Posts Tagged Eastern Bluebird

Love in the Air: American Mistletoe

American Mistletoe reigns over the winter forest.

American Mistletoe reigns over the winter forest.

It’s invisible during the growing season, lost in the myriad green leaves of its host trees. But when those deciduous leaves color and fall to earth, the evergreen clusters of American Mistletoe reveal themselves to all who cast their eyes skyward. According to Weakley’s Flora of the Southern and Mid-Atlantic States, American Mistletoe’s scientific name is Phoradendron serotinum ssp. serotinum, but you’ll see it often listed by an older name, Phoradendron leucarpum. Some folks call it Oak Mistletoe, after one of its favorite host tree species.

Over 100 species of deciduous trees have been noted to be hosts for American Mistletoe, but you most often see it around here on oaks, maples, and sometimes hickories. My American Mistletoe, in the photo above taken this morning before the clouds departed, is not growing on any of those species. Instead, it is happily established on a lichen-covered Honey Locust that I planted years ago in the hopes of providing more food for wildlife through its flowers and seedpods. The tree hasn’t thrived, but it stubbornly persists, each year playing host to more life in the form of various lichens, and the parasitic American Mistletoe.

About a month ago, my Mistletoe was in full bloom, although the small yellow flowers are hard to spot.

About a month ago, my Mistletoe was in full bloom, although the small yellow flowers are hard to spot.

As I read up on this plant, characterized by botanists as a subshrub, I discovered some disparities among the experts regarding American Mistletoe’s parasitic nature. Many claim that this plant, which lives by sending root-like structures into the tissues of its host tree to extract water and nutrients, is purely parasitic, and if many plants establish themselves on one tree, eventually fatal to their host as they drain it of life. However, other experts note the plant’s evergreen leaves and stems, pointing out that, during winter, Mistletoe is actively photosynthesizing, thereby creating its own food. And it’s not impossible to believe that some of those synthesized nutrients may actually go to the host tree during the winter season.  I think perhaps this is more speculation than tested fact, but it doesn’t seem that far-fetched, and may perhaps explain why American Mistletoe can persist in a tree for decades without any obvious damage to its host.

This somewhat blurry shot is my attempt at a closer view of the inconspicuous flowers.

This somewhat blurry shot is my attempt at a closer view of the inconspicuous flowers.

Europe has its own species of Mistletoe, but our American species is fairly similar. Both produce waxy white berries. The European version is more poisonous than our species, but even American Mistletoe can be dangerously toxic. All parts, especially the berries and leaves, are poisonous. As is true for many poisonous native plants, American Mistletoe was used to treat a variety of ailments by Native Americans. However, extracts from the plant derived for experimental cancer drugs have proved too toxic to be useful, so I don’t think anyone should try using this plant for more than ornamentation.

Vivid against a winter-blue sky, American Mistletoe is Love in the Air.

Vivid against a winter-blue sky, American Mistletoe is Love in the Air.

Fruit-loving birds, such as Cedar Waxwings and Eastern Bluebirds, are responsible for spreading these plants from tree to tree. The berry pulp is extraordinarily sticky, readily adhering to beaks and feathers. As birds wipe their beaks on branches to remove the pulp, they may deposit a seed in the crack of a branch, where it can germinate and penetrate its host. Another avenue is bird droppings. Some evidence suggests that the fruits pass very quickly through avian digestive tracts, increasing the chances of seed deposit on an appropriate host tree, since the birds don’t travel far before making that deposit. Caterpillars of the Great Purple Hairstreak are only known to dine on American Mistletoe, which is just another reason to welcome its presence on your deciduous trees.

A quick survey via your favorite search engine will provide you with several proposed mythical origins for the tradition of kissing beneath Mistletoe. I suspect the tradition became associated with the Christmas season because this plant is so much more noticeable in winter’s barren landscape.

However the tradition came about, spotting a green orb of American Mistletoe high on an otherwise leafless tree in winter seems an excellent excuse to steal a kiss from someone you love.

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No rest for Mr. Bluebird

I told you here about the bird-brained male bluebird that insisted on bashing himself into my bedroom window as he battled his reflection every morning. That stopped some time ago, and I had hoped he was helping Mrs. Bluebird with the nest they’ve been building in the martin house near the greenhouse.

That Purple Martin house never succeeded in attracting those famed insect-eaters, but the bluebirds have been raising two broods per season in it ever since we pulled it up its rope to the top of the pole — about 20 feet up. It’s great for them — no snake or coon worries, great ventilation, and we clean it out every winter, so the bluebirds can make a fresh start on the nesting season.

Today as I walked around the yard snapping photos, I spotted Mr. Bluebird doing battle with himself on the garage windows, so I tried a few action photos to document this poor deluded fellow. Here he is taking a quick breather on the window sill before the next round:

Readying himself for the next round

See all the lovely bird poo deposits on the window ledge? I guess he gets very excited as he flutters against the window. This is a high window, so it’s going to take a pressure washer to clean up this mess. See the smear in the middle of the window? Those are his wing prints. If you click on the photo, you’ll be able to see the wing impressions more clearly.

You can see why he’s confused. The window is reflecting the tall doublefile viburnum and Prunus mume ‘Peggy Clarke’ that grow just behind the garage.

And here’s my attempt at catching him in action. He’s just a blue blur, but you get the idea.

Fighting his reflection

This handsome nut case battles with himself most of the day. Every so often, his mate flutters out of the martin house, where I think she’s incubating eggs, lands in the viburnum, and burbles at this loony bird. I don’t know if she’s chastising or encouraging him.

I hope he decides to stop when their chicks hatch. Mrs. Bluebird will need help feeding all those hungry mouths.


Bird Brains

Great Blue Heron

Over the nearly 22 years that Wonder Spouse and I have lived on our five acres, we’ve added a lot of mostly native shrubs, trees, and wildflowers to the property. In so doing, we created much new habitat for the winged ones. Birds of many species happily find lodgings on or near our property, and they conduct much of their business — food-gathering and courting/territorial displays especially — within ear- and eye-shot.

I confess that it is easy for me to lose an hour just sitting where I can watch and listen to the avian inhabitants who share my space. Of course, sometimes their proximity creates challenges. Take Carolina Wrens, for example.

I love these busy little brown bundles of energy, but they have a habit of seeking nesting sites in impractical places. I routinely chase them out of my greenhouse — it’s just not big enough for me, my plants, and a family of wrens.

Yesterday, I unknowingly closed one into my garage after I completed my chores. When I returned a few hours later to retrieve my car, I first had to persuade a confused Carolina Wren to exit through the door. This is not as easy as it sounds. The wren’s mate was waiting in nearby bushes, greeting its wayward spouse with quite a scolding.

Eastern Bluebirds are my current greatest challenge. I love bluebirds. Who doesn’t? Their cheerful burble — sort of a cross between a babbling brook and a quiet chuckle — signifies spring to my ears. Several pairs of these beauties nest on our property, which is probably why the gorgeous red-breasted males feel obliged to perpetually prove their worthiness to the demure females.

I have read about Cardinals fighting with their reflections in windows. Until last year, I had never seen an Eastern Bluebird obsessively battle his mirrored self. We had hoped it was a one-time fluke — one confused male who thought that throwing himself against the windows of our house and garage was the way to win his true love’s undying admiration. Either the same one has returned, or the obsession has spread.

Yesterday and again this morning, a male bluebird is repeatedly throwing himself at my bedroom windows, where the sun first illuminates the house. If his behavior pattern holds,  he will move to different windows as the day progresses, following the sun. The windows in our garage are still covered in wing prints from last year, the dusty film on the outside creating a perfect medium for his imprints. They are very high windows, which is why they’re still dirty. However, I doubt they are dirty enough to discourage the bird-brained bluebird from his obsession.

He talks the whole time he’s battling himself. The female sits in a nearby tree and burbles back at him. I’ve tried going outside and explaining to them that this behavior is a waste of their resources. But their brains are dominated by reproductive hormones. Like most human teenagers, only one thought rules their minds.

And finally, as I was sitting in my living room yesterday, I noticed a Great Blue Heron standing statue-like on my floodplain. He seemed to be gazing into the water of a small shallow pool, but he was too far from it to catch a fish. When he didn’t move for five minutes, I realized I should try to photograph him. But using the telephoto lens through window glass makes for less than ideal pictures. My apologies. I tried stepping out onto my deck for a cleaner shot, but I only got one before he flew off.

He’ll be back. We see his kind regularly, along with just about every other bird species you would expect for our region. That’s one of the many wonderful things about creating wildlife habitat — you never know who will stop by next.

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