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Bird Life and Behavior

Q. Where do our hummingbirds go when they leave in the fall?

The simple answer to this is south. While that may seem like I’m being a bit corny, it isn’t that far from being the truth. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have a rather large known wintering range. Banding data shows that individuals may winter in the far southern tips of the U.S. all the way to far southern Central America. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, just over half of the world’s population winters in Mexico.

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Q. I get Poison Ivy but I’ve heard it is a good plant for birds. Should I cut it out of the woods behind my house?

You have heard correctly, Poison Ivy is an excellent plant for birds and other wildlife. It is an important food source for many migrating species in the fall. I have seen several species of warblers feeding on the little white berries. If it isn’t in an area where you are likely to come in contact with it, learn to identify it and simply avoid it.

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Q. When do the grackle return?

While we have a few grackle around here all winter, most do migrate further south. We tend to start seeing them in larger numbers in early March. When battling these pests your two greatest tools are safflower and the grackles’ size. Grackle in particular seem to really dislike Safflower and good caged feeders are wide enough to keep them away from the seed. Though they sometimes figure them out, weighted feeders like the Squirrel Buster Plus can be effective against them as well. Don’t forget, while most of us find them to be a pest, they are a native species thus protected by law.

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Q. I haven’t seen nearly as many robins or bluebirds this winter. Where are they? (WINTER 2008)

Robin and bluebirds are both dependent on fruit during the winter months. The Easter freeze this past spring really took its toll on fruiting plants. My guess is that both of these species as well as waxwings have had to move around a lot this winter to find suitable supplies of berries to survive.

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Q: Where have all of my woodpeckers gone? (FALL 2008)

As I almost always do with this kind of question, I look to what kind of summer we have had and what the natural food supply is like going into winter. The cool, wet summer has really produced a bountiful natural food supply and birds are reacting to that. Many woodpeckers, especially Red-headeds are driven by acorn supplies and will sometimes concentrate in areas where they are heavy. Rest assured that when times get tougher (low temperatures, ice, snow) they will be at your feeders just as often as any year.

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Q. What are the big hawks I see sitting along the highways these days? (FALL 2008)

Plain and simple, almost all of them are Red-tailed Hawks. They can range from very light to almost black in color. Each fall we see the push of hawks into our area as weather conditions get worse in their northern breeding grounds. It was amazing to see the, seemingly overnight, arrival of hawks recently. Do you think it was merely a coincidence that it happened right after the blizzard in the Dakotas?

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Q. Could I have seen an albino sparrow at my feeder?

As the photo here shows, we do see albino birds of various species from time to time in our area. Because albinism is a rare genetic trick that happens in wildlife (and humans) we tend to see it in the more common species. The greater the number of birds, the greater the chance for rarities to show up. I have seen albino robins, grackles, House Sparrows and much to my surprise one day, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Even more frequently than pure albinos, we often see partial albinos. Albinism can be limited to just a couple of feathers or large patches like the entire head or wing.

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Q. I have been seeing a cardinal with no feathers on his head. Is he going to be ok?

The short answer is yes. While experts aren't exactly sure why this happens, they do believe it is rarely harmful. Most believe that it is a part of the natural molting process that for some reason in a few individuals goes a little wrong and they lose all their head feathers at once instead of the typical "few at a time" pattern. Because it occurs in late summer and early fall, weather is not a factor. In some cases, the feather loss can be caused by a lice or mite infestation. In both cases, feather growth is seen rather quickly and the birds seem to do just fine.

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