Frequently Asked Questions
We get a lot of questions. Many of the questions we receive fall into a few basic categories, so we decided to assemble this page with answers to some of the more common questions.
We gratefully acknowledge the information provided by the wildbirds.com website for some of the information on this page.
A bird keeps attacking my windows. Why?
Why is that woodpecker pecking at my house?
How do Turkey Vultures find their food?
Where do birds go in the summer?
Why do I notice birds on the wires in the fall and winter, but not in the spring or summer?
Conservation and bird safety
Feeding wild birds
Nests and Nesting
One of the leading causes of death for wild birds is flying into glass windows. A study conducted by Daniel Klem Jr. at Muhlenberg College, estimated that 97 million birds die each year in the U.S. as the result of collisions with windows. Tall buildings that relied heavily on large sheets of glass surface were especially hazardous.
Birds see a reflection of the outdoors in the window and do not realize they are flying into a solid object. The end result is a stunned bird or a bird with a broken neck.
During the spring, birds will appear to attack windows. They are really defending their territory from the "other" bird they see reflected in the window. They lunge at the "other bird" and peck it, trying to drive it away.
To solve the window-kill problem, we need to tell the birds that there is a solid object in their path. This can be done from the inside or from the outside. We can also reduce the problem by moving the birds farther away from the window.
Your windows are acting like mirrors when your house is dark. Turn on lights inside your house. Otherwise, they will only see their own reflection or the reflection of the trees behind them. You want the birds to be able to see into your house. Altering drapes or blinds may also help reduce the reflection. Adding curtains to a window on the other side of the room might remove the "tunnel" birds see when looking straight through your house.
You can reduce collisions by placing screen, netting or strips of cloth outside your windows as a warning. Hawk decals will work, but only if you use a lot of them as a way to turn an invisible window into a "solid wall". Actually any decal or paper cutout would work. One or two big hawk decals are useless.
If you live in an area with lots of migrating birds, you may want to put up a barrier in front of your windows for a week or two while they are passing through.
Go outside and look at your windows. Check in the early morning, at noon and at dusk. Imagine you are a bird. Can you see your own reflection or the reflection of the trees behind you? Would you know there was a window in your way?
If a hawk swoops down on your bird feeder, all the birds will scatter as fast as possible. Some may fly directly into your window! By moving the feeder farther away from the window, the birds stand a better chance of surviving. Why not plant a thick evergreen near the feeder so the birds have someplace to hide.
Why is that woodpecker pecking at my house?
Woodpeckers are making that racket outside your bedroom window to attract a mate. Drumming also tells other male woodpeckers "This is my territory - keep out."
Woodpeckers like to hammer on wooden shingles, metal gutters, television antennas and light posts because these materials produce loud, hollow sounds.
Drumming is most common during the early morning and late afternoon. Male woodpeckers start drumming in April and usually stop by early July.
Woodpeckers can be very persistent and are not easily driven from selected territories or pecking sites. Any control effort should be started as soon as the problem begins, before their territories are well established. Feeding them will probably not have any effect on the drumming and may simply encourage them to come to your house instead of the neighbor's house.
Owl images generally are unsuccessful for frightening woodpeckers. Hawk silhouette mobiles are more successful frightening devices.
Woodpeckers are protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act as migratory, nongame birds. Some species are also protected by state laws. You cannot shoot them!
Occasionally the woodpecker will make a hole in your eaves.To prevent further damage to wood beneath the eaves, plastic bird netting can be installed from the gutter angled back to the siding below the damaged area. You might want to provide an alternate nest box nearby for the woodpecker.
Sapsuckers drill many holes around a tree trunk then come back and eat the bugs trapped in the sap. This can sometimes kill the tree. We have not heard of an effective solution to the problem.
Northern Mockingbirds are also noisy -- and they sing most of the year, from February to August, and again from late September to early November, when winter territories are being established. They often sing at night.
Q: How do Turkey Vultures find their food?
They have very keen senses of sight, smell and hearing. They find food by sight and also by an extremely acute sense of smell which is capable of detecting parts per trillion and discerning from which direction they came.
Turkey vultures have a highly developed sense of smell, something most birds don't have, including other vulture species. They often depend on the odors given off by decaying flesh for locating food. Interesting studies and observations have been made regarding the turkey vulture's sense of smell, in fact, a debate on this topic lasted over a century. Even today, there is still some argument on the subject. Some researchers thought turkey vultures relied on vision (which they do, to some extent) and/or hearing. Two separate studies, however, seem to indicate that smell is the preferred mechanism for finding food.
Other interesting evidence of the turkey vulture's ability to smell
comes to us, of all places, from the natural gas industry. A retired
engineer for Union Oil stated his company used turkey vultures to find gas leaks. Natural gas has no odor, but a substance is added to the gas so that leaks can be detected in pipelines, stoves, or furnaces. This substance, called ethyl mercaptan, is one of the chemicals emitted from carrion and thus attracts turkey vultures. Union Oil Engineers were sometimes able to find pipeline leaks by looking for turkey vultures circling above the gas lines!While higher-tech methods are usually used these days to locate such leaks, some animals are still utilized.
Q: Baltimore Orioles visit me every spring but they leave. Why don't they stay all summer?
Baltimore Orioles do remain in our area all summer, but once they nest, they are much less apparent. New Jersey is in the heart of their breeding territory.
In the spring they are so driven by the need to continue their
lineage that this need supercedes even the need for self-preservation. They become very conspicuous and will sit and sing out in the open to attract a mate, even though this behavior puts them at risk of attack by predators (cats, owls, hawks, etc.)
Once mating and nest-building are complete, however, things change drastically. The birds' primary concern becomes preservation, not only of themselves but of their nestlings. They are much less conspicuous, and they don't sing -- they blend in with their surroundings to better survive.
Q: Why do I notice birds on the wires in the fall and winter, but not in the spring or summer?
In spring and summer, the birds' main focus is on pairing, nesting and raising young. This is a more solitary activity. Once the chicks are fledged, the birds return to the safety of the large group, which offers protection from predators.
Q: I'm afraid my neighbor's cat will kill wild birds.
There are about 66 million cats in the United States. 40 million are free to roam outside. This is not good news if you are a bird!
Cats are not a natural part of the ecosystem and compete with native predators.
Extensive studies show that approximately 60 to 70 percent of the wildlife cats kill are small mammals, 20 to 30 percent are birds, and up to 10 percent are amphibians, reptiles, and insects.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin coupled a four-year cat predation study with data from other studies, and predicted a range of values for the number of birds killed each year in the state. By estimating the number of free-ranging cats in rural areas, the number of kills per cat, and the proportion of birds killed, the researchers calculated that rural free-roaming cats kill at least 7.8 million birds and perhaps as many as 217 million birds a year in Wisconsin.
Well-fed Cats Do Kill Birds. Well-fed cats kill birds and other wildlife because the hunting instinct is independent of the urge to eat. In one study, six cats were presented with a live small rat while eating their preferred food. All six cats stopped eating the food, killed the rat, and then resumed eating the food.
Cats With Bells on Their Collars Do Kill Birds. Studies have shown that bells on collars are not effective in preventing cats from killing birds or other wildlife. Birds do not necessarily associate the sound of a bell with danger, and cats with bells can learn to silently stalk their prey. Bells offer no protection for helpless nestlings and fledglings.
Cats are not ultimately responsible for killing our native wildlife--people are. The only way to prevent domestic cat predation on wildlife is for owners to keep their cats indoors! To read more, click here.
Q: What is the eye disease I've noticed in my House Finches?
There is an epidemic of conjunctivitis, an eye disease, in House Finches. Scientists first cited incidents of the disease around 1994. The eyes emit a discharge, they get cloudy, and finally the birds are blinded. One of the causes of the disease's spread, unfortunately, is a lack of regular cleaning of feeders. Birds congregate there, pushing their heads into tube feeder portals, where the germs are rubbed onto the feeder, then onto the next feeding bird.
Data from "citizen science" projects like the Great Backyard Bird Count indicate that the epidemic may be waning, but that's anecdotal evidence and not hard fact.
Feeders should be cleaned with every refill. Rinsing with a weak (90/10) bleach solution is supposed to disinfect the feeder sufficiently. The feeders should also be completely dry before refilling.
There are also some reports of Blue Jays having the same affliction.
For more information, visit the Website for the National Center for Infectious Diseases. They have a page dedicated to information on this disease.
Q: What type of seed attracts the most birds?
Offer a variety of seed for a variety of birds.
Different types of birds eat different types of birdseed. Birds with big, strong bills can crack the shells of large seeds, like striped or black oil sunflower. Birds with smaller bills eat smaller seeds, like milo or safflower seed. The American Goldfinch, our state bird, eats tiny seeds called Niger (or thistle) seed.
Mixed seed in a feeder can attract a variety of different birds, from Northern Cardinals, to the beautiful gray Tufted Titmouse, to the chattery little Carolina Chickadee.
Offering other types of food increases the variety of birds you attract. Half an orange may attract the attention of a passing Baltimore Oriole, while a block of suet, rendered beef fat, attracts woodpeckers, nuthatches and Blue Jays.
Q: How do I attract birds to my yard?
If you want lots of birds to your yard, you'll need more than a few feeders. Feeders will attract birds, but if you want to keep them around, you have to offer them everything they need to survive - otherwise they'll eat at your place, then fly away.
Just like people, birds need three things to survive: food, water, and shelter.
Food. Bird feeders are a great start to attracting birds to your yard. In addition to mixed seed, be sure to put out sunflower seeds to attract titmice, woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, etc. Add a Niger (thistle) seed feeder for American Goldfinch, House Finch, Purple Finch and possibly even Pine Siskin and Common Redpoll in the winter (both uncommon). Many birds such as woodpeckers and nuthatches like beef suet, whether purchased as a suet cake or bought from the butcher and rendered at home. Planting tubular-shaped flowers can attract hummingbirds, which extract nectar from flowers with their long, thin bills. They also frequent feeders filled with a sugar-water solution.
Water. Birds need water not only to drink, but also to keep their feathers in top shape. A birdbath serves to provide water, but be sure to keep it clean. Birds are attracted to dripping or running water; most wild bird centers sell drippers, but a little creativity can turn a milk carton into a dripper for free.
Shelter. Birds need places to hide from predators and feel safe. Native plants, dead snags and piles of brush improve the habitat for wildlife and add a new dimension to gardening. To learn more about using native plants in your landscape visit a native plant nursery in your area.
Q: How can I attract hummingbirds to my yard?
Hummingbirds are fascinating to watch as they dart around the feeders. Males become very aggressive and try to drive away other hummingbirds.
The key to attracting hummingbirds is to get your feeders outside early in the season. Male hummingbirds arrive in our area around April 15 to stake their claims to territories. If you have food ready and waiting, you've made your yard an awfully attractive territory!
You might want to consider having more than one feeder in your yard to provide food for many "hummers" at the same time.
Feed hummingbirds a mixture of 1 part sugar and 4 parts water. Boil the water and then mix in the sugar. Let cool. You can store this mixture up to two weeks in your refrigerator. Change the liquid in your feeders every three days. Keep the feeders and tubes clean. Do not add red coloring to the liquid, as the dye can be toxic to hummingbirds.
Hummingbirds are attracted to red, so tie a red ribbon on the feeder or buy a feeder that is red. Bees are attracted to yellow, so do not buy a feeder with yellow plastic on it.
Feeders that are flat, enclosed saucers (birds sit on the perches) seem to be easier to keep clean than feeders with tubes (bird hovers while feeding).
You can plant flowers in your yard that attract hummingbirds. Red, tube shaped flowers are best. Try Trumpet Vine (Campsis), Cardinal Flower (Lobelia) or Honeysuckle (Loniceria). Check the Wild Birds website for more ideas.
Q: Can I catch avian flu from feeding wild birds?
Several calls to MCAS indicate that some people may be worried about catching bird flu from the wild birds at their feeders.
Sometimes even a shred of misinformation can get blown way out of proportion. Before you know it, people have stopped feeding wild birds.
Said Juan Lubroth of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization’s Animal Health Service, “To date, there is no scientific evidence that wildlife is a major factor in the resurgence of the disease in the region,” which, at the time, included China, Thailand and Vietnam.
Several sources, among them the World Health Organization and the National Wildlife Health Center, report that to date the disease has been mostly limited to flocks of domestic birds, primarily ducks and chickens. The Food and Agricultural Organization proposes that the primary factor in the spread of the disease has been “poor hygienic practices” by Asian poultry farmers. Human infections have been limited to people who were closely associated with poultry farming in the areas mentioned.
To date, the disease has not been found in any North American birds. Public health officials are keeping close tabs on birds that may migrate into the U.S. from infected areas, particularly across the Bering Strait.
The National Audubon Society agrees that Americans have little chance of getting bird flu from feeding wild birds. They do suggest periodically cleaning feeders anyway, since both people and birds can catch salmonella from dirty feeders. Clean feeders with soap and water and disinfect them with a 9-1 water-bleach solution.
The bird flu is certainly a serious issue, and we all hope health officials are taking the proper precautions to control it. There is no evidence, though, to suggest that people who feed wild birds need to worry more than anyone else.
The best place to find information on bird identification is your local library. Most libraries have copies of the Peterson Field Guide, Birds of the Eastern United States. This is a great place to start.
When you see an unfamiliar bird, start by noticing broad details. Is it a sparrow-like bird, or is it a woodpecker? This narrows down your research considerably. Note the bird's size: is it larger than a robin? Smaller than a sparrow? Make note of details of the bird's appearance. Break the bird down into body regions and take mental notes of each. Notice not only overall color but other details as well: a white eye ring; a forked tail; white outer tail feathers; wing bars, a conical bill; yellow legs. Then hit the books. If you amassed enough information, you should be able to make a fairly certain ID.
Also note the bird's habitat. Did you find it in your suburban back yard, or in the woods? If you discovered the bird in a wooded setting, was it singing at the top of the canopy, about halfway up, or at some other level? Clues like these provide important information.
Speaking of singing, there are some bird species that are almost indistinguishable from one another except by sound. Empidonaxflycatchers (includes Least, Willow, Alder and Acadian Flycatchers), for example, are nearly identical and can only be reliably identified by call. A good start to getting to know bird song is Dick Walton's Birding by Ear series of tapes or CDs.
Finally, take mental note of what the bird is doing. Is it scratching the ground? Flycatching? Pumping its tail? Walking head-first down a tree trunk? All these provide clues to identification.
Q: I see huge flocks of birds in the winter. What are they?
What you describe are European Starlings. In winter, Starlings stay in great big flocks on rooftops, along wires, in fields, anywhere there is room for a crowd. It's quite a sight when they all fly together, seemingly with one mind directing the entire flock. Scientists aren't quite sure how they do this, but why is a little easier - if they move together, they look like one large animal rather than thousands of little, vulnerable ones.
Starlings are extremely common birds and are most noticeable in flocks in the winter. In the summer they spend most of their time breeding, during which time they are much less conspicuous. They are non-native, having come from Europe.
Q: Why do birds fly south?
They follow the food!
While many of our birds do fly south for the winter, some hang around. Those that eat insects have to migrate, because there aren't a lot of insects around here in the winter. Those that eat berries and seeds can stay and enjoy the fruit produced by native plants (and, of course, the seed in your bird feeders). Those that stay include crows, robins, some bluebirds, woodpeckers and many sparrows.
Other birds, including quite a few species of waterfowl and some finches, spend their summers much further north, and they spend the winter in our area. Waterfowl such as Brant (a small goose) and Scaup (a gray and black duck) fly south until they find open, un-frozen water, where they winter in protected bays along the coast. They eat eelgrass in the shallow water - again, they follow the food. Next time you drive over a bridge near the coast, look for large flocks in quiet coves. The finches, too, follow the food. If fir trees in the far north fail to produce large crops of seed, the "winter finches," as they are sometimes called (such as Pine Siskins, Redpolls and Crossbills) fly south until they find an adequate food supply.
Q: I found a baby bird. What should I do?
The very best thing to do when you find a baby bird on the ground is to do nothing. Leave it alone. The parents are probably nearby and are feeding it.
Quite often young birds will leave the nest before they can fly. This is normal. These birds often end up on the ground. The baby bird can still move around and it can let its parents know where it is.
In fact, many birds are capable of walking and staying close to their mother almost from the moment they hatch. These species are called "precocial." They hatch with their eyes open and are down-covered. Quail, grouse, ducks, gulls, terns and shorebirds are precocial.
The opposite of precocial is altricial. These birds hatch in a helpless condition and depend on their parents. Robins, cardinals, bluebirds and most songbirds are altricial. These are the birds we usually discover on the ground.
If it is extremely obvious that a bird has fallen from a nest and is far too young to survive, you may place it back into the nest. If the nest blew down, place what is left of the nest and the babies in a small berry basket and hang it near the original nest. The parents may return to feed the young.
Handling a baby bird will not cause the parents to abandon it. Almost all birds have a very poor sense of smell. But raccoons, foxes and other predators have a very good sense of smell. You may be leaving a trail directly to the nest for these hungry animals.
We know you want to take the baby birds inside, put them in a warm box, feed them milk and bread with an eye-dropper and watch them grow up. Mother nature and the U.S. Government don't want you to do this. It is illegal (really!). Only licensed wildlife rehabilitators are authorized to handle wild birds.
If an entire nest blows down, you could try to put it back where it was. Beyond that, let nature take its course. You might also want to read about the life expectancy of birds.
Q: I found an egg on the ground. What should I do?
If you find an egg on the ground, chances are the nest was destroyed or something ate the other eggs. Snakes and raccoons are fond of bird eggs. Or it may be that a Brown-headed Cowbird laid her egg in another bird's nest. When the baby cowbird hatches it will push the other eggs out of the nest! It is virtually impossible to take an egg you find on the ground home and have it hatch.
Most songbirds will lay an egg a day. They sit on their eggs for 12-14 days. The baby birds are able to leave the nest about 14 days later and can fly a few days after that.
Robin eggs are a solid pale bluish-green. This is the most common egg you will find in your yard. For additional information we recommend the book, "A Guide to the Nests, Eggs and Nestlings of North American Birds," or the Peterson Field Guide entitled "Eastern Birds' Nests."
Here are some typical times for incubation (sitting on eggs until they hatch) and fledging (birds leave the nest):
Q: What is the best location and position for a nest box in my yard?
The type and position of a nest box can make the difference between fledging brood after brood of birds, and watching squirrels take over the box.
There is a really terrific source of information on nest boxes - types, placement, etc. as part of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology website:
The bookmarked page specifically deals with placement of nest boxes, but you can access all types of information from here.
Boxes should be up in our area around mid-March. When songbirds migrate back to our area in the spring, the first thing they do is establish territories and look for suitable nesting locations. Those that winter here (like woodpeckers and chickadees) only turn their attentions to breeding in the spring, too. In fact, some birds (like shorebirds) can begin their post-breeding migration back to their wintering territory as early as late July.