Q: I saw a junco in my backyard on Sept. 20 — isn’t this early for them?
A: That dark-eyed junco was right on schedule, since they usually begin showing up as early as late August, according to “Birds in Minnesota,” by Robert Janssen. (If you want to know when and where birds appear in Minnesota, this book comes in handy.) Some people regard this little northern sparrow as a harbinger of winter, but the cold season was still a ways off when you saw your junco.
Q: I’ve stopped buying premixed birdseed and instead buy bags of black oil sunflower seed, sunflower pieces, nyger, peanuts and safflower seed and make my own mix. I’m finding I attract more birds and have a lot less waste.
A: I’m not surprised at your good results, since you’re creating a high-quality, high-energy seed mix that should appeal to many kinds of birds.
Q: I’ve observed pairs of birds at my feeders where one bird feeds a seed to the other. In some cases it’s a male cardinal feeding a female, sometimes it’s a parent feeding a young bird. Recently I saw a female finch feeding what looked like another female. Is this usual and why don’t parent birds encourage their offspring to move to a feeder and feed themselves?
A: These are excellent observations. In the case of the cardinals, the male feeding the female is part of their courtship ritual, he’s showing that he would be a good food provider. In the case of the finches, females and juveniles look very much alike, so this probably was a parent feeding a youngster. As for why parent birds don’t simply lead their fledglings to feeders and let them figure it out: It takes awhile for young birds to catch on to new sources of food, and learn how to extract it. I’ll bet those parent birds are almost counting the days until their youngsters finally realize they can feed themselves.
Q: There’s a funny little bird at my suet feeders that I’ve never seen before. Can you tell me from the photo I sent what it is?
A: The bird in your photo is a red-breasted nuthatch, a cousin to our familiar white-breasted nuthatches. They’re smaller and more dramatically marked, and they make a similar call, although their sounds are more nasal. We don’t see these nuthatches every year, but with this year’s poor crop of cone seeds in the conifers of the eastern boreal forest in Canada, many began flooding into the United States as early as August. This movement is expected to continue during the winter and they’ll visit bird feeders that offer black oiler sunflower seeds, suet and/or peanuts.
Q: For the past few years, wrens using my backyard houses have left one twig protruding from the entry, always pointed to the right as you face the wren house. This happens even when two or more houses are being used at the same time. Is this typical wren behavior, or might it be specific to one bird? Does it have a practical purpose?
A: What fascinating behavior by the wrens in your backyard. I’ve had many wrens use the nest boxes on my bluebird trail over the years, but this “stick out” building style is new to me. I’m betting that this is a single male who takes over as many nest boxes as he can, and builds starter nests to appeal to a female wren. Then he adds his own artistic touch, the right-leaning twig, to really catch her eye. Another possibility: Since it’s female wrens who complete the nests, maybe it’s the female who adds the stick-out stick. Could the wrens be indicating that a nest box is taken? Nature is amazing and wild creatures are so individualistic, it’s fun to hear about things that stand out from the norm.
Q: I’ve decided to put a heater in my birdbath this year, and wonder how much water I should put in the bath, i.e., how deep should the water be?
A: That’s an excellent question, and I’ve read that most birdbaths are too deep for birds to drink and bathe safely. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology recommends shallow birdbaths that mimic the rain puddles and edges of slow streams that birds use in nature. This means ½-inch to 1-inch deep at the edges, sloping to no more than 2 inches in the middle. Most concrete birdbaths sold in garden stores are either too deep, or glazed and thus slippery, or are not easy to clean, a very important part of offering fresh water. Even in winter the water needs to be refreshed often, at least once a day (and more if a messy tribe of wintering robins drops in). Use branches or boards across the basin to discourage birds from bathing on very cold days. You may have to do some searching to find a shallow enough bath, but it’s worth it, since an open source of water will bring in all kinds of birds in the winter.
Q: I have eight feeders with about five different kinds of bird food in them and last summer I saw two separate birds doing something unusual. I don’t know what kind of birds they were, but they treated the feeders like a salad bar, sampling the food at one feeder, then moving on to another, trying out every one. I’ve never seen this kind of behavior before or since, have you?
A: I enjoyed your observation and no, I’ve never seen birds acting like they were in a buffet line (but would love to do so). But it’s not surprising, since you’re offering so many kinds of bird foods, and these two “super feeders” must have thought they were in bird heaven.
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.