Q: Two loons and their baby were floating on our lake when they started calling and kept it up for about five minutes. There didn't appear to be any danger, so I'm wondering what they were doing.
A: It's likely you were hearing the loons making their tremolo call, a sign of distress. I checked with someone who knows a lot about loons, Carrol Henderson, who heads up the Department of Natural Resources' Nongame Wildlife Program. "I suspect those loons may have spotted a passing eagle and were giving ample warning to ward off an attack," Henderson says. Since birds are much better at spotting birds of prey than we are, the loons probably saw a far-off eagle that you missed. And eagles are known to watch for unprotected loon chicks to make an easy meal.
Q: A pair of house finches nested in the wreath on our front door and we enjoyed watching the whole process. When the male was feeding the young birds, the female would rapidly flap her wings and quiver, then stop when he stopped feeding them. Why did she do this?
A: I conferred with Duluth bird-book author and naturalist Laura Erickson on this one and here's her explanation: "Wing quivering is a solicitation behavior, almost always used when a bird is soliciting food or sex, and female house finches during courtship are seeking both. Very often during the time that birds are feeding their young, there are still some high levels of hormones that lead a female to beg even when she and her mate are focused on feeding their young."
Identifying bird call
Q: I've been trying to learn the songs of our common birds by listening to a CD so I can identify them while out walking. Call notes really confuse me, especially one I was hearing in July, a very raspy "reep" coming from high in the trees. Any ideas?
A: Good for you for learning the sounds birds make — this should add a great deal of enjoyment to your walks. Two possibilities come to mind for your "reep" bird: This might be the call of a great crested flycatcher (hear it here, especially the call described as "harsh": allaboutbirds.org/guide/Great_Crested_Flycatcher/sounds). Your description also sounds very similar to the sounds made by many species of very young birds while begging a parent for a feeding.
Wood ducks vanished
Q: Before we went on vacation there was a family of wood ducks on our pond. When we got back 10 days later, they were all gone. What could have happened?
A: My first suspicion was that a big snapping turtle had eaten the ducklings, one by one. But Kraig Kelsey, owner of Kelsey's Wild Bird Store in North Oaks, who's been studying wood ducks for many decades, offered a more positive possibility. Wood duck hens commonly move their families from one body of water to another, seeking the best protection for their brood. This means they're looking for a shoreline with a great deal of vegetation for hiding from predators. It's not unusual, Kelsey says, for a wood duck family to end up as far as a mile from the ducklings' original pond.
Cricket or bird?
Q: I've been hearing a bird or some other animal chirping after dark — it sounds like a big cricket. What might it be?
A: The bird that comes to mind is a cardinal, I can see how you might think its "chip" call sounds like a cricket. And cardinals are one of the few birds active and vocalizing for a time after dark.
Q: I live near Lake Harriet and recently watched just-out-of-the-nest barn swallows perch on top of the pavilion. The parent would swoop down and quickly feed them, then the young birds would take off and fly for a few minutes before perching on the roof again. I love quiet, intimate scenes like that.
A: I do, too, and I think one of the reasons so many of us cherish birds is that they allow us to observe such scenes as we live among them.
Q: I feed birds at my townhouse but the board has recently voted that we can't have feeders because they attract "vermin," and because birds poop. Can you help me broaden their minds?
A: What a shame that your townhome board took this unilateral action without checking with their residents who feed birds. It's just so easy to say "stop" and so many condo and townhome boards do so. Sad to say, I've heard from readers in the past with similar problems and it's very tough to lift a ban once it's in place. I've even heard of rules against feeding hummingbirds out of the fear that sugar water attracts wasps. There's a general failure to acknowledge that we live within nature and among wildlife and it behooves us to share the outdoors. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has great information online, as do bird food companies such as Wild Birds Unlimited, and I hope you will bring it to your board's attention.
Suet in summer
Q: What's your advice about presenting suet during hot summer weather?
A: That's a very timely question, and I'm sure others wonder about this, as well. It's not a good idea to put out raw suet in hot weather, because it melts and creates a mess that can harm birds. If their feathers become greasy it impairs their ability to keep a bird insulated against heat or cold and to shed rain or snow. But suet cakes don't present the same problem — they're made of fat that's been melted and reformed, so they don't melt in the heat. I provide suet cakes year round, and the birds love them in winter and summer. They're especially popular with woodpecker parents, who grab chunks of suet to bring back to nestlings, then later bring their fledglings in for a high-energy treat.
Wood duck moms go solo
Q: How come I only see female wood ducks on our pond, with their ducklings?
A: Male wood ducks disappear once the females lay eggs inside a nest box or tree cavity. The mother ducks incubate the eggs and raise the ducklings alone.
Q: We've had a Cooper's hawk roosting in our backyard cedar tree all winter, even settling in for the night on the same branch, so we always know where to look. But the hawk disappeared some weeks ago, and we're wondering if it was because of mating season, and will it return next winter?
A: That's a fascinating observation of the faithfully roosting hawk. As for where it went, we can only speculate, but it's likely the bird moved off with a mate to build a nest and raise their young. Other possibilities are that it succumbed to illness or an attack by another raptor. If it's still in the area, it very well might return to its winter roost, since that spot apparently provided safe sleeping and maybe was a good hunting perch, as well.
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.