A relative of the black phoebe, an Eastern phoebe.
A relative of the black phoebe, an Eastern phoebe. (Mike Marlett/Wichita Eagle)

DEAR JOAN: We have a bird nest tucked into the top wall of the alcove of a back entrance. The nest originated with a pair of black phoebes building it against the stucco of the house with no supporting structure below.

For the past five years, phoebes have returned to the nest, doing a little remodeling each time, then having one or two broods in a summer season. Only once was the nest occupied by an usurper, a Pacific slope flycatcher with a yellow breast. Each October a single phoebe roosts at night on the side of the nest.

Are the returning phoebes the offspring of some of the original birds who stay in the same location year after year? Should we leave the old nest in place or remove it to allow building of a fresh new nest in this protected location?

Elaine Anderson

Stanford

DEAR ELAINE: What a treat to see these wonderful, vocal birds. They eat insects, which makes them a great partner in the urban and suburban backyard.

You may be seeing the offspring of the original nest-builder, or even the original birds.

Just as likely, you may be seeing unrelated birds who simply like the location. Phoebes are always found near a water source that provides mud for the nests and a steady supply of insects.

Although phoebes often reuse their nests, it's a good idea to take this one down and let them build a new one. Nests, whether made of mud or twigs, can harbor mites and diseases that could be spread to new tenants. Now also is a good time to clean out nest boxes using a solution of one part bleach to 20 parts water; rinse well and let dry. The birds will use them in the winter to keep warm.

A doe feeds on grass at Quail Hollow Ranch in Santa Cruz. Do you have a wildlife photo to share? Send a high resolution jpg to
A doe feeds on grass at Quail Hollow Ranch in Santa Cruz. Do you have a wildlife photo to share? Send a high resolution jpg to jmorris@bayareanewsgroups.com. (Courtesy of Brenna Dyson)

DEAR JOAN: During the latter part of September, dozens of birds of several varieties and two squirrels vanished from my yard. It was as if the wild bird and sunflower seeds that I was providing them were poisoned.

It has been a mystery to me. Have others noticed a similar problem?

Russell Wylde

Bay Area

DEAR RUSSELL: It's hard to say what happened to the birds and squirrels. If the birds are migratory, they may have left for that long flight south.

Squirrels can be rather fickle, moving on to other yards and trees if the food supply seems better to them. Because you only had a couple of squirrels, I don't think it's that unusual not to see them around for a bit.

Wildlife is sensitive to changes in the environment. If a cat has moved into the neighborhood, it might have scared the birds away.

I hope that no one is setting out poison that might have killed the birds, but I think the more likely answer is that the birds have temporarily moved on and, with luck, will be back.

I just moved to a new house and am trying to get a handle on what wildlife is around. I've set out bird feeders that have so far been untouched, but I have started noticing birds going after the berries on my Chinese pistache. Be patient, and keep the feeders full.

Treat warning

More than 500 pets have died and more than 3,600 have become ill from tainted jerky treats from China, prompting an investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

To be safe, let's find some alternative treats until we know more.

Contact Joan Morris at jmorris@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/AskJoanMorris.