Q: We’ve had two tom turkeys feeding under our feeders every morning, but lately one bird has been spreading his feathers, peacock-style, and strutting around the yard. Is this a territorial thing or is it part of getting ready for spring?
A: This sounds like one male turkey is establishing his dominance over the other. The National Wild Turkey Federation says that during non-breeding season, turkeys divide into flocks of similar birds, males with males, females with females and young birds with their own kind.
As mating season approaches the males begin displaying more and more courtship behavior, which includes fanning that dramatic tail to reassert their standing in the flock. Males don’t have territories, but they do have home ranges, and the bird with the fanned tail probably was indicating that he was the top bird in your backyard.
Q: This past summer I heard an operatic bird sing at my cabin near Mille Lacs. It sounded like “La Donna e Mobile” from Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” Any ideas, beyond the return of Pavarotti?
A: This is a fun question, and no bird sprang immediately to mind, so I asked some birding friends who are musically inclined for their thoughts. One suggested a Baltimore oriole, another tossed out wood thrush. A bird that occurred to me is the northern parula, whose song sounds like “The William Tell Overture” to me. You might listen to each species at this Cornell Lab of Ornithology site: allaboutbirds.org.
A crushing beak
Q: I put out peanuts for the blue jays, but was surprised to see a cardinal taking one, too. Could he actually break open the shell?
A: If the cardinal took a peanut away, I assume it felt it could crack the shell. The cardinal beak is designed more for crushing than pecking at things, but these birds do an elegant job of opening the outer shells of black oil sunflower seeds by moving them around in their mouth. A peanut is probably too large to roll around in this way, however, so maybe the bird hacked it open. I’d keep an eye on those peanuts and if you see a cardinal take another one, that would probably mean it’s been successful.
Q: The other morning, while walking the dog, we came across the head, leg and feathers of what looked like a pigeon. Any idea of the perpetrator?
A: I checked with the Raptor Center for their speculation on what creature might have left these remains. Gail Buhl, the center’s education program manager, suggested a red-tailed hawk or great horned owl, possibly even a Cooper’s hawk. And she noted that she wouldn’t discount a cat, either.
Q: Our pond thawed out during a warm period at the end of November. The mallards returned and seemed to be mating. What was going on here, since it seemed too early for this behavior?
A: I contacted Steve Cordts, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ waterfowl specialist. It’s not unusual for mallards to begin pairing up in late November, Cordts says, with males using a number of ritualized displays, movements and calls to court a female. She will eventually pair up with a male, although actual mating doesn’t occur until spring.
Q: I’ve noticed that goldfinches in winter have a black beak, instead of the yellow or orange color in summer. I understand how feathers change during a molt, but how can the beak color change?
A: That’s an excellent observation, and a number of birds, including goldfinches, robins and starlings, change their beak color over the seasons. Their diets include foods that are rich in the pigments that give color to beaks (and feathers). When mating season approaches, hormonal changes lead to color changes in the tissue beneath the outer layer of the beak. A bright yellow or orange beak seems to signal how robust and healthy a bird is, leading to better chances for a better mate. After the breeding season, when the birds no longer need to send such signals to each other, the bright colors fade.
Orioles vs. mosquitoes?
Q: We were lucky enough to have many orioles coming to our feeders last summer. I’d like to know how to find their nests and whether it’s true, as I’ve been told, that orioles eat mosquitoes.
A: It’s good to hear that there are many Baltimore orioles in your neighborhood. This bird’s elegant nest is easiest to see in winter, when leaves are absent from trees. Look for a roundish shape out on the end of a twig in a tall tree, often near water. Orioles’ intricately woven nests are so well constructed that they often last into the following spring or summer, although the birds don’t re-use them. They eat insects and feed them to their nestlings, but these tend to be caterpillars and larger adult insects. Orioles use their sharp beaks to glean for insects on leaves or branches — they aren’t very adept at catching them on the wing, making mosquitoes an unlikely dietary choice.
St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.