Q: I saw a story recently about an eagle carrying off someone’s pet dog. Does this mean my little dog is in danger when she’s out in the backyard?

A: These kinds of stories swirl around the internet from time to time, and they seem plausible on the face of it, because bald eagles are such large birds. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and state that there’s almost no chance an eagle will snatch your dog.

Bald eagles typically carry off their prey — most often, a fish — to consume while perched in a tree, and that prey needs to be fairly small. The reason? Under all those feathers, bald eagles (in Minnesota) weigh between 8 and 13 pounds. Gail Buhl, who manages education programs at the Raptor Center, says eagles generally can carry about a quarter of their weight, some 2 to 3 pounds. An eagle might catch something larger than this but wouldn’t be able to carry it very far. (She notes that eagles have been known to catch fish too large to carry, then must swim to shore with their prey. Yes, eagles are known to swim.)

Since few dogs weigh less than 3 pounds, they’re pretty safe from eagles. Even more compelling, dogs are not usually part of the “search image” for bald eagles, which instead keep an eye out for fish, waterfowl and carrion.

Roadside ramblers

Q: Whenever I’m driving in the country I see flocks of small birds on the ground along the road. What are they doing there?

A: The roadside birds you’re seeing in the winter are likely to be goldfinches, tree sparrows, horned larks or snow buntings. They’re all seed eaters, and, lacking teeth, they need some way to grind up their food. This happens in the gizzard, and the gizzard needs to be stocked with small stones to do the grinding. So the roadside flocks of birds that swirl up every time a car passes are swallowing small stones and grit to help digest their food.

Winter butterballs

Q: Why do birds look fatter in winter than they do in the summer? I’d have thought it would be the other way around, with more food available in warm seasons.

A: That’s an excellent observation and for an answer you need look no further than your closet, provided that you have a down-filled coat. Feathers are the best insulation on Earth, and birds fluff out their feathers to trap air between them and the skin. The trapped air gets warmed by body heat and keeps the bird warm. Bird body temperature, on average, is about 105 degrees F., and the more they fluff out their feathers, the more air is trapped, providing greater warmth and a plumper profile.

Freeze-dried food

Q: Do freeze-dried mealworms appeal to birds, and do they provide as much nutrition as live ones?

A: I checked in with Duluth bird expert Laura Erickson, who says she can’t think of a reason why dried mealworms wouldn’t provide a good meal for birds. “I don’t know that any nutritious elements would be lost in the freeze-drying process,” she says, other than water. Many bird species, from chickadees to blue jays, enjoy these high-protein snacks.

Blue with cold

Q: We recently had three bluebirds at our birdbath in January. Do you think they were migrating through?

A: Seeing bluebirds in the dead of winter can be surprising, but a few skip migration and remain in our area during the cold months. If the weather isn’t too severe and they find enough food to eat (usually “freeze-dried” fruit), they can survive the winter. These birds will be well positioned for spring, when they can claim prime nesting areas before the return of the bluebirds that left last fall.

‘Bad’ fats for birds?

Q: I make a mix of bacon fat and peanut butter for birds, but wonder if I’m doing them harm. Would it be better to use vegetable-based oil?

A: Birds eat to put on a fat layer each winter’s day to help protect them from the cold, and they don’t need to worry about plant-based vs. animal fats. In fact, animal fat is better because it metabolizes slowly in their bodies and is higher in energy. Raw suet, the kind you see at the meat counter, is ideal in winter, and is similar to what Mother Nature provides in mammal carcasses. Suet cakes and homemade fatty treats are good, too.


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 valwrites@comcast.net.


Homemade bird treat

1 cup butter or lard

1 cup peanut butter

1½ cups sunflower seed chips

1½ cup chopped nuts

1½ cups quick oats

1½ cups cornmeal

½ cup sugar

Melt shortening and peanut butter together, stirring to combine. Mix dry ingredients together, pour melted mix on top and stir until well combined. Press into baking pan(s) or ice cube trays. Freeze for 2 hours, then cut into chunks, fill suet feeder, and refreeze the rest. (This is deluxe stuff, so you may want to portion it out slowly.)