Q: I enjoy watching raptors, but other than eagles and red tail-hawked hawks, I have a hard time knowing what I’m looking at. Any advice?

A: You’re certainly not alone — few of us are experts at telling one raptor from another. One challenge is that a hawk perched in a tree can look very different from the same bird in flight. Another is that we usually see hawks as they’re flying far away.

Here are several things that should help you develop raptor identification skills:

• Study Jerry Liguori’s excellent book, “Hawks at a Distance,” with its hundreds of photos of raptors in flight. I’ve found this book to be very helpful in providing identification clues. It’s a bargain at less than $20.

• Go out hawk watching with someone who’s good at identifying hawks, and ask him/her to tell you what features they’re using to identify an individual bird: How do they know it’s a broad-winged hawk and not some other bird?

• Visit Hawk Ridge in Duluth during fall raptor migration (generally, mid-September to mid-October) and listen to the educators and others as they display birds caught in the banding nets. Check it out at www.hawkridge.org/visit/visit.html.

• Familiarize yourself with the birds you’re likely to see in our area (bald eagle, red-tailed hawk, broad-winged hawk, red-shouldered hawk, Cooper’s hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, American kestrel, merlin, rough-legged hawk) to learn their habitats and whether they’re migratory. This will help narrow the field somewhat. Good luck, and you’re going to have fun on this journey.

Ailing house finches

Q: We’ve had some bad looking house finches at the feeders. Can you tell me what’s wrong with their eyes?

A: It sounds like those house finches are suffering from avian conjunctivitis, a bacterial infection that has hit this species hard. The disease causes the tissue around the eyes to swell and itch, and their eyes may become matted shut. They then are vulnerable to starvation and/or to predators. Some birds recover on their own, but may still be carriers. Be sure to take down any feeders the finches use and clean them thoroughly at least weekly.

Nomadic goldfinches

Q: I usually have a big crowd of goldfinches at the feeders, but this year they’ve disappeared. What’s up with that?

A: These are “here today, gone tomorrow” birds, moving around in nomadic flocks in winter. Goldfinches stick to a seed diet throughout the seasons, and the finches you used to host must be finding enough food in the wild (or at someone else’s feeders). If you can be patient and keep feeders clean and seed fresh, those vibrant little birds should make an appearance soon.

Phoebe vs. pewee

Q: Is there an easy way to tell a pewee from a phoebe by listening to their songs?

A: I’m glad you picked these two species, because it shouldn’t be too much of a challenge to tell their songs apart. The phoebe’s song sounds very hoarse and raspy, while an Eastern wood-pewee whistles up, then down. Hear them here: www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Phoebe/sounds and www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Wood-Pewee/sounds.

Both these birds are migratory, and should be returning to the state soon to sing their songs.

Ground feeders in snow

Q: Watching some juncos scratching for food led me to wonder how ground-feeding birds locate food when the ground is covered with snow.

A: That’s an excellent question and a timely one after a snowy winter. Ground-feeding birds don’t have an easy time after heavy snowfalls: Most don’t weigh much and can’t make a dent in deep snow. Juncos are adept at hopping on top of the snow in search of fallen seeds and may bunch up under feeders. Some of the other birds you see, such as house sparrows and cardinals, search for snow-free spots, such as under an evergreen or deck, to forage.

To assist your birds after deep snows, you could head out with a push broom to sweep areas clear under feeders and evergreens, then scatter new seed for hungry birds. They’ll show up within minutes after you head indoors.

Mobbing tactics

Q: We’ve had a barred owl hanging around our feeders, and a group of noisy crows showed up to dive at him to scare him away. Is this unusual?

A: Your barred owl was watching patiently for mice and other small rodents attracted by spilled seed, but the crows were having none of it. It’s their usual practice to join up to drive any owls they see out of the area — this is called mobbing. Crows know that they’re vulnerable to night-hunting owls, who regard a crow roost as providing easy pickings. The crows feel safer if they drive off daytime owls.

Mouse incursions

Q: Have you ever heard of a mouse getting into a suet feeder? I have two baffles on the feeder pole so he had to climb the pole and go through the small space around each baffle.

A: And here I thought the gray squirrel was the only rodent we had to worry about getting into feeders. But mice are very athletic and good climbers, so it’s not all that surprising that this one found a way to gain access to a delicious, high-energy food.

Noisy jays

Q: Why are blue jays so noisy?

A: Blue jays are big, boisterous birds that like to communicate with other jays, as well as other kinds of birds. They have a big vocabulary, like their cousins, the crows, and aren’t shy about using it to warn of danger, scare other birds away from a food source or drive off cats and other predators. However, during nesting season, blue jays become almost silent, to protect their brood, and parent birds merely whisper to each other as they enter and leave their nest tree.


St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who leads bird hikes for the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at valwrites@comcast.net.