Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Questions from Eagle River, Wisconsin

Black-capped Chickadee

This week I heard from two different listeners in Eagle River, Wisconsin, who listen to For the Birds on WXPR. First was a heart-warming, and then worrisome, email from Bill Strasser, who started with these kind words:
When possible I’ve been listening to your show for a long time.  I’ve always enjoyed your perspective on the birds, and life.   When my son was little, we use to listen to you on vacation on WXPR.  For work, he moved to Duluth, and became a more regular listener.   When I’ve visited him, we’ve stopped what we were doing for Laura moments, the same way we did when he was little.  You touch people of all ages. 
Then Bill cut to the chase with a problem:
Because of Covid-19, I came to Eagle River a few weeks before Easter, when there was huge snow cover.  As usual I had an active feeder soon.  Then, after about two weeks, about when the snow melted, most of my birds quit coming. Few squirrels as well.    
I am worried that the seeds I’m using may be tainted, and could be killing my friends. Have you heard about anything like this, and is there a place I can send my seeds for testing? Or, do birds quit coming to the feeder when the ground is open, and I’m being paranoid? Every day with no birds I’m a little more stressed about this. What should I do? 
Bird activity does ebb and flow as the seasons change. My chickadees were few and far between all winter, but three pairs seem to be nesting in and near my backyard now. They’re singing up a storm in the morning and coming to me for mealworms many times a day. When nesting, chickadees focus more on high protein insects than seeds, but even right now, mine are eating a lot of sunflower seeds. It’s odd for even nesting chickadees to suddenly disappear as Bill describes. My squirrels entirely disappeared for a couple of weeks in March, as did my rabbits, but that was due to the sudden appearance of a couple of foxes in my neighborhood. When the foxes moved on, the squirrels and rabbits came out of hiding. But chickadees don’t pay attention to foxes, so Bill’s bird AND squirrel disappearances couldn’t have been due to that.

I’m not sure where seeds can be tested. Several years ago, seeds sold by Scotts Miracle-Gro were intentionally coated with a dangerous pesticide even though they were sold for feeding birds. The source of the poison was fairly easy to figure out because it killed several pet birds whose bodies could be analyzed, and who were all being fed seed from the same company even though they belonged to different owners. 

It’s way trickier to deal with chickadee disappearances, because sick chickadees usually die at night in their roost cavities, so their bodies are never found and we can’t know how they died for certain. I suggested that Bill call the county extension office to see where his seeds could be analyzed. 

Meanwhile, though, I’m interested in knowing if anyone else near Eagle River has experienced the same thing—if so, we can compare if people were getting the same brand of seeds or buying from the same supplier. 

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
This male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker has a red forehead AND a red throat. Many of them, like this one, do not have yellow bellies. 
On a happier note, I got an email from Jo Simons, who wrote that she was trying “to figure out some strange woodpecker behavior on our property in Eagle River.” Jo sent me a short video of her very persistent bird that insists on pecking on a metal basketball backboard right outside her bedroom window. She wants to know what’s going on, and asked, “Is this just a frustrated musical bird that wants to join a marching band?”

Her video showed a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker drumming on the backboard—exactly the kind of behavior that attracts attention at 6 am. I told her that her basketball backboard happens to be the loudest, most resonant spot he's found, so he's declaring his territory by pounding on it. Woodpecker territories are defined by the area from which their drumming can be heard, so the loudest drumming spots they can find quickly become their favorites.

She then wrote back, “isn’t this the time of year that males in the natural world are reaching out for a mate instead of establishing “keep away” territory? The frogs in our lagoon are singing up a storm whenever the weather gets up to 60 degrees. Not so the woodpeckers?”

I explained that as far as territorial songs and drummings go, what's good for the goose is NOT good for the gander. When a territorial male hears another territorial male, his heart rate increases along with his stress levels, so male birds can space themselves without usually coming to blows. But when a female hears a male, it sets her hormones flowing, attracting her nearer. So the families each end up with their own little isolated spot where they won't have to share resources while they're raising young. 

If you have a question about your backyard birds, send me an email. Meanwhile, stay safe and well, dear listener.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
This is a female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. She has a white throat unlike the male.