Q: When are the swans due back in Monticello? I like to bring out-of-town guests to see those beautiful birds.
A: The trumpeter swan gathering on the Mississippi River in Monticello each winter is one of the most spectacular birding sights in our state. As lakes in the area freeze, the big birds make the pilgrimage to the open river water, warmed by the Monticello nuclear generating plant. By this time in the season there will be thousands of big, white, black-footed swans eager for their daily feeding at 10:30 a.m. at Swan Park.
If you go, give thanks to the late Sheila Lawrence, who started feeding the swans 25 years ago, and now her husband, Jim, as well as a local foundation, which provides a daily meal to these huge water birds. Find directions, a live webcam and other useful information here: www.monticellocci.com/pages/swans. Donations to help feed the swans are always welcomed by the foundation.
Q: I thought eagles ate fish, but the other day I watched one flying over and over again above some ducks in the water. What was it doing?
A: Eagles eat a lot of fish but they’re opportunistic feeders and will carry off ducks as well as scavenge on carrion, such as road-killed deer. Eagles will swoop over a big raft of coots to see if any appear injured and unable to fly, then will try to wear down a flightless coot until it can be snagged out of the water. A reader sent a recent report of seeing a large group of ducks and coots trapped in a small circle of ice-free water, while eagles converged onto the edges of the ice for an easy meal.
Q: Each winter I put out suet for the birds, because I know it provides lots of calories to help them fight the cold. But I wonder what the birds might be eating out in nature if they didn’t have the suet?
A: Good question, and the woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees and blue jays are happy to have this reliable, high-energy snack you provide. Most of these same birds also spend a great deal of time each day searching in the nooks and crannies of tree bark, small openings in rock walls and the tips of branches for hibernating insects and insect larvae. This is their traditional source of protein and fat in winter, but we make life easier for birds by hanging suet or suet cakes outdoors.
Sleeping in the cold
Q: Where do birds sleep in really cold weather?
A: Nearly all birds are active during the day and then spend the night resting and sleeping, although they seldom enter a deep-sleep state, as humans do. Songbirds tend to sleep in short bursts throughout the night, with wakeful periods that keep them on alert for dangers. The cardinals, sparrows, blue jays and finches that come to your feeders are sleeping nearby in a thicket of bushes or tangle of grapevine, or on a branch close to the trunk of an evergreen tree or shrub. Woodpeckers drill out sleeping cavities in trees during the fall, and nuthatches and sometimes chickadees will use an unused woodpecker hole for sleeping. Turkeys and crows sleep in leafless trees, no matter what the weather, and ruffed grouse sometimes dive into a snowdrift to take advantage of snow’s insulating properties. And some, such as bluebirds, will take advantage of a birdhouse to spend the night.
Q: A sparrow with no tail comes to our deck feeder every day, and I’m wondering what the story is?
A: That sparrow had a run-in with a predator and sacrificed some tail feathers as it broke free. Chances are that either a hawk or a cat briefly had the sparrow in its talons or claws. The feathers will grow back over time.
Q: I had birdbaths this summer and would like to continue to provide water for birds during the winter. Do you recommend purchasing heaters to put in the baths I have now, or are those combo birdbaths, with heater inside, better?
A: Good for you for offering an oasis for thirsty birds in winter, and this should pay big dividends in bird-watching opportunities — a source of open water is often more attractive than feeders in wintertime. Both kinds of heating systems have their pluses: If you purchase an immersion heater, then you can use it in your summer birdbath. But those plastic birdbaths with a heater inside work well, too, and have an added benefit: They avoid the problem of a stand-alone heater being knocked out of the bath by big creatures, such as deer, raccoons, even squirrels coming in to drink. In either case, make sure the cord is plugged into a ground-fault interrupted circuit, so neither you nor the birds get a nasty shock.
Q: I see several pairs of cardinals at a time and wonder if they group together during the winter?
A: It’s lovely to see numerous cardinals feeding in a small area on top of the snow, typical winter behavior for these birds. It’s not that they seek each other out at this time of year, but they don’t mind other cardinals being around. After nesting season cardinals are no longer so territorial and tolerate being in proximity to others of their kind. A pair feeding on the ground or at a feeder will catch the eye of other cardinals passing by on their foraging route, and they’ll often drop down to feed, too.
Q: Could I have seen a bald eagle flying over the Har-Mar Mall in Roseville the other day?
A: You certainly could have. Bald eagles are becoming a frequent sight in many parts of the metro area. One or more bald eagles seem to pass over Snelling Avenue most days near where you spotted one, probably on the way to open water to scout for fish or ducks.
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.