Bonus Birding Questions
George answers more summer birding questions.
How do birds like wrens and bluebirds know when it's time to fly south? They often disappear from our place in August when the weather is still warm.—Mary Drogos, Glenview, Illinois
George: Birds rely on light to tell them when to migrate. As the sun in the northern hemisphere moves south and the hours of daylight dwindle, it triggers an impulse within every migratory bird. This impulse ends only when the bird arrives at a wintering ground far to the south. The birds instinctively follow ancient paths of migratory flight that are permanently chiseled into the face of the Earth, such as coastlines, major rivers and mountains.
My children gave me a wonderful feeder that fits right into the window of my third-floor apartment, allowing me to watch the birds without them seeing me. However, I can't seem to attract birds to eat at it. Do you have any suggestions? —Jacob Kulp, Souderton, Pennsylvania
George: The problem is that there's no natural habitat close to the window that allows birds to retreat if they're threatened by predators. If you have a balcony on your third-floor apartment, or even a ledge at the window, you can create mini backyard bird habitat with small potted evergreens and shrubs. You also could add a little birdbath to the habitat along with a feeder or two. If you can do this, the birds should appear.
One day I watched four tufted titmice rolling on a hill of carpenter ants in our yard. Can you tell me what they were doing? Also, is it the same reason some birds take dust baths? —Wendy Tennyson, Belle Rive, Illinois
George: It's believed birds roll on anthills to rub the formic acid from the ants onto their feathers. This helps them get rid of parasites and other annoying pests. They roll in dust for much the same reason. However, birds use dust more like water, in that they preen the dust out of their feathers with their bills, just as they do with water after a bath.
How do birds keep cool in summer? —Roberta Rodabaugh, Arlington, Ohio
George:Birds keep cool in summer by panting, much like dogs do. They don't sweat, but they do open their bills and let the air pass over their tongues while they breathe more rapidly than usual.
No matter what we try, birds won't use our birdbath. We've moved it to different locations—near trees and arbors—and even added a makeshift dripper. Birds visit our feeder, but ignore the bath. What more can we do? —Vickie Coutlee, Toronto, Ontario
George: Perhaps the water is too deep for the birds to use. For most birds, the ideal depth is 1 to 3 inches. Luckily, this problem is easy to correct—just place a rock in the center or near the edge of the bath, 1 to 2 inches below the water's surface. This allows birds to stand on the rock whiles till being in the water. Another possible explanation is that the bottom of the bath is too shiny, or painted a color that makes the water appear unnatural to birds. Natural-looking colors such as gray or tan are best for birdbath surfaces.
My husband and I often hear the lovely songs of whip-poor-wills in our area. Is there a way to attract them to our backyard? —Janet Geiger, Kimberly, Wisconsin
George: Whip-poor-wills breed in deep woodlands, where a floor of dead leaves helps camouflage their two eggs on the ground. They flying insects they eat also are plentiful in this habitat. This makes it difficult to attract them to backyards. However, if you live in an oak or maple forest, it's possible to have whip-poor-wills calling and nesting nearby.