Q: We’re just back from an auto trip to Florida, during which we spotted dozens of hawks hunting along the roadways. Now I see this happening around here, which I never noticed before. What draws raptors to the roads?

A: That’s an excellent observation of a phenomenon that I call “highway hawks.” Red-tailed hawks and some other raptors have learned that our highways are rife with rodents, so they perch on light poles, nearby trees or signs and wait to spot a meal. Small mammals like voles, mice and rats forage in the grassy medians and roadsides for food scattered among the litter that humans toss out of their cars. There are a number of highways in the metro area, notably Hwy. 36 from Roseville to North St. Paul, that seem to have a red-tailed hawk perched on a light pole every half-mile. The hawks do this because they’ve learned that highways offer good hunting.

Nest raiders

Q: Why would a blue jay destroy a squirrel’s nest? Do they want to use the material for their own nests?

A: Those squirrel nests, called dreys, built out of sticks and leaves, often hold some of a squirrel’s food stash, including seeds and nuts. Such a mammal nest might also harbor insects and spiders. All this would be a windfall for a blue jay or other bird to find.

Who’s hooting?

Q: What’s the owl that’s calling in my neighborhood in early spring, making deep bass hoots?

A: You’re almost surely hearing a pair of great horned owls communicating with each other. These owls are the earliest to nest in our area, and they start the breeding season with duets, then, as the female sits on the nest, they occasionally hoot back and forth.

You can hear recordings at:  allaboutbirds.org/guide/Great_Horned_Owl/sounds.

Eyes or ears?

Q: I’m getting conflicting stories:  When a robin runs across the ground, then stops and tilts its head, is it watching for worms, or listening for them?

A: Robins use their sense of sight to find worms in the ground. Birds must turn their heads to turn their eyes, and robin eyes are placed on the sides of their head. So robins tilt their heads to cast one eye on the ground, with the other eye looking upward, keeping watch for predators.

‘Bombed’ trees

Q: I’ve come across some blasted-out looking trees in the woods, and a naturalist told me that this is the work of a pileated woodpecker. Why do they do this?

A: When you encounter big sections of bark and wood chips beneath a tree, that’s usually a sign that a pileated woodpecker has been searching for carpenter ants. These ants make up about 60% of this big woodpecker’s winter diet, while wood-boring beetle larvae, which hatch in early spring, are also popular at this time of year.

Attracting raptors

Q: How can I attract eagles and hawks to my backyard? I would like to view them close-up and it would be really neat to have them nesting nearby.

A: I’m not sure it would be a good idea to try to attract large raptors to visit your backyard. Your neighbors could find it unnerving and it might put an eagle or hawk in conflict with dogs, humans and other dangers. And, if you put food out for raptors you’ll almost surely attract rats, not a good thing. Plus people who’ve had eagles nesting in their backyard trees report that the big birds make a big, smelly mess, with their droppings and the remnants of fish and other prey that drop below.

I think it would be best to observe eagles at their nests in more natural settings, like along rivers and in large parks. Eagle nests are visible at Fort Snelling State Park, Lilydale Regional Park, Keller Regional Park and others. And keep your eyes on the Department of Natural Resource’s Eagle Cam, which provides a close-up view of an eagle nest: dnr.state.mn.us/features/webcams/eaglecam/index.html.


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.