Japanese Beetles and the Value of Birds

  The beautiful but devastating Japanese beetle can lace plants faster than your granny with a crochet hook. Photo by Joshua Mayer

The beautiful but devastating Japanese beetle can lace plants faster than your granny with a crochet hook. Photo by Joshua Mayer

On a recent early morning, I was looking out our kitchen window and bemoaning the fact that both the swamp white oak and tamarack tree in my view were full of Japanese beetles.  I had noticed hundreds of these shiney bugs in both trees the day before and we were making plans on how to rid the trees of these damaging insects. 

The early light enabled me to notice a number of birds actively feeding in those trees.  First, an eastern phoebe with two young perched nearby was plucking the beetles from the leaves and feeding them to the young.  Next, a gray catbird flew into the action and ate a few before carrying some away, and then a song sparrow, followed by some house sparrows that eagerly ate some too.  Before long, a beautiful Baltimore oriole came by to partake of the feast!  I had to know more.

My research showed that the champion beetle eaters are European starlings followed by blue jays, robins, crows, grackles, kingbirds, woodpeckers and purple martins, to name a few.  Some birds eat the grubs, some the adult beetles, and some both.

This made me think about the economic value of birds and their work as pest controllers, especially given the fact much of the credit for this service is given to our declining cave bat mammal species who struggle with white nose syndrome.  I continued to look for more evidence of the value of these flying bug exterminators.

The most recent summer edition of Living Bird magazine (7/17) contains an article on this topic titled Analysis: The Economic Value of Birds by Cagan H. Sekercioglu.  In his article, he mentions a recently published book called Why Birds Matter, authored by himself along with Chris Whelan, University of Illinois, Chicago and Dan Wenny, San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory. 

Sekercioglu talks about the large economic value of pest control by birds saying, “Birds can reduce the intensity of spruce budworm outbreaks and mitigate damage on spruce tree plantations comparable to effective insecticides.  In Washington (state) avian control of spruce budworm was calculated to be worth at least $1,473 per square kilometer per year.”  He goes on to site many other examples of ecosystem services of birds as pollinators, seed dispersers, and even carcass cleaners (disease control).

  A female dickcissel captures a large insect at Schoeneberg Marsh Waterfowl Production Area. Photo by Jim Otto

A female dickcissel captures a large insect at Schoeneberg Marsh Waterfowl Production Area. Photo by Jim Otto

We love to watch birds, feed birds, and study birds.  Many of us plan our vacations and lives around birds. We love to work with non-profits like Madison Audubon, restoring habitat at our sanctuaries where we welcome and count the birds, monitor their populations, and provide nest boxes for cavity nesting birds.  We band birds to learn more about their life cycles and travels across the landscapes.

No matter why you connect with birds, you might agree that they bring value to our lives by providing color and beautiful songs for our senses, and wonder which piques our curiosity, lifts our spirits, and builds a lifetime appreciation and connection to nature. 

And, birds eat Japanese beetles.

Susan Foote-Martin, Resident Co-Manager, Goose Pond Sanctuary

Indigo Bunting

  Indigo bunting photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Indigo bunting photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

The Indigo Bunting, cerulean on its body and a brilliant indigo on its head, enjoys brushy early successional habitat throughout Wisconsin. These birds settle into the summer breeding season with the blooming Blephilia, exploding onto the scene with the blue spiderwort. Blue is a rare color in the matrix of communities and animals calling southern Wisconsin home. Bellflower, spiderwort, bottle gentian, and the alien roadside chicory are some of the few plants with blue blooms.

  Indigo Bunting by Jim Hudgins, US Fish and Wildlife Service

Indigo Bunting by Jim Hudgins, US Fish and Wildlife Service

But the indigo is not truly blue. The bird does not have blue pigment, but rather refracts blue light. If you hold a bunting feather facing the sun, you will see, the dull brown color of melanin. If instead the sun comes from behind the feather, microscopic structures will refract that unmistakable cerulean back toward you.

Indigo Buntings use stars as more than just plumage enhancement. Besides refracting the sun's rays, the birds also use the stars to orient themselves during migration. The behavior is learned, as a sort of map from other buntings. Researchers discovered this by studying Indigo Buntings in a planetarium versus a natural setting under the night sky.

Another extraordinary feature of the bird is that they have worked around brown-headed cowbird nest parasitism. Indigo Buntings will abandon their nest if cowbirds parasitize it, or they will build over the cowbird egg. They will readily re-nest and will sometimes nest late enough to avoid the cowbird breeding season and thus avoid parasitism. 

Indigo Buntings and their young have been making their distinctive call ("fire, fire, where where here here") along Prairie Lane and throughout the sanctuary. Impressive numbers of buntings sing along woodland edges early each morning, waking me with their warning of fire.

By Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Purple Martins

  Purple martins perched above a nest box are at ease around humans due to their peaceful co-existence with their Amish landlords. Photo by Arlene Koziol.

Purple martins perched above a nest box are at ease around humans due to their peaceful co-existence with their Amish landlords. Photo by Arlene Koziol.

The bird enthusiasts of Wisconsin have a long history with the purple martin, a species that has become reliant on humans for nesting throughout the country. For hundreds of years, purple martin supporters have constructed nest boxes to house these charming birds each summer. In recent decades, purple martin populations have been in decline for reasons that are not yet fully understood.

I am a graduate student from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was fortunate to be awarded a Wisconsin Society for Ornithology (WSO) Steenbock Award to help fund my project.  I am working with the Madison Audubon Society to study purple martin nesting and the factors that contribute to successful colonies throughout south central Wisconsin. Colony success throughout the area is thought to be mainly attributed to the regular cleaning, maintenance, and management of nest boxes with large cavities, conducted each year by purple martin “landlords.” In Columbia County, purple martin colonies are a rare sight, with one major exception: Amish farms.

Amish landlords in the Dalton/Kingston area, near the junction of Columbia, Green Lake, and Marquette Counties, are a prime example of how proper management and stewardship can make all the difference for the success of this species. Amish communities throughout the country have strong cultural ties to the purple martin, with many establishing gourds and nest boxes simply because their families have hosted martins for generations. In mid July a team of Madison Audubon Society purple martin enthusiasts, including Mark and Sue-Foote Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary Managers; Maddie Dumas, Goose Pond Land Steward; Brenna Marsicek, Director of Communications; Toft Wells, Board Member, and his granddaughter Annie; Arlene Koziol, Madison Audubon volunteer and photographer; Goose Pond interns, and WSO president Michael John Jaeger, and myself set out to take inventory and band martin chicks. Photos of the banding effort by Arlene Koziol are available on her Flickr account.

  Dick Nickolai (blue denim) shows Annie, granddaughter of MAS board member Topf Wells (orange), how bands fit around the legs of purple martin chicks. Photo by Arlene Koziol.

Dick Nickolai (blue denim) shows Annie, granddaughter of MAS board member Topf Wells (orange), how bands fit around the legs of purple martin chicks. Photo by Arlene Koziol.

Leading this endeavor was retired Wisconsin DNR Wildlife Biologist Dick Nikolai, who now spends much of his time traveling throughout the state banding purple martins on behalf of the Wisconsin Purple Martin Association. Dick has been involved in purple martin conservation for over thirty years and has banded at over 20,000 martins to date. Dick is also providing guidance to my study. To say that Dick is an expert on purple martin breeding and behavior would be an understatement!

About 35 Amish farms and businesses in the area have at least one purple martin nest box, with some families erecting as many as seven nest boxes, each one offering fourteen cavities for pairs to build their nests (commonly referred to as a T14 nest box).  One Amish family makes and sells T14 boxes and poles.  Some families also hang hollowed-out gourds for nesting, which were historically used by Native Americans before European settlement in North America.

  Two purple martin chicks from the same brood are distinctly different in size. Photo by Arlene Koziol.

Two purple martin chicks from the same brood are distinctly different in size. Photo by Arlene Koziol.

Over the course of two days, at just six colony locations, the purple martin team was able to band 838 chicks, as well as one female adult. Such large colonies, some with over 60 pairs of martins, are likely the result of the strong relationship that the Amish families have with their birds. Many families take pride in their large colonies and consider it a family affair to check their nests weekly, by providing suitable nesting materials, removing invasive house sparrow nests, and cleaning out excess waste. The Amish children often take particular interest in monitoring the nest progression and can provide plenty of details on the status of each nest box. Each family that was visited by the team was more than happy to allow, and often assist, the banding efforts. As one Amish landlord remarked, “we love the purple martins and the purple martins love us!”

If you would like to see purple martins visit the Amish community, where even many of the businesses maintain purple martin nest boxes which are easy to see from parking lots and the road.  Martins will be present for a couple more weeks before moving to staging areas before heading to Brazil. You could begin at the Columbia – Marquette County line.  Go north of Pardeeville on Highway 22 to the County line where County CM goes to the west while Barry Road goes east.  Take a right on Barry Road.  A good place to stop is Michler’s County Store and pick up a map of the Amish community. The map has the location of 50 Amish businesses including a number of bakeries, green houses, and furniture shops.  There are also families that sell garden produce.

  One of the Amish farms hosting gourds for purple martin nesting. Photo by Arlene Koziol.

One of the Amish farms hosting gourds for purple martin nesting. Photo by Arlene Koziol.

By Erin Manlick, Masters Candidate, Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies

Barn Swallow

  Barn swallow, photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest

Barn swallow, photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest

Recognized across Wisconsin as a sign of spring, and also as a sign that one is mowing the lawn, the barn swallow's ubiquitous swooping displays light up spring and summer with a gasp of orange, solidly worn across its breast.

  Acrobatic barn swallows, photo by Katsura Miyamoto

Acrobatic barn swallows, photo by Katsura Miyamoto

Arriving from mid-April to mid-May, barn swallows bring their impressive aerial maneuvers to Wisconsin's cityscapes and farmsteads. As a a species, the barn swallow has adapted remarkably well to human development, with more structures providing more nesting habitat for the barn swallow.

Researchers in Nebraska have even discovered evidence that these highly adaptable swallows are evolving rapidly due to both human-caused and natural events. The human-driven change occurred in cliff swallows, where over the past 30 years a population living near highways has exhibited declining wing feather length. This is an example of survival selection, with the longer-winged swallows being struck by vehicles because they are less maneuverable and acrobatic.

The natural-driven selection occurred in May 1996 during a nasty spout of weather on the Great Plains.

During cold, low pressure days, swallows will feed low, along wetlands and ponds, picking insects off the surface because insects are not forming swarms like they would on warm high pressure days. This form of feeding is less efficient for the swallows, and can result in significant energy losses.

After these late-May storms, two thirds of the population died, but the third that remained had shorter wing feathers, tail feathers, larger skeletons, and were perfectly bilaterally symmetrical. These traits all made the swallows better fliers (more adept at picking those insects off the top of the water) and allowed the birds to store more fat on their bodies, which meant they could live longer during those cold spells when food is scarce. You can read more about this phenomenon on Chris Helzer's excellent blog here.

Here at Faville Grove, barn swallows are common near human dwellings. Under my deck, a pair laid four eggs, with all four chicks fledgling. Clutch size is typically 4-6 eggs. Double broods are common in barn swallows, and just yesterday I saw a pair copulating on the wire above my garden, almost certainly a second brood. 

The birds will often dive bomb our summer interns once a clutch has hatched, always coming centimeters from a hat, but never actually colliding. With that forked tail, barn swallows are some of the most acrobatic swallows, and deftly maneuver above the Prairie Lane driveway for insects. One particular swallow joined us for lunch as she glided above the deck, stopped, grabbed an insect, and turned away—a breathtaking display. Another juvenile swallow recently tried to become roommates with me, but his bad bathroom manner led me to coax him out with a broom. You can't miss this breeding Wisconsin resident.

Written by Drew Harry
Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

  Barn swallow in the mud, photo by Arlene Koziol

Barn swallow in the mud, photo by Arlene Koziol

Featured Sanctuary Bird: Killdeer

  Photography by Maddie Dumas

Photography by Maddie Dumas

On a hot summer day, when you can’t escape by other means, let Wisconsin’s most common plover remind you of cool lakeshores up north. The killdeer, with its eponymous call, is a familiar sight and sound in all parts of the state. You may see them on your commute to work, in urban or rural areas, in driveways, on playgrounds or flat-topped roofs; anywhere there is a flat, open habitat. The least water-associated of the shorebirds, they are nonetheless shorebirds, and their behavior—running about on long legs, stopping to observe, swooping and crying in low circles on their deep v-shaped wings—all attest to this.

  Defensive Behavior, Photography by Maddie Dumas

Defensive Behavior, Photography by Maddie Dumas

Goose Pond Sanctuary has hosted many killdeer broods over the years, but recently a female “built” her nest right in the middle of the Kampen Road residence parking lot! “Built” is qualified because killdeer nests are really simple scrapes dug into the bare ground to which the birds may add pebbles, sticks, and scraps of vegetation or garbage after egg-laying has commenced. According to Robbins, a typical clutch is four eggs, or sometimes three, but our first observations of the Kampen Road nest found only two eggs. Late nest attempts may not have the 'typical' four egg clutch. We roped off the parking lot so our killdeer can incubate and egg-lay in peace. Watching her is a good reminder of the difficulties of parenthood, however, as she is on the nest all day, even as the gravel heats up around her and temperatures climb with the sun. During the heat of midday, we noticed that she does not sit on the nest, but stands over the nest, probably to shield the eggs from the intense sun. Killdeer are known to soak their belly feathers in water in order to wet the eggs before standing over them; this cools the eggs as the water evaporates.

Laying eggs directly on the ground is risky, particularly in high-traffic areas such as graveled road or railroad shoulders, parking lots, parks, and golf courses, all areas where killdeer nests are often found. The defenses that killdeer have developed to protect their exposed nests include highly camouflaged eggs, and the famous feint, or broken-wing display, that attempts to lure predators away from the nest by imitating an injured bird (easy prey). If you come very near to a nest, the brave parent may puff up, and fan her tail in an attempt to look threatening. Another adaptation of the killdeer to surviving in a very open habitat is that it lays eggs that are proportionally quite large, allowing for more development to occur in the egg, and leading to precocial chicks. Newly-hatched chicks have their eyes open, and can run about as soon as their down dries. After 25 days, the young can fly. The Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas found fledged young as late as September 6.

Look for the killdeer in your area this summer, and even this winter! Rare winter residents are regularly reported during Wisconsin Christmas Bird Counts. Whenever and wherever you spot one, we hope you enjoy this special shorebird.

Written by Maddie Dumas, Goose Pond Sanctuary Land Steward