Dear Bird Folks,
Over the course of the year we receive lots of questions. We get too many questions to answer in print or to properly keep track of. Unfortunately, some really good questions get lost in the mess on my desk or stolen by my cleaning lady (if I had one). Many other good questions aren’t lost, but the answers aren’t long enough to dedicate an entire column to. Today is the day for those questions. It’s our annual Short Answer Day. Well, short answers by my standards, that is.
Carolyn was wondering why fish-eating birds, such as herons, cormorants and anhingas don’t choke when they swallow prey that appears to be too large for their skinny throats. Good question. Skinny-necked birds like herons can’t “chew” their food like cardinals can or tear it apart like hawks do. They must swallow it whole. They don’t choke because, like us, they have a separate food tube (esophagus) and a separate air tube (trachea). The esophagus is extremely flexible. It can expand to accommodate different sized prey, within limits, of course. The trachea, on the other hand, is firm so the expanding esophagus won’t crush or pinch it off. Sometimes an unlucky bird does die when prey becomes lodged in its esophagus, but the cause of death is more often starvation and not lack of oxygen. How’s that for a short, and rather grizzly answer?
A lady from the nearby town of Eastham, MA keeps asking me why she never sees dead birds. She knows birds must die at some point, but in her mind we should see their bodies lying about or occasionally see one drop from the sky. Well, Eastham lady, people do sometimes see a dead bird on the ground for no obvious reason. That’s when I get frantic calls claiming that the Bird Flu has finally arrived. Bird bodies aren’t common because most are cleaned up before they are discovered. Scavengers, such as crows, gulls, opossums, raccoons, and homeless bank executives, are happy to turn any dead bird into a meal. The reason why we rarely see birds fall from the sky is because, as with most creatures, death isn’t as sudden as we sometimes wish it were. Unhealthy or aging birds typically land and find a sheltered area to recover, or not. Geesh, another cheery topic.
Several people have asked me about birds being stung by bees. If angry bees will attack mammals, can they also be a problem for birds? Finding the answer to this question wasn’t as easy it sounds. Every time I approached a naturalist or biologist with a question about “the birds and the bees,” they either backed away from me or told me to go ask my father. For the most part bees aren’t a problem for birds. Healthy birds are simply too fast for them. Unlike some of us, who run around waving our arms and screaming like idiots at the sight of a bee, birds have the ability to instantly move out their way. Some birds, like Summer Tanagers, actually seek out bees. With their superior speed and agility tanagers can pick a bee or wasp right out of the air. They then whack it on the closest branch to remove the stinger, and down the hatch it goes.
This next question is one we hear nearly every day. Busy feeders can sometimes become very quiet. This causes the feeder owners to become hysterical. They insist that it’s either bad birdseed or a sign of the apocalypse, or both. Ninety percent of the time an instantaneous lack of birds has nothing to do with your seed or the coming apocalypse; it simply means that a small bird-eating hawk is hanging out in your yard. The presence of any predator will cause your feeder birds to temporarily move to a safer location. The key word here is “temporarily.” Once the hawk leaves, the feeder birds will return. To speed things up some people will actually remove their feeders. I know removing your birdfeeders is a weird way to get your birds back, but it’s the best way to encourage a hungry hawk to move to a different neighborhood. Then those people will think it’s a sign of the apocalypse.
Speaking of unwanted guests, here’s a question from Stan, who wants to know how to keep pigeons away from his feeders. Once again the answer is to remove the feeders. (Man, I hate telling people to do that.) Remove all feeders until the pigeons move to grainier pastures. After a few weeks of pigeon-free living, put out your feeders again but only ones that pigeons can’t land on. And don’t use mixed seed. Only use hulled sunflower seed. By using hulled sunflower you will not only be offering food that all the birds eat, but there won’t be any wasted seeds or empty shells on the ground, which could cause the pigeons to return. Pigeons are the 25,986th reason why you shouldn’t use mixed seed.
Finally, a guy named Richard says his wife wants to know (sure, whatever, Richard) if birds’ feet will stick to metal perches. No, Richard’s wife, birds’ feet won’t stick to metal perches. If they did then you would also see birds stuck to other metal objects like cars, fire hydrants and braces on kids’ teeth, and I’ve never seen birds stuck on any of those things, except maybe that last one.