Monthly Archives: November 2007

‘Your bird is out there above the dumpsters.’

Red-tailed Hawk soaring (photo by Chuck Tague)That’s what Cliff tells me at least once a week at WQED. 

Many people at work know that I’m interested in birds and the two most interesting birds at work are the pair of red-tailed hawks who’ve claimed the territory around WQED in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh.  I am sure to hear when they're nearby.

This pair has made themselves famous by hunting for rodents behind the dumpster (good job!), for soaring together over Central Catholic High School and mating on the parapets, for eating a rabbit - outside the third floor windows - in the tree in front of our building, and for ignoring their loudly whining youngsters who are too old to be begging from mom and dad.

And they look just plain huge when perched.  

The red-tails have generated a lot of questions over the years.  Some of the answers are…   

  • They live in the city because there's enough to eat and they aren't harassed. 
  • They eat rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, mice, rats and pigeons (if they can catch one on the ground) among other things.  I am especially glad they eat rats.
  • They won’t try to eat something that will put up a dangerous fight because they can’t afford to get hurt trying to catch dinner.  They are very, very unlikely to attack a small dog or cat.
  • Because they pounce on their prey from above, red-tails like to perch on tall dead trees.  To a red-tail, light posts on the Parkway look like tall dead trees.
  • Yes, they have a nest somewhere near here but only in spring.  Their nest is the babies’ bed.  The adults don’t live in the nest themselves. 
  • It is actually courtship when the male brings a dead chipmunk to his mate.
  • They are ignoring that loud, whining red-tailed hawk because he’s their kid.  He has to learn to hunt and if they feed him he will never learn.  He thinks begging will break their resolve. 
  • If two red-tails are perched next to each other, they are either mates or parent and child.  Red-tails don’t make friends with other red-tails as a general rule.

Today the red-tails were busy, busy.  Hunting.  A cold front is coming tonight and they had to eat today because they don’t know how long the bad weather will last.  Better face the storm with a full stomach.   In winter it’s a matter of life and death.

What a difference a day makes

Fall leaves and sky in Oakland (photo by Kate)No gray skies today!  I took this picture at lunch time.

With good weather today and a cold front coming tomorrow, the birds are quite active:  large flocks of grackles in Schenley Park, blue jays flying south, a red-tailed hawk hunting near Central Catholic High School (steeple in picture), and a peregrine falcon perched at the top of University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning.

Gray Day

It's an overcast morning in Pittsburgh.  This is the third day in a row of gray skies, not unusual for November here.  Today there are very few birds moving around.  The most active critters are the squirrels.

On days like this I think of the poem 'No!' by Thomas Hood (1844) a portion of which reads:

No sun - no moon!
No morn - no noon -
No dawn - no dusk - no proper time of day.
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member -
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! -

Waiting for Tundra Swans

Tundra Swans (photo by Chuck Tague)Any day now tundra swans will move through western Pennsylvania on their way south to the Chesapeake.  A flock usually flies over my house at night in early November.  I know they’re overhead when I hear them calling as they fly, a “woo-ing” sound that, to me, resembles the voices of children playing in the distance.  If I’m lucky, I’m already outdoors and can see them illuminated from below by the city lights.  Otherwise I race for the door, burst outside in the dark – and usually miss them.

Tundra swans hold a particular fascination for me, partly because they rarely spend any time near Pittsburgh.  Those seen here in the fall generally spend the summer breeding in Canada’s Northwest Territory and Alaska’s North Slope.  In autumn they fly south and east across Canada, the Great Lakes and Pennsylvania, destined for Chesapeake Bay and North Carolina – a journey that covers 3,600 miles and takes about 12 weeks. 

I will never forget the time I watched a flock of tundra swans land at dusk on Yellow Creek Lake in Indiana County.  I was sitting in the Waterfowl Observatory blind, unable to see the sky.  Snow had started falling when I heard the voices of swans overhead.  As they came into view they circled once, then one after the other they cupped their wings and landed in a gliding V on the lake.  What a beautiful thing.

Come, swans!