Did You Know

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Photo by Laura Erickson

by Val Cunningham, Contributing Writer

January 2014

Owls and airports don’t mix

Q. Can this be true? I read that that some of those beautiful snowy owls landed at airports in the New York area and those in charge had them killed. This is unbelievable to me, and I wonder what would happen at our local airport if owls appeared there?
A. You’re right, airport authorities in New York and New Jersey, spooked about the possibility of owls colliding with planes, had several of them shot. A huge hue and cry erupted, and they’re now working to relocate the owls instead of killing them. I checked with Patrick Hogan at the Metropolitan Airports Commission and was relieved to learn that this wouldn’t happen here. “We’ve never used force to remove a snowy owl,” he said, adding, “For the most part we use harassment (noise cannons, fake predators, etc.) to discourage them from hanging around the airport. If that doesn’t work, we capture and relocate them.”

Why do snowy owls have an affinity for airports? They’re a tundra species that hunts in open areas, and airports look like home to them. Snowy owls are showing up in great numbers in the eastern half of the United States this winter, probably due to a scarcity of their prey. They’ve been sighted in Minnesota lately, too.

Large Dark Lumps

Q. On a drive in western Minnesota I saw about a dozen large dark lumps scattered in the stubble of a picked cornfield. At first I thought they were turkeys but then I saw white heads and big yellow beaks. Do eagles congregate to eat leftover corn? They appeared to be too scattered around the field to be feeding on carrion.
A. That’s a good question, and since I’ve never observed such behavior, I checked with Scott Mehus, the education director at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minn.

“My guess is that a farmer had spread homemade manure on his field,” Mehus said, and if it was a poultry, beef or swine operation, the manure probably contained the remains of livestock carcasses.

“That occurred during prime eagle migration season, and it’s fairly common to see eagles in farm country feeding like this after the farmer spreads manure. I tell my classes that eagles have a limited sense of smell and they need the meat that was put into the manure spreader to survive. Eagles are opportunistic predators and will take carrion when it’s available,” Mehus added.

An odd sight

Q. My friends and I were walking in the woods when we came across a dead chickadee among some low branches of a tree. Did the bird crash into the twigs and get caught?
A. It’s more likely that this was the work of a northern shrike, a predatory songbird that kills small rodents and birds and often stores them for later eating. Shrikes are notorious for hanging their dead prey on thorns, or wedging it into the Y of a branch, even sticking a bird or mouse onto barbed wire. In this way they create a larder for times when prey is scarce. Shrikes aren’t classed as birds of prey, since they don’t have powerful talons. Instead, they make their kills with their powerful beaks.

Eagles and ducks?

Q. I’ve seen eagles swooping over and scaring groups of coots on a local lake. I thought eagles mostly ate fish and am wondering whether the eagles would actually eat a coot?
A. Yes, eagles keep a close eye on groups of birds in the water and will swoop low over a raft of coots or ducks to see if there’s an impaired bird among them. Once an eagle discovers a bird that’s unable to escape due to illness or injury, it relentlessly hounds it until its prey is exhausted. After snatching it up in its huge talons, the eagle usually lands in a tree to eat. I’ve seen eagles dining on coots and mallards at a lake near my home, and once even observed an eagle eating a mallard while standing at the edge of a golf course pond.

Cold and blue

Q. We live near Grand Rapids and I was concerned to see a group of bluebirds flitting around in late October. Why were they still here that late in the year?
A. It’s disconcerting to see a bird we associate with summer so late in the season, but you needn’t fret, bluebirds are hardy little birds. As long as they can continue to find food, bluebirds (and many other songbird species) can survive the cold. In late fall—and even in winter—fruit is still abundant and it’s full of energy, adding to the “fat jacket” birds need to make it through cold nights. As nights get colder and longer, though, the birds will head southward.

Answers by Val Cunningham

November 2013

Local bird outings are free and fun

Q. Is there any kind of list of the bird outings that might be available in our area on any given weekend? I’d like to go out with a birding group soon, but don’t know where to look for information.

A. Look at the calendar on this page each Wednesday for a list of upcoming bird outings. You might also want to check the web for a nearby Audubon chapter (St. Paul Audubon, Minnesota River Valley Audubon, Minneapolis Audubon), then check their page for a roster of field trips. Nearly all outings are free and open to the public. Many of the nature centers in our area sponsor bird walks, so check their web sites for upcoming bird and nature walks. There are many to choose from: Springbrook Nature Center (Fridley), Wood Lake Nature Center (Richfield), Dodge Nature Center (West St. Paul), Maplewood Nature Center (Maplewood), Carpenter Nature Center (Hastings), Tamarack Nature Center (White Bear Township) and the Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge (Bloomington).

Rinse recipe

Q. You recently mentioned a bleach solution to use to rinse bird feeders. I would appreciate the recipe.
A. I should have included the proportions with that reply: After washing out feeders, dip them in a solution made up of 9 parts water to 1 part chlorine bleach, to kill pathogens. Then give feeders a thorough water rinse, to remove any trace of the bleach. This will help keep disease away from your bird feeders.

Ant solution

Q. I wanted to share how I keep ants out of my hummingbird feeder, for people to use next year: Buy a moat cup from a wild bird store or elsewhere, but don’t fill it with water. Instead, I hang it above the feeder, upside down, and smear petroleum jelly on the inside. I never, ever have ants at this feeder.
A. Good tip, this sounds like it will work well to stop ants from getting into the sugar water. Petroleum jelly can be very bad for birds if it gets on their feathers, but this sounds as if keeps the sticky stuff away from them.

Weather bird?

Q. I’ve heard that we get our first snowfall two weeks after the first juncos return. Any truth to that?
A. Juncos are a good indicator that winter is on its way. I hadn’t heard this claim before, but as it turns out, this year it did snow, very lightly, almost exactly two weeks after juncos appeared.

Home-made treats

Q. Can I use store-bought dehydrated fruit to put in bird cakes with nuts and seeds, or does it need to be fresh fruit? And what’s a good recipe for bird cakes for a variety of birds?
A. You certainly may use dehydrated fruit, in fact that’s the best kind to use. Fresh fruit would break up as you stirred the mixture and almost disappear. Chop up the dried fruit pieces (raisins, craisins, apricots, and just about anything else) and it should appeal to all birds who enjoy fruit.

Here are a recipe for what some call “bird pudding.” This doesn’t harden up as much as suet cakes do, but birds love to snack on it. Crumble up some pieces and add to flat feeders or suet cages.

Bird pudding
1 cup crunchy peanut butter
1 cup pure lard or butter (must be hard at room temperature)
2 cups quick oats
2 cups cornmeal
1 cup white flour
1/2 cup white sugar

Melt the peanut butter and lard/butter over medium heat, being careful
not to burn the mixture. Remove from heat and stir in remaining
ingredients. You can also add sunflower hearts, peanuts and/or dried
fruit. Spread on a cookie sheet and allow to cool in the frig until hard
enough to cut into pieces. Store in containers in the freezer until
needed.

Night raids

Q. Why is my bird seed disappearing during the night?
A. Several kinds of mammals are active at night and might be siphoning off your seed. Raccoons can reach feeders either by climbing up the feeder pole or nearby tree, or by dropping from a nearby structure. They’re the most likely culprit. Another possibility: a couple years ago I couldn’t figure out why the safflower seed in a hopper feeder was showered on the ground each morning. The culprits turned out to be a small group of flying squirrels, who knocked out seed as they glided in. They’re so darned endearing that I started feeding them peanuts placed in a nearby tree. A further possibility, if feeders hang low enough, might be white-tailed deer, who are always eager for a meal. Try a predator guard around the feeder pole, to keep raccoons out, and wire fencing set in a circle around the pole, about 5-ft in diameter, might deter any deer.

October 2013

Goldfinches hide in plain sight

Q. We usually have many goldfinches at the feeders in the summer but now I’m not seeing so many. Are these little birds ok?
A. There are two possible explanations for the lack of bright yellow little finches at your feeders. One is the fact that autumn is a time of abundance for seed-eaters and goldfinches are taking advantages of natural food sources. Readers report seeing them standing on sunflower heads to pull out seeds, shredding zinnia petals to reach interior seeds and even consuming seeds from catnip. Faced with this kind of bounty, goldfinches may make fewer visits to feeders until the seed crop diminishes. Above: A bright male goldfinch is in his element, plucking tasty seeds from wild bergamot heads. Photo by Jim Williams

Another possibility is that your feeders still are hosting goldfinches, but they don’t look like goldfinches. Soon after their youngsters fledge, goldfinches molt a new set of feathers, which turns them into little taupe-colored birds. We may glance out at a feeder and assume it’s covered by sparrows, but these could very well be a flock of winter-ready goldfinches.

Ant moats

Q. Ants have become a big problem at our hummingbird feeder and the birds won’t stop to feed when the fluid is filled with ants. What should we do?
A. Ants have very good sensors for sweet things and seem to quickly locate a nectar feeder. They slide down through the feeding ports, and then drown in the nectar. The best way to keep them out is either to attach an ant moat to the feeder’s hanger or buy a feeder that has a built-in moat. Once filled with water, a moat prevents ants from reaching the nectar. A side benefit: chickadees find these small water pools to be just their size, and they stop by frequently for a sip.

When to feed?

Q. How important is it to feed birds in the summertime? The sparrows eat up my entire food budget for the month in less than a week, so I’ve taken the feeders down for the summer, but will put them back up for winter.
A. Good question, and if you need to be selective about feeding, then I’d hang out the feeders in winter and spring. Nature’s larder is full in summer and fall, providing easy meals for most kinds of birds. However, I keep my feeders up year round because I want to be able to observe backyard birds in all seasons.

Even in summer, adult birds often stop for a quick meal between visits back to the nest to feed their brood. And it’s fun to watch the young nuthatches, woodpeckers, cardinals, blue jays and finches learn how to use a feeder. I agree, sparrows are a negative force around feeders, hogging the feeding ports and tossing a great deal of seed onto the ground. By the time winter rolls around, their population usually has been significantly reduced due to predators and poorly developed survival skills.

Dusty bath

Q. I noticed a tiny bird flopping around on the ground and feared it was sick or injured. On closer inspection it turned out to be a chipping sparrow taking a bath in the dust. Is this normal?
A. Yes, many birds indulge in dust bathing in the summertime as a way to keep their feathers in top condition. The bird is using the dust as a de-greaser and insect-repellant. Dust absorbs excess oils that might lead to feather matting, and then the bird easily shakes it off. A dust bath also helps birds shed dry skin and may help control feather and skin parasites. Birds appreciate access to a small spot of open ground for their dust baths.

Right on time

Q. I just saw two hummingbirds at the feeder [in early August]. Is this late?
A. Those hummingbirds were right on time. The males (showing the ruby-colored throat feathers) are the first to leave, starting their journeys during the first half of August. Females and juveniles follow later, beginning migration in mid-August, with some stragglers still passing through as late as mid-October. Females and young birds are green and white, lacking a bright throat, and many people assume that these are a different species of hummingbird, but they’re still members of the ruby-throated hummingbird family.

Squirrel foiler

Q. We were having trouble with squirrels getting into our feeders, even with a “witch’s hat” predator guard around the pole. Then the owner of our local feed store advised us to wrap flexible tin flashing, the kind used for stovepipes, around the pole. We did it and it works beautifully. It has grooves and snaps together and our seed bill has gone down dramatically, now that the squirrels can’t crawl in.
A. I love it when people are creative and come up with solutions to bird feeder challenges. You also mentioned that you’re very dedicated about cleaning your feeders regularly with a vigorous wash, followed by dip in a bleach solution, then a thorough rinse. This is one of the best things each of us can do to ensure bird health, since feeders unnaturally concentrate birds and this may spread diseases.

Ticked off robins

Q. During nesting season there was an unusual occurrence in my backyard: I heard a great deal of chattering coming from a tree, then a red-tailed hawk flew out, with four robins chasing it off the premises. I was in absolute awe at being able to observe this scene.
A. That must have been quite a sight, and it confirms what excellent parents robins make. I’d bet two of the four were parent birds who didn’t appreciate the hawk landing in their nesting tree. Their loud protests brought in two more robins and all the commotion was enough to convince the hawk to find another perch.

Eagle viewing

Q. We’ll be having out-of-town guests in mid-October and they’d really like to see bald eagles. Do you know where they’re likely to be seen at that time?
A. One of the most reliable spots for viewing bald eagles in fall and winter is along the Mississippi River in South St. Paul. The Kaposia Landing Dog Park area offers free parking and great viewing. There almost surely will be eagles perched in the trees across the river near this spot. Do an online search under Kaposia Landing Dog Park and you’ll find good maps.

Cats in, or out?

Q. I know my cat never catches birds, so what’s the problem with him going outside?
A. Many of us who are cat owners would swear on a stack of Peterson Field Guides that our pets don’t harm birds, but all the studies show otherwise: cats outdoors take a terrific toll on birds each year. Researchers at Wichita State University conducted a year-long study of cats allowed to roam outdoors and found that every single cat—even those who’d been declawed—killed birds. In some cases, pet owners were certain that their cats weren’t bird killers, until their pet’s fecal material told a different tale. Cats are attuned to movement, and birds are very active, catching the eye of these highly skilled predators. The best thing I’ve seen for allowing cats outdoor time with no danger to birds are cat enclosures, providing plenty of room for cats but keeping them from roaming. Do a search for “cat enclosures” and you’ll find many examples, some you could build yourself, others are ready to purchase. These aren’t cheap but they do save birds.

September 2013

Swans are loyal to their nest

Q. A pair of trumpeter swans nested on the pond behind our house and hatched four cygnets this spring. Within a few days, two of the cygnets had disappeared and the family moved to the other side of the pond. We’re wondering if the parents will come back to nest next year and what predator might have taken the young swans.
A. I discussed your questions with Madeleine Linck, who works to help restore this beautiful swan to our area for Three Rivers Park District and the Trumpeter Swan Society. She notes that trumpeter pairs are usually very faithful to their nesting sites and often return year after year. There are many predators on the lookout for young swans, including coyotes, mink, owls and snapping turtles, and it’s not unusual for a few cygnets to be lost this way, especially if parents are young and inexperienced. Swans generally move away from the nest site once their young have hatched and may rest and preen on muskrat houses and beaver lodges, both of which offer some protection from coyotes. You’re very lucky to have this window into the family life of these spectacular birds.

Lovely in lavender

Q. I was watching two hairy woodpeckers at our feeders (one was feeding the other) and noticed that they had lovely, pale lavender feathers on their upper chests. Is this unusual for this type of bird?
A. I’m seeing the same lavender ascots on a mother and daughter pair of hairy woodpeckers at my feeders, too. Your sharp eyes picked up on an side effect of woodpeckers adding variety to their diet at this time of year: Fruit and berries are abundant and are prized by many species. As the older woodpecker passes a berry via her beak to her offspring, some juice invariably spurts out, dyeing the throat and chest feathers on both birds.

Too young to fly

Q. There’s been a cardinal nest in the shrubbery out back, and one day one of the youngsters was on the ground, where the parents seemed to be bringing it food. I thought young birds didn’t leave the nest until they could fly.
A. As stressful as it is for humans to observe, and for parent birds to cope with, young birds frequently tumble to the ground some days before they are able to fly. In your case, the parent birds are feeding their youngster and you noted that there are no cats or dogs in the area, so the young bird is safe and should be flying within the week. Why do bird leave their nest too soon? It gets crowded in there as nestlings grow, and young robins, blue jays, cardinals and others sometimes find there’s just not enough room to flap their wings to develop flight muscles.

The exception to the ‘leave-it-alone’ approach: if a young bird on the ground appears injured it should go to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Roseville, Minn.

Sparrow foiler update

Q. Just wanted to report that I’ve been using a Magic Halo device on my feeders for some time and it not only keeps sparrows out of the feeders, they don’t even feed on the ground under the feeders. It frustrates the sparrows but our other birds are fine with it.
A. I’m very glad to hear that that this device, which capitalizes on the house sparrow’s poor maneuverability and apparent fear of anything new, is working so well for you. Imagine: sparrows not even feeding on the ground. However, other readers report that their sparrows just ignore the halo and keep on feeding. One reader even noted that his male sparrows seem daunted by the device, but the females blithely use it as a perch. So even though results seem to be mixed, I feel it’s worth a try if sparrows are keeping other birds from your feeders — read more here.

Shrubs for birds

Q. I want to plant a couple shrubs this fall and wonder what kinds are best for birds?
A. Good for you, for considering the needs of birds in your planting plan. Right off the bat I’m going to advise planting shrubs that are native to our area. Many species of birds, including those migrating through in the fall, feast on the berries of the gray dogwood and red-osier dogwood, elderberry, black chokeberry, and several kinds of serviceberry and viburnum shrubs. Shrubs provide both food and shelter for birds. These plants’ needs for water and sunlight vary, so it’s best to work with a native plant nursery in making your selections. Try this Department of Natural Resources site for a list of such nurseries in our area. Mariette Nowak’s book, Birdscaping in the Midwest, is also an excellent resource for planting suggestions.

Quiet time

Q. As I take my daily walk I notice that there are very few birds singing in late summer, so it’s a lot quieter. I’m mostly hearing song sparrows, goldfinches and the occasion chickadee and cardinal. But then I wonder why birds would be singing now, anyway?
A. You’re a very observant watcher of and listener to the natural world and have picked up on the fact that most songbirds stop singing once they get down to the serious business of raising their young. Bird like the song sparrow, indigo bunting and cardinal, which raise two broods each summer, can be heard singing throughout the season (in fact, cardinals sing all year long). They need to remind other birds that they’re holding a territory and renew the bond with their mate.

Goldfinches, the last songbirds to nest each summer, are exceptionally vocal at this time of year. Males are communicating with their mates and often sing as they fly around or perch in the nesting area. Other noisy birds at this time include blue jays, as parent birds teach their youngsters the ropes, and young robins, who are practicing their species’s song, sometimes incessantly. Overall, though, things are much quieter out there, and this will be true until next spring’s dawn chorus erupts.

Treetop bird

Q. I noticed a fairly large bird with a long beak standing on top of a tree and thought it was a green heron, but the throat and chest were covered in brown streaks, so I’m wondering if it was an American bittern?
A. That’s an interesting observation, and the first thing that came to my mind was a green heron, since the bird was on top of a tree. A bittern would be a possibility but these birds tend to lurk in the reeds and cattails and are seldom seen. Young green herons have spotted necks and chests, as you described, and this species has a fairly long beak. So I’m betting that your bird was a green heron.

Colorless birds

Q. Two very pale birds, sort of a light beige color, have been coming to our feeders along with the sparrows. Could these be albino sparrows?
A. These birds probably are sparrows, since they’re spending time with other sparrows, but they’re not albinos, if they have any color at all in their feathers. They sound more like leucistic birds, which means that while they have some color, they lack the normal pigmentation of others of their species.

Late August 2013

Urban turkeys becoming common sight

Q. I’ve been noticing more and more wild turkeys around the metro area and have been wondering what their nests look like.
A. You’re right, turkeys are becoming more prevalent in our cities and suburbs. A female turkey scratches a shallow depression on the ground to hold her eggs, usually in a wooded area. She incubates the eggs for about 28 days, then leads her poults away from the nest site. The young turkeys shelter under their mother’s wings at night and on cold days. Photo: Turkeys are becoming a commonplace sight around the Twin Cities metro, and some even boldly cross lawns and perch on decks. Credit: Jim Williams

Screen-shedding finches

Q. Finches are pecking at my screens and causing a lot of damage. Is there any way to stop this behavior and have you ever heard of this before?
A. No, I’d never before heard of finches damaging screens. Your message arrived just as goldfinch nesting season was getting under way, making me wonder if that wasn’t a factor. I found a wild bird store page (http://lansingwbu.blogspot.com/2012/06/birds-pecking-holes-in-screens.html) that shows a goldfinch causing significant damage to a window screen. If “your” finch appears again next year, you’ll need to deter him/her from causing damage. Try hanging Mylar tape or balloons alongside the window under attack, or attach CDs to wires and suspend them nearby. A plastic snake might even do the job. Good luck with this, there’s always something new in the bird world.

Coughing duck

Q. On our evening walk around a pond we’ve noticed a female mallard who seems to have a cough, or possibly hiccups. Might she have an infection and could she pass it to other ducks?
A. I checked with a veterinarian at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Roseville, Minn., and was advised that an upper respiratory infection is a possibility, but sneezing and eye discharge would be more likely symptoms. However, ducks preen a great deal, especially now, during molting season, and she may have got a feather stuck in her throat. If the duck seems to otherwise be doing all right, it sounds like you needn’t worry about her infecting other ducks.

Fresh water

Q. How often should we be hosing out the birdbath? Sometimes when the starlings get finished with their communal baths the water is grisly!
A. You’re right, a troop of bathing birds can really cloud the water, and even add poop to the mix. During the summer, birds make such heavy use of our two birdbaths that we hose them out several times each day. You may have noticed that birds seem to stay away from a really dirty birdbath, so leave the hose nearby and refresh the water often.

Crestless cardinals

Q. We have a pair of cardinals that look a little different than usual, in that neither has a crest. Could they be some sort of mutants, or juvenile birds?
A. These could be young birds from their parents’ first nest this year, who haven’t yet molted the feathers that create the characteristic cardinal crest. Or they might be older birds who lost all their head feathers at once (the “bald cardinal” effect) and are just now starting to molt those feathers back. Sometimes cardinals suppress their crests for brief periods, when not excited or threatened, but you’ve observed this pair for some time, so I’d vote for either youth or a fast molt.

No hummingbirds

Q. We’ve always had an abundance of hummingbirds until this year, when only a few have shown up. They seem to taste the nectar I put out, then fly off without returning. I haven’t made any changes in the nectar mixture, so wonder if there’s some problem with the little birds this year.
A. There haven’t been any reports of changes in the hummingbird population, so I suspect you’re experiencing the rather typical behavior of birds moving to other feeding territories, for unknown reasons. They can be fickle little birds, and I’ve had reports from other readers this year who are enjoying record numbers of hummingbirds at their feeders. I’ll bet you’ll enjoy many visits to your nectar feeders during fall migration, which starts in mid-August. (One remote possibility: hummingbirds are said to be able to detect very low levels of soap residue in feeders, so it’s best to wash them without using soap.)

Wimpy blue jays

Q. I put out peanuts for blue jays but lately they’ve been failing to take them. My husband has seen the jays being chased away by orioles and sometimes catbirds. Have you heard of such a thing before?
A. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of blue jays being intimidated by smaller birds. I wonder if the jays could be young birds who don’t know yet that they’re bigger than orioles and catbirds and don’t need to fear them. I’ll bet the dynamic will shift fairly soon and at the very least, the orioles and catbirds will migrate away this fall.

Foiling squirrels

Q. Do you have any suggestions for keeping squirrels out of bird feeders? I’m just about ready to give up.
A. I perfectly sympathize with your wish to keep squirrels out of your feeders. They can cause so much damage, and while they’re jumping at or sitting in feeders the birds stay away. I’d like to suggest a feeding system that should work perfectly, although it does require an initial investment. We’ve had this kind of system going in my backyard for 20 years and have never, ever had a squirrel in the feeders.

Here’s what you need, in terms of hardware:
• a shepherd’s hook—a pole with 2 or 3 arms sticking out (get the 8-ft. kind).
• a squirrel baffle for the pole—we use the metal “witch’s hat” kind, but some folks
modify a garbage can lid to fit around their pole.
• for finch feeders, a tall pole that a tube feeder can be screwed into, plus a baffle guard for the pole.

Place the pole in a spot where you can see it from the house (so you can enjoy your visitors), at least 15 feet from any kind of structure or tree—squirrels can jump quite high, and don’t forget, they can drop down from branches, too. If you’ve put the pole out in a spot where squirrels can’t jump or drop into the feeders,
and you’ve added a squirrel baffle, so they can’t climb the pole, then you should have a squirrel-free system. Hang feeders from the hooks and sit back and enjoy the birds. Squirrels will still visit to glean the seeds that drop to the ground, but they won’t be able to get into your feeders. You can find these products at wild bird supply stores, garden stores or on the web.

Early August 2013

Keeping “bad” birds out of good seed

Q. I need to do something to discourage the grackles that eat all the seed and suet in my feeders. I remember you suggested taking down feeders to discourage pests, but I can’t remember how long I should do this.
A. Sorry to hear you’ve been invaded by these greedy black birds, and if it’s any comfort this is happening all over the metro area. So many of us who feed birds are inundated with grackles, starlings and/or red-winged blackbirds in mid-summer. The standard advice is to take down feeders for two weeks, which also means desirable birds don’t get fed, either. I’ve tried putting my feeders back up after five days, but my problem bird, the starlings, have kept returning, so two weeks it is over here. Photo: Common grackles and other blackbirds are often feeder hogs, scooping up seed and driving off smaller birds. Credit: Jim Williams

Summer suet?

Q. What’s your take on continuing to offer suet for the woodpeckers during the summer? My birds seem to love it.
A. Suet is a great food for parent birds worn down by their efforts to keep their hungry nestlings fed. But raw suet, the kind you buy at the meat counter, poses a danger to birds in hot weather. It melts, and if the oil drips onto bird feathers, they lose their ability to stay dry and keep out the heat. So my advice is to offer suet in rendered suet cakes throughout the summer, switching to the raw stuff in late October or November.

Oddball birds

Q. Several birds coming to our feeders look a lot like cardinals except they have black heads, and their eyes appear bigger than normal. Any ideas?
A. This is about the time each year that readers begin reporting “bald” cardinals. What they’re seeing, and you probably are, too, is cardinals that have lost all their head feathers and their disconcertingly black skin shows through. The lack of feathers makes their eyes appear larger, too. What happened to make their feathers to fall out? There are two main theories, either that some cardinals molt all their head feathers at once (I’m leaning toward this one) or that some tiny mite eats away the shafts and their head feathers fall out. See a cardinal with no head feathers here: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw/AboutBirdsandFeeding/BaldBirds.htm. Within a few weeks these cardinals will have replaced lost head feathers.

Keeping finches around

Q. I love goldfinches for their bright yellow color and the way they flock to my feeders. Is there anything I can do to keep them here year round?
A. Would you be surprised to learn that goldfinches are here every month of the year? The reason you may not have noticed this is that these chipper little birds look so different in the wintertime: they molt out of their bright yellow feathers into a drab, taupe feather coat that lets them fade into the background. The goldfinches we see in winter may not be the exact same ones we host in the summer, but they’re the same species.

‘Dirty’ hairies

Q. A very odd-looking hairy woodpecker has been coming to my feeders: instead of white feathers on the head, back and stomach, she has tan-colored feathers. Is this abnormal?
A. Very interesting, and as it happens, I’ve been hosting a tan and black hairy woodpecker at my feeders, too. I checked with Cornell Lab’s Birds of North America Online (a subscription service), and found that this is not all that unusual. In our region there are a number of reports of hairy woodpeckers showing buff, grayish or brownish feathers instead of the more usual white. This seems to be a genetic variation, but it’s also possible that some of these birds have been stained by the tannins in tree bark or have spent time in an area that recently burned.

Shirking Canadas?

Q. Why did I see so many Canada geese flying around in the middle of June? Shouldn’t they have been nesting and raising youngsters?
A. That’s a good question and I didn’t know the answer so checked The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds site: they say this is normal behavior for Canada geese who didn’t breed this year or lost a nest to a predator or the weather. Since there was nothing keeping them here, these birds tended to move north to forage while they went through their seasonal molt. Geese and ducks lose all their flight feathers at once and lose the ability to fly for a few weeks. Before this happens, they fly to secluded lakes or lakes with islands to wait out the molting process in safety.

Woodpecker weirdness

Q. I noticed a red-bellied woodpecker working on a bluebird nest box today. He was pecking around the entrance, then leaning and trying to get in. What could he have been up to?
A. The red-bellied woodpecker is a known nest thief. During their own nesting season many of these woodpeckers relish the easy protein presented by another bird’s nestlings. However, they’re not alone in this, since almost any larger bird will eat a smaller bird’s helpless offspring. To guard against this, many bluebird trail monitors place a wire mesh predator guard over the entrance hole.

Sparrow woes

Q. I am so frustrated by house sparrows dominating our feeders. Other birds don’t come in while they’re there and they eat and spill so much seed. Is there anything that can be done?
A. Sparrows are a pain for nearly everyone who feeds birds in the metro area. They’re such a successful species precisely because they prefer to live near humans and they reproduce in high numbers, producing hordes to descend on feeders. I’ve stopped offering black-oil sunflower seeds, which are preferred by so many kinds of birds, since these are so popular with sparrows and blackbirds. I’ve switched to safflower seed in domed feeders and a mix of nyger and sunflower chips in tube feeders with perches. Sparrows will eat safflower but it’s not their favorite and they don’t perch very well, and therefore tend to avoid finch feeders.

I’ve been intrigued by a product called the Magic Halo, which has devoted fans. It’s based on the premise that sparrows don’t like to maneuver to get to an object. Here’s the North American Bluebird Society page on this product (if there’s any group that works to control sparrow populations, this is the one): http://www.sialis.org/halo.htm. I hope you have success in reducing the impact of these feeder pests.

July 2013

Do cardinals rob other birds’ nests?

Q. After hearing some birds shrieking I went to investigate and found a male and female cardinal chasing house sparrows away from a nest in a thick vine. The sparrows kept trying to come back but the male chased them off. Have you ever heard of cardinals taking over a sparrow nest?
A. There are a couple possible explanations for the bird battle you observed, and I suspect the shoe was on the other foot in this situation. I have never heard of cardinals harming the eggs or nests of other birds so you can probably rule this out. Cardinals build their nests in the open, in shrubs or trees, while sparrows nest inside a cavity, such as a tree hole or nest box. This sounds like all the activity was occurring near an outside nest, which suggests that it belonged to the cardinals and the sparrows were interfering. The sparrows may have been trying to steal some material for their own nest. Photo by Don Severson.

Juncos move up

Q. I thought juncos only fed on the ground, but during the spring-that-never-came I saw them feeding at my tube feeders and suet cage. Is this common or is it due to the strange weather?
A. You’re right, juncos are primarily ground feeders, scrabbling on open ground under trees and feeders for morsels of food. But they’ve had to “think outside the box” during our prolonged, cold pre-spring. Many readers reported seeing juncos clinging to their feeders, especially those filled with suet, for life-sustaining calories. These resilient little birds saw other birds doing this and decided to give it a try.

Albino eagle?

Q. I was at the cabin and saw a bald eagle soaring overhead, then it was joined by what I think was an albino eagle. The second bird was pure white with black wing tips. What do you think?
A. Whenever I hear about an all-white bird with black tips on its wings I immediately think of a white pelican. This may seem like an odd diagnosis, but pelicans are about eagle sized (actually, they’re larger, but this bird may have been soaring above the eagle and looked smaller), and they’re white except for those characteristic black wing tips. An albino eagle is a rarity and such a bird would have no color in any of its feathers.

Too cold for birds?

Q. I’ve been fretting about all the birds that showed up in late April, like the loons and the herons, and the hummingbirds are due soon. I guess they’ve survived many seasons without me having to worry about them, but I do feel concerned. Your thoughts?
A. I’d bet that we humans were more discouraged by spring’s tardiness than the birds were. Great blue herons return when there’s enough open water along ponds, lakes and rivers to serve their aquatic diet. Loons, too, fly in only after some water has opened up, allowing them to swim and dive for food. They leave for their nesting sites as lakes and ponds open up in the north.

As for hummingbirds, they may be tiny, but they’re some of the hardiest birds in the avian world. They invariably arrive at our latitude before flowers are in bloom to provide nectar. They tide themselves over by drinking tree sap. Sometimes the sap flows naturally out of wounds in tree bark, but more often the hummingbirds help themselves to sap wells drilled by yellow-bellied sapsuckers.

Fellow travelers

Q. Do any raptors migrate in flocks?
A. The hawk that’s found most frequently migrating in groups is the broad-winged hawk, a medium-sized cousin of the red-tailed hawk. Few of us ever see broad-winged hawks because they’re birds of the forest. Two other raptors found in our region, the turkey vulture and the Swainson’s hawk, remain together for days or weeks during migration. Most other raptors may find themselves in large groupings of birds of prey on migration, as they soar together in rising hot air for some minutes or an hour. These aren’t flocks but instead I’ve seen them described as bird traffic jams as they travel through an area.

Evicting sparrows

Q. How do I stop the little brown birds from making nests in my bluebird houses?
A. Those little brown birds are almost surely house sparrows and bluebirds and house sparrows are a toxic mix. Sparrows compete fiercely for nest boxes since they, like bluebirds, are cavity nesters. Sparrows try to drive off nest box occupants, and they’ll even pierce eggshells or kill female bird on the nest in order to take it over. It’s important to evict the sparrows each and every time they attempt to nest, and do whatever else is needed to deter them, such as not offering seed on the ground. (Sparrows are not a native species, so are not protected by laws designed to protect migratory birds.) Here’s a link to a fact sheet with some excellent tips for discouraging sparrows: http://www.michiganbluebirds.org/problem-solving. Good luck with this, sparrows can be very persistent but they can be thwarted. [end]

June 2013

Backyard bird feeders need elbow grease

Q. How often, really, do I need to clean my bird feeders?
A. I’m glad you asked that question, because this is a topic that simply doesn’t get enough attention. We aren’t doing birds any favors if we offer them food in filthy feeders—these spread diseases that can sicken and even kill avian visitors.

Some of us may assume that winter’s cold is enough to kill off harmful bacteria, but this isn’t always true. The two major bacterial diseases that can be transmitted from bird to bird at feeders are salmonella and avian conjunctivitis, both of which can lead to bird deaths. The Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Roseville, Minn., sees a peak in both diseases in January and February, proof that cold doesn’t necessarily prevent these illnesses.

In winter, birds bunch up at feeders and, if healthy, their bodies can generally fight off salmonella infections. But birds in less than peak condition due to lack of food or water or injury may succumb.

Dr. Leslie Reed, a wildlife veterinarian at the rehab center, notes that salmonella can be spread when bird feces comes in contact with their food. And conjunctivitis passes between birds as they rub against feeder surfaces.

So hygienic feeders are very, very important. I’d recommend cleaning feeders at least twice a year, at the end of summer and again at winter’s end. Four times a year is even better. Start by tossing any old seed, and then use the standard “recipe”: clean feeders thoroughly, then rinse in a solution of 9 parts water to 1 part chlorine bleach (this kills bacteria). Rinse feeders thoroughly again, dry them, then fill with fresh seed and replace them outdoors. If you use inexpensive plastic tube feeders and find then hard to clean, toss them out each year and buy new ones.

Linnea Carlson, who owns Chickadee’s House Wild Bird Store in Roseville, says “Clean feeders can be the difference between life or death to our feathered friends.” She gives these tips to customers:

  • Have many bird feeders, since more feeders mean less crowding and less sharing of diseases.
  • Clean feeders at least four times a year.
  • If seed gets wet, toss it out, clean the feeder and refill with fresh seed.
  • If you see sick birds, take down and clean feeders or replace them with new feeders. Wait two weeks to hang clean/new feeders.
    To be on the safe side, wear gloves when you’re washing out feeders, but you needn’t worry about catching either of these diseases yourself.

Photo: A group made up of several species, including a chickadee, purple finch, goldfinches, a cardinal and tree sparrow, feeds contentedly at clean feeders. Credit: Don Severson

Bad shells?

Q. After I sweep up under my feeders, should I put the sunflower shells in the compost heap? Is there a danger of spreading disease?
A. Excellent questions: it’s great that you’re cleaning up under feeders, because this area can be a source of contagion for ground-feeding birds. The heat in the compost pile should kill off the pathogens, but black oiler sunflower shells carry a mild toxin that suppresses plant growth. For this reason, I’ve always tossed such shells in the trash, but I read recently that the toxin breaks down among composted materials, although this takes a long time. Some gardeners spread the old hulls in areas where they want to kill weeds.

Sparrow factory

Q. I’m going to get rid of an old purple martin apartment, since it’s only used by sparrows. Can you suggest another bird we might try to attract with a house and is there a good book or other resource on this?
A. It’s good that you’re eliminating a sparrow factory and how about setting up a nest box for a chickadee or house wren, both of which commonly nest in backyards. Choose a box that has a small entrance hole, to keep out bigger birds (1 1/8 inch-in diameter for chickadees, 1-inch for wrens). And the best book on the subject of nest boxes and birds that use them is Carrol Henderson’s Woodworking for Wildlife, 3rd edition. Even if you don’t plan to build a nest box, the book is crammed with useful information.

Long-billed woodpecker

Q. A woodpecker with an unusually long beak has been visiting our suet feeder. What are its chances?
A. Thanks for sending the photos of this odd woodpecker whose beak is so long it resembles a hummingbird. There are reports of this kind of deformity around the country, especially among chickadees in Alaska, although the cause is not yet known. This bird is lucky it can visit your suet because it surely can’t forage normally. I hope you can continue to provide suet cakes throughout the seasons, and maybe even smear some peanut butter on tree bark, since the bird is going to need some help to survive. Here are two links with information about this condition:
http://alaska.usgs.gov/science/biology/landbirds/beak_deformity
http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/09/bird-sleuths-stymied-by-bea…

Habitat for hummers

Q. What’s the best spot for my hummingbird feeder?
A. You’ll have the most success in attracting hummingbirds if you place your feeder in its own micro-habitat. Hummingbirds spend much of the day perching, so put the feeder near a small tree or arbor or some other perching spot. They also like to feel safe from predators, so they’ll appreciate some shrubs or evergreens for hiding. And they seem to have an affinity for water, even though they don’t bathe the way songbirds do, so having a birdbath nearby is a good idea. If you have more than one hummingbird around, it’s a good idea to provide several nectar feeders, with some distance between them, so one bird doesn’t corral all the feeders.

May 2013

Woodpeckers very active during breeding season

Q. We live next to a woodlot and it’s full of woodpeckers. Lately they’ve been chasing each other around our yard trees and I’m wondering if this is play or are they fighting?
A. Woodpecker chases may look like they’re playing a game, but this is the serious business of courtship. A male woodpecker drums to warn off other males and attract a female to survey his territory (and evaluate his fitness as a mate). The male is programmed to drive away any intruders, so at first he chases the female bird. But if she persists and won’t leave, she’s probably indicating her willingness to mate. A male hairy woodpecker (right) has just chased a female into a tree on his territory, part of their courtship ritual. Photo by Jim Williams.

Q. When should I put out my hummingbird and oriole feeders?
A. You can take your nectar feeders out of storage, give them a good rinsing and hang them outdoors during the third week in April. The first hummingbirds are usually reported in late April and Baltimore orioles arrive the first week in May.

Q. I’ve been hearing the loveliest bird song since February, it’s very rich and goes on for a long time. Any idea what the bird is?
A. I’d bet the bird you’re hearing is a house finch, since they begin singing in late winter/early spring, and their song is lovely, a wonderful tonic on days when it seems that spring will never come. Hear the house finch here: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/house_finch/sounds.

Q. I hope you can explain something that occurred at our bird feeding station. A barred owl was on the ground, digging in the fresh snow. It seemed to tug or grasp at something deep in the snow, then would fly up and sit on the feeding platform before flying down to try it again.
A. Thanks for sending photos of the owl at work, I’ve never had a chance to observe this behavior. As you know, this winter has been notorious for deep snow with a heavy crust on top, both of which make hunting difficult for owls. I’ll bet your barred owl was hearing mice or voles scurrying around at ground level but was simply unable to break through the snow crust to reach its prey. There are many reports of starving owls from around the state, and the condition of the snow is a key factor.

Q. Is it unusual to see a great horned owl on a nest as early as February and March?
A. The owl you’re seeing is doubtless the female great horned owl, since she handles all incubation duties. And she’s right on schedule, this owl species begin laying eggs as early as January. The female must incubate her eggs around the clock to keep them from freezing.

Q. I don’t like working with chlorine bleach. Can’t I use vinegar to clean my bird feeders?
A. I sympathize, because chlorine bleach is pretty powerful stuff. But vinegar isn’t as effective at killing off the several kinds of bacteria that can infest feeders and food. To be on the safe side, please continue to use the formula of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water in your cleaning solution, then rinse feeders thoroughly.

Q. I’ve been wondering if feeding birds is bad for them? It’s not really natural.
A. I don’t think it causes any harm to birds to feed them seeds and suet, as long as feeders are kept clean and the seed is fresh. Some people worry that feeders create dependency in birds, but studies have shown this doesn’t happen. Birds get most of their nutrition from natural sources and visit our feeders for only a portion of their daily caloric total. It’s often said that we feed birds to please ourselves: feeders bring birds in so we can view them from our windows. However, dirty feeders and spoiled seed do harm birds, and can lead to their death, so feeder hygiene is extremely important.

Q. Red-bellied woodpeckers have been showing up at my feeders for the past few years, and I was surprised to see them gorging themselves on the oranges I put out for orioles. A male will even fill his bill with a large batch of orange stuff and carry it off, I presume to the female on the nest. The other woodpeckers ignore the oranges, though.
A. Thanks for sending in your fascinating observations of the eating habits of your red-bellied woodpeckers. This really is not all that surprising, since in the wild they feed on fruit and berries (as well as insects and nuts). Red-bellieds are known to visit orchards to peck into oranges, grapefruit and even mangos, so this fruit-eating behavior isn’t unusual in this species.

Late April 2013

Learning to tell hawks apart

Q. I enjoy watching raptors, but other than eagles and red tail-hawked hawks, I have a hard time knowing what I’m looking at. Any advice?
A. You’re certainly not alone—few of us are experts at telling one raptor from another. One challenge is that a hawk perched in a tree can look very different from the same bird in flight. Another is that we usually see hawks as they’re flying far away. Here are several things that should help you develop raptor identification skills:
• Study Jerry Liguori’s excellent book, Hawks at a Distance, with its hundreds of photos of raptors in flight. I’ve found this book to be very helpful in providing identification clues (it’s a bargain at less than $20).
• Go out hawk watching with someone who’s good at identifying hawks, and ask him/her to tell you what features they’re using to identify an individual bird: how do they know it’s a broad-winged hawk and not some other bird?
• Visit Hawk Ridge in Duluth during fall raptor migration (generally, mid-September to mid-October) and listen to the educators and others as they display birds caught in the banding nets. Check it out at http://www.hawkridge.org/visit/visit.html.
• Familiarize yourself with the birds you’re likely to see in our area (bald eagle, red-tailed hawk, broad-winged hawk, red-shouldered hawk, Cooper’s hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, American kestrel, merlin, rough-legged hawk) to learn their habitats and whether they’re migratory.
This will help narrow the field somewhat. Good luck, and you’re going to have fun on this journey!

Q. We’ve had some bad looking house finches at the feeders, can you tell me what’s wrong with their eyes?
A. It sounds like those house finches are suffering from avian conjunctivitis, a bacterial infection that has hit this species hard. The disease causes the tissue around the eyes to swell and itch, and their eyes may become matted shut. They then are vulnerable to starvation and/or to predators. Some birds recover on their own, but may still be carriers. Be sure to take down any feeders the finches use and clean them thoroughly at least weekly.

Q. I usually have a big crowd of goldfinches at the feeders, but this year they’ve disappeared. What’s up with that?
A. These are “here today, gone tomorrow” birds, moving around in nomadic flocks in winter. Goldfinches stick to a seed diet throughout the seasons, and the finches you used to host must be finding enough food in the wild (or at someone else’s feeders). If you can be patient and keep feeders clean and seed fresh, those vibrant little birds should make an appearance soon.

Q. Is there an easy way to tell a pewee from a phoebe by listening to their songs?
A. I’m glad you picked these two species, because it shouldn’t be too much of a challenge to tell their songs apart. The phoebe’s song sounds very hoarse and raspy, while an eastern wood-pewee whistles up, then down. Hear them here:
www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Phoebe/sounds and www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern)Wood-Pewee/sounds.
Both these birds are migratory, and should be returning to the state soon to sing their songs.

Q. Watching some juncos scratching for food led me to wonder how ground-feeding birds locate food when the ground is covered with snow.
A. That’s an excellent question and a timely one after a snowy winter. Ground-feeding birds don’t have an easy time after heavy snowfalls: most don’t weigh much and can’t make a dent in deep snow. Juncos are adept at hopping on top of the snow in search of fallen seeds and may bunch up under feeders. Some of the other birds you see, such as house sparrows and cardinals, search for snow-free spots, such under an evergreen or deck, to forage. To assist your birds after deep snows, you could head out with a push broom to sweep areas clear under feeders and evergreens, then scatter new seed for hungry birds. They’ll show up within minutes after you head indoors.

Q. We’ve had a barred owl hanging around our feeders for several days, and a group of noisy crows showed up to dive at him to scare him away. Is this unusual?
A. Your barred owl was watching patiently for mice and other small rodents attracted by spilled seed, but the crows were having none of it. It’s their usual practice to join up to drive any owls they see out of the area—this is called mobbing. Crows know that they’re vulnerable to night-hunting owls, who regard a crow roost as providing easy pickings. The crows feel safer if they drive off daytime owls.

Q. Have you ever heard of a mouse getting into a suet feeder? I have two baffles on the feeder pole so he had to climb the pole and go through the small space around each baffle.
A. And here I thought the gray squirrel was the only rodent we had to worry about getting into feeders. But mice are very athletic and good climbers, so it’s not all that surprising that this one found a way to gain access to a delicious, high-energy food.

Q. Why are blue jays so noisy?
A. Blue jays are big, boisterous birds that like to communicate with other jays, as well as other kinds of birds. They have a big vocabulary, like their cousins, the crows, and aren’t shy about using it to warn of danger, scare other birds away from a food source or drive off cats and other predators. However, during nesting season, blue jays become almost silent, to protect their brood, and parent birds merely whisper to each other as they enter and leave their nest tree.

April 2013

Woodpecker Woes

Q. We have a problem woodpecker: he made some holes in our cedar siding last fall, and every time we’d patch one he’d move to a new spot. He’s out there pecking right now, is there any way to make him stop?
A. Woodpeckers have an affinity for wooden buildings, especially at this time of year. Sorry to learn you’re having such problems, but people with cedar-sided homes often encounter problems with these industrious birds. Your woodpecker either is searching for insects hidden in the channels in the siding, or he or she is seeking to make a cavity for roosting or nesting.

The best information I’ve come across on deterring woodpeckers is found at the Cornell
Lab of Ornithology site: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/wp_about/. Another good source is the Minnesota DNR: www.dnr.state.mn.us/livingwith_wildlife/woodpeckers/index.html. The DNR has a downloadable file on this whole topic at: files.dnr.state.mn.us/assistance/backyard/livingwith_wildlife/woodpecker-control.pdf. This site points out that no single method works in every case, so advises trying a variety of possible solutions.

In addition, if you’re not already doing so, you might want to offer foods woodpeckers enjoy, such as peanuts and suet cakes, at feeders some distance from the house. If the woodpecker is drilling into your house in search of food, this might help divert his attention.

Pictured at right: As a downy woodpecker chips at a wooden-sided home, it’s just doing what comes naturally, since these birds associate wood (either on a tree or on structures) with food or shelter. Photo by Jim Williams

Q. We’ve had two male house finches that had the eye infection, but now that the inflammations seems to have subsided. However, their eyes seem dull, they seem to have a vision deficit and their flight seems hesitant. We keep the feeders and birdbath very clean and wonder if the finches will recover?
A. I asked Dr. Leslie Reed, a veterinarian at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, about your finches. She advises that some finches will recover from avian conjunctivitis on their own, but they remain carriers and can infect other birds. Her advice is to capture the finches and bring them to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Roseville (http://www.wrcmn.org/). There they’ll be treated with antibiotics so they’re no longer infectious.

Q. I buy large chunks of suet at the meat market, but it’s a chore to thaw it out enough so I can cut off a chunk to fit the suet feeder each time. I don’t want to use a mesh bag for larger pieces, because I’ve heard birds can become caught in that. Any suggestions?
A. Good for you for thinking about the best way to offer suet to your backyard birds. You’re right, birds can become tangled in mesh bags holding suet, so it’s best to avoid this method. I’ve seen large suet holders for sale at wild bird supply stores and garden centers and these would hold a larger section of fresh suet. One advantage to your present system is that the smaller pieces of suet will be consumed before they have time to spoil.

Q. I have a heated birdbath and I know it’s advised to cover most of the water when it’s really cold outside. But what is “really cold?”
A. Good question, and you’re right, birds should be prevented from bathing in heated birdbaths when temperatures drop below 10 degrees F (some even say 20 degrees F). Birds bathe to maintain their feathers, but when it’s very cold a bath could lead to death by freezing. It’s a good idea to keep a wooden plank or other kind of barrier nearby to cover most of the bath on the coldest days, so birds may drink but not bathe.

Q. When does spring migration begin?
A. Migrants are already showing up in the state, with some of the earliest birds, horned larks, reported in late January in rural areas. Waterfowl begin to show up on open water in March. If you’re especially interested in songbirds, then start looking for bluebirds in late March, warblers and thrushes in early April and large numbers of orioles, catbirds and indigo buntings in early May. Hummingbirds are due in late April.

Late March 2013

Bald eagles are now guarding their nests all over the metro area, sometimes along highways or even in backyard trees.

Q. I drive by a bald eagle nest on the way to and from work, and the eagles seem like they’re guarding the nest now. When will they lay eggs and start a family?
A. You’re right, bald eagles have already begun their nesting season and pairs can be viewed perching in their nest trees all around the metro area (there is a well-known nest on the south side of Hwy. 36 on Keller Lake in Maplewood, another off Warner Rd. east of downtown St. Paul and one near Hwy. 10 between Hanson Blvd. and Main St. in Coon Rapids). Eagles have been refurbishing their large nests to get them ready for their new brood. Egg-laying usually occurs in March but this year some of our metro eagles already had eggs in the nest by late January. After about a month of brooding the eaglets, covered in a light-colored down, burst out of their shells. Eagles will always be a jaw-dropping sight and we’re lucky that their population is recovering so well after the ban on DDT. Minnesota ranks just behind Alaska for having the most eagle pairs.

Q. For the past few days we’ve had what I think are sparrows, up to 75 of them at a time, eating up all the thistle seed. Will they stick around?
A. I’m glad you sent a photo with your question, because this just didn’t sound like any sparrows I’m familiar with. The picture shows that your visitors are common redpolls, a small finch with a bright red cap. They’re visiting from Canada, where their usual sources of food are in short supply this winter.

Q. I’ve been seeing and hearing bluebirds all winter in the wetland behind my house. Isn’t this unusual?
A. People used to be amazed whenever they saw a bluebird in the summertime, because the population of these beautiful thrushes had dwindled by the 1970s. But with volunteers-led recovery programs, the eastern bluebird is rebounding and becoming almost a familiar sight. Now we’re amazed by the increase in reports of bluebirds staying up North all winter. Several factors, including milder winter temperatures, less snow cover and the planting of more fruit-bearing shrubs and trees, help account for this trend, which is documented by the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Counts. So seeing bluebirds in winter is becoming less unusual all the time.

Q. We have always had lots of woodpeckers at our suet feeders, but after we were away for a month and the suet feeders were emptied, we don’t see them anymore. I wonder if they’ll ever come back.
A. Now that you’re filling your feeders again I’m sure that the downy and hairy woodpeckers will return. When they found the suet feeder empty for several weeks, they switched to a different foraging route for a time. But birds keep their eyes on things, and all it will take is for one bird to drop down for a bite and the others will notice the activity. It might even be a daring little chickadee that alerts the other birds to a renewed food source.

Q. What’s the best thing to do when a bird is stunned after hitting a window in winter? Would picking it up and placing it in a covered box inside do more harm than good? And if the bird flies off later, is there still a chance it will die?
A. These are excellent questions, and the best advice for what to do about an unconscious bird on the ground comes from the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Roseville, Minn:

“If it’s cold outside or you’re worried about feral cats, you may place the bird in a shoe box and put it in your garage or an unused room. Be sure to close the door and keep the room quiet to help reduce stress on the already stressed bird. After an hour, take the box outside and lift the lid, and hopefully the bird will fly away. If not, and it’s evident that the bird has an injury, you should bring it in to the Center.”

Leslie Reed, one of the staff veterinarians at the center, tells me that there’s no way to know the final outcome, but if the bird flies off in a normal fashion and its eyes, mouth and nostrils seem clear, then it has a good chance at surviving.

March 2013

Q. I’ve never seen a Pileated Woodpecker before, but then suddenly one appeared on my neighbor’s ash tree. Is this unusual?
A. These large, crow-sized woodpeckers prefer to spend their time in the woods, but occasionally one will venture out into the city, most often into areas with mature trees, to search for insects hidden beneath the bark. I hope this doesn’t mean that the woodpecker detected emerald ash borers burrowing in your neighbor’s tree. I recently read that city foresters had discovered two new infestations of ash borers in St. Paul, and woodpeckers led them to the sites. Photo by Jim Williams: Big and shy, Pileated Woodpeckers drill deep into trees for grubs and for ants, their favorite food.

Q. I was out in the woods today and was lucky enough to see two great horned owls, but they looked exactly the same. Is there any way to tell the two sexes apart?
A. You really can’t tell great horned owls apart by their plumage, since males and females look exactly alike. The best indicator is size: females are larger than males. Unless you see two owls together, however, it’s tough to tell who’s bigger.

Q. It was my understanding that owls swallowed their food whole, but how could they do that with something as large as a heron or a woodchuck, as you recently wrote about?
A. You’re so right, owls typically swallow prey such as mice and voles whole, and then later cough up a pellet containing the indigestible bits. But great horned owls will hunt larger animals, even those too large to eat all at once and too heavy to carry off, such as rabbits and woodchucks. In such cases, they use their razor-sharp talons to slice off the head of their prey, which has the most nutrition value, and fly off to eat it out of sight.

Q. There were at least 15 cardinals at my feeders and in the trees this morning. Do cardinals travel as a group to feed in winter, or do they just happen to meet up at the feeders?
A. Cardinals are very territorial during breeding season, so we never see them in flocks from early spring to late fall. But as their hormones subside and the temperature falls, cardinals become much more tolerant of each other. We begin to see small groups of cardinals, usually a family, in late fall. In the deep of winter, when the birds need more calories to survive each day, it’s beneficial to have more eyes searching for food and watching out for predators, so the flock grows. Membership in a flock varies at different times of day, in different habitats and over the course of the winter. It’s also possible that more than one flock may meet up at feeders at the heaviest feeding times for cardinals, at dawn and dusk. So, the flock you see around your feeders probably traveled there as a group as they foraged. Soon, though, cardinals will begin singing their territorial songs and the flock will break up.

Q. This isn’t a bird-related question but could I really have seen an opossum under the bird feeders the other day?
A. Yes, it’s not at all unlikely for our backyards to attract a Virginia opossum. These marsupials used to be confined to the South, but have been pushing their way northward. Possums are primarily nocturnal but sometimes are out foraging during the day. With their scanty coats and unfurred ears and tail, they’re vulnerable to cold snaps. Possums scoop up dropped seed and often visit compost heaps.

Q. I’ve been feeding birds for many years, but this is the first time I’ve seen mourning doves under the feeders. Is this odd?
A. It’s not all that unusual to find mourning doves around our feeders in winter. These cousins of the pigeon eat seeds and grain so they’re especially drawn to cracked corn and seeds like millet. We’ve hosted them in the backyard for many years, most often at dusk, when a crowd gathers at the heated birdbath, seemingly warming up in the warm steam before heading to their nighttime roost. They’re fairly nomadic and haven’t appeared for the last couple years.

February 2013

Bluebirds aren’t blue with cold

Q. We spotted four bluebirds near our home in early January. Are they slow to migrate or are they thinking of roughing it through the winter like so many robins do?
A. Seeing bluebirds surrounded by snow strikes some of us as surreal, since we associate them with summer weather. But you can rest assured that, unless night temperatures drop far below zero, these small blue thrushes will be alright. Like their robin cousins, as long as they can find food—fruit and berries, at this time of year—and water to drink, they can survive. Since they’re short-distance migrants, if our weather becomes too bitter they may head southward.

Siskins succumb

Q. A large flock of pine siskins, 75 or so, have been visiting my feeders, but now I’m finding dead siskins around the yard. What do you think is going on?
A. Something is very wrong. While it’s sometimes tough to pinpoint the cause of a big die-off like you’re seeing, the two main possibilities are contaminated food or disease. There have been reports this winter of siskin die-offs due to salmonella poisoning in some cases, avian conjunctivitis in others. Birds that congregate in flocks can spread illnesses quickly. The first thing to do is take down all the feeders the siskins have been using, toss the seed, and clean the feeders carefully. Rinse them with a solution of 1 part chlorine bleach to 9 parts water, and then rinse again thoroughly before refilling with food.

No dunking in the cold

Q. You recently wrote about how birds need water in winter, but I’m reluctant to get a heated birdbath. I’ve heard that birds will bathe in the cold then fly off and freeze to death.
A. You make a very good point, and I should have added a cautionary note to that earlier advice: Yes, birds need water in winter, and a heated birdbath provides a reliable source for a drink. But some birds will try to bathe, even in the cold, to keep their feathers in good condition. When temperatures drop below 20 degrees, please put a board or other barrier across the center of the basin. This should allow birds to drink, but not to bathe. The other evening at dusk, when the temperature hovered around 12 degrees, a cardinal stepped into my birdbath basin. I ran out to shoo him away and quickly put a board across the top—it was just too cold for birds to bathe safely.

No-color birds

Q. My father had an albino sparrow at his bird feeder this summer. How rare is this?
A. If the bird was all white with pink eyes, then it truly was an albino and thus a fairly rare bird. A 1965 compilation of reports of albino birds showed robins and sparrows as having the highest incidence of albinism, about 8 percent in robins and a little over 5 percent in house sparrows. But these are two species that live close to humans, so it’s possible that albinism is reported more often in robins and sparrows. If your father’s sparrow was very pale but still had dark eyes, then it had a condition called leucism, which also is rare.

Suet emergency?

Q. I’m glad you wrote recently that birdfeeders account for only about 25 percent of a bird’s diet. I have shared this with my wife to show that we don’t have to dash out to find a suet source at 3 a.m. to forestall a mass extinction at sunrise of all suet-eating birds in our neighborhood.
A. I hope this isn’t a cause for controversy in your household, because you’ve both got right on your side. Birds won’t starve if they’ve come to count on a feeder and suddenly find it empty. But there’s no denying that it’s a real benefit to birds to regularly find a source of high-energy food in the morning, after a long winter’s night, and again at dusk, when they need to top off their stored fat to make it through the long night to come.

Young birdwatcher

Q. I’m looking for an inexpensive winter project to do with my 2-year-old grandson, who lives near a marsh and is interested in birds.
A. It’s great that you are looking for ways to nurture your grandson’s interest in birds and nature. How about creating a homemade bird feeder together, then all you’d need to buy would be some seed. Here’s a site with a video (scroll down) showing how to build a feeder from a plastic milk carton: http://www.squidoo.com/homemade-bird-feeder. Here’s another “how to” site, this one for a fairly elaborate feeder made from a plastic bottle: www.recycle-crafts.com/homemade-bird-feeder.html. Fill either one with black oil sunflower seeds or safflower seeds and sit back and watch the birds come to feed. Hang the feeder so squirrels can’t reach it, either from a branch with a squirrel baffle above the feeder, or from a pole sunk in the ground.

Barkless tree

Q. Woodpeckers have almost completely stripped the bark from a tree near my yard. Is this usual?
A. It’s not unusual for woodpeckers to strip all the bark off a tree in the process of looking for insects beneath the bark. The woodpeckers aren’t killing the tree, instead this almost always is an indication that the tree is already dead or dying.

Hawk menu

Q. What size prey does a red-tailed hawk eat?
A. Even though they look quite large, red-tailed hawks weigh only about 1 ½ pounds (males) to up to 3 pounds (large females). These hawks like to catch prey and lift off to eat it in safety, but they can only lift about half their own weight. Their diet is made up of small to medium sized rodents, rabbits, pheasants and quail, as well as snakes and squirrels.

Late January 2013

Bird nests blowing in the wind

Q. I’m seeing old bird nests everywhere, now that there aren’t any leaves. My question is, why didn’t I see the activity of the parent birds coming and going to these nests last summer?
A. It’s a surprise to see how many birds raised their families among us, as indicated by the number of old nests now blowing apart in trees and shrubs. The reason you weren’t aware of the parent birds as they engaged in nest building, then feeding and cleaning up after their offspring, is that birds become very secretive during nesting season. They know that predators are eager to find the easy meal that eggs and chicks would provide, so they keep their activities hidden as much as possible. As they come and go to the nest, parent birds continually change their approach routes and are nearly silent.

‘Flagbirds’ disappearing

Q. It’s been 30 years since I last saw a red-headed woodpecker. They used to be common and we called them “flagbirds.” Are their numbers down?
A. You’re right, few of us see these dramatically colored woodpeckers anymore, since their population has declined by 90 percent over the last 40 years. That dramatic downturn means something is very wrong, and all fingers point to loss of habitat. This woodpecker prefers to nest on oak savannas in dead trees or tree limbs, but this kind of habitat is becoming fairly rare. Find out more about the Red-headed Woodpecker Recovery Project here: www.redheadrecovery.org.

Strange orange birds

Q. There have been some odd birds at my feeder, about the size of a goldfinch but with the orange breast and head of a robin. Are these goldfinches acquiring their winter color?
A. I’d bet that those orange-breasted birds are house finches—there’s a great deal of color variation in this species, from the normal bright red to orange to yellow. Their feathers are colored by the foods they eat, so the orange-y birds at your feeders may not have consumed enough red berries last summer.

Chickadee circuit

Q. My chickadees seem to come in flocks: Six to eight of them show up within minutes of each other, and then disappear in the same way. It’s as if they’re going around on a route pattern they all know. Your thoughts?
A. You’ve described very well how chickadees move around in winter, traveling in small flocks around a circuit, stopping at feeding sites along the way. Your feeders are part of their regular feeding route and they probably drop down several times a day to refuel. And since they maintain hierarchies within the flock, the most dominant bird will feed first, followed by those of lesser rank.

Predatory jay

Q. I looked out the window the other day and noticed that a blue jay was pecking at something, which turned out to be another bird. If flew off with either a nuthatch or chickadee clutched in its feet. Is it common for jays to be so aggressive with smaller birds?
A. Duluth naturalist Laura Erickson, who has spent years studying blue jays, has found that they’re opportunists: It a small bird hits a window and lies stunned below, a jay might swoop in to carry it off. She’s never seen a blue jay take a healthy bird, so suspects something was wrong, either due to injury or illness, with the bird it took in your backyard. Their regular diet is almost entirely seeds, nuts and fruits.

Bird-free bath

Q. I installed a birdbath heater two weeks ago but have not had any birds coming to drink from it. I wonder if they’re scared of it or what else is going on?
A. Once they get used to it, your backyard birds are going to appreciate that heated birdbath. Birds are very cautious about anything new—they have to be, since there are so many dangers in their world. They may not realize yet that the new thing in the yard holds water. Some bird, probably a curious chickadee, is going to have to “break the ice,” and drop down for a drink. Other birds will notice and follow suit. Please keep a wooden board handy to put over the center of the birdbath on very cold days. This will allow birds to drink but prevent them from bathing to refresh their feathers, which could lead to death by freezing.

Small dogs and eagles

Q. Now that eagles are becoming almost plentiful in the metro area, how safe is it to let our small dog out in the backyard?
A. Many people have inflated ideas about the size of prey that bald eagles can catch and carry. People repeat stories about eagles taking young sheep or calves, as well as cats and dogs. But please consider that the average bald eagle weighs between 8 to 12 pounds, and is said to be capable of lifting about half its body weight. This means it can carry between 4 to 6 pounds, and most small dogs weigh more than this. I’d say your little dog is safe.

Mid-January 2013

Swans trumpet at Monticello each winter

Q. When can we see swans on the river at Monticello?
A. Don’t go until lakes are frozen over, because the trumpeter swans won’t show up on the Mississippi River in Monticello until there’s no place else with open water. The season for viewing up to 2,000 beautiful swans usually runs from mid-December to March, but fluctuates with weather conditions. The swans are fed each day at 10:30 a.m., so if you’re there around that time you’ll see the big birds gather. The Monticello Chamber of Commerce and Industry maintains an informative web page, with directions to Swan Park, at: http://www.monticellocci.com/pages/swans. And this year for the first time, there’ll be a live online swan cam, once the big birds arrive. Pictured: Trumpeter Swans gather by the thousands on open water below the power plant in Monticello — a sight to see in winter. Photo by Jim Williams

Shrike sighting

Q. We live in the suburbs next to a wetland and have seen a northern shrike twice in the last 19 years. How common are these birds?
A. Northern shrikes are not common birds, but they’re not rare, either. Several of us spotted two shrikes in Long Lake Regional Park in late November, for example. And Auduboners who do the Christmas Bird Count in mid-December nearly always come up with a shrike or two. It sounds as if you live near good habitat for the “butcher bird” (named for its habit of catching prey, then impaling it on a thorn or twig for later consumption). See a photo and learn more about these birds here: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/northern_shrike/id.

Disappearing act

Q. I’m so disappointed in my blue jays. I had been feeding them peanuts in the morning but right after Thanksgiving they disappeared. Could they have been killed by the sudden cold weather?
A. Blue jays do seem to become somewhat scarce in winter: We had a noisy family in my backyard this summer, but now see only one quiet bird at a time. Winter’s jays may not be the same birds we see in summer. Experts now describe blue jays as migratory, with jays from the north coming down to spend the winter, replacing “our” jays, who head southward for the season. I doubt that your jays succumbed to cold, because these are hardy birds that are used to cold and adept at finding food.

Winter dreams

Q. A friend sent me a funny photo of a birdhouse with a woodpecker inside, sticking its head out. I was surprised because I didn’t think birds nested in winter.
A. You’re right, birds don’t nest in the cold (other than great horned owls, bald eagles and gray jays). This was probably a downy woodpecker who was sleeping in the birdhouse at night—they’re known to adopt nest boxes as nighttime roosts in fall and winter. As a bluebird trail monitor, I don’t begrudge the downies a good spot to stay warm at night after the bluebirds depart. In fact, that’s why we leave the nest boxes up year round. I just wish the downies would stop enlarging the entrance holes, a bad habit that is totally unnecessary and makes the boxes less suitable for bluebirds.

Big egos

Q. I feed lard to the birds by spreading it into holes I’ve drilled into a log. The birds think they’re digging into a tree trunk to come up with grubs, good for their self-esteem, or so I fantasize. Should I avoid feeding the no-refrigeration lard, or is it harmful?
A. I love the idea of you building up your birds’ egos in this way! Reading up on lard, I see that it’s pig fat and the kind that doesn’t need refrigeration to remain solid has been hydrogenated. On the one hand, it’s good to feed birds fats that won’t melt onto their feathers, but on the other hand, do we want to be giving them a chemicalized food? I’d advise using the pure form of lard in the winter, then switching to a rendered fat, like that found in suet cakes, when the temperature reaches 32 degrees and higher. This is truly a serious issue for birds, because if oil reaches their feathers, they lose the ability to keep a bird warm in winter or cool in summer.

Playing favorites

Q. If you could have only one bird coming to your feeders, what would it be?
A. Oh, brother, what a challenging question. Cardinals are such a cheering sight, but they usually appear in the near-dark at dawn and dusk, so aren’t the easiest to see. Big handsome blue jays are a treat, and so are upside-down nuthatches. I love to watch goldfinch antics as they squabble and switch places at the tube feeders. But there’s one bird whose sheer exuberant curiosity and spunk I couldn’t live without, and that’s the black-capped chickadee.

Early January 2013

Eagles bunch up near open water — easy eagle viewing!

Q. We’re having houseguests over the holidays and I know they’ll want to see bald eagles. Is that possible and if so, where can we find some eagles?
A. Yes, it’s possible to see bald eagles right here in the metro area all winter, as long as there’s open water nearby. But I’ll bet your guests will be more excited by the eagle-viewing down in Wabasha, Minn. The river stays open there year-round and eagles often stack up in the shoreline trees. And your guests be fascinated by the exhibits and live, educational eagles inside the National Eagle Center (www.nationaleaglecenter.org/) in Wabasha, as well. Photo: A young bald eagle dines after some “hard water” fishing. This bird will develop the species’s white head and tail in a year or two. Photo by Jim Williams.

Nuthatch caches

Q. A nuthatch takes peanut pieces out of our feeder, then flies off to bury them in the leaf litter around my neighbor’s foundation. This doesn’t seem like a safe hiding place so I wonder why it’s doing that?
A. Nuthatches are one of the birds that hide food for later consumption, as you observed. There aren’t very many safe places to store food out in nature, since there’s always the chance that some other creature—another bird, a squirrel, maybe a mouse—will happen along and find it. So the nuthatch is using a “scatter hoarding” technique, hiding away food in a variety of locations, in the hopes that some will escape a scavenger’s eye.

Ailing goose

Q. We live in a rural area and recently we ha a Canada goose sitting outside, without moving, for about 36 hours. But when I brought out a dish of water, the goose flew away. We wonder what was wrong with it, and my husband wonders if it could have been lead poisoning or a predator?
A. We’ll probably never know what was wrong with the goose, but you were kind to offer it some water. There are many possible causes for lethargy in a wild bird, and your husband is right, lead poisoning might be one possibility. However, the fact that the bird could gather enough energy to fly away argues for some other cause. It’s possible that the bird had a bacterial illness and needed a couple days to rebuild its strength, or it may have lacked the energy to withstand the sudden cold, and found a brief respite in your yard. If the goose had been attacked by a predator, you almost certainly would have seen signs of it, such as scattered feathers.

Sparrow fatigue

Q. We’re having a major problem with sparrows: my neighbor feeds them, then they come over to poop on our deck. And they’re not supposed to like safflower seeds but they’re at our safflower feeder all the time. Any suggestions?
A. House sparrows rove in flocks and can empty feeders and make a big mess very quickly. I’ve found that the sparrows in my backyard don’t seem to eat safflower seeds, but they’re relentless about knocking them out of the feeder, seemingly checking for something better underneath. The nest result is the same: all the seed is knocked to the ground, a treat for squirrels but there’s nothing left for other feeder birds.

A few ideas: a Halo-type device, either purchased or homemade, is effective in deterring squirrels, see this site for tips: www.thewildlifeporch.com/2009/11/12/house-sparrow-problems-at-the-feeder. Try a different style of feeder, such as a tube feeder with very narrow feeding ports, which will keep sparrows out but bring finches in. And to keep the sparrows from using your deck as a latrine, you’ll kneed to scare them away, either by hanging a number of shiny CDs near the railings, or with bird scare tape and a scare balloon (both items should be available at a wild bird supply store).

Bird ages

Q. Every time we see a new bird at the feeders, my grandkids ask me how long it will live. I don’t know if they live a long time or not, can you help?
A. If they can make it through their first, hazard-filled year, wild birds can expect to live fairly long lives. You can find out the average life expectancy for many birds at this site: www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bbl/longevity/Longevity_main.cfm, which bases its estimates on bird banding records.

Tree treats

Q. We have a hackberry tree and the birds seem to love those berries. It’s hard to believe they gain nourishment from these hard berries, since there doesn’t seem to be any fruit inside.
A. Hackberries are a wonderful tree for attracting birds throughout the seasons. I’ve wondered about the berries, myself, after seeing the trees in winter festooned with numerous robins busily feeding on the small, round fruits. Recently a team of Auduboners volunteered to help plant tree seeds in a regional park, and many had been collected from hackberry trees. So several of us ate a few, for scientific purposes, and found them to be delicious. True, there’s only a tiny layer of fruity stuff around the seed, but it tastes like a cross between a cranberry and a fig. I don’t know if birds appreciate the taste, but they do welcome the calories at a time when other foods are scarce.

Suet time

Q. We feed birds all year but are never sure when is a good time to start putting out suet?
A. Raw suet, the kind you buy at the meat counter, is safe to offer to birds when the temperature stays below about 40 degrees Fahrenheit. In warmer weather the suet can melt onto bird feathers, impairing their insulating qualities. Those cakes of rendered suet, often with fruit or nuts pressed into them, are safe to offer nearly all year, except on extremely hot days.

Late December 2012

Cardinal red hides under cloak of gray

Q. My cardinals look so dull this fall, could their diet be deficient?
A. Cardinals begin molting a new coat of feathers at the end of summer and complete the job by early November. The males look a bit dull once the molt is completed, because the new feathers on their backs are tipped with gray, dulling the red. This color will wear off over the winter as the birds endure storms and rub against vegetation, leaving the males with brilliant red feathers just in time for the breeding season. Photo by Jim Williams.

Suet stuffing

Q. I’m wondering if I can use grocery-store suet in my suet log feeder? Those commercially made plugs are so expensive.
A. I don’t see why you couldn’t buy suet at the meat counter and cut it down to fit the holes in your suet log feeders. The birds will love it.
Birds playing tag

Q. While out walking my dog I observed a crow chasing a Cooper’s hawk, then they’d switch places and the hawk would chase the crow. They’d also land on the ground, facing each other, then fly up into the air and bounce down. This went on for a few minutes, and then a squirrel distracted the hawk. It was fun to watch and I wonder: Do different species indulge in games?
A. Thanks for sending in your wonderful observation, it was fun to picture this scene in my mind. And yes, I think wild animals engage in play behavior, both with others of their own kind and occasionally with different species. Readers have sent photos of dogs playing with deer, and a deer and a wild turkey chasing each other, and You Tube has many similar videos. I’d suspect that the hawk in this case was a young one, and the crow might have been a youngster, too (although crows remain playful all their lives). The crow may have started chasing the hawk and the hawk regarded it as sport, incorporating recently learned survival skills, such as stopping on a dime, flying fast and jumping from the ground into the air.

I once observed a similar scenario that involved four recently fledged kestrels flying around a park’s baseball diamond. A crow flew in and began chasing the kestrels, and then they turned the tables and began chasing the crow. This went on for quite a while and all five birds exhibited a playful sense of exuberance. I came home amazed and refreshed by this sight.

Outwitting woodpeckers

Q. We’ve moved into a home with wooden shake siding and the woodpeckers are taking a terrible toll on it. Is there any way to make them go away?
A. You’re encountering one of the most frustrating aspects of living in a cedar shake home—woodpeckers love to drill into the wood in search of insect larvae. We’ve received so many inquiries about this problem over time that I’ve put together a list of web sites that you should find helpful. Some of the best information I’ve come across is available at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site: www.birds.cornell.edu/wp_about. Another good source is on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) site: www.dnr.state.mn.us/livingwith_wildlife/woodpeckers/index.html. Good luck, and I hope you find some tips that work for you.

Night dorms

Q. I’d like to build a box for birds to roost in at night, do you know where I can find some plans for this?
A. The kinds of birds that build their nests in cavities (chickadees, bluebirds, nuthatches, etc.) will also roost at night in tree holes or boxes. There never are enough natural cavities to go around so building roost boxes is a good idea. There are a number of Internet sites that provide plans for building such a box. You might start with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s: www.allaboutbirds.org/page.aspx?pid=1144; the Audubon Society of Omaha also has plans: http://audubon-omaha.org/bbbox/nestbox/fawzirb.htm. Another excellent source is the build-it-yourself book by the Minnesota DNR’s Carrol Henderson, Woodworking for Wildlife 3rd edition, available at local bookstores and online.

Hands off nests

Q. You recently wrote something that made it sound like it’s illegal to keep a bird’s nest—is that true?
A. Yes, it is true. The International Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes it illegal to possess migratory birds, their feathers, eggs and nests. The law has been on the books for nearly a century and was designed to stop the market hunting of migratory birds and their wholesale slaughter for human adornment (women’s hats used to feature feathers and nests, for example). Back in the early 1900s many bird species’ populations were severely declining because of over-hunting and egg and nest collecting. So it’s pretty much “hand’s off” these days except for those species that are legally hunted. However, the reader who wrote in about a phoebe nest wanted to help the birds by cutting their nest back a bit and since there was no intent to possess the nest, he was within the law.

Duck soup

Q. I thought eagles were fish eaters but lately I’ve seen a bald eagle swooping down over flocks of coots in the water. Others have told me they’ve seen this, too.
A. You’re right, fish make up a large proportion of an eagle’s diet and this explains why the big birds stack up along open waterways in the winter. But they’re always on the lookout for an easy meal, and a coot or duck that’s sick or injured and unable to escape makes for a good snack. An eagle will strafe flocks of waterfowl in the fall to see whether any fail to fly away or dive. If there’s a likely prospect the raptor will circle back to pick up its prey.

Crane dances

Q. I have the enjoyable experience of being able to observe sandhill cranes in a field I pass on my way to work. They were doing what looked like a courtship behavior, even though it was early fall, so I’m wondering what they were up to?
A. Good question, and I did some reading up on cranes to find the answer. Researchers have found that sandhill cranes dance all year long and, outside the breeding season, this may help to relieve aggressive feelings. A group of young cranes may often become excited or stressed and express this by dancing. Some crane experts even suggest that cranes may sometimes dance for the pleasure this gives them. We may not know all the reasons that non-breeding cranes engage in dancing, but it is a lovely sight.

December 2012

Small owl pauses for snooze

Q. I happened to look into our pine tree in the back yard and there was a baby owl sitting there. There weren’t any other owls around and it wasn’t there the next day, so I’m wondering if it will be all right?
A. No need to worry about the little owl you noticed: At this time of year, Minnesota’s smallest owl, the saw-whet, is migrating through on the way to Iowa and points further south for the winter. This was an adult, but at only 8 inches tall I can see why it looked like a youngster to you. I was lucky enough to see a similar sight near the end of October — chickadees were making a great commotion around a small evergreen in a neighbor’s yard. I grabbed binoculars and camera and got the photo above of a saw-whet resting during the day before its night migration. Photo by Val Cunningham.

Suet stuffing

Q. I’m wondering if I can use grocery-store suet in my suet log feeder? Those commercially made plugs are so expensive.
A. I don’t see why you couldn’t buy suet at the meat counter and cut it down to fit the holes in your suet log feeders. The birds will love it.
Birds playing tag

Q. While out walking my dog I observed a crow chasing a Cooper’s hawk, then they’d switch places and the hawk would chase the crow. They’d also land on the ground, facing each other, then fly up into the air and bounce down. This went on for a few minutes, and then a squirrel distracted the hawk. It was fun to watch and I wonder: Do different species indulge in games?
A. Thanks for sending in your wonderful observation, it was fun to picture this scene in my mind. And yes, I think wild animals engage in play behavior, both with others of their own kind and occasionally with different species. Readers have sent photos of dogs playing with deer, and a deer and a wild turkey chasing each other, and You Tube has many similar videos. I’d suspect that the hawk in this case was a young one, and the crow might have been a youngster, too (although crows remain playful all their lives). The crow may have started chasing the hawk and the hawk regarded it as sport, incorporating recently learned survival skills, such as stopping on a dime, flying fast and jumping from the ground into the air.

I once observed a similar scenario that involved four recently fledged kestrels flying around a park’s baseball diamond. A crow flew in and began chasing the kestrels, and then they turned the tables and began chasing the crow. This went on for quite a while and all five birds exhibited a playful sense of exuberance. I came home amazed and refreshed by this sight.

Outwitting woodpeckers

Q. We’ve moved into a home with wooden shake siding and the woodpeckers are taking a terrible toll on it. Is there any way to make them go away?
A. You’re encountering one of the most frustrating aspects of living in a cedar shake home—woodpeckers love to drill into the wood in search of insect larvae. We’ve received so many inquiries about this problem over time that I’ve put together a list of web sites that you should find helpful. Some of the best information I’ve come across is available at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site: www.birds.cornell.edu/wp_about. Another good source is on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) site: www.dnr.state.mn.us/livingwith_wildlife/woodpeckers/index.html. Good luck, and I hope you find some tips that work for you.

Late November 2012

Bird beaks perform many tasks, from digging out holes in trees to catching food to grooming feathers, so beaks need to be in top shape at all times.

Q. I saw the weirdest thing recently: A sparrow flew out of one of our feeders into a bush, and then started sharpening his beak on a branch! Is this unusual, and why did he do this?
A. You observed a sparrow practicing good hygiene by wiping his beak clean of any debris or food he picked up at your feeder. This is something that all songbirds do quite often, after drinking, eating or taking a bath. Birds’ beaks continue to grow throughout their lives, so birds also need to hone them from time to time to keep them in shape for eating and grooming.

Triple play

Q. I think my cardinal pair raised three batches of babies this summer. Is that even possible?
A. Yes, it is possible for cardinals to raise more than two broods, if the weather cooperates. Remember, spring started very early this year, and autumn has been quite warm, perfect conditions for squeezing in a third batch of nestlings. I saw evidence of this in my own backyard this fall: At dusk there could be as many as eight young cardinals at the platform feeder, and it was very obvious that they had reached different stages of maturity. Some had a nearly full coat of red feathers and a reddish beak, some had a few red feathers and a still-dark beak and two were brown from head to tail.
Jays vs. cardinals?

Q. We’ve always enjoyed having many cardinals at our feeders, but have never had much luck with blue jays. However, this fall there have been blue jays in abundance. Are they likely to push the cardinals out?
A. I don’t think you need to worry, since these birds generally live in close proximity and occupy different habitat niches, so aren’t really in competition for resources. Blue jays are aggressive birds and at times may drive all other birds from bird feeders, but they soon return. And cardinals are able to see at low light levels, so they can feed earlier in the morning and later in the evening than blue jays can. If you’re suddenly seeing many blue jays, they’re probably migrants, passing through the neighborhood on their way south.

Kojak cardinals

Q. A male cardinal visiting our feeders looked like he was wearing a black skullcap, lacking the red peaked feathers all the other males have. Was this a genetic mutation or could he have been sick?
A. Late summer and fall is the time when people begin reporting bald cardinals and blue jays in the neighborhood. A number of cardinals may suddenly show up with no head feathers, revealing the black skin underneath. There are two theories about the cause of bird baldness: One school of thought says that some birds drop their head feathers all at once before molting new ones, while the other says that baldness is the result of a feather mite infestation, causing birds to scratch themselves bald.

A reader recently sent in a photo of bald blue jays, taken by a motion camera set up in her feeder. I shared the image with a wildlife veterinarian and she noted tiny pinfeathers visible on the birds’ heads, leading her to line up with the sudden-molt theory for the jays (if the baldness had been caused by parasites, the feathers wouldn’t grow back so quickly). Although some people think birds are infested with parasites, the truth is that they’re very clean and only have high number of parasites when they’re sick or have immune system problems.

Family dynamics

Q. A pair of sandhill cranes nests right near our [rural] property and they seem almost tame, coming in to eat the crabapples, etc. They have one only chick with them. Is it true that sandhills allow other chicks to starve, in order to raise only one?
A. I researched this interesting question and found that while sandhill cranes almost invariably lay two eggs, they tend to have only one chick in their care after the first few months. Many things lead to chick mortality, including predators like coyotes and gulls, as well as collisions with cars, lack of food and other causes. Usually one chick hatches some hours before the other one and this older chick is genetically programmed to be very aggressive toward its sibling. It will push the young bird out of the way when a parent comes in with food, and may even injure its sibling with beak pecks and wing flaps. Quite often it’s this sibling aggression that leads to the death of the younger chick in a sandhill family. However, in years where food is abundant, both chicks may survive.

Finches feasting

Q. I was interested in the recent item about goldfinches eating lettuce and chard, because the finches in my backyard are stripping the petals off the coneflowers. I guess I need to plant flowers that don’t attract finches.
A. Goldfinches are tearing into people’s gardens all around the metro area, it seems, but I hadn’t heard of them pulling off those pretty pink petals before. One thought occurred to me: I have many coneflowers in the backyard and many finches, with no damage to the flowers. Could this be at least partly due to the fact that there are two finch feeders near the flower beds? The feeders are filled with a mix of nyger seed and small pieces of sunflower seed and the goldfinches feed on this all day long. If you’re not providing seed now, it might be worth a try.

November 2012

Green herons are smart anglers

Q. I’ve had four green herons hanging out in my pine trees and making the strangest sounds. Are they common in our area?
A. Yes, green herons are commonly found around the edges of lakes and ponds throughout the metro area during the warm seasons. It sounds as if green herons nested in one of your trees and their offspring are getting ready to fly away. They do make an odd, raspy sound, called their “skeow” call. They’re smart birds, known to use bait to catch a fish, as you can see in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Porp5v5lLKk.

Q. This spring I noticed crows stripping and carrying off long strips of bark from my linden tree. It was fascinating to watch and I’m wondered if they were using the bark strips for a nest or is this one of their little quirks?
A. They probably were lining their nest, since crows are known to put bark strips to this use (along with other materials, such as animal fur and plant fiber). And it’s not only crows: late this summer I watched as an American goldfinch stripped thin strips from the inner layer of an ash tree, after the outer layer had been stripped away, possibly by crows.

Q. When do male mallards start looking like themselves again?
A. As you’ve noticed, mallards lose their colorful feathers after breeding season and wear a drab coat, resembling females for some weeks. Because they replace their wing feathers at this time they’re unable to fly. By late August or early September the males will once again exhibit those characteristic bright green heads and be able to fly.

Q. I have a salt lick for deer outside my cabin and have noticed goldfinches coming in to peck the salt, but no other types of birds. Is this unusual?
A. Finches seem especially attracted to salt, whether on the roadside in winter, or at salt licks like yours, possibly due to a dietary deficiency. But salt is also a known toxin to finches and other birds: one researcher has found that a major cause of finch deaths along roadsides seemed to be their ingestion of salt along with the grit they picked up to help them grind up seeds. Another researcher set up mist nets around a salt lick and ended up attracting more than 600 finches. The conclusion seems to be that finches are attracted to salt, whether it’s good for them or not.

Q. This spring a pair of catbirds nested in my backyard and raised two babies, sharing the grape jelly and oranges with the orioles. Then they disappeared at the beginning of August, and I wondered if they migrate that early?
A. I love having catbirds around and am glad when a pair of catbirds raises their family out back, feeding their nestlings on the insects, berries and fruits they find there. Catbirds become very quiet and stealthy as the young leave the nest, a good survival tactic, and may have been invisibly hiding in your shrubs and vines. This species normally remains in the area until late August, but it’s possible that your birds headed to a staging area prior to migration.

Q. I can’t find any information about something I’ve wondered about for a long time: When temperatures are below freezing or when flying at high altitudes, do birds protect their eyes by flying with them closed?
A. That’s an interesting question and I’d say that birds must have their eyes open when they fly, since visual cues are very important while in flight, and they always need to keep an eye out for predators. For birds that fly in flocks, they need vision to maintain a proper distance from each other. Birds have been recorded flying at 10,000 feet and even higher, where temperatures are very low. However, eyes are tough organs, able to withstand temperature extremes.

Q. How long do robins live?
A. If a robin manages to make it through its first year of life, then on average it can live about six years, although there is a record of a banded robin that lived almost 14 years. However, only about 25 percent of young robins survive all the hazards in their world to celebrate their first birthday.

October 2012

It’s a bird …No, it’s an insect!

Q. We’ve had several visits to our garden by a hummingbird-like creature. It has a long nose or beak, its wings beat rapidly and it hovers to suck nectar from flowers. Is this some kind of insect?
A. Many people mistake the hummingbird clearwing moth for a hummingbird. The moth is slightly smaller than a hummingbird but does have the same preference for flower nectar. They’re a treat to watch, as they flit from flower to flower during daylight hours. You can find more about them here: www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Hemaris-thysbe/. Photo: A hummingbird clearwing moth, a species often mistaken for a hummingbird, will uncurl that long proboscis to sip nectar from flowers. Credit: Don Severson.

Q. I’ve had slow but steady traffic of female hummingbirds at my nectar feeders all summer, but in the middle of August I suddenly started seeing males, with their bright throats. Why would they be coming now and not before?
A. That’s an excellent observation and you’re correct: male hummingbirds may seem to disappear during the summer months, while they defend a feeding territory elsewhere. Then they suddenly begin appearing at feeders, as they start their migration. The males migrate several weeks before females and the juveniles do.

Q. Where do all the robins go at the end of summer? I don’t think I’ve seen any since the end of July.
A. After the breeding season, robins seem to become scarce, as they gather together in large flocks to feed and roost together at night. If you go out to large parks or wooded areas you’ll see where the robins spend their early autumn days.

Q. I want to share something that took place at my feeder: a male cardinal was eating sunflower seeds and one of the doves on the ground began cooing. The cardinal took a seed in his beak and flew down and fed the dove. He did this about five more times and I have to say it made me tear up.
A. That’s a great story (wish I’d been there to see this) about one bird feeding another bird of an entirely different species. This occurred during nesting season for cardinals, and I suspect that the male was spending nearly all of his time feeding his own brood. He’d be hustling around searching for food and whenever he’d approach the nest, his offspring would open their beaks and call, hoping to be the first to be fed. When the dove began calling he “went on automatic” and fed whatever bird was making sounds. You were privileged to see something rare in the bird world and I can see why you found it affecting.

Q. We live along Minnehaha Creek and have been fortunate to see many bird species, but this is the first time I’ve seen a turkey vulture. Are these big, ugly birds common in the metro area?
A. It’s true, turkey vultures are not very attractive, at least to us humans. They spend much of their time in rural and undeveloped areas, wafting in the air, hoping to find carrion. But it’s not unusual for one to drift into the metro area, which features a great deal of road kill for a scavenging bird. It might help to think of them as Mother Nature’s cleanup crew, consuming carcasses that might otherwise litter the landscape.

Q. My husband and I have noticed that the birds that come to our black oil sunflower seeds are very vocal while they’re feeding. I’m surprised that they can crack seeds and eat while chirping away and wonder why they’re doing this—are they calling other birds to join them, or bragging about finding a treasure trove of food or are they happy?
A. I enjoyed your speculations and I do like to think of birds feeling pleased when they find a good source of food. Chickadees, especially, seem to like to announce that they’ve discovered a bountiful spot. One possibility is that you may be seeing primarily young birds, who called from the nest as parent birds brought in food, and might still associate calling or singing with feeding time (goldfinches and housefinches do this). Or these might be parent birds calling to their youngsters to bring them in to try feeders (I’ve seen orioles and woodpeckers doing this).

Q. I love bluebirds and wonder if you might have plans for building bluebird nest boxes.
A. Kudos to you for wanting to provide housing for bluebirds, who they need all the help they can get, since nesting cavities are always in short supply. Your best source for information about all things related to bluebirds is the North American Bluebird Society, www.nabluebirdsociety.org. This site has plans for bluebird houses at www.nabluebirdsociety.org/nestboxplans.htm. You might also look into an excellent book published by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Carrol Henderson’s Woodworking for Wildlife, 2nd edition. It’s full of information and detailed plans.

Q. I’m a little confused by your mention that you are a big fan of crows. I don’t mind crows but this seems inconsistent since you’ve also stated that they raid other birds’ nests. Can you share why you’re a crow proponent?
A. I’m not a fan of nesting-raiding behavior, but crows aren’t the only species that does this. In fact, most larger birds will raid the nest of a smaller bird, such as an oriole carrying off warbler eggs or nestlings. I admire crows for their intelligence and the fact that they are excellent parents, caring for their young over a number of seasons. They’re so smart that they solves the challenges of survival early on any given day and have free time to explore their world, watch other beings and even to have fun. There are well-documented instances of crows inventing aerial games, sliding on snowy roofs or hills and teasing dogs and cats, for example.

September 2012

‘Pruning’ phoebe’s nest down to size

Q. A phoebe has been nesting under our garage overhang for the past several years. She seems to add a layer to the old nest every year, and now there’s very little room for her to get inside. Do you think I should remove the now-very-tall old nest?
A. Excellent question, and I applaud your concern for these busy birds. Eastern phoebes do re-use their old nests and after a number of years these can become quite tall, as the female adds new moss to the brim before starting her next brood. Since phoebes tend to nest twice during breeding season, nests can expand quickly. My suggestion is to wait until nesting season is over, then cut away most of the top layers of nesting material, essentially pruning it down by half or more. This will benefit the phoebe next year and as long as you don’t intend to possess the nest of a migratory bird, you’re within the law. Eastern Phoebe photo by Don Severson

Sweet beak

Q. I’ve seen a downy woodpeckers drinking at my hummingbird feeders, something I’ve never seen before. Is this weird behavior?
A. It’s really not unusual for downy woodpeckers to drink nectar water in hummingbird feeders. I’ve heard of catbirds, orioles, chickadees, house finches and other species also indulging in this behavior. Since artificial nectar approximates the sweetness of tree sap, and woodpeckers lap up tree sap in the spring, it may be a pleasant surprise to find something sweet in the middle of summer.

Out and about

Q. My husband and I would like to get out more to watch birds. Any suggestions for local bird trips?
A. I’d highly recommend the field trips of any of the metro chapters of the Audubon Society. These are usually half-day outings led by experienced birders and they’re a lot of fun. Depending on where you live there’s an Audubon chapter nearby, offering outings throughout the year. Also, check web sites for local nature centers, such as Wood Lake, Tamarack, Maplewood, Springbrook and Carpenter, for upcoming events. Here are web addresses for metro Audubons:
St. Paul Audubon: www.saintpaulaudubon.org;
Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis: http://audubonchapterofminneapolis.org/; and Minnesota River Valley Audubon Chapter: http://mrvac.org.

Steer clear of salt

Q. We have a lot of woodpeckers and they love peanuts, but the shelled peanuts I find often are salted. Is this ok to feed to birds?
A I’d try to find peanuts without any salt, it’s just not a good idea to be adding salt to the diet of wild birds. There don’t seem to be any studies that would indicate what a safe level of salt consumption would be for birds. But we know that too much salt can be fatal to them (as in the case of birds that ingest road salt while trying to pick up grit).

Sparrow woes

Q. For the past month we’ve had only house sparrows at our feeder, sometimes flocks of 20 to 40 of them piling in to eat. This seems to keep the other, more desirable birds away from the feeders. Do you have any ideas for what we can do about this?
A. I’m seeing similar activity around my feeders, too—there seems to have been a sudden, late-summer hatch of house sparrows and they’re everywhere. They dominate the feeders and birdbath and only seem to leave when really big birds, like hairy woodpeckers, come around. I’m counting on the sparrow population dropping very quickly, since the young of this species seem to have a high rate of mortality. Adults churn out many batches of fledglings each summer, without providing much training in survival skills. In the meantime, you might try offering safflower seeds in your domed and tray feeders, since sparrows aren’t fond of these seeds, but birds like chickadees and cardinals like them just fine.

Pass the salad, please

Q. This year for the first time I noticed that young shoots of lettuce and chard in my garden were being shredded. One day I stood at the window and watched goldfinches working my little garden, stripping the leaves off the chard. What is going on?
A. It’s no accident that one nickname for the goldfinch is “lettuce finch”—they like to eat fresh, young vegetation, especially lettuce and chard. There also are reports of these little finches consuming broccoli and carrot tops, green algae and tree sap. I checked in with an online gardening forum and found many other gardeners reporting this behavior. The usual recommendation is to use floating row covers or netting over the plants you want to save for human consumption.

Time for a cleaning

Q. The wrens left their birdhouse a couple weeks ago. Should I clean it out now or wait until I’m ready to clean all the birdhouses?
A. I’d clean out the wren house now, although chances are it’s too late in the season for the wrens to use it for their second brood. This species is notorious for stuffing spider egg sacs in with the sticks they pack into the nest box. It’s thought that they do this so that the hatchling spiders will consume insects crawling around inside. If you sweep out the wren house now, you can avoid a big crop of spiders and you’ll make the box available for a chickadee to use as a night roost.

August 2012

Scavengers circle high in the sky

Q. On numerous occasions I’ve seen big, dark colored birds making large, lazy circles high in the air over southern Minnesota. What are these birds and what are they doing?
A. I’d bet anything that you’re seeing turkey vultures, since they engage in exactly the kind of behavior you describe. Vultures soar high in the air, watching and sniffing for carrion to feed on. They have a highly developed sense of smell, useful for birds that scavenge for food. Another hallmark of vultures is their “tippy” flight style. While soaring they often tip from side to side, dipping one wing, then the other. Why the name? Their bald heads reminded someone of wild turkeys’ featherless heads.

Q. House finches are nesting on our porch and we’re really enjoying them. What can you tell me about these birds?
A. House finches are a great bird to have nesting nearby: they’re very good parents and beautiful songsters. You may be surprised to know that 25 years ago there were no house finches in Minnesota. Native to the West Coast, house finches were being illegally sold as cage birds in the New York area in the 1940s. Pet store owners learned of an impending federal raid and released the birds. They steadily spread westward and eventually reached Minnesota. Here’s a place to find a wealth of information about house finches: www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/house_finch/lifehistory.

Q. Some swallows nested in my friend’s barn, and we’re wondering what to do now: After the young birds leave, should she get rid of the old nest so the female will build a new one for her second brood?
A. I love it when birds live up to their names—it sounds as if barn swallows are nesting in your friend’s barn. You’re correct that they raise two batches of youngsters during the summer. I’d leave the old nest alone, because females often reuse the old nest after adding some new mud and feathers. Barn swallows will return time and time again to their old nest site, and Nebraska seems to hold the record, with a 17-year-old barn swallow nest recorded in that state.

Q. Each night, just after dark, one lone bird circles my home, periodically letting out one or two loud screams. Do you have any idea what bird is tormenting my sleep and how long this will last?
A. Sorry to hear you’re losing sleep over the night calls of an odd-looking bird named the common nighthawk. They do make a loud, buzzy call as they circle in the night skies, and a loud swooping sound as they tuck their wings to dive after insect prey. They perform a useful service by scooping mosquitoes and other pests out of the night skies. Nighthawks migrate out of our area in September, so if it’s any consolation, you’ll sleep better in a few months.

Q. You’ve written that we shouldn’t use old seed because it can spoil, but is this also true for cracked corn? I’ve got a bag I bought two years ago.
A. All seed can go bad over time (becoming rancid and/or infested with insects), including cracked corn, and two years is far too long to be hanging on to any kind of birdseed. I’d toss the cracked corn in the trash and start over with fresh seed.

Q. I’m having terrible trouble with grackles eating all the seed and keeping other birds from using my feeders. I could use some advice.
A. This seems to be a banner year for grackles, those big black birds who dominate feeders and keep other birds away. I’ve heard from many readers who have the same problem this summer, and the best advice is to take down all your feeders for a week or two, until the grackles move elsewhere. Once you put the feeders back up, your regular, more desirable birds will return.

Q. I put out grape jelly for the orioles, but haven’t seen any of them yet this year. However, I have had blue jays and a red-bellied woodpecker eating the jelly. Just thought I’d share this oddity.
A. Thanks for your fascinating observation: I hadn’t realized that either of these species would lap up the jelly, so it’s great to have this insight from a reader.

Q. Some birds built a nest in the wreath on our front door, but one morning I went to check on them and the nest was wrecked with no sign of the baby birds. Would crows or other birds attack the nest during the night?
A. Very few birds, other than owls, are active at night, so I think your culprit must have been a raccoon. These mammals forage at night and like nothing better than a meal of bird eggs or nestlings. House finches are famous for building their nests in doorway wreaths and hanging baskets. It’s a shame that the raccoons found this brood.

Late July 2012

What’s up with house wrens?

Q. Every year we look forward to the arrival of our favorite bird, the house wren. This year we haven’t seen or heard a single wren. Where have they gone?
A. It can be a mystery why a bird species will be around for years on end, then not be seen for a while. Birds can be “spotty” like this, for example, a number of readers lamented this spring that they hadn’t seen any orioles, yet other readers wrote that they were inundated with them. In the case of the wrens, there may have been a change in the local ecology or the wrens found another address. If you have a log pile, stone wall or wren nest boxes you’re almost guaranteed to host wrens, either this year or next.

Q. I like to put out chunks of raw suet all year round for birds. Will this go rancid in hot weather? I can switch to those suet cakes but the birds seem to prefer the real thing.
A. I’m sure your birds appreciate suet to replace energy lost during the busy nesting season and to feed their youngsters. But raw suet can become rancid in the heat. Even worse, it starts to melt on hot days and can drip onto bird feathers. They can’t remove this oily mess and it impairs their feathers’ ability to keep them waterproof and insulated. So I would strongly recommend suet cakes in the warm months.

Q. For the past few weeks our hummingbird feeder has been emptied overnight. We know it’s not due to leaks, because we just bought a new feeder. We wonder who’s drinking the nectar.
A. I’d point the finger at a raccoon or a raccoon family. They’re active at night and like sweet things. Other possibilities include bats and flying squirrels. How about bringing in your hummingbird feeder at night?

Q. My neighbor has been trapping gray squirrels and releasing them across town because he’s tired of them getting into his feeders. I don’t think this is a good idea, but don’t know why.
A. This is a heartless and useless idea for a lot of reasons. For one thing, at this time of year, an adult squirrel trapped down on the ground likely is a mother squirrel anxious to feed before going back to her brood. If she’s taken away, her young will die a lingering death. If this doesn’t convince your neighbor, then he might be interested to know that he’s just wasting his time: there are always new squirrels around looking for a territory. They’ll move right in when there’s a vacancy. It would be better if your neighbor put his energy into outwitting his pesky squirrels. Try a Google search for “Cornell Lab outwitting squirrels,” which will point you to an excellent, downloadable file you can print out for your neighbor.

Q. I’ve lost the column I clipped earlier this year—could you list again some sites for making home windows safer for birds?
A. The windows in our homes take a terrible toll on birds, so kudos to you for wanting to make your property safer. The Audubon Minnesota site has good, comprehensive information: http://mn.audubon.org/birdsafe-homes. Another good site is at
http://birding.about.com/od/birdconservation/a/preventwindowcollisions.htm. Two good commercial products are window decals that reflect UV light: www.windowalert.com, and window tape: http://abcbirdtape.org. You can find these two products at wild bird supply stores locally.

Q. I put out some grape jelly for orioles and, to my surprise, the blue jays and red-bellied woodpeckers are eating it. Is this unusual?
A. Thanks for your observation, and even though I’ve never seen this myself, I’d bet it’s not all that unusual. Jays and woodpeckers are smart birds who watch what other birds are up to, and then may copy their behavior. They both dine on fruit and berries in the fall, so it must seem like an out-of-season treat to find your saucer of jelly hanging outdoors.

Mid-July 2012

Big batch of goslings is goose daycare

Q. I counted 25 young geese swimming along with two adult birds on our local lake. This just boggles my mind. Any thoughts?
A. You observed a mixed brood of Canada geese, an aggregation called a “super brood” or a crèche by researchers. A Canada goose nest contains an average of five eggs, while the largest nests might hold eight eggs. Where there are large concentrations of Canada geese living side by side, such as in our metro area, youngsters from several different nests may join up and follow the closest adults. There’s little cost to the adult geese, since there’s not much real care required to raise young waterfowl. The grown-up geese primarily watch for danger, maintaining vigilance against predators. If you look closely at these goose gangs, you’ll notice that some goslings are larger and more fully feathered and some are small and covered in yellow down, indicating a range of ages.

Q. Cardinals have nested in a shrub near our front door for years, but this May, after their nest was nearly complete, two robins took it over. They evicted the cardinals and enlarged the nest, and then the female laid her eggs. Is this behavior unusual?
A. I’d never heard of robins being so assertive as to take over another species’s nest. But robins are smart and opportunistic, and may not have had many options for their own nest site. They may have lost their own nest to a predator or to the weather, and decided to cut some corners so they could start another brood more quickly. I’m hoping the cardinals soon found a new location for their own nest.

‘No-good guides’

Q. I have a problem with bird field guides: they only seem to help those who already know a lot about birds. But to look up a mystery bird they don’t help at all—I have to look at every page to find a new bird’s name. Is there a web page for looking up unknown birds?
A. You’re right, field guides to birds can be a challenge to use if you don’t even know what family a bird belongs to. If you don’t know where to start, you’ll probably find this web page helpful: www.allaboutbirds.org. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology maintains this site, which allows you to type in a general feature, such as “black bird” or “small bird” and it will come up with options. It’s an excellent site, loaded with information and recordings of bird songs.

Sparrow solution

Q. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to keep sparrows out of my feeders. One thing that I’d recommend is the “Magic Halo.” It really does work. You might want to share this with readers.
A. Thanks for the excellent and timely tip, with local sparrow populations getting a big boost as young birds just out of the nest join the flock. This device, with hanging wires, was developed by a researcher at the University of Nebraska. It does seem to work well at keeping sparrows out of feeders and is based on their relative lack of maneuverability in flight. The halo is available at wild bird supply stores or you could make one yourself. Find out more at www.sialis.org/halo.htm.

Birdbath problems

Q. We’ve recently added a birdbath to our backyard feeding system and have had some gruesome discoveries in the last few days. Twice we’ve found small dead birds in the water, with most of the feathers stripped off. We have a lot of crows in the neighborhood—could they have anything to do with this?
A. As much as I’m a fan of crows I’ll have to say I’ll bet they are the culprits here. Crows tend to bring food items in to birdbaths, although I don’t know why, and sometimes they just leave them there. The birds you’ve found might not have been stripped of their feathers: crows are notorious nest raiders, so these could have been nestlings who hadn’t yet produced their first feathers.

Grackle grief

Q. I’ve had problems with grackles at my feeders for years, but there are so many more this year and they’re eating me out of house and home and scaring off the other birds. Any advice would be appreciated.
A. This does seem to be a banner year for grackles, a species that nests early and is eager to feed its young from any and all sources. My best advice isn’t a happy choice, but I’d take down the feeders for a week, which should discourage these big, black birds. This seems to be the only effective way to deal with bird hogs. Once the grackles move on you can put the feeders back outside and your regular birds should soon return.

Mid-June 2012

Are our cardinals more uptight?

Q. When I travel in the South I encounter cardinals that seem to have no fear of people, but the cardinals at home are extremely skittish. Is there a difference between cardinals in the north and south, and could this be due to the Scandinavian influence around here?
A. I had to chuckle at the thought of cardinals under the influence of our area’s Scandinavian heritage. But no, I think what you’re noticing is the “handout effect”—I’ve seen the same thing at state parks in Florida, where people feed birds that visit the campgrounds. You’re seeing cardinals that have become habituated to humans and expect a treat from any tall, two-legged creature. Most backyard cardinals, North or South, are very wary of humans but are comfortable visiting feeders.

True blue

Q. Two questions about blue jays: (1) do they stay mated for life, and (2) do they migrate in the fall?
A. After a male and a female blue jay pair up, they tend to stay together as long as they both live (most birds live fairly short lives, so if one jay dies or disappears, the remaining bird will find another mate). We see blue jays year round, but they may not always be the same birds. The jays in our area may shift down toward Iowa in the fall and are replaced by birds from farther north. Come spring, “our” jays return and the northern jays head back north.

Flame-flying ‘dees

Q. I witnessed something unusual the other day: I was burning a big pile of wood and brush out at the farm and a flock of about 15 chickadees showed up and started flying across the fire. They would land on a bush on the other side, then fly over the flames again, almost close enough to singe their feathers. They kept this up for almost three hours and I’m wondering what they were doing?
A. I wish I’d been there to see this interesting and unusual behavior on the part of those little birds. But chickadees are very smart and very curious, and the big, pulsating orange thing must have fascinated them. When they discovered that flying over it brought warmth on a cold day, it probably inspired them to make numerous flights, somehow instinctively keeping above the flames. And it may even have brought some fun into the lives of intrepid little birds who are pretty focused on survival in winter.

Mentor-less migration

Q. Do young birds need to migrate with adults the first time so they know where to go?
A. Astonishing as it may seem, millions and millions of young birds, some no more than a few months old, lift into the sky each autumn and head, all alone, to their species’s winter home. And then they make it back in the spring to the area they left last autumn. Songbirds have migration information hard-wired into their brains, and they amend this internal map in later years with information based on their experience. A few species, notably geese, cranes and swans, learn migration routes from their parents as the family flies together on their first migration.

Bad seed?

Q. I filled a feeder with seed I’ve had for years, but birds are staying away. Does seed get old?
A. Seed does indeed get old and loses its appeal to birds. Seeds are full of oils and oils become rancid. As a rule of thumb, most seed will remain fresh for around six months, says Kraig Kelsey at Kelsey’s Wild Bird Store, but if you’ve got seed that’s a year old, it’s best to toss it in the trash and start over. At the end of winter, if you’ve still got seed that you purchased last fall, it’s time to visit the seed store. Seed lasts longer if properly stored in a dry container out of direct sunlight. In winter, keep seed in a metal container outdoors or in an unheated garage, to avoid spoilage.

No mess

Q. What kind of seed doesn’t cause any mess?
A. Bird feeding can be a messy business, as birds accidentally knock seeds out of feeders and drop shells to the ground as they eat. Your best bet for keeping things tidy is to fill your feeder with hulled sunflower seeds. You need to take a little more care to keep these seed meats dry and fresh, since they lack a protective shell. Birds eat the entire thing, leaving no mess behind.

Early June 2012

Woodpeckers pick up peanuts

Q. I have both a female and a male red-bellied woodpecker enjoying the peanut pieces in my feeder. They carry some away each time and I’m wondering if they’re feeding baby woodpeckers?
A. It must be fun to watch those big woodpeckers at your feeder. Red-bellied woodpeckers are known for hiding food to consume later, an activity called caching. The peanut pieces would be too hard and sharp for nestlings’ throats, though. If there are young in a nest, their parents are feeding them soft, protein-filled insects.

Q. I want to introduce my children to birds and the outdoors but don’t know where to start. Could you give me some ideas?
A. I’m glad you want to make sure your kids won’t suffer from “nature deficit disorder.” Try the Urban Birding Festival, June 15-17, for fun, free outdoor activities for families scheduled at local nature centers and parks. Find out more about the festival’s activities, including bird banding, bird crafts, bird walks and nature demonstrations here: http://www.saintpaulaudubon.org/events/special/urban-bird-festival. And talk to naturalists at nearby nature centers about family-friendly programming and they’ll be happy to help.

Q. My condo association is studying whether to ban all feeding of birds, even the hull-less kinds of seeds. I’m upset and wonder if the birds will starve.
A. That’s a shame about the possible ban because in my experience people who live in condos and town homes are very responsible and keep their bird feeding areas scrupulously clean. You needn’t worry about birds starving if you stop feeding them, however, because birds don’t rely on feeders for survival, except possibly on the coldest days. If feeding birds is no longer allowed, how about checking to see whether you might maintain a birdbath on your deck or balcony? In the winter you could add a heater to keep the water open. Birds flock in to reliable source of clean water.

Q. I’ve been hearing a bird lately that sounds like a squeaky toy. Any ideas what it might be?
A. The first species that comes to mind is a small, fast-moving bird called the blue-gray gnatcatcher. They do make a squeaky sound: hear their song and learn more about these handsome little birds at: www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/blue-gray_gnatcatcher/id.

Q. When does migration end?
A. That’s a good question. The phenomenon called migration never really ends—there are birds of one kind or another on the move every month of the year. But if we focus on the songbirds that move through our area in the spring, and look for a time when nearly all of them have stopped traveling and are on their breeding grounds, then I’d say that spring migration ends about mid-June.

Q. We and several friends have the same problem: a robin has been flying into our windows and banging into them very hard, for hours on end. Everywhere around the windows is covered with bird droppings, too. What can we do?
A. The behavior you describe is not at all unusual at this time of year: with their hormones at their seasonal peak, birds are intent on attracting a mate and driving away any competitors. Robins, cardinals, blue jays, bluebirds, even cowbirds exhibit this behavior, trying to fight their own image, which they confuse with another bird trying to take over their territory. They will relentlessly attack a window, car mirror or shiny hubcap—any reflective surface that catches their eye.

Late May 2012

The early birds don’t get the bugs

Q. I began noticing tree swallows very early in the spring, and it worried me, because I am aware that they live on insects. There weren’t many bugs around so I’m wondering if the swallows found enough food to survive?
A. Good observation, and I worry about very early swallows, too, because they often appear ahead of the insect bloom. Tree swallows return from their winter homes earlier than many other kinds of birds that consume flying insects. They’re known as aerial insectivores, and if they can’t find enough insects to eat, tree swallows have another survival strategy—they can consume berries, even the dried up, meager crop remaining on bushes in early spring.

Q. Since Japanese beetles lay their eggs underground, could birds help control these these destructive insects after they hatch?
A. That’s a good question, and I asked Jeff Hahn from the University of Minnesota’s Department of Entomology for his reaction. He notes that Japanese beetle grubs live fairly deep in the ground, from 2 to 4 inches below the surface. This would seem to put them out of reach of birds that probe into soil with their beaks, such as European starlings and northern flickers. So it sounds as if we can’t look to birds to help control this invasive landscape pest. For helpful information, check http://extension.umn.edu/garden/ and then type Japanese beetle into the search box.

Q. A screech owl occupies my wood duck house each winter, and when I go to clean it out in the spring, I invariably find red feathers piled up inside. Does the owl eat cardinals or are cardinals using the box, too?
A. Interesting question, and the answer is based on the behavior of each of these species: cardinals don’t nest inside cavities so would be very unlikely to enter your wood duck box willingly. However, songbirds are a major prey item for screech owls, so your owl is probably killing cardinals and bringing them back to the box to consume during the winter.

Q. I am fascinated by crows and have begun cawing to them as they perch. Now they fly around my backyard when I’m outside and reply to my calls. Is this a bad thing to do?
A. Glad to hear that there are other crow fans out there, and you must be an accomplished mimic, if your neighborhood crows call back. I’m sure you’re doing no harm by conversing with your backyard crows. They’re among the most curious of birds, so are probably fascinated by a human who sounds like they do.

Q. Last year raccoons killed all the young robins in a nest in a low tree in my garden. This year the robins are building a nest in the same place and I want to avoid a repetition of last year.
A. Raccoons like nothing better than finding a nestful of helpless young birds (the same goes for squirrels and cats). You may not be able to deter your nest-building robins but you could buy or build a robin nesting platform, essentially a shelf with three low sides, and place it under a roof eave, within sight of the current nest. Robins nest twice a season, so it might catch their eye for their second brood. I haven’t seen any kind of fencing that would keep the raccoons away from the nest in the low tree, unfortunately.

Q. I wanted to share a trick that works for me for keeping robins from attacking my windows. I hang compact disks on fishing line, and then hang them from a horizontal bar made from a wire coat hanger. Set this outside in front of a window but not so close that the CDs bang into the glass. It helps to drill a hole in a couple CDs, then hang one below another, so you end up with several per hangar. A tiny breeze is enough to move the disks and spook the birds.
A. This sounds like an excellent system for deterring robins, cardinals and others from attacking their reflection in a window. Many people have problems with birds repeatedly and intentionally smacking into a window in the springtime, when birds’ hormones increase their aggression toward perceived competitors. This also sound like it should help prevent birds from colliding accidentally with windows. Thanks for a great suggestion!

May 2012

Will songbirds reset ‘migration clock’?

Q. With this early spring weather, when should I expect my orioles to come back?
A. Orioles are coming from a long way away, after a winter spent dining on fruit and insects in the tropics. In the first half of March it did seem as if some birds were arriving very early, especially ducks and short-distance migrants like eastern phoebes, robins and eastern bluebirds. These birds and others that spent the winter a state or two away were responding to the early spring warmth. But birds from farther away don’t know about local weather conditions and tend to begin migration about the same time each year. I suspect your orioles might be somewhat early, if they encounter warm weather and food to eat in the South, and decide to keep on going. Their traditional arrival date is the first of May, so you might start setting out grape jelly and oranges the last week of April.

Q. A robin nested last year on a curve in our drainpipe and I’m wondering if I should remove the old nest or leave it?
A. Robins occasionally re-use old nests. They put a lot of work into that mud base, and it is often still in good shape after a winter. However, the old nest might be stained with bird poop and may contain insect eggs. Since most robins like to start with a new nest, so I’d go ahead and remove the old one.

Q. If a bird lays six eggs over the course of a week, how does the mother get them all to hatch at once?
A. You’re right, birds lay a single egg a day, because egg production places a huge drain on the mother bird’s resources. Ducks, geese and songbirds only begin incubating once the last egg is laid, thereby insuring that all youngsters break out of their shells on the same day. This is a good survival tactic: each young bird will require the same number of feedings each day and the same level of care before leaving the nest.

Q. I visited Monticello all winter to view the beautiful trumpeter swans. Where can I go to photograph them on their nests?
A. Trumpeter swans defend large territories during nesting season, so there tends to be only one pair in a given area. Last year a pair nested on the lake within the Arden Hills Army Training Site, and could be viewed from the viewing platform on Lexington Ave., north of Highway 96 in Arden Hills. I’ve also heard that several of the Three Rivers Park District parks, such as Elm Creek Park Reserve and Carver Park, host a pair in spring and summer. You might want to contact the park district to learn whether swans are nesting (www.threeriversparks.org).

April 2012

Eagles share parenting duties.

Q. I drive by an eagle’s nest on Highway 36 in Maplewood every weekday, and it seems as if two eagles are always around. Do the male eagles help with incubating the eggs?
A. Yes, mature bald eagles make very good parents, and males do help out by sitting on the nest to keep eggs warm while the female takes a break. Female eagles handle about three-fourths of the incubation chores, however. Once the young hatch, which usually occurs in the first half of April in our area, both males and females work to keep their youngsters warm and well fed.

Flew the coop?

Q. Two all white, banded pigeons have showed up in my backyard. Are they escapees from somewhere?
A. I searched the Internet for hints on what to do about banded pigeons, wondering whether they may belong to someone or be part of a research project. There is information on reading bands and how to care for a lost racing pigeon at http://www.pigeon.org/carelostbird.htm.

Lint for nests?

Q. I’ve saved a large bag of dryer lint to put out for birds to help with their nests. Where should I put clumps of lint this spring so birds will find it?
A. It’s good that you’re thinking about the nesting needs of your backyard birds, and dryer lint used to be considered a good source of nesting material. But research indicates that this stuff retains moisture and thus can end up harming infant birds. So please toss that dryer lint, but do hang short lengths (6 inches or less) of string or yarn on the ends of tree and shrub branches in late April for May for birds to gather to line their nests. Clumps of pet fur from your cat or dog’s brush are also good for nest-building.

Late March 2012

Red birds ramp it up in springtime

Q. Is it just my imagination, or are the cardinals extra bright this spring?
A. You may have some particularly bright males in your neighborhood. Although we tend to think of all cardinal males as being knockout red, there actually is some variation in their brightness. And some of what you’re noticing may be due to location: at this time of year, males are sitting at the top of trees, often facing the sun, to appear as red as possible. Studies have shown that redder males earn better mates and higher quality territories.

Q. Why do cardinals sing so much? I hear them when I go out for the newspaper in the early morning, and they keep it up for hours.
A. At this time of year, cardinals are using their songs to accomplish two things: attract a mate and establish a territory. Like many other birds, cardinals are homesteaders and their songs tell other red bird, “This territory is occupied, go find your own!” With nesting season approaching, they know they’re going to need hundreds of insects a day to feed their offspring. Their songs “fence in” enough room to ensure a good supply of this high-energy food for their nestlings. When cardinals sing “Hey, sweetie, sweetie, sweetie,” over and over, the opposite sex reads that as an invitation. For other males it means, “Buzz off, or be ready for a fight.”

Q. How long do cardinals live? For eight years a male cardinal has been throwing himself into our windows, mostly in the morning. He does this repeatedly for hours, first at one window, then the others. Could this be the same bird, or is it learned behavior by one of his offspring?
A. You certainly have a persistent bird on your hands. This behavior is not uncommon—many people are perplexed by a cardinal attacking its reflection in a window, car mirror or shiny bumper. Both males and females do this, and most often in spring and early summer when they are obsessed with fighting off competitors. They’re confused by their own reflection, thinking another bird is trying to take over their territory. A few weeks from now, as levels of aggressive hormones subside, the attacks should end.
The average lifespan for wild cardinals is about three years, so chances are your windows have been attacked over time by cardinals from several different generations. This behavior tends to be an innate response to a perceived threat. It would be a kindness to put a piece of cardboard over the outside of the window that the bird is attacking. If he moves to another window, move the cardboard. Some birds will harm themselves with this persistent, hormone-driven behavior.

Q. Starting in February we began noticing a lack of birds visiting our feeders. Now we only get the occasional woodpecker. Any thoughts on the reason?
A. Several readers have reported a dearth of birds at their feeders, and I think the explanation lies with the weirdly warm weather we’ve been enjoying. Last year at this time all the wild plants and gardens were buried under several feet of snow. Birds couldn’t get at wild seed so they flocked in to feeders. This “no snow” winter has left plenty of seed out in the open for birds to consumer. Another factor has been the winter’s relative warmth, with very few below zero nights. Birds haven’t had to consume as many calories to stay alive, so they don’t need to eat as often. However, we’re coming into a time when there’s very little food remaining in the environment, so it’s a good time to keep feeders filled and birdbaths fresh.

Q. I drive by an eagle’s nest on Highway 36 in Maplewood every weekday, and it seems as if two eagles are always around. Do the male eagles help with incubating the eggs?
A. Yes, mature bald eagles make very good parents, and males do help out by sitting on the nest to keep eggs warm while the female takes a break. Female eagles handle about three-fourths of the incubation chores, however. Once the young hatch, which usually occurs in the first half of April in our area, both males and females work to keep their youngsters warm and well fed.

March 2012

If you give a robin a raisin…

Q. What can I feed robins in the winter? I saw a group of six of them this morning and there were no berries around, so I’m wondering what they’re eating.
A. Feeding robins can be a bit of a challenge, since they’re not “feeder birds”— they don’t generally check out seed-oriented feeding stations. They feed on insects and worms in the summer, then switch to fruit for winter. A platform feeder offering several kinds of foods might catch their eyes. Dried fruits such as raisins, cranberries and currants are similar to wild fruits. Robins might also try small pieces of suet, either raw or crumbled from a suet cake. If you’re feeling very hospitable, you could invest in mealworms from a bait store or wild bird supply store. A heated birdbath should be a major draw to this always-thirsty species. Photo by Val Cunningham

Holding tight

Q. My son found a feather on the ground and it got him wondering how they stay attached to birds?
A. That’s a good question. Feathers grow out of a bird’s skin follicles, similar to the way our hair does. Each feather is held fast to the bird by clusters of tiny muscles around the follicle. When its time to molt new feathers, which occurs once a year for many birds, the muscles release and a new feather pushes out the old. Your son might also be interested to learn that feathers don’t grow thickly all over a bird’s body, but instead are usually found along lines called feather tracts. Feathers overlap between the tracts to keep a bird’s skin warm and dry.

Adding color?

Q. Is there something I can put in my homemade suet to help the cardinals keep their bright color in winter?
A. You could add dried fruits, such as chopped dried cranberries and/or raisins to your suet mixture, but this isn’t really necessary. Cardinals absorb pigments from the foods they eat in summer to produce new, bright feathers during their fall molt.

February 2012

Birds are on the alert for full feeders

Q. Whenever we go up to our cabin, we fill the feeders right away and it seems to take the birds only about five minutes to show up and start eating. How do they figure this out so quickly?
A. The behavior at your cabin shows just how alert birds are for changes in their environment. They doubtless check your feeders each day as they forage for food. When they find the feeders empty they move on to other feeding sites. But the days when there’s seed in the feeders are a bonanza that makes it worth checking regularly. And the sight of several birds at the feeders brings in many more. Photo by Jim Williams

Gaining a toe-hold

Q. When I’m driving on a highway I see birds perched on lamp poles. The view must be great, but I wonder how they hang on? Are lamp pole makers kind enough to rough up the surface so birds have a toe-hold? And don’t their feet get uncomfortably cold?
A. Your question gave me a good chuckle, and then I realized I’d better call the Department of Transportation for some answers. There are several lamp shapes in use on our highways, but apparently they all offer enough structure on top for bird toes to grab onto. As for bird feet, these are mostly made up of bone and tendon, so there’s not much tissue that’s susceptible to freezing. And their legs and feet are covered with scales, which is not living tissue. Their feet may be far from warm but this doesn’t cause them discomfort—as it would for us.

Seeking sandhills

Q. I’ve always wanted to go to Nebraska in March to see the sandhill cranes. Can you suggest where to go or who to contact?
A. Tens of thousands of sandhill cranes drop down on the Platte River near Kearney, Neb., in March and April in one of nature’s most spectacular sight (and sound). This is the largest gathering of sandhill cranes in the world and many people undertake this trip after making their own arrangements—it’s easy to plan your own itinerary. Here are a couple web sites to help get you started: www.rowesanctuary.org; and www.visitkearney.org/SANDHILL-CRANES. Bring a really warm coat, because it gets very cold out on the riverbank.

Broken feather

Q. I saw an owl with what looked like a broken wing feather and I’m wondering if this is going to impair its ability to survive?
A. I don’t think you need to worry about the owl. If the feather shaft is broken the feather will eventually fall away and the owl will grow another one within a couple weeks. It’s not at all uncommon for birds to lose a flight feather, either through a collision with a branch or some harm. Their bodies are able to produce replacement feathers in between molting seasons.

Eagles under water

Q. Two people have told me the same story, about a bald eagle dropping down for a fish and going completely underwater in his pursuit. Is this possible?
A. I don’t think these folks were pulling your leg. There are reports of eagles being completely immersed in water while trying to hoist fish so large the weight pulls them under water for a moment. But unlike osprey, who regularly disappear under the water’s surface while fishing, eagles prefer to grab fish that are near the surface.

Red-less birds

Q. I saw your answer about how cardinals need red food to stain their feathers, but then why don’t other birds that eat berries turn red?
A. Good question, and I’m sure that you, like me, have seen chickadees and house sparrows eating the bright red berries on a burning bush, and they don’t produce any red feathers. And female cardinals, with the same diet as males, show only a little red. The answer must be that male cardinals deposit a great deal of the red and orange pigments from their diet, female cardinals use less of their foods’ red color and other birds, who lack red feathers, just pass it on through their systems.

Chilled bluebirds

Q. I saw some bluebirds today and started to wonder why they are still here, don’t they migrate?
A. Yes, bluebirds are a migratory species, with most leaving in the fall for winter homes in the South. A few are still in our area because they are finding food (berries) and open water, in this odd winter. As long as both are available they can hold out against winter. However, if the weather turns very cold the bluebirds should head south. Most birds can survive cold temperatures as long as food is available to build up a layer of fact to survive long, cold nights.

Late January 2012

Are crows the bad boys of the bird world?

Q. I’ve twice seen a crow dive-bombing a Canada goose on the ground. In each case the goose was walking along, minding its own business, but the crow kept swooping down on it. What was this all about?
A. I can’t imagine how a Canada goose would pose a threat to a crow, so this doesn’t sound like the crow was protecting its young or its nest. The more likely explanation would be that in both cases these were young crows engaging in play behavior, practicing what to do when presented with a threat, although the poor Canada geese might not appreciate this. I once observed a crow and some very young kestrels playing what looked like a game of tag around a ball field, and the same explanation seems to fit: the young crow and the young falcons were playing at skills they’d need later as adults. Photo by Jim Williams

Waste management

Q. I don’t really know how to ask this, but do birds urinate?
A. That’s a good question, and one with an interesting answer. Birds don’t have bladders for collecting urine, so unlike mammals they don’t excrete both solid and liquid wastes. Those white splotches we find on cars and in birdbaths are a concentrated paste combining both forms of waste. A bird’s system reabsorbs most of the liquid before making a splat. Doing without a bladder is an example of the many ingenious ways that birds are streamlined in order to be able to fly.

Snowbird diet

Q. I love to see the juncos arrive in the fall, and wonder what I should feed them?
A. It’s good to hear that you’re feeding juncos, because they work so hard to scratch out a living during the winter. These small sparrows prefer to feed on the ground, but they will come to tray feeders, too. Juncos like millet and cracked corn, as well as sunflower seeds, especially hulled sunflower. They also hop around under nyger feeders to pick up what the goldfinches spill. They’re always interested in fallen seeds, whether in the forest, on our lawns or under our feeders. They’re thirsty birds, like all seed eaters, so if you have a heated birdbath, you’ll really be putting out the welcome mat.

Siskin search

Q. I saw very few pine siskins last year and wonder what the chances are of seeing siskins and redpolls this winter?
A. Sorry to say, your chances aren’t good. Both of these small birds, part of a group of birds known as winter finches, are abundant some winters in our area, but in other years they’re hard to find. Siskins and redpolls are birds of the far north who move south when food is scarce in the boreal forests of Canada. The fact that there seems to be abundant spruce seeds up north for siskins and birch seeds for redpolls is good news for the birds, not so good for Minnesotans who’d like to see these handsome finches.

January 2012

Winter bird watching can hold surprises

Q. What do bird watchers do in the wintertime?
A. Winter is a very good season for watching birds. Yes, there are fewer birds around, because the majority has migrated away. But the hardy few that live here year round are fascinating to watch. Keep an eye on your sunflower seed feeders to watch for signs of “pecking order” behavior in chickadees. Glance frequently at your finch feeder to see if any stripy pine siskins are hiding among the goldfinches. Or take a hike around a nature center or park: any place with open water and shrubs and trees is a good place to find birds. You might see robins or even eastern bluebirds near water and berries, while wooded areas can produce brown creepers, woodpeckers and nuthatches. And there’s always room for a surprise, maybe a flock of cedar waxwings or a northern shrike.

Night visitors

Q. I re-fill my feeders in the late afternoon and birds consume some seed before dark. But lately I’ve noticed a great deal of seed spilled on the ground each morning. What night bird is doing this?
A. Since owls are the only true night birds, and owls don’t eat seeds, I wonder if you’re hosting visits from flying squirrels. These small, nocturnal mammals gather in small groups in winter and climb and glide between tall trees in search of food. A well-stocked feeder is an open invitation to a flying squirrel squad.

Owl season

Q. I thought I heard some owls hooting in the woods behind my house. Is this possible?
A. It’s very possible that you heard owls nearby, since some are very vocal at this time of year. This is courtship season for two species of owls: a low-pitched “who-who-whooo” sounds, almost like a foghorn in the distance, means great horned owls are calling in the night woods. Higher pitched “who cooks for YOU” calls are made by barred owls, calling from the deep forest. These two species nest fairly early in the year, with great horned owls laying eggs as early as February, barred owls in March. Owls don’t build their own nests: barred owls seek out tree cavities, and great horned owls generally commandeer old red-tailed hawk or squirrel nests.

Teenaged eagles

Q. The other day I saw two very large, dark birds in a tree along the lakeshore. Neither had a white head, but for some reason I thought they were bald eagles.
A. I’ll bet you’re right, based on the size of the birds and the fact that they were perched near water, typical eagle behavior. Those two eagles are what are called “sub-adults,” between 2 and 4 years old. These younger birds won’t molt into the adult white head and tail feathers until they’re at least 4 ½ years old. The iconic white-headed and white-tailed bald eagle, the one we think of as typical, is 5 years old or older.

Crow talk

Q. A friend said that he’d been told, years ago, that crows could be trained to talk because they have a split tongue. Is this true?
A. No, crows don’t have split tongues. This sounds like a variant of the old tale that a crow’s tongue must be split in order for it to learn to make human-like sounds. There are two problems with this myth: Crows use the voice box in their throats, not their tongues, to make sounds. Also, they’re natural mimics and learn to recreate sounds on their own. I don’t know whether people used to cut crows’ tongues, but such a practice sounds hideously cruel and totally unnecessary.

Cord chewers

Q. Something keeps chewing through the cord for my birdbath heater. What animal is doing this?
A. The miscreant nibbling on the electrical cord is either a squirrel or a rabbit. I had the same problem with my birdbath heater until someone suggested hanging the cord through some nearby tree branches so it angles down to the birdbath from above. Or try covering the cord in pvc pipe, available at home supply stores. I hope you can try one of these tips for keeping the cord away from gnawing teeth.

Clever crows

Q. I remember hearing about crows dropping walnuts in the road so cars would drive over them and split them open. I want to try setting out a few walnuts at a time to see what the crows will do—do you think it will work?
A. I believe the crows you’re thinking of are Japanese crows. I haven’t heard of similar behavior being documented in this country, although coastal crows drop mussels and clams onto rocks to split the shells open. Crows are very smart and willing to try just about anything to get at a food source. At the very least you’ll have some fun with the walnut test, but keep in mind, squirrels will be watching, too!

Food for doves

Q. We seem to have mourning doves around my house all year long, even though I thought they were migrants. Is this normal and what should they be eating? I scatter cracked corn for them, and dried fruit and seeds.
A. You’re feeding the right foods to the doves in your backyard. These ground feeders are big fans of corn and will enjoy the fruit and seeds, as well. You might consider setting up a heated birdbath, since doves are always eager for a drink. In winter, a large group of mourning doves shows up at my birdbath just before nightfall and drinks with great enthusiasm.

December 2011

Q. I’ve been meaning to drive up to Monticello to see the trumpeter swans but have never made it. Can you remind me where to go?
A. “Where” is easy: go to the Monticello Chamber of Commerce’s web site, www.monticellocci.com/pages/Swans/ and you’ll find directions to the swan viewing overlook. “When” is another factor to take into consideration: the swans begin arriving to spend the winter along the Mississippi in Monticello as area ponds freeze. The river is open here all winter due to the nearby power plant. They might begin arriving as early as late November or it could be as late as mid-December, depending on how cold the weather becomes. That web site will list a swan count, or you can call the chamber at 763-295-2700, or send an e-mail to info@monticellocci.com for the latest word on the swans.

Q. We feed birds all year but are never sure when is a good time to start putting out suet?
A. Raw suet, the kind you buy at the meat counter, is safe to offer to birds when the temperature stays below about 40 degrees Fahrenheit. In warmer weather the suet can melt onto bird feathers, impairing their insulating qualities. Those cakes of rendered suet, often with fruit or nuts pressed into them, are safe to offer nearly all year, except on extremely hot days.

Q. I saw very few pine siskins last year and wonder what the chances are of seeing siskins and redpolls this winter?
A. Sorry to say, your chances aren’t good. Both of these small birds, part of a group of birds known as winter finches, are abundant some winters in our area, but in other years they’re hard to find. Siskins and redpolls are birds of the far north who move south when food is scarce in the boreal forests of Canada. The fact that there seems to be abundant spruce seeds up north for siskins and birch seeds for redpolls is good news for the birds, not so good for Minnesotans who’d like to see these handsome finches.

Late November 2011

Q. A couple cardinals are eating the little red berries on our burning bush. Is this normal?
A. It’s very normal. Those small red berries of the winged euonymus bush must be very tasty, since many kinds of birds feed on them, including cardinals, chickadees and house sparrows. Cardinals need to eat enough red and orange foods to produce the male’s brilliant red and female’s warm taupe feather colors. And young cardinals need the red from berries and other fruits to change from their drab brown “kiddy” feathers into their adult plumage.

Q. I don’t ever remember seeing or hearing about wild turkeys when I was growing up, but now they seem to be everywhere. Can you tell me what’s going on?
A. You’re right, turkeys are much more plentiful now than they were even 40 years ago. Pioneers cleared the forests that provided food and shelter for these big birds, and over-harvested them to the point that they’d disappeared from Minnesota by the late 1800s. After many unsuccessful attempts over four decades, reintroductions of wild turkeys “took” in the 1970s. Now there are so many turkeys that they’re hunted legally in about two-thirds of Minnesota each spring. They’re even harvested in some metro area parks when their numbers exceed the local carrying capacity.

Q. There’s a bird coming to the birdbath that’s robin sized and has an orange breast but its head is all white. What’s up with that?
A. You’re seeing a robin exhibiting a condition caused by a genetic mutation that leaves a bird with white patches or paler feathers overall. This is called leucism, and affects only a bird’s feathers. That’s different from the genetic mutation called albinism, which removes all color from a bird, including feathers, eyes, legs and beak. Leucism seems to occur more frequently in robins than in other species.

Q. We occasionally hear a bird that we’ve dubbed the Beatle Bird, because its song sounds like the first six notes of “A Day in the Life”: “Woke up, got out of bed . . .” Do you have any idea what this bird is?
A. What a funny and fun question. You’ve already indicated that you don’t think it’s a white-throated sparrow or a blue jay, my first choices. At this time of year we often are hearing young male birds who are still practicing their species’s song, adding to the identification complexity. So this one is a real challenge. Readers: any suggestions?

Q. We see great blue herons down along the Gulf Coast during the winter and it finally occurred to me to ask why their legs are so long?
A. Herons and egrets make their living along shorelines, so long legs are an advantage in searching in not-too-deep water for frogs, fish and crustaceans. Once they spy a tasty food item, then they snap their long necks down to snare it. They have long, thin toes, too, that help them walk on a soft pond or lake bottom without sinking.

Q. Should I leave the birdhouse up during the winter, would that help birds?
A. Your birdhouse could provide shelter for one of your backyard birds during the winter. A wren house’s tiny opening is too small for all but chickadees to enter, but a standard-sized birdhouse might become night lodging for a woodpecker, nuthatch or even a chickadee. The nest boxes on my bluebird trail are left up all winter, and I can tell, by feathers left behind, that downy woodpeckers use them all winter. So give it a try, and just remember to brush it out once spring arrives.

November 2011

Tundra swans are gathering on the Mississippi, fattening up and gabbling loudly until ice grips the river.

Q. This is the fall that we’re going to drive down to see the tundra swans on the Mississippi. Can you tell me where and when to go?
A. The best period for swan viewing is from mid-October to mid-November. On their way from nesting grounds near the Arctic Circle, the regal swans drop down on the Mississippi River below the Twin Cities to fatten up on vegetation before heading out on the last leg of their journey to Chesapeake Bay and the coast. You could visit the observation deck at Brownsville on Hwy. 26 near the Iowa border to see the swans. Another good spot is the swan-watching platform at Rieck’s Lake, three miles north of Alma, Wis. Even closer to home, I’ve had good luck traveling to Weaver Bottoms, a bit south of Weaver, about 120 miles from the Twin Cities. The big swans are visible in the river and its marshes until the river freezes. Check this web site for swan watching information: www.almaswanwatch.org/migstatus.asp

Q. We didn’t take our hummingbird feeder down until mid-October this year and while we didn’t see any late migrants, we did find chickadees at the feeder. Do they drink nectar?
A. Chickadees land on my saucer-style hummingbird feeder, too, but they’re not looking for sugar water. Instead, they’re drinking water out of the feeder’s central, water-filled ant moat. Their enthusiastic vocalizations around this feeder seem to express their pleasure that someone designed a bird bowl just for chickadees.

Q. I love feeding birds but I worry about what’s going to happen to them while we spend three months in Florida this winter. I don’t want to just cut them off so should I gradually put out less food?
A. Many Northlanders face this dilemma each winter and may find it reassuring to know that birds use our feeders to supplement the food they find in the wild (except on the very worst days, when feeders become more important). Each day they continue to forage for seeds or fruit, or hibernating insects or, in some cases, food they hid away in autumn. However, I like your idea of a gradual drawdown of the food you put out. Another option might be to find a reliable youngster in the neighborhood or a neighbor who wouldn’t mind filling your feeders while you’re gone. If this isn’t possible, then before you leave, take the feeders down, clean them thoroughly and store them until spring.

Q. We had hummingbirds around all summer and are going to miss their visits to our flowers and feeders. But I find it almost impossible to believe that birds this small can fly thousands of miles to spend the winter.
A. It is amazing to think that such tiny beings are able to travel thousands of miles each fall. But they do it, fueled along the way by nectar-rich flowers like jewelweed, and tiny insects for a protein boost. Our region’s ruby-throated hummingbirds are south of here by now, many making the turn from Southern states to head into Mexico or points much further away, such as Costa Rica or even Panama. Even more amazing is their return trip in spring when many hummingbirds fly nonstop across the 500-mile Gulf of Mexico. They’re tiny, but also strong and resilient.

Q. It’s not hard to recognize which are the young cardinals out back because they don’t have red feathers and their beaks are a dark color. When will they look like their parents?
A. It takes several months for teenaged cardinals to exchange their scruffy-looking brown feathers for the brilliant reds that cover their father or Mom’s golden taupe feathers. It also takes two to three months to develop their species’s bright red-orange beak, colored by the red and orange foods they consume. By late December, all the cardinals in the backyard should look like calendar photos.

October 2011

A too-sweet treat?

Q. My neighbor feeds hummingbirds all summer long with a mixture of half sugar, half water, instead of the recommended 1 part sugar to 4 parts water. Is this mixture harmful to hummingbirds?
A. The homemade nectar that your neighbor is feeding hummingbirds is much more concentrated than the nectar found in flowers, which makes me think it’s not a good idea. That 1 to 4 recommendation is based on years of experience, although there are few studies in this area. So I visited the web site of hummingbird expert Lanny Chambers, www.hummingbirds.net. He wonders if such a high sugar concentration could cause liver damage in hummingbirds and concludes: “I stand by the opinion of the majority of hummingbird researchers, that a 1:4 mixture has been shown to do no harm, and any other formula must remain suspect.”

Mystery eggs

Q. A little bird built a nest in my mom’s rose bush this summer, then laid tiny, bluish eggs. My mom lives on a farm, if that helps, but we don’t know what kind of bird this was.
A. We know it wasn’t either of the two birds famous for laying blue eggs: robin eggs are quite large, and bluebirds don’t nest out in the open. I suspect this bird might have been either a house finch or a goldfinch. The females of these species are fairly drab and they do lay bluish eggs.

Family dynamics

Q. Watching young Canada geese grow up at our local park this summer, I’m wondering if they recognize their parents as they get older?
A. Turns out Canada geese do seem to recognize their family group, even after reaching maturity, which is fairly unique in the world of birds. Most birds go their separate ways after they can take care of themselves, but geese and cranes do continue to remember their parents and siblings. Crows and blue jays, too, seem to recognize their families throughout their lives.

Way out west?

Q. We see lots of bluebirds in our suburb and yesterday we saw a family of Western bluebirds. Are they common around here?
A. Almost anything is possible in the world of birds, but Western bluebirds live and nest in the West and along the west coast. So for a male and female to be so far out of their range, and then to find each other and raise a brood seems to enter the realm of the impossible. I wonder if what you saw was a particularly bright and handsome family of Eastern bluebirds—the two species do look so much alike.

A ‘gratitude gene’?

Q. A couple weeks ago you had a question about whether tree swallows hold wakes. I wanted to tell you about some crow behavior I experienced. I found a crow tangled in fishing line hanging from a tree limb over a pond. I paddled out in a boat and was able to untie him and he flew up into the tree. As I got into my pickup the crow landed on the cab’s roof and stayed there as I drove the few blocks home. He began calling and within minutes a group of 10 or so crows showed up. They circled my house while calling and calling, then they all flew away. Did the crow I freed up tell his mates about how I’d rescued him? You can’t convince me otherwise.
A. I love stories about crow behavior and yours is a fascinating one. A number of other people who have rescued a crow from dire straits have reported scenes that seem to imply gratitude on the part of the crow. They’re very smart birds, some of the smartest in the bird kingdom, and almost nothing surprises me about crow behavior.

Late September 2011

Q. My wife and I have been wondering how cowbirds, raised by other species, manage to get together with other cowbirds. One would think that a cowbird raised by a cardinal would think it was a cardinal, too.
A. That’s an excellent question, and the answer has been evolving as we learn more about these birds. Cowbird don’t raise their own young, instead depositing their eggs in the nests of other kinds of birds, from tiny chipping sparrows to larger cardinals, thus consigning their offspring to foster care. It’s a behavior found only in this one bird species in our region. Soon after leaving the nest, young cowbirds become very attracted to other young cowbirds and meet up in large flocks in open spaces. The young birds make a chatter call that all cowbirds instinctively recognize, and it serves to draw a group of cowbirds together. Some researchers also feel that cowbirds know what they, themselves, look like, and recognize these characteristics in other cowbirds. It’s in these late summer gatherings that cowbirds learn to identify with their own species. A combination of instinct and learning makes a young cowbird a cowbird. Find out more at: www.birds.cornell.edu/bfl/speciesaccts/bnhcow.html.

Q. The little wrens that nest in my backyard make so much noise, I’m wondering if they sing all year long?
A. Good question, and one I’d never considered, so I consulted the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of North American Online. It’ll be a lot quieter in many backyards when these little chatterboxes depart in September for the southern United States or northern Mexico. House wrens become silent and secretive before they leave here, but males may sing sporadically in the winter, and as spring approaches, they begin to sing more frequently.

Q. We have a problem with pigeons in our barn and wonder if there is a humane way to get them to leave?
A. Barns have ideal habitat for pigeons, with food in the form of spilled seed and grain and plenty of places to roost and nest. Turns out that a lot of thought has gone into controlling pest species around barns, and one of the best booklets I read was produced by Penn State University: “Controlling Birds Around Farm Buildings.” Please search for this phrase on Google and you’ll find a handy, downloadable pamphlet with many tips. Hope this works for you, and kudos for being willing to explore humane approaches.

Q. Barn swallows keep building nests on our air vent and make a terrible mess on the air conditioner and dive-bomb us whenever we’re near. We’ve taken down several nests but they rebuild within hours. Any suggestions?
A. Barn swallows are very persistent little birds, as you’ve found. The best solution is to exclude them from that air vent area, either using heavy-duty bird netting or chicken wire over the site. Another approach is to hang heavy plastic, the theory being that it’s too slippery for allow swallows to attach their mud nest base. Washington state Fish and Wildlife has an excellent downloadable pamphlet on this topic.(Remember, it’s not legal to take down nests after the birds lay eggs.) People who really want to help barn swallows can place a human-made nesting platform some distance from a home’s doorways and utility structures.

Q. After this nesting season, it occurred to me to wonder why young birds fall out of nests before they can fly. This doesn’t seem to be a good survival strategy.
A. You’re right, flightless young robins and other birds on the ground are vulnerable to cats, dogs and other dangers. But strange as it may seem, a young bird’s nest is a very dangerous place to be. With all the comings and goings on feeding missions by parent birds, predators (cats, raccoons, squirrels and others) quickly figure out where a nest is and can raid it easily. So it’s a good survival strategy for young birds to leave as quickly as possible and space themselves out on nearby branches (or even on the ground). That way, a predator may strike only one bird, not an entire nestful.

Q. When cardinals sing in the late summer, is this part of the mating process or is it territorial? And since they raise two broods in the summer, do they re-use the nest?
A. A cardinal pair typically remains together to raise two broods during the spring and summer. The vocalizing you hear may be a male telling other males to stay away, or a female telling other females that the territory is still occupied. The pair could also be communicating among themselves: a female sitting on eggs might be requesting a meal or either bird might be announcing that a predator is nearby. After their first batch of nestlings fledges, the nest will be soiled and unhealthy. So the pair almost always builds a new nest for the next batch of youngsters.

September 2011

Q. I’d like to show bird migration to my kids, and my son is fascinated by hawks and eagles. Is there some place without a long drive where I can let him watch the big birds migrating?
A. There are several such spots nearby but I can’t think of a better one than Carpenter Nature Center in Hastings. Carpenter has many trails on the property, where you can view songbird migrants. Your son should especially enjoy the overlook with its long view high over the St. Croix River, a major flyway for raptors. There’s no charge for a visit and Carpenter is open every day, with a visitor’s center housing many wild creatures: http://carpenternaturecenter.org/.

Q. A house finch visiting my feeders seems to have a broken leg. Will it survive?
A. It’s not uncommon for a bird to break one of its delicate leg bones, and this usually isn’t life-threatening. The leg dries up and falls off at some point. Birds seem to adapt fairly well to getting around with one leg.

Q. I put out beef suet all summer, and the birds love it. Is this ok, since I have a birdbath nearby that they can bathe in?
A. I’d advise against putting out raw suet in the summertime. It does melt, unlike suet cakes, whose suet has been rendered and is less “melty.” I’ve seen oil dripping off suet left out in summer and this is dangerous to birds, if it gets on their feathers. They can’t wash it off, the only way to remove it is to molt a new set of feathers, and this only happens once or twice a year. Suet on feathers impairs all the qualities that birds depend on them for, such as insulation (from both heat and cold) and protection from sun and rain. Try suet cakes for the warmer months.

Q. I found a dead hummingbird on my balcony and wonder what killed it. I don’t think they fly into windows, but they do get quite aggressive around the sugar-water feeder and chase others away.
A. Sorry to hear about the hummingbird and I suspect that it did hit your window, possibly during a chase by another hummingbird. Hummingbirds crash into glass to their detriment, just as songbirds do. They see the outdoors reflected in the glass and don’t realize they can’t fly through it. Many migrating birds are in our area now, and they’re not familiar with all the local hazards. Try putting some UV-reflective decals on your balcony door—these are nearly invisible to humans but very visible to birds (check with your local wild bird supply store).

Q. I see hawks on freeway light poles all the time and wonder what they’re doing there.
A. They’re watching for their next meal. The most frequently seen highway hawk is the red-tailed hawk, a species that prefers a “watch and wait” hunting style from elevated perches. They’re mainly watching for voles, rats and rabbits, which seem to thrive near roadways.

August 2011

Do swallows hold wakes for failed nests?

Q. I have a tree swallow nest box that the birds use every year. This year, during a cold and rainy period, I noticed five adult tree swallows perched on top of the box. When I went to check inside, I found that the nestlings had all died. Were the adults holding some type of vigil?
A. What a sad ending for the tree swallows, and for you. It’s possible that the series of wet days made it impossible for the parents to find enough flying insects to feed their young, and their nestlings starved. Were the adult birds holding a vigil? I’ve never encountered such a tale before, but more things happen in the world of birds than we have explanations for.

Another possible explanation for this gathering you noted could be that another pair of tree swallows and an unmated bird became aware of the nest failure and had gathered to see if they could commandeer the box from the original parents—remote, but a possibility. We will probably never know, but thanks for sending in this intriguing observation.

Q. I’m wondering what’s going on with the blue jays in my neighborhood: we’re used to seeing one or two at a time, but the other day there were six in the backyard. Since they have a reputation as being rough on other birds, I worry about this.
A. You’re right, blue jays are beautiful but they do drive other birds from feeders. I wonder if you’re seeing a family of jays, with parents still teaching the youngsters the ropes. Or, at this time of year, it might be a group of jays getting ready to head southward before winter, not a true migration but a shift. Since nesting season is nearly finished for songbirds, there’s little need to worry about jays indulging in chick-stealing. But they do use their big corvid brains to devise ways to drive smaller birds from good feeding sites.

(One technique some jays use is to imitate the call of a Cooper’s hawk, which spooks other birds into seeking shelter.) Many birds, however, are pretty used to jays by now, like littler kids developing strategies for dealing with the neighborhood bully.

Q. I’m noticing a cardinal lacking head feathers at my feeders. Something is causing the bird to lose its feathers in a progressive fashion, starting from the beak and spreading back. Any idea what’s going on?
A. At this time of year, we usually hear about a number of “bald cardinals” showing up in backyards and at feeders. This is songbird molting season, but the jury is still out on what causes cardinals (and other birds, such as blue jays) to lose all their head feathers nearly simultaneously. Some say it’s due to a sudden, all-over-the-head molt, while others maintain that it’s caused by mites chewing the feather shafts. I lean toward the parasite theory, since there’s little evolutionary advantage to bird baldness.

July 2011

Ducklings “popcorn” out of nest boxes.

Q. After watching tiny ducklings jump out of a wood duck house, I’m wondering how the mother duck knows when the box is empty?
A. You’re very fortunate: few of us have been privileged to see this sight, one of the most wonderful in nature. The day after her ducklings hatch, the hen wood duck is ready to call them out of the box. She stands outside and gives a special whispery kind of call. The ducklings “peep” in reply and jump up to the box entrance before dropping down to their mother; it may take only 5 minutes to clear the nest. “Once they start, it’s like popcorn popping,” says Kraig Kelsey, who runs a wild bird store in North Oaks. This is a very dangerous time for ducklings, with many predators on the lookout for easy prey, so the mother duck can’t wait for very long. Once there are no more “peep” sounds from inside, she leads her brood away.

Q. How many eggs does a bird lay in a day?
A. Female birds lay only one egg each day, since egg production places great stress on her resources and she needs time to replenish them. Songbirds tend to produce from three to six eggs over three to six days. Eggs are usually laid in the morning, then the female leaves the nest site for long periods. She only begins incubating once the last egg in her clutch is laid, to ensure that all hatch at about the same time.

Q. We’ve had chickadees robbing the potting soil from a hanging basket. They pick up a piece, fly to a branch and seem to be trying to peck it open. Any thoughts?
A. It sounds as if the chickadees are being fooled into thinking those little white pieces of vermiculite are some kind of seed. Even though they’re not finding any food inside, they’re persistent little birds and keep trying.

Q. I’ve seen bluebirds carrying food in to the birdhouse, and then they fly out with something white in their beaks. What is going on?
A. You’re seeing signs of good housekeeping: parent birds stuff food into their nestlings’ beaks, then scoop up their youngsters’ droppings to keep the nest clean. They take these fecal sacs some distance away from the nest site so predators aren’t alerted to the presence of helpless young birds. Some birds, notably grackles, drop the fecal sacs into water, which might be the local birdbath.

Q. I had many orioles at my feeders this spring but they’ve disappeared. Have they migrated north?
A. Your orioles may still be in the area, but they’ve switched over to an insect diet, so aren’t visiting feeders. During nesting season these beautiful birds, like nearly all songbirds, become insectivores, hunting for flying, hopping and crawling insects to feed their young. Once the youngsters leave the nest, the entire family may visit your feeders and birdbath.

Q. Can you shed light on this: last week I watched a red-bellied woodpecker spend an afternoon at the neighbor’s nest box. The woodpecker pulled out each of the nestlings, one by one, and flew off with them. What was it doing with those little birds?
A. I’d never heard of this kind of woodpecker behavior, so consulted the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of North America Online. Shocking as it may seem, red-bellied woodpeckers do eat other birds’ eggs and nestlings, when the opportunity presents itself. Most of their diet is made up of insects, berries, seeds and nuts, however. The bird you observed has apparently learned that nestboxes can be an easy source of protein, for itself and possibly its own young. Red-headed woodpeckers are also reported to engage in this kind of behavior.

June 2011

Q. My son and I would give anything to see an indigo bunting. Where should we be looking?
A. These small blue birds, about the size of a goldfinch, are on many people’s “must see” list. They’re fairly common in parks, woods and roadsides in our area in spring and summer, but unless they’re in bright sunlight, they tend to look black, so they’re often overlooked. The very best way to discover a bunting is to learn this species’ distinctive song. Unlike many other birds, indigo buntings don’t clam up during nesting season but sing all summer long. Check this site to hear their song. The song will lead you to the bird.

Q. This spring I saw more rose-breasted grosbeaks than ever before. Any chance they’ll stay around all summer?
A. Depending on the habitat around your home, you might be able to enjoy a nesting pair of grosbeaks this summer. They prefer to nest at the edge of deciduous woodlands, not deep in the woods, near streams or ponds. They’ve also been known to nest in parks, orchards and even backyards, as long as there’s plenty of cover.

Q. I love to watch birds but I live in a condo where the rules forbid any seed mess. Is there anything without shells that I can feed the birds?
A. Many birds, including cardinals and chickadees, have a strong preference for sunflower seeds, and these are available without the shells. Look for sunflower hearts or medium-sized sunflower chips. In winter, you could offer the shelled seeds as well as suet cakes, which woodpeckers and other birds enjoy, and whole peanuts without shells.

Q. I’ve been trying to attract cardinals for years with no success. We live near a wetland and there are trees around, plus I have tried seed mixes advertised as cardinal food. Any ideas?
A. A funny thing about cardinals is that they’re very loyal to feeding sites, but it can be a challenge to get them to become regular guests. In my experience, a platform feeder is the best choice for cardinals, followed by a domed feeder with the dome raised high enough to allow them access. They do love black-oil sunflower seeds, but can be coaxed to eat safflower, as well. Enhance your feeding station with a birdbath, since cardinals love to take a drink after eating.

Cardinals are on the lookout for places to rest, take shelter, and build their nests. It might be a good idea to plant several shrubs in the backyard, such as viburnum and dogwood. As you can tell, it may take a bit more effort than offering tasty seeds, but once you attract cardinals, they should be reliable visitors for years.

Q. I don’t understand why Baltimore orioles would eat an unnatural food like grape jelly.
A. Orioles are fond of fruit, as long as it’s ripe—or even overripe. At the end of summer they feast on ripe mulberries, raspberries, cherries and grapes. In the spring, after migrating up from the tropics, where they’ve been eating fruit all winter, orioles adapt easily to grape jelly, which is similar to their end-of-summer treat. Once they start feeding their nestling, however, their diet emphasizes insects, until their brood leaves the nest.

Q. Help! A chickadee is eating big holes in my wooden window frames. I keep patching the frames but the chickadees keep coming back. How can I stop them?
A. This is a new one for me, I hadn’t heard of a chickadee pecking at a house before. With their small beaks, they need to find rotting wood to be able to chip away small pieces. They’re either looking for insects or trying to build a cavity to hold their nest. The only surefire way to stop them is to exclude them from the window frames. Heavy cardboard tacked to the frame temporarily might do the trick, as would hardware cloth. Then, try offering food chickadees like—black-oil sunflower, suet cakes, and peanuts—in feeders nearby. If they can’t reach the frames and can catch a meal nearby, they’ll soon give up on the window wood.

Do gobblers leave the ground?

Q. I’ve been seeing groups of wild turkeys in unlikely places lately, such as along the freeway. How do they get there—can turkeys fly?
A. Although they may look a little ungainly, wild turkeys can and do fly. They don’t migrate but are strong fliers over short distances. They need to fly in order to escape predators and roost in trees overnight.

Busy birds

Q. Chickadees used one of my bird houses last year, and now this year I see them working to remove all the old pine shavings left inside. Should I open the box and clean it out, or let them do it?
A. Sounds like your chickadees have their own ideas about setting up housekeeping. Chickadees tend to nest in snags with old, dead wood, so they’re used to picking out bits of wood and carrying it away (so predators don’t detect nest-building activity). They’re mimicking this behavior with the chips in your nest boxes. Turns out they’re more likely to use a nest box if there’s material to remove inside, so if you put in fresh chips, they might just discard those, too.

Blackbirds in trouble?

Q. Ever since I can remember red-winged blackbirds have returned to the cattails on my lake by mid-March, but not this year. Could this be due to the incidents down South this winter?
A. I’m not sure why your lakeshore is being ignored by red-winged blackbirds this year, but you can rest easy on one point: the two die-off events, in Arkansas and Louisiana last New Year’s, isn’t the reason. Federal agencies have determined that several thousand blackbirds died after being startled awake, and then flying into structures and the ground in the dark. As unfortunate as they were, these two incidents had no effect on the overall population, which is pegged at around 190 million red-wings.

Duck houses

Q. Where can I buy a wood duck house in the metro area?
A. Many wild bird stores carry wood duck nest boxes. You might call a few to check that they’re in stock before making a trip.

Eyes or ears?

Q. Ok, when robins stop on the lawn and tilt their heads, are they looking for worms or listening to them? My neighbor and I disagree on this.
A. They’re looking for signs that worms are burrowing under the surface. Because of the way their eyes are positioned on the sides of the head (in order to help detect an approaching predator) robins need to point one eye toward a close object to see it well.

White wings

Q. Crows are nesting in my neighbor’s trees. The interesting thing is that the offspring have white feathering on the underside of their wings. I have tried to get pictures, but they have to be in flight to show the color.
A. Your crow observation is fascinating. As it turns out, it’s not unusual for crows to have white feathers, especially on the undersides of their wings. I’ve seen several such crows around my neighborhood, too. There even used to be a web site dedicated to people’s photos and writings about white crows, with many of them being the white under the wings variety. I can no longer find that site, but here’s a relevant web page from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:
http://www.birds.cornell.edu/crows/whitecrows.htm
It’s fun to discover unusual coloration in birds because it helps you notice and track individuals.

Foiling feeder pigs

Q. I enjoy feeding birds but not some of the pigs that show up at my feeders. Right now it’s starlings that are eating everything in sight, especially suet. Any suggestions?
A. Invasions by starlings are one of the down sides to feeding birds. They have long beaks to help them pry food out of many situations, so you may need to stop feeding suet for a while—you just can’t keep them out. I’ve had success with replacing black oil sunflower seeds with safflower seed. Starlings don’t seem to like safflower, while the birds we prefer to feed, such as cardinals, chickadees and nuthatches, like it just fine. You might also try a specialty feeder, such as a tube feeder filled with nyger seed for finches. The openings on these feeders are too small for starling beaks. Once nesting season is underway you may notice that the starling crowd drops off significantly.

Red bird duets

Q. I’ve been hearing that wonderful cardinal song, and my neighbor, who knows birds, says that both the male and female are singing. Isn’t this unusual?
A. Your neighbor is correct, male and female cardinals sing duets to each other in springtime, strengthening their bond before beginning courtship and nesting. And this is unusual since in most bird species, only the males are singers.

Alarming squirrels

Q. What’s happening to the squirrels under my feeders? They’re losing their fur and have painful-looking sores.
A. Backyard squirrels with strange, patchy-looking coats are suffering from mange. This disease is caused by a tiny mite related to the tick that burrows under the skin to eat the subcutaneous layer. Intense itching caused by the mite causes furious scratching by squirrels, in the process pulling out clumps of fur. Partially naked squirrels have a tough time making it through the winter but if they can survive until spring, they seem to recover well. The mite seems to be squirrel-specific and won’t transfer to humans or pets. However, they can easily spread through a local squirrel population, and may be one of nature’s ways of controlling their numbers.

Backyard ducks?

Q. A house in my neighborhood seems to attract ducks. There can be 25 perching on the roof peak and some are always flying around. What’s up with that?
A. I’ll bet the homeowners are feeding the ducks, either with corn kernels or cracked corn. The word gets around in the duck world and they show up in numbers.

Too much regulation?

Q. You recently wrote that it’s illegal to toss bird food on the ground in Minneapolis. This seems like over-regulation to me, and I wonder about the rationale.
A. The restriction is found in the section of city law relating to the control of rodent populations. A number of suburbs forbid ground feeding, as well, in order to discourage wild turkey flocks and deer.

Beak break

Q. I’ve been photographing the cardinals that visit my feeders and I’m worried about one bird with a chip out of its beak.
A. Birds are so reliant on their beaks for eating, nest-building, preening and other activities that these need to be in top condition. Fortunately their beaks are continually growing, with new growth replacing old, damaged areas.

Beak business

Q. I watch birds eating seed from my feeders, and then they land on a branch or even the patio furniture and rub their beaks. Why do they do this?
A. Birds need to keep their beaks in top condition, since beaks are so crucial to feeding. When your backyard birds swipe their beak from side to side on a twig or metal furniture, they’re probably cleaning off debris leftover after cracking shells and consuming the oily seeds. They may also be honing the edges a bit, since bird beaks grow throughout their lives.

‘Innies’ or ‘outies’

Q. Does “shelled” peanuts mean peanuts with shells or without them? Is it okay to put out peanuts in their shells in a wire mesh feeder?
A. That word can be read either way, but I take it to mean peanuts without shells. And yes, you certainly may offer peanuts with or without shells in a mesh feeder. The woodpeckers and nuthatches can peck into either kind, and chickadees will pick up peanut bits on the ground.

Why only sparrows?

Q. We hung a bird feeder under the house’s eaves but it seems to be attracting only sparrows What can we do to bring in other kinds of birds?
A. You’ll probably need to move the eaves feeder or add a second feeder, farther from your house. Those (non-native) little birds earned the name house sparrow because they’re willing to feed so close to human habitation. Other birds, such as cardinals, goldfinches and chickadees, seem to prefer feeders placed farther from human activity. Be careful, though, not to place a feeder too close to a window. To avoid window strikes, place feeders within three feet or farther than 30 feet from glass.

Best bird cams?

Q. I’d like to get a camera to take photos of birds when I’m gone. Where can I find one and what can I expect to pay?
A. I don’t have a remote camera that takes images of birds, but I Googled “bird cameras” and came up with a wide variety of choices. There are motion-activated cameras that take still photos, cameras that attach to nest boxes and others that work with bird feeders, solar-powered cameras and cameras that stream video into your television.

Outdoor cameras are great for those of us who leave home every day and can’t
observe the birds that visit our feeders and nest boxes. I found prices that ranged from $90 to $400 on various Internet sites, but you might find some deals locally. The best thing to do is figure out what you want to see (stills, video, feeding or nesting), and then pick the best camera for the job at the price you can afford.

Red hot seed

Q. I’m tempted to add red pepper to my birdseed, to try to deter the squirrels. What do you think?
A. I am not a fan of using red pepper as a solution to squirrel problems. Some people, and some bird stores, recommend this because the pepper is an irritant to mucous membranes. If a squirrel encounters pain when it eats birdseed, the thinking goes, it might avoid the seed in the future. But birds have mucous membranes, too, and the red pepper conceivably could burn their tongues and throats, and even eyes, if it gets blown upward when a bird lands to feed. Please try other methods to keep squirrels out of feeders.

Feed switch

Q. I enjoy feeding birds but now the local deer empty out the feeders every night. I switched to safflower seed, which seems to have deterred the deer, but now the bird traffic is considerably slower. Do birds not like safflower?
A. Your backyard birds are probably just taking some time to learn that a new kind of seed contains s a good source of energy. We switched to safflower a couple years ago, to try to deter house sparrows. It took the cardinals and chickadees a few weeks to adjust, but unfortunately, the sparrows adjusted, too, and now toss great quantities of safflower out onto the ground each day.

The deer may learn that safflower is tolerable, as well, so you may need new strategies to keep them away from feeders. Try hanging feeders on a long rope that crosses a high tree branch, and then lower the feeders to fill them. The knowledgeable staff at your local wild bird store will doubtless have some other suggestions for foiling deer.

Insects making music

Q. In a recent column about woodpeckers, you wrote that insects aren’t true instrumentalists because they make sounds within their bodies. Are you aware of the many insects that make sounds in other ways?
A. This alert reader sent along descriptions of death watch beetles, that tap or drum their heads against a surface, and cockroaches and aquatic stoneflies that tap surfaces with their abdomens to make sounds. This qualifies them as instrumentalists, by my definition, and I stand corrected.

April 2011

Picky Peanut Eaters

Q. I feed peanuts in the shell to the backyard squirrels and birds and have noticed the blue jays doing something odd with them. They’ll pick one up, lay it down, pick up another and then drop it in favor of a third peanut, before flying off. Any ideas about what they’re doing?
A. This behavior points up how smart blue jays are. They want the biggest reward first, so they’re picking each peanut up, looking for the heaviest one. Once they have a heavy peanut in the beak they fly off to consume it or hide it for a later snack. Then they return to find the next heaviest nut, and on and on. Blue jays can clear out a pile of peanuts very quickly. This is pretty amazing bird behavior and it may be even more amazing that researchers have studied jays to come up with the answer.

Hawk or owl?

Q. Could a red-tailed hawk kill a cottontail rabbit? We found a rabbit carcass in our yard, with no tracks around it, and wondered what animal did this.
A. A carcass with no track around it does sound like it was killed by a bird of prey. Red-tail hawks can and do capture and kill rabbits, but so do great-horned owls. Hawks work the day shift, owls hunt at night. So if you found the carcass in the morning and it hadn’t been there before, I’d vote for an owl as the predator. If the rabbit remains showed up sometime during the day, then it might have been a hawk’s prey

Q. A large bird landed in a tree near where I was walking, and I realized it was a woodpecker, the largest I’ve ever seen. When I looked it up in a bird book I found it was a pileated woodpecker. I live in the city and wonder if it’s usual to see these birds here, and will it come back?
A. These large (crow-sized) woodpeckers patterned in black, white and red, are always an awesome sight. It’s not usual to see them in an urban area but they’re not a rare sight, either. Pileateds have fairly large feeding territories, which include ample woodlands. They range through their territory, stopping to search for insects hidden in old or dead trees. Sometimes you’ll hear the pileated’s wacky, high-pitched call before you spot one. This web site has a recording of their call: www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/pileated_woodpecker/id

So many crows

Q. The sight of all those crows heading toward downtown for the night fascinates me. Does this mean that crows have recovered from West Nile Virus? When they head out for the day, what do they eat?
A. I asked Kevin McGowan, a researcher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, about crow roosts and he notes that we can’t tell much about the health of crow populations by the size of a nighttime gathering. The roosts we see may be drawing in all the crows around our area. Midwest crows were hit harder than crows in any other area by the nearly always fatal virus and no one knows whether the population is recovering yet. When they head out during the day, they’re looking for what omnivores eat, anything and everything. Crows eat road kill, but they also check compost heaps, lake ice for fishsicles, farm fields, bird feeding stations, crabapple trees and so on.

Feeding without fear

Q. After seeing a Cooper’s hawk swoop in and grab a bird, I’m wondering if I can build some kind of shelter for birds as they feed.
A. Good question—most of us are just trying to feed our backyard birds, not feed them to predators. If you search on the Internet, you will find a variety of suggestions for building shelters for birds, from a kind of plywood teepee to a simple brush pile. A pile of branches and twigs does provide excellent shelter for birds in all kinds of weather and from most kinds of predators.

Another way to protect ground-feeding birds, a category which includes cardinals, mourning doves, sparrows and juncos, is to place chicken wire around the base of an evergreen tree or shrub. Toss seed inside the wire and birds feed happily and safely inside. I saw a kestrel once slam into such fencing around a pine tree, with no injury to itself and he was not able to snag a sparrow feeding inside.

Birds for kids

Q. Our little granddaughter, who loves watching birds, is coming for a visit and I want to make sure there are birds to see. Any suggestions?
A. It’s wonderful that you’re introducing your granddaughter to the fascinating world of birds. In this extremely cold winter, birds have sometimes seemed scarce. Try sweeping off a spot for ground-feeding birds, then toss some cracked corn and millet seed there each day. A suet feeder should bring in woodpeckers but is also popular with squirrels, so try hanging the feeder from a shepherd’s hook pole. If you have a deck or patio (or swept spot), it’s fun to toss out 15 or so peanuts in the shell and watch the blue jays show up. They’ll “weigh” each one, departing with the heaviest first, then return until they’ve carried them all away.

Not to sound like a broken record, but a birdbath with heater is a reliable way to attract winter birds: even if they can find food in the wild they’re always thirsty for a drink.

Cold feet

Q. Birds don’t have feathers on their legs, so why don’t their legs and feet freeze in the winter?
A. Even though their feet and legs aren’t protected by insulating feathers, birds seldom suffer frostbite in their extremities. Look at birds on a very cold day and you may observe some with one foot tucked into belly feathers, or they settle down over their legs and feet to keep them warm. Bird feet and legs lack fleshy muscle and have a limited nerve structure and blood supply, all protections against freezing. Mourning doves, however, aren’t well adapted to cold and may lose some toes during a cold winter.

Country birds

Q. We live out in the country and I recently saw some horned larks out in a field. Is it unusual to see these birds at this time of year?
A. Many of these small birds of open country spend the winter in our area, and others are starting to move through on migration. It’s fun to watch a flock swirl away from the roadside, then return to almost the same spot after vehicles pass by. Named for the tuft of feathers above each eye, these larks sing a sweet, tinkle-y song.

Easy eagles

Q. Some friends want me to go to Red Wing to view bald eagles, but I’m hoping I can see them closer to home.
A. There are quite a few bald eagles spending the winter near open water in the Twin Cities. One spot that’s fairly reliable is Kaposia Landing in South St. Paul. It has plowed trails that lead toward the sewage treatment plant’s outfall, where the water is always open. On a recent Monday, six to eight bald eagles were visible from this park. For a map and directions, visit www.nps.gov/miss/planyourvisit/kaposialanding.htm.

Robins may drop in for a winter snack

Q. I feel sorry for a robin visiting my backyard. I bought some dried mealworms to feed him but what else can I do to help him?
A. In wintertime, the robin diet is made up primarily of fruit. In the natural world, in our area, this generally means hackberry, buckthorn, crabapple and mountain ash fruits. Robins don’t often visit feeders, since their diet is made up of so much wild food. But studies of robin diets suggest their first choices are dark blue and red fruits, so try offering raisins, currents, dried or frozen blueberries and craisins. You could place fruit on the ground near where the robin perches, or on a platform feeder. You could also offer small pieces of suet or bird pudding. Robins can be opportunists and even have been reported eating frozen minnows on shorelines and seed under feeders.

Mourning dove concerns

Q. A mourning dove is sitting in the snow under my feeder. Isn’t this unusual?
A. Mourning doves are year-round residents in our area. If they can find grains to eat (cracked corn is a favorite of theirs) and water to drink they can withstand the winter in good shape.

Homemade seed mixes

Q. I’d like to mix up my own finch feeding mix. Do you have any suggestions?
A. Goldfinches are big fans of those little black needles called nyger seed, and they snap up small chips of sunflower seed, as well. Buy 5 or 10 pounds each of nyger seed and sunflower chips, mix them together, store in a cool place, and you have an ideal diet for goldfinches. House finches use their larger beaks to crack open black-oil sunflower and safflower seeds No need to mix these for house finches, just offer one or the other, or both, in a feeder.

Where do hawks sleep?

Q. We have a number of red-tailed hawks in our area and a red-tailed hawk nest close to our house. Do they sleep in their nests in winter?
A. You’re fortunate to live close enough to observe one of our most beautiful hawks on a regular basis. Red-tails build a new nest every year and once their youngsters fledge, they abandon the nest. This is a good deal for great-horned owls, a species that doesn’t build its own nest but uses those built by other birds, especially those of the red-tailed hawk.
Red-tails don’t sleep in their nests. Instead they’re known to spend the night in deciduous trees, standing erect with feet locked on a branch.

Crow slumber parties

Q. Those large gatherings of crows in Minneapolis fascinate me. What’s going on with them?
A. Large numbers of crows gather in the city each evening in parks and cemeteries with many deciduous trees. They make a great ruckus as they fly around, call and settle in on treetops for the night. With the metro heat island effect, it’s a bit warmer in the city, which may be part of the reason they do this on winter nights. Scientists don’t have all the answers about this roosting behavior, although it may also provide protection from predators such as great-horned owls, and/or it just might be how this highly social species prefers to spend the night. Some speculate that these large roosts are made up of young birds who haven’t yet found a mate, and that older birds with mates remain on their territories winter and summer. Come spring, these nighttime roosts will disappear as the crows disperse to find territories.

Uninvited feeder guests

Q. Why would a red-tailed hawk be hanging around our backyard, watching the feeders? I didn’t think these hawks ate birds.
A. Red-tailed hawks usually hunt for small mammals and larger birds like pheasant and grouse, although they have been known to consume songbirds. More likely this beautiful hawk is looking for rodents: feeding stations sometimes attract mice, voles and squirrels to the spilled seed underneath. Some savvy hawks have learned to hang out at feeders for a four-legged meal.

Q. On a recent biking trip several of us noticed a pair of sandhill cranes emerging from an oak forest. Could they have been eating acorns in the woods?
A. Great observation about a bird we tend to think of in wetlands, using its long beak to explore for snails, frogs and insects. But sandhills have a varied diet and it turns out that they do eat acorns where these are available. In our area cranes also hunt for seeds and berries in late fall.

Q. I’m having trouble with a cardinal continually attacking the outside mirrors on our cars. What can I do to get him to stop?
A. Cardinals are known to attack their own reflection in windows and mirrors—in the springtime, when they’re highly territorial. This is fairly unusual behavior in the fall, but the solution is the same in both seasons: cover up the mirrors, maybe with paper bags, when the cars are parked. It shouldn’t take long for the cardinal to give up and move on.

Q. One or more woodpeckers visit our house each day to peck on our window frames and wood siding, creating holes in the wood. What can we do to discourage them?
A. Woodpeckers can be a problem around wooden houses. They also are very determined birds and it takes determination on a homeowner’s part to deter them.

At this time of year the bird may either be drilling for insects or thinking of carving out a roost hole to sleep in at night. These activities are fine when practiced on a tree, but are alarming when it’s on your house. The not-so-good news is that woodpeckers are a challenge to discourage, but the good news is that it can be done.

Below are two links to sites with good suggestions for situations such as yours. Cornell Lab has studied this problem for years and their suggestions are field tested for success.

I’ll bet you find some tips here that work in your situation:
www.birds.cornell.edu/wp_about/control.html
www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/natres/06516.html

We wouldn’t serve our human guests on dirty plates, would we? Clean-up sessions should be part of every backyard feeding regime.

Q. How often should I clean out my bird feeders?
A. I’m so glad you asked this question because it touches on one of the most important aspects of feeding birds—the need to keep feeders and food clean. If birds could talk, I suspect they’d say something like this:

“We’re really grateful for the food you put out for us and don’t mean to be ingrates but . . . ahem . . . sometimes things aren’t as fresh as they could be. A couple times, after a rain, the seed has gotten damp, and this can make us sick. Sometimes the nectar tastes a little off, too. If people would clean out the feeders more often, it would be better for us birds.”

There you have it, straight from the birds’ beaks. All of us who feed birds want to do the best by them, but we hear little about one of the most important aspects of feeding birds—feeder maintenance and sanitation. For some reason the bird feeding industry doesn’t talk about this much, but it’s of paramount importance.

Feeders need to be cleaned on a regular basis and moldy or insect-infested seed or bacteria-contaminated nectar must be tossed. Otherwise, birds may be sickened with diseases like salmonella or, in the case of hummingbirds, fungal infections, and may end up dying. We don’t see sick or dying birds because they instinctively hide away when they feel ill, but wet and moldy food and feeders can kill birds.

Every two weeks during the summer, and half as often in winter, inspect plastic feeders for any cracked or broken edges that could cut bird feet or beaks. Watch wood feeders for damaged spots that could cause splinters. While you have the feeder down, pour out the seed (if it’s clean you can save it to refill the feeder later) and give it a thorough wash and rinse. Experts recommend submerging just-cleaned feeders in a 9-to-1 water to bleach solution, then thoroughly rinsing them. This should kill most of the pathogens that build up.

Hummingbird feeders need slightly different treatment: skip using any detergent or bleach, since they can sense these even after many rinses and will avoid such feeders. A thorough rinse should do the job for them. If you have a large, barrel-type feeder at the cabin, set it out only while you’re in residence, otherwise bacteria can build up and sicken the little birds.

Another major hazard to hygienic bird feeding is moisture. I’m not going overboard by advising that you check feeders after every rainstorm and snowfall. Moisture can enter most feeders and begin to spoil the seed, especially the shelled kind, such as sunflower pieces. If you find clumps in the seed, pour it out, toss it in the trash and start fresh. I do check my feeders after any precipitation and often find that most of it has remained dry. Dry seed can be saved, but the clumping stuff goes.

And lastly, don’t ignore the birdbath. A reliable source of water brings in droves of birds to drink and bathe nearly every month of the year. But please get in the habit of spraying out the birdbath bowl on a daily basis before refilling it with fresh water. After only a few hours a bath can be cloudy with feather dust.

Do these things, which shouldn’t add more than a half hour a week to your feeding regime, and you can rest easy knowing you’re offering a clean, healthy environment for your wonderful birds.

Discouraging sparrows

Q. I have a problem with house sparrows wolfing down all the seed in the feeders and scaring other birds away. How do I discourage sparrows and encourage the nicer birds?
A. Nearly everyone who feeds birds encounters problems with house sparrows. They’re pigs at feeders and a large flock may drive away the cardinals, finches and chickadees. Try scattering millet and cracked corn on the ground under a tree at least 30 feet from your feeders. House sparrows are naturally ground feeders so this strategy should keep them busy for a while. Replace sunflower seeds with safflower to discourage them at feeders. You could also buy or make a sparrow deterrent. Sparrows are not very maneuverable in flight and don’t like to fly around or through things. An arrangement of monofilament fishing line with weights attached, hanging from feeder tops, seems to deter sparrows. To get an idea of what this looks like, try visiting www.sialis.org/halo.htm.

Disappearing bluebirds

Q. What happens to bluebirds after the youngsters leave the nest? They seem to vanish from mid-summer until fall.
A. The bluebirds that you notice on the local golf course are probably still in the area all summer, but one of two things may make them fairly invisible. One, bluebirds are surprisingly tough to spot unless they’re right in front of us. And after they raise a first brood of young birds, they’re impossibly busy starting up a new nest while still feeding their teenagers, outside the nest box. Adults and juveniles do gather in late autumn before migrating several hundred miles south.

Backyard bird census?

Q. I recently put up a bird feeder and am excited by the large number of birds that visit. Is there any way to estimate the number of different birds that come by each day?
A. There are so many variables here that there’s really no way to come up with an estimate. To get some answers and have an enjoyable time, try watching your feeder in the early morning and again in the evening to see for yourself what birds it draws. You’ll notice that some birds, especially starlings and house sparrows, can be feeder pigs, while others, such as the chickadees, dash in for one seed at a time. But unless the birds were marked in some way, there’s no way to differentiate between a bird making repeated visits and one arriving for the first time.

Q. I want to put a heater in the birdbath so birds can have a drink this winter, but I’m worried they’ll take baths then freeze to death.
A. A heated birdbath is a great idea, since birds do need a place to drink when all other open water is frozen solid. And you’re right to be concerned about birds bathing: if the temperature sinks below zero, it’s a good idea to put boards or other materials across the birdbath so birds can drink but not bathe. Another idea was suggested on a bird listserv recently—cut a circle of bubble wrap to fit over the water, leaving about an inch all around for drinking.

Q. Since we’re going to be away from home from January through April I’m wondering whether I should stop feeding birds now, to get them ready?
A. I’d go ahead and continue filling the bird feeders through December, to help your birds remain in good condition to face the coming winter. Then, before you leave, I’d take the feeders down, clean them up and store them for the season. Or try asking a neighbor to hang the feeders in his yard and keep them filled.

Q. How high do birds fly when they’re migrating?
A. Most songbirds lift into the night sky and fly at an altitude of between 2,000 to 4,000 feet. The air at this level is fairly still and cold, providing cooling as bird muscles heat up in flight, without exposing them to the extreme cold higher up.

Q. I didn’t think blue jays were migratory because I see them all winter, but lately I’ve been seeing big flocks of them. Does this mean we’re in for a cold winter?
A. Rest assured that blue jays are not good predictors of winter weather. What you’re seeing is typical for these jays: about 20 percent of the population migrates in the fall. Some of our summer jays move several hundred miles southward, and are replaced by birds from farther north. Most blue jays are year-round residents.

Q. This year we’ve seen downy woodpeckers drinking the nectar in the hummingbird feeder. We’re wondering if downies have made an evolutionary leap since we’ve never seen this behavior before?

A. Several other readers have reported woodpeckers helping themselves to hummingbird or oriole nectar. Birds are observant creatures and they notice when other species flock to a food source. The more intrepid among them are willing to try new things to see if they’re nourishing. Your downy may have followed a hummingbird in to the feeder and found its sugar water similar to the tree sap he laps up in the spring.

Q. I know birds are going to start migrating soon and wonder how many of our birds leave?

A. The majority of birds that we enjoy from spring through fall will travel to wintering areas where they can find a reliable source of food. No one really knows how many millions of birds will be winging southward from Minnesota. But of the 250 or so species that nest in our state, something like 21 species remain here through the winter. These include several kinds of woodpeckers, goldfinches, cardinals, blue jays and great horned owls. Juncos and a few other birds from farther north settle in our area to wait out the winter.

Q. I spotted three tall, long-necked birds feeding on the side of the road on Highway 61 recently. They were rusty-colored and when I looked them up they closely resembled the picture of young whooping cranes. Is this possible?

A. I think it’s more likely that what you saw were sandhill cranes: many of these pale gray birds are stained a rusty color after weeks of dipping their heads and necks into iron-rich water. This might have been a family group of two parents and their youngster. Whooping cranes are very rare, numbering only about 360 wild birds. Most spend the summer in Canada, and a few summer in Wisconsin; neither flock had started migrating by the time you saw your cranes.

Q. I’m very confused: one neighbor says to take down my hummingbird feeders now, another says I should leave them up for awhile. What’s best for the birds?

A. People seem to have strong opinions on this point, but the fact of the matter is that it’s better for hummingbirds to leave nectar feeders hanging until two weeks after you notice your last hummingbird visitor. One of your neighbors may be worried that leaving feeders up will cause hummingbirds to delay or even cancel their migration, but this won’t happen, they’ll leave when their internal clocks tell them it’s time. And stragglers or impaired birds will appreciate feeders left up into October for a high-energy drink.

Q. I put up a bluebird house in the spring and there were birds in there, but I don’t know what kind. Should I clean out the birdhouse each fall? I think there’s a bird still in there.

A. It’s a good idea clean out the nest box after the bluebirds leave, so it’s ready for them next spring. If there’s a bird in there, it may be a sparrow, and we don’t want to encourage these non-native birds to proliferate. I’d advise tossing any nesting material, then leaving the front of the house open for a month so sparrows (or mice) don’t take up residence over the winter. If you close the box back up in October, a downy woodpecker or chickadee may use it as a life-saving night roost during winter—a good thing.

Q. I recently put up a bird feeder and am excited by the large number of birds that visit. Is there any way to estimate the number of different birds that come by each day?

A. There are so many variables here that there’s really no way to come up with an estimate. To get some answers and have an enjoyable time, try watching your feeder in the early morning and again in the evening to see for yourself what birds it draws. You’ll notice that some birds, especially starlings and house sparrows, can be feeder pigs, while others, such as the chickadees, dash in for one seed at a time. But unless the birds were marked in some way, there’s no way to differentiate between a bird making repeated visits and one arriving for the first time.

Q. Are cardinals territorial? A male and female cardinal visit my feeder but I have no way of telling whether this is the same pair or many different birds.

A. I’d bet that at this time of year you’re seeing the same pair of cardinals. They’ve just finished raising their second brood, and are looking a little tattered after working so hard all summer. Like most songbirds, they defend a territory during breeding season, but are less aggressive as the fall advances. People whose backyards offer food and open water all winter may find up to 20 or more cardinals dining and drinking together at dawn and dusk.

Q. The goldfinches don’t seem very interested in my feeders right now. Will they come back this winter?

A. This must be the best time of year to be a goldfinch: nature is rife with maturing seeds, perfect for birds whose diet is entirely made up of seeds. Unlike nearly all other songbirds, they don’t switch to insects during the summer. And yes, I can safely predict the goldfinches will return to your feeders later this fall, as long as the seed inside is fresh. Please be sure to check feeders after each rain or snowfall and toss any damp seed, which can lead to illnesses in birds.

Q. A small bird with a spotted chest just hit our window. What’s a good way to prevent this from happening again?
A. It sounds like an ovenbird, a kind of warbler, hit your window. To help prevent birds from smacking into windows, try the new window decals that are nearly invisible to humans but reflect ultraviolet light, which birds can see. I’ve put these up on my front and back windows and haven’t had any window strikes since. Now that migration’s getting under way with millions of birds on the wing, this would be a very good time to visit a wild bird store or check on the Internet to buy a packet of decals.

Q. I’ve been seeing a lot of sea gulls lately. What are they doing this far from the coast?
A. Many people are surprised the first time they notice gulls in the city. While most gulls are coastal birds, two species spend the nesting season far to the north of here, and then migrate back through our area in the fall. These are the crow-sized ring-billed gull and the much larger herring gull (raven-sized). The ring-billed gull (named for the dark line around its beak) is more common, swooping and swirling over our rivers and lakes—and mall parking lots—in search of food. Both kinds of gull will spend the winter south of here, along open water.

Q. We watched a pair of wrens raise a family in our wren house this summer. A couple times we saw an adult stick its head into the house, then leave with something white in its beak. What could this be about?
A. You observed a parent bird on sanitary duty. Adult birds stuff food down their nestlings’ gullet, and then take away the waste material that emerges at the other end. This compact package is called a fecal sac; parents remove them to keep the nest clean, depositing them some distance away to confuse predators.

Q. I put up a 16-hole house for purple martins but haven’t had any takers, even though I keep the sparrows out of it. Someone told me that a disease on their winter grounds killed most of the martins off. Is this true?
A. I haven’t heard of any purple martin die-off, but what I have heard is that it’s a challenge to attract martins to set up housekeeping in a new house. It would be worth your while to check out a couple of the web sites devoted to martins. They’ll fill you in on things like dawn song tapes to help attract these beautiful birds: http://purplemartin.org and http://www.mnmartin.org.

Q. I was fortunate enough to find a hummingbird nest and have been keeping an eye on it as the baby birds grow up. Will the dominant youngster push out the other one so only one survives.
A. You’re lucky to be able to observe a hummingbird nest (from a distance, I’m sure). I don’t think you need to worry about siblingcide in hummingbirds. Most female hummingbirds lay two eggs and unless disaster strikes, both twins grow up and fledge from the nest.

Q. Our bird house has been very successful this season. First chickadees raised a family, then wrens moved in. The wrens are just about ready to leave and sparrows are perching on the box. Are the sparrows waiting to occupy the house when the wrens leave?
A. It’s lucky that the wrens waited for the chickadees to fledge, since wrens are usually much more impatient and will puncture eggs or kill the youngsters in order to take over a nest box. Now that sparrows have discovered the box, the wrens may be in danger themselves, since sparrows are notorious for killing nestlings and even adult birds in order to claim a nesting cavity. The best defense is an the entrance hole that is too small to admit sparrows. If it’s larger than 1 1/4 inches in diameter you might want to buy a metal piece at a wild bird store to narrow the hole, in order to keep out sparrows.

Q. We have two cardinals coming to our feeder and they seem healthy except that both their heads are completely bald. It looks rather grotesque and I’m wondering if they might have some sort of disease?
A. This is the time of year for reports of bald cardinals and blue jays. Your birds aren’t diseased but probably are going through the molting process. For some unknown reason, a few birds lose all their head feathers at once, instead of molting in staggered fashion, like other birds. The head feathers invariably grow back but it is a bit disconcerting to see these beautiful birds looking so unhandsome. These “baldies” make it easy to see that birds evolved along the reptile side of the animal kingdom.

Q. I was interested in the recent piece on how birds learn to sing, but what I want to know is how they sing. Do birds have a voice box or something else that allows them to make such sounds?
A. Birds do have voice boxes, just as we do, and the vibration of air through the walls of the voice box is what creates their songs. There’s at least one major difference: where humans have a larynx located at the top of the windpipe, a bird’s voice box, or syrinx, is located farther down, where the trachea branches out. Birds can change pitch and volume by manipulating muscle tension within the syrinx and the speed of the air moving through it. Some birds, such as veeries and hermit thrushes, make two sounds at once, resulting in a haunting, echo-like sound.

Q. My dog got fairly close to a robin’s nest along our fence line, and the robins were very agitated, although the fence kept the dog away. Later we noticed that the nest was empty and wondered if the parents moved the baby birds?
A. Robins (and other birds) don’t move their nestlings—when the young birds leave the nest it’s under their own power. It’s possible that the youngsters were just old enough to fly away from the perceived danger posed by your dog. The other possibility is a sadder one: your dog may have provided a scent trail for another predator, possibly a cat or other mammal, to use to find the nest and eat the young.

Q. Even when I put out fresh sugar water, the hummingbirds won’t feed at my feeders. They hover for 10 seconds or so and then flit away. How can I get them to stick around?
A. Something is discouraging your hummingbirds and if the sugar water is fresh, then I’d suspect that insects are the problem. Do you see bees, wasps or ants around the feeder? Wasps, especially, frighten off hummingbirds. If ants are a problem, it’s a good idea to hang a water-filled ant moat above the feeder. If bees and wasps come in for the sugar water, try switching to a saucer-style feeder — these keep the solution too far away for the insects to reach.

Q. Robins raised a family on the nesting platform I put up for them. Now that they’re gone, should I remove the nest they built?
A. I’d leave the nest alone for now. Robins, and some swallows and phoebes, incorporate mud in their nests, which makes for a very sturdy structure. They may reuse the nest this season, adding some grass and leaves to freshen it up for their next brood. At the end of nesting season, though, you could take the nest down.

Q. My friends and I noticed a paucity of birds at our feeders in late spring and they’re just now starting to return. Any explanation?
A. The same thing is happening in my backyard, with greatly reduced bird traffic at feeders until about mid-June. The reason: this is the time of year when nearly all songbirds ignore seeds, switching instead to an insect diet. They feed their offspring exclusively on insects, especially juicy caterpillars, for the big dose of protein they provide. On this diet, young birds mature quickly and leave the nest in just over two weeks after hatching. This is necessary because predators are always watching for a tasty meal. Once the youngsters leave the nest, the whole family may show up at your feeders.

Q. Are birds color-blind?
A. Just the opposite, birds are highly sensitive to color, more so than humans. The fact that birds are so brilliantly colored is proof that color is important to them. They use color to discern which birds would make good mates, how healthy another bird is and which birds are youngsters needing some guidance. Birds see a broader spectrum of color than we do and they’re able to see some ultraviolet light, which we can’t.

Q. I saw a bald eagle land near an ice-fishing hole on a city lake, when it was still all frozen up. Do eagles eat fish in winter, or only when there’s open water?
A. Eagles eat fish all year round, and can and do fly long distances to find open water for fishing. In the metro area, eagles bunch up at open areas on rivers near power plants. Eagles occasionally snatch injured ducks and they’ll also scavenge on road-killed deer.

Q. I just saw the strangest thing on my backyard maple tree—the bark seemed to be moving! When I looked more closely it turned out to be a bark-like bird, but I don’t know what kind.
A. That’s an excellent description of the brown creeper, which does look like a piece of bark as it spirals upward around a tree trunk in search of insects. The creeper is perfectly camouflaged, with its brown back over an all-white belly. Creepers invariably move upward and their cousins, the white-breasted nuthatches, move downward on tree trunks. Each may find hidden insects that the other’s feeding strategy has overlooked.

St. Paul, Minnesota resident Val Cunningham writes about birds for many publications, is a field trip leader for St. Paul Audubon and conducts IBA and Breeding Bird Atlas surveys. A version of this piece appeared first in the Minneapolis StarTribune.