Q: We have a big crowd of snowbirds under our feeder and they don't seem to get along at all. What's up with them?
A: I'll bet you're looking at dark-eyed juncos, the birds that many call a snowbird. The juncos under your feeder are showing behavior that reflects a dominance hierarchy, what many of us think of as a pecking order. Males rank higher than females and older birds hold higher ranks than younger birds, and higher ranks eat first. (A number of other bird species that spend time in flocks tend to have hierarchies, too.) A junco lunging at another junco is warning it to let higher ranking juncos eat first or forage closest to the best food source.
In researching this I was fascinated to learn that male juncos compete so strongly with females that most female juncos migrate farther south to spend the winter. The flock you see out your window might be 80 percent male birds.
Snowshoes would help
Q: I noticed birds hopping around on the snow after a recent storm, and it led me to wonder how they find food when there's snow covering everything.
A: Snow does complicate the lives of ground-feeding birds. Right after a snowfall, birds like juncos, house sparrows and cardinals find their feeding options narrowed. They'll search under feeders for food dropped by other birds, and explore around plant stalks and under trees for seeds stripped off by the wind. Juncos are known to land on the top of a stem and ride it to the ground, and then pick off its seeds.
Ground feeders will visit bird feeders, as well, but in the natural course of things, they forage on the ground and enjoy the variety of foods that can be found there. You'd be doing them a favor if you went out after heavy snowfalls and swept the snow away under feeders so morsels dropped by other birds are easier to find.
Q: I saw a nuthatch do something I've never observed before. It came down to the feeder pole and spread out its wings, then fluttered them. It did this three or four times before starting to feed. As often as I've seen nuthatches at my feeders I've never seen that before.
A: I've never seen a nuthatch engage in this type of behavior, either, but it sounds as if this bird sensed a predator or other unwelcome intruder (maybe a cat) in the area. It might have been giving a warning display, spreading its wings so it appeared to be a much larger bird, one less vulnerable to attack. At another season, this might be part of its courtship behavior, but in winter it seems to be predator-oriented. Another possibility might be that the bird had been resting before it dropped down to feed, and was merely giving its wings a stretch.
Q: I'm wondering if cardinals mate for life, since I always see a pair of them around my feeders.
A: Many cardinals do stay together all year, and continue to do so for many years, so you could say these pairs mate for life. Even the pair that joins a flock of other cardinals for the winter often returns to the same nesting area in the spring. Some, however, do abandon their mate and look for a new one. And in cases where one member of a pair dies, the surviving cardinal will search for another mate right away.
Q: I have trouble with doves raiding my feeders and chasing all the other birds away. I was hoping they'd migrate before winter, but now I think I need to find a way to deter them.
A: Many of us think of doves as being sweet, peaceful birds but they can become very aggressive around a food source. I'd recommend that you offer your birdseed in the type of feeder that has a dish covered by a dome whose height can be raised and lowered. You can set the dome low enough that mourning doves won't fit beneath, but more desirable birds like cardinals, finches and nuthatches can still feed with ease. Many mourning doves remain in our area all winter, so you can't count on them migrating away.
Q: I'm embarrassed about the several e-mails I sent you this fall, asking what bird I was hearing sing at night. It was strange that it was always at the same time (11 p.m.) and seemed so close by. Well, it turns out that the sound was an alarm on my wife's cellphone.
A: Whew, I'm so glad to hear it. You and I went around and around on this, with me suggesting an insect, possibly an owl, but it's so unusual for songbirds to sing at night (outside the breeding season) that I really couldn't imagine what it might be.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: I saw a mourning dove under my feeders recently, but I thought they moved south for the winter.
A: This species is migratory but many mourning doves remain in our area all year long. Some we see in winter are year-round birds, and some move down from the north for the season. I often see them on winter evenings as they gather at our heated birdbath for one last drink before nightfall.