Monthly Archives: January 2010

Whoooo Said That?

Great-horned owl, hooting (photo by Chuck Tague)
Though it's the middle of winter, January is the month when great-horned owls court and nest in southwestern Pennsylvania.  Their courtship is such a noisy affair it can't be ignored if you're near it.

When I was about five years old my whole family was roused one night when an owl hooted in the big tree outside my window.  While I wrung my hands and my two-year-old brother cried, my dad went from window to window, trying to see the source of the disturbance.  My fear turned to fascination when he said, "It's an owl."

Oh boy!  Where?

I don't remember if there were two owls that night but if I heard it again I'd listen for both.  The male and female serenade each other, described in this excerpt from W.D. Snodgrass's poem, Owls:
"  There: the dark male, low
And booming, tremoring the whole valley.
There: the female, resolving, answering
High and clear, restoring silence."
(This poem was featured on The Writer's Almanac and is well worth reading.  Click here for the entire poem.)

The owl serenade builds up to mating, and then to nests, eggs and babies.  They court in winter because it takes so long -- about three and a half months -- from nest to fully fledged owlet.

Click here for a male and female duet (with lots of crickets in the background).

Click here for the sound of three owls hooting.

Now that I know, I won't be afraid if I hear them hooting.

Whoooo said that?  It's owls in love.


(photo of a great-horned owl by Chuck Tague.  The owl's white throat feathers are showing because he's hooting.  Read more about this owl on Chuck Tague's blog.)

Anticipating Spring

Tufted Titmouse (photo by Bobby Greene)
The weather has moderated to a warmer version of winter with rain, thick clouds, and sometimes snow but the birds don't mind.  They're anticipating spring.

I noticed this when I took a walk on the Montour Trail on Saturday and was pleasantly surprised by bright sunshine and a lot of activity among three tufted titmice.  They attracted my attention when I heard a high-pitched "seeeee" and saw them hopping, bowing, spreading their tails and showing off their rusty flanks to each other.

What were they doing?  The answer required some research.

Tufted titmice don't migrate.  Instead they stay on their home range with their mate, and sometimes their young, all winter.  The family groups don't fight among themselves but a neighboring male may test the boundaries.  This makes the local pair very agitated and they all hop and chase.  During territorial disputes male titmice make a high-pitched whistle so that's what caught my attention.

The dispute was important to the three birds who flitted over my head, oblivious to my presence.  Eventually they worked out their differences and the males went back to their homes to sing "Peter, Peter, Peter."

Listen for their songs as the month progresses and you, too, can anticipate spring.

(photo by Bobby Greene)


Hazard Symbol, poison warning (image from Wikipedia, in the public domain)Some time in the next two weeks the people of State College, Pennsylvania will wake to find dead birds dropping from the sky.

If all goes as planned there will be 15,000 dead starlings on rooftops, in gutters, on patios, in gardens, on parking lots, playsets and fields. 

No amount of advanced warning can prepare people for how appalling this will be but the U.S. Department of Agriculture is trying anyway.  Last week the Centre Daily Times and WJAC-TV announced that USDA has permission to poison the large flock of European starlings near University Park airport because they might pose an aviation hazard. 

Really?  Well, they caused a plane to return to the airport three years ago.  That incident did not result in a mass poisoning but last year's crash-landing on the Hudson River has the FAA focused on bird strikes.  For them, poison is appealing because it looks like the problem is solved when thousands of birds die.  Unfortunately it's not an effective long term solution compared to non-lethal methods.

But aren't there laws protecting birds?  Yes, but not always.  European starlings are not protected because they are non-native and listed as a nuisance species.  USDA is even allowed to poison protected species if farmers claim the birds are damaging their crops.  

So will the poison be dangerous to people and pets?  It depends on who you ask.  USDA uses DRC-1339 which they say only kills starlings (or blackbirds or crows or whatever bird they happen to be targeting) but if that were the case how do you explain these warnings on the label and these rules for handling it?

  • Those who mix it with bait must wear respirators if they are dealing with a pound or more of it.
  • Bait must be carefully placed and removed to insure non-target species are not exposed.
  • Treated baits cannot be placed within 50 feet of water.  
  • It is prohibited to graze animals or grow crops on treated areas for 365 days.

The USDA will be as careful as possible, but the fact is that they'll be putting DRC-1339 into thousands of portable poison containers (birds) who will fly around the surrounding area for a short time and deposit it by dying in unknown and unpredictable places.  It is impossible to fully control the process. 

Whenever they conduct one of these operations people are appalled and outraged and when they make their outrage known USDA is not asked back again for a very long time.  State College is about to go through this.  Stay tuned for the results. 

OK, I'll climb down from my soapbox now.  Just don't say you haven't been warned.

(image from Wikipedia, in the public domain, color altered)

Anatomy: Scapulars

American goldfinch with scapulars circled (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)Last week I read a post on PABIRDS about a spotted towhee in Palmyra, New Jersey in which Barb Heibsch mentioned its scapulars.  That got me thinking.  What are scapulars?

Scapula is the Latin word for shoulder.  In humans it refers to our shoulder blade.

On birds, the scapulars are body feathers that cover the top of the wing when the bird is at rest.  They look like shoulders, as shown circled in pink on this American goldfinch.

Scapular feathers are often unremarkable because they're the same color as the bird's back and wings but they're easy to see on goldfinches because their backs are yellow and their wings are black.

As the breeding season approaches male goldfinches will molt from dull to bright yellow.  Watch their scapulars for signs of spring.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman, altered to illustrate the scapulars)

Beyond Bounds: Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret (photo by Chuck Tague)
What is this bird doing?  If we had a video we would call it dancing.  He's stamping and jumping, charging through the water, raising his wings and running in zig-zags like crazy.  Sometimes he leans his head to one side and runs in a circle as if to scoop the air.

No, he's not listening to the beat of a different drummer.  He's scaring the fish so he can catch them.  Meet the reddish egret.

Reddish egrets live beyond the bounds of Pennsylvania because they eat saltwater fish.  They're found in shallow saltwater estuaries along the coasts of Florida, southern California and the Gulf coast of the U.S.  They like warm weather so well that they move further south to the coasts of Mexico in the winter.

Though called "reddish" egrets they're not always red.  Juveniles of this dark morph group are chalky looking and all ages of the white morph birds are white.  This would make them hard to identify among wading birds but their unique hunting technique sets them apart.  All you have to do is watch for a while.  They act like madmen.  They'll make you laugh.  Check out these videos to see what I mean:  juvenile reddish egret on the hunt and an adult stirring up lunch.

If you want to see a reddish egret you'll have to visit the southern coast.  Chuck Tague photographed this bird in Florida.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

On Mercury’s Fist

Peregrine Falcon atop the Mercury statue, Rochester, NY (photo by Carol Phillips)
What is Mercury gazing at?  Look closely and you'll see he's looking at more than just his hand.  There's a peregrine falcon on his fist.

The bird is Beauty, a peregrine born in Pittsburgh, and the statue is Mercury which has graced Rochester, New York's skyline since 1881, with a two-decade gap as you shall see. 

The statue was crafted by J. Guernsey Mitchell, the brother-in-law of William S. Kimball who owned the Kimball Tobacco factory.  When completed Mercury was placed on the factory's smokestack.  In 1905 the building became a shirt factory, later the City Hall Annex and a branch of the public library.  In 1951 when the building was torn down, the statue was saved and later erected atop the Lawyers Cooperative, now the Aqueduct Building, where it stands today.

When Mercury was designed there was not a peregrine on his fist, so what is he really looking at?  Oddly, he is holding not the usual staff but a bag of gold.  This is rather mercenary, but then the word mercenary is derived from Mercury's name.

Mercury's fist is one of Beauty's favorite perches as it gives her a good vantage point for surveying her domain.  She watches for tasty pigeons on the waterfront and scans the sky for potentially dangerous rivals.  Carol Phillips, who took this picture, tells me there are six peregrines in Rochester right now so Beauty is staying close to her nest site on the Times Square Building, making sure it's still hers this coming spring.

Carol has many more pictures of Rochester's peregrine falcons.  Click here to see.

(photo by Carol Philips, Rochester, NY)

Who Says Winter is Boring?

Tulip tree seed pod in winter (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Despite the continuing cold and snow, the battle to get in and out of winter coats and boots, and the difficulties of walking and driving in snowy weather, winter took a turn for the better in the past few days.

I was beginning to get bored by it but I perked up when I read some local sightings on PABIRDS and encountered some surprises on my own:

  • Last Friday Steve Gosser saw a peregrine falcon attack a juvenile bald eagle who was flying over the Allegheny River.  This was in downtown Pittsburgh at the 7th Street Bridge!
  • Yesterday morning Dorothy and E2, the Cathedral of Learning peregrines, met for breakfast on their favorite dining ledge on the northeast corner of the 30th floor.   It looked to me like he'd brought her food.  Courtship!
  • On Sunday I drove along the Ohio and Beaver Rivers and saw two bald eagles and two ravens near Dashields Dam, plus another eagle along the Beaver River.  If you're looking for eagles, just a few moments at Dashields ought to turn one up.
  • Yesterday I had a pleasant surprise when I found a white-throated sparrow in Oakland near Craig Street.
  • And everyone knows I'm interested in the crow report.  Last evening a co-worker called me as she drove over the 31st Street Bridge to tell me the Allegheny River is frozen over and the crows were flying in and landing on the ice.  So that's where they've gone.  Woo hoo!

The weather report says we'll have above freezing temperatures starting tomorrow.  If it melts all at once the floods will provide more excitement than we want.  (!)

(photo of tulip tree seed pods by Marcy Cunkelman)

Cold Feet

Mourning Dove in winter (photo by Marcy Cunklelman)
Yesterday a mourning dove landed at my feeder with a clenched foot, probably suffering from frostbite.  The temperature was 9oF when I saw him.  It had been 2o at dawn.

Even in severe cold weather we rarely see birds with frostbitten feet so we tend to forget that it's possible.  Gulls and Canada geese stand on ice, cardinals and chickadees hop on snow, and we take for granted that their bare feet won't be hurt as ours would be.

For most birds this is because of a special adaption that allows their feet to be cold in comfort.  Birds' feet have fewer nerves and blood vessels and a unique circulatory system.  The veins and arteries in their legs are intertwined so that cold blood leaving their feet is warmed by the arteries delivering warm blood.  As Dr. Tony Bledsoe pointed out, "This operates as a counter-current exchange system, so that nearly all of the warmth in the descending blood is transferred to the ascending blood."

For some reason this system isn't as effective in mourning doves and their feet are prone to freezing.  Since they're a game bird (did you know they're hunted in 38 states?) they've been studied extensively.  In one study, mourning doves with frostbitten feet were rescued.  They recovered from their injuries in six weeks but their damaged toes fell off.  They survived to a normal life span with fewer toes, but life is short for a mourning dove anyway.  Their average adult life expectancy is only one year.

I felt bad for the bird at my feeder but I know that if he has enough to eat he'll survive.  The real killer right now is lack of food and since mourning doves eat from the ground their food is repeatedly covered by snowfall.

I'll keep my feeders filled and hope for the best.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)


Nearly 10" of snow (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
It feels like it's been snowing forever.

Marcy Cunkelman sent me this picture taken in her yard on Wednesday at a moment when - miraculously - it was not snowing.  Last night as she sent me email it was snowing heavily in the dark. 

The ruler is buried by now.  Good thing it's bright orange.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Anatomy: Malar Stripe

Peregrine falcon, Dorothy, illustrating malar stripe (photo by Pat Szczepanski)After last week's foray into the subject of coverts I'm happy to shift gears and talk about peregrines again.

Today's anatomy lesson is a feature that often distinguishes falcons from other birds.  Many falcons, especially peregrines, have an obvious malar stripe

Malar means cheekbone so the malar stripe is a stripe on the bird's cheek.  I've illustrated it here with a red arrow pointing to Dorothy's malar stripe.

Easy.  Much easier than coverts.

(photo of Dorothy, the female peregrine falcon at the University of Pittsburgh by Pat Szczepanski, altered to indicate the malar stripe.)