Q: A pair of wild turkeys visit the area under my feeder, pecking at the ground for 10 minutes or more. I don't think the squirrels and ground-feeding birds leave any seeds behind, so I'm wondering if the turkeys are eating the shells. Curiously enough, one night I saw a fox sniffing that same spot and wonder if it was emulating the turkeys.
A: Seed shells have little to no nutritional value, so something else is attracting the big birds. I suspect that songbirds drop enough tiny bits of seed as they feed and woodpeckers scatter particles of suet as they peck away. This accumulation of morsels makes it worth the turkeys' while to search the ground. The visiting fox may also relish bits of seed and suet, but more likely he/she was sniffing for scent trails of mice, voles or rabbits that probably visit under your feeders.
Q: I heard a white-throated sparrow singing that pretty "Oh, Canada" song in January. Could it have migrated back so early?
A: I don't think this bird returned from its winter home several months early. Instead, I'll bet it's a white-throat that simply never left in the fall. There are quite a few reports of this species visiting back yards this winter, even as far north as Ely. There's a white-throat in my back yard most days, too.
Q: I have some ornamental crabapple trees and have had a flock of 20 to 25 robins show up to eat the fruit. Isn't this unusual? How have they survived the subzero weather?
A: It's great that you or someone else planted those trees some years ago so that they now offer tasty meals to over-wintering robins. It's not at all unusual these days to see flocks of robins in the metro area throughout the winter. There are reports of large flocks of robins flying in to night roosts in Minneapolis and St. Paul, in one case a count of 1,400 robins on E. Minnehaha Parkway. My Christmas Bird Count team observed several hundred robins feasting on hackberry tree berries on St. Paul's Summit Avenue in December. As long as they can find fruit and water, robins can survive our winters quite well. They roost in evergreens at night and are helped along by the higher nighttime temperatures being reported for the past several decades.
Q: I've been building nesting boxes for bluebirds for years, and now would like to build a roosting box for birds to use at night. I'm wondering if they really are useful.
A: Good question, and I think you're right to question whether birds will really use such a structure. Going by anecdotal reports, I don't think these boxes are popular with birds as shelters from nighttime cold and wet. Birds should use them, because this could enhance their survival in winter, but few birds are willing to share space with others, either of their own kind or other species. Roost boxes look a lot like wood duck houses, so if you turned the front panel upside down so the entrance hole is near the top, you might attract a wood duck pair.
Q: We live up near the Canadian border, and have evening grosbeaks coming to the feeders. Is there anything I can do to help them survive our winters, like putting out a birdhouse?
A: Naturalists in the Ely area tell me that these beautiful birds do just fine in winter without human assistance. But they relish black oil sunflower seeds, so if you keep your feeders stocked with this high-energy food you'll be doing them a favor. At nighttime, evening grosbeaks roost with their flock in an evergreen tree; since they're not cavity nesters they aren't interested in birdhouses.
Worms for kinglets?
Q: I was interested in your column on kinglets and wonder if they'd be interested in dried mealworms.
A: That's an interesting question, but I'd suspect that kinglets would not visit your feeders to consume this food. The caterpillars they tend to feed on are tiny, much smaller than mealworms, and the tiny birds are used to gleaning this food from the tips of evergreen needles. It's unlikely that they'd recognize these large (to them) inert objects as food.
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.