Bird Questions: Back to Basics

  1. I have an albino house finch coming to my feeder regularly. How unusual is this?
  2. How long does a bird live?
  3. Is it necessary to bake eggshells for birds? Why do they like or need them?
  4. What can I do to protect the birds in my yard from cats?
  5. Where do birds sleep, and how do they survive severe weather conditions?
  6. Should I clean out my nestboxes at the end of the season?
  7. Why has the female Hairy Woodpecker in my backyard lost her tail feathers?

1. I have an albino house finch coming to my feeder regularly. How unusual is this?

A: Ablino or partial albino (known as leucistic) house finches are not uncommon. Because all eastern house finches are descendents of 40 or so adults released on Long Island in the 1940s, some genetic conflicts, which can produce white plumage, are fairly regular among the house finches. While it’s not a major ornithological find, it is very interesting to watch a single albino bird and see how it interacts with others, and how often it comes to your feeder.

2.How long does a bird live?

A: In very general terms, the larger a bird is, the longer its life expectancy. For small birds, such as migratory songbirds (warblers, vireos, etc.) the average life expectancy may be as little as two years. This short life expectancy is due to the many hazards birds face from birth: predators, disease, accidents, migration, starvation, habitat loss, and hunting, among others. Some individual birds have survived surprisingly long, including a cardinal (13.5 years), a black-capped chickadee (10 years), and an American goldfinch (7 years). One red-bellied woodpecker survived in the wild for 20.5 years! Captive birds, protected from the hazards of nature, have much longer life spans. Many waterfowl have survived in the wild for as long as 30 years, and seabirds, such as gulls and albatrosses, have longevity records that cover 30 to 40 years.

Source: The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds, by John K. Terres.

3. Is it necessary to bake eggshells for birds? Why do they like or need them?

A: The eggshells are baked in an oven for 1/2 hour at 350 degrees to kill off any bacteria left from the egg residue. The heat kills any nasty stuff that might make the birds sick. Birds eat the eggshells for the calcium they provide. During the egg-laying season female birds need to replace calcium lost in egg production. Eggshells are a great source of this important mineral.

4. What can I do to protect the birds in my yard from cats?

A: Hang feeders at least five feet above the ground. For ground-feeding birds, arrange ornamental border fencing in two or three concentric circles about 16 inches to two feet apart, to disrupt a cat’s ability to leap at feeders or to spring on birds. Harass offending cats with a spray of water to train them to avoid your yard. If all else fails, use a live trap to catch the cats and take them to the local animal shelter. If the cats belong to your neighbors, ask them to restrain their pets from accessing your yard.

5. Where do birds sleep, and how do they survive severe weather conditions?

A: Before falling asleep, most birds seek shelter from predators and weather. This is vital to their survival because a sleeping bird is more vulnerable to danger.

As you might imagine, each species has a technique of locating shelter as unique as its methods of finding food, and this varies based upon options available in the environment. Cavity nesters (bluebirds, chickadees, titmice, some woodpeckers and swallows, for example), tend to roost in enclosed areas such as tree hollows, bird houses, caves, or culverts. Sparrows, warblers, thrushes, and other songbirds frequently roost for the night amid thick vegetation. At all times, it’s important that they remain concealed from owls, raccoons, snakes, and other predators.

During cold or rainy weather, most birds avoid direct wind by sheltering underneath protective overhangs found in an evergreen tree, vine tangle, thick brush, or deep grass. The same is true during a hurricane. In some cases, thousands are killed during severe storms because they simply cannot find sufficient shelter. This happened during Hurricane Gloria in the late 1980s when thousands of birds in the Southeast were killed. It’s not uncommon during such storms to find birds huddled behind houses, brick walls, tree trunks–anything that will protect them from high winds. Often these are places they might never go under normal circumstances.

6. Should I clean out my nestboxes at the end of the season?

A: Conventional wisdom is divided on this subject but most nestbox landlords prefer to clean out the old nests after the nesting season is over. This removes nesting material that may be fouled with droppings, unhatched eggs, or even young that died in the nest.

Some studies have shown (with bluebird nests) that beneficial wasps lay their eggs in the old nests. These wasps help to control bluebird blowfly larvae and this beneficial impact is negated by removing the old nest. Other studies have shown that nest building activity is an important component of breeding courtship and the presence of an old nest may inhibit this somewhat.

I always clean out the old nests from our nestboxes, but I replace them with a cup-shaped handful of dried grass so that winter roosting birds have a soft and insulating layer if they use the box for night-time roosting.

It is always best to have a nestbox that opens from the side for easy access to the interior.

7. Why has the female Hairy Woodpecker in my backyard lost her tail feathers?

A: The bird may have escaped from a predator, such as a cat, or molted as a result of trauma, diet, lice, etc. If cold weather recently affected your area, it’s also possible that the woodpecker sheltered in a tree hollow overnight, and its tail feathers froze to the cavity wall. When the bird flew away the following morning, it pulled out its own feathers. This is a temporary condition that will resolve itself with the next seasonal molt.

To find the answer to the most common bird questions, get your copy of The Backyard Bird Watcher’s Answer Guide.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Beverly Blomert

    We recently moved to the Blue Ridge mountains and are about 2,000 feet up. We noticed the lack of birds singing. Before we moved and lived in the city the air was filled with song. Do birds not live this high? We miss hearing the birds sing.

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