Inquisitive young herons hang out on the bridge

Q: Three green herons appeared on our patio railing in late summer and spent some time watching the songbirds come and go at the feeders before disappearing. We have seen these herons on the nearby pond and wetland, but never before on our property. Is this unusual behavior?

A: What a fun sight that must have been, and I’d say it wasn’t unusual behavior on the part of the green herons, especially since your photos show them as young. I bet they recently left their nest somewhere nearby and all the songbird activity at your feeders caught their attention. Eager to test their flying skills, they soon set off to make more discoveries about their new world.

A falcon and zinnias

Q: My granddaughter made a heart shape out of zinnia flowers on our lawn, and later that day we watched a Cooper’s hawk eat some of the zinnias. The next day we found a dead Cooper’s hawk near the flowers. We assume it was the same hawk as the day before and since we never use chemicals on our property, we wonder: What killed the hawk?

A: It doesn’t appear that zinnias contributed to the hawk’s death, as many creatures from bees to butterflies sip zinnia nectar, and goldfinches and sparrows are fans of zinnia seeds. I checked with the Raptor Center, whose staff said the falcon could have been infected with West Nile virus. Apparently there is a high rate of disease this year and it can cause all sorts of strange behavior, leading to death.

safer jelly

Q: Have you heard that grape jelly with high fructose corn syrup is bad for birds? I can’t believe it’s not harmful to them, but it’s hard to find jelly without this ingredient. Thoughts?

A: Good question and I think you’re right, if high fructose corn syrup isn’t good for humans, it probably isn’t good for birds either. I did a quick internet search and found many brands that didn’t have this sweetener, including Welch’s Natural Concord Grape Spread, Smucker’s Simply Fruit, Songbird Birdberry Jelly, Crofter’s Concord Grape Spread. Good and Gather Organic Concord Grape Fruit Spread, Duncraft BirdBerry Jelly and many more. These brands may not be readily available in all stores, but you can order online for next year.

horn in

Q: I’ve had a milk thistle feeder for years, but this is the first year I’ve noticed many species other than goldfinches eating it, such as downy woodpeckers, sparrows, and chickadees. Is this unusual?

A: This nyger seed is popular with a number of birds other than goldfinches. Over the years I’ve had fluffs, chickadees and domestic finches that have visited my nygers and fries feeder. This seed should be very tasty and it has a high oil content, which is pleasing to seed-eating birds.

Noisy crow

Q: Why do crows around my neighborhood caw all day from spring to late summer? I don’t see any predators in the area, like owls or hawks, but the crows still caw while flying, caw from the roof, and caw while sitting in the street. Can we do something to get them out of the neighborhood?

A: Crows, as you know, are great communicators, and they communicate a lot. I suspect you hear a family of crows calling each other: young birds may beg for food, or that a parent may appear or may signal to a sibling perched nearby, etc. Their parents call to keep in touch, and warn other birds and humans to keep their distance.

I can’t think of many measures that would keep crows away that wouldn’t bother humans as well (noisy radio, banging pot lids, etc.). One suggestion I found online is to find life-size crow Halloween decorations and place several around your yard, with one lying in the grass, maybe one hanging upside down from a tree branch. It will look like dead crows to live crows and may scare them away. Another trick was to hang shiny objects from tree branches (CDs, DVDs, pie plates, etc.), as crows are said to dislike things that reflect light.

As fall approaches, crows should leave the neighborhood to meet other crows and establish night roosts (hopefully away from your property).

horn heads

Q: I noticed two sparrow-like birds at my platform feeder in late August, but they had what appeared to be feather-like horns on their heads, more like bumps than feathers. The birds were streaked all over and a little dark. Thoughts?

A: This seems to me to be a very good description of young domestic finches. Their parents often have two broods each summer, and the second brood might fledge in late August. Additionally, juvenile house finches often still have fluffy head feathers until their moult is complete, and these could very well resemble horns.

Black-headed Grosbeak

Q: I have a male cardinal with a black head that comes to my feeder, but the rest of him is bright red. What could be causing this?

A: I believe you are seeing a bald cardinal, which lost its feathers in a very short time. With their black skin and reptile-like heads, bald cardinals resemble their dinosaur ancestors. Sometimes baldness can be caused by mites that cause the bird to itch so badly that it scratches its head feathers, but this is rare.

A more likely explanation is that a few species of birds, particularly cardinals and blue jays, sometimes have a gene that causes abnormal moulting, causing all of their head feathers to rapidly shed. It does no harm to the birds and in a few weeks as the moult progresses your cardinal should regrow a full set of red feathers.

Just a few minutes ago, I was staring out the window at two black-headed blue jays. They seem to be siblings and losing their head feathers all of a sudden seems like a family affair.

St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for a number of newspapers and magazines, can be reached at

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