Q: Robins built a nest right alongside our back door, which is the main entrance to our house. The mother is sitting on the eggs nearly full time and we’re trying not to disturb her by using other entrances. I’m wondering how long I have to wait before putting out my container plants and what time of day might be the best for working on the patio.

A: Kudos to you for being willing to alter your behavior to help these nesting robins. It generally takes about four weeks from the time the last egg was laid to the day all the youngsters leave the nest.

I think you can go ahead and put out your container plants and even be out there weeding and watering. If the robins are very upset by this they’ll make their views known by loud chirping and fluttering around. If they do this, you might want to go back to your avoidance strategy.

Since parent birds feed their youngsters almost continually from dawn to dusk there really isn’t a time that’s less bothersome than another. Let’s hope they find another site for their second brood.

Chewing the fat

Q: I was seeing orioles at my suet feeders this spring. Is that unusual?

A: We think of Baltimore orioles as big fans of grape jelly and oranges in spring, but in our prolonged, cold spring they also needed a source of quick energy, and suet provided that. Many readers reported observing other species at their suet feeders for the first time, including scarlet tanagers and rose-breasted grosbeaks, plus several kinds of warblers.

Hybrid woodpeckers?

Q: We’ve had some woodpeckers coming to our feeders that look like downy or hairy woodpeckers, but are sized in between those two birds. Do downies and hairies interbreed and produce medium-sized young? We’ve gotten in the habit of calling them “dairies” or “hownies.”

A: I love your names for possible hybrids of these two species. But I don’t think there are any records of these two species of woodpecker interbreeding. I’d bet that what you’re observing is standard size variation in downy and hairy woodpeckers. Please keep in mind, too, that females of these two species are larger than the males. You may be seeing a large female downy near a small male hairy, for example.

Finding nest camera sites

Q: In a recent column you wrote about sites where you can see birds’ nests on camera. Can you tell me how I can find some of these Web pages?

A: Here are links to a number of nest cams:





Crazed cardinal

Q: I work in an office building where a cardinal has been flying into the window for almost two weeks. We’ve tried turning out the lights and closing the blinds, but this hasn’t stopped him. We’re wondering whether the bird is seeing its reflection or possibly has lost his mind. Any suggestions? It’s very distracting.

A: You’re exactly right, the cardinal is seeing his own reflection and mistaking it for a competitor trying to usurp his territory. This can be annoying and such birds can even harm themselves by this behavior. The standard advice, which works very well, is to place a piece of cardboard on the outside of the window it’s been striking. When the bird can no longer see a reflected cardinal, it should give up and go away. If it moves to another window, move the cardboard to that spot.

Seed savvy

Q: How long can I keep birdseed around before it becomes too old to use?

A: That’s a good question, and I consulted Kraig Kelsey of Kelsey’s Wild Bird Store in North Oaks for his advice.

“In the summer I don’t like to keep seed around for more than two months, and one month is better,” he says. “It’s a good idea to buy seed in small batches during the summer. Nyger seed can become rancid or get damp from rain showers in standard tube feeders, so it’s a good idea to clean out finch feeders each month and fill them with fresh seed. I recommend that people get rid of their black oil sunflower seed after a month and buy another small batch. Black oilers may hold eggs from the Indian meal moth and this insect can infest your seed quickly in hot weather, ruining the whole batch. In addition, both nyger and black oiler seeds are high in oil and can turn rancid quickly in the heat.”

Saving seed?

Q: I took down a large feeder I use for finches in the winter and found that there was enough seed left to save. I baked it a 150-degree oven for about 20 minutes, then put it into a freshly cleaned tube feeder, but the finches are hardly coming. Was this a mistake?

A: Kelsey of Kelsey’s Wild Bird Store says it’s not a good idea to re-use nyger seed in this way. Old seed can easily become rancid, and oven heat won’t solve this problem. The finches are avoiding the feeder because they can detect that the older seed is unpalatable. Try cleaning your feeders on a monthly basis, after tossing any old seed still in them. Once feeders are clean and dry, fill them with fresh seed.

A very good hobby

Q: My son keeps an eye on our bird feeders and loves to identify the various birds and their calls. Do you have ideas for helping him with this hobby?

A: I’m so glad to learn of your son’s interest in birds and in feeding them, too.

Are you both aware of the All About Birds site maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology? It’s one of my favorite bird Web pages and I visit it frequently to help identify bird sounds or learn facts about a specific species. Here’s the address: www.allaboutbirds.org.

One thing I love about this site is how easy it is to use. You can type in a species’ name and learn all kinds of things about it, but you can also try general searches, such as “small bird,” when you aren’t sure of an identification, and it will offer some good choices.


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 val​writes@comcast.net.