For the Birds Radio Program: More Questions about Birds

Original Air Date: March 25, 1988

From nests to wintering robins, Laura answers listener questions and reminds everyone to send in entries for the Last Robin of Winter contest.

Duration: 3′39″


(Recording of an American Robin)

I’ve been fielding questions about birds lately. One man brought me some nests for identification. A lot of nests can be safely keyed down to two or three species, and a few are unmistakeable. But most nests can’t be identified down to species unless you actually observe the nesting birds. Field guides give a few hints. For example, a medium-sized nest made of twigs and grasses can belong to a Mourning Dove, Blue Jay, Brown Thrasher, catbird, or Rose-breasted Grosbeak. There are some differences between the average nests of most of these birds–doves usually make flimsy nests, jays often pick up flashy, trashy items to incorporate into their nests, and catbirds usually build their nests closer to the ground than the others, but these are guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules. The one thing I’ve learned in the years I’ve been studying birds is that birds don’t read the bird books–so there are major exceptions to every rule we humans make up about them. Even my own rule has an exception–I’ve caught Icarus, the injured crow I’m taking care of, snatching some quick glances at my field guides. Once he even snorted while looking at the page about Jays–I never did figure out whether he disagreed with the author or just had a piece of dust up his beak.

One woman recently asked me where birds sleep. That’s an easier question to answer. First of all, few birds use their nests for roosts except while actually sitting on eggs or nestlings. Many ducks sleep out in the water, safe from raccoons and foxes. Woodpeckers and a few songbirds, like chickadees and nuthatches, sleep in tree cavities or bird houses. Most songbirds sit in trees near the trucks or in shrubbery where branches are thickest. Night shadows camouflage them so most predators won’t notice them. Birds have extremely keen eyesight in the daytime, but except for nocturnal species, their night vision is comparable to our own, or even worse. So they’re pretty vulnerable at night. Owls often watch jays, crows, hawks, and falcons all day, hoping to discover their roosts. Then the owls come eat them at night, which is probably why these birds harass owls all day.

Some people have also been asking me about the robins they’ve been watching for our “Last Robin of Winter Contest.” They’re mostly curious about how these birds survive the winter, and whether they have a lot of problems when the weather makes a sudden turn for the worse.

Actually, robins are hardy birds. They have a thick layer of down under their outer feathers, and the early migrants among them have usually fattened up before heading north. But sometimes, especially if there’s a terrible storm or cold snap, some of them die. You can help by providing food–grape jelly or applesauce in heavy plastic cereal bowls or raisins. It’s usually not worth setting these items out unless you already have a robin in your yard, since most robins don’t go around looking in bird feeders for their kinds of food, but if you have a special robin in your yard, you might try it. In any event, today is the last day to mail in your robin counts for our contest. Send the dates and places of each robin you’ve seen between February 19 and March 20 to “For the Birds”, KUMD radio, 130 Humanities Bldg, University of Minnesota-Duluth, 55812. This is a pretty laid-back contest, but I’ll start going through the entries next week, so mail yours today.

(Recording of an American Robin)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”