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A bright male goldfinch is in his element, plucking tasty seeds from wild bergamot heads.

Jim Williams • Special to the Star Tribune,

Don Severson • Special to the Star Tribune Soon all goldfinches will molt into winter coats and look like this finch, perched on a gone-to-seed phlox plant.

Feed Loader,

Goldfinches hide in plain sight

  • Article by: VAL CUNNINGHAM
  • Contributing Writer
  • October 15, 2013 - 1:00 PM

Q: We usually have many goldfinches at the feeders in the summer but now I’m not seeing so many. Are these little birds OK?

A: There are two possible explanations for the lack of bright yellow little finches at your feeders. One is the fact that autumn is a time of abundance for seed-eaters and goldfinches are taking advantages of natural food sources. Readers report seeing them standing on sunflower heads to pull out seeds, shredding zinnia petals to reach interior seeds and even consuming seeds from catnip. Faced with this kind of bounty, goldfinches may make fewer visits to feeders until the seed crop diminishes.

Another possibility is that your feeders still are hosting goldfinches, but they don’t look like goldfinches. Soon after their youngsters fledge, goldfinches molt a new set of feathers, which turns them into little taupe-colored birds. We may glance out at a feeder and assume it’s covered by sparrows, but these could very well be a flock of winter-ready goldfinches.

Ant moats

Q: Ants have become a big problem at our hummingbird feeder and the birds won’t stop to feed when the fluid is filled with ants. What should we do?

A: Ants have very good sensors for sweet things and seem to quickly locate a nectar feeder. They slide down through the feeding ports, and then drown in the nectar. The best way to keep them out is either to attach an ant moat to the feeder’s hanger or buy a feeder that has a built-in moat. Once filled with water, a moat prevents ants from reaching the nectar. A side benefit: Chickadees find these small water pools to be just their size, and they stop by frequently for a sip.

When to feed?

Q: How important is it to feed birds in the summertime? The sparrows eat up my entire food budget for the month in less than a week, so I’ve taken the feeders down for the summer, but will put them back up for winter.

A: Good question, and if you need to be selective about feeding, then I’d hang out the feeders in winter and spring. Nature’s larder is full in summer and fall, providing easy meals for most kinds of birds. However, I keep my feeders up year round because I want to be able to observe back-yard birds in all seasons.

Even in summer, adult birds often stop for a quick meal between visits back to the nest to feed their brood. And it’s fun to watch the young nuthatches, woodpeckers, cardinals, blue jays and finches learn how to use a feeder. I agree, sparrows are a negative force around feeders, hogging the feeding ports and tossing a great deal of seed onto the ground. By the time winter rolls around, their population usually has been significantly reduced due to predators and poorly developed survival skills.

Dusty bath

Q: I noticed a tiny bird flopping around on the ground and feared it was sick or injured. On closer inspection it turned out to be a chipping sparrow taking a bath in the dust. Is this normal?

A: Yes, many birds indulge in dust bathing in the summertime as a way to keep their feathers in top condition. The bird is using the dust as a degreaser and insect-repellant. Dust absorbs excess oils that might lead to feather matting, and then the bird easily shakes it off. A dust bath also helps birds shed dry skin and may help control feather and skin parasites. Birds appreciate access to a small spot of open ground for their dust baths.

Right on time

Q: I just saw two hummingbirds at the feeder [in early August]. Is this late?

A: Those hummingbirds were right on time. The males (showing the ruby-colored throat feathers) are the first to leave, starting their journeys during the first half of August. Females and juveniles follow later, beginning migration in mid-August, with some stragglers still passing through as late as mid-October. Females and young birds are green and white, lacking a bright throat, and many people assume that these are a different hummingbird species, but they’re still members of the ruby-throated hummingbird family.

Squirrel foiler

Q: We were having trouble with squirrels getting into our feeders, even with a “witch’s hat” predator guard around the pole. Then the owner of our local feed store advised us to wrap flexible tin flashing, the kind used for stovepipes, around the pole. We did it and it works beautifully. It has grooves and snaps together and our seed bill has gone down dramatically, now that the squirrels can’t crawl in.

A: I love it when people are creative and come up with solutions to bird feeder challenges. You also mentioned that you’re very dedicated about cleaning your feeders regularly with a vigorous wash, followed by dip in a bleach solution, then a thorough rinse. This is one of the best things each of us can do to ensure bird health, since feeders unnaturally concentrate birds and this may spread diseases.

Ticked-off robins

Q: During nesting season there was an unusual occurrence in my back yard: I heard a great deal of chattering coming from a tree, then a red-tailed hawk flew out, with four robins chasing it off the premises. I was in absolute awe at being able to observe this scene.

A: That must have been quite a sight, and it confirms what excellent parents robins make. I’d bet two of the four were parent birds who didn’t appreciate the hawk landing in their nesting tree. Their loud protests brought in two more robins and all the commotion was enough to convince the hawk to find another perch.

Eagle viewing

Q: We’ll be having out-of-town guests in mid-October and they’d really like to see bald eagles. Do you know where they’re likely to be seen at that time?

A: One of the most reliable spots for viewing bald eagles in fall and winter is along the Mississippi River in South St. Paul. The Kaposia Landing Dog Park area offers free parking and great viewing. There almost surely will be eagles perched in the trees across the river near this spot. Do an online search under Kaposia Landing Dog Park and you’ll find good maps.

Cats in, or out?

Q: I know my cat never catches birds, so what’s the problem with him going outside?

A: Many of us who are cat owners would swear on a stack of Peterson Field Guides that our pets don’t harm birds, but all the studies show otherwise: Cats outdoors take a terrific toll on birds each year. Researchers at Wichita State University conducted a yearlong study of cats allowed to roam outdoors and found that every single cat — even those that had been declawed — killed birds. In some cases, pet owners were certain that their cats weren’t bird killers, until their pet’s fecal material told a different tale. Cats are attuned to movement, and birds are very active, catching the eye of these highly skilled predators. The best thing I’ve seen for allowing cats outdoor time with no danger to birds are cat enclosures, providing plenty of room for cats but keeping them from roaming. Do a search for “cat enclosures” and you’ll find many examples, some you could build yourself, others are ready to purchase. These aren’t cheap but they do save birds.

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​writes@comcast.net.

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