A woodpecker

Steve Rice, Star Tribune

Woodpeckers are very active during breeding season

  • Article by: VAL CUNNINGHAM
  • Contributing Writer
  • April 30, 2013 - 3:47 PM

Q: We live next to a woodlot and it’s full of woodpeckers. Lately they’ve been chasing each other around our yard trees and I’m wondering if this is play or are they fighting?

A: Woodpecker chases may look like they’re playing a game, but this is the serious business of courtship. A male woodpecker drums to warn off other males and attract a female to survey his territory (and evaluate his fitness as a mate). The male is programmed to drive away any intruders, so at first he chases the female bird. But if she persists and won’t leave, she’s probably indicating her willingness to mate.

When to rehang feeders

Q: When should I put out my hummingbird and oriole feeders?

A: You can plan to take your nectar feeders out of storage, give them a good rinsing and hang them outdoors during the third week in April each year. The first hummingbirds are usually reported in late April, and Baltimore orioles arrive the first week in May.

Finch song livens yard

Q: I’ve been hearing the loveliest bird song since February, it’s very rich and goes on for a long time. Any idea what the bird is?

A: I’d bet the bird you’re hearing is a house finch, since they begin singing in late winter/early spring, and their song is lovely, a wonderful tonic on days when it seems that spring will never come. Hear the house finch here:

Crusty snow foils owls

Q: I hope you can explain something that occurred at our bird feeding station. A barred owl was on the ground, digging in the fresh snow. It seemed to tug or grasp at something deep in the snow, then would fly up and sit on the feeding platform before flying down to try it again.

A: Thanks for sending photos of the owl at work, I’ve never had a chance to observe this behavior. As you know, this winter has been notorious for deep snow with a heavy crust on top, both of which make hunting difficult for owls. I’ll bet your barred owl was hearing mice or voles scurrying around at ground level but was simply unable to break through the snow crust to reach its prey. There are many reports of starving owls from around the state, and the condition of the snow has been a key factor.

Great horneds nest early

Q: Is it unusual to see a great horned owl on a nest as early as February and March?

A: The owl you’re seeing is doubtless the female great horned owl, since she handles all incubation duties. And she’s right on schedule: This owl species begins laying eggs as early as January. The female must incubate her eggs around the clock to keep them from freezing.

Vinegar doesn’t cut it

Q: I don’t like working with chlorine bleach. Can’t I use vinegar to clean my bird feeders?

A: I sympathize, because chlorine bleach is pretty powerful stuff. But vinegar isn’t as effective at killing off the several kinds of bacteria that can infest feeders and food. To be on the safe side, please continue to use the formula of one part bleach to nine parts water in your cleaning solution, then rinse feeders thoroughly.

Is feeding harmful?

Q: I’ve been wondering if feeding birds is bad for them. It’s not really natural.

A: I don’t think it causes any harm to birds to feed them seeds and suet, as long as feeders are kept clean and the seed is fresh. Some people worry that feeders create dependency in birds, but studies have shown this doesn’t happen. Birds get most of their nutrition from natural sources and visit our feeders for only part of their daily caloric total. It’s often said that we feed birds to please ourselves: Feeders bring birds in so we can view them from our windows. However, dirty feeders and spoiled seed do harm birds, and can lead to their death, so feeder hygiene is extremely important.

A taste for oranges

Q: Red-bellied woodpeckers have been showing up at my feeders for the past few years, and I was surprised to see them gorging themselves on the oranges I put out for orioles. A male will even fill his bill with a large batch of orange stuff and carry it off, I presume to the female on the nest. The other woodpeckers ignore the oranges, though.

A: Thanks for sending in your fascinating observations of the eating habits of your red-bellied woodpeckers. This really is not all that surprising, since in the wild they feed on fruit and berries (as well as insects and nuts). Red-bellieds are known to visit orchards to peck into oranges, grapefruit and even mangos, so this fruit-eating behavior isn’t unusual in this species.


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​

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