May 12 Coffee With a Curator: Follow-up Questions

By Erin Cashion

During this program I shared insights about spring bird migration and answered audience questions about various bird-related topics, but we ran out of time before we ran out of audience questions, so we wanted to follow up with the answers in a blog post!

1. I feed birds in the winter, but not in the summer.  What is the best way to attract them the rest of the year?

That is a great question! The best way to attract birds to your yard is to provide them with the four things they need: shelter, safety, food, and water.

For shelter, look to create more cover and places for birds to rest and hide from predators by planting native trees and shrubs. Try to plant a diversity of plant species, as diversity of birds is positively correlated with a diversity of plant species regardless of habitat type. Remove invasive species, such as honeysuckle. Provide bird houses appropriate for the habitat you have. (Check for more tips on providing bird habitat and bird houses). Also, consider switching to bird-friendly coffee! Supporting farmers who grow coffee in a traditional way under rainforest canopy helps save birds’ wintering grounds from destruction, and has a whole bunch of other benefits too! You can learn more and buy bird-friendly coffee at, or get locally roasted Kingfisher Coffee at the Wild Birds Unlimited on Sawmill in Columbus.

To provide safety, please keep your cats indoors!! Domestic cats are an invasive species, the #1 cause of bird deaths in North America, and the singular cause of the extinction of over 30 endemic animal species around the world. To learn more about this issue, please read this blog post. If you have an outside cat, please keep them inside or build them a catio. If you have free-roaming cats intruding in your yard, consider excluding them with fencing, or try to have a chat with your neighbors and make them aware of the threat they pose. If the cats are unowned, find them an inside home, or call a service that will trap, neuter, and take them to a shelter for acclimation and rehoming – NOT return them to the neighborhood. Neutered and spayed cats still kill wildlife, and are a vector for a variety of diseases that affect humans and our native wildlife, as well as our pets. Also, make sure there are no containers lying about your yard collecting standing water to discourage mosquitos, which also spread a variety of diseases to humans and other animals, including birds.

To provide food, plant native trees and shrubs that provide food for their insect prey and bear flowers, seeds, and/or fruit. I talked about native trees being important hosts for insect prey in the webinar, but neglected to mention how important native, fruit-bearing shrubs are during fall migration! A recent study shows that birds prefer to feed on native fruits during fall migration, even when fruit of nonnative shrubs (like honeysuckle) are more abundant. Plenty of prairie plants are beautiful and suitable for yard use, produce nectar and seeds that birds can eat, store carbon in the soil, and benefit our pollinators as well.

If you feed hummingbirds, do not use any nectar mix with red dye. Plain white sugar and plain boiled water is best, 1/4 c sugar: 1 c. water. Brown or “natural” sugars can contain too much iron. Completely empty out the feeder and scrub it thoroughly with hot water and soap every 3-4 days, especially during hot weather, as the black mold that forms in the feeders can kill the hummers.

To provide water, you don’t need an expensive or maintenance-intensive pond feature – even a simple bird bath will go a long way towards attracting birds. There are many different kinds available, and you can even fashion your own out of a shallow container. It’s better to elevate it above the ground in case you do have cats roaming about, but even a container on the ground is better than none at all – just place it in an open area, so predators can’t sneak up on them. The water shouldn’t be more than an inch deep, and the bath should be cleaned regularly to kill any mosquito larvae and remove algae and mildew buildup. Some “fancier” bird baths even have a heater and/or circulating mechanism to keep it from freezing over during colder months. Fresh water is important for our resident winter birds, too!

Keep in mind, improving habitat for birds also improves habitat for other native wildlife – including native predators that eat birds, such as Cooper’s Hawks, kestrels, owls, and snakes. This is all part of nature! Water features especially will attract a variety of wildlife, and you may observe animals you didn’t know were there drinking from your bird bath!

2. How can I attract bluebirds to the nesting box? I got house wrens last year and house sparrows this year.

3. I just had a brace of 4 bluebird babies fledge and nest is empty, but I think is the same parent pair going back into the house.  Should I take out the old nest? Do they often have more than one set of babies a season?

For complete information about attracting box nesting birds to your yard, check out!

4. Are blue jays solitary birds?  If not, do they mate for life as I think mourning doves do?

No, blue jays are very social! They can form huge flocks, especially during migration and during the winter. They do form monogamous pair bonds during the mating season, and according to All About Birds by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, they often do mate for life. However, we are finding out that most monogamous birds actually “cheat” on their partners fairly often. So it’s more accurate to say they are socially monogamous, but males and females are likely both moderately promiscuous.

5. Are hens the only birds that can lay unfertilized eggs?

No, any egg-laying animal can lay infertile eggs. It’s not uncommon for songbirds to lay infertile eggs during the breeding season. The infertile egg will be left behind in the nest after the young have fledged, or sometimes the parents will carry it away after the others hatch, as they often carry off the empty shells. As far as other egg-laying animals, some reptiles will lay infertile eggs even if they’ve never even seen a male. Other reptile species are parthenogenic, which means females can produce fertile eggs and viable offspring without contribution from a male!

6. We had a hawk visit our backyard for two days. Is that unusual?

Not necessarily! There are a lot of variables here – are you spending more time observing your backyard this spring than springs of the past? Have you made any modifications to your yard in the past year that would attract their prey? Cooper’s hawks are surprisingly common in Columbus neighborhoods, yours might just be the “new kid in town” who is looking for a good patch to spend their summer.

7. Are normal bird banding being cancelled this year?

As far as I’m aware, at least some bird banding is still taking place. A friend of mine at Powdermill Nature Reserve (Pennsylvania) was still able to band this spring, although at at lowered capacity in order to maintain social distancing. They actually caught a Least Bittern yesterday, a very unusual occurrence for that banding station, and its first in 13 years!

8. How can Canada Geese be dissuaded from landing on the property surrounding a senior living residential community?

This is a very serious issue! We actually had this problem at the Ohio History Center. At one time, there was a large pond in the Ohio Village area that was attracting them, so it had to be drained. Even so there were still a few stubborn pairs returning to the OHC campus to nest each year, and they were posing a hazard to OHC staff and guests. I looked into it and discovered the key to keeping geese away was hazing them during January and February, when they are “scouting” for good nesting spots. If geese are repeatedly disturbed in an area, they will feel it’s unsafe for nesting and stay away from it. This effort has to be continued through the end of the nesting season (late May or June). It proved very hard for OHC staff to maintain this effort consistently on top of our usual duties, so OHC hired a service to deter the geese with dogs that are specially trained to chase geese, but not harm them. It was extremely effective, as the geese were much more afraid of the dogs than our human staff. To my knowledge we have not had any geese nesting on OHC campus for the last two years.

9. Has the migration been slowed by the cold temperatures or is it based on other factors, e.g., amount of sunlight?

Recent studies suggest the birds are indeed strongly influenced by temperature as a migration cue. Although the official scientific explanation hasn’t been offered for this year, my opinion is that low temperatures this year hindered plant phenology (budding and blooming), which hindered the emergence of insect prey, which in turn caused this year’s bird migration to be later than past years. This is just relative, of course – due to climate change, plant phenology and migration during the last 20 years is on average happening one week sooner than 60 years ago! So migration this year was actually “right on time”… relative to the mid-20th century average.

10. Any particular songbirds more prevalent this year than normal?

This is pretty difficult to quantify. Overall I’m hearing that people are seeing “uncommon” birds in their yards and neighborhoods with more frequency this spring, but people are also generally spending more time outside than usual, so it’s probably more a result of people paying more attention to them.

**UPDATE June 1 2020: I wanted to share this blog post by Julie Zickefoose. Julie makes the excellent point that we saw more birds at our feeders this spring because the cold temperatures supressed and delayed the appearance of their usual foods – sap, blossoms, and insect prey. In other words, they’re starving.


11. We went out this morning before this webinar.

So did I! It was such a beautiful morning.

12. What does unglaciated mean with birds?

Great question! Ohio basically has two parts: the unglaciated southeast, and the glaciated north and west. A series of glaciers “sanded down” the north and western side of the state but not the southeastern part, with the most recent glacier receding about 10,000 years ago. In practical terms, it means the north and western part of the state is mostly flat or slightly hilly, and the southeast part is more rocky, has more elevational relief, and has more forested habitat. Before European colonization, the glaciated part of the state had swamps, fens, wetland, and prairie as well as forest; today it’s mostly farmland, with small woodlots. Thus, whether you are located in glaciated or unglaciated Ohio can affect what species of birds you see, because the predominant habitats in these two regions are pretty different.

13. I saw a Carolina Wren at my feeder twice over the past week. Likely to stay?

Carolina wrens are year-round residents that form stable pair bonds, so you may see more of this individual! They like to build nests in enclosed places, and will choose sites like mailboxes, shed overhangs, and flower pots. I’ve even seen them build in hanging clothespin bags and discarded hiking boots!

14. My pine warblers love nyjer seeds.

Yes, Pine Warblers are just about the only warbler you will see regularly visiting a feeder, although you may occasionally see Yellow-rumped Warblers visiting feeders as well.

15. Did you learn German as part of your ornithology studies?

No, I actually took 3 years of German in high school – long before I took a serious interest in birds.

16. Kenn Kaufman’s Guides are great!

I have heard good things, but haven’t gotten around to checking them out, I think I will have to now!

17. Will you send out the Q&A from today? Thanks for this presentation!

Here it is! Thanks so much for tuning in!!

Before coming to Ohio History Connection, Erin worked on the Second Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas as a field technician, database manager, Atlas website editor, publishing assistant, GIS technician, and contributor. This definitive guide to all the breeding birds of Ohio was published in 2016.


Posted May 20, 2020

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