Q: The wasps took over my nectar feeder in late summer and were very aggressive toward the hummingbirds. I'm wondering whether they would actually sting the birds?
A: Hummingbirds are so quick and agile that they can almost always outmaneuver a wasp. In the rare instance that a wasp managed to reach a bird's skin beneath its feathers, it might administer a sting — and for a tiny bird like a hummingbird, it's possible that the toxin might be fatal. There just isn't much information available on this. To draw wasps away from the hummingbird feeder, try setting out a saucer or pie pan with a sugar mixture that's a bit sweeter than the one for birds, such as 1 part sugar to 3 parts water. Place this on the ground about 10 feet away from the hummingbird feeder and watch the wasps abandon the nectar feeder for the pie plate mixture.
Q: Was the smoke in the air this summer from the Canadian wildfires harmful to birds?
A: Good question, since many of us humans experienced respiratory issues because of the smoky air. I asked Leslie Reed, DVM, director of veterinary education at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Roseville, for her thoughts, and she replied: "It's hard to say what effects, short or long term, if any, this smoke will have on birds. I can assume it would be irritating to their respiratory tracts, since they tend to be a bit more sensitive to 'respiratory irritants' than humans. I don't expect to see any birds admitted with health issues directly related to the air quality, but we shall see. I would guess birds closer to the actual fires would be showing more symptoms."
Q: I've seen orioles drinking the nectar from my hummingbird feeder, ignoring the oriole feeder I put out for them. What are your thoughts on this?
A: I see no problems with orioles drinking the hummingbird nectar, except that you'll need to refill that feeder more often. I've seen many photos of orioles visiting hummingbird feeders, but come to think on it, no photos of hummingbirds at oriole feeders. This may be explained by the fact that homemade hummingbird nectar is much sweeter than that recommended for orioles (hummingbird nectar should be 4 parts water to 1 part sugar, the oriole mixture is 6 parts water to 1 part sugar). Your orioles seem to be voting with their beaks for a sweeter treat.
Loud, loud hawks
Q: For the first time in the 20 years we've lived in our house in Red Wing we heard the calls of a red-shouldered hawk. At first we thought it was an animal in distress but after some research decided it was this hawk. It is one noisy, persistent bird and our sources say it was making courtship calls. Do you see these hawks in your area?
A: These hawks, while not abundant, can be found in their favorite habitat, which is tall woods near water. I often see or hear them at a nature center about 10 miles northeast of St. Paul, and have formed the impression that they're one of our noisiest raptors. It sounds as if you were hearing a male doing his mating display, which involves soaring and diving and calling to appeal to a female. Later in the season their offspring loudly beg for feedings.
Q: I want to share a red-tailed hawk sighting/experience from a Rochester golf course. A pair of red-tails nested in a wooded area on the course, and we often saw them, sometimes even adults and young flying together, with lots of chattering. One day one was soaring above my group, and it was calling. Another red-tail came flying in and was about 10 to 20 feet above the calling hawk when it suddenly dropped a mouse or shrew and the hawk below caught it in mid-air in its beak. That hawk then flew to a tree and kept on calling. I thought it had dropped the mouse but before we left the tee the hawk quit calling and ate its lunch. That midair catch was quite the sight and one would assume this was a parent and youngster, but who knows?
A: Wow, is all I can say, wish I'd seen that. And I'll bet you're exactly right, that that was a young bird begging a parent bird for a feeding.
Sparrows vs. wrens
Q: We put up a wren house in our backyard but the sparrows were fighting the wrens over it. I'd really rather have the wrens using it.
A: You confirmed that the front of your nest box has a dowel to serve as a perch, and this invariably attracts house sparrows. Wrens don't need a perch, so to attract them and deter sparrows, I'd pull off or saw off the perch. This will turn it back into a wren house. I don't know why manufacturers put perches on nest boxes, this invariably attracts house sparrows, and the world doesn't need more of these nonnative birds and their bad habit of driving off desirable nest box-using birds.
Note to readers: After publication of the On the Wing column about bald eagles raising a hawk, Vanessa Green, who runs Twin Cities Metro Osprey Watch, relayed another fascinating cross-species tale. Some years back a Canada goose adopted an osprey nest in early spring and must have started laying her eggs. When the osprey migrated back to their nest tower, they chased the goose away and got down to nesting themselves. Some time later, Green spotted a gosling in the nest. The osprey displayed no aggression to the foreign infant, even trying to feed it fish bits and allowed it to snuggle with the female as she sat on her eggs. However, the gosling couldn't eat the fish pieces and after four days it disappeared, either by jumping off the platform or lost to starvation. Unlike the hawk and eagle situation, the dietary needs of the gosling were just too different. As Green noted, "Interesting things happen in nature." Becky Field took the photo of the gosling in the osprey nest.
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 email@example.com.