Q: I'm worried about the Canada geese because I saw so few families with goslings this year. Could that April blizzard have affected them, or have coyotes or other critters gotten to them?
A: Yes, that mid-April blizzard took a heavy toll on Canada geese. They usually begin nesting in early April, with goslings expected to hatch out in early May. However, many goose nests were buried in the April snow and the eggs froze, with the result that many of us are seeing fewer of those flotillas of goose families on lakes and ponds. Carrol Henderson, who heads up the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' Nongame Wildlife Program, says, "Never fear, I'm sure they'll be back next year."
Q: This happens every year: Orioles flock to our sugar water and grape jelly in May, and then they disappear after several weeks. What is going on?
A: When orioles first arrive back from the tropics in early May, they are eager for the nectar, grape jelly and oranges offered at feeding stations. They very quickly get down to the business of building a sturdy nest, mating and laying eggs. Once these hatch, parent orioles switch over to an insect diet. They snatch caterpillars and flying insects to feed their youngsters, and this high-protein diet ensures that nestlings grow quickly.
Once the young orioles grow up and leave the nest, their parents often bring the family to grape and sugar water feeders. You probably started seeing orioles at your feeders again in late June.
Q: The hummingbirds that used to hang around my sugar water feeder have disappeared, and I'm wondering if the fluid might have fermented. Also, I was using a mixture from the bird store, with coloring in it, was it too sweet?
A: Hummingbirds can taste when sugar water has gone "off" and will avoid it, and yes, in hot weather, the fluid can quickly ferment and cause harm to birds. Try to wash/rinse feeders every two to three days in summer and refill with fresh nectar. I've read that hummingbirds can sense soap residue, so it's best not to use any in washing out the feeder. There's no need to buy packaged mixes, since you can easily mix up a batch of 1 part cane sugar to 4 parts water. Don't add food coloring since this can be hard on the little birds' kidneys.
Q: We observed a hummingbird doing a funny thing lately: A male woodpecker was at our sunflower seed feeder and seemed to become irritated when a hummingbird flew in to check out the red feather spot on the back of its head.
A: Hummingbirds are such curious little birds, and have an affinity for red flowers, so the male woodpecker's red head spot must have caught its attention. A gentle touch with its beak would reveal a lack of nectar inside this red object. What a fun thing to observe.
Q: I was just about to take a robin nest down from our motion detector, after the young and their parents left. But now it looks like a robin is back using it. Is this common?
A: Robins do sometimes re-use an old nest, and it makes sense: They spent many days building its strong foundation out of mud. All they need to do now is pack in some new plant material and they're good to go for their second brood of the season.
Q: I live in south Minneapolis and have been enjoying a flock of birds that flies over each day. They're dark, have long, tapered wings, emit a high-frequency chitter and their flying skills are awesome. What are they?
A: You provided four excellent clues for pointing to identification for the birds you enjoy watching. The long, tapered wings, the astonishing flight skills, high-frequency sounds and flying in a group of similar birds all suggest chimney swifts. They're lovely to watch as they power through the skies in search of flying insects, and they chatter almost constantly, probably to stay in touch with each other. There must be some uncapped chimneys in your area offering them shelter at night.
Popcorn and birds
Q: I visited Duluth recently and noticed people feeding popcorn to gulls. This brought in a large number of them and caused me to wonder if popcorn is a nutritious food for birds. Also, I've heard that bread isn't a particularly good food for birds, can you clarify?
A: You're right, white bread has very little nutritional value for birds, and usually contains chemicals and preservatives that can harm them. Popcorn is a slightly different story: Stove-popped popcorn, with little oil and no salt, can be an OK treat for birds, if fed sparingly. Microwaved popcorn, however, is loaded with artificial shortening and salt, and is a no-no. I'd suspect that the popcorn being tossed to those Duluth gulls was purchased at a snack shop and was probably loaded with salt and shortening, so it wasn't a healthy treat. And such feeding of birds like gulls and waterfowl tends to concentrate them in an area, causing feces to build up and unhealthy conditions to develop.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.