Q: We noticed both a long-eared owl and a barred owl at different times in trees on our property. This was in early spring and I’m wondering whether they would share a territory with great horned owls, which have also been seen.
A: It’s extremely unlikely and might be unhealthy for either of those two owl species to attempt to share a territory with great horned owls. Sometimes called “flying tigers,” great horned owls are ferocious and intolerant of other owls in their territory. They would drive other owls out and might even kill them in the process. It’s a general rule of thumb that the largest owl in a territory is the one that will hold it, and great horned owls are the largest owls in the metro area. They even will drive out or kill other great horned owls.
Too smelly for birds?
Q: I’ve been spraying my feeder with deer repellent, which has a strong, putrid odor, in hopes of keeping the deer from eating all the seeds every night. But now I wonder: Do birds have a sense of smell?
A: Recent studies show that birds have a better sense of smell than was previously thought (more highly developed, that is). Since birds have all the apparatus for tasting and smelling, they probably are capable of using these senses. Since smell is not critical to most birds’ survival (an exception being scavengers like vultures), this sense may not be as highly developed as it is in, say, cats and dogs, but it figures in their toolbox of senses. Some birds, such as migratory pigeons, use their sense of smell to home in on their wintering grounds in the tropics.
New spring signaler?
Q: With so many robins spending the winter in our area, what bird should we look to as announcing that spring is here?
A: You’re right, the metro area has been hosting thousands of wintering robins for some years now, so the sign of a robin in late March or early April may not be a sign that migrating birds are returning and spring is on its way. How about the gray catbird, a bird that may show up in your backyard in mid-April? Or how about watching for Baltimore orioles, a tough bird to overlook, with dramatic orange and black feathers and beautiful song, in late April?
Q: In all my years of watching and feeding birds I’ve never before seen a cardinal pecking at a woodpecker suet block in a metal cage. Is this unusual?
A: I’ve never seen a cardinal making use of a suet feeder, either, but have often wished they would do so, in order to avail themselves of the high-energy treat inside. Cardinals’ big beaks work against them at feeders requiring pecking, but your cardinal has figured out how to extract some suet, showing what a smart bird he is and how observant — he must have seen woodpeckers and other birds doing this and copied their behavior.
Q: I used to keep a feeder filled with nyger seed but gave up on it because the goldfinches no longer eat it. Others have told me that nyger is now being processed differently and birds no longer like it. What is going on?
A: I checked with a few managers of wild bird supply stores and they know of no change in the processing of this seed, a favorite with finches. Nyger is high in oil and becomes rancid, thus unpalatable to birds, very quickly. I’d suggest purchasing nyger from a different supplier, keeping it cool while stored and buying it in small batches, so it won’t have time to spoil. If you choose not to purchase this seed any longer, and it is expensive, you might consider offering sunflower hearts or pieces, another favorite of goldfinches.
Q: I found a little woodpecker lying on my lower deck and it was the friendliest bird I’ve ever seen. I picked him up and he wasn’t afraid as I put him on the deck railing, and he later flew away. What do you think?
A: Sorry to say, it sounds as if this woodpecker (most likely a downy) almost surely was suffering the aftereffects of having collided with your patio door. You would never have been able to pick up a healthy bird, but one that was stunned by a window collision would lack the strength to try to fly away. It’s encouraging that the woodpecker did eventually fly off, but it’s often the case that birds later succumb to brain injuries after a window strike. This is a good time to make changes so your windows are more visible to birds, and here’s a good place to start: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/why-birds-hit-windows-and-how-you-can-help-prevent-it/.
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