Q: I was at a local park some weeks ago and photographed this black-capped chickadee picking at the seed pods on a cannabis plant. The plant was in the middle of a patch of poison ivy, and I've read that this plant's berries are eaten by many birds, as well.
A: You sent a great photo of a chickadee enjoying the seeds of a cannabis plant. It seems that many other avian species, from woodpeckers to doves to game birds, enjoy cannabis seeds, as well.
While there's been very little research into this, there are reports of birds becoming "high" after ingesting THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. With recent changes in state legislation, Minnesota's birds will soon have many more opportunities to feed on "weed." They may also come into conflict with cannabis farmers, who won't want their crops nibbled on. Many birds enjoy poison ivy berries, too, and it's odd to think of them avoiding the side effects that afflict so many humans.
Will 'my' birds starve?
Q: We're moving to a new home soon, and I'm concerned about the birds I've been feeding for years and years. Is it better to quit feeding them several months ahead of our move, so they learn to find other sources? I'm very upset about this, do you have a take on it?
A: I'd say your birds are going to be fine. Research shows that the birds we see at our feeders aren't totally reliant on the foods we put out. Instead, they find the majority of their daily calories out in the wild, at natural food sources (seed eaters feed on seed heads, insect eaters probe for larvae and eggs, etc.). You might gradually draw down the amount of seed and suet you set out so the birds' focus shifts to replace those calories. This is what human "snowbirds" do when they leave in the fall, knowing that many birds will greet them when they return. You've been very good to your neighborhood's birds and I'll bet you'll find a new fan club at your next home.
Parking lot gulls
Q: Why do gulls, most commonly associated with water, congregate in parks, athletic fields and parking lots in the fall? I just can't figure out what the attraction is.
A: I've noticed this, too, and I think the main attraction is food bits discarded by humans. As ring-billed gulls gear up for migration, they tend to gather near known food sources, such as shopping malls with restaurants nearby. Another benefit to the gulls is that these kinds of sites, especially the ball fields, offer wide vistas to allow the birds to spot any lurking predators.
Keep the 'cafe' open
Q: I'm so glad you advised me to leave my hummingbird feeder out later in the fall, after I had been tempted to take it in for the season on Oct. 7. Four days later I looked out to see a female absolutely guzzling the nectar. She was drinking so much that bubbles were rising in the liquid.
A: I'm so glad to hear your feeder provided possibly life-saving sustenance to a late-migrating hummingbird at a time of year when there were few flowers to provide nectar. Some who feed hummingbirds worry that a feeder left out late in the fall will keep them from migrating, but the truth is that a late feeder is a welcome sight to stragglers. The standard advice is to keep nectar feeders going until two weeks after seeing the last hummingbird.
Q: We saw an unusual sight in our backyard not long ago: A sharp-shinned hawk caught a house sparrow in our bee balm after several tries, and then placed it on the grass, but didn't immediately carry it off. Instead, it hopped around the dead bird for a minute or so, as if it wasn't sure if it wanted it. It finally did take off with the sparrow. Have you seen or heard anything about this behavior?
A: I've never seen a sharp-shinned acting in this way but I suspect that the hawk was a young bird, not all that used to hunting, and maybe not clear on all the steps involved. After it had caught the sparrow, the sharpie was all energized and needed to calm down a bit before deciding what to do next, hence the hopping dance. I've seen both sharp-shins and their cousin, the Cooper's hawk, jumping up and down on the top of shrubs where smaller birds were sheltering, and this may have been a version of that activity.
Fall hummingbird travel
Q: I worry about little hummingbirds during fall migration, having to cross the Gulf of Mexico during hurricanes and tropical storms, which seem to be growing stronger. Could this affect their population?
A: That's a good question, and it is daunting to think of a tiny bird weighing a tenth of an ounce flying nonstop over 500 miles of open water during a major storm. But the good news is that advances in bird migration tracking show us that most of the hummingbirds we see in Minnesota in the summer don't cross the Gulf in the fall, instead following safer overland routes. According to hummingbird expert Sheri Williamson, hummingbirds cross the Gulf from the Yucatan in high numbers in March and April, but avoid this route in the fall. This is good news for hummingbird fans.
Q: The other day I came across crows doing something I'd never seen before — they were fishing!
Well, they were picking up tiny fish along the shoreline. Have you ever heard of this?
A: Crows are so smart and so focused on food, it doesn't surprise me that they can be fisherbirds. It turns out that this behavior isn't all that infrequent; there are reports of crows either catching minnows while fluttering over the water, or by wading into shallow water to snatch them. In the southeastern U.S., their range overlaps that of their smaller cousin, the fish crow. The Southern birds spend a lot of time fishing, and American crows there might be mimicking them. Either way, it seems very cool to me.
Q: What's a good time to put my suet feeder back outside?
A: I'd say the beginning of October is a good time to set your suet feeder out. If you're offering raw suet, it's cool enough that the suet won't melt and impair birds' feathers. If you use rendered suet cakes, these don't melt and can be used all year long.
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.