Birds & Blooms
Ask the Experts
Get help identifying tricky birds and solving fall garden problems.
Q I’ve heard great horned owls at my house. I don’t want to discourage them, but I’d also love to attract and protect other birds as well. Any suggestions?
Chris Sparacino MCCANDLESS TOWNSHIP, PENNSYLVANIA
Kenn and Kimberly: You’re lucky to have great horned owls nearby, and there’s no need to be too concerned about other birds. These big owls capture a wide variety of prey, from insects and snakes to groundhogs and skunks. On average, birds make up less than 10% of their diet. Even if you hear them often, the owls are probably hunting over a large area, up to a square mile or more, not concentrating on your yard. The best protection for smaller birds is to provide plenty of dense cover, such as native shrubs and trees, where they can sleep securely at night when the owls are hunting.
Q What bird did I photograph?
Holly Harnly MYERSTOWN, PENNSYLVANIA
Kenn and Kimberly: First, we should congratulate you for getting this image. The bird is a member of the warbler family, and these small, active creatures are not easy to photograph. This species is called the Cape May warbler, and it’s recognized by the thin black streaks running down its yellow chest and sides. Cape May warblers spend the summer in spruce forests of eastern Canada and the winter mostly on islands in the Caribbean. They pass through Pennsylvania and nearby regions (including Cape May, New Jersey, for which they were named) during spring and fall migrations.
Q I can’t seem to find this cutie in my bird book. Can you help me?
Kenn and Kimberly: A frequent sight in open stretches of eastern North America in summer, this is an eastern kingbird. It is a relatively plain bird, with a charcoal gray back, a slightly darker top of the head, and whitish throat and underparts. The key field mark is the white band at the tip of its black tail. The one in your photo looks like a juvenile, with pale feather edges on its lower back and a white tail band narrower than on adults. These birds are called kingbirds because they are fearless in defense of their nests.
Q I started apple trees from seed indoors last year. What should I do next to help them thrive?
Melinda: How rewarding to grow plants from seed. You can either plant them outside now or overwinter them indoors as you did last year and move them into the garden in spring. Once they’re outdoors, consider enclosing them in a cage of hardware cloth or treating the plants with a repellent to protect them from hungry animals. Water the trees thoroughly at planting and often enough to keep the soil slightly moist. Be patient, as it can take seven or more years for the trees to reach maturity and begin producing apples. And don’t be surprised if the fruit does not look like the apples from which you collected the seeds. The seeds were the result of cross-pollination between two different apple varieties. The resulting plant may look like one of its parents or a mixture of the two. But experimenting and surprises are all part of the fun.
Q Two pairs of eastern bluebirds moved into our purple martin house. Shouldn’t they be heading south for the winter?
Ann Forth ROCKTON, ONTARIO
Kenn and Kimberly: Although many eastern bluebirds do migrate south in fall, others stay behind. Every winter, small flocks of bluebirds remain through the season in scattered areas all over southern Ontario. One of the keys to their survival is having secure places to sleep at night in cold weather, and it sounds as if the two pairs chose your martin house as their winter roost. Normally it’s a good idea to seal up the entrances to these houses until the martins return in spring, but of course it’s worthwhile to keep them open if bluebirds are using them.
Q When should I start paying attention to the nighttime temperature to make sure I don’t lose my tomato crop?
Mary Anne Thygesen
Melinda: Start watching the forecast prior to the average first fall frost in your area. When frost is in the forecast it’s time to plan for a quick harvest of any remaining red or green tomatoes or provide frost protection. Floating row covers that allow air, light and water through but trap heat around the plants can help extend the harvest season. Unlike sheets, these covers can be left in place until you need or want to harvest the fruit.
Q Is there any data to prove that ultrasonic deer repellents are actually effective?
CAMP HILL, PENNSYLVANIA
Melinda: You are right to be skeptical. According to the University of Vermont, these ultrasonic devices are marketed to repel deer by emitting sounds above 20 kilohertz—which animals, but not humans, are supposed to be able to hear. Research found that deer hear at a different wavelength than that emitted by the ultrasonic repellent, so these products have not been proved to be effective at discouraging them.
Q I thought praying mantises were generally green. Why is this one orange?
Dennis Whitebread DIXON, ILLINOIS
Kenn and Kimberly: Most of the praying mantises in the Midwest belong to introduced species from both Europe and Asia. This one is probably the Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis), a species that can be green, brown or a combination of the two colors. In your photo, the overall orange-brown tone of the insect may look brighter because of the angle of the light and reflection of color from the surface where it’s standing. It’s common for the Chinese mantis to be mostly brown but with a green stripe along the leading edge of the wing, as seen here.
Q I have some old flower seed packets. Are the seeds safe to feed to the birds?
Lorraine Shrader CHARLEROI, PENNSYLVANIA
Kenn and Kimberly: While we understand not wanting to let the old flower seeds go to waste, we don’t recommend feeding them to birds. It’s possible that the seeds have been treated with fungicides or other chemicals that might be harmful to creatures eating them. You could try planting some of the seeds as a test to see if they’re still viable. If not, you could simply add them to compost. For feeding, it’s best to buy birdseed from reputable growers—or leave some dried seed heads on the flowers in your own garden.
Q Can potting soil be reused, or does it need to be thrown away after a plant is removed?
Melinda: Consider using fresh potting soil in your annual planters each year. This helps avoid future pest problems caused by insect or disease populations that may be building in the soil. Try composting the soil as well as the plant. Soil contains wonderful microorganisms that help with decomposition. It’s a great way to recycle potting mix back into the landscape.
Q Of the nine types of hawks that visit Minnesota, which one is this?
Kenn and Kimberly: That’s a fine portrait of an adult Cooper’s hawk, a member of the accipiter group. It has relatively short wings—reaching only to the base of the tail—and a long tail that is broadly rounded at the tip. The most similar bird would be the sharp-shinned hawk, but that’s a smaller species with a more square-tipped tail and a smaller head. The sharpie also has pencil-thin legs, not like the strong, robust legs on this Cooper’s.
Q I have a 15-year-old clementine tree that I planted from seeds. How much bigger will it get?
Dianna Elder HOWARD, OHIO
Melinda: You obviously have mastered the proper care for this citrus plant. Clementines sold at nurseries are usually grafted onto a dwarfing rootstock so they grow only about 6 feet tall. Grown on their own, like yours, they have the potential to reach 25 feet in height. Since your tree is growing in less than ideal conditions for citrus, it will take quite a few years to reach that height. Prune it in spring to help control the growth as needed. Avoid extreme pruning as that can stimulate excessive growth, requiring even more pruning the following season.