Q: My son asked me a question that I can’t answer: Do birds have teeth?
A: I like the fact that he’s thinking about birds and how they live their lives. Bird beaks are ingenious tools with many capabilities, but there’s no room for teeth. However, just like humans, birds need to turn their food into liquid form before they can absorb its nutrients. Many birds, especially seed eaters, swallow small gravel and coarse sand which acts almost like teeth in their gizzards, helping this tough-walled muscle grind up food.
Bees and birds
Q: There’s a beekeeper a couple of blocks from my home and every summer the rim of our birdbath is crowded with honeybees drinking the water. At first the birds would battle the bees but now they’ve mostly just stopped coming. Is there a way to keep bees from using the birdbath?
A: With city-dwellers becoming increasingly interested in keeping bees, birds and bees competing to use the same birdbath may become more of an issue. I conferred with a bee researcher and a beekeeper, and both suggested the same tactic: Ask the beekeeper to provide water on his/her own property. This should be done early in the spring, so the honeybees get used to this new source as soon as they emerge from the hive after the winter. Bees look for water within a quarter-mile of their hive, and I’m told it’s tough to get them to change their habits. So it might be best if you didn’t fill your birdbath for a couple of weeks early in the spring, to discourage the bees from flying to your back yard.
Q: I’ve wanted to have a heated birdbath for years but I don’t have a power source outside. Any suggestions?
A: Many companies sell solar-powered and battery-operated birdbath heaters. But after looking at these products online and talking to a couple of wild bird store managers, I’d recommend against either solar or battery-powered heated birdbaths: They just won’t operate in the low temperatures we experience in the winter. After a night that dropped to 20 below zero, you’d have an iced-up basin. I think your best bet is to hire an electrician to install an outlet on your home’s exterior. Then you can heat the birdbath in the winter, and even have a water fountain in the summer, if you choose.
Q: Is there an online site where I can ask simple questions and learn more about supporting my local wild birds?
A: The Web is full of pages that educate about birds. Two of my favorites are maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology: www.birds.cornell.edu, and www.allaboutbirds.org. Both of these sites offer the opportunity to search by whatever subject you have in mind. I also like the National Audubon Society’s site, birds.audubon.org, which allows you to search for answers to many questions. And in another realm, Laura Erickson’s fine book, “The Bird Watching Answer Book” (published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology) is chock full of tips and information.
Q: Is it very common to see bluebirds in the wintertime? My brother put a birdbath on his deck in late January and it was mobbed with the beautiful little birds.
A: Good question, and the photos you sent were gorgeous. It’s not uncommon to spot a bluebird or even a small flock of them in our area in the winter. They’re pretty tough birds and can withstand cold days and nights as long as they’re able to find enough food to keep their internal fires burning. At this time of year, they’re subsisting on fruit, such as grapes, sumac and even buckthorn berries. And, like all thrushes, they get very thirsty, so they gather at water sources, like your brother’s birdbath. A thing to keep in mind is that winter nights are becoming warmer — cold streaks aside — which helps birds survive but is a sign that our climate is changing. (Readers: Many of you report seeing large flocks of robins this winter, at birdbaths and in fruit trees. The warmer nights trend is also a factor here.)
Q: While strolling around the local lake, we came upon an odd scene — more than a hundred crows perched in trees and calling and cackling loudly. Some of them congregated around a circle of open water and some seemed to be carrying small fish. Can you solve this “murder mystery” for us?
A: I’ll bet you’re right, that the crows had discovered a fish kill in that spot of open water. Early on there may have been just a few crows in the trees, but as their excitement and noise level built, other crows were drawn to the scene. They may have been calling to encourage each other to go and get some fish or for some other crow-y reason.
Not seeing red
Q: I got used to seeing cardinals at my feeders all winter long, but now they’re gone. I really miss these beautiful birds and wonder what the explanation might be.
A: Sorry to hear your cardinals have put on a disappearing act, but this is not unusual in the early spring. The birds aren’t as territorial in winter and gather freely in groups around feeders without conflict. But they’re now feeling more aggressive toward each other as they re-establish territories, and will drive off other cardinals that encroach. Your back yard probably has been claimed by a male and female, and I’ll bet you’ll see them soon. Just to show that there’s nothing wrong with the Northern cardinal population, early reports from February’s Great Backyard Bird Count show that cardinals were the most frequently reported bird by participants. This annual citizen science project is sponsored by the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Q: I can barely wait for the hummingbirds to come back. When should I put out my feeders?
A: You might want to fill those nectar feeders as early as the last week in April, because some of the earliest ruby-throats start arriving about then. The little birds begin flooding into our state in mid- to late May. You’ll increase your chances of seeing hummingbirds if your back yard features early-flowering plants, too, such as in hanging baskets. [And try not to dig up every dandelion in the lawn, because these are an important early-spring nectar source for bees.]
Q: I heard that the bald eagles were back on their nest and that the Department of Natural Resources has a webcam featuring them. How can I view this?
A: The DNR’s eagle nest cam was very popular last year, although the eggs in that nest didn’t hatch — the female laid her eggs so early in the season they apparently froze. A pair of eagles, maybe the same birds as last year, are again using the nest located somewhere in St. Paul, and everyone is hopeful that this year’s eggs will hatch. See the eagles live on camera at www.webcams.dnr.state.mn.us/eagle.
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 email@example.com.