Q I watch birds eating seed from my feeders, and then they land on a branch or even the patio furniture and rub their beaks. Why do they do this?
A Birds need to keep their beaks in top condition, since beaks are so crucial to feeding. When your back-yard birds swipe their beak from side to side on a twig or metal furniture, they're probably cleaning off debris left after cracking shells and consuming the oily seeds. They may also be honing the edges a bit, because bird beaks grow throughout their lives.'Innies' or 'outies'?
Q Does "shelled" peanuts mean peanuts with shells or without them? Is it OK to put out peanuts in their shells in a wire mesh feeder?
A That word can be read either way, but I take it to mean peanuts without shells. And yes, you certainly may offer peanuts with or without shells in a mesh feeder. The woodpeckers and nuthatches can peck into either kind, and chickadees will pick up peanut bits on the ground.Best bird cams?
Q I'd like to get a camera to take photos of birds when I'm gone. Where can I find one, and what can I expect to pay?
A I don't have a remote camera that takes images of birds, but I Googled "bird cameras" and came up with a wide variety of choices. There are motion-activated cameras that take still photos, cameras that attach to nest boxes and others that work with bird feeders, solar-powered cameras and cameras that stream video into your TV set.
Outdoor cameras are great for those of us who leave home every day and can't observe the birds that visit our feeders and nest boxes. I found prices that ranged from $90 to $400 on various Internet sites, but you might find some deals locally. The best thing to do is figure out what you want to see (stills, video, feeding or nesting), and then pick the best camera for the job at a price you can afford.Insects making music
Q In a recent column about woodpeckers, you wrote that insects aren't true instrumentalists because they make sounds within their bodies. Are you aware of the many insects that make sounds in other ways?
A This alert reader sent along descriptions of death watch beetles, which tap or drum their heads against a surface, and cockroaches and aquatic stoneflies that tap surfaces with their abdomens to make sounds. This qualifies them as instrumentalists, by my definition, and I stand corrected.Feed switch
Q I enjoy feeding birds, but now the local deer empty out the feeders every night. I switched to safflower seed, which seems to have deterred the deer, but now the bird traffic is considerably slower. Do birds not like safflower?
A Your back-yard birds are probably just taking some time to learn that a new kind of seed contains a good source of energy. We switched to safflower a couple of years ago to deter house sparrows. It took the cardinals and chickadees a few weeks to adjust, but unfortunately, the sparrows adjusted, too, and now toss great quantities of safflower onto the ground each day.
The deer may learn that safflower is tolerable as well, so you may need new strategies to keep them away from feeders. Try hanging feeders on a long rope that crosses a high tree branch, and then lower the feeders to fill them. The staff at your local wild bird store will doubtless have some other suggestions for foiling deer.Why only sparrows?
Q We hung a bird feeder under the house's eaves but it seems to be attracting only sparrows. What can we do to bring in other kinds of birds?
A You'll probably need to move the eaves feeder or add a second feeder, farther from your house. Those (non-native) little birds earned the name house sparrow because they're willing to feed so close to human habitation. Other birds, such as cardinals, goldfinches and chickadees, seem to prefer feeders placed farther from human activity. Be careful, though, not to place a feeder too close to a window. To avoid window strikes, place feeders within 3 feet or farther than 30 feet from glass.Red hot seed
Q I'm tempted to add red pepper to my birdseed to try to deter squirrels. What do you think?
A I am not a fan of using red pepper as a solution to squirrel problems. Some people, and some bird stores, recommend this because the pepper is an irritant to mucus membranes. If a squirrel encounters pain when it eats birdseed, the thinking goes, it might avoid the seed in the future. But birds have mucus membranes, too, and the red pepper conceivably could burn their tongues and throats, and even eyes, if it gets blown upward when they land to feed. Please try other methods to keep squirrels out of feeders.
Val Cunningham, a St. Paul nature writer, bird surveyor and field trip leader, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.