Q: We observed some beautiful birds at the feeders at our cabin Up North some weeks ago. We'd never seen them before and wonder where they came from.
A: The photo you sent shows evening grosbeaks, which are large, handsome birds with dramatic gold, white and black markings and big beaks. There are many reports of this species being seen at feeders and fruit trees this winter — they've apparently flown down from Quebec to take advantage of tree seeds and fruit in our region. It's good to hear these reports, because evening grosbeaks have been in steep decline since the 1970s. They may have capitalized on several years of spruce budworm outbreaks in Canada and seem to be enjoying a bump in population.
Q: Who creates the names for groupings of birds? They seem to be either descriptive, or wordplay, or puzzling, such as the 20 cedar waxwings I spotted recently — the word for this group is said to be a "museum of waxwings."
A: Good question, and I've often wondered about these names, too, so your question inspired me to do some research. Many of us have heard collective nouns for groups of birds, like a murder of crows, a charm of goldfinches or a murmuration of starlings. Many such names go back 500 or more years, and may first have been coined by hunters. In truth, these fun, fanciful and at times poetic terms are not used by bird scientists or naturalists. After all, what's wrong with calling a group of birds a flock?
Give 'em shelter
Q: Do birds use outdoor birdhouses in the winter for shelter? I'm debating if I should put them away in the garage or leave them out for the winter.
A: Several kinds of cavity-nesting birds might appreciate having a dry spot to spend the night, including chickadees, nuthatches and several kinds of woodpeckers. I've seen a downy woodpecker fly out of a nest box on my bluebird trail on winter mornings. So I'd recommend leaving those nest boxes outside for the winter.
Q: A robin has been hanging around my backyard, even after the snowstorms. It has been eating some crabapples but I worry about the bird after those are gone.
A: Since the robin comes and goes, it doesn't sound as if it's injured or ill, so there's probably no need to worry. Many robins remain in our area each winter, and in fact, they sometimes gather in the thousands in nighttime roosts. As long as robins can find food, they're able to withstand the cold.
First time for bluebirds
Q: I've lived in Minneapolis for many years and this is the first fall I have seen bluebirds in my neighborhood. Have I missed seeing them before, or have all my pollinator- and wildlife-friendly plantings in the yard paid off?
A: I'm glad you were seeing bluebirds this past summer and it could well be that your wildlife-friendly gardens are part of the reason. Bluebirds are a true success story, so scarce 50 years ago that few of us ever saw one, but now a not-unusual sight around parks and golf courses, where humans have set out boxes for them to nest in. Since bluebirds are insect-eaters in summertime, any and all efforts to create more wild habitat will benefit them, one way or another.
Q: I swear I saw a bald eagle flying over the highway in New Brighton the other day. Don't these birds migrate?
A: Most young bald eagles — dark birds lacking the white head and tail — do migrate southward to spend the winter on open water. But adults that have nested in our area do tend to stay around their nest, if there's open water to provide them with fish. Wintering eagles also scavenge on road-killed animals and those that succumb to the elements. You might find an eagle pair sitting in their nest tree, as a group of birding friends and I did at Carpenter Nature Center in Hastings in mid-November.
More on wrens
Note to readers: A recent item discussed a wren leaving a stick poking out of its nest boxes. Don Grussing, local bird observer, has frequently seen this in bluebird houses used by wrens in his area. "I believe they do it more often in houses with larger entrance cavities," he said. "It's like the broken glass fastened to the walls and fences of houses in Central and South America — it keeps out the uninvited."
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 email@example.com.