Q: A large hawk has been hanging around my neighborhood and this worries me. I have a small dog that likes to go out in the yard, but maybe I should put weights on her so a hawk can’t carry her off?
A: That’s a creative idea, but probably not necessary: Hawks appear large, but under all those feathers there’s a very lightweight bird with air-filled bones. The most likely backyard raptors are red-tailed hawks, weighing about 3 pounds and Cooper’s hawks, weighing up to 1 pound. If your dog weighs more than this, it won’t be carried off by a hawk, because these birds can’t carry more than their body weight. More usual prey for these birds are small animals like mice, voles, squirrels and, for Cooper’s hawks, small birds. One thing to keep in mind: If a raptor feels threatened, it could swoop down to slash a dog with its talons, so it’s a good idea to keep an eye on your pet.
Q: This past summer I was sitting on my patio when a large owl flew nearby. Then I noticed more and more owls, with one eating something up in a tree, for a final count of six flying around. I found it odd to see so many owls.
A: That must have been an amazing sight. I’d have loved to see it. I checked with Karla Bloem, executive director of the International Owl Center (Houston, Minn.), and she was intrigued, too. She noted that if this occurred in the summer, the owls were likely a family, but in winter, long-eared owls could be around, since they gather in communal roosts. Because you indicated this was during warm weather, I’m guessing a barred owl family.
Q: Are there albino birds? I was watching a group of sparrows and there was one that was solid white. I’m assuming it was a sparrow, too.
A: Yes, indeed, there are albinos in the bird world, and I think you’re right to suspect that the all-white bird spending time with sparrows was itself a sparrow. Readers have sent photos of all-white chickadees, goldfinches and robins, birds that we see with regularity and notice when there’s something odd. But all other species have the potential to produce albinos, too. There’s another, more common, condition that produces light birds, called leucism, where feathers are missing pigment, but these birds aren’t completely white and lack the pink eyes of an albino.
Q: I was watching a flock of juncos under my feeders, and one stood out like a sore thumb. When I entered its colors in the Merlin Bird ID app on my phone, it showed a dark-eyed junco and it said this was the Oregon subspecies. It was a beautiful bird and I wonder if it was a migrant that got off course.
A: Those Oregon dark-eyed juncos are beautiful birds and stand out in a crowd of their drabber cousins. They’re well-named, being a bird of the West, but field guides say that some overwinter in the Great Plains states each year. Birders report a number of them in our area each winter and I’ve sometimes seen one mixed in with other juncos in my backyard. If you travel to cities like Portland or Seattle, this is the junco you’ll see everywhere.
Q: I’m wondering about the different behaviors I’ve observed between male and female downy woodpeckers at my feeder. The female lands on the feeder arm and slowly, hesitatingly, makes her way to the suet, while the male flies directly to the suet. Is this typical gender behavior or more likely individual traits?
A: You’re very observant and that’s a good question. Even though they’re about the same size, male downy woodpeckers dominate females and drive them away from prime foraging and roosting spots. A male or several males have probably been aggressive toward the female visiting your feeder, so she approaches slowly, keeping an eye out for males, to minimize conflict. In the forest, female downy woodpeckers forage on different parts of a tree than males do, for the same reason.
Bird book for kids
Q: Can you recommend a book on birds suitable for a 4-year-old who loves to watch and identify the birds she sees on walks with her dad?
A: Good question, and the answer depends a bit on the approach you think will work best with your granddaughter. Some advocate for introducing children to birds by using a standard field guide for adults, and there are many good ones, from a Peterson to National Geographic to Kenn Kaufman’s. And there are good books designed just for kids, albeit kids a bit older than your granddaughter. Possibilities here include “Peterson First Guide to Birds of North America,” “National Geographic Kids Bird Guide of North America” and “Peterson Field Guide for Young Naturalists.” It’s wonderful to know about a child with a strong interest in birds at a young age.
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.