Q: Last night I saw two great gray owls flying around our neighborhood, moving from the fence to street signs to front-yard trees. What is going on — could this be a mating event?
A: It would be interesting but very unlikely for great gray owls to be flying around a metro neighborhood, since these birds breed far to the north of here. However, barred owls look very similar to great grays and are found in our part of the state. You noticed these owls in late May, a time when young barred owls would be out of the nest and exploring their world. The two owls might have been a parent and youngster, or two owlets. How lucky to have had them nesting so close to you.
Q: Can you tell me what bird is singing at 2 a.m. in the recording I sent you?
A: The recording reveals a gray catbird running through his repertoire of sounds, some musical, some rather harsh. Catbirds sometimes sing at night during breeding season, and you may be lucky enough to have a pair of these handsome, charcoal-colored birds nesting in your backyard. Catbirds prefer thick vines and shrubbery to hide their nest and are a challenge to observe, due to their secretive behavior.
Q: A friend noted that some bird species sing a variety of songs, and wondered if the size of a bird's song repertoire is associated with intelligence.
A: That is a fascinating question, and inspired me to do some research. Bird scientists have looked into this by studying the brain activity of birds, such as brown thrashers and mockingbirds, which can remember and sing hundreds, even thousands of different songs. However, these birds are not necessarily smarter than birds that know only one song, or a few songs. Instead, some species' ability to learn a large number of songs may mean they're not as smart at other life skills, such as locating stored food. In contrast, birds known to be super brainy, like crows and blue jays, have very limited songs. More study is needed to really nail down what's going in this area.
Q: We've had robins refurbishing and reusing a nest outside a window for a number of years. After nesting season last year, my husband took it down while we were having the house painted. He took care of it all winter and put it back up this spring, and lo and behold, the robins are using it again. Isn't that neat?
A: Yes, that's very neat — your husband did an amazing thing, and I'm so glad to hear of someone having such concern for a backyard bird. The robins doubtless appreciated finding their old nest to use as a foundation for this year's broods. This is a heartwarming story and I salute you both.
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.