Q: I see turkeys on my block on a regular basis, which seems odd, since I never used to see them. They’re such big birds, could they harm humans, especially kids?
A: Turkeys are large birds and there are reports of aggression toward humans in some instances and at certain times of the year. But first, let’s consider that at the turn of the last century, turkeys were extremely rare, due to loss of forests and over-hunting. Regulation, tree planting and reintroduction of wild birds brought us to the present day, when there are something like 7 million wild turkeys in the U.S. They’re highly adaptable and can live in many different settings, but are always happy to find bird feeders to forage beneath. Males can be aggressive in spring and especially in the fall, when they seek to establish their pecking order, or hierarchy. Wildlife experts warn not to feed turkeys, so they don’t gather in large numbers in neighborhoods and don’t start to regard humans as part of their flock (who need to be put in their place).
Turkeys in trees?
Q: This morning there were two hen turkeys in my oak tree, eating something, maybe acorns. We’ve had turkeys in the area for years, but this is the first time I’ve seen them perching in a tree. Is this usual?
A: Wild turkeys are big fans of acorns, but it’s a rare oak that still has any attached this late in the season. There might be a vine running around the branches, offering berries to the turkeys, or they might be eating leaf buds. It’s not at all unusual for turkeys to perch in trees, and in fact, they sleep in trees at night.
Q: Is woodpecker sight less keen than that of songbirds? I ask because I can often walk up to within 2 feet of the suet feeder while woodpeckers are feeding on it, and they only fly away if I keep moving. Chickadees, on the other hand, never stay put if I approach their feeder.
A: That’s an excellent observation, and I see similar behaviors at my own peanut and suet feeders. The woodpeckers in my backyard exhibit a range of what might be called fearlessness: Downy woodpeckers are the most likely to just scuttle around to another side of the feeder as I approach, and hairy woodpeckers will stay put until I get within about 5 feet. Red-bellied woodpeckers seem the most averse to human encroachment and depart almost as soon as they spot a human. Woodpeckers don’t see less well than other birds, but some seem to become fairly tolerant of humans if they encounter us on a regular basis.
Telling owls apart
Q: You recently wrote about barred owls, a species I’ve never seen. If I spot a large owl up in a tree, how can I tell if it’s a barred or a great horned owl?
A: Barred owls are more elusive than great horned owls, and I heard from a number of readers who stated that they’ve never seen this species. If you see a large owl perched in a tree, check the top of its head — if it has feather tufts that look like ears, then it’s a great horned owl (screech owls have the same feature, but these owls are much smaller). To nail it down, if the owl has brown eyes and no tufts, it’s almost surely a barred owl. Great horned owls, like most other owls, have yellow eyes.
Q: How come I don’t see nuthatches in the winter?
A: White-breasted nuthatches are small gray and white birds that are with us year-round, but many of us don’t notice them at this time of year. They’re less vocal in winter, so may escape our notice as they silently move down a tree trunk in search of insects or food they’ve stored in bark crevices. Nuthatches are paired up year-round, and forage across a permanent territory, so if you spot this bird once, you should be able to see it again. They regularly visit feeders for seed, suet and peanuts, as well.
Q: Some time ago you had a recipe for making a bird suet cake with peanut butter. Could you run that again?
A: Here’s that recipe for a treat for birds, but use it only in cold weather; it will melt in summer:
1 cup lard, suet, butter or bacon grease
1 cup peanut butter
2 cups quick oats
2 cups yellow cornmeal
1 cup flour
1/3 cup sugar
Melt shortening with peanut butter, then, off the heat, add the other ingredients, along with anything else that seems appropriate (bird seed, raisins, chopped nuts, etc.). Spread in a pan, let the mixture cool, then cut in chunks and freeze. This can be offered in a suet cage or platform feeder.
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 email@example.com.