Q: Hummingbirds are one of my favorite birds and I've read a lot about them, but I simply can't believe that they fly so far, even to Central America, during migration.
A: These tiny birds are living proof that size isn't necessarily an indicator of strength and tenacity. Yes, ruby-throated hummingbirds fly as far as Central America to spend the winter, and most travel across the Gulf of Mexico, a 500-mile nonstop journey, to get there. Some ruby-throats winter in Gulf Coast states or Florida, however. I can see why you've doubted this because it is an almost unbelievable feat.
Can't be rushed
Q: I had the wonderful luck to find a robin's nest with one blue egg in my hanging plant basket this summer. I checked each day and each time there was another egg, till there were four. I couldn't believe it, I'd always thought they laid their eggs all at once.
A: A female songbird only produces one egg a day, because this is an energy-intensive process that drains her body's reserves. She needs time to rest and rebuild between each egg. A clutch of four eggs is typical for a robin's nest, but consider the tiny chickadee, which may turn out eight or nine eggs before incubation begins.
Q: My husband doesn't believe that I call in the orioles, but when I'd take the filled feeder out and call "jelly," they'd fly in before I got back inside. Do you think they know faces?
A: Your orioles are responding to cues you send, no doubt about it. But recognition of human faces is unusual in the avian world — we only know of crows and possibly some of their relatives having this ability, from research to date. I'll bet the orioles are responding to the sound of your voice and the sight of the jelly feeder.
Q: No birds used our birdhouse this year, but something is chewing on the entrance hole and the air holes. The house is nearly wrecked and I wonder what's going on.
A: Both squirrels and woodpeckers are hard on wooden nest boxes. Each may decide to take up residence in what seems to them like a perfect little sleeping space. Squirrels gnaw on the entry hole to enlarge it, while downy woodpeckers seem unable to stop pecking at wood, even while roosting at night. Since both the entrance and the cooling holes have been enlarged, I suspect the woodpecker is the culprit. It may be too late to salvage your nest box, but you can discourage destructive visitors by leaving the door open after nesting season or stuffing the entrance with a pine cone.
A neater way?
Q: I'm tired of the mess under our bird feeders. Is there a no-mess way to attract the birds, before I stop feeding altogether?
A: Birds do drop debris under feeders, especially the shells of black-oil sunflower seeds. You can avoid this mess by offering birds pre-shelled sunflower seeds, either sunflower hearts or pieces. Other no-mess options include mixes of shelled seeds and fruit, suet cakes (rendered so they won't melt in the heat) and shelled peanuts or other shelled nuts. Anything the birds drop will be picked up by ever-vigilant squirrels. I hope you'll continue to feed birds, using one or more of these options — think how much you'd miss them if they stopped coming around.
Q: We live near an elementary school with a tall brick chimney and I've noticed birds flying around it in the evening. Since it's not cold outdoors, they're not trying to get warm, so what do you think they are doing?
A: You're noticing chimney swifts, an unusual bird that nests on the inside walls of chimneys. Swifts are migrating now and groups of them spend the night in chimneys that they find along their migration route. They'll swirl around over the top of the chimney, some flying in and then out, over and over, until dark, then the group swirls down to settle on the chimney walls for the night.
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.