The wondrous birds of North Carolina
Published 11:43 am Wednesday, February 15, 2023
One of the joys of living in the foothills is watching our numerous birds. And not just watching them. Listening to them! What glorious sounds they make, especially our little wrens which sing their hearts out whenever they can. Or the red-tailed hawk screaming overhead as it hunts for food. We have just under 500 species of North Carolina birds and each one is unique.
People travel all over the world to birdwatch colorful, exotic birds. But why travel when we have so many right here? Bright red cardinals and bluebirds rival any bird in the world. Goldfinches whose males are just starting to turn bright yellow for mating season, woodpeckers with shocking red heads and majestic blue herons all live here year-round.
An unforeseen gift of the pandemic lockdown was watching four baby bluebirds fledge over a 24-hour period. Every time I looked at our bluebird house, I could see a little bird face trying to summon up all its courage to jump for its first flight. Watching three of the four actually make the jump was thrilling.
But what if there were no birds? None? What would happen?
First, there would be fewer plants, especially deciduous trees in our forests. Birds help disperse seeds, especially over long distances as they fly. We call it airborne poop planting! And by the way, as we teach kids about wildlife in our After School Program, we are learning they love to talk about poop. It’s this natural curiosity of kids we love!
While many folks think vultures are disgusting, they are the clean-up crew of our planet. Think about it. Vultures eat dead and decaying carcasses. It sounds gross, but they help keep our environment clean. Who would clean up all those dead animals if not for our vultures? And speaking of poop, they poop on their legs to keep cool in the summer. Hmm, seems to be a theme here.
Let’s not forget the bird’s pollination abilities. Hummingbirds, which should start arriving in another month or so (they have already been sighted in Gainesville), pollinate many of our native flowers, like cardinal flower, bee balm and cross-vine.
What about all the insects birds eat? According to research, over 550 million tons of insects are eaten by birds each year, although who counts all those insects? Bottom line, birds eat lots of insects, like grasshoppers, caterpillars, and even the dreaded mosquito. This means birds are free pest controllers keeping all these bugs off your garden plants. Not to mention all the rodents owls eat.
In the small world of how we are all connected, birds catch caterpillars to feed their babies. Caterpillars generally only eat native plants. So without native plants, there would be no caterpillars and as a result, no baby birds– which would be very sad indeed! And guess what? Birds disperse the seeds of our native flowers and trees so more can grow. Everything is connected!
One question often asked: should we feed our birds in the summer? While it is an individual decision, we feed all winter when there are scarce food supplies and stop feeding as soon as the weather warms up and insects start flying. Why?
As temperatures climb, so do levels of bacteria. With birds congregating around feeders, they more easily pick up diseases. Also, backyard feeders attract bears. While we love bears, we don’t want them in our backyard.
So how can you help the birds who live around us? Provide plenty of clean water in fountains or bird baths, especially when it is dry. If you have property, leave brush piles and dead trees around to provide habitat. Plant native plants and trees, especially oak trees which support over 500 species of caterpillar. Since it takes between 6,000-9,000 caterpillars to feed one clutch of chickadees, we need lots of oak trees.
How would the world look without birds? Dismal. Let’s celebrate all the birds we have and help them thrive each and every day, and find joy in simply watching and listening to Mother Nature in all her glory.
Loti Woods is a founder of Weiler Woods for Wildlife, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to inspire the next generation to be champions for wildlife’s underdogs, through art and education. To learn more, visit weilerwoodsforwildlife.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.