Your Guide to Feeding Birds this Winter

Winter months can be tough on our feathered friends. Cold temperatures require them to eat more in order to stay warm, water sources can freeze over, and nuts, berries and insects can be difficult to find. We’ve created the following tips so you can help backyard birds survive this winter. 

Choosing a Feeder 

Easy to clean Dirty feeders can harbor bacteria, mold and disease. Cleaning your feeders every week or two is ideal to keep things spotless for your increase of winter visitors. Clean feeders inside and out with soap and water and an old toothbrush or pipe cleaner to reach tight areas and small feeding holes. A weak bleach solution can be used for deeper sanitizing. Make sure the feeder is completely dry before refilling with seed.   

Good capacity Once birds find your feeder, they will expect there to be food each visit. Select a feeder with room to hold enough seed to last a few days so you won’t have to refill daily. If you know you’ll be travelling for a few days, remember to ask a neighbor or friend for help keeping your feeders filled.

Squirrel-proof Is that even a thing? Well, there are a few tricks to try before giving up. Some have success with squirrel-proof feeders, but if you already have a feeder you love try adding a squirrel baffle. Seeds and suets seasoned with hot pepper are worth a try – squirrels and other rodents should find the capsaicin too irritating to enjoy the seed, but the birds don’t mind it at all.  

Example of a Squirrel Baffle. Photo Source: Birds&Blooms.com

Choosing Seed 

Species specific According to The National Audubon Society, black oil sunflower seeds appeal to more birds than any other type of seed. They’re high in fat, providing much needed energy and the small size and thin shells are easy for small birds to crack open.  Trying to attract a specific bird? Check out the Seed and Feed Chart below. Sunflower hearts, millet, and suet cakes are other crowd flock-to favorites. 

Choose quality Cheaper seed mixes often include a larger portion of filler seed that your birds might ignore or toss aside. Deciding what’s a good or a bad seed mix for you is as simple as making sure it attracts the birds you want. Need help finding a quality product you can trust? Visit a wild bird supply store for assistance from experienced staff.  

Storage Seed has a shelf life. Look for the expiration date on the packaging and select the freshest mix you can find. Use an air-tight container to keep seed fresh and safe from pests, heat and humidity. If your bird seed smells musty, has gotten wet, is discolored or if there is any evidence of mold it should be discarded  

Provide Warmth and Water 

Supply Fresh Water A shallow, easy to clean water source is vital to birds. Check your water regularly to keep it clean and ensure it hasn’t frozen over.  

Provide Shelter Bird houses, dense shrubs, and tall grasses provide a warm place for birds to rest. They are also great places to escape from predators. Winter is a great time to plan for spring garden plantings. Select fruit and nut producing shrubs to provide food and shelter for your feathered friends year-round.

For more resources on creating a bird-friendly yard, contact Environmental Services at enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov 

Creature Feature: Mexican Free-tailed Bat

Superhero crime fighters, blood-sucking vampires, quirky animated characters, and quintessential fixtures of Halloween décor; these creatures of the night are thoroughly intertwined in American pop culture. Yet, these cultural characterizations often lead to misunderstanding, fear and certainly under appreciation of these flying mammals.  Let’s dive into how bats really are heroes of the night.

Fast Facts

  • More than 1,300 species of bats worldwide. 10 species call the Greater Houston Area home
  • The Mexican Free-Tailed Bat is the official flying mammal of Texas
  • They can fly up to 60 mph and at a height of 10,000 feet
  • Bats aren’t blind! In fact, they have excellent eyesight. Their renowned echolocation ability allows them to hunt more efficiently at night and has no connection to blindness.

What do they look like?

An adult Mexican free-tail bat is about 4” long, weighs no more than .5 ounces, and is covered in short fur that ranges from red to dark brown to gray. Their long, narrow wings span between 12-14″. They have large, round ears that point forward and a snub nose. The tail is naked and extends beyond the tail membrane, earning their namesake – free-tailed.

What do they eat?

Mosquitoes. Need we say more?  Yes, mosquitoes are part of a bats diet, but they also dine on moths, beetles and other flying insects. Bats can eat their body weight in insects every night! The volume of insects that bats, in Texas, consume annually is equivalent to $1.4 billion in insect control.  Installing bat houses/roosting boxes on farms is becoming a common practice among farmers who welcome bats in hopes of reducing the need for pesticides on their crops.

What eats them?

Owls, hawks, snakes, raccoons and house cats all dine on bats.  However, the biggest threat to colonies is White-Nose Syndrome, named for the white fungus that grows on the muzzle and wing of hibernating bats.

This disease causes bats to become overly active, including flying during the day. This extra activity burns up their fat reserves which are needed to survive the winter. There is no cure for white-nose syndrome, but scientists are working to control the spread of the disease.

White nose syndrome is caused by a newly identified fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destrictan, and currently has no cure.

Where to see them

Mexican free-tailed bats arrive in Texas in early March, breed in the summer, and migrate back to the warmer temperatures of Mexico for winter. However, some do “hang around” throughout the year, roosting in large colonies. One of the best places to see bats is at Houston’s Waugh Bridge.

Removal

A single bat in your house is likely just a lost or confused bat. In most cases, they will try to leave on their own. Assist the bat by opening windows and doors. Turn off all ceiling fans and remain quiet. Have patience and allow the bat to leave unharmed.

If you have a more permanent tenant, contact a specially trained bat rehabilitator or bat rescuer. Bat World Sanctuary provides a list of people who can help. Remember bats are wild animals, and many species are protected under federal law.

Have you taken preventative steps to bat-proof your home? Check out the Bat Conservation International website for some great resources.

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Creature Feature: American Alligator

One glance at their sharp teeth, hard scales, and impressive size may be enough to transport you right back to the time of the dinosaurs. Believe it or not, these prehistoric-looking creatures are occasionally found in our local waterways (typically near Spring Creek). They can also be found throughout the southern part of the United States, from east Texas all the way to the Carolinas, and always near or in fresh water, such as swamps, rivers, bayous, creeks, and marshes. Let’s learn a bit more about these cold-blooded critters, how our ecosystem benefits from them and what to do if you spot one. 

Fast Facts

  • Alligators can run up to 35 miles an hour for short distances.
  • Adult alligators can hold their breath underwater up to 45 minutes.
  • They don’t require as much food as you think. In the summer, an adult alligator may only eat once or twice a week.
  • The largest alligator harvested in Texas was a male measuring 14’ 4”, taken in Jackson County.

Let’s get acquainted 

Alligators boast the title of the largest reptile in North America; alligators in Texas are rarely more than 10’ with a maximum weight of 250-300 pounds.  While it may seem that their hard, coarse scales are merely for looks or intimidation, they actually provide protection against water loss. Alligators lay  large clutches of eggs, and the sex of the hatchlings is determined by ambient air temperatures during their 90-day incubation period; cooler temperatures produce mostly females while warmer temperatures produce mostly males. The hatchlings are approximately 9 inches long and will stay with their mom for up to two years.

What do they eat?

As top predators in freshwater systems, these reptiles eat fish, turtles, small mammals, birds, and even other alligators. Their powerful jaw muscles have incredible force, about 300 pounds per square inch! Perfect for cracking through a turtle shell, which is important because alligators don’t have molars to crush or grind their food. Instead, they have 80 conical shaped teeth, which are replaced as they fall out. An alligator may go through 2,000 to 3,000 teeth in a lifetime.

Their long, strong tails help them rapidly propel through the water to capture their prey.  They have excellent sight, smell and hearing and are very good at stalking prey without being seen.

Non-food items, such as glass bottles, brass objects, fishing line and wood are frequently consumed by alligators. Please remember that littering has a devasting impact on wildlife. Learn more from wildlife biologist Abbie Ince-Hendrickson, who shares what was found in the stomach of gators she studied in Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge.

Why do we need them?

Despite their menacing appearance, alligators play a crucial role in ecological systems. These reptiles help keep other animal populations in balance, including cleaning up nearby carrion. They are excellent at digging holes and their tails carve trails throughout marshes, creating habitat for fish and marine invertebrates. They also help control invasive species such as nutria and feral hogs.

Safety

Even though alligator sightings aren’t particularly common, it’s always smart to be cautious when in and around freshwater creeks, rivers, and other waterways. As one could guess, their powerful jaws and bite make them formidable when disturbed or threatened and they can run quickly over land to catch their next meal or defend their nesting site. Most alligators seen moving around are smaller gators that have been pushed out of their habitat by larger gators. Our most active months here in The Woodlands are April through July. Periods of extreme drought or heavy rains can result in an increase in movement.

To reduce dangerous encounters with alligators, follow these tips:

  • If you see an alligator DO NOT approach it.
  • If you hear an alligator hiss, it is a warning that you are too close.
  • Never feed alligators – it is both dangerous and illegal.
  • Don’t throw fish scraps in the water or leave them on shore.
  • Closely supervise children when playing around water.
  • Don’t allow pets to swim, exercise or drink in or near water that may contain alligators.
  • Keep pets on a leash and stay on approved pathways when traveling near waterways to minimize their risk. 
  • If you have a close encounter, back up slowly.

Alligator sightings can be reported to The Woodlands Township at 281-210-3800, online or use 311 app on your mobile device.

Removal

Contact Texas Parks & Wildlife Department at 281-931-6471.  Game wardens can offer advice or a referral to approved companies that can remove a dangerous alligator if necessary. 

It should be noted that under the Endangered Species Act, alligator populations have made a recovery, which lead to their de-listing from the endangered species list. Despite this, they remain protected and require a special permit to hunt, raise or possess. Consult the Texas Parks & Wildlife website for regulations concerning wildlife.

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Creature Feature: Armadillo

The Aztecs called them turtle rabbits. German settlers called them armored pigs. Some Southerners refer to them as opossums on the half-shell or Texas speed bumps. Whatever you call them, these fascinating creatures play an important role in the health of our ecosystem. Read on to learn more about the official small mammal of Texas! 

Fast Facts 

  • The name armadillo means “little armored one” in Spanish.  
  • Nine-banded armadillos almost always give birth to four identical quadruplets. 
  • Contrary to popular belief, nine-banded armadillos are unable to roll their shell into a ball. Of the 21 species of armadillo, only the three-banded armadillo can accomplish that feat. 
  • When surprised, nine-banded armadillos tend to leap straight into the air, up to 5 feet! 

What do they look like? 

Here in Texas, only one species of armadillo can be found: the nine-banded armadillo. These little guys are distinguished by the presence of seven to eleven “bands” across the middle of their armor.  

Roughly the size of a small dog, averaging 2.5 feet long and 12 pounds, they don’t have any fur on their brown body save for some hairs under their head and belly.  The most distinctive feature of an armadillo is the bony, armor-like plates that offer protection from predators. They have a long snout they use to root through the soil and powerful claws to dig up dinner.  

What do they eat? 

Armadillos are primarily insectivores and use their keen sense of smell to track invertebrates such as beetles, fire ants, snails, spiders, white grubs, cockroaches and more. They will also eat fruits, seeds, and occasionally carrion. 

What eats them? 

Because of their small size and poor eyesight, nine-banded armadillos fall victim to both larger animals and humans. Coyotes, wolves, bobcats, alligators and even large birds of prey are known to attack armadillos. Most nine-banders are killed by humans, either on purpose for their meat or accidentally by cars. Despite this, the nine-banded armadillo population is considered stable and classified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.  

Super swimmers 

While they may not look like it, our regional armadillos are fantastic swimmers! However, their methods are unusual, to say the least. In order to keep their heavy shells from sinking, armadillos will inflate their stomachs to twice their normal size to stay afloat. They’re also known to walk directly across the bottom of rivers and lakes. These unique abilities to cross the water have contributed to the armadillo’s wide population distribution across the United States; nine-banded armadillos primarily reside in the Southeastern U.S. but have been found as far north as Illinois and Nebraska.  

Check out this video to see them in action! 

Regulations and removal 

While armadillos may be considered a nuisance due to their tendency to dig in your yard, it’s important to remember that they consume many creatures we consider pests -cockroaches, grubs, scorpions, termites and more. If you can’t exclude them and are concerned about damage to your plants or lawn, contact a professional for humane removal. Although it is legal to trap armadillos at any time, you must notify the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department before relocating the animal.   

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Creature Feature: Owls

Mysterious, spooky, wise, lovable. Depending on who you ask, owls have quite the reputation. With four species found in our area – Eastern Screech, Great Horned, Barred and Barn – it’s likely there are a few living in the woods near you.  

Fast Facts 

  • Owls can turn their neck up to 135 degrees in either direction – 270 degrees of rotation! 14 neck bones – 7 more than humans – allow owls to swivel back and forth effortlessly.  
  • Owls make virtually no noise when they fly. Their wing feathers have comb-like serrations that break turbulence into smaller currents and reduce sound.  
  • Not all owls hoot. Barn Owls make hissing sounds, Eastern Screech Owls whinny like a horse and Saw-Whet Owls are named after the sound they make which is similar to the sound of a whetstone sharpening a saw. To hear the various sounds and calls from owls across North America, check out the Audubon Owls Guide for your phone and I.D. owls on the go.

Owls come in all sizes. The largest owl in North America is the Great Gray Owl which can grow as tall as 32“. The smallest is the Elf Owl – 5-6” tall and about a mere 1 ½ ounces in weight.  

Here in East Texas, if you’re lucky you might see one of the largest owls in North America – the Great Horned Owl. At almost 2’ tall, the Great Horned Owl is adaptable to many habitats, including city neighborhoods, forested areas, coastal areas, deserts and mountains. Listen for the deep, low hoo, hoohoo, hoo that sounds like a deeper a dove’s call.  

What do they eat? 

Great at pest control, a single adult owl can eat up to 50 pounds of gophers, mice, rats and moles in one year. A barn owl family will eat up to 3,000 rodents in one growing season, but they aren’t the only thing on the menu. Owls eat insects, earthworms, fish, crawfish, amphibians, other birds and small mammals too.  

With large eyes and super-sensitive hearing, owls can find the smallest vole, even in total darkness. They use their talons to rip prey into smaller pieces, for better digestion, because they swallow the pieces whole. Bones and fur compact into a pellet which the owl later coughs up. 

Why do we need them? 

Owls play a critical role in nature’s complex food web by helping manage overpopulation. It’s easy to see why farmers like having owls around. Many will install owl nesting boxes to help with pest control, and it’s cheaper and safer than poison. 

Unfortunately, owls, like many birds, are declining in population due to loss of habitat and increased use of chemicals. Good news is that there are ways that you can help. 

  • Use traps instead of poison when controlling rodent populations 
  • Leave dead trees as a nesting or roosting option, as long as it’s not a safety hazard for those nearby. Or consider installing a nesting box for small owls, like the Eastern Screech Owl. 
  • Reduce or minimize outdoor lighting at night, when owls are hunting. 
  • Drive slow and stay alert for flying owls and roadside birds at night.

Test your Birdwatching IQ with the 13 species you can see in Texas.  

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