How About Those Birds?

By Andrew Forbes | September 2, 2005
From Missouri Conservationist: Sep 2005

Birds are well-known and appreciated in Missouri. About four in every five residents feed wild birds, and one in four is willing to travel to watch them.

Lots of people contact the Department of Conservation to ask questions about birds. Here are the answers to 10 of the most frequently asked questions.

Q: How are bald eagles doing in Missouri?

A: The bald eagle has rebounded nationwide as a result of the banning of the insecticide known as DDT and the success of reintroduction programs, such as the one undertaken by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) and other partners in Missouri during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Missouri boasts one of the highest wintering bald eagle populations in the lower 48 states. Usually, more than 2,200 eagles are encountered during our annual winter waterfowl and eagle surveys. In the winter, they can be found along any large, open body of water, where they feed mostly on dead fish.

We also have a breeding population of bald eagles. Roughly 75 to 100 pairs nest in Missouri, and the number grows every year.

MDC tracks bald eagle nests in Missouri. If you find a bald eagle nest in your area, please report it to us by calling (573) 751-4115.

Q: I have a hawk that regularly hunts at my bird feeder. What is it?

A: Two species of hawks, the Cooper’s hawk and the sharp-shinned hawk, commonly hunt birds at backyard bird feeders.

The two species closely resemble one another. Adults of both species have dark, grayish-blue backs with red barring on the belly, while immatures have brown backs with brown streaking underneath. They are longer and more slender than other hawks. This adaptation allows them to maneuver through tight spaces in pursuit of other birds. Cooper’s hawks usually are larger, tend to have larger, darker heads and more rounded tails, and are more common than sharp-shinned hawks.

Many people enjoy having hawks around and view them as just another backyard bird. The number of birds killed by hawks is low, and the presence of hawks should not keep birds from visiting your feeder.

If you prefer to discourage hawks, temporarily remove the feeder and they may leave the area. Never poison, shoot or trap hawks, as this is a violation of both federal and state laws.

Q: What impact is West Nile Virus having on birds?

A: West Nile Virus (WNV) is a mosquito-borne virus that was first identified in New York City in 1999. Since then, it has spread to almost all the lower 48 states.

WNV is carried by birds and transmitted by mosquitoes that have fed on infected birds. Members of the crow family, such as American crows and blue jays, seem to be the most likely to die from WNV. However, some individuals may carry the virus and show no symptoms.

We do not yet know the full implications of WNV for birds, though some localized population declines have been documented. Species with larger populations and those that have more young are more likely to rebound.

Data collected from Great Britain suggests that bird populations there have built up immunity to a similar virus over time. Perhaps our birds will develop some immunity to WNV. However, we won’t know the full impact on birds for some time.

Q: I found a baby bird on the ground. What should I do?

A: The best thing to do is to leave the bird alone. It likely is a fledgling that is learning how to fly. Although the bird may look stranded, in most cases it should soon make a wobbly flight.

It is always best not to interfere, though you should keep pets and children away from the bird. If you must move it, use gloves and relocate it to a nearby shrub or thick patch of weeds.

Q: What is the best food for hummingbirds and how long should I feed them?

A: Several varieties of hummingbird food are available at most large grocery stores. You also can make your own hummingbird food by adding one part sugar to four to five parts water and bringing it to a boil. Red food coloring is unnecessary. Let the mixture cool before putting it in your feeder, and refrigerate any extra for future use.

It is best to place your feeder at least 6 feet off the ground in an open but not too sunny spot. Clean it every few days with a diluted bleach solution to kill mold.

You also can attract hummingbirds by planting trumpet creeper, royal catchfly or other native plants with red flowers.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds begin to arrive in Missouri each year between mid and late April and typically begin to depart in early October. By mid-October, most hummingbirds are gone from Missouri. If you choose to keep your feeder up longer, you may attract rare, late visitors, such as rufous hummingbirds.

Q: A bird is attacking my window. How can I stop it?

A: Northern cardinals and northern mockingbirds often attack their reflection in windows, especially during the summer months when they are most territorial. This behavior can be annoying, but is usually easy to stop.

You can break up the reflection by placing an opaque, nontoxic substance on the outside of the window (fake “snow,” newspaper, etc.). Or, place balloons, streamers, wind chimes or other flashy objects near the window to scare off birds. A sprinkler close to the window also may deter birds.

Q: What are the best foods to feed birds?

A: Black, oil-type sunflower seed attracts a wide variety of birds to your feeder. Providing niger seed (also known as thistle) helps draw in finches. Put up a suet cage to attract woodpeckers and other insect eating species. In spring and summer, you may attract Baltimore orioles to your feeder by putting out halves of citrus fruit.

Bird species have different methods of feeding. Some prefer to feed on the ground, while others prefer to forage in trees. Be sure to provide food at multiple levels to attract a maximum variety of birds.

Keep in mind that if you feed birds, you’ll usually feed squirrels as well. Some folks enjoy their antics, but others do not appreciate their large appetites and sometimes surly behavior. Squirrels are clever and often find their way into supposedly squirrel-proof feeders. If squirrels are a problem, try switching to safflower seed. Squirrels do not seem to like it as well.

Q: What can I do to help birds?

A: 1) Keep your cat indoors and encourage your neighbors to do likewise. Cats kill a lot of birds every year, and putting a bell on their collar or declawing them does not significantly lessen their hunting success. Visit online to find out more.

2) Drink certified shade-grown coffee. Growing methods for shade-grown coffee provide better habitat for Missouri birds wintering in Central and South America than newer full-sun, row-crop methods. If your grocery store doesn’t carry shade-grown coffee, ask for it. Many brands are available online.

3) Support local bird conservation initiatives and join organizations that work to further bird conservation.

Q: Where are some good places to see birds in Missouri?

A: More than 400 species of birds have been documented in Missouri, and we are fortunate to have lots of great places to see them.

The online Missouri Conservation Atlas provides directions and area descriptions of MDC areas throughout the state. Many of these areas offer birding opportunities. “A Guide to Birding in Missouri,” published by the Audubon Society of Missouri, also offers detailed directions and site descriptions for some of the best birding areas.

Q: I have a sick or injured bird at my feeder. What should I do?

A: Disease and weather take their toll on birds so it’s not unusual to find a sick, injured or dead bird at your feeder. However, finding more than a few at once could be cause for concern.

Make sure your seed is not spoiled and store it in a dry place in a sealed container. Don’t let piles of old seed hulls accumulate under your feeder. This is unsanitary and can attract rodents. Clean your feeder regularly using a diluted bleach solution.

Chemicals used for lawn care also may be killing the birds. Be sure you water the chemicals well into your lawn if you use them.

Birds that fly into windows are often just stunned and need a little time to recover before they can fly off on their own. Again, make sure you keep pets and children away from the bird. If you have an injured bird that is not recovering (broken wing, etc.) and that you want to help, contact your local veterinarian and ask them about licensed wildlife rehabilitators in your area.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - TomCwynar
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Editor - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler