Birding Q&A from Audubon North Carolina. Audubon North Carolina protects our birds and the places they need. Learn more at nc.audubon.org.
January and February
Q. What’s that little yellow bird at my feeder?
A. It’s probably a Pine Warbler. Males are bright yellow in front. Adult females are also yellow in front, but less bright. Both sexes have white wing bars on gray wings and white bellies. From beak tip to tail tip, they’re around five and a half inches long. Several other warbler species are possible in North Carolina in the winter, and are appearing more frequently inland. Share your mystery-bird photos at www.facebook.com/audubonnc/.
Q: What’s that tiny gray bird at my feeder?
A. Several small gray birds are likely to join your usual titmice and chickadees at the suet on the coldest days of the year. Suet is of course high in fat, which is exactly what small songbirds need to survive very cold nights. You might see a first-year female Pine Warbler, similar to the adults described above, but very plain-looking and gray. But the truly tiny greenish-gray birds you could see in winter are both kinglets—our smallest birds next to hummingbirds. The Ruby-crowned Kinglet is all gray except for distinctive white eye markings, a white wing-bar, and—in excited males only—a brilliant ruby-red crest. The Golden-crowned Kinglet always shows a striped face and crest. Both males and females have the golden crest, though it’s larger and more noticeable on males.
Q: What’s that rusty, streaked bird eating seeds on the ground?
A. If it’s the shape and size of a large sparrow—about like a White-throated Sparrow— it’s a Fox Sparrow. The Fox Sparrow winters across North Carolina and is more likely to visit urban and suburban yards when there’s snow on the ground. From the top, its head is gray and rust, its back is striped in rust and gray, and its front is bold rusty streaks on a white breast and belly. Another rusty, streaked bird you could see is the Brown Thrasher, which is slender and long-tailed. With its staring yellow eyes, it’s much more reptilian-looking than the dapper Fox Sparrow.
November and December
Q. I’ve heard I should keep fallen leaves in my backyard to help birds, is this true?
A. Leaving some leaves on the ground can be a big benefit to wildlife and your garden. Many butterfly and moth species spend the winter as pupae in leaf litter. If you rake and throw away all of your leaves, you could be getting rid of these beneficial and beautiful insects. Butterfly and moth caterpillars are a critically important food source for birds in the spring when they are feeding their babies. If you do choose to get rid of fallen leaves, try to avoid leaf blowers. Using a rake will allow you to get some good exercise and hear the birds chirping around you.
Q: Should I leave my birdbath out as the weather gets colder?
A. If possible, we recommend winterizing bird baths for the colder months and leaving them out. Unfortunately, not all bird baths can make it through the winter. In general, solar, ceramic and concrete bird baths as well as any baths with delicate glass styles or complicated mosaics should be put away during the winter. Plastic, fiberglass and metal bird baths are usable year-round. To winterize your bird bath, first empty and clean it thoroughly. Next, move it to a sunny area so it will stay unfrozen for longer. You can then add a dark plastic plate or sheet of black, plastic trash bag to the bottom of the basin to help absorb more solar energy. You can also add a tennis ball to float in the bath, which helps break up the ice as it forms.
Q: How can I keep birds from flying into my windows?
A. In the right light, windows can turn into mirrors, reflecting the sky and vegetation. To keep birds from flying into your windows, hang blinds or curtains to let in light while breaking up the reflection, and move indoor plants away from problem windows. Outside, hang shiny objects in front of the window, or cover the window with netting or anything to make it visible. You can even buy decals with a special coating that reflects ultraviolet light, making it look blue to birds but clear to humans. Sometimes, birds hit windows as they flee from feeders when frightened. Moving feeders more than 25 feet from a window can often help in this situation.
September and October
Q. I’ve been seeing giant flocks of birds coming out of our neighbor’s chimney. What’s going on?
A. You’re probably seeing a flock of Chimney Swifts. Chimney Swifts used to roost in hollow trees or caves, but as those have disappeared, they adapted to chimneys. Sadly, populations are decreasing steeply as chimneys are capped or removed, leaving fewer places for swifts to nest and raise their young. To support swifts, you can keep your chimney open, report any nesting or roosting Chimney Swifts you see, or construct a Chimney Swift tower of your own.
Q. When should I take down my hummingbird feeder?
A. North Carolina hummingbird expert Susan Campbell now recommends keeping hummingbird feeders up all winter long. Some western hummingbirds winter in North Carolina, so you might get lucky and host one. Campbell says it’s a myth that keeping feeders up in the fall will prevent our Ruby-throated Hummingbirds from migrating; they will go when they are ready.
Q. What plants are bad for birds, and when is a good time to remove them?
A. Removing invasive plants is essential to creating a bird-friendly backyard. This fall, go on an invasive plant hunt and eliminate wicked weeds like English ivy, Japanese stilt grass, autumn olive, and Chinese privet from your yard. Re-introduce native plants like Shenandoah switch grass, aromatic aster and blue-eyed grass into the ground.
July and August
Q. Since nesting season is coming to an end, is it safe to mow my yard or field?
A. Ideally, fields should not be mowed until late July or early August. If you need to mow during nesting season, we recommend mowing in alternating rotations to leave adequate areas in higher grasses at any given time. If you’re able, walk around regularly and watch for where birds are flying to and from their nests – then plan your mowing around them. If you can plan for at least one six-week period between May 1 and August 1 where you have no mowing, you can help grassland nesting birds complete their nesting cycle. And one songbird, the American Goldfinch, is just starting to nest in August, so make sure to look out for them in your weedy borders.
Q. I was vacationing with my family and we saw some areas on the beach closed off for birds. What is that for?
A. Birds like Royal Terns and Piping Plovers lay tiny, barely-visible eggs in little “scrapes” in the sand. Since nesting season can start as early as March for North Carolina’s coastal birds, nesting areas are enclosed so beachgoers don’t accidentally step on a nest. Signage and string are needed because even though humans usually don’t intend to harm birds, even coming too close to a nesting area will cause the parent birds to flush (fly away), leaving eggs or chicks exposed to the elements and predators.
Q. I have always had no less than 10-16 hummingbirds visit my feeders. This year, I’ve only had 3. What happened?
A. We always get a lot of concern this time of year regarding hummingbirds. Males are completing their mating duties and starting to defend feeders from other males. Females have begun nesting, so they are sitting on their eggs most of the day. There could also be a downturn in hummingbirds in your area for the time being, but you should begin to see your hummingbirds again shortly.
May and June
Q: I’ve noticed a bird building its nest with snakeskin. What else do birds use to build their nests?
A: Snakeskins are used during nest building to scare off predators. Great-crested Flycatchers, for instance, will often drape a snakeskin on the outside of their nest cavity as well as weave part of it into the nest itself. Other seemingly unusual things some species of birds use to make nests include lichen, mud, and spider webs. You will also see nests built with twigs or sticks, dead leaves, yarn or thread, moss, feathers and more – so don’t be too quick to clean your backyard on the weekend.
Q: Where do birds go when it rains?
A: Most birds are actually waterproof. They have an oil gland at the base of their tail and when combined with their feathers, it keeps them pretty watertight. The inner insulating layers of down feathers are kept dry and able to be fluffed up with air, holding in body heat. Most land birds will keep feeding if the rain is not too heavy or cold due to this protection. However, many songbirds will perch motionless and conserve energy when it’s raining rather than fly. They’ll sit out the storm under the cover of a tree or if they’re small enough, under a leaf.
Q: What can I do about sparrows or other birds nesting on or in my house?
A: The best way to stop non-native species such as House Sparrows and European Starlings from nesting in your gutters, vents or other openings is to block any possible nest holes using boards or other safe physical barriers. Of course, we hope you’ll welcome some birds into your home – like Chimney Swifts. Chimney Swifts are in steep decline, and the chimneys where they nest and roost are rapidly disappearing as old chimneys are capped or torn down. You can learn how to build your own Chimney Swift tower at nc.audubon.org/news/build-your-own-chimney-swift-tower.
March and April
Q. Is it okay to give birds dryer lint during nesting season? What else can I provide?
A. Dryer lint isn’t ideal, as it’s composed of torn fibers that can fall apart easily when wet. Instead, let your yard do the work for you. Leave feathers, pine needles, bark strips, dead twigs, and leaves on the ground. Give yourself a break from lawn mowing for a few weeks: dry grass that hasn’t been treated with pesticides is great for birds’ nests. You can leave any of these materials in piles on the ground, draped over vegetation, in clean wire-mesh suet cages or mesh bags hung on tree trunks, or even in crevices of trees.
Q. I found a baby bird, what do I do?
A. It is quite common for chicks to venture from their nest before they are capable of flight, or the parent birds may have ejected the baby bird because it is time to leave the nest. Young birds may be seen scrambling around low branches of shrubs and trees, or hopping on the ground calling for their parents to feed them. The parents still take care of the chick during this time, so be patient and observe the baby bird for a minute or two; you’ll probably see the parents swoop down to feed it. If a nearby animal is clearly watching a chick, you can try to shoo the animal away and herd the chick off to some nearby shrubbery where it may find protection. Placing a chick back in its nest is not recommended. If you’re out of options, you can locate a licensed wildlife rehabilitator at www.ncwildlife.org/Injured-Wildlife.
Q. What are some bird-friendly plants I can add to my yard this planting season?
A. Native plants that occur naturally to your area are the best bet for birds, especially those that produce berries in the fall. There are literally hundreds of options to choose from when adding bird-friendly native plants. To start, contact your local plant nursery and ask about our “2018 Bird-Friendly Plants of the Year,” including creeping phlox, sweet azalea, wild quinine, and star tickseed. For more ideas, visit nc.audubon.org/birdfriendlynativeplantslists.
Audubon North Carolina protects our birds and the places they need. Learn more at nc.audubon.org.