Frequently Asked Questions
1) A male cardinal continuously bangs against the windows of our house. It begins at dawn and doesn’t end until dusk. He’s been at it for many months. I don’t know how he has the energy to go on or how he hasn’t killed himself. What is the cause of this? Does he want to get into my house?
|Photo courtesy U.S. FWS
No, despite your best cooking, the bird is not trying to get into your house. This scenario is surprisingly common and is almost always perpetrated by Northern Cardinals and American Robins. According to biologist Daniel Klem, the concentration of hormones in male cardinals increases to 300 times that of normal levels during breeding season. This causes a ferocious defense of territory and the bird attacks all rivals, including perceived rivals such as his own reflected image.
The solution is to eliminate the reflective properties of glass by covering the window from the outside. Anything attached to the inside of the window may reduce reflectivity, but not eliminate it. You may have to cover the window for a period of time, perhaps a week or more.
Attach white paper to the entire outer surface of the window; this will allow for light to enter while eliminating reflection. Try stringing balloons to the outer surface, or strips of shiny mylar. The motion of these items might dissuade the bird.
Learn other ways to repel birds from windows: Keeping Wildlife Safe.
2) What kind of hawk is this in my backyard? Should I stop feeding the birds?
|Note pencil-thin legs and squared tail of this Sharp-shinned Hawk, photo by Maureen Koplow.
This is a Sharp-shinned Hawk, a type of Accipiter that has a diet consisting mainly of small birds, like the birds at your feeder. A hawk that looks quite similar and may also frequent feeders is the Cooper’s Hawk. See the two hawks side-by-side.
Feeding birds, especially in winter makes life easier on the birds. Keep in mind that Sharp-shinned Hawks will eat only what they need (unlike cats which kill indiscriminately) and will generally pick off those birds that are oldest, weakest or sickest. You could stop feeding the birds for a week or two to encourage the hawk to hunt elsewhere, but there’s always a chance it will return with the feeder birds.
There are also ways to protect the birds at your feeder when a hawk is present. First, be sure to provide them with nearby cover: shrubs, a brush pile, even a discarded Christmas tree. Second, make sure the reflectivity of your windows is reduced (see: window collisions). This will prevent panicked birds (and the hawk) from seeking escape routes that are reflected in the windows. Preventing window strikes can reduce fatalities or injuries to the birds that will render them sitting ducks for a pursuing hawk.
3) Can you recommend a squirrel-proof feeder?
|Gray squirrel photo by Kim Phillips/NAS
“Squirrel-proof feeder” is a virtual oxymoron. Witness a recent email: “When the squirrels figured out how to open the door to a suet cage I have in my yard, I secured it with a combination lock. I’m not 100% positive, but I’m pretty sure at least one squirrel tried to figure out the combination. Meanwhile he nibbled away through the cage until the suet was gone.”
Seriously though, squirrel-proof feeders only work for as long as it takes the squirrels to figure them out…and that’s usually not very long. Recognize the adaptability of squirrels; they can hang, jump, grab, slide, dig, and bully birds about as well as would a chimpanzee running loose in your yard.
The best solution for the harmonious existence of squirrels and birdfeeder lies in placement. Keeping in mind the principles of bird habitat necessities and safe bird feeding, mount feeders on freestanding poles in an open area where squirrels cannot gain access by jumping or climbing. Include a baffle around the pole and make sure the feeder is high enough so squirrels cannot leap up to it.
Finally, purchase some cracked corn and spread it widely on the ground for the squirrels. It’s inexpensive and will keep them busy foraging for hours.
4) When is the best time to hang a nesting box? How big should it be?
|Photo © Audubon
Theoretically, nest boxes can remain up all year; natural tree cavities do. They will however weather faster and will need to be checked for wood warp and loose fasteners, but wintering species may roost in them and resident birds will peek in early to scope out the site in anticipation of spring. If you do not have one up already, late winter is probably the best time for installation.
The size, shape and mounting height of the box are all dictated by the particular birds you wish to attract. Different species have specific preferences and it takes a little bit of research to produce fruitful nesting boxes. It’s also good to keep boxes safe from predators such as raccoons and snakes. Be vigilant of invasive species such as House Sparrows and European Starlings that can take over a box. These two websites offer techniques for safeguarding against predators and invasions:
Finally, boxes should be cleaned out each autumn. For more information, go to: http://www.audubon.org/bird/at_home/HealthyYard_BirdHabitat.html.
For birdhouse plans and information, go to www.birds.cornell.edu/birdhouse
5) I found a baby bird out of its nest and hopping around our backyard. What should I do?
|Fledgling American Robin, © John Hoepfner
In most cases, the bird may have already fledged from the nest, and its parents are nearby watching. The best thing to do, if the bird looks fully formed (has all its feathers) is to leave it alone and watch it to see if the adult birds are around. You will either see or hear the adults chattering. Keep your pets indoors to keep the fledgling safe.
If the bird has no feathers, it may have fallen or have been thrown from the nest. If this is the case, you’ll want to return it to the nest, if possible. However, you should note that sometimes it is knocked out of the nest on purpose by a parent or a sibling as part of genetic weeding, or by a predator species that is larger than the nestling.
If you cannot locate a nest, or if the adult bird doesn’t return, place the bird in a box with a cover (and air holes). The darkness will calm the bird. For injured adult birds, a perching branch in the box may be helpful. Immediately find a licensed wildlife rehabilitator who can assess the state of the bird, care for it, and release it back to the wild if possible.
6) An ugly, bald bird just showed up at my feeder. It resembles a cardinal, but I can’t be sure. What is it?
|Male Northern Cardinal, © Kim Ohlweiler
It is a cardinal that has lost all of its head feathers. This condition, which was once believed to be caused by an infestation of feather mites, is more likely due to an odd genetic molt that affects cardinals and jays in particular. The good news is that the feathers will grow back rapidly, and in plenty of time for the cool temperatures of autumn and winter.
7) There is a white bird in my yard. Is it an albino or some kind of rare species?
|Partial albino White-throated Sparrow. © Howard B. Eskin
Many common backyard species display a genetic mutation that affects the color of their feathers, or at least those with the pigment melanin. Only some birds are true albinos, indicated by the presence of pure white feathers, white bills, and eyes that lack pigment (so they appear pink). Partial albinos will have some white feathers or markings combined with normal coloration on other parts. Leucistic birds have “lighter than usual” coloration, but are not pure white.
8) I live in Massachusetts and saw a small black and white woodpecker in my backyard. Could it be a baby Ivory-billed Woodpecker?
|Female Downy Woodpecker
© Howard B. Eskin
Not likely. Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, even in their heyday, never made it to New England. They were mostly limited to the old growth bottomland forests of southeastern states.
By the time an Ivory-billed Woodpecker was old enough to leave the nest, it was large, about the size of a crow. The same is true with more common large woodpecker of the United States, the Pileated Woodpecker. There are a number of common, small, black and white woodpeckers in the Northeast, including the Downy, Hairy, and Red-headed. It’s likely you are seeing one of these species.
For photos and information on bird species, go to http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/
For more information on Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, visit:
Do you have questions? Contact us at AudubonAtHome@audubon.org