Frequently Asked Questions

White-breased Nuthatch at feeder

White-breasted Nuthatch

Photo credit: Val Cunningham

WHAT TO DO

Q: What do I do if I find an injured bird?
A: Try to make the animal as comfortable as possible and call the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota at 651-486-9453. If you live outside the metro area, the Center can direct you to a licensed rehabilitation provider in your area. If you find an injured raptor, contact the University of Minnesota Raptor Center at 612-624-4745.

Q: Who can I call if I learn about people harming birds, bird nests and/or bird eggs?
A. Call the “Turn in Poachers (TIP)” hotline. Statewide toll-free: 1-800-652-9093. Available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Q: What do I do if I see a very young bird on the ground?
A: Over 75% of young birds “rescued” do not need help. Often the parents are nearby watching over them. Some birds leave the nest prior to their ability to fly and will spend days on the ground while being trained by their parents. If the young bird is at risk (cats, dogs), try locating the nest and place the bird back in as best you can. If you cannot find the nest, leave the bird in an open-top, shallow box or basket and place it nearby out of reach of predators.

Extremely young birds or eggs that have fallen from the nest may be gently placed back in the nest. Birds have a very poor sense of smell and will not abandon an egg or baby handled by humans. A destroyed nest can be substituted using an open box, basket or hanging planter lined on the bottom with grasses, pine straw or moss. The new nest should be observed for 4-6 hours to determine that the parents have returned to the young.

If a bird is truly abandoned, it must be turned over to a licensed rehabilitator for care. It is illegal to keep or care for wildlife without a permit. Contact the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota at 651-486-9453.

FEEDING BIRDS

SEED

Q. I recently purchased a bag of seed from a big box store and found that the shells were covered with what looked like a white substance. Is it safe to feed to birds?
A. This may be the sign of an insect infestation and while the seed might be safe to feed to birds, it’s best not to take a chance. Birdseed can become spoiled at the store or while stored at home, and with summer’s heat coming on, now is the time to be extra vigilant. If you have any questions at all about your seed, toss it in the trash to keep it away from birds and other wildlife. Seeds are full of oils and can easily become rancid, thus unappetizing to birds. Mold, which is highly toxic to birds, grows easily in damp or wet seed in hot weather. I always recommend buying birdseed at a wild bird store, where great care is taken to insure that seed is fresh.

Here are some tips for keeping birds safe and protecting your investment in birdseed:

  • Store seed in a metal container with a tight lid to foil raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks and other mammals. Rodents can easily gnaw through a plastic container and seed left in paper bags in the garage is vulnerable to break-ins by mice, squirrels, and chipmunks, even rats.
  • Sift through bagged seed from time to time to detect any insect infestations or mold, and toss any seed that is clumping or has larvae or webbing in it.
  • If you’re using hulled seeds, such as hulled sunflower, buy in small quantities in the summer and store the seed in a cool, dry place to avoid rancidity.
  • Check seed in feeders regularly, and toss any that is clumped or stuck to the feeder’s sides or floor. Check after each rain to make sure seed hasn’t gotten damp.

Q. I want to attract a lot of birds to my feeders this summer. What kind of seed brings in the most birds?
A. There’s no question that black-oil sunflower seeds are attractive to the most backyard birds. But there are two other things that may be even more important than food to birds. Number one is water: a birdbath is a magnet for all the neighborhood birds, all day long. Birds also need places to hide—consider planting a small deciduous tree, like a pagoda dogwood or a fruit-bearing tree, near the birdbath, so birds have a place to perch and dry themselves. If you have room, an evergreen tree or shrubs provide coveted hiding places, something every bird needs.

Q. Which is better for finches, those seed bags or seed in a tube feeder?
A. Finches love nyjer seed, those thin little black seeds that look like tiny wild rice. Since nyjer can spill out of feeders so easily, those feed sacks probably aren’t the best choice. A major drawback with the sacks is that seed will get wet when it rains, causing spoilage than can sicken birds. For this reason, I prefer a rigid plastic tube: it protects the seed from the elements and allows finches to perch on dowels near multiple feeding ports.

Q. What can I do to keep pigeons from showing up in my yard?
A. There are probably several homes in your neighborhood whose eaves offer shelter and nesting sites for pigeons. You can’t do much about that, but you can discourage them from visiting your yard to feed. I had pigeons coming to a platform feeder, since they could perch on it easily and scoop up seed, but they’ve departed now that I’ve taken it down. Tube feeders are good pigeon foilers (pigeon beaks are too large to use the feeder ports), as are domed feeders—set the dome too low to allow pigeons to perch. Don’t scatter cracked corn or any other food on the ground, or you’ll draw in pigeons from far and wide.

NECTAR AND GRAPE JELLY

Q: Is it safe to feed my hummingbirds nectar with red dye as sold in most stores?
A: The red dye is not necessary to attract hummingbird. The color on your feeder is enough to attract them. You can mix your own nectar using ¼ cup sugar to every 1 cup of warm water. During hot weather be sure to empty the feeder and refill every three or four days. Avoid honey due to the potential of botulism, and avoid artificial sweeteners due to the lack of nutritional value.

Q. I can’t understand why orioles would eat grape jelly. Is it worth it to set out a dish of this stuff?
A. Baltimore orioles have a “sweet tooth” and are fiends for grape jelly, which approximates the fruit that makes up much of their diet in summertime. So, yes, if there are orioles around, they’ll appreciate grape jelly in a shallow cup (so they don’t fall in and get their feathers all gummed up).

SUET

Q. Should I bring in the suet feeder when the weather warms up?
A. If you’re feeding raw suet, a hugely popular source of quick energy for winter birds, then the answer is yes. Stop feeding suet chunks as spring advances, because it can melt and harm birds’ feathers. But if you melt your own suet to make suet cakes, or buy them from a bird food outlet, these can be offered on all but the hottest days. Parent birds appreciate gulps of pressed suet during nesting season to boost their energy.

Q. Is it common for robins to eat suet? I’ve got a male coming to my suet two or three times a day.
A. I don’t think it’s common, but robins are fairly opportunistic feeders, willing to try new things while looking for food. Your robin probably observed other birds at the suet feeder, decided to try the suet and found that he liked the quick energy rush it gave him. He also may be stuffing some of that suet into his nestlings after finding it was a quick way to satisfy their noisy demands for food.

Q. Why am I seeing a flicker at my suet feeder?
A. A number of people have reported seeing Northern Flickers at their bird feeders this winter.
These may be birds from farther north that have migrated into our area, or local flickers that didn’t migrate at all. Although these birds, which are in the woodpecker family, subsist almost entirely on insects in spring and summer, they’re big fans of suet and wild fruit (including sumac berries) at this time of year.

Q. Should I provide suet year around for the birds?
A. Yes, but only feed raw suet in cold weather. In hot weather, the artificial suet bought at bird food stores is a good choice as it doesn’t melt s easily as raw suet. Suet is a great source of food for the parent birds to break off and bring to their young.

BIRD FEEDERS

Q. Why do we need to clean feeders during the winter—doesn’t the cold kill off the germs?
A. Winter weather does reduce the disease-causing potential at bird feeders, but doesn’t eliminate it entirely. And birds deposit spittle at feeder holes on tube feeders, they leave poop on feeder trays and rain and snow can cause seed to clump up and become inedible. For all these reasons, it’s a good idea to take feeders down every month in winter and give them a thorough cleaning. Wash plastic feeders, rinse in a 9-to-1 water to chlorine bleach mixture, rinse again and dry before re-hanging. Brush out wooden feeders thoroughly before re-filling with seed. And don’t forget the area under the feeders: it’s a good idea to rake or shovel up the debris that accumulates, or move feeders to new locations from time to time.

Q. After a rain or wet snow, there are clumps in the seed in my feeders. Is this a problem?
A. Yes, it is. Those clumps mean the seed has gotten wet. This presents a problem for birds, because damp or wet seed is a breeding ground for disease. Please check your feeders after each storm and toss any clumps. It’s a good idea to completely clean out feeders every couple weeks and start over with fresh seed.

Q. The sparrow population seems to have exploded. They’re hogging the feeders and the other birds don’t seem to be coming in. What can we do to get rid of the sparrows?
A. House sparrows were busy breeders all summer, as you can see by their high numbers in your backyard this fall. Unfortunately, they are a fact of life around the home, but we don’t have to make it easy for them. Don’t toss seeds, cracked corn or crumbs on the ground, for starters, since they’re basically ground feeders. Try hanging a platform feeder suspended by a cord at each corner from a shepherd’s hook—since sparrows are fairly clumsy flyers, they seem to avoid this kind of arrangement. Try offering safflower seeds: sparrows will eat them but don’t seem to flock in for these seeds.

Q. Many songbirds visit the feeders and birdbaths in my backyard but now there’s a problem: a pair of Cooper’s hawks is nesting across the street. I’m worried they’ll start feeding on the birds at my feeders. What can I do?
A. Cooper’s hawks do hunt other birds, and you’re right, with these birds so close, your feeders might become a hawk feeding station. To encourage the hawks to hunt elsewhere the standard advice is to take down your feeders for the duration of their nesting season. Don’t put feeders back up until the end of July, since Cooper’s hawks feed their youngsters for about four weeks at the nest, then for an additional four to six weeks as they learn flight skills. That’s a long time to go without songbird feeding, but you might console yourself with the knowledge that songbirds are feeding their own nestlings almost exclusively on a high-protein insect diet.

Q. I have several feeders in my backyard and enjoy the chickadees, finches and cardinals that use them. The problem is blackbirds hogging the feeders and spilling the seed. Is there a way to discourage them?
A. Birds like grackles and starlings can be big pests at feeders. Try safflower seed, which they don’t seem to favor, but other birds will like just fine. A dome feeder, with a clear plastic dome over a feeding dish, seems to discourage these birds, as well, and the seed doesn’t scatter so easily.

Q. What do you think about feeding birds in summer—won’t they become dependent on feeders?
A. There are no hard and fast rules here. Yes, nature provides many food sources
to birds in summer and fall, compared to winter. But birds don’t become dependent on feeders, getting less than 25 percent of their calories from feeders even in winter.

There are many good reasons to feed birds year ‘round. When feeders are available, birds can spend less time searching for food. And in urban environments and agricultural areas, birds may have to search far and wide for enough to find enough food to eat. Well-fed birds build better nests and the females lay stronger eggs. Parent birds with easy access to food can feed their broods more often and raise healthier, hardier youngsters.

And then there are the benefits to you, including the chance to see parent birds bringing in their fledged young to feeders and birdbath. If you remove feeders in the spring, it will take birds some time next fall to re-learn that you offer food.

COLD WEATHER AND BIRDS

Q. Was that cold weather we had in May harmful to migrating birds?
A. Birds can survive most kinds of weather they encounter on their long journeys from winter to summer homes—if they can find enough food to stoke their inner furnaces. The birds most adversely affected by cold springs are the aerial insectivores, birds like purple martins and the swifts and swallows that feed exclusively on flying insects. When insects are grounded by weather, these birds don’t eat.

NESTS

Q. Phoebes have returned to nest under the eaves at our cabin for years, even after we moved the building! I’m wondering whether they reuse their old nests?
A. Phoebes are very faithful to a nest site, as you’ve observed. And they are nest recyclers, frequently renovating and reusing old nests, both from one year to the next and during a season, for the two broods they raise during the summer. They’ll even take over the old nests of barn swallows or robins, whose sturdy structures are shored up by dried mud.

Q. There’s a robin nesting right by my back door. She’s so busy find food for her young and I wonder what I can do to help?
A. As you know, robins aren’t seed eaters, so most of our feeders are no use to them. Mother robins might like small pieces of suet cake or chopped up dried fruit placed on a platform feeder or on a plate near the nest. If you’re willing to invest in mealworms, either from a wild bird store or a bait shop, robin parents will gobble these up and feed them to heir nestlings for a high-protein treat. One other thing you can do to help: provide a ready source of water, either in a birdbath that gets refreshed frequently or in a shallow bowl or pan on the ground (if there are no cats around).

Q. Why haven’t I ever been able to find a hummingbird’s nest?
A. Join the club, hummingbird nests are so tiny and so well-camouflaged that few people ever do see them. About the only way to discover a hummingbird nest is to watch for a female coming and going as she feeds her nestlings.

Q: What do I do about birds building a nest in an inappropriate place on my property?
A: The best advice is to stop this process as soon as it starts. If there are no eggs or young birds present, remove the nest materials by hand or with a hose, making sure not to injure any nearby wildlife. This action is only appropriate in the beginning stages of nest building. If nesting has already begun, it is against the law to injure or disturb wildlife.

Q. Whenever I see a birdhouse it makes me wonder what’s going on inside . . .
A. Many of us have the same question. Thanks to tiny remote cameras, we now can have a bird’s eye view of cavity-nesting birds on their nests. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s web site features live action by owls, wood ducks, bluebirds and phoebes at http://watch.birds.cornell.edu/nestcams/home/index.

WATCHING BIRDS

Q. Where’s a good place to buy my first pair of binoculars?
A. I’d recommend going to one of the large local camera stores—they’ll have a wide range of binoculars to choose from, from inexpensive to top of the line. Work with a salesperson to “test drive” many different brands in the store, assessing how well you can see through them, what weight works for you, how the binoculars work with glasses (if you wear them) and many other factors. Once you’ve made your choice, please don’t rush home to order those binoculars over the Internet. The in-store binoculars may cost a bit more, but then again, you were able to draw on the time and expertise of the staff there.

Q. What’s a good place to go to see migrating birds?
A. The metro area has so many great bird-viewing spots that a list would fill this space. Birds look for woodlots for foraging and water for drinking, so any spot that offers these will probably have some migrants. The Urban Birding Festival, May 13-16, offers free bird walks to find birds, with no registration required.

Q. When does bird migration truly begin?
A. In March, it’s already well under way. Red-winged blackbirds kicked things off when the first hardy males arrived in early March. Bluebirds, hardy little thrushes, began showing up in mid-March and song sparrows were singing in marshes about the same time. Most of the rest of the songbirds are a few weeks away: warblers will begin rustling through treetops and hermit thrushes will pick over the ground in late April, Baltimore orioles traditionally whistle in the first week in May and the great flood continues throughout the month.

REFLECTIONS AND BIRDS

Q: How do I keep birds from flying into my windows?
A: The birds are seeing a reflection of the place where they want to be (trees, flowers, etc.). Impede this reflection by putting things in the windowsill or by hanging Mylar strips just outside the window. The birds will see the moving strips and will not be tempted to fly into them. Male birds often will peck at their reflection thinking that their reflection is another male attempting to take over their territory. Covering the windows as indicated above will help reduce this.

Q. Why is a cardinal fluttering outside my window, and even throwing himself at the glass?
A. The cardinal at your window sees his reflection and thinks another cardinal has invaded his space. He’ll likely keep this behavior up for weeks, exhausting himself and you, unless you take steps. Try taping a piece of cardboard to the outside of the window he’s flailing against. Once he can’t see his reflection, the cardinal should move on—this might take several days or up to a week.

St. Paul, Minn., resident Val Cunningham, who leads bird hikes for the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached by email.