Q: I'm wondering if there's a seasonal difference in blue jay calls because in early September I was hearing more than the usual number of "wheedling" and "belling" sounds from them.
A: That's an excellent observation, and you're right, when autumn comes around many blue jays sound different from summer's jays. The bell or pump handle calls you were hearing are the most variable of the many sounds in a blue jay's repertoire, and these may show some geographical variation, also known as a dialect. Your September jays were probably not the jays that nested in your backyard and came to your feeders during the summer. Those birds migrated away and were replaced by blue jays from farther north. We don't notice that new birds are on the scene for the winter because blue jays look so much alike.
Q: I live in Maple Grove and wonder why I'm still seeing a white-throated sparrow under my feeders. Shouldn't it have gone on its way south by now?
A: These handsome sparrows migrate through our area in spring and fall, and yes, they should be long gone by now. But my backyard is also hosting a white-throated sparrow, who is eager for the white millet I toss out in morning and late afternoon. This bird, and possibly yours, too, may have had a slight injury or illness at migration time, and may remain all winter. If it has adequate shelter and food it could well survive until spring.
Q: Are sandhill cranes becoming more common in the city? I observed one in mid-November on Mississippi River Parkway near the Franklin Avenue Bridge. I didn't think anyone would believe me, but I did have three witnesses.
A: That must have been a startling sight at that location. Sandhills are known to nest within the Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge and Bloomington homeowners on the edge of the refuge sometimes see a crane family in their backyards. The crane you saw may have paused along the Mississippi River with its family during migration.
Q: I'm sitting indoors, watching chickadees hiding seeds in the dried flower heads in my backyard. They take safflower seeds out of the feeders and push them into the dried up zinnia and hibiscus heads. I guess I'm not going to cut those stalks down after all.
A: I loved the photo you sent, clearly showing a safflower seed stuffed inside a hibiscus flower head. What enterprising chickadees for finding perfect places to hold seeds to eat later in the winter. These little birds spend a great deal of time each fall, creating "scatter hoards" all around their home territory. They may stash thousands of seeds within leaf piles, under roof shingles, in rock wall crevices and so on. Chickadees replace a section of their hippocampus each fall so they can store fresh memories of where this year's seeds are stored. I like your conclusion, too: Leaving plant stalks standing benefits all kinds of wildlife, from bees to birds.
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.