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Goldfinches (in dull winter plumage) and one redpoll share nyger seed.

Don Severson • Special to the Star Tribune,

Feeders don't turn birds into addicts

  • Article by: VAL CUNNINGHAM
  • Contributing Writer
  • March 18, 2014 - 3:32 PM

Q: My dad says we shouldn’t feed the birds because this makes them lose their ability to find food on their own. Is this true?

A: People have been debating this question for a long time, but to me it’s pretty clear that we don’t foster dependency in birds by offering them seed in our feeders. In fact, a study of chickadees found the little birds able to adapt quickly to a change in food availability. The chickadees under study lived in a woodland where someone had maintained feeders for 25 years. When the feeders were suddenly removed, the ’dees switched to foraging on their own and their survival rate was similar to that of wild birds without access to feeders. To me, this shows that the act of offering seed does not cause them to lose the ability to seek wild sources of food.

Almost weightless

Q: How much do small birds, like goldfinches and downy woodpeckers, weigh?

A: If you have some pennies around the house, you can feel how much birds weigh. Goldfinches are truly tiny birds, weighing about .5 of an ounce. about the same as five pennies. The downy, our smallest woodpecker, weighs the same as seven to 10 pennies. As you can see, birds are surprisingly lightweight.

A gathering of crows

Q: One recent evening there were hundreds of crows swarming our neighborhood before settling in the trees on the street. They left early the next morning, and we’re wondering where they went and what they were doing.

A: It sounds like your neighborhood was nominated by the local crows to be their night-roosting spot. Crows gather to sleep together in the winter because they’ve found that there’s safety in numbers. Their big fear is of great horned owls, a predator that attacks at night. That racket they were making before dark is typical of crows at a roost: Some researchers feel they’re communicating about their success in finding food that day. In the morning, hungry crows may follow the good food-finders to see if this helps them find a meal. According to crow expert Kevin McGowan at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, such gatherings pose no danger to human health.

Searching for bugs?

Q: We have woodpeckers visiting the black oil sunflower seed feeder in winter. I’m wondering whether they’re eating the seeds, or sifting through them looking for insects.

A: That’s an excellent question, and relates to the fact that woodpeckers are known to spend much of each day searching for insects to eat. About 75 percent of their diet is made up of insects, often in larval form, and the rest comprises nuts, seeds and fruit. In winter, especially, woodpeckers visit feeders to consume high-energy seeds and suet to augment any insects they can find. They’re also known to perch on sunflower heads to pick out the seeds and to snack on any berries still on trees and shrubs.

Feeder bullies

Q: Is there any way to restrict blue jays from wreaking their havoc at our feeding stations? We’ll have four or five of them at a time, hogging the food, bullying the smaller birds and making a mess by scattering the seed.

A: You’re right, big, aggressive blue jays can make a shambles out of our feeders and drive away smaller birds. If you’re willing to invest in a new feeder or two, I think your problems with jays will end. Domed feeders are great because you can set the dome as high or as low as you wish. We have several of this type of feeder, set so cardinals and smaller birds can enter, but jays don’t bother because there’s just too much maneuvering for their taste. You’ll need to tinker with the dome height to make sure you’re letting in desirable birds and excluding the jays. Try Googling “domed bird feeders” to get an idea of what to look for.

Strange suet?

Q: The suet at my local meat market looks a bit pink — could this be bad for the birds?

A: We tend to think of animal fat as being pure white, but I wouldn’t worry about this at all. In the wild, when hunters hang up a deer ribcage for the birds to enjoy, there’s plenty of red and pink material mixed in with the white stuff. Birds have a carnivorous side and eat suet no matter the color.

A shocking sight

Q: After days of below-zero temperatures, we were shocked to see five robins on the edge of our woods. How can this be?

A: It’s not all that unusual to see robins in our area in wintertime. Every December the metro-area Christmas Bird Count records a number of robins. As long as these big thrushes can find food (berries and other fruit) and open water, they’re content. At this time of year you may find them on crabapple, buckthorn, sumac and grape plants, gobbling up any shriveled fruit. And they’re adept at finding seeps and springs for a drink and a bath. Sometimes the robins we think of as the first birds of spring are in reality birds that have been here all winter.

St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature, can be reached at val​writes@comcast.net.

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