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A bluebird fluffs up against the cold

Now that a chill is in the air, it’s time to dig out all your bird feeders and get them cleaned up and ready for your winter bird visitors.

We’ve actually been feeding the birds through most of the summer even though there is normally plenty of other food available. We enjoy watching them in the summer too, so we generally keep at least one feeder out all year long.

A female ruby-throated hummingbird visits our feeder

A female ruby-throated hummingbird
visits our feeder

We also set up several hummingbird feeders around the house. It’s a joy to sit on the front porch or on the deck and watch these fascinating birds zoom to and fro from flowers to feeder and then zip away as fast as they appeared. Our hummingbirds can be very aggressive and territorial! There always seems to be a feisty one around that chases the others away when they try to drink at a feeder. We have to hang multiple feeders out of sight of each other in order to give all the hummers a chance to feed!

A male ruby-throated hummingbird hovers over a feeder

A male ruby-throated hummingbird
hovers over a feeder

To keep your hummingbirds healthy and coming back to your feeders, it is important to refill hummingbird feeders with fresh “nectar” about every 5 days or more often if the solution becomes cloudy. Be sure to wash the feeders well before refilling.

Now that the days are getting shorter, the hummingbirds will soon be on their way to Mexico for the winter. But don’t take your feeders down just yet! These tiny birds need to fatten up before their long journey south so leave your feeders out as long as you still see them around. When a week or two have gone by with no activity at the feeders, it is time to take them in, clean them up, and store them until the following spring.

Now it’s time to get ready for the winter birds …

Before you fill your bird feeders and put them out, it is very important to clean and sanitize them. Dirty feeders can spread potentially harmful bacteria, mold, parasites, and diseases throughout wild bird populations.

Your bird feeders should also be cleaned on a regular basis when they are in use – at least once a month. This will keep them safe and attractive to your wild bird friends.

Here are a few tips for cleaning your feeders:

  • This feeder is in desperate need of cleaning!

    This feeder is in desperate
    need of cleaning!

    Always wear rubber gloves and eye protection when you wash your feeders.

  • Wash feeders in warm water with a mild solution of unscented dish detergent or a commercial bird feeder cleaning solution that you can find in a full service garden center or a specialty bird store. You can also wash them in a 10% bleach solution (1 part bleach to 9 parts warm water).
  • Use a stiff brush to scrub off dirt and mold. A long-handled bottle brush works well on tube feeders. A toothbrush can be a handy tool for scrubbing the feeding ports and other small parts.
  • Rinse well with warm water after washing.
  • Allow the feeders to dry THOROUGHLY before filling them with seed.

In addition to keeping the bird feeders themselves clean, it is important to keep the areas under and around your feeders clean. Over time, debris builds up under feeders – seeds that the birds kick out or drop, seed hulls, and bird droppings. To reduce the spread of parasites and disease, periodically rake up this debris and remove it from the area.

Supply Fresh Water for the Birds

All kinds of birds visit the water bowl

All kinds of birds visit the water bowl

I know I say this in all my posts about birds but it is so important, especially in the winter, to provide the birds with an open source of fresh water. We keep our water trough full all year long. It is amazing the number of different species of birds that come throughout the year just for the water! In the summer, our big water bowl is constantly filled via the automatic watering system that Eric has set up to water our deck containers. In the winter, we refill it with the watering can as needed and use a birdbath deicer to keep the water ice-free.

Remember, it is just as important to keep your water bowls and birdbaths clean as it is to keep the bird feeders clean. They should be dumped, scrubbed clean, and refilled with fresh water a few times a month, especially in the summer.

Bluebirds flock to the water

Hardly room for any more at the watering hole!

It’s almost time for your feathered friends to come “Trick or Treating” at your house – be ready for them!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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sapsucker damage to white birch

Woodpeckers are a common sight around our house. We often hear their cackling calls as they fly through the woods or the drumming of their beaks on dead trees as they search for insects.

A male downy woodpecker

A male downy woodpecker

Red-bellied woodpeckers are frequent visitors to our suet feeders as are the little downy woodpeckers. Less common at the feeders are hairy woodpeckers, pileated woodpeckers, flickers, and yellow-bellied sapsuckers. The flickers and sapsuckers normally just come for the water we always provide on our deck.

Pileated woodpeckers are really awesome birds. They are the largest woodpeckers in the U.S. (assuming the larger ivory-billed woodpecker is truly extinct). Once in a while, one will fly in to the suet feeder but we normally just see them flying through the woods. These large woodpeckers have a crazy, undulating flight pattern which catches your eye if you happen to be looking in their direction.

Pileated woodpeckers are striking birds

Pileated woodpeckers are striking birds

We usually hear them more often than see them, though. They have a very loud and distinctive “wuk, wuk, wuk” call as they fly through the woods. Almost like something you’d hear in a tropical jungle. Very cool to hear!

Pileated woodpeckers also make their presence known by the loud hammering sound they make as they drill powerfully into dead trees in search of their favorite food, carpenter ants. I’m happy for them to eat all the carpenter ants they can find!

They create a very characteristic rectangular hole as they peck, shred, and tear away at the rotten wood, usually leaving a pile of wood chips at the base of the tree. Most other woodpecker species excavate holes that are round rather than oblong.

Rectangular holes drilled in a dead tree by a pileated woodpecker

Rectangular holes drilled in a dead
tree by a pileated woodpecker

Wood chips pile up at the base of the tree

Wood chips pile up under the tree

Last fall, we watched a male pileated woodpecker chip away at the base of a large dead pine in our yard. We had had the tree cut down years ago but asked the tree company to leave about a 20-foot stump – just for the woodpeckers. I guess the woodpeckers, insects, and the weather finally took a toll on the stump because a few weeks ago, it just fell over and rolled down the hill!

Most woodpeckers do not damage live trees. They normally feed on trees that are already dead or those that are so heavily infested with insects that they soon will be. Like the nuthatches and brown creepers, they sometimes feed on insects living in the bark crevices of live trees but this usually doesn’t harm the tree. Nest cavities are generally excavated in dead trees. If you want to encourage woodpeckers, leave some dead trees standing in your woods – as long as they are not a threat to anything or anyone when they eventually fall.

Male yellow-bellied sapsucker

Male yellow-bellied sapsucker

One group of woodpeckers, the sapsuckers, is an exception. These destructive woodpeckers drill a series of small holes in the bark of live trees and feed on the sap that pools and flows from the holes. They have a specialized tongue for lapping up the sap. Sapsuckers also feed on small insects that are attracted to the sweet sap but unlike most other woodpeckers, their main food source is tree sap.

The yellow-bellied sapsucker is common in our area. It is similar in coloration to the downy and hairy woodpeckers but is between these two in size. Both the male and female have a bright red crown on top of their head which distinguishes them from these other two species.

Male hairy woodpecker - black crown, white breast

Male hairy woodpecker –
black crown, white breast

Male downy and hairy woodpeckers have a black crown and a red patch on the back of their head not on the top and the females have no red markings at all. Male yellow-bellied sapsuckers also have a bright red throat. I’m just telling you this so you won’t blame these other woodpeckers for the destruction caused by sapsuckers!

Sapsucker holes are drilled very close together in horizontal or vertical rows. The pattern is very distinctive. They can kill a tree outright if they drill enough holes to girdle it. At the very least the holes are unsightly and can also provide a pathway for disease and insects to enter the tree.

Though yellow-bellied sapsuckers feed on many different tree species, they are partial to birch and maple trees because of the high sugar content of their sap. There are quite a few white birch trees on my mom’s property in Vermont that have sapsucker damage and my sister has problems with them damaging the birch trees she has planted in her landscape.

Sapsucker holes in this white birch probably led to its death.

Sapsucker holes in this white
birch probably led to its death.

Sapsucker damage; viburnum

Sapsucker damage; viburnum

There are a few things you can do to try and stop sapsuckers from drilling into your trees. One method is to wrap burlap around the trunks where they are actively drilling holes. My sister has done this and it has helped to some extent. Hanging visual repellents like flashy CD’s, pie tins, or hawk silhouettes from branches of the tree being damaged has also been known to work.

These birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act so lethal control methods are not an option.

All-in-all, woodpeckers (except the sapsuckers!) are pretty nice to have around because they eat many of the insects that are destructive to our trees. They dig out borers, beetle larvae, carpenter ants, and feast on many of the foliage eating caterpillars. I would say they are “friends”!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

Extensive sapsucker drilling has girdled and killed this pecan tree. Photo sent by Shelby. See comments below ...

Extensive sapsucker drilling has girdled and killed this pecan tree. Photo sent by Shelby. See comments below …

A female yellow bellied sapsucker is caught in the act on Shelby's pecan tree.

A female yellow bellied sapsucker is caught in the act
on Shelby’s pecan tree.

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A bluebird fluffs up against the cold

An array of bird feeders keep the birds fed all winter!

An array of bird feeders
keep the birds fed all winter!

This post written in December of 2010 is just as relevant now as it was back then. I only wish we had some beautiful snow on the ground for the holidays! Oh well – there’s still time! We DO have the birds, though and they are hungry!

Keep your feeders and bird baths full!

It’s Saturday morning – time to light the gas fire, re-fill the bird feeders on the deck, grab a cup of coffee and sit down in the sunroom to enjoy the birds as they happily feast on sunflower seeds, thistle seed, and suet!

Wintertime is bird feeding time!

Living in the woods like we do means lots of different bird species visit our feeders. Over the years, we have accumulated many types of bird feeders and they get filled with a variety of different food choices. One thing we have found is that it’s important to choose good quality bird seed that is fresh and free of filler seed that the birds won’t eat. This filler is often composed of weed seeds that get kicked out of the feeder and into your garden!

A hairy woodpecker enjoys peanuts from a peanut feeder.

A hairy woodpecker enjoys peanuts from a
feeder at my sister’s house in Vermont.

Chickadees, tufted titmice, cardinals, and both the white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches love the black oil sunflower seeds and the mixed seed filled with sunflower, cracked corn, and other nutritious seeds. The house finches, purple finches, and goldfinches flock to the thistle seed feeders and our suet feeders attract the nuthatches, chickadees, and wrens, as well as four different species of woodpeckers; downy, hairy, red bellied, and even pileated woodpeckers. “Woodpecker Woods” – that’s what we call our place! I think the woodpeckers, the wrens, and the little red-breasted nuthatches are my favorites!

A little wren enjoys the suet.

A little wren enjoys the suet.

We also have several platform feeders for the ground feeding birds such as juncos, mourning doves, blue jays, and sparrows. The jays can be bullies at times and scare some of the smaller birds away but for the most part, they are pretty civil! The squirrels and opossums also like the platform feeders – well, the squirrels actually like all the feeders much to our chagrin. They try their best to empty every one as quickly as they can! The possums mostly nose around for bits of suet that have dropped and tasty morsels on the platform feeders. I guess they need food in the winter too and, well, I must admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for these bird feeder marauders having done field research on both possums and squirrels during my graduate and post-graduate studies! I’m such a softie!

This silly possum was nosing around for some stale bread that we put out for the birds.

This silly possum found some stale
bread we put out for the birds.

Trying to discourage squirrels from raiding your feeders can be quite a challenge. We’ve had mixed success by hanging candy canes off some of our feeders. The squirrels really don’t like the smell of the peppermint. Some people mix cayenne pepper in with their seed. There are also “squirrel proof” feeders but I’ve found that these guys are so clever and dexterous that they can often find a way to get into a lot of them! We have found one that works pretty well, though.

Gray squirrel drinks

A gray squirrel takes a drink

Another thing we have discovered is that providing a big tub of fresh water is really important. It’s often hard for birds to find a source of unfrozen water in the winter and this really helps them out! We keep ours free of ice with a simple bird bath de-icer. It is amazing how much the birds use it. We literally have flocks of bluebirds and cedar waxwings congregating around the water trough all through the winter. Even the squirrels and possums come up for a drink!

A flock of bluebirds enjoys a drink at the water trough!

A little red-breasted nuthatch pecks at a suet cake

A little red-breasted nuthatch
pecks at a suet cake

Once you begin feeding the birds, remember to keep your feeders full throughout the winter as the birds will come to depend on this source of food! Here are some simple recipes for some tasty treats for your birds this winter. You could also consider planting some seed, fruit, and berry producing trees, shrubs, and perennials throughout your landscape. These will not only provide a natural source of food for the birds, but will also give them some great “hiding places”.

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

   Enjoy this beautiful holiday season!

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Goldfinches in their winter plumage feed on dropped seed

A flock of goldfinches in their winter plumage feed on dropped seed

Plowing with my 1948 John Deere Model M. Thanks Grampa!

Plowing with my 1948 John Deere Model M. Thanks Grampa!

What a beautiful snow we had last night!

It started out yesterday evening and continued all night.  We woke up to 15” of beautiful snow this morning. It continued to snow lightly most of the morning but stopped for a while in the middle of the day. It has just now begun to snow again – pretty hard, too.

Rats, right when I just finished plowing the driveway with my old John Deere tractor. Oh well I don’t care – it’s beautiful out. I love snow!

There were loads of birds at our feeders today. We spent much of the morning in our cozy sunroom with the fire going, enjoying our “snow day” with the birds and hot coffee. What could be better?

Bluebirds at the water while finches feed on the snow above!

Bluebirds at the water while finches feed on the snow above!

Eric had to shovel out around the water bowl so the birds could get to it. Poor birds, there was no way for them to get to the water because there was a 12” wall of snow straight up all the way around the bowl! Once they had an approachway, the birds were able to fly in to get a drink.

Below are some photos Eric took with his 500mm lens. Gorgeous!

What a way to spend a snowy day!

Until next time – Happy Snow and stay safe everyone!

A beautiful male bluebird fluffs up against the cold

A beautiful male bluebird fluffs up his feathers against the cold

A catbird waits for a turn at the water bowl

A catbird waits for a turn at the water bowl

A bright red male cardinal perches on one of the feeders

A bright red male cardinal perches on one of the feeders

A white-throated sparrow scavenges for dropped seed

A white-throated sparrow scavenges for dropped seed

Like the bluebirds, this hermit thrush comes mainly for the water

Like the bluebirds, this hermit thrush comes mainly for the water

One more fluffy bluebird

One more fluffy bluebird

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Bluebirds flock to the water

Winter is a quiet time in our garden except for the soft whisperings of the ornamental grasses as they rustle gently in the wind and the fluttering of bird wings as they flit around in the shrubs foraging for seeds and berries.

A tufted titmouse enjoys a drink.

A tufted titmouse perches
for a drink.

The birds are hungry this time of year. We always set up several bird feeders on our deck and keep them filled throughout the fall and winter. Mostly we fill the feeders with black oil sunflower seeds but we also have a thistle seed feeder for the finches and suet feeders for the nuthatches, woodpeckers, and wrens.

The birds are thirsty, too! I am always amazed by the number of birds and other critters that make use of the big water bowl we have set up on the deck. We actually keep it filled all year long, but winter is a really important time to provide fresh water for the birds, as it can be difficult for them to find a source of open water – especially in the coldest areas of the country.

All kinds of birds visit the water bowl

All kinds of birds visit the water bowl

Bottoms up Carolina wren!

Bottoms up Carolina wren!

At times there have been so many birds perched on the rim of our water bowl that there is hardly room for one more!

This morning there were chickadees, tufted titmice, goldfinches, a Carolina wren, and a newcomer, a hermit thrush, sipping water from the bowl. The bluebirds usually show up a little later in the winter.

I’m convinced that this is why we get such a wide diversity of birds at our feeders. It’s not only the food but the water that brings them in. In fact, the bluebirds and so far the thrush never even go to the feeders – they just seem to come for the water. If we didn’t have this water source, I don’t believe we would see the bluebirds, thrushes, or even the robins on the deck.

Mockingbirds come for water

Mockingbirds come for water

Cedar waxwings flock to the water

Cedar waxwings flock to the water but
don’t ever seem to go to the feeders

Gray squirrel drinksThe gray squirrels enjoy the water, too. We don’t like to encourage them to come up on the deck but there’s no keeping them away. The squirrel-proof feeders we got from my mom do quite well at keeping them out of the feeders but they seem to find enough seed that the birds have kicked out onto the deck to keep them satisfied.

Gray squirrels scavenge for seeds on the deck

Gray squirrels scavenge for seeds on the deck

Sapsucker visits the water

A sapsucker swallows a sip of water

There are many ways to keep fresh water available to your birds. One of the simplest is what we have done for our birds. We got a big rubber water dish and placed a bird bath de-icer in it to keep the water from freezing. It works really well and the bowl holds a lot of water. Eric put a smooth rock on top of the de-icer to keep it in place and this provides another place for the birds to perch and drink.

Another option is a heated bird bath. Different models are available; you can get one that mounts on a deck railing, one that sits in a stand, or one that sits on the ground. The heated bird baths are usually shallower than our big water bowl so they must be checked and refilled more often.

Fresh water brings in the bluebirds on a snowy day

Fresh water brings in the bluebirds on a snowy day

Bluebirds perch on a smaller water dish that we used to use.

Bluebirds perch on a smaller water
dish that we used to use.

A bird supply store is a great place to find bird bath de-icers and heated bird baths. They usually have a selection of different options. You can sometimes find these items at a full service garden center as well. They can be a little expensive but if you really want to increase the diversity and numbers of wild birds around your home, it’s well worth the investment.

We so enjoy sitting and watching the birds on winter mornings.

This would make a great Christmas present for the gardener or birder on your shopping list!

Until next time –

Happy Birding and Happy Holidays to all!

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Bluebirds and a female yellow-bellied sapsucker drink at the water trough.

Bluebirds and a female yellow-bellied sapsucker drink at the water trough.

Last Saturday morning, I got our leftover vegetable seeds out to take inventory and see what we might need for this season. Actually, sometimes it’s not so much that we NEED something, but that we’ve found some cool new (at least to us) varieties that we want to try. It’s always fun to thumb through all the seed catalogs that we get each winter to see what’s new and different.

A red breasted nuthatch pauses on the crook before heading to the suet feeder.

A red-breasted nuthatch pauses on the
crook before heading to the suet feeder.

We were doing this (as always) over our morning coffee in front of the fire in the sunroom. One wall of our sunroom is made up of double sliding glass doors that overlook the deck with all our bird feeders and we enjoy sitting in here on weekend mornings so we can watch the birds.

This particular morning there was quite an interesting diversity of birds at the feeders. There were the usual chickadees, titmice, and finches; but also some woodpeckers and my favorite little red-breasted nuthatch. The cute little Carolina wrens were around, too. A big red-bellied woodpecker came for a visit and spent some time at the Droll Yankee feeder that was filled with sunflower “Meaties” (thanks, Mom!) and also at one of the suet feeders. He disappeared as soon as I got my camera – figures!

A white-breasted nuthatch feeds at a Droll Yankee tube feeder.

A white-breasted nuthatch feeds at a
Droll Yankee tube feeder.

I know I’ve mentioned this before but if you want to attract a wide variety of birds to your feeders – especially some of the more unusual ones, it’s important to have a variety of feeders and different types of food out. Suet feeders, tube feeders, platform feeders, thistle seed feeders …

Anyway, as I was going through our leftover vegetable seeds, I started throwing out some of the older seed because I didn’t want to risk having germination problems. I’ve had my share of those over the years and it’s very discouraging. I feel like it’s a waste of time and energy – things that most of us don’t have any extra to spare!

A tufted titmouse eyes the seeds on the railing.

A tufted titmouse with a sunflower seed eyes some of the seeds on the railing.

Eric suggested that instead of throwing the seed out, we should try putting some of the untreated vegetable seeds out for the birds to see if they would be interested in them. He spread some of the seeds out on the deck railing so we could see whether anyone would eat them. We did see a few birds peck at them but they were much more interested in the sunflower seed. I don’t think even the squirrels seemed interested and after a while most of the seeds blew off the railing and ended up on the deck or in the flower bed below.

Hmmm – maybe we will have a lettuce and carrot garden in amongst our lacecap hydrangeas and peas growing up the deck posts!

Yesterday morning, the turkeys were back but this time they came out of the woods and were wandering around on the lawn. Some of them ventured up under the deck and were pecking at the bird seed that had fallen to the ground from the feeders. Maybe they were also eating some of the old vegetable seeds that had blown off the deck!

A female turkey perches in a dead pine

A female turkey perches in a dead pine.

I watched them for quite a while. They are fascinating creatures – so big! They seemed to be a bit more active than they had been before; running around, chasing each other, and flapping their wings.  All the males that I saw in the flock seemed to be juveniles (jakes) because they are just beginning to grow their beards and had very short leg spurs. Some of the hens flew up into the pine trees and perched there awkwardly, trying to balance themselves on the branches which were bouncing under their weight. It was so odd to see such huge birds sitting in a tree.

This flock of turkeys seems to be sticking around – I’ve seen them a lot lately and they were up scratching around in the woods again this morning.

Take a little time to enjoy your wild bird friends this winter!  Just remember, keep your feeders full and don’t forget to provide them with a source of fresh water. I’m convinced that the water is what brings a lot of the birds in to our feeders – especially the bluebirds and the cedar waxwings. When it’s really cold out, it can be difficult for them to find a source of unfrozen water.

Until next time – Happy Birding!

An American goldfinch in winter plumage enjoys seed from the platform feeder.

An American goldfinch in winter plumage enjoys seed
from the platform feeder.

A pair of purple finches feed at the tube feeder

A pair of purple finches feed at the tube feeder

A male downy woodpecker enjoys a suet cake

A male downy woodpecker enjoys a suet cake

A Carolina wren picks at suet from the platform feeder.

A Carolina wren picks at suet from the platform feeder.

A beautiful pair of cardinals at a sunflower seed feeder

A beautiful pair of cardinals at a sunflower seed feeder

Everyone enjoys a drink at the "watering hole"!

Everyone enjoys a drink at the “watering hole”!

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Wild turkeys forage for acorns in the woods.

“Hey! There are a bunch of wild turkeys walking up the driveway,” Eric called from the kitchen Sunday morning as he was making breakfast.

The toms are larger and more colorful than the hens.

The tom turkeys are larger and more
colorful than the hens especially during
the breeding season in spring.

Cool! The turkeys are back! I hadn’t seen any in our woods for a couple of years so I was pretty excited to see some around again. When I went to look, I saw quite a few on the driveway and even more in the woods. The more I looked, the more I saw. There must have been at least 20 turkeys milling around. It was really exciting to see them.

Most of the turkeys were up in the woods scratching around in the dry leaves on the ground just like the large flock I saw in my parent’s woods up in Vermont. I’m sure they were hunting for acorns to eat. In Vermont, it was the beechnuts they were after but in our Virginia woods, acorns make up a lot of their diet – and boy, do we have acorns!

A good acorn crop last fall.

We had a good acorn crop last fall.

We had a good mast crop last fall with loads of acorns and hickory nuts falling to the ground. It was interesting to watch the turkeys flicking leaves up in the air in search of the acorns that were buried under them. When I was in Vermont last fall, we saw several large flocks of turkeys foraging in corn fields that had been harvested. I’m sure they were scavenging for corn seed that had dropped to the ground during the harvest. This makes an easy meal for them. Good thing it was after turkey season (and after Thanksgiving) or they would have been easy pickin’s for someone’s Sunday dinner!

We watched our turkeys for quite a long time. Breakfast was put on hold for a while as Eric got his camera and telephoto lens and started taking pictures. It was hard to get good shots though because he was shooting through the window but I’m quite certain that they would have run off if we had ventured outside to take pictures.

Colorful plumage on a male turkey

Colorful plumage on a male turkey

Turkeys may not be the most attractive birds in the world but they certainly do have beautiful plumage. When the sunlight hit the feathers of the big toms, they were very iridescent; sometimes reflecting a shimmering bronze and other times flashing red, green, or even blue depending on where and how the light hit them and how their feathers were fluffed. Very cool! Their heads kind of ruin the effect though, being featherless and gnarly with all kinds of protuberances sticking out all over – especially the males. But, I suppose beauty is in the eyes of the beholder – the hens must see them differently!

What are you lookin' at?

What are you lookin’ at?

Eventually we got our breakfast but those turkeys ended up spending the whole morning and part of the afternoon foraging in our woods. They must have found the mother lode of acorns and other delicacies out there! I saw four turkeys in the woods on Monday morning but haven’t seen any since then.

I hope we see them again at mating time which usually starts around March. It would be really neat to be able to hear the toms gobbling to attract the hens and then see them strut around all puffed up with their tail feathers beautifully fanned out during their courtship ritual in their attempt to persuade the females that they are the top banana.

I’ve never heard a wild turkey gobble but I’ve read that you can hear the call up to a mile away! Fascinating!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

A group of hens mingles around while a male watches over in the background.

A group of hens mingles around while a male watches over
in the background.

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