Q: Has this winter been cold enough to kill off the deer ticks? Or, at least is this a perfectly safe time of the year to be out walking?

ALFORD READER

A: My guess is that the snow cover, especially in the Hilltowns will be sufficient to protect hikers from most ticks, although some may survive beneath leaf litter and the like.

Adult deer ticks, while are most active in fall and spring, may seek a warm-blooded host anytime winter temperatures are above freezing. Larger mammals like deer can support as many as 2,000 ticks! Mice carry far fewer, but it only takes one to transmit Lyme disease to a new host.

Q: I read somewhere that birds need salt in their diets, so I tossed a handful of rock salt on the deck where I usually scatter seed beyond what I put in three feeders. (Some days I have at least 150 redpolls).

The birds seem to be ignoring the salt.

Did I misread their need for salt? Are they getting adequate amounts off the roads? Why are there no takers for the salt on the deck? Are the rock salt crystals too large for them?

PAUL, Windsor

A: Songbirds need salt, which is especially difficult to come by unless they visit salted highways, which is dangerous.

I can only report seeing one species, the pine grosbeak, pecking away at salt and sand along a roadside. Crossbills, both the red and the white-winged, also take grit and salt from roads and, like the pine grosbeak, live in the Far North.

Perhaps the salt crystals you provided are too big for the species visiting your feeders.


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My suggestion is to try a handful of kosher salt. The crystals are larger than table salt while smaller than road salt.

I would caution against calcium chloride.

Q: What's the story with crossbill bills being shaped as they are? I'm sure it serves a food-related purpose. But what is it?

PAUL, Windsor

A: These odd finches have developed bills that, while appearing disfigured, actually help them extract seeds from tightly closed, tamarack, pine, spruce, fir and hemlock cones.

They are nomads, following the cone crop, and, stranger yet, are known to breed any month of the year.

If you think birds at your feeder eat a lot, consider that an individual white-winged crossbill can eat up to 3,000 conifer seeds each day, according to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

Questions and comments for Thom Smith: Email Naturewatch@live.com.