Ask Evie

  1. Evie,

    Does anyone know what's up with all the crows lately? I work in the County City Building. This morning, as I was walking to the building at approximately 7:45 AM, there were literally hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of crows flocking around. And it's not the first time!

    In fact, one day in November or December, a great many more of the noisy birds had converged upon downtown South Bend. No one wanted to park (or walk) under a tree. Dozens and dozens of them were perched along the edges of buildings. It was like something out of Hitchcock's "The Birds."

    A co-worker said it means snow is on the way, but I think that that's a myth.

    June K.

    Hello June - thanks for your question about large numbers of crows in South Bend.

    No one knows for sure why this happens, but crows are extremely social. One theory is that the birds are gathering to roost in the most favorable spot. There are advantages to city life in winter!! It's warmer there due to heat radiating from buildings and pavement at night. Large groups also offer protection from predators, such as owls.

    Some scientists think crows may gather to take advantage of food sources so they can follow other crows in the morning to feeding site, or by gathering in numbers somewhat near a reliable food source where an early morning and "bedtime" snack is reliably available. Roosts would likely form in trees somewhat near these large food sources - which might be landfills, composting sites, or ag fields. One other thing of note: before heading to their final night roost, crows often stage in multiple locations before it gets dark. These groups are noisy! The smaller flocks then come together in one large roost site just before dark.

    Crows have been congregating in large roosts in fall and winter for as long as there have been crows. I have family in Auburn, NY and their downtown roost has well over 1000 crows. Recently I saw a crow roost in Florida with several hundred birds.

    In all cases, it is really an amazing feat of bird communication that they all get to one place about the same time!

    Evie Kirkwood

  2. I thought all praying mantis were green. This one is a lot smaller than the ones I've found on my flowers in previous years. Is it a baby?

    Diane R. Cunningham

    Hi Diane,

    Thanks for your great photo of a praying mantis. Since you indicate this one is smaller than others you have seen it is likely a male. Males are significantly smaller than the females. Most entomologists say that color is controlled by genetics; they can be either green and brown in our area -- although some tropical mantids are pink!

    Praying mantises eat almost anything that moves and that they can hold in their legs. If females are especially hungry, they will eat the smaller males after mating. Young mantids, who have emerged from their egg cases, will also eat each other!

    Evie Kirkwood

  3. A number of the maple trees around my house have developed black spots on the leaves. Can you tell me what is happening to them?

    R.E. Rodes

    Hi Robert,

    It sounds like you may have "tar spot." You didn't indicate what type of maple you have, but this fungus is prevalent on non-native Norway maples as well as our native red, silver and sugar maples.

    Several different fungi infect the leaves of maples and cause raised, black spots to form on upper leaf surfaces, usually appearing in summer. The diseases are called "tar spots" because their appearance so closely resemble droplets of tar on leaf surfaces. Tar spot alone is rarely serious enough to threaten the health of trees, but sometimes there can be so many spots that the tree becomes unsightly. Heavy infections can also cause early leaf drop.

    Since the spores overwinter, the most effective management practice in a home lawn is to rake and destroy leaves in the fall because the fungal spores overwinter and spread to new trees via the wind in spring. Mulching/composting leaves will also destroy many of the spots before they mature, but the mulch pile should be covered or turned before new leaves begin to emerge in the spring.

    Hope that helps.

    Evie Kirkwood

  4. Hi, I have a question about Robins. I came home from work last Tuesday and saw about 50 or 60 robins in my area. I put water in the birdbath which they were grateful for and drank and took baths. They were all over and so pretty. I observed them all evening. I have a screen of evergreens that are thick in the back of our property and know they stay there some in the winter. I just wondered why so many were out on just that one evening? Is it the temp change or just the end of nice weather?


    Hi Dianne,

    Thanks for your email about the robins in your backyard. In autumn and winter, robins travel in large nomadic feeding flocks. They move from area to area settling in on sites with good roosting opportunities, but especially where there is a good source of fruit (crab apples, hawthorns, winterberries, wild grapes, etc). They may stay one day or several. Sometimes they descend in a spot in the middle of a snowy day.

    Robins are short distance migrants, and you are correct that many from farther north stay here in our area through winter, primarily in wetlands where there are good supplies of berries.

    Evie Kirkwood

  5. Hello

    We live in the near northwest neighborhood ..near downtown South Bend and have had a fairly large white bird take up residence and hunt in a couple of block territory. It has a distinct, loud screech as it flies from tree to tree, particularly active in the early a.m. and late evening...but have seen it during the day. We have not gotten a real close look at it, but would assume it could be some kind of owl? We first thought it might be some kind of raptorwith it's prehistoric screeching sound ...Jurassic park comes to mind. Are Barn Owls known to inhabit populated neighborhoods?

    Thanks for your thoughts


    Hi James,

    Sounds like you have your visitor narrowed down. Is the bird totally white, or does it have a brown back? Since I don't have a reference point to narrow the size down, we'll go by your audio description.

    It could be a Red-tailed hawk. These birds have a screaming call, a white breast, but are brown on the back. There are however very light individuals, and common records of nearly all white leucanistic forms. These birds are common in our area, but don't really hunt after dark.

    Some juvenile owls screech - a very different sound from their parents typical hoot. Because they tend not to have all their adult feathers, they can look light colored. Great horned and barred owls are found in our area. Poke around on The OWL Pages below, and you can find pictures of our other common owls.

    Finally, there is the barn owl. These birds are rare in our area, but not unheard of. They are white bellied, and tan on the back. If you get a better look at it, look for the heart-shaped face. If we determine this is a barn owl, the local Audubon Society will want to verify the bird and its location.

    Here are a couple of web pages that have audio files that may help: (red tailed hawk) (recording of nearly all the owls in the world) (photos of barn owl)

    If you determine what it is, let me know!

    Evie Kirkwood

  6. Hi

    I have a question for Evie Kirkwood. Where do bluebirds spend the winter? We had one at our winter water bowl yesterday and are wondering if this is unusual? They nest in our boxes in the summer time but we have never seen one this late in the year.

    Thanks for any info you may have.


    Shirley Alberts

    Hi Shirley,

    Thanks for your note!

    Some bluebirds migrate south, but many bluebirds are year-round residents here. Estimates are that about 1/3 of them stay here during the snowy months. I regularly see them on Audubon Christmas Bird counts in December and January in our region.

    They spend the winter in wetlands and shrubby areas, where plenty of berries can be found. Red cedar, Virginia creeper, sumacs, bittersweet, dogwood and hawthorne are all native plants that feed wintering bluebirds.

    Some folks supply food at winter feeders consisting of peanut butter, cornmeal mixes and mealworms. These high-fat, high protein foods are good energy sources for wintering bluebirds.

    You can find lots of info about bluebirds from the North American Bluebird Society on their web site:

    Evie Kirkwood

  7. Ms. Kirkwood,

    I would like your advice. I have a suet feeder (small wire cage with a block of suet inside) that is not being accessed by birds. I previously had the cage suspended in my garden at the back of my lot for two weeks with no interest. I have hung it on a hook from my gutter for the last week with no interest.

    I have three other feeders (finch feeder with thistle hanging from a gutter, two feeders with standard wild seed hanging from hooks in pine trees at the back of my yard) that all generate lots of interest. We have finches, nuthatches, cardinals, blue jays, sparrows, crows, etc. in our subdivision neighborhood. Can you provide any advice on increasing the birds interest in the suet?

    I enjoy your weekly Sunday column in the Tribune very much.

    Thank you,

    Jerry Wood

    Hi Jerry,

    Thanks for your note. It's hard to say what may be going on with your suet. However, if this is the first time you have hung this feeder, it may take the birds a month to find a new feeder. So you'll want to keep it in one place for awhile. If it is hung near other feeders, that will help birds find it. Then you can move it in stages to where you prefer to hang it.

    What kind of suet are you using? Did you purchase a pre-packed suet from a store, or did you get raw suet from the meat counter? If the latter, it may have gotten rancid in warm weather. I render my raw suet, by melting it on the stove in water, and chilling it. The fat will float and solidify. Then I cut it into blocks and freeze it. Rendered suet lasts much longer than raw suet or fat.

    Sometimes I purchase pre-packed suet in blocks and I store those in the freezer as well.

    You might try smearing a bit of peanut better mixed with cornmeal on the feeder as a special enticement. The smell might attract them.

    Hopefully, it's just a case of taking the birds some time to find the treat; be patient, and they will find it soon.

    Evie Kirkwood

  8. Hello!

    My name is Jon, and I watch Outdoor Elements alot. I have 10 acres of woods in Kewanna, Indiana and I need help identifying some of my trees. I have a tree guide for my part of the country, but it's not always helpful. I'm attaching two pics from a specific tree to this message, one of the bark, and one of a fallen leaf. The leaf is larger than my hand. To me, the leaf looks like a maple. The bark has shades of pink in it(it may not show in the picture). Also, these pictures were taken with a camera phone, so the resolution isn't great, but I think there's enough detail to identify it. The pictures were taken a few days ago.

    Can you help me figure out what tree this is?

    If so, thank you!

    Jon Secviar

    Hi Jon,

    Thanks for your note. The photos were great. The tree you have is one of my favorites. It's a sycamore. Typically they grow where the water table is fairly shallow. These stately trees line some of our rivers and streams. As they get older, they slough off their bark in patches, creating a sort of camouflaged look. Your tree, which is still fairly small as sycamores go, is starting to do this. Large sycamores have nearly white smooth bark. The round spiky seed pods on older trees are good food sources for birds.

    Enjoy your tree!

    Evie Kirkwood

  9. This is a Columbine with regular and double flowers. Do you have any idea what can cause this?

    Fran Richards

    Dear Fran,

    Thanks for the photo of the Columbine with single and double flowers. I'm not an expert on non-native garden plants, but I consulted with Master Gardener Anita Messina. Columbines often re-seed freely. It's possible that you had a "double" variety (a horticultural cultivar) which seeded itself and is reverting back to its more natural single-flowered state. If you didn't have Columbine planted here, it's possible an animal brought in the seeds, or they came in a pot with another plant.

    Hope that helps!

    Evie Kirkwood

Send your questions to