Q: I was so happy to see the orioles come back to my feeders in May, and now I’m wondering: Might they build a nest in my back-yard tree?

A: Baltimore orioles are such beautiful birds that I’ll bet we all would like a pair to take up residence nearby. I’ve never had orioles nest in the vicinity because the habitat around my home just isn’t right: Orioles prefer to nest along waterways, at the edges of the woods or in big parks. They almost always select a very tall tree, usually cottonwood, sycamores or other large specimens, to hold their nest built at the tip of a branch. So if you have habitat like this, and orioles are already coming to your feeders, you just might get lucky.

Deck ducks

Q: A mallard has deposited eight eggs in a flowerpot on my third-floor deck and she’s sitting on them at night. What should I do?

A: I checked with the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (in Roseville) and their advice is to let nature take its course. Any attempts to move the nest will almost certainly end in disaster for the ducks and could violate migratory bird regulations. If you can wait this out, ducklings should appear about 30 days after the last egg was laid, and they’ll leave with their mom within hours of hatching.

Nostalgic robins

Q: I’ve been noticing robins at the feeder attached to my back window. The oddest thing is that they stare upward, right at the spot on the porch light where robins nested last year. Could these be the same birds as last year, or robins that hatched out of that nest?

A: They very well could be birds that either fledged from the nest built on top of your porch light last year, or their parents. Robins often return to the area where they nested previously or were hatched. In fact, researchers found that 70 percent of the robins in one study area in the spring were returnees banded there the previous year. This is called nest-site fidelity and robins seem to have a strong affinity for it.

Chance of an encore?

Q: I think a hummingbird had her nest nearby last year, because I’d see her every day and then saw the young birds later in the summer. Do you think she’ll do that again this year?

A: I am green with envy, because I only see hummingbirds during migration, in spring and fall. But if you were able to observe one of these tiny birds throughout the summer last year, the chances are good that the female, if she survived the winter and her migratory journey, will drop down into your yard again to find a likely nesting spot.

Martin mania

Q: I’ve always been interested in purple martins and am thinking of putting up a martin house. Any advice?

A: These handsome swallows have many fans, who swear by their boisterous songs and insect-controlling abilities. However, martins are very exacting in their requirements and you should research this thoroughly before making what can be a significant investment. At the very least, they like their housing to be located out in the open, away from trees, and they prefer to be near water. I’d start with the Purple Martin Conservation Association’s very thorough Web page: www.purplemartin.org.

Bathing birds

Q: I’ve set up my birdbath for the season and have seen all sorts of different advice about how often it needs to be cleaned out. What do you recommend?

A: I’m not surprised that you’re confused on this issue, since the advice varies so much from one source to another. I’m always astonished when I see birding magazines advocate for changing the water in a birdbath “every few days” — this just seems divorced from reality. At this time of year, when birds are dashing about feeding their nestlings, they become very dusty, if not downright dirty (nest-building robins get very muddy, for example). After three or four birds splash around our birdbath the water is no longer very inviting—it’s cloudy and often splattered with bird poop. We spray out the basin with the garden hose at least twice a day, and even more often if starlings have visited en masse.

Cardinal floater

Q: For the past year or so I’ve had a pair of cardinals feeding from the wire peanut feeder. The male, especially, seemed to be very deliberate and cautious in his movements. Now I’m noticing a male cardinal who doesn’t seem to know how to land on the feeder and is almost frantic in the way he moves. Do you think something happened to the previous male and this is a new bird?

A: I think you are seeing a new male, and it sounds as if he’s very stressed by his new environment. He probably had been what ornithologists call a “floater,” a young male who lacks a territory but is always on the alert to find a suddenly vacant niche to move into. It’s possible that a predator (hawk or cat, most likely) caught the resident male or the new male drove him out (cardinals battle for territory horrifically during the spring). The female, like other songbirds, usually adjusts to a new mate if the old one disappears.

Odd bird?

Q: A robin laid an egg on my lawn and has been coming back to sit on it. I’ve never heard of this before, have you?

A: It’s unusual for a robin to make a nest on the ground, but not unheard of. This may be a very young and inexperienced bird, or the landscape may lack suitable trees or shrubs.


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.