Q: This winter for the first time I've had a red-bellied woodpecker coming to my feeders.
I'm hoping she might find a mate and nest nearby in the spring, since I love having more varieties of woodpeckers visiting my feeders.
A: Red-bellied woodpeckers are gorgeous birds and a nice addition to the backyard. Like most woodpeckers in our region, this species doesn't really migrate, although severe cold weather may cause them to move southward for a while. Range maps provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology show that this bird is at home in the lower two-thirds of Minnesota, so yours might well attract a mate this spring and continue to visit your feeders. Minnesotans never used to see this species at all, but in the early 1900s this Southern woodpecker began to expand its range, and they're now found year-round in much of Minnesota. Their rich, "churr" call livens up backyards and woodlands, especially in spring and summer.
Q: A chickadee has been sleeping on top of a pillar under our porch roof every night. Does this mean its nest was destroyed?
A: Chickadees roost at night in tree holes, if they can find them, or crevices, dense shrubbery or other spots that provide cover and at least some protection from the elements. Your smart little chickadee must feel that nesting up under the roof of your porch suits him/her just fine, since the bird returns each evening.
One winter a chickadee flew each evening to my feeders as it began to get dark, then ducked into a hole in the nearby maple tree, where it would spend the nights. He very noisily announced his presence as he arrived at twilight, coming a few minutes later each evening as the days lengthened. Although chickadees nest inside cavities, such as tree holes and nest boxes, they don't tend to spend time in them after the nesting season.
Q: I tossed some pine branches from the holiday tree onto the picnic table outdoors. Weeks later I noticed some birds, don't know what kind, flying in and around the branches. Could they have been thinking about nesting?
A: This is an interesting question, and one that has me slightly stumped. Since this occurred in early January the birds almost surely weren't getting ready to nest. But in a possible scenario, these could have been house finches, a common backyard bird. They might have been checking out the branches as a possible nest site for the coming spring. House finches nest two or more times in a season, so they start fairly early, in late April or early May. And they so often build nests inside holiday wreaths left on doors that some call them the "wreath bird." The pile of branches might have looked like a wreath to them.
Q: I walk through a local park frequently where a pair of great horned owls nest most years. But now I'm seeing a barred owl, as well, and wonder whether great horned owls pose a danger to this other owl.
A: "The short answer is yes," says Karla Bloem, who heads up the International Owl Center in Houston, Minn. The larger great horned owls don't tolerate other owls in their territory, posing a threat to smaller owls. That barred owl is in danger if it doesn't move on.
Q: I have six feeders out with all kinds of food for the birds, and usually they're quite busy. But in late winter I noticed days when there wouldn't be a single bird outside. What was happening with my birds?
A: This often occurs when we have unseasonably warm winter weather, which was true for December and early January. Birds require fewer calories to survive each day when it's not deathly cold, so they don't need to visit feeders as often. They're finding food out in nature, for the most part. It's also possible that a hawk or owl was perched but not visible in your backyard, scaring the birds away. I'll bet that when spring gets here, you'll see your regular contingent of birds.
Q: I'm upset with the store where I order peanuts in bulk for my blue jays: I just noticed that they'd substituted salted peanuts for the unsalted I'd specified. I tried eating one and it was extremely salty, and now I'm wondering if this could harm my blue jays.
A: It's a shame that you ended up with the wrong peanut order, and if you found them to be salty, think how they must taste to birds. I don't think the peanuts you put out harmed your jays, but I'd toss the remainder in the trash (or ask the supplier to take them back and give you a refund). Birds need a small amount of salt in their diet to keep their system balanced, but they get what they need from the natural world. Too much salt can, indeed, be harmful.
Q: We spotted a small bird on our deck during the winter and were finally able to get a photo at the suet feeder. It resembles a Carolina wren, but what are the chances?
A: The photos you sent clearly identify a Carolina wren, an unusual species to find in our area, but not all that uncommon. This species is native to the southeastern U.S. but it's been advancing and receding over the years, depending on the severity of our winters. The Minnesota Ornithologists Union lists dozens of Carolina wren sightings in Minnesota since the 1920s, most in fall and winter. At least one other reader has written to say he's hosting a Carolina wren, too. And the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas notes that in fall and winter this wren may be found at feeders "for extended periods."
St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for a number of publications, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.