Thursday, August 28, 2008

Goldfinches in the Garden

We have Goldfinches in our garden and my wife isn’t happy. Sure, these little guys are colorful and cute but it is their diet that is causing problems around here.

When I was growing up we used to call these birds Wild Canaries but at some point the name was either changed or we just found out that officially they are American Goldfinches. They are a migratory bird further north but here in Tennessee they stay year round. Goldfinches like humans because we clear forests into fields and gardens and that is where these birds thrive.

The male goldfinches are bright yellow with black wings and a black cap in the summer breeding season. The rest of the year they are drab olive very similar to the females.

Goldfinches are primarily seed eaters. They eat seeds from thistle, teasel, dandelion, ragweed, and sunflowers. They especially like the store-bought “thistle” seed called nyjer or niger (pronounced ni-jer). This expensive tiny black seed isn’t native thistle, but rather it is imported mostly from Ethiopia and it is sterilized before being imported so it doesn’t become an invasive plant like kudzu has become. There are even special feeders for this seed for goldfinches.

Goldfinches are one of the latest birds to nest each summer…usually waiting until July before starting a family. Their cup nest is so tightly woven and lined that it often can hold water without leaking. Goldfinches are usually monogamous, but supposedly every once in a while, a female will leave as soon as the eggs hatch and let the male feed and raise the babies. Meanwhile that female flies off to find a new boyfriend and start another family. I think there are names for females like that; I just can’t print them in a family newspaper.

There is an interesting fact about their seed diet that protects goldfinches. As you may know, cowbirds are brood parasites. That means the cowbirds don’t build a nest; they just lay one egg each in other birds’ nests and let the other birds raise the cowbird baby. The young cowbird often hatches first and, because it is bigger, it gets all the food from the foster parents to the detriment of the real babies. Well, even though cowbird eggs are found in as many as 10% of goldfinch nests, the cowbirds never make it to maturity in a goldfinch nest. The reason is because cowbirds can’t make it strictly on a diet of pre-digested seeds…they need meat, such as insects, to grow. While goldfinches do eat some insects, they don’t supply enough to meet the protein needs of the cowbirds.

The reason that goldfinches are not on my wife’s favorite birds list is because they tear apart our zinnias and coneflowers to eat the seeds. They even perch on the little rubber snake in the flower box that was put there to scare them away. We have a flower box with many stems with empty seed heads and no petals. But there are enough flowers to still look O.K. and I guess the little guys need to eat too. I’ll feed them nyjer seed again in the winter to keep them around because they are fun to watch and they rate a 9.9 for “cute” on my Olympic rating system.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Chipmunk Crazy

Several people recently have asked me to write about chipmunks. It ‘s not because they love the cute little guys running around their yards…I suspect that it is because they are looking for information on how to eliminate them. Hopefully with the information below you can decide if and what you can do about the chipmunks that are driving you crazy.

First let me make it clear that chipmunks don’t bother me much. In fact, I kind of like to see chipmunks. When we first moved in a couple of years ago my wife was concerned about rattlesnakes or copperheads hanging out in the yard. I pointed out the chipmunks running around and told her that if there were rattlesnakes that we wouldn’t see all the chipmunks because the snakes would get them. Several months later that attempt to calm her backfired when she observed that she hadn’t seen many chipmunks lately. I’ll have to think up another “don’t worry about snakes” idea.

Actually rattlesnakes and blacksnakes do love to feast on chipmunks, as do foxes, hawks, bobcats, and weasels. Dogs and cats sometimes catch them but probably rarely eat them. After the fox article in the paper a couple of weeks ago two different people emailed me to say that they had seen foxes catching chipmunks in their yard. Chipmunks are an important part of the natural food chain. Chipmunks, on the other hand, eat nuts, acorns, seeds, mushrooms, fruit, berries, insects, bird eggs, and even baby birds or baby mice…as well as your flower bulbs and seeds. More on that later.

The Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias Striatus) is the one we see around here. Although eastern chipmunks can readily climb, they spend almost all of their time on or under the ground. Before I put predator guards on my bird feeder poles the chipmunks would zip up and down the poles like they were on a string.

The genus name Tamias means “storer” and the species name Striatus means “striped”. That is the perfect name because this squirrel is a striped storer. They carry seeds and nuts in their expandable cheek pouches to underground storerooms for eating later. They even use their cheek pouches to carry away the dirt from the entrance to their burrows so predators can’t spot their homes as easily. That is why their burrows just look like a small 2 inch hole in the ground.

In cold weather, chipmunks sleep for days or weeks at a time but don’t truly hibernate. Instead, they wake up from time to time to have a little snack from their underground stores. Therefore they don’t need to fatten up for winter like bears and groundhogs do.

Almost everything I have read says that chipmunks do little damage in yards. Yes, they do eat some flower seeds and bulbs but ¼ inch hardware cloth will let the plants grow through but keep the chipmunks out. Their burrows (10-30 feet in length) are generally much too narrow to cause any structural damage to your house or walks. A chipmunk’s territory is ¼ to ½ an acre and since chipmunks lead a solitary life except during a brief 1 week breeding season how many could you possibly get in your yard anyway?

But to some people, chipmunks are a nuisance that drives them crazy and they must be eliminated. I know several people who regularly trap them in live traps. Some drive the captured chipmunks to another part of town and release them while some send them to chipmunk heaven. If you release them just be sure you don’t move your problem to someone else’s yard. Trapping is considered to be the only effective method to control chipmunks; however, it may be a never ending job because a yard without chipmunks is a vacuum waiting to be filled by another one. But then again, trapping chipmunks is a fun challenge for some folks and since most of us in Fairfield Glade are retired anyway what else do you have to do?

But if you are looking for that ultimate way to eliminate all chipmunks from your yard I don’t believe it exists. I just sit back and enjoy the little guys. Everyone is different and whether you love or hate chipmunks is probably just a difference in the eye of the beholder.

Saturday, August 09, 2008


Here are some photos of Ruby-throated hummingbirds that I took on my deck.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Hiking the Appalachian Trail

Our regular hiking group only hikes in the spring and fall...13 hikes each season. So we like to use the summer season to do some hikes in the Smoky Mountains. A lot of people don't like to drive the 100 miles to the Smokies but the mountains are so beautiful that some of us don't mind the drive.

We have some beautiful hikes around here on the Cumberland Plateau with cliffs and rock houses and waterfalls but the Smokies are unique. I don't think there is anything like them between here and the Rocky Mountains. Since it was supposed to be over 90 degrees in eastern Tennessee on Friday we decided to hike up high above 5000 feet where the weather would be 10-15 degrees cooler.

There were 9 of us. Since we have a smaller group of stronger hikers in the summer we do some hikes that the regular hiking group might not like to tackle. In the past few weeks we have done 8 miles with 1500 feet elevation gain and 11.3 miles with 2000 feet elevation gain. We dedcided to hike the Appalachian Trail (AT) from Newfound Gap to Clingman's Dome. The hike was 8 miles with 1600 feet elevation gain. Clingman's Dome is the highest point on the whole AT at 6642 above sea level.

I had injured my back the Tuesday before the hike and spent Wednesday mostly in bed and Thursday mostly sitting, since standing and walking hurt too much. On Friday, the day of the hike, I decided I would try the first mile and if my back hurt too much I would amble back to the car and read or take pictures until the group returned. Any day in the Smokies is better than a day sitting at home. My back hurt on every step but not so much that I couldn't go. Standing still caused spasms but if I didn't stop it wasn't too bad. Sitting felt great so I just hiked in the front and once I got ahead of the group a ways I would sit on a rock until they caught up. It worked out great. My back felt better at the end of the hike than it did at the beginning.

The 8 mile trail paralleled the road to Clingman's Dome and we could hear cars every now and then but could only see the road once or twice. There wasn't a level step the whole way...every step was either up or down. The ecosystem at that elevation is much different than at lower levels. It was much wetter and greener. At several places along the way we saw these nice Turk's-cap Lilies and close to Clingman's Dome there were lots of Crimson Bee-balm flowers. We stopped at the tower at Clingman's Dome and enjoyed the view even though it was a little hazy.

It was a great hike and we all really enjoyed it. Hopefully we are working up to a hike to Mount Cammerer in the Smokies. It is 11.2 miles rated difficult with almost 3000 feet elevation gain.