On the wing: Phoebe's nest may need pruning

  • Article by: VAL CUNNINGHAM , Contributing Writer
  • Updated: September 4, 2012 - 3:14 PM

Very tall old nest needs attention.

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Eastern phoebes, handsome flycatchers known for their frequent tail bobbing, tend to add layer after layer to their nests over the years.

Q A phoebe has been nesting under our garage overhang for the past several years. She seems to add a layer to the old nest every year, and now there's very little room for her to get inside. Do you think I should remove the now-very-tall old nest?

A Excellent question, and I applaud your concern for these busy birds. Eastern phoebes do reuse their old nests and after a number of years these can become quite tall, as the female adds new moss to the brim before starting her next brood. Since phoebes tend to nest twice during breeding season, nests can expand quickly.

My suggestion is to wait until nesting season is over, then cut away most of the top layers of nesting material, essentially pruning it down by half -- or more. This will benefit the phoebe next year and as long as you don't intend to possess the nest of a migratory bird, you're within the law.

Pass the salad, please

Q This year for the first time I noticed that young shoots of lettuce and chard in my garden were being shredded. One day I stood at the window and watched goldfinches working my little garden, stripping the leaves off the chard. What is going on?

A It's no accident that one nickname for the goldfinch is "lettuce finch" -- they like to eat fresh, young vegetation, especially lettuce and chard. There also are reports of these little finches consuming broccoli and carrot tops, green algae and tree sap.

I checked in with an online gardening forum and found many other gardeners reporting this behavior. The usual recommendation is to use floating row covers or netting over the plants you want to save for human consumption.

Out and about

Q My husband and I would like to get out more to watch birds. Any suggestions for local bird trips?

A I'd highly recommend the field trips of any of the metro chapters of the Audubon Society. These are usually half-day outings led by experienced birders and they're a lot of fun. Local Audubon chapters offer outings throughout the year. Also, check websites for local nature centers, such as Wood Lake, Tamarack, Maplewood, Springbrook and Carpenter, for upcoming events. Here are websites for metro Audubons:

St. Paul Audubon: www.saintpaulaudobon.org

Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis: audubonchapterofminneapolis.org; and

Minnesota River Valley Audubon Chapter: mrvac.org.

Sweet beak

Q I've seen a downy woodpecker drinking at my hummingbird feeders, something I've never seen before. Is this weird behavior?

A It's really not unusual for downy woodpeckers to drink nectar water in hummingbird feeders. I've heard of catbirds, orioles, chickadees, house finches and other species also indulging in this behavior. Since artificial nectar approximates the sweetness of tree sap, and woodpeckers lap up tree sap in the spring, it may be a pleasant surprise to find something sweet in the middle of summer.

Steer clear of salt

Q We have a lot of woodpeckers and they love peanuts, but the shelled peanuts I find often are salted. Is this OK to feed to birds?

A I'd try to find peanuts without any salt; it's just not a good idea to be adding salt to the diet of wild birds. There don't seem to be any studies that would indicate what a safe level of salt consumption would be for birds. But we know that too much salt can be fatal to them (as in the case of birds that ingest road salt while trying to pick up grit).

Sparrow woes

Q For the past month we've had only house sparrows at our feeder, sometimes flocks of 20 to 40 of them piling in to eat. This seems to keep the other, more desirable birds away from the feeders. Do you have any ideas for what we can do about this?

A I'm seeing similar activity around my feeders, too -- there seems to have been a sudden, late-summer hatch of house sparrows, and they're everywhere. They dominate the feeders and birdbath and only seem to leave when really big birds, like hairy woodpeckers, come around. I'm counting on the sparrow population dropping very quickly, since the young of this species seem to have a high rate of mortality. Adults churn out many batches of fledglings each summer, without providing much training in survival skills. In the meantime, you might try offering safflower seeds in your domed and tray feeders, since sparrows aren't fond of these seeds, but birds like chickadees and cardinals like them just fine.

Time for a cleaning

Q The wrens left their birdhouse a couple of weeks ago. Should I clean it out now or wait until I'm ready to clean all the birdhouses?

A I'd clean out the wren house now, although chances are it's too late in the season for the wrens to use it for their second brood. This species is notorious for stuffing spider egg sacs in with the sticks they pack into the nest box. It's thought that they do this so that the hatchling spiders will consume insects crawling around inside.

If you sweep out the wren house now, you can avoid a big crop of spiders and you'll make the box available for a chickadee to use as a night roost.

Val Cunningham, a St. Paul nature writer, bird surveyor and field trip leader, can be reached at valwrites@comcast.net.

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