Q: I'm sending you a video of two eagles walking toward two ducks in a small circle of open water on a lake in my suburb. I'm guessing that these were young ducks that didn't know enough to leave when the lake started freezing?
A: The ducks in your video, swimming in a small circle of open water, are probably ill or injured and unable to fly, thus easy prey for the approaching eagles. In fall and winter, eagles keep a sharp eye on groups of ducks to determine if any lack flight ability. The raptors will sometimes strafe ducks on the water, then focus on any that didn't fly off, and that duck usually becomes the eagle's next meal.
Q: Mallard ducks gather at a small creek near my house but there's so little water and so many ducks, I'm wondering what they find to eat in winter.
A: Most of the mallards in our area migrate to Southern states and along the Gulf to spend the winter. The ones that remain spend part of each day dabbling in open water for aquatic plants and insects. They'll fly to open fields to forage on grain and grass seeds, or gather around grain elevators for spilled grain and corn. And some even turn up under urban bird feeders to gobble up spilled seed. If winter turns very harsh the mallards may fly southward in search of open water and open fields.
Q: I was looking out my window when six crows flew into the yard. They plowed head first into the new snow over and over again, then started rolling onto their backs and looked like they were making snow angels. It was fun to watch and made me wonder whether crows play or were simply bathing in the snow.
A: That must have been so much fun to watch, and the crows may have been doing both, playing and bathing. A possible scenario: The crows, probably a family, dropped down and started tossing snow around to clean off their feathers, then, being crows, they decided to have some fun, too. Crows certainly do engage in play, a fact well documented by researchers like John Marzluff and Tony Angell in their book, "In the Company of Crows and Ravens." It's a good idea to keep your eyes on crows, they're always up to something, and it's usually entertaining.
Q: The local seed store no longer offers the seed mix with berries that my birds loved. The mix they have now is full of safflower and I'm thinking of just mixing my own, using black oil sunflower seeds, medium sunflower chips and peanuts. Can you suggest anything I could add?
A: It's a great idea to make your own seed blend since you can't find the one that's been so popular with your birds, and your ingredients will make an excellent mix. If you want to add some fruit, you could try chopped raisins, craisins or other dried fruit. I wouldn't be so hard on safflower, though, since this seed is appreciated by many species. Some 10 years ago, I switched from black oiler sunflower seeds to safflower to discourage house sparrows, and the cardinals, chickadees, finches, nuthatches and other birds enjoy it (and the sparrows don't).
Q: Watching a nuthatch perched head down at my peanut feeder, it occurred to me to ask whether they swallow in that position, or do they store the food until they turn head's up?
A: That is an excellent question and I was happy to do some research on this, by watching my peanut feeder and checking websites devoted to birds. It turns out that nuthatches do both: They can peck out food bits and swallow them head down, or fly off and gulp while head's up.
Feeding is fine
Q: A friend came across an online debate, where some argued that it's wrong to feed birds in the winter because they'll forget how to forage on their own and will starve if you stop. Is that true?
A: Whoever says providing seed at feeders will cause birds to stop foraging is misinformed. Birds derive at most 25% of their daily calories from feeders, but continue to follow their usual foraging routes to pick up the other 75%. And they won't starve if you go away for a week or even months during the winter — they just revert to foraging in nature for food.
Finches will come
Q: We recently bought a finch feeder and filled it with nyger seed. But is it possible that birds won't find our feeder since we didn't feed them in the summer?
A: I'm sure that goldfinches will find your feeder, although it may take them some time. One finch will drop in, discover that the tube is filled with good things to eat, others will notice this and soon you'll have a great deal of finch traffic. Finches are around all year and are especially likely to visit feeders in winter, when finding calories is more critical to survival. One thing about goldfinches: They're little poop machines, and I have to go out with wet paper towels at least once a week to wipe down the outside of the feeders.
Standing on one leg
Q: I'm sending you a photo of a Cooper's hawk perched on our deck. We're wondering why it's holding one leg up.
A: I'm betting that the photo you sent, showing a hawk with one foot drawn up to its belly, was taken on a very cold day. All kinds of birds, from songbirds to raptors, will tuck one foot at a time up into their belly feathers to warm it up. It's possible that the hawk had suffered some kind of injury to the tucked foot, but I think the warming scenario is the most likely.
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.