Q: I love springtime, when all the birds are singing. Those are the males making those sounds, correct?

A: Not all songsters are males, but the idea that the females of many species do sing is behavior that has been largely ignored and needs more study. Scientists know that male and female ancestors of today’s songbirds both sang, although many females seem to have lost this ability along the way. However, when bird researchers look closely at a given species, they often find its females singing, albeit songs that differ from the males’. Species where both genders sing include the northern cardinal, Baltimore oriole, dark-eyed junco, house wren, house finch, American goldfinch and rose-breasted grosbeak.

Jelly danger

Q: The Baltimore orioles eat the grape jelly I put out for them so fast that I’m thinking of putting it in a big bowl so I don’t have to fill the feeder so often. Is that OK?

A: I’m aware that some people do put out large bowls or plates of grape jelly, but I wish they wouldn’t, because this can be a danger to orioles, house finches and other birds that relish this treat. Birds (especially youngsters) sometimes fall into a large bowl and become coated with sticky jelly. They may become unable to fly off or, if they escape, are unable to clean all the jelly off their feathers. This becomes life-threatening very quickly, since feathers protect birds from the elements. It’s better to set out small amounts of jelly in a small container, refilling it often.

Wrong sparrow

Q: Someone told me that chipping sparrows kill bluebirds, so now I’m very down on them.

A: Please contact that person right away and tell them that they’re seriously misinformed. Chipping sparrows are tiny birds that build their nests in trees or shrubs. Since they don’t nest in tree holes or nest boxes, they have no reason to compete with bluebirds for these scarce spaces. Your informant has chipping sparrows confused with house sparrows, a nonnative species that does nest in cavities and competes viciously with bluebirds for nesting spaces. This inaccuracy might have started with someone observing an ever-curious chipping sparrow sitting on top of a bluebird nest box. I’ve seen this on my bluebird trail several times, but the little sparrows never bother the bluebirds.

Pest control

Q: Starlings are leaving holes all over my lawn and I’m wondering why they do it.

A: European starlings scuttle over lawns and fields, stabbing their beaks into the ground in search of insect larvae. The holes they leave could be considered a small price to pay for their insect control services, since the grubs and other larvae they consume won’t grow up to be harmful adult insects. For example, Japanese beetle and cutworm moth larvae, both highly destructive pests as adults, are a big treat for starlings.

Getting outdoors

Q: I’m a bird-watcher and come to the Twin Cities often to help with grandkids. I’m planning a visit in May and wonder about good places to go birding.

A: There are many bird-watching opportunities in and around the Twin Cities in May (and all year long). Local Audubon chapters sponsor field trips that are open to all. Many nature centers in the Twin Cities are great for bird-watching, including Springbrook, Wood Lake, Westwood Hills, Maplewood and Carpenter, among others. A walk near a section of the Mississippi River will be rewarding, including in Lilydale and Crosby Farm Regional Parks in St. Paul. Also try Minneapolis’ Minnehaha Park, Boom Island/Nicollet Island, Theodore Wirth Park and Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. As a friend who continually seeks out new parks advises, just drive along the river and stop wherever there’s a parking lot.


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.