Jul 29 2016

Urban Birds Have It All

Peregrine falcon, Dorothy, at the Cathedral of Learning, Feb 2011 (photo by Patricia Szczepanski)

Peregrine falcon, Dorothy, at the Cathedral of Learning in February 2011 (photo by Patricia Szczepanski)

Twenty-five years ago peregrine falcons moved into the City of Pittsburgh.  Since then lots of cool raptors have come here, too, including red-tailed hawks, Coopers hawks, turkey vultures and, most recently, bald eagles.

City living provides food and protection from predators but birds face new challenges by living near humans.  Jean-Nicolas Audet of McGill University wondered if these challenges put city birds at a disadvantage compared to their country cousins so he designed some tests to answer these questions:  Which group is better at problem solving? Which group is more immune to disease?  And since both traits require lots of energy, is there a trade-off such that smarter birds have lower immunity?

The Caribbean island of Barbados has both city and country habitats and an endemic species that lives in both places, the Barbados bullfinch (Loxigilla barbadensis).  Audet tested the bullfinches and the results were surprising.

“We found that not only were birds from urbanized areas better at innovative problem-solving tasks than bullfinches from rural environments, but that surprisingly urban birds also had a better immunity than rural birds,” says Jean-Nicolas Audet, a Ph.D student in the Department of Biology and first author of the study published in the journal Behavioral Ecology in 2016.

As earth’s human population grows and more habitat is converted to cities, more birds may have to choose the urban environment.  If they can adapt, it will be a smart move.  As Audet says, “Urban birds have it all.”


Read more about the 2016 study and find links here to The town bird and the country bird: problem solving and immunocompetence vary with urbanization.

(photo of Dorothy in 2011 by Patricia Szczepanski. video from McGill University on YouTube)

No responses yet

Jul 28 2016

Drinking Techniques

Italian Sparrows in Bolzano, Italy (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Sparrows take a sip in Bolzano, Italy (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On Throw Back Thursday:

Like us birds drink more water in the summer heat.  Have you noticed they use different drinking techniques?  Some drink with faces down, others tilt their faces up.

These house sparrows appear to be using the face-down technique on a martini.  But wait!  The glass held ice cream and they’re picking at the remains.   So what do they really do?

Find out how birds drink in this vintage article from 2010:

Anatomy: How Birds Drink


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)

No responses yet

Jul 27 2016

Alien On The Loose

Asian longhorned beetle animation linked from USDA website

Asian longhorned beetle animation linked from USDA website.

Eeeeewww!  It’s an alien!

I’m not kidding.  This bug is an alien invader from China that hitchhikes as larvae in wooden packing material.  When it gets here it eats trees … lots of them!  If it shows up in your neighborhood it has to be eradicated.  Otherwise your town is doomed.

The Asian longhorned beetle (Anoplophora glabripennis (Motschulsky, 1853)), or ALB, is a very large wood-eating beetle native to China and the Korean peninsula.  Its white-spotted black body is an inch long with antennae 1.5 to 2 times longer than its body.  The antennae are unique, banded black and white.

Because it arrives in infected wood, ALB’s first location in North America is a warehouse. From there it spreads unpredictably, depending on the shipment.  It’s been found in suburbs and cities in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Illinois, Ohio and Ontario.  Click here for the map as of July 2015.

When the beetle gets loose it’s not picky.  Its eats maples, elms, birches, willows, poplars, ashes, hackberries, horsechestnuts, London planetrees … just about anything … but it takes 3-4 years to notice it.  The adults are active late spring until fall so July is a good time of year to see its damage or the bug itself.

And this bug is noticeable. Big and showy, even its larvae (at left) are huge.

Larva and adut Asian longhorned beetle (photos by Joe Boggs, Ohio State University, Bugwood.org)

Larva and adult Asian longhorned beetle (photos by Joe Boggs, Ohio State University, Bugwood.org)

If you don’t see the bug you may see its evidence.

This unusual leaf damage is a hallmark of ALB. They eat the ribs of leaves, not the papery part.

Leaf damage from Asian longhorned beetle (photo byPennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources - Forestry , Bugwood.org)

Leaf damage from Asian longhorned beetle (photo by PA DCNR, Forestry at Bugwood.org)

Its entrance and exit holes are unique, too.

The female excavates a niche in the bark and lays her eggs in the hole.  Each roughly chewed egg niche is half the size of a dime.

Two egg niches drilled by Asian longhorned beetles (photo by Joe Boggs, Ohio State University, Bugwood.org)

Two egg niches drilled by Asian longhorned beetles (photo by Joe Boggs, Ohio State University, Bugwood.org)

To get out of the tree, the beetle chews a perfect-circle hole as big as a pencil!

Asian longhorned beetle exit holes (photos by Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut and Joe Boggs, Ohio State University, Bugwood.org)

Asian longhorned beetle exit holes (photos by Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut and Joe Boggs, Ohio State University, Bugwood.org)

We can stop ALB if he’s confined to cities but if he gets loose in our forests all bets are off.

So if you see an Asian longhorned beetle or its damage, report it.  There are some look alikes, but USDA wants us to be better safe than sorry.  Call them at 1-866-702-9938 or click here for details.

Report this invader!  Don’t let him take hold!

Adult Asian longhorned beetle in someone's hand (photo by Michael Bohne, Bugwood.org)

Adult Asian longhorned beetle in hand (photo by Michael Bohne, Bugwood.org)


Read more about Asian longhorned beetles at USDA’s beetlebusters.info website.

(beetle animation linked from USDA’s website, photos from Bugwood.org)

2 responses so far

Jul 26 2016

The Largest Crop in America

Published by under Musings & News,Plants

Irrigating the largest crop in America (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Irrigating the largest crop in America (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If you think about it, a lot of us are farmers.  We devote our small acreage to a crop that we fertilize, water and harvest.  Then we throw away the harvest or grind it up to re-fertilize the crop.  We never eat it and we don’t feed it to our animals.

Grass.  In Pennsylvania we devote 1.8 million acres to lawns.  Our next largest crop uses 1.6 million acres. (*See table below.)

The amazing dominance of the lawn is true everywhere in the continental the U.S. except in the Central West — Montana to Nevada to Kansas — where hay, corn and soybeans take up more space.  Click here and scroll down for the map.

This isn’t really news.  A 2005 study by Cristina Melisi used satellite data to show that lawns are the largest crop in America and the most irrigated by acreage.  This is no surprise in Florida and the West where lawns have built-in irrigation systems, but do we irrigate in the Northeast?  You bet!  The sprinklers are running this month.

Some homeowners break the mold by making meadows or growing vegetables but they often have to explain it to their neighbors.  The two-year-old Beacon-Bartlett meadow in Schenley Park has educational signs explaining “This is intentional.”

If I was a gardener I’d convert my tiny backyard lawn but I’m not even a participant.  I am, at best, an observer using my Newcomb’s Guide to identify what comes up.  I never water, weed or seed it. When it grows, it gets cut. It’s not growing right now.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

(*) TEXT UPDATED July 26, 9:30pm:  The original text was wildly incorrect!  Thank you Mary Ann Pike for providing a correction with this link at USDA.  Here’s a table combining lawn and USDA statistics for Pennsylvania:

Cultivation/ Crop Acreage in PA
Lawns 1.8 million
Hay and Haylage 1.6 million
Corn for grain/silage 1.3 million
Soybeans 0.9 million
Wheat 0.1 million

This means that lawns are about 30% of Pennsylvania’s cultivated lands.

7 responses so far

Jul 25 2016

The Harriers of Piney Tract

Male northern harrier nesting at Piney Tract, summer 2016 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Male northern harrier at Piney Tract, summer 2016 (photo by Steve Gosser)

This summer Steve Gosser spent a lot of time at Piney Tract in Clarion County photographing a family of northern harriers.  The harriers nested there because it’s one of their preferred habitats and one of the few grasslands in western Pennsylvania.

Though they’re birds of prey, northern harriers (Circus cyaneus) nest on the ground.  The male harrier usually does all the hunting, then transfers the food to his mate in an aerial prey exchange.  The female takes the prey to the nest and feeds the young but she’s sneaky about it so she doesn’t give away the nest location.

Throughout their nesting season Steve was able to photograph them from his car window without disturbing them.  He captured their prey exchanges and aerial maneuvers though he never saw the nest.  Later he learned that they fledged three chicks.

Read about the harriers and see Steve’s beautiful photos at his blog post: A Summer Watching the Harriers at Piney Tract.

See all of Steve’s work at his new website, gosserphotos.com


A note to my European readers: The northern harrier is the same species as the hen harrier in Europe.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

One response so far

Jul 25 2016

Reminder: Duck Hollow Walk, July 31

Published by under Books & Events

Killdeer (photo by Chuck Tague) Just a reminder that I’m leading a bird and nature walk on Sunday, July 31, 8:30am – 10:30am, at Duck Hollow and the south end of Frick Park’s Nine Mile Run Trail.

Meet at the Duck Hollow parking lot at the end of Old Browns Hill Road.

Dress for the weather. Bring binoculars and field guides if you have them.

Click here for more information and updates in case the walk is canceled for bad weather.

If the river isn’t too high we’ll see killdeer on the Nine Mile Run delta.

See you soon.

(photo of killdeer by Chuck Tague)

One response so far

Jul 24 2016

Bladder Campion

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Bladder campion, 17 Jul 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Bladder campion, 17 Jul 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

This unusual flower with a swollen calyx is blooming now in western Pennsylvania.  Though the plant stands two feet tall its bladder-like flowers weigh down the branches when it’s in full bloom.

Bladder campion (Silene vulgaris) is a member of the Pink family (Caryophyllaceae) native to Eurasia.  It prefers to grow in waste places or sandy soil and is found as far north as Greenland and Alaska.  Some people call it a weed.

Why is it here?  Perhaps because its leaves and young shoots are eaten in some Mediterranean dishes.  Or because it’s pretty.

I found this one blooming by the side of the road at the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail.


p.s.  Sometimes the swollen calyx is pink as shown in this article from 2011 entitled Balloons.

(photo by Kate St. John)

No responses yet

Jul 23 2016

Now Blooming: Water Willow

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Water willow, Ohiopyle, July 2016 (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Water willow, Ohiopyle, July 2016 (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Here’s a plant you might not notice unless you walk to the water’s edge. Even then, it’s unremarkable from a distance because it looks like a clump of tall grass –> like this.

American water willow (Justicia americana) is the hardiest member of the tropical Justicia genus and the only one found in Pennsylvania. It likes to keep its feet wet so it typically grows on muddy shores or islands in creeks and rivers.

It’s always associated with water and its leaves resemble willows and so it got its name.

Water willow’s iris-like flowers are 1.5 inches across so they’re hard to see on a distant island.  However, I’ve found them on shore at Duck Hollow, in Slippery Rock Creek at McConnell’s Mill State Park and in Chartiers Creek at Boyce-Mayview wetlands.

In this weekend’s hot weather, check out the water’s edge.  Dianne Machesney found this one blooming at the Youghiogheny River in Ohiopyle.


(photo by Dianne Machesney)

2 responses so far

Jul 22 2016

Purple Martins: Faithful to Home

Purple martin fledgling opens wide for dad (photo by Donna Foyle)

Purple martin fledgling opens wide for dad (photo by Donna Foyle)

Last Saturday fourteen of us joined purple martin landlords and their families at Bob Allnock’s annual Purple Martin Night where we learned about the birds and heard news of their success.

Click here for the slideshow that illustrates this article.

Purple martins (Progne subis) are North America’s largest swallow and the only bird that relies on man-made housing for its nest.  The western population still uses woodpecker holes but eastern purple martins made the switch long ago to nest colonially in apartments and man-made gourds provided by human landlords.

Purple martin houses at Bob Allnock's (photo by Kate St. John)

Purple martin houses at Bob Allnock’s (photo by Kate St. John)

The landlords provide housing and protection and the martins return faithfully every year.  The dark blueish purple males arrive first — in April in western Pennsylvania — followed by the adult females with dark backs, light bellies and gray collars.  The adults claim their favorite nest sites before the speckled sub-adults arrive.

Purple martins eat only flying insects and are especially fond of dragonflies.  To catch them they feed higher in the sky than other swallows.  We didn’t think the martins were anywhere near us until we looked up at the clouds with our binoculars and saw them wheeling as much as 500 feet above.

Female purple martin with food for her nestlings (photo by Donna Foyle)

Female purple martin with food for her nestlings (photo by Donna Foyle)

By mid-July many of the young martins in Bob’s colony had already fledged but they still begged from their parents.   The (approx) 80 nest sites were humming with activity as the adults fed youngsters, took out the garbage (fecal sacs), and sometimes even tussled at the nest holes.  One youngster (see him in gourd #2) fledged while we were there.

Like all birds, purple martins are vulnerable to nest predation and a variable food supply. Fortunately they have dedicated landlords who …

  • Check the nests to make sure all is well. In the slideshow notice the circular access lid on the gourds. Bob Allnock can also watch three nests on nestcams.
  • Protect the nests from starlings by providing M-shaped holes that only purple martins can use.
  • Thwart raccoons and snakes who climb the poles to raid the nests.  Bob Allnock has wrapped the base of his poles with live electric wiring (“electric fence”).  One shock is all it takes!
  • Scare off great horned owls who raid from the air.  Bob turns on a yellow “air dancer” at dusk.  He moves it to a new location every night so the owls don’t get wise to it.
  • Provide supplemental feeding during prolonged wet weather when the bugs don’t fly. Purple martins starve without these feedings.

And the weather has cooperated.  This year’s fledglings are doing well in western Pennsylvania’s dry weather, especially after three wet years in a row.

Until their young have learned the ropes the purple martins stay at the colony.  At dusk they return to spend the night inside the nests.

In September they’ll leave for Brazil and their landlords will wait through the long quiet winter for their faithful purple martins to come home.

Click here for a slideshow of the event.


(All the purple martin close-ups are by Donna Foyle. House photos by Kate St. John.  Image of yellow inflatable air dancer from Amazon.com)

4 responses so far

Jul 21 2016

TBT: How to Swat a Fly

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

House fly (photo by Alvesgasper from Wikimedia Commons)

House fly (photo by Alvesgasper from Wikimedia Commons)

It’s July and the house flies are getting more annoying.

My cat chases them around the house and when she fails I try to swat them — but they evade me.

On Throw Back Thursday (TBT) here’s a timely article on How to Swat a Fly.

How to Swat a Fly


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

One response so far

Next »