Archive for December, 2008

Dec 10 2008

Pigeons in the Nation’s Service

Published by under Doves & Chickens

Rock Pigeon (photo by Chuck Tague)Until quite recently, pigeons had a noble reputation.  Their homing instincts made them critical message carriers especially in times of war.

Pigeons changed the course of history from the time of the ancient Greeks until the mid 20th century.  Armies on the move carried cages full of pigeons ready to send news to headquarters.  To deliver a message they tied a capsule to a pigeon and released the bird.  The pigeon immediately flew home.  Ta dah!

This was a great advantage for the first army to use pigeons, but it didn't take long for both sides to figure out they could kill the birds and intercept the messages.

Pigeons were critical in the Franco-Prussian War and the seige of Paris when microphotography allowed one bird to carry up to 30,000 messages.  The birds were used extensively in World War I.  A pigeon even saved an American battalion that was trapped behind enemy lines and bombarded by friendly fire.  The soldiers released several birds but all were killed except Cher Ami.  Though seriously wounded, Cher Ami continued his 25-mile mission, delivered the message and stopped the shelling.  After he recovered, though missing an eye, he was awarded the French "Croix de Guerre."

Pigeons continued to carry messages during World War II, especially for spying and situations that required radio silence.  They even carried cameras that took pictures behind enemy lines, a pre-satellite form of aerial surveillance.  Pigeons were considered so important that both the British and the Germans used peregrines to kill the enemy's messengers.  This wasn't totally successful because the peregrines didn't ask whose side the pigeon was on before killing it.

The age of electronic communication put pigeons out of a job.  The last military use(*) of pigeons was in the 1970s when the U.S. Coast Guard discovered the birds recognize shapes and are much better than humans at finding people and equipment lost at sea.  This program never made it beyond the testing phase, though.  It ended during budget cuts.

Since then the pigeon's reputation has gone sour.  Few people remember the glory days (I don't) and most have little respect when they see large flocks pecking seed on the sidewalk.

But there's a glimmer in this dark cloud.  Pigeons continue to help people through scientific research - from bird navigation to power napping.  If a pigeon helps find the cure for cancer, we'll all be grateful.  Maybe then the glory days will return.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

(*) p.s. I take that back!  The U.S. military used pigeons as gas detectors in the early days of the Iraq War.

p.s. #2.   Just found a Dec 27th blog on this subject with additional information on the pigeons of war.

6 responses so far

Dec 08 2008

What to Look For: Through Early January

Published by under Phenology

White-crowned Sparrow (photo by Chuck Tague)Now it's really winter and the birds who lingered up north are coming here to escape the cold, dark and lack of food.  Chuck Tague has published his latest phenology to let you know who these newcomers will be through early January.

Here's a summary of his list and a few suggestions of my own.  Click here for Chuck's complete list.

  • Get close to the moon on December 12th, the closest and largest full moon of 2008.  Chuck gives suggestions on where to observe it.
  • As the lakes freeze up north check the rivers for newly arrived ducks, geese and gulls.  Check the creeks for great-blue herons and belted kingfishers.
  • Snow cover forces tundra birds our way.  Search manured fields for horned larks, snow buntings and lapland longspurs.  Watch for rough-legged hawks hunting over the snow.
  • White-crowned sparrows are becoming more common here in winter.  I hope I see one of them (pictured above) on the Christmas Bird Count.
  • The 109th annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) will be held across North America from Sunday December 14 through Sunday January 5th.  Go to page 7 here to see the list of CBCs with contact information should you wish to participate.  I'll be counting on two of them:  Buffalo Creek on December 14 and the Pittsburgh count on December 27.
  • Winter begins on December 21, the winter solstice.  The days will start getting longer after the solstice but you probably won't notice for a few weeks.
  • After winter's silence, song sparrows will sing on the first sunny day in January.

What species will be the first bird you see in 2009?   It's something to look forward to!

(photo by Chuck Tague)

2 responses so far

Dec 07 2008

Cold Sun

Published by under Weather & Sky

Outside my window (photo by Kate St. John)It's one of those days when it looks nicer outside than it really is.   The wind is blowing hard from the north but the sun is out so the birds and squirrels are at my feeders. 

It's a good day for staying indoors with a cup of hot chocolate.  I know this because I took a walk at Duck Hollow this morning.  It's sheltered from the north so after seeing hundreds of gulls, some hooded mergansers and a lesser scaup I walked along the river trail. 

There I found a flock of cardinals, carolina chickadees and white-throated sparrows eating Oriental bittersweet berries.  This invasive plant seemed to be the only abundant bird food along the trail - except for the birds themselves.  A red-tailed hawk eventually caught one of them. 

I rounded the bend in the river.  Now the wind was in my face but there was a surprise overhead.  Two flocks of tundra swans flew over.  Woo hoo!

By then I was thoroughly cold so I hurried home for lunch and the comforts of home - and to look outside my window.

(photo by Kate St. John, taken from my back window)

One response so far

Dec 06 2008

Acorn Plot?

Published by under Mammals,Schenley Park

Gray squirrel (photo by Chuck Tague)

Gray squirrel (photo by Chuck Tague)

Squirrels made national news this week.  (30 Nov - 6 Dec 2008)

On November 30 the Washington Post reported there are no acorns this year in northern Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC.  The next day NPR picked up the story.

The total absence of acorns is puzzling scientists but not worrying them yet.  Oaks have natural boom and bust cycles.  However, having zero acorns puts the squirrel population in jeopardy.  They have far less to eat this winter and some will starve.  To prevent this people in Virginia have started feeding them store-bought hazelnuts!

But I couldn't help wondering.  Was this just an "Inside the Beltway" phenomenon?  Are there no acorns anywhere in the U.S. or did squirrels become national news because there are no acorns in D.C.?  Is this a plot by the squirrels to get handouts all over the country even though there's more than enough to eat everywhere else?  I decided to conduct my own research.

On my way through Schenley Park I stopped beneath a stand of oak trees and sifted through the leaves.  I found acorn caps and some rotten acorn pieces but nothing I'd call a "new" acorn.  Were these leftover acorns from last year?  Did the squirrels eat or cache all the good ones?   Did I accidentally find the dump where all the old leaf litter ended up?

I didn't feel qualified to answer these questions so I turned to Google and they pointed me to the PA Game Commission website.  The Game Commission tracks the acorn crop because it's such an important food for wild turkeys, deer and bears.   There I learned that acorns are indeed variable across the state this fall.  In Westmoreland County the Game Commission reported a good crop, in the Pittsburgh area it was rated "fair," and in northcentral, northwestern and southcentral PA (closest to D.C.) it was considered "poor."

So it isn't a plot.  It isn't a conspiracy.  Some squirrels are going to suffer.  Not mine, though.  They're fat and sassy, eating from my neighbor's black walnut tree.


(photo by Chuck Tague)

6 responses so far

Dec 04 2008

Pittsburgh Pete’s in rehab

Published by under Peregrines

Pittsburgh Pete in rehab in Hamilton, Ontario (photo by Judy Bailey)Back on August 5 I reported on a male peregrine born at the Gulf Tower in 2006 who was injured in a fight at the Burlington Lift Bridge in Canada. 

Nicknamed "Pittsburgh Pete," he nested successfully at the Lift Bridge and raised four young but in late June a rival showed up and nearly killed him. 

Pete survived his injuries and seemed to be doing well but his rival did not leave the scene.  Observers noticed that Pete's mate seemed to tolerate the rival.  What next?

On November 9 Pete was found unable to fly.  Judy Bailey, an Animal Control Officer for the City of Hamilton, Ontario, came to his rescue and took him to the vet where he was examined and x-rayed.  None of his bones were broken.  Perhaps he had soft tissue damage or a mild head trauma.  In human terms that could be a sprain or a ligament injury or a bop on the head.

After his vet visit Pete settled in at Judy's aviary where she's feeding him gutted quail and giving him every opportunity to recuperate.  Since he can't fly more than a foot or two off the ground, Judy constructed climbing branches so that he can walk his way up to a high perch as shown in Judy's photo. 

Pete visited the vet again last Monday and had more x-rays.  He still shows no signs of bone damage but he droops his left wing.  His injury is between his "elbow" and "shoulder" but the extent of the damage is unknown.

Considering his troubles, Pete is doing well and gaining weight.  But by now he's certainly lost his territory at the Lift Bridge and it would be dangerous for him to go back there. 

His future will be complicated whether he recovers or not.   I'll keep you posted as I hear more from Judy.

(photo by Judy Bailey, Animal Control Officer for the City of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada)

9 responses so far

Dec 02 2008

Deer Season

Published by under Mammals

White-tailed deer (credit: Joe Kosack/PGC photo)

White-tailed deer (credit: Joe Kosack/PGC photo)

Yesterday was the start of Pennsylvania's two week firearms deer season.  It's the time of year when blaze orange is "in" and the crack of the rifle is heard throughout the land.

There are probably as many opinions about deer hunting as there are white-tailed deer in Pennsylvania.   (That would be about 1.5 million.)  As a birder, I appreciate hunting season because it protects songbirds.

How can this be?

Persistent deer overpopulation results in a browse line, an area where nothing grows from the forest floor to the height of a deer.  This buck is standing in such an area.  You can tell because you can see straight through the forest behind him.  It makes for a nice clear picture, but not for biodiversity.

Deer eat plants.  When deer are too plentiful they reduce forest habitat and that in turn reduces songbird populations.  I first learned this back in 1999 from the results of a decade-long study by the Smithsonian Institution’s Conservation and Research Center (CRC).

The CRC maintained 12 study plots near Front Royal, Virginia:  six surrounded by deer exclosures to keep deer off the land, and six unfenced.  By comparing the presence and absence of deer, the study found that high deer density resulted in two impacts on birds: direct competition for food (affecting wild turkeys) and destroyed understory (affecting songbirds).

For songbirds to survive they need cover.  When the understory is destroyed, their populations decline and nest survival falls to zero.   In the CRC study, understory birds such as hooded warblers, eastern towhees, and wood thrushes increased dramatically when deer were excluded.   The veery population doubled!  Even birds who nest in trees - rose-breasted grosbeaks, cerulean warblers and scarlet tanagers - benefited from a reduced deer population.

Sadly many of these songbirds are in decline.  Deer, on the other hand, are prolific and can double their population every two to three years.  Even with hunting and car accidents southwestern Pennsylvania's deer population is growing in some locations.

It's possible to have both deer and songbirds, but only if the deer herd is kept in check.


For further reading and videos about Pennsylvania deer management see the PA Game Commission website on white-tailed deer.   If you want to read about a huge deer problem see the Fairfield County (Connecticut) Municipal Deer Management Alliance and their section on bird impacts.

(photo by Joe Kosack/PGC photo, courtesy of the Pennsylvania Game Commission public photo gallery)

p.s.  If you're going out hiking or birding, wear blaze orange!

13 responses so far

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