Some bluebirds stick around Minnesota in the winter

Q: Walking through a large metro nature area, I thought I saw a bluebird around Christmastime. I’m still trying to figure that one out.

A: You certainly could have seen an Eastern bluebird that late in the year, since not all bluebirds migrate away in the fall. Most Christmas Bird Counts for our area report a few bluebirds each December and bird-watchers sometimes report groups of these beautiful birds throughout the winter. They’re hardy little thrushes and as long as they can find food (usually berries in this season) and water to drink, they manage to survive our harsh conditions.

Winter hummingbirds?

Q: What’s the latest that a hummingbird has been seen in Minnesota? I think I saw one around Halloween, which seems late.

A: I assume you mean ruby-throated hummingbirds, the species we see in summer and fall in Minnesota. Ruby-throats begin to migrate south as early as mid-August, and most have left the state by the end of September, although in most years we see stragglers well into October. It’s difficult to pinpoint “latest” dates, but “Birds in Minnesota” by Robert Janssen lists a ruby-throat in Winona on Nov. 14, 2012.

Other hummingbird species sometimes appear during winter months in Minnesota: For instance, Laura Erickson, Duluth’s renowned birder, radio host and author, hosted a rufous hummingbird at her nectar feeders from early November to Dec. 4 last year. This is primarily a Western bird that breeds as far north as Alaska, but there are other records of them in Minnesota, including at Erickson’s feeders in 2004. Scientists are still puzzling out what causes such “walkabouts” in some hummingbirds.

Pigeon problems

Q: I’m a snowbird with a second home in Arizona, where I enjoy feeding the quail, partridges, grackles and finches. But I’m having a severe problem with pigeons — they hang out at the nearby mall, then come in and overwhelm the feeders. I saw a device online that is said to drive pigeons away. What do you think about this approach?

A: I’m sorry to hear that rock pigeons are hogging your feeders and keeping more desirable birds away. I looked up the product you mentioned and I think it would be a waste of money. The manufacturer’s claim, that it produces “a sonic frequency specifically tuned to the auditory spectrum of the pigeon” makes no sense. Pigeons don’t have their own sonic frequency, and any high-frequency sound that would drive them away would drive off other birds, too.

This is a challenging situation, and I’d generally recommend being vigilant about sweeping up seed that fell to the ground to discourage pigeons, and using only feeders that pigeons can’t access. But the birds you want to attract are primarily ground feeders, too, so they’d stop coming around when ground gleanings disappeared. You may have to focus on feeding some of the other birds native to your area: There are several species of hummingbirds that might visit, and the tiny verdin, related to chickadees, might stop in for nectar, too. Flickers are attracted to suet, as are ladder-backed woodpeckers. House finches and lesser goldfinches would brighten anybody’s day.

No-mess feeding

Q: I love to feed the backyard birds, but I’m getting so tired of sweeping and raking up all those sunflower shells. Any advice?

B. I understand perfectly: Birds love black-oiler sunflower seeds, but these leave a big mess under feeders. An easy fix is to offer shelled sunflower seeds, often called sunflower hearts, and these leave absolutely no mess. You’ll want to adjust your feeder’s dome or roof so birds no larger than cardinals can reach this highly desirable seed, so larger birds don’t dominate the feeders. Sunflower hearts are a good solution for condo and apartment dwellers, because there’s no debris to attract rodents. Just remember to check the feeder after a rain or snowfall and discard any wet seed.

Birds asleep

Q: Now that it’s so cold at night it causes me to wonder about the birds — where do they sleep?

A: That’s a good question, because a bird’s choice of a place to roost is important in helping it make it through long winter nights. In our area, birds that nest in cavities, like woodpeckers and nuthatches, will sleep at night inside tree holes or even summer’s nest boxes. Chickadees bed down in tree cavities or other protected spots, and can lower their body temperature to conserve energy. Cardinals roost near the trunk of dense evergreens or deep tangles of deciduous shrubs. House sparrows may roost on buildings or signage, or in shrubbery or brush piles. Blue jays and goldfinches huddle within dense evergreens, and juncos head for evergreen trees or shrubs or dense wild grass clumps. One winter morning I observed a junco emerging from a snow cave formed by a neighbor’s rain gutter and roof.

Tree killers?

Q: On a nature walk in a forest the naturalist pointed out an explosion of tree bark and wood, and said that was the work of a pileated woodpecker. I’m wondering whether these woodpeckers kill the trees they peck on.

A: Good question, and even though it sometimes looks as if a snag in the forest has been exploded by a bomb, pileated woodpeckers rarely damage healthy trees. I checked with Lee Frelich, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Forest Ecology, and he confirmed that these big woodpeckers don’t kill trees. Instead, they excavate cavities in dead or dying trees to extract insects, their favorite being carpenter ants. They drill nest holes in trees with at least some heart rot, because even their large beaks have to work too hard to chip into living wood.

“Woodpeckers become more abundant in older forests with numerous standing dead trees as well as after disturbances like fires, wind storms or ice storms that snap off trees and create standing dead trees,” Frelich says. They’re part of the natural function of the forest and the holes they make can later be used by a variety of other wildlife species.

Tropical trip?

Q: Some friends and I want to take a winter trip to see tropical birds in a warm setting. We’re thinking about Costa Rica or Belize, does this seem like a good plan?

A: Even in these pandemic-restricted times, tour companies are still offering birding tours to warm places, and seem to be taking all the recommended precautions. Many bird-watchers head for Costa Rica, with its many different habitats, and Belize is an excellent choice, too. Don’t forget about Panama, either, as there are fine ecolodges in this country that offer excellent bird-watching. For any of these countries, it makes sense to sign up for a tour, then you can forget about logistics and just bask in the warmth and beautiful birds.

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 protected].