Q: Sitting on a tree branch in a tropical jungle sounds like a pretty good lifestyle right about now. Am I right to think that for migratory birds, the “livin’ is easy” in winter?

A: You’re right to think that winter in the tropics is less stressful than dashing around the temperate zone in summer, catching insects and feeding them to nestlings from dawn to dusk.

But what looks like lush jungle to us in places like Belize, Panama or Ecuador may simply be another work zone for songbirds. There’s a lot of competition between visiting and resident birds for the fruits and insects in the tropical forest. For this reason many migratory birds defend a feeding territory in winter, which causes stress and burns up calories. And there are many predators in tropical forests, so “our” migrants must find or relearn places where they can dash for safety or to roost without being seen.

Add to this the fact that many migratory birds arrive in Central or South America worn out and tattered after a long journey, and need time to build up their stamina for the coming trip back north. So it’s not all fun and games in the tropics.

Getting started

Q: I received a bird feeder as a gift, but have to admit I don’t know the first thing about feeding birds and need some tips.

A: It’s great that you’re ready for the wonderful and fascinating world of bird feeding, and I guarantee that this will enrich your life. Setting up a feeding station isn’t at all complicated, but there are some key steps that will keep you from becoming frustrated and help birds stay healthy.

For one thing, the squirrels in your area will consider your feeder a personal challenge and will relentlessly attempt to get to the seeds it holds. So keeping these critters out is very important, both to conserve seed and so squirrels at the feeder don’t deter birds from visiting.

I’d recommend setting the feeder on top of a 6- or 8-foot pole or shepherd’s hook, then put a squirrel guard on the pole, so squirrels can’t shinny up. (The squirrel guard might be a metal “witch’s hat” or could even be a garbage can lid retrofitted for the job.)

Next step: Place the feeder pole 15 feet from trees, garage, house or other structures, since squirrels can jump and dive.

Be sure to place the feeder where you can see it easily, and for most people this means outside a kitchen or dining room window. Then, to keep birds safe, place it very close to the window or 30 feet or more away, to help prevent birds from flying into the glass (see more in the following “Hawk attack” item).

Fill your feeder with a day’s (or two) worth of seed at a time, and replenish it daily. While this might seem like a chore, it ensures that seed stays fresh, and you’ll notice if moisture has damaged the seed.

Many of us learn the hard way to never store birdseed indoors: If the bag holds meal moth eggs and these hatch, it can take months to eradicate them. Instead, store seed in a metal garbage can in a shed or in the outdoors.

For more information, visit this useful Cornell Lab of Ornithology site: www.allaboutbirds.org/page.aspx?pid=1142. Good luck, and may you have many years of enjoyment ahead.

Hawk attack

Q: We were watching cardinals and chickadees at the feeders this morning when a hawk suddenly swooped down and chased after a cardinal. She hit our window (which is fitted with many reflective decals) and fell to the ground, and then the hawk picked her up and flew off. I know hawks have to eat, too, but this was a disturbing sight.

A: I can imagine that there are things you’d prefer to observe over breakfast than the “tooth and claw” side of nature. The photo you sent of the hawk holding the cardinal shows it was a Cooper’s hawk, a species that preys on other birds. These hawks are smart and resourceful and some have taught themselves the trick of driving songbirds into windows to stun or kill them, making them easy prey.

I’m glad you’ve placed decals on the nearby window to make it more obvious to birds, but when they’re panicked by a hawk they don’t have time to think about what they’re doing. You could place your feeder within 3 feet of the window, so frightened birds don’t have a chance to build up momentum, or at least 30 feet away, to give birds more time to react.

Birdbath blues

Q: There were half a dozen bluebirds at my birdbath this weekend, making me wonder what they’re still doing here. I’m worried about them surviving.

A: Several readers have written in with the same concern about seeing these beautiful thrushes in winter. Like their cousins, the American robin, some bluebirds remain in our area all winter. If there is adequate food in the form of berries on shrubs and trees, and adequate open water for drinking and bathing, they’ll do just fine. If the weather turns very harsh, these wintering bluebirds might fly a few hundred miles southward. You needn’t fret about them, they’re hardier than they look and they know how to survive in winter.

Crow problem

Q: We’ve had a large platform feeder for years and it’s always been popular with birds like cardinals and blue jays. But now the crows have taken it over, consuming large amounts of food and while they’re on the platform, other birds dare not approach. Do you have any suggestions for keeping crows away?

A: I can see by the photo you sent that this is an excellent feeder that suits all kinds of birds — unfortunately, in this case, even crows. This open style of feeder allows these big birds to perch and gobble up all the seed. My suggestion, regretfully, is to take your current feeder down and replace it with a feeder with a domed roof. You can set the height of the dome to exclude crows but still allow many other kinds of birds to feed. I’ve had this type of feeder for years and it’s very popular with cardinals, chickadees and finches (and, unfortunately, house sparrows). But don’t toss out that platform feeder. Maybe by this time next year the crows will have moved to another location and you can begin to use it again.


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 valwrites@comcast.net.