Q: In early August we saw a pair of loons on a Wisconsin lake with two very young chicks. We've observed loons on that lake for several years but have never seen any hatch this late. Will they be mature enough to migrate in the fall?
A: This is an interesting question and it gave me the chance to check in with one of my favorite wildlife experts, Carrol Henderson, who recently retired from heading up the Nongame Wildlife Program for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He spent many years studying loons and had this to say:
"Loons can fly at the age of 3 months, and they typically stay on their natal lakes after the parents leave. So, these chicks should still be able to migrate by mid-November and 'stay on schedule,' assuming there's no early freeze-up."
Q: I wonder if you can tell me about this scene: A pair of cardinals was coming and going, feeding three chicks in a nest in a shrub in my yard. More than one male cardinal was around and a bunch of sparrows was hanging around, too, and seemed to be harassing the mother bird. What was going on?
A: One of the wonderful things about watching birds is that we humans don't always know what they're doing. I conferred with Don Grussing, a longtime bird observer, and we came up with a number of possibilities. There might have been a cat hiding beneath the shrub, with the other birds gathering to try to drive it away. If the sparrows in question were chipping sparrows, this species seems fascinated by other birds' nesting behavior, so they might have been nosy Parkers. Or one of the other red birds might not have been a cardinal but instead a male house finch with his brown-streaked offspring, which could resemble sparrows. There probably are other possibilities, as well, all of them speculative.
Q: I have wondered how long young crows live with their parents. I have what I believe is a family of six crows that have been around my yard for the past two summers, flying around together and foraging for food together. They are all the same size.
A: That's a good question and the answer is that this can vary. A pair of adult crows might raise three youngsters one summer, then the family may stay together for up to a year before the parents start thinking about starting a new nest. Even so, one or more of their offspring may remain in the area and assist with raising the next batch of crows. The six crows you're seeing may be mom and dad and two helpers from other years and two youngsters from this year's nest, and they'd all be the same size.
Crows are fascinating birds with interesting family dynamics. One of the best books I've read about them is "In the Company of Crows and Ravens," by John Marzluff and Tony Angell.
Q: I'm sending photos of what I assume is a rare occurrence in the North Loop of Minneapolis, a bird perched right at street level. Is this a young eagle? And what would it be doing?
A: Your photos show that the large bird perched on a sign downtown is a red-tailed hawk, a raptor that's not quite as large as an eagle, but definitely a Big Boy hawk. The two best clues are the bird's red tail and the pattern of markings on its lower chest, known as the belly band. Red-tails are becoming more comfortable around humans, hunting along highways and even building nests in residential areas. However, coming downtown to hunt isn't usual behavior for this beautiful hawk, but then they're rodent hunters, and cities are full of mice and rats.
Beware of pirates
Q: There was some interesting behavior in my neighborhood. The bluebirds were working hard to catch bugs for their second hatch of young. But a male phoebe made it harder by following the bluebirds around. When they dropped from their perch to retrieve a bug, he beat them to it, or sometimes tried to snatch it from them in the air. Luckily his nest appeared to be off a ways, so they had enough moments of free hunting. The phoebe is most active in the morning, but the bluebirds hunt all day long.
A: Thank you for your close observations and fascinating report. I had no idea that bluebirds had to deal with what's called kleptoparasitism, aka piracy, from other bird species.
Q: I was driving by the Mississippi River the other day and thought I saw a pelican. But that couldn't be — could it?
A: It certainly could. Although they spend the winter on the Gulf of Mexico, white pelicans come north to nest on remote islands. Now that nesting season is over they're showing up on lakes, ponds and river backwaters to fish before heading south again.
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.