Monthly Archives: June 2010

Anatomy: Feet

I thought I was finished with bird toes until I found this fascinating diagram.

Not only does it show the position of the toes but it emphasizes which toe is which by showing the same number of segments in the toe as the "number" of the toe.  For instance, toe #1 has 1 segment, toe #3 has 3 segments.  That's why the feet look falsely lopsided.

I'm also fascinated by the unpronounceable words.  I just had to take them apart.

Starting with the end, dactyl is from the Greek word ???????? meaning finger.

Aniso- means unequal in Greek.  Most birds have "unequal fingers" -- anisodactyl feet.

Zygo- comes from the Greek word yoke and means "arranged symmetrically in pairs."  Woodpeckers and parrots have zygodactyl feet because they climb a lot.  Toes 2 and 3 point forward, 1 and 4 point back. Osprey can rotate their outer toes (toe #4?) from anisodactyl to zygodactyl to make it easier to carry fish.

Tridactyl is easy (tri- means three) and so is didactyl (di- means two).  Ostriches are didactyl.

Do you know of a bird with tridactyl feet?   {See Robin's comment for the answer.}


p.s. Two toe arrangements are not shown:  Heterodactyl is like Zygodactyl except that toes 3 and 4 are forward and 1 and 2 are back.  Swifts have Pamprodactyl feet in which all four toes point forward.  Click here to read more about birds' feet.

(diagram from Wikipedia, Creative Commons license. Click on the image to see the original.)

Want to do a Fledge Watch at the Gulf Tower?

The Gulf Tower peregrine nestlings are growing fast and will fly for the first time next week -- as early as June 15 but more likely starting Friday June 18. 

Many of you watching the webcam have asked if there will be a Fledge Watch at the Gulf Tower. 

There will be ... if you make it happen. 

Due to constraints on my time and location, I can't organize a Watch at the Gulf Tower but if you visit the area near this building, you're a candidate for Fledge Watch.

Here's what to do:

  • Use this blog as your contact point.  Post a comment that you're interested in Fledge Watch and I'll put you in touch with each other. 
  • If you want to coordinate the Watch, please say so!  The Watch will go best if someone is locally in charge. 
  • Pick a place to locate the Watch.  The best side to watch from is here.  Where will you meet?  Agree on a location and I'll post it on the blog.
  • Show up whenever you can during daylight.  The chicks prefer to fledge when there's low humidity and a good wind but they will fly at any time bceause they become very restless at the fledging stage.
  • The first-flight period will last five to seven days from first bird to last -- probably June 17-24.
  • Bring binoculars and possibly something to sit on.
  • Chances are you won't need this information but I'm including it for completeness:  If a fledgling lands on the ground he will have to be rescued because he can't lift off the ground in the first day of flight.  Call the Game Commission's Dispatch Office at 724-238-9523 and they will send someone as soon as possible.  In the meantime watch the fledgling to guard against further accidents.  Do not chase it!  Do not scare it into the street!  Calmly watch it until help arrives.  (It's easy.  Here's my favorite picture of guarding a fledgling.  I saved this photo from a fledge watch in Canada in the 1990s.  I haven't been able to re-find the source.)
  • Have fun!  Fledge Watch is an opportunity to see peregrines and meet others who love these birds too.

Check the comments on this blog for more information. 

(photo of the Gulf Tower in winter by Derek Jensen, released to the public domain on Wikipedia.  Click on the photo to see the original.)

What Can We Do?

When I first heard about BP's Gulf oil leak, I knew it was bad for birds.

Though initially far offshore, the oil immediately affected diving birds: gannets, terns and pelicans.

The first dead gannet broke my heart.  It could only get worse -- and it has.

When the oil reached the marshes it hurt herons, egrets and shorebirds who died unreported because the marshes are inaccessible to cameras.  Even birds that were rescued, cleaned and released flew home to get oiled again because the leak keeps flowing.

Recently oil and death moved into camera range and now the public knows.  The spill is very, very bad.  Even if the leak stopped today the oil will linger for months to come.

What can we do?

As individuals we can't stop this leak but we can help with the cleanup and support those who are helping birds.  There are many ways:

Want to volunteer in the Gulf?  Check the websites above or click here to sign up at "" or here for the International Bird Rescue Research Center.

And finally, you can work to keep this from happening again by telling those in power, especially your Congressman and Senator who made the laws that allowed this to happen, that you've had enough.

We don't have to live like this.

(Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class John Miller, released under the Creative Commons license with some rights reserved.  Click on the photo to see the original and a complete description.)

Pitt Peregrine Update

The young peregrines at the University of Pittsburgh are flying and doing well.  Sometimes they play games in the air, chasing each other and pretending to exchange food.  They also chase their parents.

Needless to say Dorothy and E2 are busy trying to keep the "kids" fed. 

Steve Valasek captured this photo of Dorothy on Sunday as she checked on their whereabouts. 

And this morning Jack and Sue Solomon saw one of the adults (I'll bet it was E2) at Duck Hollow on the Monongahela River, plucking a meal as he flew toward the Cathedral of Learning. 

Busy, busy!

The youngsters are still staying close to home so you're likely to see them if you come to campus. 

Check the lower roof edges of the Cathedral of Learning or the steeple on Heinz Chapel and you'll probably find a peregrine.


p.s. June 9, 2:00pm:  The juveniles were perched on both steeples of St. Paul's Cathedral.  They're widening their range.

June 11, 8:30am: Four juveniles have been hanging out at St. Paul's Cathedral, Webster Hall and an apartment building nearby -- seen yesterday at lunch and this morning before work.

(photo by Steve Valasek)

Three More Boys and Two More Girls

If you were watching the Gulf Tower webcam between 9:00am and 10:00am this morning you'll have noticed a lot of excitement. 

Today was Banding Day.  All five peregrine chicks got new jewelry on their ankles, though not without a lot of shouting.  The whole family raised a ruckus.

Even before the event the father bird, Louie, was suspicious.  He'd already witnessed eight banding days in the years he's nested at the Gulf Tower.  This was the ninth and he knew that lots of noise inside the building meant his kids were about to be taken from the nest. 

Louie stood guard atop the web camera, then enlisted Dori's help. 

Dori guarded from the nestbox roof but she didn't know what to expect.  She's a new mother, new to the Gulf Tower and new to what happens on Banding Day. 

When Beth Fife and Doug Dunkerley came out on the ledge, Dori jumped down to the gravel but immediately flew out to attack from the air.  Her attacks were relentless but ineffective in keeping the humans away from her babies.  Since she didn't stay on the nest, Dori was not captured as her predecessor Tasha normally was.

Indoors the chicks were examined, weighed and banded.  Beth held the chicks while Doug applied the bands.  In this photo Beth is holding one of the females who was temporarily quiet. 

All the nestlings are in good health:  Three boys and two girls, just like at Pitt this year

Before returning the chicks to the nest Beth pulled out the weeds and gathered the garbage but there was hardly any prey to analyze -- just a lot of leafy weeds. 

Obviously Dori is a better housekeeper than her neighbor Dorothy at Pitt.

(photo by Kate St. John)

I’m tellin’ ya, Leave me alone!

Last Friday the 25th floor roof of the Cathedral of Learning was a hotspot of peregrine fledgling activity.  Each of the fledglings visited the roof and their parents stopped by to check on them. 

Most of the birds perched and preened but when Green Boy arrived he caused a stir.  As usual.

You may remember Green Boy.  He's the Prodigal Son who fell in the gully on May 26 and climbed out on his own.  Then he had to be rescued on June 1 from a courtyard near the Office of the Chancellor.  We don't know what he did for the next three days but on Friday he surfaced again.

Around noon he flew to the 25th floor roof and made it his business to explore it on foot.  He climbed piles of roof tiles, poked in the corners and spent hours trying to perch on slippery metal pipes. 

In the process he got close to a pigeons' nest.  Movement caught his eye.  "What's that?"

From afar the pigeon parents saw him and flew in to block his advance.  "Stay away!" they said.

Undaunted, Green Boy stepped forward and both pigeons jumped on him.  He rolled on his back and fought with his talons.  The pigeons couldn't hurt him but Green Boy was startled so he ran away.  How embarrassing to be chased by what should be your dinner!

Later he tried again.  He had to see what was over there.  When a pigeon arrived to challenge him, Green Boy stood his ground and shouted, "I'm tellin' ya, leave me alone!"

Oh, Green Boy, you've got a lot to learn!

(photo by Kimberly Thomas)

Invasive and Misnamed

The annual onslaught has begun.  Canada Thistle is blooming in southwestern Pennsylvania. 

Though we call it Canada Thistle, Cirsium arvense is badly misnamed.  Native to Europe and northern Asia, it's now found as far away as Australia and New Zealand, and it's never welcome.  It's invasive nearly everywhere it grows.

Some of Canada Thistle's other names are more descriptive:  Hard Thistle, Creeping Thistle, Cursed Thistle.  It spreads by seeds and through its "creeping" root system that extends horizontally for 15 feet or more.  Each plant produces only male or female flowers so a clump can be isolated and not be pollinated.  No matter.  It's perennial, its roots spread, and it chokes out less aggressive plants.

Watch for Canada Thistle's violet flowers by roadsides, in fallow fields and in disturbed sunny patches.  When you find it, there's one bit of good news to keep in mind.  Canada Thistle provides food for Painted Ladies and American goldfinches

Goldfinches nest when the thistle blooms.

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

Landing is harder than it looks!

Young peregrine landing on a ledge (photo by Kim Steininger)
Young peregrine landing on a ledge (photo by Kim Steininger)


Birds seem to land where they want to without effort, but that's not the case when flying is new to them.

Landing is a lot harder than it looks.

Kim Steininger captured the trials and tribulations of a young peregrine who landed on a spot too narrow for comfort.  Click on her photo to see a slideshow from Wilmington, Delaware a few years ago.  It repeats after four frames.

What does a young peregrine do next? Fly again and choose a better landing place.  Practice makes perfect.


(all photos by Kim Steininger)

Anatomy: Tibia

Marcy Cunkelman's Baltimore oriole agreed to return for a cameo appearance to illustrate another anatomy lesson.

Last week I pointed out that the part of the bird we call the "leg" is actually its foot.  The tibia is where its real leg begins.

In songbirds the tibia is feathered and usually unseen, hidden among the belly feathers.  Here, Marcy's oriole is showing his tibia as he perches on her jelly dish.  What a surprise that his leg is orange!

In long-legged wading birds the tibia is naked and quite obvious because they need the tibia's length to keep their bodies above the water.

We have tibias, too.  They're the larger and stronger of the two bones between our feet and knees.  Above our knees the bone is called the femur. 

Birds have femurs but good luck trying to see them.  We're lucky to see the tibia!

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Thursday Fledge Watch Update

The Pitt peregrines are learning fast.  By lunchtime yesterday three out of five had flown from the nestrail. 

Last evening we saw one of the juveniles land on the lightning rod and pursue his parents whenever they returned to the Cathedral of Learning.  Dorothy tested him with a practice prey exchange, but he flunked and she had to re-catch the meal he nearly lost to the ground.