Q: We feed nyger seed to our finches but don't know whether they eat the whole thing or if there's an outer husk with the meat inside. There are piles of tiny black seeds under our feeders and I'm wondering if these are just the discarded outer shells or is a lot of seed spilling out of the feeder?
A: There is, indeed, a tiny seed inside that thin, black outer shell, says Kraig Kelsey of Kelsey's Wild Bird Store in North Oaks. He notes that it's so small it almost doesn't seem worth the finches' time to get to the seeds, but they do. They use their thin beaks to crack the shell open in the blink of an eye and swallow the seed as they're spitting out the shell. They love nyger for its high oil content. And they probably do spill a bit — that happens at my finch feeders, too, but I think you can rest assured that your goldfinches are enjoying the feast you set out for them.
Q: I know birds like suet in the winter, but I can't find the real thing anywhere; none of the grocery stores I go to seem to stock it. Any suggestions?
A: You're right, birds relish the quick energy in animal fat on cold winter days, but suet is hard to find. And when it's available it's usually expensive. Years ago, meat counters used to almost give the stuff away, but now that demand is high, so is the price. An alternative to chunks of kidney fat is to buy pressed suet cakes at wild bird stores (and some hardware stores). These usually include seeds, nuts, cracked corn or fruit, and because the fat is rendered, they won't melt (as raw suet does) as the days warm up. You can also make your own cakes at home by mixing a fat source with peanut butter and things like cornmeal (see recipe nearby).
Are robin numbers up?
Q: Is it just my imagination, or are there more robins around these days?
A: You're not imagining things: There are more robins around in the wintertime these days, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has the data to prove it. Their cadre of citizen scientists participating in Project FeederWatch have been reporting increases in backyard robins for years. For instance, in the winter of 2015-16, some 68% of feeder watchers reported visits by robins, compared with 32% in 1989-90. There's been an increase in the size of winter flocks of robins, too. More of us are planting fruit trees in our home landscapes, especially crabapples, and fruit is a dietary staple for robins in winter. Another factor is the warming of our planet, bringing higher nighttime temperatures, which helps in robin survival.
Q: I love seeing red-bellied woodpeckers but these beautiful birds have a lousy name, because you almost never see the red on their stomach. We call them the "quirr birds" because of their call.
A: You are so right, this woodpecker "enjoys" one of the least appropriate names in the bird world. It got its name from an early ornithologist who happened to encounter one that had an unusually red belly, so the story goes. I like the idea of calling them quirr woodpeckers and others have suggested the name zebra woodpecker, for their dramatic back pattern.
Q: I've read that earthworms aren't native to our area but were introduced by settlers. Robins seem really focused on earthworms, so I'm wondering what they used to eat, before worms were around.
A: You're exactly right, earthworms disappeared in our region after the glaciers in the last ice age scraped the away the topsoil, taking all the earthworms with it. The earthworms that robins are catching in spring and summer are probably descended from those brought in with plants or ship ballast by European settlers. Before that time, robins ate many kinds of insects and other invertebrates, as well as fruit and berries.
Q: When I'm walking in woody areas it often seems like a flock of chickadees will suddenly show up. They fly around and sing that "chickadee" song and I'm wondering whether this is unusual.
A: You're describing typical winter behavior for these peppy little birds. Four or five chickadees will often forage together, following a regular route, and they call to each other to announce a good food find (often insect larvae). Other birds will join these foraging flocks, including downy woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches and brown creepers. The more eyes in the search party, the greater the chances of finding food.
Q: I can accept that since some robins hang around all winter, they no longer can be considered the first sign of spring. What bird is a good harbinger?
A: Two of the earliest birds to return from migration are the horned lark and the red-winged blackbird. You can find horned larks along rural roadways as early as February, and blackbirds claim territories in still-snowy marshes in March.
Nyger seed tips
Because of its high fat content, nyger seed becomes rancid fairly quickly, and it spoils easily if rain or snow enters the feeder. It's best to keep a close eye on the seed level, and if finches seem to be ignoring the feeder, toss the seed and start over. Kraig Kelsey has seen it all at the wild bird store he owns in North Oaks, and he generally tells customers when in doubt, throw it out.
"Some people say they're going to leave the seed in the feeder until the birds finish it up," he says, but this is futile, because they won't eat spoiled seed. Others say the birds only eat the top two inches worth of seed, so they keep refilling that amount. Also futile: Something's wrong with the bottom 12 inches of seed, so best to start over.
Kelsey's own backyard feeders have so much finch traffic that he has to refill them every few days. For feeders with less traffic, watch feeders carefully. Nyger is expensive so it's best to keep it fresh and make sure it's consumed quickly. One way is by buying a mix of nyger and pieces of sunflower, a mixture that finches love.
Here's a recipe for making your own high-fat treat for birds:
1 cup lard or butter
1 cup peanut butter
2 cups quick-cooking oats
2 cups yellow cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
Melt lard or butter and add peanut butter on low heat, remove from heat and add other ingredients (feel free to add dried fruit, chopped nuts, etc.). Spread in a pan and refrigerate until set. When hard, cut into pieces, store in the freezer and place chunks in feeder tray or basket, a few at a time.