Q: A small group of flickers dropped into my yard in September and several of them were doing something wacky: They'd stand facing each other and dip and bob their heads repeatedly. What were they up to?
A: I've observed this kind of flicker behavior myself a few times so your query was a good opportunity to look into it. These birds, usually males, engage in head bobbing in spring, as a territorial display and in courtship. In the fall, the flickers engaging in this activity might be acting out and practicing aggressive postures that won't be needed until they return next spring.
Raptors vs. songbirds
Q: Do eagles and owls pose the same kind of danger to songbirds as some hawks do? At our cabin we enjoy seeing the male rose-breasted grosbeaks in early spring, and then they seem to vanish. We have eagles and owls in the neighborhood, so I'm wondering if that red breast makes grosbeaks a target.
A: That is an excellent question and one I hadn't considered before you sent it in. A bit of research turned up the fact that male and female grosbeaks share parenting duties equally, from incubating their eggs to feeding the youngsters in the nest and after they fledge. I don't think eagles or owls are much of a threat: Eagles would be unlikely to snatch what, to them, is a very small meal, and are more focused on fish and carrion, while owls hunt mainly at night and are primarily searching for rodents. What's probably happening is that male grosbeaks are just very busy and well-hidden behind foliage in the summer. A tactic for detecting grosbeaks is to teach yourself their "crick" call, which they use much more in summer than their lovely song: www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Rose-breasted_Grosbeak/sounds
Q: Several readers, in mid-September, wrote in to ask why there suddenly were no hummingbirds at their nectar feeders.
A: Mid-September is right on schedule for hummingbirds to begin to disappear. The male birds head out as early as mid-August, while females and youngsters hatched this year begin their migration journeys some weeks later. This makes sense, because it gives very young birds a chance to gain a bit more maturity before beginning the arduous job of migrating. And it means that adult males and females won't be competing at the same time for the same food sources as they pause during their journeys.
Fooling the experts
Q: The other day I was sitting outside having my morning coffee and noticing a great deal of bird activity. I opened the Merlin app on my phone and was surprised to see it was "hearing" a Cooper's hawk among the other birds. I looked around and noticed that it was actually a blue jay making the hawk sounds. It's fun to use the Merlin app and also to note how accurate a blue jay's mimicking can be.
A: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Merlin app can identify a bird either from a photo or from its songs and calls, and it's revolutionizing the experience of bird watching. It's fun to think of Merlin being confused by a prankster like the blue jay. More often, Merlin "hears" more birds on my smartphone than I do, allowing me to search for the birds I don't see or hear. A very cool thing: Merlin is free to download from app stores.
Q: A sharp-shinned hawk [a hawk that eats smaller birds] has been hunting in my back yard for several weeks, causing the smaller birds to scatter when it flies by. But sometimes a downy woodpecker would stay as still as a statue, hoping the hawk would overlook it. One time recently a downy was clinging to the underside of a thick branch and a sharp-shinned landed on top of it, about 3 feet away. The woodpecker froze while the hawk scanned the area, but not seeing any birds, the sharpie left after a few minutes.
A: Thank you for sharing your anecdote that perfectly illustrates a woodpecker survival tactic: Since woodpeckers fly in a slow, undulating pattern, it's safer to just freeze, rather than be plucked out of the air by a fast-moving, bird-eating hawk. That poor woodpecker in your backyard — I wonder what its heart rate got up to during this episode.
Q: We're worried about a crow that has been showing up on our deck — it eats a few seeds, then perches on the edge of the birdbath and sits there for a long time. It seems odd.
A: This is not the way a healthy crow would behave. It sounds like you have a sick bird on your deck and it could be suffering from a variety of things, from salmonella to West Nile Virus to an unseen injury. Please contact the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center at 651-486-9453 to get their expert advice.
Q: With the disappearance of the red-winged blackbirds from the nearby marsh, we are wondering if there is any correlation between the timing of migration and the distance involved. Or is migration a random event?
A: That's a very good question, and you've hit on a truth about migration: The longer a bird has to travel, the earlier it tends to leave. Birds like Baltimore orioles, most of the warblers and ruby-throated hummingbirds spend the winter in Central or South America and are some of the first birds to disappear from our landscape each autumn. Red-winged blackbirds leave their breeding territories in late summer and begin to gather around farms to feed on grains and seeds. They're an example of short-distance migrants, some red-wings spending the winter in Iowa, others going as far as northern Mexico.
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.