Q Last winter, I had lots of red-breasted nuthatches at my feeders. This year, there are none to be found. Any idea why?

A Unlike their white-breasted cousins who usually show up here in the winter, red-breasted nuthatches are somewhat nomadic. Some years they winter in Minnesota, other years they don't travel this far south.

Their presence here seems to have to do with how much food is available farther north. Red-breasteds eat the seeds of conifers. When those seeds (better known as pinecones) are scarce in northern Ontario, the birds often move south.

Where the birds are

Q What's with the birds this winter? I've got many feeders in my yard, but almost no birds.

A This has been something of a spotty winter for birds. Some people report a lack of birds, others say their feeders are mobbed every day. If your bird traffic is down, the birds in your area are probably finding enough wild sources of food. Offering a variety of foods -- including seeds and suet -- might help, as would making water available. In winter, that means using a heated birdbath.

Winter bathing

Q Are heated birdbaths a good idea? We've read that on really cold days, a bird might take a bath, become coated with ice and not be able to fly.

A A heated birdbath may be the only source of water on a very cold day. So, yes, it's a good idea to provide open water in the neighborhood. But it's also a good idea to cover the basin with hardware cloth (a metal mesh available at hardware stores) or place a few boards across the basin so birds can drink, but not immerse themselves.

Val Cunningham, a St. Paul nature writer, can be reached at valwrites@comcast.net. Jim Williams, a lifelong birder, blogs about birds at www.startribune.com/wingnut. He can be reached at two-jays@att.net.