Thom Smith | Naturewatch: Hummingbirds not the only ones attracted to feeders


Q: I have a hummingbird feeder, that's been there for 15 years. Last week a woodpecker was drinking from it. At first, he would hang upside down and lift himself up like a sit up. Now he just sits on the plastic flower and scrunched up to reach the juice. If a hummingbird comes he stands up really tall and they fly away, then he scrunched up again. He comes every day. Morning, noon and night. Have you ever heard of such a thing?

— Barb G., Townshend, Vt.

A: I have heard of such a thing (as woodpecker at hummingbird feeder) and have seen the downy woodpecker and Baltimore oriole feeding at sugar-water feeders. In the Northeast, the Baltimore oriole is a common sugar-water enthusiast as is the downy woodpecker, but other species will not pass up the opportunity if the feeder is discovered and they can find a way to reach the energizing treat within. Even gray squirrels, and chipmunks will feast on the sweet solution. And of course, so do bears. Add some bubbles and flavoring, and we, too, will enjoy it.

Q: For the winter I put a salt lick for the deer but now the deer aren't bothering with it so I figured it wasn't any good. There is a rabbit licking it. Is this unusual?

— Nancy

A: From what little I know on the subject, I will say a deer's interest in salt licks varies with the seasons, but there are always other mammals around, including cottontails, that will take advantage of a salt lick. One of the common visitors to a salt lick is the porcupine that is so interested in salt that one will chew on automobile radiator hoses and even tires. In olden days (or much more so then) porcupines had an uncanny aptitude for finding outhouses, where they would chew on the seats. Even today, in places where this prickly rodent is common, tools with wooden handles are not safe from their sharp teeth, as they attempt to "harvest" salt from a worker's hands.

Many other animals are attracted to both a salt lick and salt along roads (during winter). Not only are mammals keen on salt; I have seen several different bird species in roads pecking at salt. The most exciting find for me was a large flock of rare pine grosbeaks visiting the Berkshires from northern boreal forests. They gathered right in the road, and had little fear of our approaching vehicle.

Salt licks are illegal during deer hunting season in Massachusetts and Vermont.

Q: What is that buzzing sound I am hearing on hot days? As much as I look, I can never find what is making the noise, so I guess it isn't very large.

— Edward, Lenox, Mass.

A: You are hearing a singing male bug called the cicada. Sometimes it is called the annual cicada, sometimes it is called the dog days cicada or harvest fly because of the time of the year it emerges and mates. Although called "annual," larvae do spend a few years (average three years) underground feeding on the sap of tree roots. My guess is white pine is one of the trees it feeds on while feeding underground, as I watched one emerge last August and was able to make a video of it. And while it is not a cricket or grasshopper, its scientific name comes from the Latin meaning "tree cricket."

Thom Smith welcomes your questions and comments. Email him at or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 South Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201


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