By Terry W. Johnson
I learned a long time ago that when it comes to wildlife, never say never. Over the years I have answered a lot of calls from folks reporting unusual things going on in their backyards. Now, I'm not talking about the behavior of their neighbors or little green men. What I am referring to are the sightings of rare animals or wildlife engaging in seemingly bizarre behavior.
For example, several years ago I received a call from a lady in Henry County. She wanted to know if it was unusual for a male bluebird to feed young Carolina chickadees. I told her that it most certainly was. I was so intrigued by her story the next day I made the trek to Henry County to see this strange behavior for myself.
When I arrived, the lady of the house led me into her backyard and pointed to the place where the chickadees were nesting -- a red ceramic nesting structure suspended from a pole. The young chickadees parents made trip after trip to and from the box in what appeared to be a vain effort to satisfy the hunger of the tiny birds.
Every 10 minutes or so, a male bluebird carrying food arrived at the opening to the nest site. In one instance, he brought a large walking stick. Needless to say, he had a lot of trouble maneuvering the long insect into the entrance hole. After several attempts he succeeded only to find the young chickadees apparently unable or unwilling to down the long walking stick. To swallow this meal a young chickadee would have to possess the talents of a sword swallower!
Eventually, after failing to coax any of the nestlings to eat his super-sized meal, he flew off, carrying the walking stick. I am sure the youngsters were glad to see him leave.
A Monroe County resident shared with me a fascinating tale of a great blue heron dining on an unusual meal. The man's backyard abutted a small lake frequented by a great blue heron. One day, as the man was enjoying his morning coffee, he watched as the tall bird deliberately walked from the pond to his bird feeders located some 40 to 50 feet away.
Once there it positioned itself near the feeders and stood motionless. In a few minutes an eastern chipmunk dashed up to fill its cheeks with sunflower seeds. Suddenly without warning the heron speared the chipmunk and swallowed the hapless animal headfirst before returning to the pond.
Carolina wrens are renown for nesting in unusual places such as clothespin bags, shoes, old hats, you name it. Recently, a Clarke County resident told me that Carolina wrens nested on a shelf in her garage. Since they kept the garage door down throughout the day, she and her husband wondered how the tiny brown birds were able to enter the garage when the door was closed throughout most of the day. Watching carefully, they finally learned the birds' secret. The wrens were entering and leaving the garage through the pet door at the base of the garage door.
I have been fortunate enough to see one albino bluebird in my life. This bird nested in a box along the edge of a front yard in Monroe County. While such a bird is a rare find indeed, it doesn't compare to a black bluebird. Consequently, when I got a call reporting such a bird nesting in a bird box in Carroll County, I didn't waste any time getting there.
The bird was nesting in a blue bird box. That's right, the birds were nesting in box painted blue. At a distance, the bird appeared to be totally black; however, through binoculars I could see streaks of blue feathers in its charcoal-colored plumage.
Rare birds show up in backyards quite often. A man in Houston County was surprised to find a black-headed grosbeak at his feeder.
One cold winter morning while my wife and daughter were looking out the dining room, a yellow-headed blackbird landed on one of our feeders. Knowing that I desperately longed to see a yellow-headed blackbird, they immediately called the golf course to let me know that the rare bird was at my feeder. The man on duty at the pro shop ran out and caught me on the first tee before I hit my first drive. I convinced myself that the bird would still be there when I finished the round and went ahead and played 18 holes.
You guessed it: When I returned home, the bird had left. I have never lived that one down.
All of the rare hummingbirds documented in Georgia have been reported in backyards. For example, a broad-billed hummingbird showed up at home in Macon. Once the report of the bird got out, folks from more than a dozen states flocked to Macon to see the bird. It didn't take Neighborhood Watch long to spring into action and birdwatchers were soon confronted by Macon police officers asking what they were doing in this quiet residential area.
The point I am trying to make is you don't have to travel to the Galapagos Islands or the Grand Tetons to see something very special. Truly amazing sightings are made in Georgia backyards every year. However, if you don't spend a little time watching and listening, you will never know what you missed.
Once you have spotted something that seems out of the ordinary, let somebody in the Nongame Wildlife Conservation Section know. Don't assume that what you have seen is common. Who knows, you may spot a behavior never witnessed by biologists. Or, it might be the first time that particular animal has been seen in that part of the state. Remarkably little is known about the distribution of many species of wildlife in Georgia.
Summer is a great time to start spending more time watching the wildlife in your backyard. Once you begin spending a little more time watching your wildlife neighbors, you will be astounded what is going on just outside your backdoor.
Terry Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, a noted backyard wildlife writer and expert, and executive director of TERN, the friends group for Wildlife Resources' Nongame Conservation Section.