A trumpeter swan and cygnets glide across a Wisconsin lake. The band was attached by researchers to help track the parent’s movements.

Don Severson,

Birding: Swans are loyal to their nests

  • Article by: VAL CUNNINGHAM
  • Contributing Writer
  • October 1, 2013 - 3:11 PM

Q: A pair of trumpeter swans nested on the pond behind our house and hatched four cygnets this spring. Within a few days, two of the cygnets had disappeared and the family moved to the other side of the pond. We’re wondering if the parents will come back to nest next year and what predator might have taken the young swans.

A: I discussed your questions with Madeleine Linck, who works to help restore this beautiful swan to our area for Three Rivers Park District and the Trumpeter Swan Society. She notes that trumpeter pairs are usually very faithful to their nesting sites and often return year after year. There are many predators on the lookout for young swans, including coyotes, mink, owls and snapping turtles, and it’s not unusual for a few cygnets to be lost this way, especially if parents are young and inexperienced. Swans generally move away from the nest site once their young have hatched and may rest and preen on muskrat houses and beaver lodges, both of which offer some protection from coyotes. You’re very lucky to have this window into the family life of these spectacular birds.

Lovely in lavender

Q: I was watching two hairy woodpeckers at our feeders (one was feeding the other) and noticed that they had lovely, pale lavender feathers on their upper chests. Is this unusual for this type of bird?

A: I’m seeing the same lavender ascots on a mother and daughter pair of hairy woodpeckers at my feeders, too. Your sharp eyes picked up on a side effect of woodpeckers adding variety to their diet at this time of year: Fruit and berries are abundant and are prized by many species. As the older woodpecker passes a berry via her beak to her offspring, some juice invariably spurts out, dyeing the throat and chest feathers on both birds.

Too young to fly

Q: There’s been a cardinal nest in the shrubbery out back, and one day one of the youngsters was on the ground, where the parents seemed to be bringing it food. I thought young birds didn’t leave the nest until they could fly.

A: As stressful as it is for humans to observe, and for parent birds to cope with, young birds frequently tumble to the ground some days before they are able to fly. In your case, the parent birds are feeding their youngster and if there are no cats or dogs in the area, the young bird is safe and should be flying within the week. Why do birds leave their nest too soon? It gets crowded in there as nestlings grow, and young robins, blue jays, cardinals and others sometimes find there’s just not enough room to flap their wings to develop flight muscles.

The exception to the “leave-it-alone” approach: If a young bird on the ground appears injured, it should go to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Roseville (

Sparrow foiler update

Q: Just wanted to report that I’ve been using a Magic Halo device on my feeders for some time and it not only keeps sparrows out of the feeders, but they don’t even feed on the ground under the feeders. It frustrates the sparrows but our other birds are fine with it.

A: I’m very glad to hear that this device, which capitalizes on the house sparrow’s poor maneuverability and apparent fear of anything new, is working so well for you. However, other readers report that their sparrows just ignore the halo and keep on feeding. One reader even noted that his male sparrows seem daunted by the device, but the females blithely use it as a perch. Even though results seem to be mixed, I feel it’s worth a try if sparrows are keeping other birds from your feeders (read more here:

Shrubs for birds

Q: I want to plant a couple of shrubs this fall and wonder what kinds are best for birds.

A: Good for you, for considering the needs of birds in your planting plan. I advise planting shrubs that are native to our area. Many species of birds, including those migrating through in the fall, feast on the berries of the gray dogwood and red-osier dogwood, elderberry, black chokeberry, and several kinds of serviceberry and viburnum shrubs. Shrubs provide both food and shelter for birds. These plants’ needs for water and sunlight vary, so it’s best to work with a native plant nursery in making your selections. Try this Department of Natural Resources site for a list of such nurseries by area: Mariette Nowak’s book, “Birdscaping in the Midwest,” is also an excellent resource for planting suggestions.

Quiet time

Q: As I take my daily walk I notice that there are very few birds singing in late summer, so it’s a lot quieter. I’m mostly hearing song sparrows, goldfinches and the occasional chickadee and cardinal. But then I wonder why birds would be singing now, anyway.

A: You’re a very observant watcher of and listener to the natural world and have picked up on the fact that most songbirds stop singing once they get down to the serious business of raising their young. Birds like the song sparrow, indigo bunting and cardinal, which raise two broods each summer, can be heard singing throughout the season (in fact, cardinals sing all year long). They need to remind other birds that they’re holding a territory and renew the bond with their mate.

Goldfinches, the last songbirds to nest each summer, are exceptionally vocal at this time of year. Males are communicating with their mates and often sing as they fly around or perch in the nesting area. Other noisy birds at this time include blue jays, as parent birds teach their youngsters the ropes, and young robins, who are practicing their species’ song, sometimes incessantly. Overall, though, things are much quieter out there, and this will be true until next spring’s dawn chorus erupts.

Treetop bird

Q: I noticed a fairly large bird with a long beak standing on top of a tree and thought it was a green heron, but the throat and chest were covered in brown streaks, so I’m wondering if it was an American bittern.

A: That’s an interesting observation, and the first thing that came to my mind was a green heron, since the bird was on top of a tree. A bittern would be a possibility but these birds tend to lurk in the reeds and cattails and are seldom seen. Young green herons have spotted necks and chests, as you described, and this species has a fairly long beak. So I’m betting that the bird you saw was a green heron.

Colorless birds

Q: Two very pale birds, sort of a light beige color, have been coming to our feeders along with the sparrows. Could these be albino sparrows?

A: These birds probably are sparrows, since they’re spending time with other sparrows, but they’re not albinos, if they have any color at all in their feathers. They sound more like leucistic birds, which means that while they have some color, they lack the normal pigmentation of others of their species.


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​

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