Q: A pair of bald eagles nested in an old pine tree near our lake cabin for 30 years, until a major storm brought the huge nest down. It had been wonderful to watch fledglings learn to fly and parents hunt for food, and we’ll miss it. We still see the eagle pair around, but what are the chances they’ll stay in the area and rebuild?
A: The horrific springtime weather created havoc for many birds around the state. I’d say there’s a very good chance that the eagle pair you’ve been watching will rebuild in the area, if they can find a suitable tree. They returned year after year to your lake because it provided good fishing and the tree’s location offered protection from human and predator incursions. Eagles are known to have a strong predilection to return to their old nests, so I’m betting you’ll see the local pair carrying sticks to build in a new tree, maybe as early as this fall.
Q: I’ve seen a hummingbird coming and going around our pine tree. Is there any food there for the bird?
A: The hummingbird is probably seeking small insects to augment its nectar diet. About a quarter of the hummingbird food budget is tiny insects, and these are often found on evergreen needles or on the sap on cones. It’s even possible that the little bird is lapping up sap itself.
Q: I noticed a female goldfinch on a windowsill, gathering fuzz from a spider web, then she flew off to a tree across the street. On another side of my house I saw another spider web with a hole in it. What was she doing?
A: Goldfinches are among the last songbirds to settle down to mating and nesting each summer. The theory is that they wait until thistle is in bloom to provide nesting material and soon after, seeds to feed their young. I’ll bet the goldfinch you noticed was starting to build her nest and was using spider webbing to bind it together (many birds do this).
Q: A pair of broad-winged hawks nests in our backyard tree every year, and whenever we’re out in the yard or garden the hawks go nuts, screeching and yelling. (A few years ago, one even attacked me, leaving two big cuts on my head, no kidding.) But yesterday there were feathers under the nest along with the head of one of the hawks. We have lots of owls around here, could an owl have done this?
A: I think you’re right to suspect that a great horned owl or barred owl likely severed the hawk’s head and carried off the body to eat elsewhere. Or the owl carried it to its own nest to feed its young. It’s typical for an owl to carry off much of its prey but leave the too-heavy-to-carry head behind. Another possible scenario is that a young hawk fell to the ground and was eaten by a mammal, but these predators would have consumed the head.
Q: Every year, starting in June, our yard is littered with branches, about a foot long, cut off our ash tree. I was wondering if a crow working on its nest could cause this, but the branches definitely look as if they were snipped.
A: The same thing happens in my backyard — leafy branches get dropped from the big maple throughout the summer. The culprits are gray squirrels, either creating a drey (the word for their leafy nests/roosts) or augmenting an existing one. One summer morning I happened to be looking up into a maple as a squirrel emerged from its skimpy nest. It nipped off a twig with ample leaves, packed it into the drey, then scrambled on down the tree in search of breakfast.
Leaving the nest
Q: This isn’t really a question but the young robins in a nest in our tree fledged today and it’s unbelievable how fast they grew. I kept an eye on them and it was two weeks from tiny beings to feathered birds that can almost fly.
A: It does seem miraculous, how fast young birds grow up. Some species leave their nests after just nine days, others take more than two weeks, but 12 to 14 days is about average. The high-protein insect diet brought in by parent birds is the key to fast-tracking youngsters on the road to adulthood.
Who’s eating the jam?
Q: The orioles eat the grape jelly I put out for them in early spring, but now I don’t see them anymore. I have a squirrel guard on the feeder pole, but still the jam disappears every day. Could hummingbirds be eating it?
A: Quite a few birds enjoy grape jelly, including chickadees, house finches, goldfinches, woodpeckers, catbirds and maybe even house sparrows. Could it be that you’re so focused on orioles that you don’t see smaller, less vibrantly colored birds visiting that feeder? I doubt hummingbirds are the culprit, since they take most of their food in liquid form (augmented with tiny insects for protein).
No cherry fans
Q: Something strange is happening with our Canadian cherry tree: Birds usually devour the fruits as soon as they ripen, but not this year. I’m worried that the April blizzard killed many of the birds that used to visit.
A: That April blizzard was a setback for wildlife but I haven’t heard of any widespread bird die-offs because of it. The major negative impact seems to have been on Canada goose nests. Few songbirds had begun nesting by mid-April, when the blizzard hit, so I think what you’re seeing is the effect of this being a banner year for natural foods outdoors. The abundance of fruit, berries and seeds is outpacing birds’ ability to keep up with it. Once fall migration is in full swing I’ll bet you’ll see many more birds in your backyard.
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.