.

Nighthawks, along with their nocturnal companions bats, find daytime shelter on tree branches. Bats tuck under tree bark flaps, in crevices and caves, and enter tiny cracks in homes making attics a cozy den.

Next time you are out and about, look carefully on undersides of leaves and grass blades, study branches of trees for unusual shapes that might be a roosting bird, and notice animals out and about at different times of the day and in different weather.

 

How Does a Broody Hen Teach Her Babies?

We were delighted when our Lavender Orpington hen started acting strangely. She fluffed up her feathers, spent most of her time in a nest box, and gave us a stern warning call if we came too close. She was broody.

A broody hen simply wants to be a mother. Her ambition is to keep a clutch of eggs warm for 21 days and then raise a bunch of bouncy babies to chicken adolescence.  We don’t have a  rooster so all of our hen’s eggs are infertile and won’t hatch.  Broody doesn’t know this, but we found a way to have her happily raise a brood of chicks.

After about two weeks of incubation, we bought a dozen chicks from a local farm store and slipped them under her after dark.  Motherhood commenced.

Watching a mother hen is interesting but listening is truly fascinating. While on eggs she sat almost trancelike, but the peeping awakened her.  She began clucking in a tone that must have both comforted the downy chicks and instructed them to get into the warmth and security of her feathers.

The next morning she used a different clucking tone to introduce the babes to the big world. They followed her out of the nest and scampered around the coop. We don’t speak “chicken” but she clucked again and it must have meant, “come over here and eat.”  She put her beak in a feeder filled with chick starter. The bravest babies picked a few crumbs of feed off her beak and soon all were eating and dipping their beaks into a nearby waterer for a cool drink.

Mother hens are attentive and have a vocabulary of many “words” or at least different sounding clucks. When the babes got too far from her she’d cluck in a certain way bringing them scampering back to safety near or under Mom. If she scratched up a delicious tidbit she’d utter a different sounding cluck and the babies would rush over and enjoy a food new to them. She taught them safety and the fine art of foraging.

 

See these YouTube videos and photos of our most recent broody and foraging for treats.

Tucking in for the Night

Under Mama’s Watchful Eye

Babies Eating Corn

At the Gate Waiting for Treats

Treat Bucket 

Feasting on Corn

 

How to Encourage a Broody Hen

We like our small flock of hens and the delicious eggs they give us each day. Although a hen can live for ten or a dozen years her laying slows after two or three years. After that, it declines steeply. Eventually, she might only lay an egg or two a year!

To keep a steady supply of eggs for the kitchen we need to occasionally replace old hens with younger ones, and we’ve learned a trick that works well. We enlist the help of a broody hen.

When a hen develops a mothering instinct she’ll stop laying, puff up her feathers, and change her vocabulary.  She’s broody. Then she’ll sit and sit on eggs, hoping they’ll magically transform into baby chicks. We don’t have a rooster so the eggs are infertile. She can sit for eternity and they’ll never hatch. So we use a trick to help her have a happy motherhood and produce new replacement egg layers. Here’s what we do:

When a hen begins sitting we put a half dozen golf balls in an extra nest that we keep in storage. We put the broody hen and her nest isolated from the other hens in a separate coop. Usually, she quickly settles down and keeps those golf balls comfortably warm.

After she’s been sitting for a couple of weeks we buy chicks from a nearby farm store or hatchery. When darkness descends we enter the coop with the chicks and gently place them under the broody. She immediately senses that her golf balls have hatched and adopts the babies. Her clucking vocabulary changes and she’ll keep her babies warm. The following morning she’ll lead her chicks out of the nest and begin teaching them how to find food and stay safe.

It always amazes us how quickly the broody changes from the trancelike incubation phase to active motherhood. We keep the chicks and their mom separate from the other adult chickens for six or seven weeks until they’ve grown quite a bit and then intermingle them.

There are several ways to dispose of elderly hens. One is to transition them into stewing chickens, but most people don’t want to kill their hard-working hens. A less lethal way is to advertise them for sale at a bargain price on a social media list. Usually, they’ll be sold within a few days.  Four to five months after hatching, our new pullets will lay their first egg.