Q: What do you think is the favorite season among birds?
A: Good question, and since they can't tell us, I'm going to speculate that autumn takes the top slot as birds' seasonal favorite. Winter's cold and food scarcity present many challenges, while spring is full of territorial fights and scant food. Summer is stressful as birds rush around raising their broods. So I'm picking fall, when the youngsters are off on their own, food is abundant and the rigors of migration are still a few weeks away.
Q: I had so many orioles at my grape jelly feeder at the end of the summer, and it worries me that they may not have been getting the right food balance before migration.
A: It's good of you to provide so much jelly for orioles and other fruit-eating birds, but you don't need to worry that they're not getting appropriate nutrition. Jelly and nectar provide calories and energy, but birds balance this with protein from the insects, spiders and other invertebrates they catch.
Q: An unusual bird nested in our old purple martin house this summer. I looked it up and the book says it was a great crested flycatcher. Are they common in Minnesota?
A: Yes, these large, handsome flycatchers are commonly found in the woods, where they fill summer days with their ringing "wheep, brrr, brrr, brrr" calls (hear them here: www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Great_Crested_Flycatcher/sounds). They nest in cavities, whether natural or manmade. I've seen adults flying in and out of a bluebird house, indicating a nest inside, although I hadn't heard of one nesting in a martin house before.
Q: I've always wondered why birds sit on power lines. Is it for the view? Do they line up in trees like this but we don't see them? Do their feet feel something on the wires?
A: That's a good question, and while it's lovely to think of birds on power lines getting mild foot massages from the electricity it's unlikely that they feel anything at all. The lines are insulated and birds have few nerves in their feet. The reality is that the lines make convenient perches, and give birds a great vantage point for watching for food (insects, seeds) on the ground and predators in the skies. In rural areas, the power lines provide a rare place to perch among flat farm fields. If there were trees around they'd probably prefer to perch in them (but wouldn't need to sit in a single line), because the leaves would provide some cover.
Q: I was interested in your recent piece about birds and sleep. We have a variety of trees and shrubs in the backyard and my question is: Do the various birds, such as cardinals, finches, wrens, etc., share the same trees or shrubs while sleeping?
A: Birds prefer not to sleep close together in mixed company due to their well-defined sense of personal territory. The exceptions include youngsters of the same species who were used to sleeping shoulder to shoulder with siblings in the nest and may still huddle in proximity for several weeks after fledging. In winter a few species, such as bluebirds and nuthatches, may stack up in a nest box or tree cavity to share body heat to survive the night. And outside the breeding season crows gather in large numbers at nighttime roosts at the top of trees.
Stuffed with sticks
Q: I cleaned out our birdhouse after a family of birds left and was surprised to find it almost entirely filled with twigs. How did all the birds fit in there?
A: From your description it's not hard to deduce that a pair of house wrens used your birdhouse to raise their brood: Wrens are the only birds that fill up a cavity with twigs. They make a shaft within the twigs for entering and leaving the nest, which is down at the bottom of the twig pile. You were right to clean out the nesting material, since wrens are known to raise two broods in a season, and they'd want to start afresh.
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.