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Julie Craves explains why starlings sit on chimneys and how House Sparrows steal other birds’ food

European Starling by Charles Wen
European Starling by Charles Wen

In the column “Since You Asked” in every issue of BirdWatching, Contributing Editor Julie Craves answers readers’ questions about birds and bird behavior. Here are two questions from our February 2015 issue:

Starlings often sit on the edge of our chimney. They seem to compete for the space, even on days when it is not especially cold. Why is the chimney so popular? — Carter Walters, Chicago, Illinois

The heat or smoke from chimneys may provide a service to the birds beyond just thermo­regulation. The heat can help dislodge various small ectoparasites that may be on a starling’s feathers or skin. It may also stimulate the preen gland to produce oils that the bird uses to help protect and maintain its feathers. If your chimney visitors are often fluffing, rearranging, and preening their feathers, they may be taking advantage of the warmth to promote good hygiene.


House Sparrow by Cheryl Keyse
House Sparrow by Cheryl Keyse

I enjoy watching nuthatches take peanut pieces from my feeder and hide them for later under loose tree bark. I’ve also seen them put peanuts in holes in a utility pole. Once, I saw House Sparrows cling to the pole and steal the peanuts. Is this unusual behavior? — Charles Zimmerman, New York, New York

Nuthatches are just one of the species at your feeder that commonly store food items to eat later, a behavior known as caching. Other birds you might see stashing food are chickadees, titmice, and jays.

House Sparrows, on the other hand, do not typically cache food, but they are quite adaptable and resourceful. If they observe other birds hiding food, it would not be unusual for them to take advantage of an unguarded hoard. House Sparrows are not too adept at clinging to vertical sides, but if a surface has sufficient texture, they can get a brief grip. I’ve seen them occasionally on rough tree bark, picking insects off brick walls by clinging to the mortar, and, like you, on utility poles.

The nuthatches won’t go hungry, though. They usually tuck away more morsels of food than they get around to retrieving later.

About Julie Craves

Julie-Craves-120Julie is supervisor of avian research at the Rouge River Bird Observatory at the University of Michigan Dearborn and a research associate at the university’s Environmental Interpretive Center. She writes about her research on the blog Net Results, and she maintains the website Coffee & Conservation, a thorough resource on where coffee comes from and its impact on wild birds.

Read other questions that Julie has answered in “Since You Asked.”

If you have a question about birds for Julie, send it to [email protected] or visit our Contact pageA version of this article was published in the February 2015 issue of BirdWatching. Subscribe.

Originally Published

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