What's that hummingbirdlike creature in the garden?
Today your mail has decided the topics for the day. If I receive more than 10 letters within a week asking the same question, it's time to answer that question. Here are three topics that dominated my mail this week.
First, several readers sent me detailed descriptions of a strange hummingbird-like creature visiting flower beds. Some, thanks to the wonder of e-mail and digital photography, even submitted photos. Most describe the critter as "fuzzy like a bee with a long beak." That description, coupled with the creature's habit of hovering above flowers while feeding, makes identification easy. It's a hummingbird moth. Closer inspection in every case would reveal a pair of antennae protruding from the head.
Approximately 100 species of such moths inhabit North America. Most are active late in the day, when they sip nectar from tubular flowers. In return for the meal, hummingbird moths pollinate the flowers. The "beak" is actually a long, flexible tube (the proboscis) that stays coiled under the head when the moth is not feeding.
Several species are likely to be seen locally. One is small with a body that's only about an inch long. Others are larger, but still smaller than hummingbirds.
Clearwing hummingbird moths are among the smallest of these fascinating insects. I saw the first ones this summer in early July. They were drinking nectar from milkweeds growing along the edges of the yard. I approached slowly and watched one carefully for several minutes. I could see its proboscis unfurl as it approached each flower, and its transparent wings were obvious.
The white-lined sphinx moth has a long white line extending the length of its front wings and a rosy-colored stripe across the rear wing. Its heavy brown body tapers to a point at each end and has a series of dark bands across its abdomen.
The other common local species is known by the name of its caterpillar and is probably more familiar to readers who garden. Tomato hornworms, those fat, green, fleshy caterpillars that eat your tomatoes and their leaves, eventually transform into five-spotted hawk-moths.
Next come the midsummer questions about bald cardinals. It's one of the most pathetic sights to greet a backyard birder. The descriptions range from birds with merely "unkempt or scruffy looking heads" to "miniature vultures." And of course, everyone asks what's wrong with these birds.
I've always attributed the condition to a bad case of ectoparasites -- feather lice that actually eat feathers. Since the head is a difficult place to preen, it seems logical that a severe case of lice could be responsible.
But some ornithologists offer other explanations. Some blame the condition on an unusual molt pattern. Others suggest that unusual feather loss may be a response to injury.
So next time you see a bald cardinal (or other backyard bird), blame molt if the bird looks like it's having a bad hair day. But if the head is completely naked, ectoparasites might be responsible. In any case, the condition is temporary, and the feathers eventually grow back.
Finally, many readers ask how to keep ants and bees off nectar feeders.
A simple device called an ant guard effectively prevents ants from getting into feeders. It's simply a small moat-like saucer from which you hang the feeder. You fill the moat with salad oil or dish detergent, and the ants get trapped in the liquid when they try to cross the moat. Ant guards are available at wild bird stores and garden centers for just a few dollars.
Bees are another matter. Though some feeders come equipped with bee guards, they are often ineffective. A better deterrent is a simple, inexpensive device called a "Nectar-Guard." It slips onto the bottom of the flower port of many feeders and prevents the mouthparts of bees and wasps from reaching the nectar. Ask for it at wild bird stores and nature centers, but be sure it fits your feeder's ports.
XSend questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, R.D. 5, Cameron, W.Va. 26033 or via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org