On the wing: Eagles bunch up near open water

  • Article by: VAL CUNNINGHAM , Contributing Writer
  • Updated: December 24, 2012 - 11:52 AM

For easy eagle viewing, head to open water. For a better view, head to Wabasha.

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A young bald eagle dines after some "hard water" fishing. This bird will develop the species' white head and tail in a year or two.

Photo: Jim Williams, Special to the Star Tribune

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Q We're having house guests over the holidays and I know they'll want to see bald eagles. Is that possible and, if so, where can we find some eagles?

A Yes, it's possible to see bald eagles right here in the metro area all winter, as long as there's open water nearby.

But I'll bet your guests will be more excited by the eagle viewing in Wabasha, Minn. The river stays open there year-round and eagles often stack up in the shoreline trees. And your guests will be fascinated by the exhibits and live, educational eagles inside the National Eagle Center (www.nationaleaglecenter.org) in Wabasha, as well.

Nuthatch caches

Q A nuthatch takes peanut pieces out of our feeder, then flies off to bury them in the leaf litter around my neighbor's foundation. This doesn't seem like a safe hiding place, so I wonder why it's doing that.

A Nuthatches are one of the birds that hide food for later consumption, as you observed. There aren't very many safe places to store food out in nature, since there's always the chance that some other creature -- another bird, a squirrel, maybe a mouse -- will happen along and find it. So the nuthatch is using a "scatter hoarding" technique, hiding away food in a variety of locations, in the hopes that some will escape a scavenger's eye.

Ailing goose

Q We live in a rural area and recently we had a Canada goose sitting outside, without moving, for about 36 hours. But when I brought out a dish of water, the goose flew away. We wonder what was wrong with it, and my husband wonders if it could have been due to lead poisoning or a predator.

A We'll probably never know what was wrong with the goose, but you were kind to offer it some water. There are many possible causes for lethargy in a wild bird, and your husband is right, lead poisoning might be one possibility.

However, the fact that the bird could gather enough energy to fly away argues for some other cause. It's possible that the bird had a bacterial illness and needed a couple of days to rebuild its strength, or it may have lacked the energy to withstand the sudden cold, and found a brief respite in your yard. If the goose had been attacked by a predator, you almost certainly would have seen signs of it, such as scattered feathers.

Sparrow fatigue

Q We're having a major problem with sparrows: My neighbor feeds them, then they come over to poop on our deck. And they're not supposed to like safflower seeds but they're at our safflower feeder all the time. Any suggestions?

A House sparrows rove in flocks and can empty feeders and make a big mess very quickly. I've found that the sparrows in my back yard don't seem to eat safflower seeds, but they're relentless about knocking them out of the feeder, seemingly checking for something better underneath. The net result is the same: All the seed is knocked to the ground, a treat for squirrels, but there's nothing left for other feeder birds.

A few ideas: A halo-type device, either purchased or homemade, is effective in deterring sparrows. See this site for tips: www.thewildlifeporch.com/2009/11/12/house-sparrow-problems-at-the-feeder. Try a different style of feeder, such as a tube feeder with very narrow feeding ports, which will keep sparrows out but bring finches in. And to keep the sparrows from using your deck as a latrine, you'll need to scare them away, either by hanging a number of shiny CDs near the railings, or with bird scare tape and a scare balloon (both items should be available at a wild bird supply store).

Bird ages

Q Every time we see a new bird at the feeders, my grandkids ask me how long it will live. I don't know if they live a long time or not, can you help?

A If they can make it through their first, hazard-filled year, wild birds can expect to live fairly long lives. You can find out the average life expectancy for many birds at this site: www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bbl/longevity/Longevity_main.cfm, which bases its estimates on bird banding records.

Tree treats

Q We have a hackberry tree and the birds seem to love those berries. It's hard to believe they gain nourishment from these hard berries, since there doesn't seem to be any fruit inside.

A Hackberries are a wonderful tree for attracting birds throughout the seasons. I've wondered about the berries, myself, after seeing the trees in winter festooned with numerous robins busily feeding on the small, round fruits.

Recently a team of Auduboners volunteered to help plant tree seeds in a regional park, and many had been collected from hackberry trees. So several of us ate a few, for scientific purposes, and found them to be delicious. True, there's only a tiny layer of fruity stuff around the seed, but it tastes like a cross between a cranberry and a fig. I don't know if birds appreciate the taste, but they do welcome the calories at a time when other foods are scarce.

Suet time

Q We feed birds all year but are never sure when is a good time to start putting out suet.

A Raw suet, the kind you buy at the meat counter, is safe to offer to birds when the temperature stays below about 40 degrees Fahrenheit. In warmer weather the suet can melt onto bird feathers, impairing their insulating qualities. Those cakes of rendered suet, often with fruit or nuts pressed into them, are safe to offer nearly all year, except on extremely hot days.

St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who leads bird hikes for the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at valwrites@comcast.net.

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