Q: Is it crazy to think I was hearing an owl hooting one night right after Halloween?
A: Not crazy at all. The most common owl in Minnesota is the great horned owl, and males begin hooting in the fall, to reassert their ownership of a territory. Also, a male and female will begin duet hooting as part of courtship about two months before nesting begins in January or February. These large birds nest early, timing it so their youngsters are learning to hunt about the time that other species' youngsters (mice, voles, rabbits, squirrels) become available as prey. Keep your eyes peeled: If you're hearing owls hooting, there's a chance they might be setting up a nest nearby. Owl aren't builders; instead they adopt an old nest abandoned by a squirrel, hawk or crows, or use a snag in a large tree.
What's up with goldfinches?
Q: We've fed birds for more than 30 years and have always had a good mix of birds. But this fall there are very few goldfinches around. Are they in decline?
A: I haven't read about any drop in the goldfinch population, here or elsewhere. These are very successful little birds and they tend to do well in our region. What may be happening is that goldfinches migrate in the fall, although it's more like a population shift: Our backyard birds move southward and are replaced by finches moving in from the north. There can be a delay between the time one group leaves and the other arrives, and I'd bet that's what was happening in your neighborhood.
Are feeders OK?
Q: Is it OK to feed birds in the winter, or does this make them dependent on our feeders?
A: This is a frequently asked question and I always recommend feeding birds in every season of the year, but especially in winter. Birds don't become dependent on our feeders, instead regarding them as one of many stops along their daily feeding routes. However, in winter's cold, when there's less food in nature and less daylight for finding it, feeders are very welcome. Birds need at least 25% more calories in cold weather to maintain their body temperature, and they especially need to eat at sunup and just before sundown, to make it through the long night.
You might see up to 15 species of birds around your feeding station in winter, such as cardinals, chickadees, woodpeckers, nuthatches, house finches, goldfinches, blue jays, crows, juncos, starlings, house sparrows, kinglets and brown creepers. Most of these birds travel in small flocks on a circuit between favorite feeding sites each day.
Q: I've always wondered why some birds, like Eastern phoebes, for instance, flick their tails up and down all the time?
A: That's a very good question and the best explanation I could find came from a study in California of black phoebes. Researchers noted that they pump their tails all day long, and increase the rate when a hawk is in the area. They concluded that the tail action sends the signal to the hawk that the phoebe knows it's there, and the phoebe is healthy and quick and will escape if the predator approaches. Essentially, tail wagging is fidgeting with a purpose.
Do birds avoid parks?
Q: I hardly ever see or hear birds in Loring Park in Minneapolis, although there are lots of squirrels. Do birds avoid all city parks?
A: Even though many city parks are an oasis of green in a sea of concrete and asphalt, they offer little for most birds. A park's trees provide food and shelter for some species in spring and fall, but expanses of grass essentially are a desert for birds. Right across from Loring Park is the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden with its lush prairie plantings, and these are always rife with birds. Birds don't necessarily avoid parks, but they don't tend to flock to them, either.
Q: Just wanted to let you know that a male hummingbird arrived at my nectar feeder in early October and could be seen every day until Oct. 19.
A: It's amazing to think of a hummingbird, especially a male, showing up at a feeder that late in the season. Male ruby-throated hummingbirds depart on migration as early as mid-August each year, so I suspect this little bird was impaired in some way and was happy to find your feeder. This is a good argument for keeping nectar feeders hanging until two weeks after seeing the last hummingbird, precisely for this kind of straggler.
Note from a reader: While sailing Lake Superior [in October] a flock of tree swallows suddenly landed in the rigging and on the deck of our 40-foot boat. They stayed with us for over an hour until we neared the shoreline of Bayfield, Wis., and just as suddenly they flew ashore. I like to think we helped them survive the rainy, windy weather.
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