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Spring Questions


See White or partially white birds

Baby Birds

Q: I found a baby bird on the ground. What should I do? I don’t want it to die.

A: If the bird is not injured, the best possible thing to do is to put it back in its nest as soon as you find it. Please visit our page on "Orphaned Baby Birds" for tips and information.

Feeding Birds

Spring and summer bird feeding

Q: Is it OK to keep feeding birds in the spring and summer?

A: Yes, it is. Some people prefer not to feed birds in the spring and summer when there is abundant food. However, during migration in the spring, a bird feeder might be a very welcome source of food for a bird that has already come a long way from its wintering grounds and still has a long way to go before reaching its breeding grounds. In the summer, even though there is a lot of food available for birds, their energy requirements are high because they must feed their young. Here at the Treman Bird Feeding Garden at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, we keep our feeders filled year-round for the benefit of the birds and the pleasure of our visitors. Whether or not you do too is up to you!

Unwanted visitors

Q: My feeders are being overrun with pigeons and blackbirds who eat all the food and keep the other smaller birds away. What can I do? 

A: You can consider switching the type of seed you are using, and setting up a feeder that is difficult for these larger birds to use. For tips, please read our page on "Feeder Pests and Predators."

Hawks and Owls

Q: I have a small, five pound dog that likes to run around our backyard. Should I be worried that a hawk could pick him up and take him away?

A: Large raptors can pick up  approximately 50 percent of their body weight.  For instance, Osprey, which weigh around 2 kilograms, can take a fish weighing up to 800 grams (or under 50 percent of their body weight), but the majority of their fish weigh 200-300 grams. Bald Eagles are scavengers but when they do catch fish that are too heavy for them, they have been observed towing the fish to shore. This is not a common behavior but has been reliably reported. The most common backyard hawk is the Cooper’s Hawk which weighs on average 450 grams or about a pound. Your small dog is safe. 


Field guides

Q: Now that spring is here, I’m going to get into birding. What’s the best bird identification book out there?

A: The "best" bird identification book is always a matter of choice. And I suspect that different people would give you different answers. As a beginner, though, I'd recommend that you start with a book on birds of your state or region. It can be very confusing to see lots of similar species and then find out that three-fourths of them are birds that only occur elsewhere! The Kaufman Focus Guides, Birds of North America, are specifically designed for beginning birders.  Another popular series is the Peterson's guides. My own preference is for The Sibley Guide to Birds. It is very detailed and has excellent drawings of birds in different plumages. The difference between the Sibley guide and the other two guides is more a question of display. The Peterson and Kaufman guides have lots of different birds listed on a single page while Sibley tends to put two birds per page. Sibley also has distribution maps on the pages with the bird information so you can easily see if a particular bird might be in your area.  Peterson's maps are all in the back of the book, something that I find inconvenient. I recommend that you go to a good bookstore and look through the bird guides they have so you can choose the one that would be most comfortable to you.

Once you become more familiar with the birds you’re seeing, you’ll find the All About Birds Online Bird Guide a wonderful reference for more information about each species as well as for photos and sounds of the birds.

Bird with bright red mark on its breast

Q: There's an unusual bird at my feeders. It’s mostly black and white but it has a bright red triangle on its breast. What is it?

A: I always know spring has come when I get this question. It means the Rose-breasted Grosbeak is migrating north. I can follow its migration by the emails that arrive, first from Florida and then a few days later from South Carolina or Tennessee. Take a look at the All About Birds Online Bird Guide and you’ll learn more about this beautiful migrant.


Q: I have a hunch that the bird singing outside my window is the same one who nested here last year. Could that be true?

A: Possibly. Many migratory songbirds return to the same territory or local area each spring after traveling thousands of miles to and from their wintering grounds. Migratory songbirds tend to have short lives (annual mortality rates are about 50 percent), so some of the birds in your yard each year are probably newcomers. Studies of banded birds show that 20-60 percent of migratory songbirds typically return to the same local area. 


Dead adult bird

Q: I was cleaning out my next boxes and I found a dead adult Tree Swallow in one of them. How can this happen?

A: Tree Swallows migrate quite a long way--some of them come up all the way from Central America. If they arrive after such a long journey to wet, cold conditions, and a lack of insects (which is what they feed on), they may die.

The Birdhouse Network, a citizen-science project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, has a wealth of information for people who have nest boxes. For features of a good nest box, check out the page, "Resources for Nest-Box Monitoring." You might also like to join The Birdhouse Network and let us know what is happening in your nest boxes.


Q: I discovered a bird was sitting on a nest in a shrub next to our house. We’re planning on having the house painted next week. What should I do? Can I move the nest?

A: If it is possible to delay the painting for a month, and you can wait for the young to leave the nest, that would be the best solution for the birds. If that is not possible, then ask the painters to minimize their presence around the nest. Although there is a risk the bird will abandon the nest, many yard birds are tolerant of occasional disturbances. If you move the nest, there is a very good chance that the bird will abandon it.

Nest built in a place that moves

Q: I discovered that a bird built its nest in my boat. I’m going to need that boat in a few weeks. I don’t want to hurt the bird or any babies, but how long before I can use the boat?

A: Because each bird species is a little different, I can’t tell you exactly how long you’ll need to wait. However, I can give you a few guidelines. Birds usually lay one egg a day. They don’t begin incubating their eggs until all the eggs have been laid. Clutch sizes vary from 2 to 8 eggs for most common backyard birds. Once the last egg has been laid, incubation takes about two weeks. The eggs will usually hatch about the same time. From that point, it will take another two weeks before the nestlings are ready to leave the nest. To be on the safe side, and to allow for variety in species, you should probably allow six weeks before planning on using the boat. The Birds of North America Online is an excellent resource for finding out information about birds in general and about incubation and fledging times for individual species.

White or Partially White Birds

Q: A bird in my yard looks just like a sparrow except that part of its feathers are complete white. What is it?

A. If it looks like a sparrow and hangs around with sparrows, it probably is a sparrow, just a partially albino one. For photos of partially albino birds and  information about them, visit our pages on "Strange Birds at Your Feeder" and "Color Abnormalities."

Window Collisions

Q: A bird keeps flying into my window. Why is it doing this?
I’m afraid it will hurt itself—what should I do?

A: The behavior you mention often occurs in spring. This is the time of year when most birds are busy establishing their territories, finding a mate, laying eggs, and raising their young. They are very protective of their territory and will attack and try to drive away any bird they view as a possible competitor or a threat to their young. When they see their own reflection in your window, they assume they’re seeing a competitor and so they attack their own image. Both males and females may do this, especially species that often nest close to houses, such as American Robins, Northern Cardinals, Chipping Sparrows, and Song Sparrows.

This territorial reaction may be so strong that the bird may exhaust itself, but it usually doesn't result in fatal injury. Try covering the outside of the window with netting or fabric so the reflection is no longer visible. You can also try drawing soap streaks across the window to break up the reflection. You will probably be able to take down the netting and remove the soap several weeks later, when passions aren't running quite so high.

Other kinds of window collisions can be much more serious. Visit our Window Collisions page for ways to avoid this potentially lethal problem.

BirdNotes--Spring Bird FAQs

More FAQs in this issue of BirdNotes (PDF format).