Q: As I was filling my hummingbird feeder in early September, it occurred to me that I don’t see male hummingbirds in the fall. Why is that?

A: You’re right, after the third week in August we no longer see hummingbirds with the brilliant red throat feathers that earned this species its name. Male ruby-throated hummingbirds depart some weeks before adult females and juvenile birds do, and it’s a good thing: Males are very territorial and often drive females and youngsters away from food sources. The males’ departure frees females and their offspring to feed at flowers and feeders without being driven off, allowing them to put on weight to fuel their migratory journeys.

The hummingbirds we see in mid-to-late September are almost always females and youngsters passing through from farther north, with our summer residents already making their way to wintering sites ranging from southern Mexico to northern Panama, although some travel only as far as southern Florida. It’s a good idea to keep filling hummingbird feeders to nourish any such stragglers until temperatures drop below freezing, in late October.

Wind threat

Q: Hurricanes can be devastating to humans, but how about for birds? Have they evolved ways to deal with the storms?

A: Yes, tropical storms and hurricanes are major hazards for both migratory and resident birds in their path. The autumn hurricane season occurs just as many birds are flying toward Central and South America, and the consequences are dire for any birds caught flying over the Gulf of Mexico with no place to land. Many other birds, and these include hummingbirds, warblers, orioles and other songbirds, may stop over along the Gulf Coast as the barometer drops, but even those that survive the high winds and flying debris may find their food sources have been wiped out. There’s little that tiny beings, like hummingbirds, that weigh about as much as a penny, can do other than wait out the storms.

Wax tips

Q: I was admiring a small flock of cedar waxwings feeding on some berries the other day, and started to wonder how they get their red wingtips.

A: Good question, and you may be surprised to learn that waxwings are well named — their red wingtips really are made of wax. The color comes from the foods the waxwings consume, and people who study them feel that they signal a bird’s readiness to mate and worthiness as a partner. Older, well-fed birds have more red-tipped wings, and such birds tend to pair up and raise more young than younger birds that have fewer red wingtips.

Sleepy bird

Q: I was delighted to see pileated woodpeckers visiting my feeders this summer, and saw one bird feeding the other. They seem very tame, and I have seen a pileated sleeping on the suet feeder. Is this unusual behavior?

A: You’re lucky to host pileateds, because few of us are able to attract these huge woodpeckers to our backyards. Sounds like you had an adult feeding suet from your feeder to one of its offspring. However, I am worried about the pileated sleeping in full view of humans and any predators. This is not usual behavior: Birds tend to be high-energy beings, and are almost always in motion. When they rest or sleep, they do so out of sight, as a precautionary measure. I’d keep an eye on the woodpecker, and if it’s inactive for longer periods, I’d call the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Roseville (651-486-9453) for their advice.

‘Horned’ birds

Q: A pair of birds, slightly larger than a sparrow and on the pudgy side, has been coming to our birdbath. They’re a mottled brown color with lighter stomachs and appear to have little horns. What kind of birds are they?

A: It sounds to me like you’re seeing young house finches, probably female birds, since they lack any red coloration. I’ve often seen young house finches that haven’t quite molted their full adult plumage with a couple downy feathers still sticking up on their heads. These might well look like horns.

Night thief

Q: I live in north central Minnesota and am having a problem with something eating my suet overnight. I put out a trap for raccoons, but in the morning the bait was gone and the trap door was still open. So I put out a small squirrel trap and the same thing happened. I can’t afford a block of suet every day, and wonder how I can stop this theft.

A: Without photographic evidence, I can only guess at the culprit. If we rule out raccoons and squirrels, then possibly the thief is a fisher or marten, if you have those in your area. Another possibility is flying squirrels, since they’re so lightweight they wouldn’t trip most traps. If you bring your suet feeder indoors each evening and set it back out at daylight, this should foil your suet thief.


St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at valwrites@comcast.net.