Q: As I watch little goslings following Canada goose adults on the local golf course, I’m wondering if they’ll know their parents after they grow up?
A: Young Canada geese do recognize their parents after they reach adulthood themselves. In fact, they may flock up with parents and siblings on migration (or stay with the family if they’re nonmigratory birds). This kind of familial tie is unusual in the bird word, with cranes, crows and jays also remembering their families throughout their lives. But most birds scatter soon after leaving the nest and don’t recognize nest mates or parents again.
Q: Do robins eat things other than worms?
A: Robins enjoy a fairly varied diet, consuming invertebrates such as earthworms, insects and even snails. They also gorge on fruit, including serviceberries, mulberries and dogwood berries. I was fascinated by a recent message on a naturalists’ Listserv describing robins feasting on mosquitoes, with three robins “making their way through the grass, nipping up mosquitoes off the blades of grass as fast as they could, about one mosquito every 3 to 6 seconds.” I’ve seen robins catching beetles, spiders and caterpillars, as well.
Q: I live on the 20th floor of a building a block from the Mississippi and would like to attract birds up here. I’ve put a finch sock on the balcony but no birds have showed up so far. Is this simply too high for birds?
A: This is going to be a challenge, but it’s by no means impossible. Since you’re a block from the river, your building is located near rich bird habitat, so you’re one step ahead already. Now you need to let birds know they can find food this high in the sky. For a first step, make things as green as possible by adding blooming plants in pots and baskets, setting house plants out on the balcony and adding any other greenery you can think of (a vine twining round the railing would be great). You want your balcony to look like an urban oasis, making birds eager to stop by and then discover the feeders. Birds are always looking for water, too, so a small basin or birdbath will make your balcony even more attractive.
Q: What’s happening with the goldfinches? They used to be regulars at my feeder, and now I don’t see any.
A: This disappearing act is typical behavior for these little birds. We see them all winter and spring, and then they seem to disappear. They’re feeding on wild seeds at this time of year, and now that thistle plants are blooming, they’re starting to breed and raise a brood of little goldfinches. This species is one of the last to nest each summer and thistles seem to send them the signal that it’s time. Goldfinches line their nests with thistle down and feed its seeds to nestlings.
Q: I was so excited to see new birds at my feeders this spring and found out that they were warblers. One of the most beautiful was what the bird book called a magnolia warbler. Now they’re gone and I’m very disappointed.
A: This cold spring drove many insect-eating birds to suet feeders, including many species of the warbler family. A number of readers noted yellow-rumped warblers and their cousins, the American redstart pecking at suet cakes. Warblers are migratory birds, and most are spending the summer north of here to raise their families. You may see a few this fall on their way back to winter homes. A few species, such as the handsome yellow warbler and that redstart you noticed eating your suet, build their nests in the metro area.
Soft shell, hard beak
Q: A red-winged blackbird comes to our sunflower feeder. I didn’t think they were equipped to get at the seeds inside that hull.
A: Red-winged blackbirds can make quick work of the shell around these sunflower seeds, since black oilers have a fairly thin shell. This, and their high oil content, is the reason these seeds are so popular with so many species of birds.
Q: I’m mystified by what happened to the robin’s nest in our back-yard spruce tree. There were three young robins in it one day, but by the next the nest was empty and there were no signs of robins around. Could a predator have found them in this hidden spot?
A: I think your suspicion is correct, that a predator discovered the nest and ate the nestlings. The usual suspects would be squirrels, raccoons, cats or hawks. It’s sad, but this is a very real part of the natural world. One consoling thing is that these robins almost surely will build a new nest and raise a new brood of robins. Experts advise that it’s best if humans stay away from birds’ nests so we don’t create a scent trail that predators can follow.
Q: I always have a problem with ants getting into the hummingbird nectar, which drives the little birds away.
A: I had the same problem, before I found a nectar feeder that has a built-in water well, called an ant moat: Any ants that shinny down the feeder’s hanging rod drown in the well before reaching the sugar water. Inexpensive plastic ant moats are available to install above other kinds of hummingbird feeders. One reader reports that she had no success with these until she installed one upside down and spread a thin coat of petroleum jelly on the underside to trap ants. I always get nervous about having sticky substances around birds, since this can foul their feathers, so give it a try right-side-up first.
Q: I’ve watched as goldfinches landed on my zinnias and pulled off the petals, to the point where the flowers look deformed. Is this normal?
A: Goldfinches are avid seed-eaters year round and yes, it’s normal to see them eating seeds from wild or cultivated plants. Other readers have reported seeing goldfinches pulling the petals from zinnias and sunflowers to reach the seeds attached.
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 val firstname.lastname@example.org.