Q: We’ve always had a few cardinals but this past winter was crazy with them. There were up to seven pairs at a time crowding around the feeders. I wonder if they’ll stay around now that it’s spring or will they spread out?
A: Many readers will be green with envy at your good fortune in hosting so many beautiful red birds. Cardinals form flocks in winter, and spend their days foraging and feeding together, but this is a temporary thing. As the days get longer, their hormones urge them to stake out a territory and begin to drive away other cardinals, now regarded as intruders. When you hear them singing their “wha-cheer” duets in early spring, you’ll know they’re reaffirming their pair bond. Most of your red birds will leave and a single pair of cardinals will claim your back yard as their nesting and feeding territory.
Turkey on deck
Q: I’m worried about a wild turkey that’s been hanging around our deck for several days. He wanders around, peers in the windows and eats birdseed that falls from the feeders. I observed him flying off at one point and wonder whether this is an unusual situation.
A: I don’t think you need to be concerned about your “peeping Tom.” Turkeys are known to approach homes and office buildings to see if there’s food around and to stare in doors and windows. Your bird was enjoying the fallen seed and dry deck, a nice change from the scarcity of food in the wild during the winter. If the turkey shows signs of aggression toward you or your family, I’d advise scaring it off by making loud noises, maybe by smacking two pots together or whatever else is handy.
Q: I swear I heard a phoebe or a pewee (can’t tell them apart) singing its song in February. Isn’t February quite early for them?
A: Yes, February is two months too early to be hearing phoebes or pewees, since both species are insect eaters and aren’t able to survive until after flying insects begin hatching. However, early in the year, our resident chickadees begin singing their “fee-bee, fee-bee-bee” song, and I’ll bet they’re the source of the sounds you heard.
Q: I observed an unusual event in late winter: Two male pileated woodpeckers acted out a dance on the ground, both bobbing and jumping, but without attacking each other. There were no females around and they didn’t seem to be claiming the territory, since they both flew off later. I managed to get some photos and wonder: Why they were doing the dance?
A: Your photos do indeed show two males facing off. I’ve never seen this behavior before, but several bird researchers mention pileateds “dancing.” Arthur Cleveland Bent’s life history from 1933 records several anecdotes about pileateds displaying near a tree where a pair had nested the previous year. And Lawrence Kilham, a careful observer of woodpeckers (“On Watching Birds,” 1988), describes watching two woodpeckers engage in a swaying dance with beaks pointed upward.
Since the birds you observed were both males, I think it’s safe to infer that they were engaged in a display to claim a territory. If a male and female had been involved, we’d call it a courtship display.
Woodpecker fan club
A number of fans of pileated woodpeckers sent in stories about these big birds after a recent item about them on the Birding page:
From Jean Routh: The best way to spot a pileated woodpecker is to listen. I learned to identify their call, which sounds like a jungle bird to me, and then watch for movement, because when you hear the call they’re usually flying to a different tree. I once had a baby pileated hang out with me, watching me work in the garden. He would occasionally call to his parents, fly off to get a meal from them, then fly back and watch me some more.
From Andrew Larkin: [Larkin sent in the question above about the pileated dance.] I discussed this with a friend, who googled “pileated woodpecker dance” and found several links:
From Charles Wendle: Some years ago a friend called to say they’d found a softball-sized hole in their house. The perfectly round hole went through the wood siding, then six inches of insulation and finally through the drywall. I patched the hole with Styrofoam but they did not have the hole permanently repaired. So about four months later I got another call from them: “Chuck, the bird is back and he’s living in the ficus tree in the living room.” Sure enough, the pileated had dug through the Styrofoam and was perched in the ficus tree. I’d brought along a fish net and captured the woodpecker and released it five miles away.
Which owl is that?
Q: I hear a bird on my nighttime walks along the Mississippi River in town that sounds a lot like a boreal owl, except the call is lower-pitched. I know it would be very unusual for a boreal to be here, so I’m wondering what kind of owl this might be.
A: It would be highly unusual for this rare northern owl to be in the metro area. I’ve never heard its call so went to the Cornell Lab’s site and discovered that it has a distinctive trill. I’d like to suggest a much more likely candidate, the eastern screech owl. This small owl emits a variety of sounds and one is a trill that sounds remarkably like the boreal owl. You can find the screech owl’s calls here: www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/ eastern_screech-owl/sounds.
Q: Could I have heard a kingfisher near the Mississippi River in early March?
A: You certainly could have heard the kingfisher’s zany rattle because a few of these handsome blue-backed birds spend the winter around open water in the metro area each year. And migrants begin returning as early as the first week in March, so the bird you heard might have been a recent returnee or a kingfisher that never left.
Q: When is migration over with?
A: By one measure, nearly all migratory birds that travel to Minnesota for the breeding season will have arrived by the first week in June. However, looking at the big picture, migration is occurring every month of the year in our hemisphere. Shorebirds arrive early and leave early, songbirds come later and stay later, and so on.
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.