Phil Hardy — A bird’s eye view: questions from readers answered

Published 11:00 pm Monday, September 26, 2016

Now that the number of readers of my column has exceeded eight people I thought I would address some questions from half of them.  And since I received some grief earlier for using one specific person’s name in my column, from now on I’ll use initials or even fictitious names, like Dear Abby does, to protect the innocent (and myself) henceforth.
Greg M. of Deerfield Plantation in Americus called my hotline to say, “This summer I was watching my bluebirds going to and fro from their nest box feeding a brood of baby birds. Upon departing the nest box both adult birds were carrying something white in their beaks. What was this white stuff?”
Dear Greg M:  First of all let me say congratulations on your careful observation and for even noticing in the first place. What goes in must come out. The adult bluebirds were practicing nest sanitation. When the baby birds excrete feces it is, fortunately, surrounded by a gelatinous membrane. The parent birds carry the fecal sac, in their beaks, (because they don’t have hands) well away from the nest box for disposal. This hygienic practice by woodpeckers and passerines (perching birds) keeps disease, insects and parasites out of the nest cavity for a more healthy brood of young birds.
Ricky D. from Alice Avenue, Americus called the bird hotline with the following question: “While pruning and clearing some over grown shrubbery at my church parking lot I found a bird’s nest. Should I quit work and go water skiing or what?”
Dear Ricky: It’s September and most birds around South Georgia have finished their nesting for the season. And since you didn’t find any eggs in the nest, it is OK to remove the nest. Now you can go skiing.
Rucker S. of Americus asked me at the Men’s Garden Club meeting, “What makes a tanager a tanager?”
Dear Your Honor: That is an excellent question. For that matter, what makes a woodpecker a woodpecker or a squirrel a squirrel? Scientists who practice taxonomy (naming and classifying plants, trees, animals) are known as taxonomists. They follow standardized rules that were developed way before Sumter County had a Superior Court system. You may remember your 10th grade biology class and the name of Carolus Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist. In 1758,  Linnaeus developed a systematic and orderly manner to give two Latinized names to animals, among other things. The genus is a group of similar species and the species denotes the species. Confusing as a messy custody battle where the husband and wife are brother and sister? Let me explain further.
All birds worldwide belong to the class aves. But there are lots of different birds worldwide. So let’s organize similar birds into the next category which is order. If we consider all the woodpeckers of the world they would fall under the order of piciformes. We all know that woodpeckers share certain characteristics such as a chisel-like beak so they can excavate holes in living and dead trees for nests; they cling to trees; they have stiff tails with which to prop on;  they have an undulating flight pattern, etc. And we can continue organizing similar woodpeckers by grouping them into family, genus and species.
The same goes for tanagers or any other kind of bird. Tanagers are of similar size, share similar diets of fruits and insects, have similar sized beaks and have certain skeletal similarities and a certain number of primary feathers. That’s what makes a tanager a tanager. Now, if there are no further questions Your Honor, may I be excused?
Mildred at Central Baptist Church, Americus asked me to write about the benefits of Purple Martins eating mosquitoes in an effort to help curb the Zika virus from spreading. So here goes,  Mildred.
Purple Martins are in the family hirundinidae which includes all the different swallows. They are insectivores and are very helpful to mankind by eating many various flying, stinging, biting insects. Even Native Americans knew of the benefits of Purple Martins and hung gourds to attract them around their homes, gardens and villages. If you have ever been bitten by a Yellow Fly you will understand.
I myself have been a Purple Martin landlord for many years caring for these most beneficial birds sometimes to the extreme.  I’ve even kept written records of eggs laid, young raised, etc.  So I have done a bit of research on these very gregarious and hard to attract birds.
Many, if not most, people that see my martin colony have something to say like, “Boy, I’ll bet you don’t have any mosquitoes around your house with all those martins.” But the fact is Purple Martins are diurnal. They have to be able to see, and thus feed on, the insects they catch right out of mid-air while on the wing. Mosquitoes, on the other hand are mostly nocturnal preferring the cover of darkness, like Dracula. So you can see there is a very small window of time at dawn and dusk where these two species overlap. I have read that studies of stomach contents of Purple Martins held like less 1% percent of mosquitoes. Perhaps we should be looking to the bats of the night for help with mosquito control.

Phil Hardy, an avid bird watcher and bird photographer, lives in Americus.