Birding Q&A from Audubon North Carolina. Audubon North Carolina protects our birds and the places they need. Learn more at nc.audubon.org.
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.
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.
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.
March and April
Q. A bird is attacking my car mirrors and windows. Why, and how can I stop it?
A. Northern Cardinals, Northern Mockingbirds and American Robins often attack mirrors and windows this time of year. The concentration of hormones in male birds increases dramatically during breeding season which can cause a ferocious defense of their territory. Certain species seem more prone to being “fooled” by their reflection in windows, thinking it is a rival in their territory. The solution is to eliminate the reflective properties of glass by covering the window or mirror on the outside. Anything attached to the inside of the window may reduce reflectivity, but not eliminate it. You may have to cover the window for a week or more. Simple solutions include screens, decals or tape, or shutters.
Q: A bird is nesting on my front porch. What should I do?
A. While native bird nests, eggs and babies are protected by law and cannot be moved or destroyed, European Starlings and House Sparrows are not protected and you may legally remove them from your home or building. Native birds who frequently choose to build nests on porches and decks include House Finches, Eastern Phoebes, American Robins, Carolina Wrens, and Barn Swallows. These birds are protected and beneficial, so once they are nesting they should be left alone and given as much space as possible. Their eggs are only in the nest for two weeks before they hatch, and then the young are only in the nest for two more weeks after that. Be sure to remove the nest and clean the area after the birds are gone.
Q: A mockingbird is dive-bombing me every time I leave my house. What can I do?
Mockingbirds are notorious for making nests in bushes or small trees near sidewalks, then dive-bombing pedestrians thinking they are in their territory and a threat to their nest. If this is happening for the first time, and a nest has already been made, you may have to avoid the area for about a month until the young have left the nest. Mockingbirds don’t usually re-use their nests, but may return the following year to the same shrub or tree. If you notice the bird return the following year, you can try to discourage it from nesting with wind chimes, hanging metal strips, or repeated squirting with a ‘super-soaker’ squirt gun.
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.
May and June
Q: What is that bird singing by my window at night?
A: In the spring and early summer, a likely culprit is the male Northern Mockingbird, who will sing at night while his mate is incubating eggs. He usually stops once the eggs hatch. The reasons behind the nightly serenading aren’t fully understood, but it may be related to pair-bonding and territorial display. Bright street and house lights could also be part of the cause by fooling the bird into thinking it’s still daylight. Other night-singers include the Northern Bobwhite and Eastern Screech-Owl, but their calls are less persistent and more uniform than mockingbirds. Two other nocturnal singers are the Whip-poor-will and Chuck-will’s-widow, both insect-eating members of the nightjar family that sing at night to proclaim their territory and maintain pair-bonds with a mate. And don’t be fooled by frogs, toads, and the multitude of insects that make noise once the sun goes down.
Q: Why is a woodpecker pecking my house and what can I do about it?
A: Male woodpeckers sometimes pound on chimneys, gutters, window shutters and other hard surfaces on the outside of a home as a way to advertise their turf to other woodpeckers. This territorial behavior mostly occurs during courtship and nesting and often takes place in the morning, which can be inconvenient if you’re still sleeping. But if you notice physical damage to your home because of a woodpecker, it might rather be due to a woodpecker pursuing food. These insect eaters might be trying to extract carpenter bees, ants or termites from your home. Territorial drumming from a woodpecker rarely results in damage to a home. How you react to a woodpecker at your house depends on which behavior the bird is displaying. If the bird is eating insects, the best remedy is to remove the food source and repair the damage. If the woodpecker’s pecking is territorial, you can try draping plastic, aluminum foil or netting over the area. Hanging pie pans and balloons may also help scare away the bird. Non-moving objects such as scarecrows may work at first, but birds quickly acclimate to their presence and may return.
Q: When is it safe to remove nests around buildings?
A: Most songbirds use the same nest only once and will build a new one before they lay eggs. Once chicks have hatched and left the nest, you can safely remove the nest and clean the site without fear of harming the birds. Some birds will nest more than once throughout the spring and summer. By removing their nests (once the young have fledged), you are increasing the likelihood of more nests being built around your property. There’s a notable exception, though: the Brown-headed Nuthatch sometimes lays a second batch of eggs immediately after the first batch of babies leave the nest. If you’ve got a Brown-headed Nuthatch nest, wait until fall to remove it. Removing an active nest that has eggs or young is illegal because the birds are protected by federal law. The few exceptions to this rule are a handful of species that aren’t native to the U.S.—House Sparrows, Starlings, and Pigeons.
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.
July and August
Q. I found a bird that looks sick or injured. What should I do?
A. It’s understandable that most people’s initial reaction is to help the bird, but you should exercise extreme caution. State and federal law protects wild birds and it is illegal to possess them. If the animal is a bird of prey, its talons are capable of puncturing skin and muscle, even through clothing. Great care is required when handling raptors, which makes this task best left to those licensed in wildlife rehabilitation.
All other bird species, even if they’re not birds of prey, should be approached with the same degree of vigilance. Herons and egrets, for example, possess long pointed bills to snatch fish from water and when confronted by a predator they will strike toward the eyes of a perceived enemy. They use their long sharp bills as defensive weapons not because they are mean animals, but because they are scared and protecting themselves. This is why it is prudent, if you find an injured or sick bird, that you contact the closest wildlife rehabilitation center before you attempt to help the bird. Remember that permits are required in order to legally handle or keep wild birds.
Q: I found a baby bird that must have fallen out of the nest. What should I do?
A. As a general rule, it’s important to avoid interfering with nests or chicks. It is quite common for chicks to venture from their nest before they are capable of flight. During this fledging period, young birds scramble around low branches of shrubs and trees, and may end up 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.
However, if a chick is in imminent danger, such as hopping around on the ground while being stalked by a nearby cat or dog, there are actions you can take. Try to shoo the animal away and “herd” the chick off to some nearby shrubbery where it may find protection. It is a myth that parent birds will abandon a chick if they smell your scent on it. However, if you do touch a chick, your scent rubs off on it, making the chick more easily detected by predators. You may be tempted to place a chick back in a nest, but this is not recommended. The bird may have left the nest on its own accord, or the parent birds may have ejected it because it is time for it to leave, or the chick may be sick and thus pose a threat to its siblings.
Q: What can I build to help birds on my property?
A. The easiest things to construct are feeders and houses. Species have specific requirements for things like the interior size of the nest box and, most importantly, the diameter of the entry hole. But another simple project that can benefit birds is to build brush piles for the winter months, especially in a corner of the yard or near your feeding station if you have one. These simple piles can protect birds from predators, give them a sense of safety to approach your feeders and provide shelter from inclement weather. You could also add water features to your yard, as you can attract just as many species with water as you can with food or shelter. For a bigger project, try a Chimney Swift tower.
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.
Audubon North Carolina protects our birds and the places they need. Learn more at nc.audubon.org.